A small circle of people assembled at Bridgeside Books in Waterbury on a drizzly June afternoon, an even split of locals and out-of-towners, ranging in age from twentysomethings to mid-60s.
Standing beside a small table laden with books and a steel ice tub full of Heady Topper was Ben Keene, author of “The Great Northeast Brewery Tour.” Speaking with a current and informed ease, he could have been just another bandwagon craft-brew-seeking, plaid-shirted dude, but in lieu of speculation, he had solid and intriguing answers for every inquiry posed by the rapt audience.
Keene knows more than a little about the beer industry — among other accomplishments, he contributed to “The Oxford Companion to Beer (2011)” and recently joined BeerAdvocate magazine as managing editor.
The discussion flowed, lively and interactive, the mood a pleasant mix of relaxed, intellectual and cheery, everyone happily clutching plastic cups of beer. Bridgeside Books owner Hiata Defeo made sure everyone was topped off, beaming. The conversation bounced around, touching on brewery locations and the East-West Coast differences, hop growing and, of course, the amazing local offerings.
Not for everyone
In the spirit of supporting local brews and slaking our own thirst, Keene agreed to meet me down the street at Prohibition Pig.
I snagged the only two remaining seats in the place at 6:30 on this Thursday evening, smack in the middle of the bar, with a great view of the incredibly talented and good-looking bartenders, and equally attractive beer offerings.
The man next to me struck up a dour conversation.
“They don’t have my kind of beer here,” he said. “I only drink one kind of beer. I.C. Light. Iron City? From Pennsylvania.”
BeerAdvocate gives it a 60 out of 100; the brewing company’s website touts its 95 measly calories and mango option. I ask the gentleman if he’s from Pennsylvania.
He and his friend came to Vermont on business, and they are not loving the scene. Apparently, not everyone wants to ride the delicious craft beer wagon. They lament the lack of “nightlife,” and despair at the local food and drink offerings. I point them toward the Stowe golf courses and chain restaurants in Burlington; they seem appeased.
I enjoy a housemade schizandra berry kombucha, which I can only assume will give me digestive superpowers.
Keene joins me after a time, and I tell him about my new friends, who have since abandoned me in search of urbanity. He wishes he could have gone through each of tonight’s 20-plus draft offerings with them, confident he would have found something they liked. He loves introducing new beers to people — or is he introducing new people to the beers?
And if corporations can be people, why not breweries? They’re certainly more friendly. At the book signing, Keene relayed a fascinating anecdote about Pabst Blue Ribbon, the ubiquitous and dubiously award-winning American lager favored by flannel-clad hipsters nationwide. Keene said that, in the Milwaukee plant’s heyday, union rules mandated that workers have three 15-minute breaks per day, and could drink a beer during each one.
I ask Keene what his favorite “low-brow” beer is. He has a genuinely hard time answering this question. He literally can’t remember the last time he had a true bottom-barrel beer. They’re usually touted as “ice cold,” because that’s pretty much the only way you can actually drink them — unless you’re under 25; then a pass could perhaps be granted (and points awarded for creative intake).
Finally, he cops to Red Stripe, the Jamaican-style lager, and we agree that it’s one of the better worse options.
Look at the taps
Back on the finer end of the spectrum, the staggering quantity of craft beers available today is illustrated temptingly in front of our eyes.
At current count, Waterbury’s bars are extremely well-stocked: Prohibition Pig has 22 taps, with 10 to 14 Vermont beers on at a time (as well as the house kombucha and Rookie’s root beer lines); Blackback has 22 draft lines, about half local; the Reservoir claims the most taps in the state, with a prodigious 38, usually 50 to 60 percent local; and even Arvad’s has 10 lines, nine of which are currently flowing with Vermont brews.
To keep up with the Joneses, especially in this crossroads haven for beer enthusiasts, a successful establishment needs to be pretty stacked.
Craft Beer Cellar, which opened a skip and a jump away from the Pig at the end of last year, boasts 547 libations from 168 local, domestic and international breweries, with bottled and canned beers, ciders, meads and a growler station to suit any palate or whim.
Keene recalls wild beers he’s experienced: a malty, earthy beet beer, an Old Bay-seasoned beer from crab-happy Maryland (Flying Dog’s Dead Rise), which he said was tasty yet confusing to the taste buds, and a slightly horrifying tale of pig’s head beer (“Would you have to skim the hairs out?”), which he has not personally imbibed.
One lovely and rather unconventional style we discuss is gose, the salt-and-coriander flavored unfiltered wheat beer; Lost Nation in Morrisville makes a great one, and the Pig tapped a cask of its Galaxy-hopped gose on July 4. You’re welcome, America!
Why now? Why here?
I have been tasked with one specific inquiry from the editorial powers-that-be: to find out why we so love the giant, in-your-face, double- (like our beloved Heady), triple- or even quad-hopped IPAs.
Keene offers several possible explanations: their “monochromatic” styling may appeal to Americans’ penchant for gravitating toward foods and flavors of a distinct focus; nothing too far out of place.
“We’ve trained our palates for flavor categories: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, savory, etc.,” says Keene, “The IPA arms race seems to appeal to that, at least in part.”
Another motive for the major hop love is a kind of rebellion by today’s brewers against the boring, flat, big-business beers so common in the past decades.
“They’re going to go to the other end of the spectrum and yell, hey, check out this stuff!” says Keene.
A truly American addition to the reasoning behind huge, flavor-blasted beers is that “because we can” attitude, which has given us such miracles as Doritos Locos tacos, civilian Hummers and the cronut.
Keene also notes that the hoppy madness that we see today might have started earlier, had it not been for the biological demise of the booming New York hop industry in the early 1900s, followed shortly by Prohibition (the bummer, not the brewpub). There was a bump in popularity toward bigger, hoppier flavors in the ’90s, but the meteoric rise started sometime around 2002.
Vermont may not be on the cutting edge of all aspects of culture, but we definitely hold fast the attention of the widespread beer-loving community.
Beer has created a niche tourism industry, people of every ilk waiting in queues 100 strong, piling with friends into their beater sedans or flying across the country to get their hands onto precious limited-release hypermicrobrew four-packs, or to partake of one-night-only pours of ephemeral casked elixirs.
Keene elucidates. “Vermont beers are like designer beers. This is kind of the sexiest you can get for liquid, right?”
Looking toward the future of the beer, Keene estimates that we’re about halfway there, wherever “there” turns out to be.
Find “The Great Northeast Brewery Tour” at Bridgeside Books, 29 Stowe St., Waterbury, and at Bear Pond Books, 38 Main St. Stowe.