A few years back, a friend told me he was driving to Vermont, but not for the usual reasons. He wasn’t going to gawk at fall foliage, ski the slopes of Killington, or replenish his maple syrup reserves. Rather, he was embarking on a beer odyssey, visiting tiny taprooms and far-flung farmhouse brewers to sample obscure, small-batch beers that, he insisted, were not only world-class but also unique to Vermont—and totally worth the drive. A home brewer and self-professed beer geek, he said that enthusiasts from around the country were flocking to the state for the same reason. Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced.
That changed last year when I had my first taste of the Alchemist’s hazy and complex Heady Topper double IPA—a stronger, hoppier take on traditional IPA—brewed in Waterbury. It’s often called the world’s best beer by bloggers and critics for its notes of citrus, tropical fruit, pine, and fresh grass. I couldn’t get enough of it, so soon I was planning my own trip north. A meandering route through the area south and east of Burlington, the state’s offbeat, progressive (and, practically speaking, only) city, would put me within easy striking distance of at least five acclaimed breweries. And if it also meant knocking around small towns, browsing roadside antiques shops, and meeting cheesemongers, that was a risk I was willing to take.
Day 1: Going Local
Cruising south out of Burlington, I detoured toward Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre spread along Lake Champlain where schoolkids can learn about agriculture and visitors can sample the farm’s cheese. A quick stop to pick up a prize-winning two-year-aged extra-sharp cheddar, and I was on my way.
Horse farms and dairy operations are scattered across the fertile Champlain Valley. I caught glimpses of two mountain ranges—New York’s rugged Adirondacks to the west and the gentler Green Mountains to the east. As I made my way toward the town of Middlebury, I bit off chunks of cheddar that were rich and tangy and, I couldn’t help but think, would pair perfectly with an IPA.
With that in mind, I stopped at Fiddlehead Brewing Co., a 15-barrel operation in Shelburne. Founded in 2011 by industry veteran Matt Cohen, it’s earned a following with its big, juicy double IPA, called Second Fiddle. I sampled three of their one-off brews—the Practice Round IPA was my favorite.
Dusk was arriving in Bristol, a neat little town outside the Green Mountain National Forest, about 20 minutes from Middlebury, where I’d spend the night. Families lined up outside the local creemee (Vermonters’ word for soft-serve) stand while, in a nearby gazebo, the community band crashed through a rousing John Philip Sousa march. At the Bobcat Café & Brewery, a comfort-food restaurant on Main Street, I filled up on venison-and-chorizo meat loaf and sampled a hazy wheat IPA from Burlington’s Zero Gravity Craft Brewery.
Afterward, I checked in to the Middlebury Inn, a grand hotel that opened its doors when Calvin Coolidge was president. It’s a place where vintage charm and friendly service trump sleek modernity.
Day 2: Going Mad
The next morning, I strolled around Middlebury’s Norman Rockwellesque downtown, coffee in hand, poking my head inside businesses such as Edgewater Gallery on the Green to see some art; the indie Vermont Book Shop; and Clementine, a gift shop selling jewelry and handmade home goods. Despite the town’s picturesque features—a white-steepled church and cheery mom-and-pop storefronts gathered around the green—I was struck by its lack of showiness, especially when a freight train trundled alongside.
At Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op, shelves are filled with local maple syrup and ripe vegetables. A woman stocking the counter pointed me to a cave-aged cheese from nearby Orb Weaver Farm, describing the taste as subtly complex, with earthy flavors balanced by a pleasant sharpness.
Half an hour later, I was bumping down a dirt road toward Orb Weaver. The farm’s not open to the public, but I took my chances. Rolling up, I found Marjorie Susman kneeling between rows of organic pepper plants bursting with green, red, and yellow fruit. Since 1981, she and partner Marian Pollack have alternated seasonally between making cheese and selling organic vegetables. Over the years, their waxed farmhouse cheese has become a local favorite, while the cave-aged variety has received accolades. Despite that, Orb Weaver has remained small, and Susman humble: “Our waxed cheese is not an edgy cheese, or a cheese you have to think about, but people around here seem to like it.” Waving goodbye, I drove toward Mount Abe, stopping off briefly again in Bristol, where a small-batch ice cream shop, Lulu, has products that rival Ben & Jerry’s. I indulged in a rich two-scoop cone—salted caramel and buttermilk-blueberry. I’d need the extra energy to hike the mountain, I told myself.
A winding 2,400-foot climb up a ragged dirt road made my car whine in protest and, eventually, delivered me to the trailhead atop a narrow mountain pass called Lincoln Gap. From there, I shouldered a pack for an hourlong hike through moss-carpeted forest and pine woods to Mount Abe’s exposed, windblown summit. To the west, Lake Champlain reflected the sun like mercury. I cracked open a can of 14th Star Brewing Co.’s Tribute—a double IPA with a lingering bitterness—and after a brief rest, made my way back down the mountain.
On the far side of Lincoln Gap, the Mad River crashes through waterfalls, soaking pools, and a natural waterslide, making Warren Falls the perfect post-hike spot for a cooling plunge. Rumbling over a covered bridge, I arrived at Warren Store, a historic country store with a potbellied woodstove and creaking floorboards, some installed in 1839. The store serves deli sandwiches, house-made breads, and pastries, and also has an outlandishly good beer selection. Inside, Sean Lawson, co-owner of the nearby brewery Lawson’s Finest Liquids, was hawking samples of his latest beers. His maple stouts and hop-centric IPAs are highly coveted, and sell out far faster than he can brew them in his seven-barrel brewery.
That night, I collapsed into a balcony chair at Stowe Mountain Lodge, a modern, upscale hotel set at the base of Stowe Mountain Resort. I was content to sip from the day’s brew haul and breathe in the mountain air until the evening chill and the promise of a gas fireplace pulled me back indoors.
Day 3: Going Deeper
Onmywayout of town the next morning, I noticed a small crowd gathering outside an outwardly unassuming gas station. Stopping to investigate, I learned they were waiting to intercept a delivery of Heady Topper, the divine and supremely in-demand beer that had inspired my road trip in the first place. The trick to finding it is to study the delivery schedule posted on the Alchemist’s website, and arrive as soon as it is unloaded from the truck. “Limit’s two four-packs per person, cash only!” the cashier called out to the gathering fanatics, many of whom were following the truck along its delivery route, scooping up their limit at each stop. I celebrated my good fortune and, without hesitation, laid down my money.
Rolling through Morrisville, I followed my nose to Lost Nation Brewing—the next big thing in Vermont brewing—where a smoker billowed mouthwatering smells into the air. In the sun-soaked beer garden, I wrestled with a Dagwood-size sandwich of smoked pork and pickled veggies, then sipped on a Gose, a salty-sour ale that was both thirst-inducing and -quenching at the same time.
For Vermont’s beer pilgrims, the ultimate destination is Hill Farmstead Brewery, a small place run by Shaun Hill, a mad genius who’s one of the most outspoken proponents of keeping Vermont beer fresh and local. For centuries, his family has owned a patch of land three miles past the middle-of-nowhere town of Greensboro (population 746). The beers—named in many cases for Hill’s ancestors, like Edward, Mary, Abner, and Ephraim— were indeed addictive, and the line to purchase them was filled with other travelers from across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Afterward, on the road back to Burlington and its boutique Hotel Vermont, my trunk loaded with amazing beer, I thought about the treasures I’d picked up and the people I’d met. It’s not about money here— when the Alchemist opened its shiny 30-barrel brewery in Stowe this summer, owners John and Jen Kimmich vowed to keep their special beer local, so residents could enjoy it whenever they want—it’s about protecting quality and the Vermont way of life. Maybe that’s why it tastes so good. The only way to be sure, though, is to keep going back for more.
Road-Trip Cheat Sheet
Shelburne Farms: A nonprofit farm that’s open to visitors. shelburnefarms.org.
Fiddlehead Brewing Co.: This small Shelburne brewery is run by industry veteran Matt Cohen. fiddleheadbrewing.com.
Bobcat Café & Brewery: Bristol pub that serves comfort food and brews its own beer. thebobcatcafe.com; entrées $13–$21.
Middlebury Inn: This historic inn overlooks the green in Middlebury’s vibrant downtown. middleburyinn.com; doubles from $169.
Downtown Middlebury: The town is home to Edgewater Gallery (edgewatergallery.co), the Vermont Book Shop (vermontbookshop.com), Clementine (clementinestore.com), and Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op (middlebury.coop).
Orb Weaver Farm: Though this farm is not technically open to the public, the owners can accommodate visits if you call ahead. orbweaverfarm.com.
Lulu: An artisanal, small-batch ice cream spot in Bristol that sources many ingredients from within a dozen miles. luluvt.com.
Green Mountain National Forest: Activities here include hiking on Mount Abe and swimming in Warren Falls.
Warren Store: A country store serving sandwiches and beers from Lawson’s Finest Liquids. warrenstore.com.
Stowe Mountain Lodge: Score the fifth-floor Alpine Studio for views of Vermont’s highest peak. stowemountainlodge.com; doubles from $329.
The Alchemist: This summer, the beloved company opened its new brewery in Stowe, where you can taste hard-to-find brews. alchemistbeer.com.
Lost Nation Brewing: Grab a seat at this Morrisville brewery and beer garden for barbecue and Gose ale. lostnationbrewing.com.
Hill Farmstead Brewery: Shaun Hill’s Greensboro operation is considered the ultimate destination on a Vermont beer trip. hillfarmstead.com.
Hotel Vermont: This downtown Burlington hotel has a beer concierge (ask for the nearest Heady Topper availability). hotelvt.com; doubles from $339.