Originally Told: June 4 2017
Route 89. A road known to many with a craft beer bucket list. Route 89 is the highway from Boston to Vermont, the highway leading to destinations such as Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist. However, the pilgrimage adds new “must-visits” every year. The area now boasts popular newcomers such as Fiddlehead, Foam Brewers, and Zero Gravity, adding to the pressure to visit and drink everything nearby. Each traveler will have to decide whether to go for a high quantity of visits, or fewer, high quality visits to a select few breweries. I opt for the later.
“I just won’t sleep,” I decided. There were so many other interesting things to do.”
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road
A November trip to Stowe and Waterbury, Vermont has quickly become my annual birthday trip. When your partner’s participation in craft beer hovers somewhere between tolerance and acceptance, choosing a beer trip on my birthday weekend entitles me to free rein over the itinerary. While some may choose to attempt a weekend visit to every brewery in the state, I prefer soaking in the environment, people, and experience of trying some of the best beer in the world.
Our plan is to arrive at The Alchemist before they close at 7pm. The quantity and variety of beers being produced in their new facility means that the days of rushing to every store in the Stowe / Waterbury area hoping for a 4 pack of Heady Topper are over. The Alchemist is producing more than ever before, and releasing new beers all the time.
We pull into the parking lot and I am blown away by their new facility. It’s a beautiful, almost futuristic brewery, which hasn’t given up on any of the key elements that make it The Alchemist. As we round the corner to the entrance, I see the artwork of Jess Graham, one of the artists long associated with the brewery. And bonus, no cars. Since the majority of traffic comes on Saturday when they open at 11am, we are able to enjoy walking around the brewery and take it all in.
One thing that hasn't changed at all since my first visit in 2012 is the smell. As soon as I exit the car, I breathe in hops. And every person there, especially those coming for the first time, have the same look on their face… like “holy shit, we’re here.” Giddiness is on everyone’s face. There’s no acting cool, it’s a full on beer nerd moment.
We decide to purchase our cans first, then walk around. As you approach the counter, you see a conveyer belt of beer, a luge of Heady Topper ready to pass to the next customer. The staff could not have been more helpful, even offering to help carry our haul to the car. We stay for 45 minutes looking through the merchandise and sampling the 3 beers on tap that day: Heady Topper, Crusher, and Focal Banger (my new favorite Alchemist beer).
If you’re in the Stowe/Waterbury area, there are a few restaurants and beer bars that will quickly come into your vocabulary. Doc Ponds is one of them. Their food is as good as their beer list so for those traveling with a non-craft beer drinker, sell them on the food.
Remember when I said quality over quantity of place you visit, this is one of the many beer bars in the Stowe/Waterbury area which allows you to sample from all over Vermont, and New England. The menu often includes beers from Hill Farmstead, Lawson’s, The Alchemist, Lost Nation, Citizen Cider, von Trapp, Zero Gravity, Jack’s Abby, and Grassroots, to name a few. I have even seen KBS and Prairie Bomb! on the menu.
Whether for an afternoon beer, brunch, dinner or a post-dinner drink, Doc Ponds is a must and a regular stop on any trip I make to the area. This trip, I try Susan and Sumner, knowing I likely wouldn't try them or buy any at Hill Farmstead the next day.
Field Guide is owned by Lark Hotels, a collection of properties we have been loyal to for beer and non-beer travel. Field Guide (a stumble-able 0.2 miles from Doc Ponds) is a sleek, modern hotel which captures the look and feel of the mountainous environment. Our suite has a fireplace with a deer head above it (don’t worry, it’s cardboard) and a tree stump sits next to the soaking tub so you can rest whatever beer you picked up that day. And the onsite restaurant, Picnic Social, new to the hotel, offered a nice way to wind down the evening. The beer list doesn't quite match Doc Ponds, but still counts Fiddlehead, Zero Gravity, Foundation, Rock Art, Lost Nation, and von Trapp as menu regulars. Sitting at the bar, I enjoyed a Fiddlehead IPA. I knew we wouldn't make the trek there (this time), so I had it on my list to try at one of our stops.
It’s been a long day, and tomorrow we drive to Hill Farmstead.
Hill Farmstead is about an hour from Stowe, making it a manageable day trip. Especially if you knock out the Alchemist the day before and aren’t trying to do both in one day (see why that was a good idea now).
My first trip to Hill Farmstead was in 2013, before they opened their new facility. The space was the size of a college dorm. They were blasting classic rock like Led Zeppelin. I waited an hour an a half for a growler limit of 2 per person. The space was packed with people since it was snowing (no one wanted to wait outside the door), and you were pinned up against the tanks as one woman desperately tried to ensure everyone got the next pour of their tasting. It was awesome!
We are set to arrive just after 11am. On nearly every trip to Hill Farmstead, they have opened early so we get there with enough time to spare. For those that haven’t been there, growlers and bottles are sold separately. The bottle line (through the door to the left) does not have a number system, but moves quickly, even with 20 or 30 people ahead of you. The growler line (door is off to the right) uses a number system, so you are never unclear about where you stand in line. As you wait, you have the opportunity to sample beers, drink from the bottle list, or just hang out. Hill Farmstead will often have vintages of their bottled beers available for onsite consumption. Check their website for the the list of drafts and bottles for sale, and the onsite options available. In addition to the beer, today there is a food truck on site, an added bonus since there really isn’t anything around the brewery.
So, you’re wondering… which line do I get in first? Here’s my advice. If it’s packed, grab a number in the growler line, then hit the bottle line while you wait. If there’s a manageable crowd, I do the bottles first, put them in my car, then head back to the growler line. Even with the wait, you will have the chance to sample beers, crack a bottle, or better yet, talk to fellow beer travelers. On one trip, Hill Farmstead was releasing Civil Disobedience 15 (their blend composed of beers from a diversity of barrels ranging from 16 to 30 months and further aged on organic, hand peeled mangos). I grabbed some bottles to go, but didn't think I could finish a bottle onsite myself. A group of guys were sharing a bottle and I asked them how it was… one said “Delicious. Do you want to try it?” and then proceeded to pour me a glass. You have to love the beer community.
We grab our bottles, stow them in the car and then come back to the growler area. It’s a wide open spot with picnic tables and on nice days, you can go outside and look out across the property. As we wait for our number to be called, I sample the Harlan, Dorothy (really I just drink my copilot’s), and then a nitro version of Twilight of the Idols, a recent release.
The best part about going back this last trip wasn't the new facility (although it’s amazing). And it wasn't that the growler limit has been lifted (I’m certainly not complaining). And it wasn't that you can now drink rare bottles on site (great if you can’t make every bottle release). The best part was that the woman serving the samples, the man I bought my bottles from, and the woman who filled my growlers are all the same people as that first trip, in that crowded spot, 3 years before.
A short drive from Hill Farmstead, Parker Pie is the perfect post brewery stop. With great pizza, and a tap list that usually includes multiple Hill Farmstead selections, it’s a nice break from beer hunting. I eat my pizza with a draft pour of Unified Press from Citizen Cider.
After Parker Pie, we retreat back to the hotel before dinner. This could be an optimal time to try and hit any of the other breweries in the area.
Like Doc Ponds, Blackback Pub is known in the Stowe/Waterbury area for it’s incredible beer list, and welcoming environment to locals and beer travelers alike. If you follow them on Instagram, they post a daily photo of their beer menu (a rotating selection of Lawson’s, the Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, Idletyme, and Zero Gravity) so as you research your trip, you can be sure to figure out how this famous establishment fits into your beer itinerary. We head here for a pre-dinner drink. We meet friends from Vermont and on this particular occasion I opted for an Abner, one of my favorite DIPAs.
Owned by the same proprietors as Doc Ponds, Hen of the Wood is my favorite restaurant in the area. They are slightly fancier than the (delicious) pub fare you find at other venues, but their beer list is still top notch. On previous trips, I went for the Focal Banger, but tonight I choose the Hill Farmstead Florence (my first time) and then Heady Topper on tap (a staple for this restaurant). Hen of the Wood just proves you can mix fine dining and beer. And again, for those with non-craft beer co-pilots, this is a nice compromise, especially if you’re celebrating a special occasion.
A trip to Worthy Kitchen is a worth while (pun intended) stop on the way back to Boston. Still located in Vermont (but just barely), this spot is a 20 min detour off Route 89 past Queechee in Woodstock VT. The food alone is worth the trip. Burgers, wings, poutine, and a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich lead the menu while Hill Farmstead, Lawson’s, Fiddlehead, Founders, and Foley Brothers are just some of the names that grace the beer list at any given time. It’s a great stop before the final 2 hours to Boston. On this trip, I opted for the Zero Gravity Black Cat Porter. The only negative, they didn't have the “It Puts the Buzzer in the Basket” sign!
Although we didn't make these stops on this trip, here are some other beer and non-beer related spots to check out:
Prohibition Pig is another "must do" on any beer trip to Vermont. Located in Waterbury VT. nearly across the street from Blackback Pub, Prohibition Pig always has an incredible beer list. They make their own beer under the Prohibition Pig name, and offer beers from The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, Lawson's, Downeast Cider House, and Evil Twin just to name a few. Check the draft menu on their website before heading there to see what they have. Many times Prohibition Pig and Blackback will have similar offerings from the same breweries, but I have found that at least 50% of their menus don't overlap. You can quickly taste a lot of great beers with a short walk. In addition to the killer beer list, the food is amazing. Check their Instagram feed for photos of burgers, mussels, sliders, and brunch.
Before we hit the road for any of our beer adventures, we stop at PK Coffee. Established in 2014, the coffee shop is the perfect way to start your morning. Whether you decide to stay and relax, or grab something for the road, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Stowe is well known for its outdoor activities, both in winter and summer. We don't ski, so my insights in this area is limited. But there are some great fall/summer/spring outdoor activities worth mentioning, the first of which is hiking to see the waterfalls in the area. Here is a quick, easy guide which summarizes the Waterfalls near Stowe.
Hill Farmstead, Twilight of the Idols