(Originally written for BillyYTZ.com – no longer live)
As beer lovers know, Vermont isn’t just for ski trips.
Just as people have travelled to destinations for specific foods, restaurants or wine, the rise of craft breweries has inspired people to become beer travellers. If you’re part of that suds-seeking audience, how would you like to have a beer concierge at your service? Beer lovers, meet fellow aficionado Matt Canning of the Hotel Vermont in Burlington, now helping like-minded travellers navigate the phenomenal beer landscape of this hilly part of New England.
The hotel couldn’t help noticing the growing interest in beer in recent years. It was receiving more and more inquiries about which breweries to visit, what beers were the best, and how to plan a trip in order to experience as much of the Vermont beer scene as possible during a single trip. Recognizing how important beer tourism has become, the hotel designated Canning – also the hotel’s front desk manager – as its first beer concierge in May of 2014, and tasked him with combining his hospitality experience and his beer and brewery knowledge to create a unique beer tourism program for guests.
“A lot of people tell me I have the best job in the world,” Canning says. “I agree … but insist that it is not all fun and games. There are countless hours of laborious research and development.”
As a result of that research, Canning says, “We offer various beer-related programs throughout the year for our visitors.”
In the warmer months, for example, there’s a brewery tour by bicycle. When the weather gets cooler and the ice starts to form along the nearby Lake Champlain, the hotel’s “winter beer package” includes a beer tasting and consultation with an overnight stay. As a year-round option for those who would prefer to stay put and try a bunch of different flavours, Canning directs private tastings for groups of eight to 20 people, starting at $50 a head.
The private tastings take place the hotel’s Juniper bar. Find a seat at the bar or pull up a chair at one of the tables, and as you sample each brew, Canning will walk you through his own tasting notes as you discuss and share your thoughts and flavours for each. Canning brims with knowledge of the area and its brewing history. He came by this knowledge honestly: He was brought up locally, and witnessed the growth of the industry from the point of view of his father, Jay Canning, who was involved in the beer scene in Burlington for decades. The elder Canning started the Burlington (now Vermont) Brewers Festival with Greg Noonan, the founder of the Vermont Pub and Brewery more than 23 years ago. Canning puts this background knowledge to use when creating a custom itinerary for a self-guided Vermont brewery tour, sending guests out the door well equipped for a Vermont beer journey.
You really don’t need to go far: Stops can include Hill Farmstead and Lost Nation Brewing – breweries with enviable scores of 100 and 98, respectively, at the beer lover’s portal RateBeer.com. Meanwhile, a visit to Waterbury leads to pub exploring and tastings. We especially enjoyed Prohibition Pig, where the dishes – including Bavarian pretzel knots and duck fat fries – were created with beer pairing in mind.
On the summer Bike and Brew tour, meanwhile, the itinerary includes stops at other acclaimed breweries Foam Brewers, Switchback Brewing, Zero Gravity and Queen City Brewery, as well as a curveball in the form of Citizen Cider: Over the last eight years, Canning says, a number of cider-makers have sprung up to join the dozens of new breweries in the state.
For many thirsty pilgrims, however, the primary object of pursuit is the area’s signature beer style, known as the New England-style India pale ale (or IPA). These beers are powerful; around 8% or higher is typical. Most New England IPAs are unfiltered, with an orange haziness and tropical notes that come from “finishing hops” added in the last minutes of the brewing process.
And among New England IPAs, nothing drives the beer hunter onward like the Alchemist’s Heady Topper. This beer put the style on the map when it was first brewed in 2004, and it remains a benchmark for the style. Some believe a locally cultivated yeast strain deserves a lot of the credit. As Canning explains, delving into a micro-organism pedigree detailed enough for the hardest of hardcore beer fans: “The yeast in Heady Topper is a derivative from the culture used by Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub and Brewery, opened in 1988, where John Kimmich, founder of the Alchemist, worked for many years.”
Living yeast can often be harvested from a spent beer can or bottle, and many of the popular New England-style IPA producers have adopted the Alchemist’s yeast strain from a can of Heady Topper to make their own beers.
If that’s too much yeast genealogy for you, Canning says “what it really comes down to is that Heady Topper is delicious and one of the most iconic American craft beers.”
Naturally it’s not always that easy to get your hands on a can. The iconic beer is delivered to Burlington Monday to Thursday, and limits on purchase depend on the retailer. Most will restrict sales to a pair of four-can packs per person, while other stores sell cases to the first five or 10 people in line. Either way, the beer still sells out almost immediately each week. So if you can, make a stop at the Alchemist’s new brewery in Stowe (a 45-minute drive from Burlington), where visitors can buy mixed cases of their three beers right from the source, five days a week.
One way or another, Canning says most guests are able to find Heady in retail at some point of their stay, “if they are willing to make it a priority.” He’s also happy to suggest other IPAs that aren’t as well known but deserve visitors’ attention too.
Canning recognizes that drinking some of the best beers in the world may be a wonderful part of this job, but he knows that “the truly meaningful aspects of my job revolve around travel, education and the people you meet and relationships you build in the beer world.” Having developed a rapport with Canning during their stay, many guests of the Hotel Vermont keep in touch with him even after they leave. The new friendship becomes something to hold on to after that last Heady Topping runs out.
41 Cherry Street, Burlington, VT
855 650 0080
© 2016 – 2018, Anne-Marie Marais. All rights reserved.