Style: Oatmeal Stout
Numbers: 5.4% ABV, 32 IBUs
Today’s big question: where does Vermont rank in the battle between states to be the daddy of craft beer?
Granted, it’s not that aggressive or active of a battle, but it’s one that is constantly, quietly raging in the minds of some.
It was solidified in my world last year with this pretty amusing Thrillist article listing every state from 50-1 based on the number and quality of breweries. Note the none-too-impressed comment from my friend Seth Herman, sales director at SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta. (GA was ranked 31st; SweetWater, the 19th biggest craft brewer in the country by volume, was not mentioned.)
I believe what Seth is trying to say, in his unique way, is that there’s a bit of a West Coast bias in the craft beer world. And the authors of this post (Ben Robinson, Andy Kryza & Matt Lynch) would seem to reinforce that message, especially given the top five they list (in order: WA, MI, CO, CA & OR) are all pretty westish. (Okay, Michigan is way closer to NYC than LA, but East Coast it ain’t.)
There’s credibility to the West Coast angle, perhaps mainly because the so-called West Coast style (cascade hops, the “definitive” American IPA aroma) put the marker down for what American craft could be. Before craft sky-rocketed in the mid-90s East Coast brewers, led by Boston Beer, were making beers that were reminiscent of classic European styles, while the West, led by Sierra Nevada and their 100% cascade hopped pale ale were making the drier, more aromatic beers that have come to dominate the American craft landscape.
But, in my humble opinion, it’s an outmoded perspective. Things have changed a lot, and these days a state’s brewing culture could maybe be defined by these inputs:
- Number of standout beers
- Number of standout breweries
- The proportion of the above compared to population (c’mon, have to be fair)
- A sense of craft camaraderie within the state – ie. an identification with the local brewing community
By these criteria, you could argue that Vermont is in fact the number one craft state in the country.
California is up there by virtue of its impact on the craft story (Anchor & Sierra Nevada as godfathers of craft; Stone, Ballast Point and the whole San Diego shooting match (and Russian River) for making the IPA what it is today, and the sheer number of craft breweries), but while there are nearly 500 breweries in CA, there are also not far off 40 million people. And is there a California fraternity of craft? I’d say there’s a San Francisco scene and a San Diego scene, but are they really that close to each other? (Just being provocative…)
There’s Oregon of course, where craft beer has close to a 40% share of beer sales overall (compared to c. 7% nationally), and some big players (Widmer, Deschutes, Full Sail, Rouge et al), and a VERY committed craft culture. But to my mind, Oregon is about the nano-brewery. The brewpub that’s so far out it’s experimenting with Martian soil samples instead of the latest hops. (“Australian hops are so passe. We’re now looking to source from Romania, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia.”)
And there’s Colorado, home of some of the biggest names in craft who have brought new definitions to the table, such as New Belgium and sour beers, Oskar Blues and cans and Left Hand and nitro. But again, it’s a big state (5.5 million folks live there), and is it really producing cutting edge beers these days? (My provocative side again.)
How does one argue that leafy, twee Vermont has an edge over these craft behemoths? Its biggest advantage is in the per-capita arena, where its teeny population of 620,000 (just a nudge higher than Wyoming, the least populous state) means for every Vermontian beer drinker there’s seven in Oregon, the state I’m comparing to with the next smallest population. There’s also clearly an active beer community – it almost feels like the craft stereotype of a long-haired, bearded, plaid-wearing dude was copied off what is surely the perennial style in Vermont.
But mainly, Vermont’s claim to be the beer mecca of the US is staked on its beer. Not only the volume and quality of it, but the variety of it. We can’t go too far without mentioning Heady Topper, probably the most famous beer in the country right now. The West Coast may have built the IPA and Double IPA style from the ground up, but, even if you don’t think Heady Topper is the best (and let’s face it, its scarcity is its biggest driver), it’s unquestionably up there. But, and I’m not saying the West Coast is all about hoppy IPAs, Vermont is not famous for Heady Topper alone.
Have a look at the Vermont Brewers Association members map to see the wide variety of breweries in so small a state. The major players are Long Trail, Magic Hat (I know, I know) and the second brewery of Boston’s Harpoon in Windsor. Then you have long standing local favorites such as Otter Creek and Burlington’s Switchback. All of these breweries make a wide variety of styles (with, in fact, pretty minimal focus on IPAs), and are perhaps best known for rich amber ales and hearty, fresh stouts. There are also a host of up-and-coming breweries, like super-hot Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro, or Lost Nation in Morristown.
For me – and this is highly subjective – there’s also the definitive drinking occasion for VT beer that weighs heavily in the State’s favor. It was an occasion I was lucky enough to find myself in last night, and I had a fine Vermont beer in hand to celebrate it.
Picture the scene: I was up in the mountains after a day of skiing, surrounded by iconic pines, open fields and a thick layer of snow, bathed in moon- and star-light. I was in a rural, cosy pub, with a lot full of trucks and SUVs with skis and boards on the roof, a roaring fire in the corner, and plenty of mountain chat for ambience. I was in the company of family, and with that uniquely satisfying sensation in the legs that tells of a hard day’s exercise that at no point felt like exercise.
The beer in question was Wolaver’s Organic Oatmeal Stout, made by Wolaver’s Fine Organic Ales, which – if you need a pointer to the fraternal spirit of VT brewing – is now part of Vermont’s Own brewing collective, based at Otter Creek’s brewery in Middlebury. The beer was perfect for the moment. While, like everyone, I’ve been mildly obsessed with hops, pale ales and IPAs lately, stout is my home style. (I am a lifelong Guinness adorer.) And while I love the heady, rich, potent Imperial stouts and “American” style stouts that are fashionable, a good, mid-strength stout like this is my idea of beer heaven. Especially in such comforting surroundings.
Wolaver’s Stout is impenetrable obsidian black, and a thin creamy head sat atop the pint I’d been poured. (I was drinking on draft.)
The nose was appropriately muted. I’d call it eminently balanced. Soft, rich blackberry and plum mingled with leather and baker’s chocolate, all topped with a zesty, salty freshness, like a soothing sea breeze. This is not a hit-you-over-the-head punchy craft, to recoil from in impressed surprise; this is a mellow, loose, comforting beer, designed to complement the raw mountain air.
To taste the beer was impressively carbonated – a sharp, prickly fizz which, combined with the bright aromas, convinced me this beer was as fresh as a daisy. What was a little surprising was the mouthfeel, which was lighter than I was expecting. Oatmeal stouts are made with oatmeal as an adjunct to the roasted barley malt, which softens the flavor profile and creates a thicker, more viscous mouthfeel. While this beer was on the denser end of the spectrum, it wasn’t at all creamy. Which is not a bad thing.
Overall, this is a very drinkable ale; enough character and taste to keep you engaged, but gentle and light enough not to be distracting. It was the perfect accompaniment to the Greek-American pub fare I was enjoying at Big Jay Tavern near Jay Peak in the so-called Northeast Kingdom.
It’s also a fine representation of what’s great about VT beer. Organic – naturally – but also rich, fresh and interesting, like many of the well-balanced and satisfying beers coming out of the Green Mountain State that has nothing to prove.
Of course there’s no such thing as a number one state for beer, and I’m sure no-one’s taking notes. But there is such a thing as excellent brewing, and long may the abundant practice of it continue in Vermont.