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Writing about beer in Vermont is like writing about cheese in France or snowboarding in Whistler. It’s a global lodestar for brewers and drinkers, a beer culture unique enough to be recognized as a categorical distinction—“Vermont beer”—that’s both created and defined by the Green Mountain State.
Vermont’s 68 craft breweries vary drastically in scale and size, with brewers operating from centuries-old barns, refurbished industrial warehouses or a relative’s garage alike. Its brewers—ranging from world-coveted game-changers like Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist to tiny local operations punching above their weight—make an astonishing 22 gallons of beer per adult resident of legal drinking age. This is a state with an actual 1876 court case titled The State of Vermont vs. One Keg of Lager Beer, and the keg of lager won. And because much of the beer made here stays here, to truly understand Vermont beer, it’s best to go to the source.
Every piece of the state has its own tally of international superstars and hidden gems, but as the biggest city in a small state that survives on the local, Burlington is a beer lover’s ultimate playground. When it’s safe to travel, here are the best places to buy beer, sip beer, and celebrate the brewers that make Vermont beer so spectacular.
Foam co-founder Todd Haire is one of the great master brewers in the US. After 13 years ushering in the rise of craft beer as the head brewer at Magic Hat Brewery, Haire opened his own operation on the Lake Champlain waterfront in 2016. Foam was quickly named one of the 10 best new breweries in the world, and the team continues to work with local malters and hop growers to make some of the best beers in the country. Featured taps could include a perfect pilsner; an effervescent sour infused with local berries; a single-barrel wet-hop brew with fresh buds from a local hop farm; and a few double IPA can releases with a cult following.
This is where you might find yourself after a hardy winter hike with a scroll-length beer list filled with hyper-local brews and international darlings alike. Maybe you’ll have a glass of Hill Farmstead’s newest keg or a silky stout from Four Quarters Brewery—or maybe you’ll just get lost in the beauty of a beer lover’s goldmine. Luckily, the bartenders are used to it, and here to help. Alongside the main dining room, where regulars settle into leather booths and high-top tables, the restaurant also houses a seasonal beer garden and a subterranean speakeasy with fireplaces, cozy seating, and the full menu.
Seeking a locally beloved dive with karaoke night, cheap pizza and some of the most coveted cans and kegs in the country? Find Manhattan Pizza, where you can get a can of Heady Topper, a draft of Hill Farmstead, a few slices of pepperoni pizza, and a live serenade of “Stand By Me” all in one place. The pub’s onsite dining and drinking is temporarily closed during COVID, but you can still get all the takeout cans, growlers, batched cocktails, and pizza you fancy to take home.
Zero Gravity founder Paul Sayler and head brewer Destiny Saxon have been pillars of the Vermont beer world since opening doors in 2004. They set the example for how to scale a brewery in size without sacrificing creativity and quality. The Pine Street brewery and tap room is anchored by a large, square, wraparound bar that opens up to an adjacent room with retro-style couches and a handcrafted shuffleboard table. In the warmer months, the patio is open for seasonal brews like Strawberry Moon, a gently sour ale with fresh strawberries, and an order of dirty fries from The Great Northern next door.
Of the 16 taps at Queen City, many of head brewer Lilian MacNamara’s beers pay homage to the easy-drinking, lower ABV pub styles favored in the brewing cultures of countries like Germany and Ireland. It’s a place to have a glass or two without feeling heady on high-octane pours and to admire old black-and-white photos of Burlington and the inexplicable teal pick-up truck parked above the bar. The Queen City Dunkel—with subtle hints of cocoa and dark olives, like the classic German-style dark lager it’s named for—is one good place to start as you appreciate the steel fermentation tanks humming away in the background.
For almost two decades, Switchback has been a leader in the tightly knit Vermont craft-beer world, and a point of origin for a handful of now-successful brewery owners who gained experience onsite. Beers are unfiltered and naturally carbonated, and the brewery has been 100% employee-owned since 2017. The taproom has the feeling of an all-day locals’ hangout, with floor-to-ceiling windows, wooden paneling, and flights of beer tucked into Vermont-shaped serving trays.
If you’re looking for where brewers drink off-hours, seek out Mule Bar in Winooski, Burlington’s small-city neighbor with a growing tally of bars and restaurants. Inside Mule Bar, you’ll find a lengthy list of drafts and bottles featuring some of the world’s most sought-after brews, with burgers, BBQ chicken sandwiches, and poutine (made with local cheese curds—it’s Vermont) to wash it down. There are picnic tables outside in the summer, and a tiny indoor bar facing the always-changing chalkboard beer menu. Though the space is temporarily closed, the COVID takeout menu currently offers almost four dozen beers to-go.
Beers from this 10-barrel microbrewery and taproom are hard to find even in-state, so there’s no better place than the point of origin to sample Four Quarters’ nuanced, crystal-clear takes on sours, stouts, and hoppy ales. The phases of the moon embossed on the brewery’s logo, say Four Quarters’ founders, are meant to indicate the sun, Earth, wind, and rain encoded into each ingredient in its path to one’s pint glass—a brewer’s awe of the natural world distilled into glowing pours like Spectra, a frothy double IPA with the piney, apricot-laced taste of Simcoe and El Dorado hops.
Matt Canning’s position as the beer concierge at Hotel Vermont was a long time coming. His father was the co-founder of what is now the internationally famous Vermont Brewer’s Festival—the poster for the first festival in 1989, curled and faded under glass on Canning’s bedroom wall, lists his childhood home phone number for ticket orders. Juniper, the sleek and relaxing restaurant beside the plush hotel lobby, is an oasis for beer exploring guided by Canning’s input.
Kara Pawlusiak and Dan Ukolowicz started this nanobrewery in their garage in 2014. They’ve since expanded to a brewery and taproom in walking distance from that garage, half-hidden near a Hannaford Supermarket shopping complex and the sprawling waterfront greenspace of Leddy Park. Here, the small yet mighty goal is to do simple better—whether you’re sipping a sunny Czech-style pilsner, a pristine kolsch or a perfectly balanced IPA.
Owner Jen Swiatek runs this unassumingly named destination for beer and wine shopping in Winooski, and it has been a quiet cornerstone of Vermont’s beer community since opening doors in 1977. From the outside, “the Bevvie” looks like your average highway-abutting liquor market. On the inside, it opens up into a beer-lover’s Narnia, with cans and bottles lined library-like in a meandering maze of local and international brews. Previous staff positions have included a “Manager of Imagination Realization,” and there are few more knowledgeable (or more stocked) spots in the country when it comes to Vermont beer, brewers, and craft trends.
NOTE: Vermont is a beer destination both because of the beautiful and fertile land and because much of the beer brewed here stays here. Vermont beer is a lasting emblem of something that makes both locals and travelers come together, even if doing so now requires masks, social distancing, and mutual respect for safety. In the years of pandemic, many breweries are offering wider distribution, expanding the kinds of cans and growlers available for takeaway, and bulking up their roster of logoed sweatshirts, snapbacks, and glassware. If there was ever a time to show love for Vermont beer from a distance, it has never been easier.
Beyond working in restaurants, on working farms, and as the lead recipe developer of a national food magazine, Julia Clancy writes about people and place through the lens of food and drink. She was the restaurant critic at Boston Magazine, and currently writes freelance for publications like the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Food 52 and Craft Beer, among others. She splits her time between Boston, Los Angeles and her lodestar for beer: Vermont. Follow her on Instagram.