The Country’s Raddest Beer Destination Is Full of Misty Mountains and Hazy IPAs
Here are 10 of its best, most influential breweries.
The Green Mountain range runs like a curved spine through Vermont, bisecting it north to south. Along it, you'll find places as varied and intricately intertwined as bustling Burlington and ghost towns like Buels Gore. Route 7 runs like a zipper past farmland, maple creemee stands, and mountainside farmhouses. I-89 and serpentine Route 100 beam past ski resorts and the state-spanning Long Trail.
Along these billboard-free roads, there are a few constants. Local dairy can be found at the gas station. Three-hundred general stores operate among the 251 named towns. And beer is everywhere.
“Vermont beer” isn't just a geographical designation; it's a categorical distinction, both fostered and defined by its home state. Genuinely experiencing one of America's most lauded, under-visited, and influential brewing movements means going to the source.
Forty years ago, bold statements about Vermont’s influence would have seemed ironic, if not implausible. Vermont was early to prohibition and late to transition out of it -- some areas stayed dry for nearly 80 years. But the late blooming of Vermont brewing culture was one of its greatest advantages. Beer writer and food historian Adam Krakowski, a specialist on Vermont bootlegging and teetotaling, says prohibition erased most brewing traditions and heritage from the culture entirely. In other words: it wiped the slate clean.
“By then, you have carte blanche,” Krakowski says. “There’s no rules, trends, or history to follow. You are not bound. Vermont was the total wild west.”
Today, Vermont has about 14 breweries per 100,000 people over 21, leading the country in number of craft breweries per capita. In the last decade, the number of local breweries has tripled. What started in the '90s with breweries like Magic Hat, Long Trail, Harpoon, and Otter Creek gave way to wild innovations that took everything the state represented and distilled it -- literally -- into some of the country's most respected and beloved beers.
"Vermont is home to the best brewers and beer in the country."
The Alchemist probed the now-iconic rise of hazy, drink-fresh New England IPA, originally called Vermont IPA, with Heady Topper. Lawson’s Finest Liquids created the aura of the small-batch beer drop. Hill Farmstead revolutionized the craft beer canon with the normalization of the 750ml bottles. It also, as the first brewery in the world to use (and trademark) “farmstead” in its name, intentionally shifted the vocabulary around beer to a level of reverie previously reserved for wine.
Breweries like these became pilgrimage sites for beer fans, proving the viability of a contemporary craft model: can art, four packs, destination releases and limited distribution.
Vermont beer is what happens when you live in a small state, topographically whittled into small towns by mountains, with some of the best brewers in the world. Here, the old trope “You’re only as good as your competition" becomes "you’re only as good as your neighbors." Brewers share equipment, materials, and help distribute each other’s beer. Sometimes, they set up shop directly across the street. Vermont beer is not only beer: it’s a signal of community, a tight-knit one where old-guard brewers adroitly cultivate the next generation's leaders before sending them off on their own.
“I think Vermont is home to the best brewers and beer in the country due to the homegrown aspect,” says Krakowski. “[In] how many places could you go to your competition and ask for help to get better?"
For most, visiting these breweries isn't a current option. And though Vermont beer is best experienced in person -- against the saturated greens of summer, wine-colored leaves in the fall or a glinting tundra of snow in the winter -- getting a taste of the state's best breweries offers an extrasensory opportunity to experience what "Vermont beer" really is. The 10 essential breweries on this subjective list don't cover the full spectrum. Vermont's gems are too many to fit neatly into a compact list, and extraordinary breweries are certainly missing. So when the time is right, go to Vermont and discover them. It’s a place to experience in person, with the blue haze of Green Mountains holding court below the skyline.
Todd Haire is one of the country’s most talented brewmasters, both a maestro of technical precision and an innovator with Wonka-esque creativity: drafts offer anything from gently puckering sour ales with local berries to creamy-textured double IPAs. After 13 years as head brewer at Magic Hat and another two at Switchback, Haire opened up Foam on the Lake Champlain waterfront in 2016. The same year, he co-founded House of Fermentology, a small-batch beer blendery focused on beer aging and wild fermentation with writer and homebrewing figure Bill Mares. The blendery names its delicate, startlingly intricate beers after colored dots, like the ones used to mark a Queen bee -- inspired, says Haire, by the brewers’ shared love for beekeeping.
When Jen and John Kimmich launched their flagship Heady Topper in 2003, there was no indication that the unique, hazy, canned double IPA would be a hit, let alone change the entire craft landscape. Today, its impact is deep: It's the OG of the hazy New England IPA movement, which evolved from the style of beer formerly known as “Vermont IPA.” Though Heady and newer sensations like Focal Banger are now circulated throughout the state, the best experience remains in Stowe, a town between two mountain gaps where few of the brewery’s kegs and cans make it beyond the door. There are myriad IPAs; crystal-clear kolsch; inky milk stouts like Knuckle Dragger; and gentle stunners like Petit Mutant, an American sour ale with cherries.
In 2018 Red Clover Ale opened in Brandon’s minuscule town center under the reigns of two brothers and a brother-in-law, who brought with them the experience of managing their family’s sixth-generation dairy farm. The trio focuses on inventive ales with an eye for the classics, and cans and taps change weekly. There might be the textbook, glass-clear Bohemian pils, or a Blonde Ale radiating subtle haze and tiny champagne bubbles, or a burgundy-hued maple stout called Sapsucker. There is always an array of IPAs, most of them clocking refreshingly below 7%, and all as graceful as the birds they’re named for, like the American Redstart, Superb Fairywren, and Mountain Bluebird.
Since opening in 2008, Lawson’s Finest Liquids -- the brewery behind a floral, fruit-sluiced, and decidedly unhazy IPA called Sip Of Sunshine -- popularized the small-batch drop, and the idea people will travel for a beer’s rarity. Lawson’s beer crystallizes the Vermont image, with its trademark Vermont IPAs and idiosyncratic maple brews like the Maple Nipple, a former homebrew recipe for a velvety amber ale rich with Vermont maple syrup. The nanobrewery became a 7-barrel microbrewery in 2011 when the founders Sean and Karen Lawson pulled the ultimate Vermont power play by moving operations into the family's sugarhouse. In 2018, the couple opened a production facility and timber-clad, horseshoe bar-equipped taproom. These days, you can find their wares statewide, proving that the fandom has more to do with quality than exclusivity.
At the foot of one circuitous dirt pathway near the Green Mountain National Forest and tucked in a clapboard barn surrounded by fields, you'll find this 15-barrel brewery and taproom owned by brothers Pat and Dan Foley. (Red Clover Ale is just over a mile away -- brotherly love is a theme in Brandon.) Enormous exposed beams rest over a chalkboard taplist in what looks like a refurbished horse’s stable. The setting is iconic Vermont, with cows snorting through grasses nearby and locals arriving on bikes with backpacks brimming with empty growlers -- ready for refills of tangerine-hued Big Bang or Prospect, a foam-laced double IPA brewed with local grains. Foley is the kind of place where one November weekend, the brothers, on a whim, will make chili over smoldering logs outside the taproom while Reilly, their curly-headed dog, waits on a game of fetch, nosing at patron’s feet as they drink beer surrounded by forests.
The 7,000-barrel brewery, nudged between the mountains Mansfield and Elmore, seems leviathan next to operations in a sugar shack. Lost Nation, though, sets the example for expert beer brewed for scale without sacrificing an inch of quality -- or a sense of place. The brewery specializes in Vermont-heavy interpretations of European ales and lagers: think a shatteringly crisp Vermont Pilsner and a Belgian-style saison inspired by the farms of Lamoille county. Yet Lost Nation’s national presence is likely tied to their Gose, which helped ignite a renaissance of the almost-extinct German beer saline with sea salt and threaded with coriander.
After studying philosophy in college and brewing in Denmark, brewmaster Shaun Hill opened a brewery in his barn, a quiet sanctuary in the mountains a dozen miles from cell service. The Hill family has lived for eight generations in the belly of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, an enigmatic and arrestingly beautiful sweep of land where the rural U.S. becomes something like Narnia. In the past decade, Hill Farmstead has been named the best brewery in the world for seven consecutive years; surpassed its original business goal by millions; and expanded beyond the barn to an adjacent rustic spaceship of an onsite tasting room. Glowing pours of Anna, Edward, Poetica, and more of the best beer in the world can be sipped on the porch, a picnic blanket on the grass, or alongside a small, clear pond.
A glass of honey-hued lager at Von Trapp brewery often has a rich, foamy head like softly beaten cream. Enjoy it at a U-shaped bar facing the wall of windows overlooking the mountains and feel dropped into the Austrian Alps. That's no accident: The brewery and bierhall at Trapp Family Lodge is owned by the real Von Trapp family of Sound of Music, and their devotion to lagers and only lagers in and of itself makes it essential, lonely goatherds notwithstanding. Here, you'll always find pilsner, Helles, Vienna-style lager, Trosten, and Berliner Weisse on the roster. In the summer, the hills are alive (couldn’t help it) with the crushing green of Vermont summer; hiking trails and swimming holes snake around the base of the mountain, which in the distance, under the sky, look almost blue.
Originally attached to beloved Onion City pizza spot American Flatbread in 2004, Zero Gravity cut the ribbon on its 30-barrel brewery on Burlington’s Pine Street in 2015, complete with a canning line, bottle-conditioning, barrel-aging, a tasting room and a sunny patio. Zero Gravity exemplifies how to scale in size without sacrificing creativity, technique and unfailing quality. The brewpub at American Flatbread carries on under head brewer Destiny Saxon, while the Pine Street brewery sits beside The Great Northern, a restaurant with bold, unique takes on Vermont’s local food chain, meaning in-house eating includes dirty fries with smoked Vermont pork and spicy pickles; bratwursts made by hand; and deep grain bowls with sorghum and vegetables from farmers nearby.
In late May, brewer Vasilios Gletsos was setting up a fixed brewing space in a defunct dairy barn in Albany, a town just shy of 900 people in the Northeast Kingdom. The former creamery and subterranean cheese cave were being readied for brewing, fermenting, and aging. In the era of pastry beers and shiny cans, says Gletsos, “We have lost the connection to the fact that beer is food and it comes from farms. Brewing was a way of preserving the harvest. It is an expression of landscape.” With Wunderkammer -- named for a 16th-century German term for a collection of curiosities and extraordinary phenomena -- Gletsos seeks to deepen the connection between beer and nature, using foraged ingredients and natural methods to create a bridge between craft and artistic process. Wunderkammer evokes what it’s meant to, even as a paradox: it succeeds, somehow, in transporting the drinker another world while rooting them to a single place of origin.
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.