The New England craft beer scene has become legendary and is leading the charge in redefining craft beer in America. It seems like every year, a new brewery opens up in the New England area that resets all expectations about the possibilities and demand for craft beer, particularly hoppy beers. In particular, Vermont and Maine (first and sixth respectively in the country in breweries per capita) have collected a number of breweries with almost legendary status. The most notable of these breweries is The Alchemist in Waterbury, VT, who’s double IPA Heady Topper, which sells in a 16 oz can, was known as the best beer in the world for several years. A close second is Hill Farmstead in Greensboro, VT, who was voted best brewery in the world by Ratebeer.com in 2015.
Hill Farmstead brewery. Do they just make beer here, or much, much, more?
These breweries and beers are known for impeccable quality; but also, the beers have been known to be extremely rare, with distribution limited to the brewers’ state, and in some cases only the brewery itself. With that in mind, we wondered: what are these breweries doing to make themselves so successful? Is the quality as great as others claim, or is this hype at least partially caused by rarity? With these questions in mind, we (Corey and Matt) drove through Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont this past November to experience as many of these small and successful breweries as we could.
We had a fairly well organized plan when we left Buffalo of the places we wanted to go and the breweries we wanted to visit. But we also kept it fairly flexible and took advice from friends, fellow beer lovers, and even Twitter on places to go. So, occasionally we mixed things up and drove out of the way to reach someplace we were told we had to visit.
One thing to note about this trip. While we did bring back as much beer as we could find (and afford), the primary purpose of this trip was not to “score” beers for share or trade. We were here to try beers, meet and talk to people, and experience these breweries. Therefore, we didn’t visit breweries like Alchemist, Lawson's, or Trillium, which have excellent beers, but don’t offer much in the way of tours or tasting rooms. Luckily, we did get to try beers from at least the first two breweries, and we still had a lot of excellent beers, and experiences, along the way.
The breweries we visited were:
Allagash (well, not really – they were closed)
Prohibition Pig (followed by dinner at Blackback Pub)
That’s 13 breweries, 1,500 miles, in 3 days, and I’m sure we could have seen more if we had more time. So if you’re reading this, and you’re like “how come they didn’t go to my favorite brewery”? We just did not have enough time, as much as we would have liked to. Hey, we’ve got beer to brew over here!
Now, we’re not going to go into details about which breweries were doing what, and which beers we loved, and which beers we liked a bit less. We consider all of these breweries to be colleagues of ours, and therefore we wish them all the best. So, we’ll keep the learnings fairly general.
First of all, we probably had about 70 different beers between all of these breweries, and had very little (maybe one or two at most) we’d consider to be bad, or just generally to our disliking. That is to say, these breweries were all making good to world-class beer.
- Jack’s Abby makes pretty much great everything, from fruited lagers, to rauchbiers, to hoppy IPLs, to sours. They were extremely impressive.
- Maine has a “Fresh Beer” sign that lights up outside their brewery. How cool is that?
All the freshness
- We thought that Hayburner and Another One by Maine are the same beer in many ways. And, they are also totally different in others.
- Bissell Brothers are rock stars. We loved their beer, we loved their artwork, we loved their glasses, and we loved their bathroom wallpapered in old recipes and business plans. They were selling cans out of their brewery as they were coming off of the canning line. You could purchase beer that was literally minutes old. How cool is that?
Man, this looks tasty.
- Allagash was closed for a private party! We tweeted them that we would wash their dishes if they let us in for a few samples… they did not reply.
- It was hard to find cans of anything, anywhere. We would have brought more beer back if we had gone Tuesday or Wednesday. Maybe next time?
- The staff at the Blackback Pub was super friendly. And the can of Focal Banger that Corey had there was super good. Although he did get a few stares when he asked for a glass with his can.
Perhaps the biggest learning was that we didn’t think that the beer being made in New England was mind-blowingly better than some (not all, but some) of the beer being made around our area. We did think the beer culture was very evolved versus what it is in Buffalo though. Everywhere we went, you could tell that people were enthralled with beer, loved discussing their favorites, loved discussing subtle flavors they could taste in the beer they were drinking, loved discussing breweries they thought were underrated, or overrated, or properly rated for that matter. Remember though that New England has at least a 15 year craft beer head start over Buffalo. But, you can also clearly see that Buffalo is doing a good job of catching up, and quick.
I strongly advise anyone reading this blog to make a trip like this to New England. Yes, to immerse yourself in a world-class beer culture, and of course, to drink some fantastic beers. But, even more so, to earn an even larger appreciation for the kind of beer culture being constructed right in your backyard. We continue to be excited to be a part of it, here in Buffalo, NY.