Brew Tastings and Trails

If you want to sample some of  Vermont’s hidden trails and get a taste of some of the nation’s top beers, the Green Mountains have you covered. 

On a crisp morning, Rick Sokoloff maneuvers his mountain bike over a series of obstacles in the meadow by the Trapp Family Lodge Adventure Center. “You can handle a drop if you just learn to keep your weight back and your arms loose,” says Sokoloff, a long-time ski instructor. “Taking even one lesson just makes you so much more comfortable when you come to a drop on a trail and know you can handle it. And then, once you

Rick Sokoloff leads mountain bike tours and teaches his 4PointsVT clients about beer, taking them for samplings at the best breweries in the region. Photo by Lisa Lynn.

do, you’re ready to reward yourself with a really good beer after.” And just as he knows his trails, Sokoloff can also guide you to a great beer.

Like any good ski bum, Sokoloff has worn many hats: ski instructor, tour guide, real estate broker and founder of Stowe’s mountain bike club. The one he wears now seems like a dream job: running the touring company 4 Points VT. Often, his mornings start with teaching a group of mountain bikers–—a family gathering, a bachelor or bachelorette party—how to negotiate the trails of the Trapp Family Lodge. Afternoons, he’s likely to be found teaching visitors about one of his other passions: Vermont beer.

The lessons starts over excellent Bavarian fare (think bratwurst) at the von Trapp Brewing Bierhall (home to the 2,000-barrel von Trapp brewery)  and a tasting of the crisp, light German-style Kolsch which won gold this past summer at the U.S. Open Beer Championship as well as the classics, Pilsner, Helles and Dunkel. Sokoloff then piles guests in his van for a chauffeured tour of some of the other world-class breweries in the area. They might include The Alchemist (rated No. 1 by Ratebeer), Idletyme, practically across the street, Rock Art, Lost Nation and tiny Ten Bends in Morrisville. He’ll even make a trip to the revered Hill Farmstead in Greensboro, where the world’s No. 1 beers are brewed in such small quantities that people make pilgrimages there.

Stowe’s von Trapp Brewing celebrates its heritage at the Bierhall–which also serves up tasty Austrian fare. Photo courtesy von Trapp Brewing.

In Vermont, more than 50 craft breweries dot the landscape and more pop up each day. The craft scene has even given rise to a new type of beer, the Vermont (or New England) IPA, a hoppy double-IPA that The Alchemist’s Heady Topper has made into something of a national beer cult.

“We’ve had people fly in just to do a beer tasting for a day, and then fly back the same day,” says one of the ground crew at Tradewind Aviation, which operates scheduled and chartered flights out of the Stowe/Morrisville airport. Ranch Camp, located just at the base of Stowe’s Cady Hill mountain bike network, doubles as bike, beer and burrito shop. Across the street, Doc Ponds features a rotating menu of beers and “beertails” (cocktails made with beers, like a Mezcal Gose-arita). The menu is curated by Tom Rowlett, who has worked at von Trapp and The Alchemist and is one of a handful of cicerone-certified bartenders in the state (the beer equivalent of a master sommelier). With

Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ new brewery and tasting room opens this fall in Waitsfield. Photo courtesy Lawson’s Finest Liquids.

more than 20 brews on tap, including hard-to-find ones such as small-batch beers from Vermont’s Backacre, River Roost and Good Measure breweries, it’s also become a de rigueur après bike spot. “We have five go-to beers that represent different styles here,” he says, ticking off von Trapp’s pilsner, Hill Farmstead’s Edward, Fiddlehead’s IPA, Lost Nation’s gose, and Zero Gravity’s lager. He also praises the craft of places like Drop In: “The fact that they can make a Christmas Cake or Key Lime beer that tastes just like the food, is amazing.”

Umiak Adventures, which is known for hosting everything from SUP and guided canoeing to snowmobiling trips and dog sledding, has also gotten into the tasting-trail business with tours of the area’s top breweries and distilleries. If you are a connoisseur (or aspire to be one) the Brew Master tour is a special chance to learn more about how each brewery crafts its specialties. Umiak  even offers a paddling trip down the Lamoille River, with tastings at Boyden Valley Winery.

And resorts are jumping in on the tasting scene, too. On Sept. 29, there’s the New England Craft Beer Open at Sugarbush where golfers sample local brews at each hole. Last spring, Garin Frost, owner and brewer of Hinesburg’s Frost Brewing, held court at a magical candlelit dinner at Sugarbush’s mid-mountain Allyn Lodge.  Guests who skinned or rode the snowcat up were treated to a four-course meal with beer pairings, and then skied down by headlamp. Brewer/naturalist Sean Lawson hosts less-formal full-moon hikes and brew dinners at the base lodge at Mad River Glen, and Stowe’s The Cliff House also hosts a beer pairing dinner as part of its Summit Series.

While Burlington and Stowe are epicenters for brewtours, consider some of these other tasting trails and pair them with trail hikes or bikes.

1. Burlington: A Brew City

If you’re headed to the city, you can practically walk between breweries such as Switchback, Magic Hat, Zero Gravity and one of the original classics, Vermont Pub and Brewery.  If you want to get more of a workout, start your day on the waterfront bike path (you can rent bikes, boats or even Rollerblades) and then begin your brew touring at Foam Brewers, just off the waterfront, where the brews change faster than the weather and some, like Emotions and Math (a farmhouse ale fermented and aged in Chardonnay barrels) are not even available in growlers. Other relative newcomers include Queen City Brewing (which opened a tasting room in 2014) and Simple Roots, which moved from garage to taproom in 2016. While in town, stop in at Mad River Distillers’ tasting room or see what’s on tap at Citizen Cider, among others.

2. Waterbury to Warren

Waterbury, where The Alchemist got its start, is better known to some as Waterbeery. While the Alchemist’s tasting room is now in Stowe, there’s more here to discover. Stop off at Prohibition Pig to sample the restaurant’s house brews and seasonal favorites as Jack Be Little, an English mild ale with house-roasted pumpkin and spice or Blueberry Milkshake Swine Cooler (the name says it all). Across the street, the Craft Beer Cellar is a place to stop and talk with a “Beercierge.”

In Stowe, Tom Rowlett (one of Vermont’s seven certified cicerones) curates a local beer menu. Photo courtesy Doc Ponds.

Just south on Route 100 in the Mad River Valley, Sean Lawson straddles both “trail” worlds. A naturalist by training, Lawson spends part of his winters leading nature hikes at Mad River Glen. In fact, he and his wife Karen met on a moonlight snowshoe tour he was leading. A few years later, they set up Lawson’s Finest brewery at their home in Warren and began turning out one of the top rated beers in the country (Lawson’s Finest Double Sunshine IPA is currently ranked 17th in the U.S. by Beer Advocate). This fall, the couple are opening a stunning new brewery and tasting room, complete with great hall, tasting room and retail shop, with  a fire pit and beer garden out back. More than 10 beers will be served with new ones in rotation and, says Karen Lawson, “we’ll be asking customers for feedback and recipe ideas and doing a special monthly ‘customer’s brew.’”

And if you want more than a beer, just down Route 100 in Warren, Mad River Distillers has guided tours of the distillery each day at 1 p.m. (book ahead) with samplings.

3. The Middlebury Mile (or Two)

If you want to get the most tastings in per mile and run, ski or bike some of the prettiest trails in the state, head to Middlebury. At the Rikert Nordic Center, just east of the Middlebury Snow Bowl, cross-country trails ramble in and out of the woods and open meadows beneath the imposing backdrop of the Greens—also connecting to the trails near poet Robert Frost’s one-time cabin. Come November, Rikert is among the first Nordic centers to open for skiing (and fatbiking) thanks to extensive snowmaking and the Middlebury Snow Bowl, owned by Middlebury College, remains one of the least-crowded ski areas in the state.

Burn calories there, then head to downtown Middlebury where you can practically walk between some of the state’s best tasting rooms. Starting from the south, on Route 7, drop in on Drop In Brewing. More than just a brewery, it’s home to the American Brewers Guild Brewing School, a

Otter Creek seasonal favorites are on tap. Photo courtesy Otter Creek.

place where brewers from around the world come to learn the craft. You can sign up for a one-hour tasting and lecture series or just simply pick up cans of their famous Sunshine & Hoppiness and darker Heart of Lothian or a growler of whatever is on tap. 

On Exchange Street, Otter Creek Brewing has a brew pub featuring both its regular canned beers and specialty seasonal beers like German-style Oktoberfest and bottles of Coffee Drip Stout. It also has outdoor games like cornhole and live music some nights.

Beyond the breweries, it’s worth making a day of Middlebury’s eight tasting rooms, which you can do, self-guided, with cues from middtastingtrail.com. At Danforth Pewter’s Seymour Street shop, try WhistlePig’s whiskeys, or stop in at Appalachian Gap, which handcrafts its spirits in small batches to create Fractal Vodka, Mythic Gin and Ridgeline Whiskey. Next door at Stonecutter’s stunning tasting room, sample their barrel-aged, double gold medal award-winning gin or other spirits. Just a few hundred yards away, Woodchuck Cider has a tasting room in its giant barn-like structure. End the day at Lincoln Peak Vineyard’s winery, just north off Route 7 or head 20 minutes south on Route 7  to Foley Brothers, run by two brothers who moved into beer from the wine world and are crafting small-batch (the brewery is 7.5 barrels) IPAs, sours and ales.

4. Sip Across Central Vermont

If you want to make a day of it, start near Killington by hiking the Sherburne Pass trail to Pico Peak (or the Long Trail) or biking the trails at Killington. Then, head east on Route 4 to Bridgewater for a stop at Long Trail’s riverfront brew pub. Try a sampling flight or what’s on tap (we recently had  the limited-release Electric Boogaloo, described as a hoppy American wheat ale with notes of candied orange, peach and vanilla). Make it a meal with the pub’s pulled pork sliders and pretzels. 

Then, head to Suicide Six’s new Elemental Bike park, or to Ascutney’s mountain bike and hiking trails to work off lunch. Finish up at Harpoon Brewery where weekends (and Fridays, 5-7 p.m.) you can take a brewery tour and try what’s on tap (for the name alone, we love Clown Shoes Bubble Farm, a slightly-bitter IPA with tropical and citrus flavors). If you still want to drive, at Trout River Brewing in Springfield you can often find the classic Rainbow Red Ale or try their Hangry Angler. 

5. Brattleboro’s Beer Town

Greg Meulemans knows where to find the best brews in southern Vermont. His tiny, 800-square-foot Meulemans’ Craft Brews in Rawsonville stocks more than 400, including the hard-to-find Backacre, which he raves about. “It’s brewed by a couple at their home and you’ll only find it at some of the specialty brewpubs like Doc Ponds.”

Meulemans is also big on the sours that Hermit Thrush, out of Brattleboro, is producing, especially the Gin Barrel Saison, (made in the barrels Caledonia Spirits uses to age) its award-winning Barr Hill gin or its signature sour Brattlebeer, made with local apples. In Brattleboro, two other must-stops are Whetstone Station and McNeill’s. At Whetstone Station on nice days you can sit in the biergarten overlooking the Connecticut River and sip a Big ‘Stoner double IPA or try Off the Rails, a hoppy, hazy black IPA, brewed with dark malts. McNeill’s is one of the oldest continually-operated breweries in the state.

For something a little different, head to the top of Hogback Mountain, near Mount Snow, where Beer Naked (formerly part of Pizzapalooza) has set up operations in the old Skyline Lodge with 100-mile views and brews such as their Missing Mink farmhouse saison. J’ville, with tasting rooms in Jacksonville and West Dover (which it shares with Honora Winery) has highly-seasonal selections that range from lighter wheat beers (hibiscus, blueberry and blackberry) and a saison aged in Honora’s chardonnay barrels, to a rich maple brown ale and coffee stout. 

Plan Your Beer Tour

If you want to learn more about beer touring, check out the Vermont Brewers Association website (vermontbrewers.com) which has additional tasting trails, a “brew passport” and descriptions of its 56 members. Always have a designated driver or, better yet, hire a guide. The following organizations will not only drive you but, can educate you about brews and often arrange for special tastings or meetings with a brewmaster. Rates generally start at around $90 per person for a half day and include transportation, light snacks and tasting.

4 Points VT: Rick Sokoloff leads guided mountain biking and beer touring in Stowe with behind-the-scenes talks and light snacks. 4pointsvt.com

City Brew Tours: Based in Burlington, City Brew Tours visits four breweries (either in Burlington or in Stowe) with a pizza lunch included. citybrewtours.com

Umiak Outfitters: beer, winery and distillery tours, as well as canoe trips, SUP rentals and more. umiak.com

Vermontology Guided Tours: Based out of Killington, Vermontology does guided tours from Middlebury to Shelburne or can arrange custom tours.  vermontology.com

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports. Loves skiing, riding, cycling and anything that can keep her outdoors, 356 days a year.