We usually keep things ultra-local in this space, but we're making an exception this week (and taking a lot of space). For more than two decades, the Bottles and Cans desk has headed to New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend. This year, we decided to save up for a few weeks and tote the change jars to Coinstar so we could cross a few items off the Beer Barrel List (like a bucket list, but tastier) by taking the longcut through Vermont (and a side trip to Maine). It added 215 miles to the journey, but when you're crossing items off your Beer Barrel List, an extra 215 miles is a (relatively) small distance (the soundtrack was a rare version of "99,999 Bottles of Beer On the Wall").
Our first stop was a slight detour to JULIO'S in Westborough, MA, a renowned beer superstore that lives up to its hype: the selection is extensive and they get all the limited releases (Smuttynose even makes an exclusive imperial red rye ale for them). The most impressive aspect gleaned during our brief stop: every item has prices listed for singles (mix-a-sixes get a 15% discount), four/six-packs, and cases — simple and superb customer service. (Oh, we bought some Tröegs and Weyerbacher and a few of Jack's Abby luscious lagers, and wanted to get more, but we were saving our pennies for . . .)
Our next destination: Warren, VT, to acquire a few bottles of LAWSON'S FINEST LIQUIDS (their motto: "Straight From the Green Mountains To Your Head!"). Sean Lawson concocts wicked small batches of extraordinary beer in the tiny town (pop. 1705).
Fun fact tangent: According to the Brewers Association Vermont has the most breweries per capita in the US: 24 breweries + 625,751 people = 1 brewery for every 26,073 VTers (though 29 beermakers are listed at Beer Advocate). The state's large breweries (Long Trail, Magic Hat, Otter Creek) are widely distributed, but the best beermakers's product can only be found in their own backyard.
Back to Lawson's: his beer is sold in only three stores and a dozen restaurants and pubs. And he likes to work his magic in solitude; there are no tours or retail sales at the brewery. We stopped at the Warren Store, a spot on Main St that is the very definition of quaint. After a few tense moments scanning the wine shelves (you just can't ask for help when you're in the midst of a Must Experience), we found the old school cooler (wooden doors, big silver handles) in the next room, with shelves of Lawson's and the beer that had inspired our longcut in the first place (we'll get to that one). There were just two varieties ($9) available: the Triple Play IPA (7% ABV, made with Citra, Simcoe, and Centennial hops) and Maple Nipple, laced with local syrup. The latter is sweet and formidable, kicking in around 9% ABV, but the Triple Play is a top-shelf IPA, bursting with citrus and pine and grapefruit and anchored by caramel malt. A true flavor bomb!
Next: 19 miles and 32 minutes up VT-100 (which cleaves through rural splendor) to Waterbury, for the holy grail of the Must-Experience Beer List: the acquisition of THE ALCHEMIST's legendary HEADY TOPPER. If you don't know the story, here's the Reader's Digest version: John and Jennifer Kimmich opened the Alchemist Pub and Brewery on Main Street in 2003; the beer-making was done in the basement (almost 50 different beers were spawned there over the years), and that space was wiped out when Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc in August 2011. They had opened their cannery a few days before the waters rose, and that's where they "are currently focused on brewing one beer perfectly: Heady Topper, our flagship Double IPA," as they state on their website. The beer (8% ABV) has a perfect 100 score on Beer Advocate and is widely regarded as one of the world's best double/imperial IPAs; it's No. 2 on BA's list (Russian River's Pliny the Elder and Younger, Lawson's Double Sunshine, and Kern River's Citra DIPA are the others in the Top 5). And demand always outstrips supply; "sorry, the Heady is sold out" notices are posted twice on a week on their Facebook page.
We had our first taste in the Alchemist's sampling room, gawked at the 15 barrels brewing new batches of the liquid gold, and bought a case of the 16-ounce cans (contrary to craft custom, they suggest that you drink from the silver container). The beer is a marvelous experience: wonderfully aromatic, powerfully hopped, yet miraculously smooth. And it couldn't have been much fresher, since it was canned the day before we bought it. We are savoring each and every one, and are torn between consuming all of it while it's still only a few weeks old or doling it out till 2013 (the other day we worked a can for 3-1/2 hours — which is the running length of the Beervana fest).