Two summers ago, on assignment for the Globe Magazine, I traveled to Waterbury, Vt., to capture the mood of what my editor would headline “The best beer town in New England.” At that point I was a wide-eyed IPA innocent, sampling for the first time The Alchemist’s famed Heady Topper and beers from nearby Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s Finest Liquids. I longed to take the trip again, and I was finally able to get back to Waterbury and Burlington with a friend this month. What we found was a beer scene still every bit as vibrant, but also evolving.
The biggest change involves Heady Topper, which since my first trip has risen to No. 1 on Beer Advocate’s top-250 list, generating a level of interest usually reserved for super-rare bourbons and Kardashians. Citing traffic concerns and complaints from neighbors, The Alchemist closed retail operations at its Waterbury cannery last November.
“It’s definitely a lot quieter around here,” Joel Hartman, the brewery’s lead canning line operator, said as he walked us through a space that The Alchemist uses every inch of. With the canning line humming, employees squeezed pallets of empties between fermentation tanks, avoiding hoses and other potential pitfalls. The Alchemist produces 9,000 barrels of Heady Topper annually. A new brewery, to be built in nearby Stowe, will double that capacity while providing a larger retail operation, outdoor space, and room to grow hops and cherries. The Alchemist, which has begun more frequent releases of other IPAs like Focal Banger and The Crusher, hopes to open the brewery sometime next year.
For now, Heady Topper is sold at retail locations within 30 miles or so of Waterbury. Following the schedule on the brewery’s website (www.alchemistbeer.com/buy), my friend and I each picked up a case on a Monday at Route 7 Liquor (2659 Shelburne Road, Shelburne). We also stopped at Fiddlehead Brewing (6305 Shelburne Road, Shelburne), Citizen Cider (316 Pine St., Burlington), and Magic Hat (5 Bartlett Bay Road, South Burlington). Fiddlehead’s Hodad Porter, brewed with coconut, and Citizen’s Brose, an off-dry cider made with blueberries, are standouts.
Waterbury’s bar scene is also changing. The wonderfully dive-y Blackback Pub (if you can call a bar that serves world-class beer a dive) is under new ownership, though a fresh coat of paint doesn’t take away the cozy feel. It’s impossible to sit at the bar at the Blackback (1 Stowe St., Waterbury) without talking to your neighbor.
Across the street, owner Chad Rich of the Prohibition Pig (23 South Main St., Waterbury) has started brewing his own beer. On the day we visited, a crisp, aromatic house pale ale was on tap, and we drank several over the din of jackhammers. The bar is expanding into the building behind it, which will house a brewery, tasting room, and outdoor drinking space. The bar, my favorite in Vermont and maybe anywhere, was bustling on a Monday afternoon and a Tuesday night. The pulled pork is exceptional.
The best beer I had during the trip was Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s Finest Liquids. At 8 percent alcohol by volume, this IPA bursts with grapefruit without being too bitter. We found this beer on tap all over town, and we were lucky enough to score another Lawson’s standout, Double Sunshine IPA, at the Hunger Mountain Coop (623 Stone Cutters Way, Montpelier).
One thing that hasn’t changed are the lines at Hill Farmstead (403 Hill Road, Greensboro Bend), about 90 minutes north of Waterbury. The brewery opens at noon, but about two dozen beer pilgrims were lined up outside an hour early, toting growlers to fill with dry-hopped masterpieces like Abner and Society & Solitude #4. Edward, a pale ale, just might be my favorite beer in the world. Bring a cooler. Most of the beers you purchase come cold and need to stay that way.
South Boston’s Harpoon Brewery will become an employee-owned company, effective Aug. 1. The existing shareholder group transferred 48 percent of Harpoon’s shares to an employee stock ownership plan. Cofounder Rich Doyle will step down as CEO but will maintain part-time status and focus on “key marketing and sales initiatives as well as new business development,” according to a press release. Fellow cofounder Dan Kenary assumes the role of CEO. “This is a big transition for the company and for me, but it feels like the right thing at the right time,” Doyle says.
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.