Vermont has the second-most breweries per capita in the country, which is impressive. Even more so is the fact that Long Trail Brewing Co.’s flagship, the altbier Long Trail Ale, has been the state’s best-selling craft beer for more than two decades.
Recently, the 25-year-old Bridgewater Corners, Vt., brewery has faced the same problem plaguing other legacy craft breweries — they’re not perceived as hip anymore. In 2014, Long Trail put out 85,000 barrels of beer. That level of production might make Long Trail too big to fail. In today’s competitive landscape, a hardcore set of drinkers impatiently looking for the next great small-batch brew might view it as too big to succeed.
In 2012, Long Trail gutted and renovated a farmhouse on its property, adjacent to the brewery. The place has become a playground for the company’s brewers, with a single-barrel brewing system designed for experimentation. “There is little risk in pushing the limits,” says marketing director Jed Nelson. “If a batch is not exactly what we anticipated, no worries.” The beer goes to pub customers to gauge their reactions.
The innovative space has spawned a series of farmhouse ales, with a label lifted from an
iPhone picture of the actual structure. Long Trail recently sent me one of the Farm House Ales series beers, the Belgian Pale Ale (normally available only in Vermont).
I was wondering whether the established brewery could make an innovative small-batch beer. Is Long Trail serious about attracting the same folks who make pilgrimages to the state for rarities from Hill Farmstead, Zero Gravity, and other breweries?
My bottle of Belgian Pale Ale pours a hazy orange into the glass. A deep whiff reveals lemon, white pepper, and hay. While it doesn’t smell like the inside of a farmhouse, it does smell like the field next to one.
Thick lacing sticks to the glass as I drink. Despite the lemon in the aroma, the beer isn’t fruity or sweet. If you’re expecting something akin to a Blue Moon or Samuel Adams Summer Ale, you’ll be disappointed. It also doesn’t taste much like a pale ale, though there is a steady, bitter hop presence. I’m reminded more of a saison, the spice slipping down the back of my throat.
“Our intention was to keep this one dry and clean, without an over-the-top Belgian flavor,” says brewmaster Dave Hartmann.
That restraint is a good thing. Long Trail has always been good at attracting customers. It’s also getting pretty good at keeping them.
Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.