Why Burlington Is the Best Beer City in the USA


[Illustration: Zac Overman]

It's one of Burlington's first 65-degree spring days, and I'm sitting on the patio of the newly opened Foam Brewers, soaking in the sunshine after a leisurely bike ride along the waterfront. I still can't believe that I get to travel to a brewery this way: not just by bike but along the Burlington Bike Path, a scenic route that winds along Lake Champlain and provides stunning views of the expansive lake and the Adirondacks beyond.

But it's not the bike path I'm excited about today—or even the weather. It's the beer I'm holding in my hand: an orange-hued, 5% ABV pale ale with a delicate floral scent and a vibrant, citrusy hop profile. It's the latest in a steady stream of beers I've tried over the past six months that's convinced me I've picked a damn fine place to call home.

That I've been so wooed by Burlington's beer scene is no small feat: My standards were high, and my attitude admittedly snobbish, when I arrived here last September. Before then, I'd spent 13 years honing my palate in San Diego, taking for granted some of the country's best beers and beer bars, and cultivating an obsession for a cluster of aromatic IPAs that set the bar for what I consider a good beer especially high.

Yes, I know Vermont has a great reputation for beer. But, coming from San Diego, I'd always assumed that that reputation just had regional merit; that, compared to New York and Boston and pretty much the whole Eastern Seaboard, Vermont was where the best beer was being made. But compared to the land of 100 breweries and the home of the West Coast IPA? I wasn't so sure.

Turns out Vermont gets it right—very right. It didn't take me long to realize that not only is this town turning out some exceptional beers, it offers a downright delightful setting to enjoy them in. If you're looking for an adventurous few days involving brewery visits by bike, beer-filled excursions into the mountains, and lakeside sunsets accompanied by fresh, just-released beers, you've found your new beer heaven.

Those IPAs I'd come to love in San Diego? There are some amazing versions being made here. Some of the best come from the breweries you'd expect: Hill Farmstead in the Northeast Kingdom (considered by RateBeer to be the top brewer in the world), The Alchemist in Waterbury (whose flagship double IPA, Heady Topper, has amassed a bit of a cult status after consistently being ranked among the top beers on Beer Advocate), and Foley Brothers in Brandon (relative newcomers who have been turning heads with their small-batch IPAs since debuting in 2012). While they're spread out across the state, they're all turning out similarly delicious beers: nuanced IPAs that play with delicate, floral hops; fruit-forward flavor; and malt profiles that channel liquid sunshine (Lawson's Finest got the name right with its flagship, Sip of Sunshine IPA). And, just for the record, I'm not talking about Heady Topper when I mention The Alchemist—it's Heady's lesser-known younger sister, Focal Banger, that's worth the hype: lower in alcohol, more tropical and aromatic thanks to a perfect Citra/Mosaic hop profile, far more subtle and session-able than its bolder counterpart. (It's currently distributed only to bars, but that will change this summer, when The Alchemist's second outpost—which, unlike the current space, will be open to the public—opens in Stowe, about 45 minutes from Burlington.)

Go on a brewery tour in any other city and you'll spend a lot of time in industrial parks and cavernous warehouses. Set out from Burlington for a day of beer tourism and you'll find yourself driving down scenic two-lane roads, through lush forests, over mountain passes, or past acres of picturesque farmland. Most breweries here are conveniently close to excellent spots for summer hiking, winter skiing, fall leaf-peeping, or year-round Cabot Cheese sampling. Lest the journey start to seem more enticing than the destination, don't forget why you're treating yourself to Vermont's billboard-free scenery in the first place: the chance to try outstanding small-batch beers that are nearly impossible to come by outside Vermont.

But you don't need to leave Burlington to sample the best of Vermont's remote breweries—and, as a local, that's one of my favorite things about this city. The top Vermont breweries are featured regularly on taps around town, and a growing number of just-as-impressive beers are coming out of newer breweries in Burlington proper, or just beyond.

Take the aforementioned Foam Brewers, started by three brewers with Magic Hat and Switchback pedigrees. Their lakeside brewery has been open only a month, and they're already turning heads with remarkably subtle, floral IPAs and saisons—on par, I'd say, with some of Vermont's better-known breweries. Across town, the barely two-year-old Burlington Beer Company in Williston has been steadily releasing an impressive series of beers that includes a range of incredibly juicy IPAs in tallboy cans. To the south, Shelburne's Fiddlehead Brewing Company, which opened in 2011, distributes its delicious, citrusy flagship, Fiddlehead IPA, on tap only, but it's a beer so ubiquitous around town—and so widely embraced by local beer lovers—that I'd dare say it's the quintessential beer of Burlington.

And, while Vermont is a must-visit for IPA lovers, its sour game is just as strong. The newest player is House of Fermentology, a blending and barrel-aging facility opened by one of Foam's founders and brewers, Todd Haire, along with longtime craft beer champion and former state legislator Bill Mares. The duo just released their first beer, Orange Dot—a golden sour aged with oranges and local wild honey—and plan to release several other sours over the course of the summer, which I'll definitely be keeping an eye on.

If you want to do Burlington without a car, the Pine Street corridor—an up-and-coming area in the city's South End that's home to five breweries and a cider maker—is the perfect location for a brewery tour by foot or by bike. Start farthest out at Switchback, hit up the tucked-away Queen City Brewery, snag a patio seat and some bottomless popcorn at Zero Gravity, and finish on the deck of Citizen Cider (they have a rotating selection of beer on tap, too!). Continue into town to catch the sunset at Foam Brewers, or take a breather and stroll around Waterfront Park. After the sun goes down, it's on to dinner: Hit up Manhattan Pizza & Pub for no-nonsense pub food (check out their constant selection of Hill Farmstead, or ask for a Focal Banger), or grab a seat in the outdoor beer garden at The Farmhouse Tap & Grill for an array of burgers and a diverse, well-curated tap list.

Of course, if you're making a beer pilgrimage to Vermont, I hardly expect you to stay in Burlington proper. A Vermont craft beer experience isn't truly complete without a stop in at least one of the state's best beer bars in neighboring towns, all of which are well worth going out of your way for: Mule Bar in Winooski; The Reservoir, Prohibition Pig, and Blackback Pub in Waterbury; and Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier. Or you can do what I do and intentionally plan your skiing, hiking, and swimming hole adventures so that one of these spots is on your way home.

Okay, so I haven't actually pulled off a swimming hole adventure yet this season—the water's way too cold, and I'm a bit of a cold-water wimp. But when I do, come August, you can be sure I'll be rewarding my shivering self with a damn tasty beer. And that's my very favorite part of this town: Beer-drinking here isn't an isolated activity, it's a celebrated part of the whole Vermont experience. Burlington's breweries and beer bars are outstanding in their own right, but they're also nestled between mountains and a lake that provide a gamut of activities well designed to cultivate a thirst for beer at the end of the day. Sure, you can drink a beer anywhere. But to drink a Vermont beer at sunset after spending the day squeezing the absolute most out of an exquisite environment? That's special.