2015: The Year in Beer | Bite Club
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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: The Year in Beer

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge A smattering of 2015's new beers - HANNAH PALMER EGAN
  • Hannah Palmer Egan
  • A smattering of 2015's new beers
Holy beer, Batman! 

If last year was a banner year for Vermont beer, 2015 easily outdid it. In terms of numbers, we didn't see quite as many new breweries open as last year (I'm counting eight 2015 openings — or imminent openings — to 2014's 11), but dozens of existing producers expanded their output in major ways. Which means there was more Vermont beer on the market than ever before — by a long shot.

So we saw more bottles and cans on retail shelves — breweries continued to shift from 22-ounce, "bomber" bottles to smaller bottles and cans — which made going to the gas station a whole lot more fun. And heretofore hard-to-find-in-stores beers, such as ones from Williston's Burlington Beer Company, Brattleboro's Hermit Thrush Brewery (both 2014 debuts), Burlington's Zero Gravity Craft Brewing and Stowe's von Trapp Brewing, became widely available.

Since Vermonters are champion beer drinkers, nothing stayed on shelves long. Emboldened by drinkers' seemingly insatiable thirst for the latest, greatest, most exciting samples, brewers continued to be creative. I'd argue that 2015 brought Vermont's most fascinating array of new beers yet. (More on that below, including my list of "bests.")

Bars and restaurants responded by hosting more beer-focused dinners and events than ever. It seems the public finally began to grasp the idea that beer could be as friendly to food as is wine.

Those meals were particularly rampant during the inaugural Vermont Beer Week in September. And it's noteworthy that Beer Week was organized not by any group of breweries or by the Vermont Brewers Association, but guerrilla-style by a couple of Chittenden County beer freaks. Appalled that the state didn't have a beer week, they decided to take matters into their own hands. 

On to the nitty-gritty...

Openings, Closings, Expansions and Such

First, the gains: In March, Frost Beer works opened in Hinesburg. Right away, owner Garin Frost hired star brewer Mike Lieser, who honed his chops in Colorado at Avery Brewing and Oskar Blues Brewery. Though some brew-heads eyed the brewery with skepticism at first, it didn't take long for Frost's mid-bodied, hop-forward pale ales and IPAs to win a loyal following. 

In May, 26-year-old Matt Grant opened Liftline Brewing in Sheldon after five years of planning and preparation. Sadly, few people outside of Franklin County would ever taste Liftline's brews. Grant didn't distribute beyond the brewery, and called it quits within six months.

By Memorial Day, J'Ville Brewery opened in southeastern Vermont, where brewer Janice Stuart works as the vineyard manager and winemaker at sister company Honora Winery. Stuart makes frequent trips to Winooski to work with brewer Brian Eckert at Four Quarters Brewing. Though the two brewers differ in interests and styles, Stuart's beers exude the same kind of try-anything attitude as Eckert's. J'Ville brews include everything from a cranberry-sage wheat beer to an imperial stout — and are often made with the brewery's own homegrown hops. Samples and growlers are available at the brewery and the beers are on draft at area bars and restaurants.

Also in May, longtime homebrewer Ben Linehan opened Brocklebank Craft Brewing on an old dairy farm in Tunbridge. Drinkers seeking a sip of Linehan's Euro-inspired ales can trek to the brewery for a weekend tasting, or find them on draft around Royalton and Randolph.

Elsewhere in Tunbridge, Upper Pass Beer Co. made its debut at the local World's Fair in late August. Partners Andrew Puchalik, Chris Perry and Ivan Tomek would wait to host their official launch party in November, when their beers were more consistently available. In December, they released a collaboration brew — Collusion Imperial Stout — with Brandon's Foley Brothers Brewing. 

In Addison County, longtime homebrewer Kevin Hanson sold his first batch of beer at Hogback Brewing in November — check bars and beverage outlets in Bristol and Vergennes for his malty brews. And earlier this month, Mark Babson (formerly of Magic Hat Brewing and New Hampshire's Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery)  fired the kettle at River Roost Brewery in White River Junction — look for his hoppy debut very, very soon. In Williston, Good Water Brewery has set its mark on opening — or at least brewing some beer — by year's end.

With the exception of River Roost and Good Water, whose respective 10- and 20-barrel brewing capacities will likely supply kegs to many bars and restaurants, most of the year's new breweries are tiny and serve hyperlocal markets.

So the real force behind 2015's uptick in beer production was that existing breweries — many of them new in the last few years — expanded in a big way. 

Stowe's von Trapp Brewing installed equipment that would balloon its annual output from 2,000 to about 60,000 barrels in late 2014. But six-packs of its flagship lagers wouldn't reach consumers until this past spring — which is also when the brewery tweaked its name from its former "Trapp Lager Brewery." Over the hill on Mountain Road, Crop Bistro & Brewery underwent an identity shift, becoming Idletyme Brewing Co. (named for Crop's popular DIPA) after Michael's on the Hill owners Michael and Laura Kloeti purchased the restaurant and brewery in May. Thankfully, brewmaster Will Gilson stayed on board, and the Kloetis encouraged him to get creative. His beers just keep getting better.

Meanwhile, Zero Gravity Craft Brewery moved from a teensy space at the back of American Flatbread Burlington Hearth to a shiny new Pine Street facility in May. The move increased its annual capacity to nearly 5,000 barrels from a fraction of that. Within weeks, thousands of cans of ZG's flagship Green State Lager hit the retail market. 

Burlington Beer installed new fermenters that doubled its capacity in September and began distributing cans of its sought-after ferments to dozens of retailers by mid-October. In Richmond, Stone Corral opened its expansive new tasting room over Labor Day weekend, with a corresponding surge in capacity. 

Over the summer, Queen City Brewing added some big fermenters, too, as well as a second brewer, and started releasing its balanced, old-world-style beers in bombers by fall.

A few blocks south on Flynn Avenue, Switchback tripled its production, anticipating a surge in demand when it started releasing six-packs of its flagship ale and seasonal beers in November. 

Also in November, Brattleboro's Hermit Thrush Brewery celebrated its first birthday with a capacity-doubling expansion — after treating drinkers to cans of its red-and-gold cans of tart, Belgian- and Trappist-style beers all summer long. 

Still other breweries — Burlington's Simple Roots Brewing, Winooski's Four Quarters Brewing, Brandon's Foley Brothers Brewing — bumped their capacity this year. Fiddlehead Brewing leased space in Shelburne's Vermont Artisan Village, located behind its current brewery, that will send more of its coveted brews out into the world in the near future. 

In Stowe, the Alchemist cleared permits, then began construction on a new brewery that will double its 9,000 barrels-per-year output.

And by next fall, Otter Creek Brewing will become Vermont's largest beer producer (for now), with a capacity of 200,000 barrels per year. That growth came with a sacrifice: Otter Creek's Middlebury facility brews beers under the Shed Brewery and Wolaver's Fine Organic Ales labels, but OCB dropped Wolaver's from the production schedule in early December. In addition to a presumed reshuffling of priorities and resources, OCB marketing director Jed Nelson credited the cut to "the rising cost of organic ingredients, [which] makes producing these beers unsustainable.” Sayonara, Alta Gracia Coffee Porter. 

In Northfield, Paine Mountain Brewing also grew its production — from 15 to 70 barrels per month — then ceased operations in October. Via Facebook, owner Kevin Pecor cited "uncontrollable circumstances and personal health matters," along with a lack of "necessary energy or time needed" to focus on growing and promoting the operation.

In addition, South Burlington's Infinity Brewing shuttered in August. Québec's Farnham Ale & Lager took over the space shortly thereafter, reopening the taproom in October.  

click to enlarge More new 2015 beers - HANNAH PALMER EGAN
  • Hannah Palmer Egan
  • More new 2015 beers
About the BEER: Trends and Tasting Notes

IPAs — and DIPAs — and variations on the IPA, such as IPLs (India pale lagers) continued to reign supreme (and get even better). 

This was especially true at Vermont's old-guard breweries. Though the state's long-established breweries paved the way for today's mushrooming beer scene, most struggle to find room in their production schedule (which are already busy meeting demand for the tried-and-true classics) for today's more flamboyant, free-wheeling styles. 

But Otter Creek introduced Backseat Berner (classic, hop-forward American IPA) and Over Easy (session IPA) early last spring. Rock Art made a splash with its Notch Hopper (née Nawtch Hoppa — the brewery tweaked the name after the beer's initial release) double IPA. Long Trail's grapefruity, super-dank Space Juice touched down this summer.

If larger breweries lack the kind of flexibility to brew whatever they want, whenever they feel like it, smaller ones took full advantage of that asset this year. That meant practically every trip to the beer cooler offered something new.

One trend: 2015 brought an uptick in ingredient-focused, experimental brews, small-batch, barrel-aged (or oak-fermented) brews, and single-hop brews, as brewers honed in on single-hop varieties. 

This is nothing new  — Otter Creek’s OG pale ale was single-hopped with Cascade hops, and Hill Farmstead has been making single-hopped beers for years. The last couple of years brought Otter Creek's Citra Mantra (an IPL made with Citra hops) and Rock Art Brewery's Simcoe IPA, brewed in collaboration with Woodstock Farmers Market, among others. 

But the hops just keep getting more and more resiny, pungent, fruity and fun — and hopyards are releasing new varieties in dizzying proliferation. To acquaint themselves with the new varieties, brewers are making beers with a single, isolated hop to examine how it behaves with various malts and yeasts and added ingredients. "This has [a component of] drinker education, but  it's also enlightening for the brewer," Drop-In Brewing's brewmaster Steve Parkes told Seven Days early last fall.

Parkes said his brewery's new single-hop pale ale series came about after his brewers couldn't disentangle the flavors in its new Supernova IPA. "We brewed Supernova [IPA] with a mix of Citra, Simcoe and Galaxy hops. We tasted it and thought Hmm, that tastes a lot like Heady Topper. But which [hop] is doing it?" Drop-In's four-deep series of single-hop pale ales — each isolating the cones to quantify their unique characteristics — followed. 

Around the same time, Long Trail released the first in its SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) series — a fruity pilsner soaked through with Galaxy hops, while Hermit Thrush launched a series of single-hopped beers exploring the qualities of Magnum, Rakau (aka AlphAroma) and Teamaker hops from nearby Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass. And while hoppy sour beers might not seem out of place among the pumpkin-spiced bottles typical in fall, this year offered a slight reprieve from pie-flavored beers

click to enlarge An autumnal beer tasting - HANNAH PALMER EGAN
  • Hannah Palmer Egan
  • An autumnal beer tasting
Where Were You Drinking Last Night?

This was not a revolutionary year when it came to where and how we drink — beer bars, often with two or three dozen beers on draft, continued emerge. In Richmond, Hatchet Tap & Table opened in July; a month later, Doc Ponds welcomed its first guests in Stowe. And pretty much every new restaurant catering to a young, hip, food-focused crowd opened with a fantastic beer list.

We saw a slight resurgence of the brewpub with the addition of Prohibition Pig's on-site brewery in December 2014, and industry veteran Paul Kowalski opened the Five Corners Pub & Brewhouse with Tad Dedrick in Plymouth last weekend. This summer, Burlington's Three Needs began contracting with Queen City Brewery to bring back its house suds. 

In a slightly different vein, brewery tasting rooms won approval of first-class liquor licenses (enabling them to sell full pints of beer whenever they're open). Rather than dive into full-on food service, these rooms serve snacks such as pretzels, hot dogs and cheese boards, or outsource eats from local bakeries, restaurants or mobile vendors. 

The result? While not quite pubs, many breweries became places where folks could spend time together over pints — rather than just sample beers, grab a growler, and head on their way.

Burlington presented the most concentrated dose of this along the Pine Street corridor — dubbed “Pint Street” by the local beer community — as Switchback, Queen City and Zero Gravity all received first-class licenses last summer. Stone Corral is seeking similar privileges in Richmond.

My Picks for the Best New* Beers of 2015
  • Best sour beer: The Wind (Gose dry-hopped with Citra), Lost Nation Brewing
  • Best mid-bodied ale: Just Pale Ale, Frost Beer Works 
  • Best pale ale: Focal Banger, the Alchemist 
  • Best Imperial IPA: Society & Solitude #5, Hill Farmstead Brewery
  • Best hop-specific IPA: Barbe Rouge, Burlington Beer Company
  • Best mid-bodied lager: Vienna, von Trapp Brewing
  • Best dark lager: Munich Dunkel, Queen City Brewery
  • Best porter: The Sirens' Song (chocolate-sea salt Baltic porter), Four Quarters Brewing Company
  • Best stout: Folk Metal, Burlington Beer Company
  • Best barley wine: Double or Nothing, Lawson's Finest Liquids and Otter Creek Brewing
  • Best Brett beer: Brett's Last Straw, Fiddlehead Brewing Company
  • Best fruity beer: Blood Orange Imperial IPA, Bent Hill Brewery
  • Best flagship now in cans: Green State Lager, Zero Gravity Craft Brewery
  • Best limited release from a big brewery: TIE! Space Juice, Long Trail Brewing Company; Notch Hopper, Rock Art Brewery

    *Some of these were released prior to this year but became readily available in 2015. 
Last year, I named Long Trail's Limbo IPA my Beer of the Year. This year, however, I just can't winnow my list down to a single beer. So I'm going with a Brewery of the Year instead.

And that's Burlington Beer Company.

We can get its brews in cans now all over the place, and that's amazing. But the real reason is that every beer I drank from Joe Lemnah's Williston brewery was fantastic, from the silky-smooth, chocolatey Barista coffee porter to the Light in the Window rye IPA to the Chasing Rabbits wheat pale ale, as well as the two listed above.

Cheers for a suds-soaked 2016!

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Hannah Palmer Egan

Hannah Palmer Egan

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Hannah Palmer Egan is a food and drink writer at Seven Days.

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