Adventures on the East Coast: Waterbury, VT
Part two (of four) of Craig and Ed’s journey around the Northeast.
Part one is here.
by Craig Gonciarczyk
Hill Farmstead Brewery
Ratebeer’s number one brewery two of the last three years, Hill Farmstead should be on any beer geek’s bucket list. About an hour away from anything (usually), it is both the only place to get their beer in bottles and an experience – a pilgrimage if you will.
After turning off Route 16, it’s all residential houses and farmland, like you’re trespassing on other’s property. But, after two or so miles and driving up Hill Road, Hill Farmstead Brewery reveals itself as a beacon of light, calling all craft beer lovers to come and enjoy some of the best beer in the world.
I had last been in 2013 and much has changed in that time (see below). Thankfully, upon walking in, Kevin was there to walk both Ed and I through the ordering procedure and allow us to purchase our tasting flight. We got in line to get our first of five samples, then headed outside to the picnic tables and barrels to fill out our bottle and growler order cards. We filled them out, handed them to Kevin, and began walking the grounds with our tasters in hand.
The area immediately surrounding Hill Farmstead is open land, a bucolic glimpse of what America was like 200 years ago. Although there are no cows or other farm life, the rolling hills and mountains in the background make for a very pastoral setting. Contributing to this milieu is the fact that there is no internet service at all, unless you are in or around the brewery (even going to the field directly next to the brewery causes you to lose the connection), making it a very solitary experience.
Solution? Put the phone away and enjoy the beers and setting.
Our numbers eventually got called, we paid, then waited for our order to be filled. With what seemed like a long time (maybe 35 minutes), our names were called and we picked up our orders. Since we weren’t coming back the next day, we decided to go through the line again and get more growlers, which is totally legal. Don’t look at me that way.
By that time, the brewery was close to closing and the amount of people there was dwindling. We went through the whole process again, figured out how to get all the bottles and growlers to the car, and headed off.
The Waterbury Trinity (Prohibition Pig, The Reservoir, Blackback Pub)
This should be criminalized. Prohibition Pig, The Reservoir, and Blackback pub are all located on the same street in downtown Waterbury, are literally located across from each other, and are stocked with everything great that Vermont has to offer: Hill Farmstead, Alchemist, Lawson’s, Lost Nation, Rock Art, and 14th Star amongst others. All three are necessary and required visits, as they all have different menus and things on tap.
We agreed on barbeque, so we hit Prohibition Pig first. Their draughts were unlike the other two as Prohibition Pig is a brewpub, so about half their lines were dedicated to their own brews. When I went back in 2013, they had just released their first beer, a pale ale, so it was quite impressive to see a wide variety now available. Sample pours were a must as they had so many beers I wanted to try (3-4 Hill Farmstead, 2 Lawson’s, the Lost Nation gose plus some of their house brews). As far as atmosphere, Prohibition Pig reminds me very much of Bangers and Lace, with knowledgeable staff and an always solid draught and bottle menu. We finished eating there and headed over to The Reservoir.
The Reservoir is an interesting place. We entered the front door and were greeted by a hostess and some fine dining table place settings. We said we were going to the bar, she told us to pick any seats, and we headed back. The back portion of The Reservoir is the sports bar. If you’re feeling self conscious about walking through the front portion in your cargo shorts, there is a side entrance right to this area. There’s a pool table (complete with a Heady Topper light) and four to five televisions tuned to sporting events or ESPN. (The sporting event that happened to be on was the CONCACAF Gold Cup Mexico vs. Trinidad and Tobago and we caught it at the right time, near the end when 3 goals were scored in 5 or so minutes). The tap list and bottle list here was not as impressive as Pro Pig, so we decided to have one beer each: a Lawson’s Super Session #2 for me, and a Heady Topper for Ed. Slim, the bartender, was more than happy to get our pours and chat with us about why we were in Vermont and the soccer match that just ended, adding to the sports bar vibe. We finished our beers, thanked Slim, and headed off to Blackback.
Ah, the Blackback Pub. I had way too many beers there back in 2013 and had a blast talking with Lauren, the bartender, and some of the regular locals that stopped in. Would it be the same?
Of the three Waterbury bars, the Blackback interior changed the most. While it still remains a dive bar, the walls behind the bar were painted, all the kegs were put away, and they were selling shirts, making it a bit more classed up than two years ago. But one of its most endearing qualities – the tap list written in chalk on the wall – was still intact.
If food is not a factor and you had only one bar to go to, I’d make it the Blackback Pub. (Full disclosure: In 2013 they had Mad Taco working out of their kitchen. They have since moved out, and I am unsure whether food was available currently). While Slim and some of the patrons at Reservoir were great, Blackback takes it to another level. Lauren – thankfully still there – is everything a bartender should be: knowledgeable, funny, and engaging. Through her, you quickly start chatting and making friends with everyone near you sitting at the bar. In 2013 it was the group of regulars that I played Cards Against Humanity and watched Baggage with; this time it was two guys from Washington, D.C. in town for the brewers’ festival. If you want to hit all three bars, make sure to hit this one last, as the only way you’ll want to leave is when forced to at last call. Of the three, it probably had the “weakest” taps, but I’m content with great conversation while sipping on Hill Farmstead mainstays like Everett and Edward.
Known to beer geeks as Lawson’s unofficial bottle shop, the Warren Store (located about a half hour south of Waterbury) gets the most of whatever beers Sean Lawson decides to release every week. This being the week of the Vermont Brewer’s Festival, Mr. Lawson decided to make it a particularly covetous drop; the usual Sip of Sunshine and Super Session #2, along with Maple Tripple, their award-winning strong ale, released once a year brewed with 100% Vermont maple sap.
Back in 2013, I was there when Maple Wheat was released and, possibly due to the style, was the only one there at the time of the drop off. Getting there about 20 minutes before the stated 10:00 AM delivery time, we were greeted with a line to get in the store. I immediately began having PTSD flashbacks to Chicago craft beer releases and the chaos that accompanies it with the “entitled ones.”
Difference? Vermont, and the people that made the trip out there were chill and calm.
We got in line behind the two D.C. guys from the night before, chatted with them about the Heady Topper drop at the Hunger Mountain Co-op earlier that morning, then found out we were in the wrong line! We were actually in the “already paid for Sip of Sunshine” line, so we had to go inside and actually make our purchase. We were told the limits – one Maple Tripple, and a case of either Sip of Sunshine or Super Session #2 (you could mix them, but no more than a case). We made our purchase (Ed and I each got half a case of Sip and Session), headed to the paid Sip line, showed the receipt, and walked out with our beer. All told, from paying to leaving, 15 minutes max, most of it was spent in the paid Sip line. It was a thoroughly laid back and enjoyable experience.
While The Alchemist is known far and wide for their Heady Topper double IPA, they also make Focal Banger, an IPA. Available only in cans and not on draught, it was at all three Waterbury bars. I got one while I was at Prohibition Pig, and it was, as one could imagine, the IPA version of Heady Topper, bursting with dank hop aroma and bitterness. I would have loved to have brought some back. Unfortunately, outside of an Alchemist can sale, Focal Banger is for on-site consumption only, and trust me, I tried to get a can out. If you see Focal Banger available and like hoppy beers, it’s a must.
Remember when we went to Row 34 in Portsmouth to try and get Deciduous’ Foreward but got denied? I immediately went to Deciduous’ Facebook page to see where else it was at. We were on our way to Portland at the time, and none of the places was on our way, so I gave up on getting to try it.
Lo and behold, as the GPS shot out directions on how to get to Hill Farmstead from Portland, it had us going through Exeter, NH, which seemed familiar. Why? Because Front Row Pizzeria, located one mile off our route, had Deciduous on tap. Or at least I hoped.
We rolled up right when they opened, proceeded to the bar, asked, ordered, and enjoyed. I got a margherita pizza and Foreward, a dry-hopped American blonde ale and Deciduous’ first offering, and they paired together beautifully. It was a nice, light blonde, with a slight bitter bite to it. While not a hyped style (like an IPA or stout), it was well-crafted and I look foreward (get it?!?!) to trying more from them.
Expectations Not Met
The coziness of Hill Farmstead
I was fortunate enough to visit Hill Farmstead back in 2013. They were still the destination brewery they are today, but the sheer number of visitors has necessitated their expansion (and a very large one at that). That expansion has led to a quicker purchasing experience as well as Shaun Hill’s “shelf” saisons (Arthus, Anna, Florence, Clara) to be on their shelves perpetually and with no limits – both very good and positive things.
But, yes, you do lose things when expanding. While waiting in the growler line in 2013, for a substantially longer time than presently, you were almost forced to talk to those around you. I met so many interesting people around me, from people all around the US and other countries, to the poor lady behind me from the neighborhood who just wanted a 2L growler fill of Edward. People this time were more content to hang out in their own corners, not really interacting with others. While expedient, it lost a little of that charm.
The expansion has also allowed Shaun Hill to not be part of the experience anymore. Back in 2013 (I was there each day, Wednesday through Saturday), Hill was variously brewing, helping with the tasting flight, handing out tickets for special bottles (it was Genealogy of Morals and Phenomenology of Spirit), and filling growlers. On that slow Wednesday, he asked if anyone in line was on Twitter. I was even able to ask him about getting a sticker (no dice) and about his brother Darren Hill’s Leaning Maples. He was a friendly and personable individual which added greatly to my first Hill Farmstead experience.
This time, I simply wanted to give him a business card and a bottle I brought from Chicago. I was told appointment only, and handed both over to the very capable and charming staff. I get that if you’re brewing the last thing you want is to be bothered by customers (which, on that Wednesday in 2013, no one bothered him at all while he was brewing), but it just took a little bit of that transcendent experience I had in 2013 away.
The Elusive Double Citra
Tracking the Hill Farmstead website to see what would be available from growler fills, I was excited to see Double Citra still on. Until the week before, when it wasn’t.
I figured I’d be able to get a pour somewhere in Waterbury. Prohibition Pig and Blackback Pub didn’t have it on (although Blackback did have a very good HF collab porter). Reservoir, upon receiving their taplist, made a point to say that it had kicked. And then the guy sitting next to me at Reservoir, upon learning that it kicked, said the Parker Pie in West Glover (near Hill Farmstead) just put it on. By that point, we weren’t driving all the way back up there. I let out a “Goddamnit,” and we continued drinking, never getting to try Double Citra.
Getting stuck behind a truck on the way to Hill Farmstead
In order to get to Hill Farmstead, you need to take state highways which are usually two lane roads, one in each direction. The winding roads also make it perilous to pass vehicles. So getting stuck behind a Sysco truck on the way to Hill Farmstead sucks. Hard. Speed limit on most of the roads is 50, so the truck is doing about 40, and then a town hits, the speed limit drops, and you’re doing 15. And there’s really nothing you can do about it. Even in a Dodge Dart.
Allowing only one tasting flight at Hill Farmstead
Upon entering the brewery, Kevin was nice enough to inform us how to fill out the order forms and allow us to pay for a 5 pour tasting. I picked my first pour, the Susan IPA, filled out my card, turned it in, and went about getting my remaining 4 tasters, haphazardly. Upon finishing the tasting flight, I approached Kevin to get another tasting.
Nope. Only one tasting per person. License doesn’t allow it.
Although this did lead to an interesting discussion about the forthcoming taproom, I wish I would have known about the limit of one per person before I made my tasting choices. Figuring I was going to try 10 of the 11 available, I just chose randomly, instead of choosing ones I might not be getting in growlers. I would have passed on the Susan taster as I knew I would be getting a growler of it.
“Well, why didn’t you get a growler of everything?” you may ask. Because I had to ship it all home, and, even without all the extra HF growlers, it was at five boxes.
Ben and Jerry’s
The main Ben and Jerry’s factory is located right in Waterbury, so hitting it was a no-brainer. After going to Hill Farmstead and taking a break at the hotel, we arrived right before their 9 PM closing. After ordering a cone from the to-go window (I got the SNL-inspired Lazy Sunday that had neither Red Vines nor Dr.Pepper!), we ate as we walked around the grounds, most of which, rightfully so, was closed.
But then I had to use the bathroom. The main one by the gift shop was closed for cleaning, and any remaining ones were closed as well, leading some interesting walking around looking for an open one, and then the subsequent waddle down the various stairs to get to our car.
We couldn’t reach Prohibition Pig fast enough.
Next: Tree House Brewing Co.