Guest contributor Patrick Archambault makes us Midwesterners feel like we missed out as he recounts his day drinking great New England beer at the Hop Jam 2015 festival.
I feel damn spoiled—New England is a great place to live for craft beer lovers. Not only are world-class breweries all over this area, craft beer fests are becoming more common. In fact, Hop Jam’s stellar brewery list wooed me into participating. Specifically, the breweries that caught my eyes were Hill Farmstead, Alchemist, Treehouse, Trillium, and Lawson’s Finest.
Hop Jam was located at the base of the Bolton Valley Resort. Musicians played on the large stage at the bottom of the ski mountain, facing uphill. Audience viewing was inclined on the ski slope itself, which made sitting on the steep hill challenging. Even though most of the previous night’s rain dried, parts of the hill were still slippery. Naturally this caused hilarious wipeouts. The sad part was when I saw twelve ounces of Lawson’s Mosaic feed the grass.
Rather than recapping all six hours as a narrative, I simply pulled out a few highlights about the beer because that is what I was there for.
My first fill was Focal Banger from the Alchemist. I was very curious to try this because it appears to be in Heady Topper’s shadow and I wanted to know how it compared. The line had roughly twenty people ahead of me and the beertenders served straight from cans. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, I had my pour.
But John Kimmich was not pouring. I did not notice any brewers pouring, as evidenced by the fact that they were all socializing and participating in the fest as if they were guests, distinguished only by a nametag that read “brewer.” Plus, the brewers wore apparel representing their insignia, which made it clear who was who. It reminded me of those days as a runner on the track and field team, with all the teams separated by their school colors and mascot. Rumor has it that the night before Hop Jam was when the real fun occurred, when all the brewers rented out the entire ski resort and shared the fruits of their labor. Confirming this rumor was a member of the media who flashed me a photo that detailed tons of empty growlers, cans, and bottles from the finest breweries, as if they were trophies.
On to the beer. An inspection of the Focal Banger revealed golden color, floating hop particles, and a white, one-finger layer of head. The aroma swept me away with notes of mango, pineapple, orange, and a hint of elderflower. Yet, there was an herbaceous character that brought me to fields of lavender and lemongrass. Based on its appearance and aroma, my expectations on the palate were upheld: Focal Banger is less refined than Heady Topper, but very similar. Although I did not conduct a side-by-side comparison, I have tasted enough Heady to know that Focal Banger is not at the same level. But it is still outstanding.
Noticing that Tree House’s Alter Ego tapped in a few lines over, I quickly queued myself in. After receiving my opaque, deep orange colored pour, I understood why it is named Alter Ego. This craft beer is undoubtedly Julius’s evil twin. The aroma was dominated by orange, lime, and lemon notes with juicy papaya in the background. The taste was very similar to the aroma, and I was impressed by the pillowy mouthfeel. Although not my favorite style of IPA, I will not let my personal bias trump my objectivity. One can appreciate a skillful musician without having an ear for the musician’s particular technique. I will keep my ears open for this particular style, however.
Next , I noticed that Trillium’s Headroom was tapped. Even though it was totally worth the wait, I decided to sit it out because the line was immense and presumably would take over forty minutes. The line went all the way back to the dude with the white visor in the lower left.
Luckily, all was not lost. Off to the side and away from the lines, the folks from Trillium were coincidentally directly next to me. We started talking about their distribution and new brewery (unfortunately specifics were off the record). However, I noticed that Matt, a sales rep for Trillium, held a glass glowing of gold. Upon inquiry, I learned it was indeed Headroom. After mentioning my unlikely success in sipping this wonderment, Matt offered me a taste.
I was frankly blown away, even from what little I tasted. This modestly complex craft beer was packed predominantly with pine notes and tropical fruit not far behind. Started off grassy and then the grapefruit, mango notes kick in for the aftertaste. Brings me to an alpine forest rich in aroma of sticky pine trees. I may be partial because I live in Boston, but this beer took it home for me.
Aside from getting a delicious yet foamy, last pour of Bissell Brothers’ Substance, that concludes the highlights. After all, we had a long drive back to our Vermont cabin and ran a 5K at 5:00AM that morning.
With great New England craft beer fests abound, it is difficult to rationally complain about my roots while maintaining any credibility. Although winters can be painful, having high quality craft beer available all year makes even the worst nor’easters bearable. Moreover, New England craft beer provides a uniqueness and sense of belonging that interestingly is not generally eroded by homogenization. The best part about fests like Hop Jam is that they provide a platform for craft brewers to showcase their uniqueness while still preserving that sense of belonging bound by geographic limitations.
It is great to have this quality available in my backyard. That’s why I am damn spoiled to be a New Englander.