My last full day in Burlington, Vermont starts with a hearty breakfast of farm fresh eggs and some great conversation with my Airbnb host. I have a full itinerary for today and it consists of brewery stops, a beer trade, and checking in to the Hotel Vermont.
My first stop is a little coffee shop to do a bit of writing. Of course, on the main drag of Burlington, I am reminded of my visit to Boulder, CO a few years back. The main drag in Burlington is a pedestrian/biker road called Church St. There are many street performers, musicians, and panhandlers. There is a lot happening on Church St. even at 9:30 on a Monday. After some great coffee and some much needed writing time, I need to head to Switchback Brewing Company.
Switchback Brewing Company
Switchback Brewing Company looks like it will double as a place to wait out the impending storm in addition to being my first brewery visit of the day. Up ahead in the sky, the dark clouds gently rumble. The air is a bit thicker and the slight breeze tells me I better get inside and commit myself to a tasting flight or two if I want to stay dry.
The taproom is fairly large and from the looks of things, there are other people here who are looking to avoid the imminent deluge. I grab a seat at the corner of the bar that stretches almost the length of the taproom. On the other end of the space, there is merchandise and bottles for sale. The founder, Bill Cherry, has been brewing balanced and flavorful craft beers since 2002.
Switchback has four beers today and so that makes my flight choice easy. After just a few sips, I can see why so many people sing the praises of this brewery. Every beer is balanced and approachable. The taproom workers are well-versed in talking and describing the beers. Between the craft beers and people serving them, the passion for brewing is well-articulated here.
Unapologetically, Switchback does not adhere to style guidelines, but rather they brew to specific flavor profiles. To some, this method of brewing is blasphemous because it makes a beer difficult to categorize. However, to me, I believe that this idea plays very well to people who want to be adventurous and seek out a specific flavor in a beer.
The flagship beer is the Switchback Ale, the best-selling beer on draft in Burlington since 2006. The Switchback Ale is a perfect example of how balance should taste in a beer. There is a bit of sweetness from the malt, some earthiness from the hops, and some fruity esters from the yeast. All these elements contribute to a fantastic craft beer experience.
Of their other selections, the Bohemi L.E.M. Pils is an artful and unique take on a Pilsner. This lager is run through a piece of equipment that Switchback designed called the Lunar Excursion Model. This device infuses an extra burst of hop flavor and aroma into the beer. This beer bursts with hops as a result of the multiple additions, once right after wort boil, once in the whirlpool and then 2 dry hoppings. The hoppiness in this beer is earthy and balances well with the malt to create a wonderful crispness in the mouthfeel.
Their EPA reminds me a lot of Summit’s EPA. The rich and earthy balance in the beer is a treat for my palate. This beer is so smooth and drinkable. The malt is bready and chewy and stands out brilliantly in this beer. It floors me how balanced these beers are. They embody everything I like about the flavors and sensations without limiting themselves by the style guidelines.
As I am sipping away, the sky opens and it is now pouring. I decide that I am not going anywhere for a while and order a pint and a hot dog for $5. This is not your average Oscar Mayer weiner, it has a great texture and snap to it. They also have a nice array of condiments for it, including a mustard that has beer in it! Next to me, Jeff and Diane, a nice couple from Connecticut, are enjoying some beer themselves. We start chatting and they absolutely love coming up to Burlington to ski and drink craft beer. They say that Switchback is always their go-to, but they are quick to give other recommendations.
I am thankful to have such nice people to chat with. Traveling alone can be isolating sometimes. However, at a taproom, you can always find friendly people who know the local craft beer scene. Jeff and Diane are well-versed in the East Coast beer scene and I am happy to glean some more knowledge about the culture from them. It is getting time for me to go and I have to buy a shirt and a tin sign before I do. I enjoyed my time at Switchback, but it is time for me to go and check in to my only hotel stay of the trip, the Hotel Vermont.
Hotel Vermont’s Beer Concierge™
The Hotel Vermont is a block away from Lake Champlain, and within walking distance to Church St. They also employ a Beer Concierge™ by the name of Matt Canning who caters specifically to people who travel for craft beer. I discovered this when I listened to an episode of Good Beer Hunting, a podcast about craft beer. After a bit of Twitter stalking, I reached out to Matt to see if he will sit down with me to chat about what he does. Amazingly, he got back to me and was more than happy to do so. To my surprise, not only did he sit down to chat with me, but he invited me to join a curated beer tasting with another couple from Philadelphia.
How does one become a Beer Concierge™? Matt wears many hats, all of which depend on an encyclopedic knowledge of what is happening in the local craft beer scene. He grew up in Burlington and his dad had a hand in establishing the Vermont Brewer’s Festival with Greg Noonan, founder of the Vermont Pub & Brewery. Matt lived in Boulder and Northern California where he educated himself about the hospitality industry. In May of 2013, The Hotel Vermont opens and they know that people travel to Burlington for craft beer. Matt’s background in hospitality and craft beer serve him well in his role. The Hotel Vermont is independently owned which gives them leeway to pioneer this unique type of amenity.
What does a Beer Concierge™ do? Many people travel to Burlington because they are looking to visit Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist. A lot of what Matt does is interact with people via email or social media to help them get the most out of their craft beer travels. Matt drives tourists around to breweries as part of the Beer Concierge™ package. Every Wednesday he also curates beer and leads tastings. The people who take advantage of the Beer Concierge™ are mostly couples and beer geeks. Most of the people Matt meets are from the Northeast. However, they come from as far away as Mississippi, Texas, California, and now, Minnesota.
Matt works closely with bars and breweries to ensure that travelers can find the best beers on tap in the city. Matt is a certified Beer Server with BJCP sensory training. He says that the most enjoyable thing about being a Beer Concierge™ is doing a job where he gets to drink beer, traveling around Vermont with other craft beer enthusiasts, and the relationships he makes with people.
I can attest to his knowledge about beer and his demeanor is approachable and easy to talk to. This really comes through as we settle in for the tasting in a private room looking out at Lake Champlain. Kathy and Bill, a couple from Philadelphia are the only other craft beer travelers in the tasting. They are extremely nice and fun to talk to. They are passionate about craft beer travel just like me and we have lots in common.
The four beers Matt has for us are the Four Quarters Fleur de Lis(Barrel Aged Saison), Hill Farmstead Clara(Grissette), Hill Farmstead Arthur(Saison), and Foley Brothers Pieces of Eight(American Double IPA). We each get a tasting sheet with some beer specifications so we can take notes. Matt pours us all our first beer, and we are off to the races. Matt involves everyone in the conversation about beer. He also has answers for all of our questions, making the experience is a lot of fun.
I imagine that there will be more jobs in the hospitality and travel industry that cater to craft beer enthusiasts. In destinations like Burlington, it’s paramount to have dedicated people knowledgeable craft beer culture. However, I can see this type of thing thriving in other craft beer markets as well. Afterall, there is no vacation quite like a beercation. Prost!
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