Beer and Foaming in Vermont

Posted on Feb. 5, 2018, 4 p.m.

Beer and Foaming in Vermont: A Fantastical Odyssey into the Heart of Hop-Crazed America

1. Far from Home, Close to the Sun.

We were somewhere outside Stowe on the edge of the Lamoille Valley when the beer began to take hold. I remember saying something like, ‘I feel lightheaded; there's no way I can drive.’ Our ‘67 Ford Econoline sat gleaming in the tap room parking lot, looking hungry to get back on the road. It would remain there until late the next morning. I took another pull from the glass on the bar. ‘I’m serious. I’m right on the edge, man. We're gonna need a room.’

Vermont’s Green Mountains were becoming a swooping exaggeration of our Ozarks. Rays of sun pierced the clouds like laser beams; like the great finger of God herself sparking life into the earth. How’d we get ourselves into this state? What fever coaxed us from our old stomping grounds; the Midwest’s tectonic anomaly? Under what possession had we been driven to traverse the one thousand three hundred fifty four miles between home and here? We were in the grip of a craze, something under our skin, driving us to extremes that the docile, swill-sipping rabble, defeated by generations of corporate conditioning couldn’t comprehend. We were down a rabbit hole. We weren’t sure we’d find our way back out.

2. Wisdom Dispensed and Acquired across a Length of Bar

It began weeks before, safely ensconced in the hinterlands of our nation, posted up at a bar with the solid working people of the heartland. Calloused hands, favorite caps with frayed bills, eyes lined by years of good gut-busting laughter. When talk came around to beer, scars were revealed. IPAs were given the side-eye. Tales of tongues scoured by aggressive hop bombs trucked in from California. Alpha acid bitterness had left these beer drinkers bitter. They’d long accepted that beer was more than what the juggernaut of corporate brewing had been selling them since they cadged their first can out of that beat up Frigidaire in Granddad’s shop. But too many of them had a longing unfulfilled. It shone in their eyes as they stared out past the barroom walls festooned with neon. ‘Hell, who don’t want flavor? Aroma. But, goddamn, I want to be able to crush it. Why’s it all got to be so hoppy?’ He had a point: there’s a swath of beer lovers a mile wide out there who have been led to believe that hops only contribute one thing to beer. The hop could be so much more. But how to show them? Door to door like an evangelical knocking with a pamphlet and some good news. That’s the mission.  

My phone buzzed on the bar top: The Doper. I took the call. Through the slur of my last round I conveyed my epiphany. ‘As your head brewer, I advise you to consider New England,’ came the slurred reply. I could dig it. Word had been around for some time now: brewers in the cradle of our nation had been getting up to some crazy shit. Some serious hop alchemy. Backing off first addition kettle hops. Focusing on late whirlpool addition. Intense dry hopping. Squeezing every potent molecule of aromatic hop oil out those precious buds while largely ignoring the bitterness potential of hop acids. Seductive citrus fruit aromas singing like sirens, drawing drinkers to their ruin. Foregoing filtration or fining. Thick, opaque beers that made a hefeweizen look like a pils. Hopheads were calling them New England IPAs. Style classicists stuck in Squaresville didn’t know what to call them. You could spot the turned on instantly: glassy-eyed, blissed-out, shambling loose-limbed freaks, zonked on hop character. They had seen beyond. You wanted to join their cohort, follow them into whatever lupulin-inspired Arcadia they led you.

3. Strange Medicine in the Brewhouse

Our research in Vermont had been enlightening, but ultimately fruitless. The bastards made great beer but don’t distribute in our neck of the woods. Even more, every interior surface in the state was covered in a queasy, sticky film of old maple syrup. I had to tear myself out of every booth in every bar at which I sat. And they had elected a cartoonish, barking demagogue as their mouthpiece. The grail I sought needed to be brewed with the pure, delicious waters filtered through the karst topography of the Ozarks. A beer brewed in the shadow of Springfield’s monolithic Hammons Tower. I bellied up to our tasting room bar to sulk and scheme.

‘As your head brewer, I advise you to consult Dr. Featherweight.’ The Doper was always good for turning delicate situations into precarious ones. Dr. Featherweight’s reputation preceded him: a spindly ascetic with a gruff demeanor and an unholy gleam in his eye. Years of self-searching deep in the wilds of homebrewing had permanently severed his connection to what the rest of us would consider humankind. Crepuscular like a feline, he haunted the barrel racks of Mother’s brewery and was only seen in the half light of the rising or setting sun. The Doper was correct, however: wild dreams demand wild ideas; and wild ideas require minds untrammeled by social niceties or orthodoxy. I decided to steel myself with a few more pints in the relative safety of our tasting room before stepping off the cliff. Dr. Featherweight perhaps could summon the magic, but what would he demand of me in return?

Barrels racked five high. Glyphs chalked on their heads hinted at the transformations happening inside. I was reminded of Stonehenge, or some other ancient ruin, where the arcane knowledge of some priestley class lay awaiting interpretation. A cackle and shuffling sounds behind me. I turned to catch a glimpse of a furtive figure disappearing amid the barrels. I advanced further into the gloom, fingering the leather sap in my pocket. If Featherweight pulled any rough stuff I was determined to give him as good as I got. ‘Damn your eyes, you filthy gnome! Stand and speak like you have a spine!’

A voice suddenly directly in my ear, ‘If you have come this far, there must be much you seek to know.’ I took a sharp knock on the dome and the lights went out.

4. Revelations and Sunshine … Madman or Citra Savant?

[Ed.’s note: Here the manuscript becomes nothing more than wild ravings. Our correspondent, in a rare moment of foresight, managed in his addled state to record his interview with Dr. Featherweight on his phone. We have opted to let the transcription of this recording stand in lieu of the writing.]

Correspondent: We’re part and parcel, Featherweight. We have a mission. Untie me! Tell me about the New England . . .

Featherweight: You’ll stay right where I’ve put you for the time being. But I will favor you with the knowledge you desire.

C: There’s a tribe out there. Hop freaks in another realm. This is not some anomaly. Scuttlebutt is . . .  some sort of movement. Or cult. You’ve seen it. You know how it’s done. Tell me.

F: All great truths begin with accepting simplicity. The New England IPA is no different. A grain bill of pale base malt and perhaps some oats for mouthfeel. Now--

C: The hops, damnit! Tell me about the hops!

[Ed. Sounds of struggle. Unintelligible crosstalk. Screaming.]

F: Please do not make me use the cattle prod again, friend. Your impatience does not serve your cause. If I may continue. Full expression of the hop character demands that malt supports, but not obscures, the hops. The beer will be golden with a creamy body, but supremely drinkable.

C[After much sniveling.] Then kettle hops?

F: No! Not for this beer. We pursue transcendence not through the bracing hop bite in the manner of the West Coast. We turn to the East. To the rising sun. It must seem counterintuitive, but we have chosen to forego brewhouse hop additions with this beer. The rumors you have heard in your inquiries are true: the intensity of citrus and tropical fruit character of our New England IPA are acquired solely through hop additions in the cellar.

C: Dry hopping, Doctor. I’m familiar. But what hop variety? Will you share that with me?

F: A decision that could not be made lightly. Many trial brews, patient days in the cellar, uncountable pints. Citra, friend. The beer requires but a single hop. Citra. Long noted for the power of its total oil content, it alone promised the flavors and aromas we sought for this beer.

Grapefruit. Melon. Lime. They will sing from the glass! The senses will be engaged to produce ecstasy. Visions!

C: Yes, Doctor! Yes! That is the beer that drove me to seek you out. The beer I have dreamt of. What do you call it, Dr. Feathweight? What appellation befits its majesty?

F: Sunshine. Chugsuckle.

C: That name sounds familiar, doc. You run that by a trademark lawyer?

F: Such a sharp tongue for such a dull mind. Let’s resume our work with the cattle prod.

[After several minutes of screaming and gibberish, our correspondent’s phone dies and the transcript ends.]

5. The Madman Has the Last Laugh

I awoke from my encounter with Dr. Featherweight spent, parched and with a pounding headache. Memory erased by whatever transpired there in his brewhouse temple. But to show for it I possessed a four-pack of his elixir. It exhibited a lurid beauty, all neon colors and cartoon graphics from a warped mind. It spoke of the vision contained in the bottles. Sunshine Chugsuckle. The hop bliss that the converted proclaimed from the rooftops and the infidels denounced as myth was now mine to embrace. I cracked open a bottle. As I drank, a heavenly choir erupted in full quadraphonic stereo. My knees grew weak beneath me and tears formed in my eyes. I was obliged to sit while I finished the bottle.

Like Homer’s hero of lore, my ultimate objective was always in my very backyard. The wave that rolled across the landscape of American beer has carried me, and countless others, from idyllic California to bucolic Vermont and most states between. In the end, it deposited me breathless and bedraggled right where my journey began. If you are among those who regard the hop junkies as fanatics, zealots too proud of belonging to the club, I appeal to you directly: experience for yourself the many splendors of hops when in such capable hands as those of Dr. Featherweight and his band of brothers. As for myself, the phantasmagoria I have relayed herein left me no choice. Having tasted the Sunshine, I accept admission to the sacred order of the converted. I dutifully shall shave my head and don the neon green robes; harangue passersby in airports and on street corners, ‘Have a sip! Take a trip! They call it Sunshine Chugsuckle, baby!’

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