Before setting out on our last beer adventure to Northern New England, two breweries sat at the top of our must-visit list. Due to our schedule and geography, we knew visiting these two iconic Vermont breweries, The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead, on a fall Saturday might prove to be a frustrating process, as long lines at both places were part of their legend.
Figuring an early arrival was the smartest gameplan, Chris & I left our hotel in Burlington a little before 9 A.M. for the drive to Stowe, some 36 miles east. The Alchemist had grown their legend in Waterbury, 11 miles south of Stowe, where their original production brewery still brews up their flagship beer, the highly sought after Double IPA, Heady Topper. After the lines showing up at the brewery became too much for local residents to handle, Alchemist owners, John and Jen Kimmich, announced in 2013 that sales at the brewery would cease and they began looking for an appropriate way to distribute this massively popular beer.
Finally, in June of 2016, they opened The Alchemist Welcome Center in Stowe. Built on 4 acres on the eastern end of the small hamlet, the state of the art facility allows them to brew a second year round beer, Focal Banger, as well a seasonal offering. The multi-million dollar facility is also environmental conscious, something we saw many Vermont businesses striving to be.
I’d seen on the website that they did not allow anyone in the parking lot before 10 A.M., and when we rolled up to the site at 9:54, there was someone at the entrance to tell us to go grab a coffee and come back at 10. As I turned to do that, the helpful gentleman said, “You might want to leave your friend in line though.” Since the parking lot was completely empty 5 minutes before opening, and I was just going to drive around the corner and get gas, Chris & I exchanged a somewhat puzzled look. He grabbed his windbreaker anyway, hopped out of the car and headed for the non-existent line. At 10:03, I got a single text from him, “Cattle call holy s#*t”.
When I returned to the parking lot, I was shocked to see a line stretching from the front of the building all the way into the parking lot. Some people had brought their dogs, and other were sitting in camp chairs, soaking in the sun that had just recently transformed a grey morning into a day with lots of promise. After joining Chris in line, we had pleasant conversation with the people around us. We weren’t surprised to find that many of the people had traveled here just to get their hands on the day’s allotment. The people in front of us were from Montreal, and the guy behind us had driven in from Connecticut.
Shortly before the opened their doors, a young man with a bullhorn came out and gave the details to the steadily growing crowd. Their were 3 beers available, with the seasonal, once-a-year Broken Spoke, a session IPA, joining Heady Topper and Focal Banger as the days offerings. There was an 8 can limit on Heady & Spoke, while Focal had a case limit.
When we finally got in, the process was well-refined and efficient, if not slightly unsatisfying. We first proceeded through a small retail area, with typical brewery swag of glasses, hats & clothing available, before coming to the tasting station, where friendly staff poured a small sample of one of the beers. We both chose Crusher, the Double IPA that is usually the third beer available, but had been replaced by Broken Spoke until that ran out.
After the quick sample, there was an area in the middle where all the brewing equipment was on display, as well as some interesting and informative information boards which talked mostly about the brewing process, but also gave some back story to the Alchemist. From there, all that was left was the retail station, where you stepped up, ordered your beer and paid for your swag.
And just like that, the experience was over. Because of our spot at the front of the line, and the efficiency at which the Alchemist crew had refined this to, we were in and out in less that 15 minutes.
While it’s hard to complain about acquiring my allowance of these epic and legendary beers, I really enjoy the brewpub experience offered by most breweries. I often tell people visiting a brewery’s on-site (or company owned) brewpub gives you a feel for the brewery and their brewing philosophy. These brewpubs often offer the rarer & small-batch beers that are not distributed. The Alchemist, while a gorgeous building, doesn’t offer that. To be fair, however, it’s not meant to be that. They tell visitors on their website that there is no pub or restaurant on-site. It’s not intended to be a criticism- they built what they wanted, a distribution facility that also gives fans a destination to visit, something the brewery in Waterbury did not.
Pleased with our acquisitions, and shocked to be out of there so fast, we were happy about being able to get to our second brewery of the day Hill Farmstead, much earlier than expected.
A review of Hill Farmstead is coming in a subsequent post.