This is an episode of the Living Proof Brew Cast.
We were joined in this episode by a coworker of ours, Patrick Lucey, who is a program associate with the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. In addition, Patrick is a dual US-German citizen and an advocate for craft beer from his home state of Vermont. He brought us some Vermonster from Rock Art a while ago. John and I both thought sharing this beer would be a good reason to have Patrick join us on the podcast. He started off by telling us a bit about Rock Art, one of the smaller breweries in the state, compared to say Otter Creek. The Vermonster is a bigger version of one of Rock Art’s signature beers, Ridge Runner, also a barley wine.
Patrick told us where the name Vermonster comes from. It is a common sort of nickname used by many folks in Vermont, include Ben & Jerry’s for a massive dessert challenge. Using it for an even bigger barley wine seemed like a natural for the brewery but it didn’t come without a problem. Namely the maker of Monster energy drinks, Hanson Beverage Company, pressed a complaint on trademark grounds back in Fall of 2009. Unlike the similar case of Gordon Biersch and Oskar Blues over The Gordon (now called G’Knight), Rock Art was able to utilize local pride to cause large enough public and media pressure to win out in the end.
There is a considerable strength in this sort of localism, especially when focused around a brewery. I was reminded of a quote by Frank Zappa, about a country needing an airline and a brewery to be real, suggesting this could apply to states as well. Patrick pointed out that Vermont has the highest number of breweries per capita of all states. You have to keep in mind that Vermont is a less populous state so on an absolute scale, it doesn’t rank as high, based on just the number of breweries in the state.
John pointed out how Dogfish Head really put Delaware on the map, another example of local grown value. I riffed a bit about how even though it isn’t a state, DC is coming along well by brewery count, including the recently launched Three Stars. My ultimate point was how this may be leading to a local filter failure, along with the boom of breweries in surrounding states. Patrick correctly labeled this as the paradox of choice, the inability to choose due to being overwhelmed when visiting Gilly’s, Pepe’s and Pinky’s or Barmy’s. John pointed out how the places that offer the choice to make your own six pack help when you lack a personal recommendation.
Patrick mentioned a few more Vermont breweries including Trout River in the most rural part of Vermont who are famous for Trout River Red. He also told us about a relatively new brewery in Burlington called Switchback that only kegs. Speaking about the difference between bottling and kegging he identifies John and I as beer scientists, a label that you may hear us use again. Magic Hat, with which many folks may be familiar, is located about two miles from where Patrick grew up. Like a lot of breweries we know, they make a lot of beers you cannot get except locally. Patrick likes the Single Chair, their lawn mower beer, and even noted how more widely distributed beers of theirs are different fresh.
John asked about the rules around brewery tours in Vermont, prompted by the discussion of Magic Hat. While you can buy growlers and maybe half cases, the samples have been limited. Whether he gets them at the brewery or not, carting back a large quantity and variety of beer cause Patrick to drive rather than fly when visiting his home state.
As recommended by the color text on the Vermonster’s label, we revisited the beer after it had a chance to warm. Not surprisingly, the malt character came out quite a bit more. The cold character on first pour was quite hoppy so having the grain contribution come out more was welcome. This barley wine is definitely closer to Duclaw’s Devil’s Milk than the sweeter barley wines. I digressed, as a beer scientist, on the limits of bitterness no matter what IBU may appear on a label.
Talking about the warming benefit of a high alcohol beer like this one and the cold winters in Vermont led Patrick to explain how the state has three seasons and a month of mud. We discussed some further trivia, not unique to Vermont as I remember learning about maple syrup in grade school, too. We talked quite a bit about the best days for syrup, seasonally, and the relative benefits and drawbacks of the counter intuitive grading system. John and I applied some more beer science to how different grades would impact the results of brewing.
We cracked another beer and shifted topic to Patrick’s experiences of beer in Germany. We poured out a helles from Augustiner Brau in Munich, one of the most famous breweries in Bavaria. He mentioned several other well known breweries including Weihenstephan, Paulaner, and Pinkus that are better known for their hefeweissen, a style that Augustiner is not as well known for, or at least they are as well known for their other beers. What Augustiner is known for, versus the others, is their beer garden. The others have bars at their breweries but don’t really operate their own gardens. Patrick attributed that to Augustiner growing out of a brew pub and also admitted that the garden there is his favorite, because it seemingly stretches on forever. The distance to bus the liter steins when customers are done is so great, as evidence of the garden’s size, they have a two man team operating a golf cart to collect and haul the empties.
Patrick discussed how the gardens typically work, in terms of seating and service. As much as it might seem that the lines for getting your own beer to take back to your seat might be long and slow, the choice is limited to what the brewery makes for starters streamlining choice. There is not surprisingly a good deal of efficiency in the serving that keeps things moving despite the huge number of patrons.
We delved into the beer purity laws which actually started in Bavaria and spread through Germany as a condition of that state joining the efforts to unify the country. I went off a little on some of the assumptions that arise out of the purity laws, like the idea it made beers simple in a way that is uninteresting. I also wanted to be clear that such laws, in Germany and elsewhere, were about protecting consumers from bad actors putting bad things in beer, not really about the inherent nature in beer. I personally think that is a historical gloss that drives modern adherence, especially in reaction to crazy American craft brewers.
John speculated that the nature of beers of modest alcohol and the basic ingredients may also have had cultural drivers in terms of how the beers are enjoyed, casually, in a wider context. Patrick told us how there aren’t really many nationally recognized beers, as such, that a lot of the variety derives from local differences. You get different beers not within the range of one brewer but by traveling to sample others who pursue different tastes. Patrick helped us understand the differences between some of the styles that are widely recognized, like hefeweizen and, what his family and locals consider beginner and Summer sipping beers, berliner weisse. I related it to my own impression of the first such beer, Festina Peche, made outside of Berlin. John reminded us of the historical reasons, in the absence of clean water, for making beers suitable for children to drink.
Patrick brought us to a close with his favorite beer garden story.
You can grab the flac encoded audio from the Internet Archive.
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