The deciduous pillow of Burlington edging up on Lake Champlain has all the child-like allure of a too-recently stacked pile of leaves in the backyard. When you finally drop out of the clouds and see it puffed up all green and shimmery below, you kind of just want to fall into it.
For all its complex culture -- from snowboarder haven to naturalist temple to tech start-up incubator to refugee sanctuary -- Burlington is a remarkably simple city to navigate. You’ll be doing most of your business on Pine St or Main.
If you’re like me, an AirBnb is where you lay your head on the road most days. Not so in Burlington, and that’s because Hotel Vermont has found a 1,000 different ways to remind me what hospitality might have been like for my grandparents' generation.
But they’re doing it a little differently these days: locally roasted coffees, Jasper Hill cheese plates that are sometimes waiting for you in the room, an ice bucket with a Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine gleaming, and if that’s not enough, that beer is on tap and sparkling just off the elevators. If it was Lacroix I’d be a high-end squatter by now.
For the traveling drinker, there’s a new best friend waiting for you named Matt Canning, the hotel’s official “Beer Concierge.” On my visits, he’s created itineraries, called ahead to breweries, and even grabbed a bike and joined me for a round of Switchies.
And that’s exactly how you should play your first afternoon in Burlington. Matt’s way.
Get a cruiser and coast down the hill along Lake Champlain, out by the docks and through a couple neighborhoods, and you’ll end up at Switchback Brewing Co.
You’re going to have a lot of amazing beer over the next 36 hours. But this needs to be your first, regardless of your ambitions. Because Switchback Ale is the beer that sets the palate of Burlington. You should drink three.
They started brewing this beer, and only this beer, when they opened back in 2002. It’s a hopped up amber ale, about as simple as can be. And for many Vermonters, it’s perfect. It actually makes them visibly uncomfortable how much they still like this beer, even after generations of brewing evolution have them lusting after mixed fermentation saisons and barrel aged wonders.
There newest addition, the Citra-Pils Kellerbier, is one of the more unique hoppy lagers in the country. Lemon and citrus with a noble hop, earthy character, this is Switchback’s early-in competitor to a Firestone Walker Pivo Pils. Since it's naturally conditioned, and has a softer, rounder texture, I dare say makes it even more sessionable than California's effort.
I’ve never left the Switchback taproom without wondering if I should have had “one more."
*Queen City + Zero Gravity*
Around the corner you’ve got a twofer.
Swing up north again along Pine St. and you’ll find a perfect microcosm of Burlington beer culture — from the esoteric to the, well, newly esoteric.
Queen City is a start-up long past its time already — by which I mean, immediately anachronistic. They make long-forgotten English styles, barleywines, brown ales, pale ales and milds that no statistically significant portion of the population is seeking out. And yet.
They know they’re not on trend. They know they’re not in the zeitgeist. But they also knew they always wanted to open a brewery and you only live once. I’d say “take your dad here,” but that’s not really fair. Take anyone in your life you’d like to chat over a beer with, instead of about a beer. And if the recent pendulum swing back to Pilsners is any indication, this is your chance to get ahead of the coming Mild mob.
Right across the street is new-wave Burlington brewer, Zero Gravity.
This is the break-out production spot for the former brewers at Flatbread pizzeria and they’re really taking advantage of this chance to express themselves in the beer. Modern, colorful, and full of life, the beer they brew runs the gamut from lager to saison to brett IPA.
It’s hard not to drink the entire tap list, but if you have the self-control there’s some prep work to do. Call up a boat company (any boat will do), make a reservation for 11am tomorrow, and grab an ice-cold sixer or two of Green State Lagers. They’ve got sheets and sheets of them. Don’t drink them until tomorrow.
*Hen of the Woods + Black Acre*
I lose my mind here every time.
Famous for their Waterbury spot, the Burlington location of Hen of the Woods is set up for more of an urban dining experience, with a casually seated bar area and a kitchen counter. That’s my spot. Alone or with a friend, you can sit over the prep station and watch every plate take shape.
Pastas, eggs, fresh fiddleheads and vegetables, and unbelievable butchery (the cold locker is viewable from the back hallway), the food that makes up the Hen menu is a comprehensive look at what makes Vermont cuisine so singular.
You may be tempted to go wine at this point. And you should proceed un-judged straight into the Juras with abandon. However, should you stay the course, order vintages of Back Acre’s sour golden ale. Produced only a few times a year and blended out in Weston, this beer is somehow off the radar of most collectors and pours liberally at Hen.
If you’ve waited until now to seek out a Heady Topper, you’re doing it right. They do present themselves. Don’t work so hard.”
*Penny Cluse Café*
Just up the street from Hotel Vermont is a cozy little spot called Penny Cluse Café. Get some coffee in you, switch to a can of Heady Topper (it’s that easy) and scarf up some eggs. If you’ve waited until now to seek out a Heady Topper, you’re doing it right. They do present themselves. Don’t work so hard.
Head back to the hotel, grab those Green State lagers out of the fridge, and head to your boat. Enjoy the shimmering blindness of Lake Champlain for a couple hours and the sobering refreshment of the spritzy breeze as your sailboat knifes back and forth across the water.
You could saddle up and drive north into The Kingdom a couple of hours, and drink some of the best beers in the world. And maybe you should, I’m not the boss of you.
But if you’re in a groove, Farmhouse is where you can drink the beers that make Vermont such an unlikely center of the universe: Hill Farmstead’s mixed fermentation saisons, the softest, most luxurious pale ales you’ll ever taste, and stunning IPAs, as well as regional bottles from the likes of Oxtail, Allagash (both Maine) and Brasserie Dunham, Dieu du Ciel!, and Le Trou du Diable (all from Quebec), and European gems. This is where the locals go to drink the world’s best, and its where you’ll go to drink theirs.
Across the bridge from Burlington is a little city called Winooski, a tight little one-and-a-half square miles that’s home to immigrants and refugees from Rwanda, Somalia, Croatia and others. It’s the most diverse city in all of New England.
Just off the park down a little industrial side road is a tiny Belgian and sour producer. This is no frills, as they close the tasting room to brew during the week because they need the floor space. But if you’re lucky enough to be dropping in Friday through Sunday, they’ll move some boxes and put out some chairs.
Taste through whatever brewer Brian Eckert is pouring at the moment, and let him rattle on about them (he’s good at it) and let yourself lose track of time (you’re good at it).
*Misery Loves Company + Mule Bar*
This is your last one-two-punch and then it’s back to the airport in the morning of you. So go for it. Really go for it.
Grab a bar seat at Misery if you can, and politely, without that air of snapping your fingers, turn yourself over to the staff. This is a place where giving up control will serve you well. And if you’ve never done that before, consider this a culinary trust fall. They’ll catch you, and then they’ll sweep you off your feet.
But if you’re the kind of person prone to panic at the thought of giving up control over things you don’t even yet understand, get the duck heart tagliatelle and the mutton leg.
Across the street, within clear stumbling distance and slightly down hill (so you really can’t not end up here) you should burst through the door to Mule Bar saloon style. No one will fight you.
This is where you should finish drinking any Vermont beers you’ve been lusting after, but not yet found. But there is still one assignment — if they have it, get a 14th Star Tribute Double IPA. It’s an IPA in the vein of a Heady Topper, arguably as good, but you don’t have to chase a truck and hope a few fall off to get your hands on it. And for my taste, it backs off the bitterness just enough to maybe even edge out Heady. I don’t know — I’ve never done it blind, don’t @ me.
And last I checked, they had six Hill Farmstead beers on tap. So no one wonders why you didn't have any.