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Friday, September 25, 2009

On the Road with The Brew Lounge, Part 5

Closing Out Ebenezer's After passing around the Three Floyds Dark Lord (I carried it around like a '40', doling out samples to anyone who wanted and there was still some left to spare!) and Behemoth, some older Cantillons, the 't Smisje BBBourgondier keg, and whatever else Chris Lively was pulling generously from behind the bar to share openly for one hour after the dinner was over, I retreated with around 15 of the industry's best and brightest. Obviously, it had to be a fluke that I was so graciously invited into "The Cellar" with these fine folks. I passed up some great beers upstairs that continued to be opened for the next hour. Names and vintages like: Carolus D'or 1976; Cantillon Rhubarb; Cantillon Crianza Helena; Petre Devos Oud Bruin 1952; Gueuze De Neve 1982; Drie Fontenien Oude Gueuze 2004 Magnum; Ind Coope & Allsopp Ltd Jubilee Ale 1935. If I wasn't already convinced that Ebenezer's has certainly, in fact, earned its place in consideration for one of the top beer bars in this country, then my eye-popping trip to The Cellar put an underscore, an exclamation point, and a kick in the pants to consider it as such. Chris Lively talks a good game and, by golly, he puts some nice stuff up in bottles and drafts in the bar. But, what is hiding downstairs in The Cellar is beyond compare. Not that I have many beer cellars to compare to. Heck, I haven't even been into Monk's or TJ's cellars. That might have to change. Let's see if I can accurately depict the scenery in The Cellar at Ebenezer's. (I think Chris could market it as such and charge an admission.) On this night close to midnight in The Cellar, the lights were shut off with only twinkle lights hanging and shining from the ceiling. As I made my way from the staircase to the gathering area, I felt like I was in a cornmaze, the kind that is popular in the autumn season. I made my way in between floor-to-ceiling racks filled with some of the most amazing beer that many of us will never see. It was so like a maze, that at one point someone asked if Will Meyers got lost wandering around The Cellar when he didn't return. The collection of beer is so mind-bogglingly staggering that I, the relative novice in the room, was not nearly the only one even semi-amazed. Some of the country's most acclaimed brewers were walking around taking pictures of Lively's stash of the World's Best Beers. I can't comment much on the way the next few hours went. It was filled with industry insider commentary, gossip, jokes, and good times. Nothing that needs to be nor should be shared here. But it was also filled with a recounting of the evening. As beers like a King's Ale Barleywine from Bass, circa 1902, was being passed around, the love that Lively showed for the brewers, their craft, their attendance, and their passion was equally returned by the brewers who showed just as much appreciation for the work that Lively does to showcase their talents. And, as the Drie Fontenein was being passed around....and the.... You get the picture. Eventually, the evening had to come to a close. As much as the sleeping in the back of our Passat Wagon didn't quite work the way we had planned, it wasn't apparently quite as bad as a particular brewer had it sleeping in his rented Prius. Yikes. The evening continued on until some unspecified time in the wee hours in Ebenezer's backyard with an unspecified number of even more high quality beers being shared by the folks who had set up camp and lit up the campfire. We took off in the morning long before anyone else was awake. I read somewhere that Will Meyers conducted a hair of the dog (not to be confused with the brewery by the same name) tasting in the morning that Chris Lively and others joined in to continue the official start of Belgian Beer Festival 2009 in to Day Two. Moving On, we must While I thought that Ebenezer's and the Belgian Beer Feast would be the high point of the trip (and it really was indeed), I had only a bit of an idea of what awaited us in Burlington, Vermont. Leaving early from Lovell, Maine, we arrived in Burlington before noon. So early, that we decided to detour to Ben & Jerry's just a mile or so off the interstate for a quick walk around the property and taste of ice cream. That was fun and it turns out that the ice cream capital is only a few minutes from the highly-touted Alchemist in Waterbury, VT. But, it's still unfortunately close to 30 minutes from downtown Burlington, so we never returned to The Alchemist. We never returned because what we found in Burlington was sheer delight. We'd only planned on staying one night and then heading south for one night in either Lake Placid, Lake George, or somewhere else along the way back home. See if you can guess the right answer to this question. We ended up staying two nights in Burlington because: a) the people; b) the Lake Champlain influence on outdoor activities; c) the choice of good eats and drinks; d) the Saturday morning farmers market; e) we were tired and felt the need to relax for more than one night in the same hotel; f) the hotel had a pool and whirlpool; g) all of the above. Yeah, it was all that. Burlington, VT is beautiful in so many ways I could tell you about my run around Lake Champlain (well, not really all the way around)...but, you're not here for that. I could share with you stories about the downtown window shopping and farmers market on Saturday morning. You might be kind of interested in that, but then you'd get anxious wondering about the beer scene. Then, I'd begin to share with you our exbeeriences at American Flatbread and Vermont Pub & Brewery, and I'd leave you drooling for more. So, that's where I'll spend most of time here. We had such a great time with the downtown Burlington experience that we skipped any trip out east to The Alchemist or south to Magic Hat. On the other hand, this allowed us to focus on all that was good in Burlington and get some more much-needed relaxation. Of course, I got out for a great run along the banks of Lake Champlain. Vermont may not be quite as fitness-minded as other areas, but there is a huge emphasis on the outdoors and being a part of it. I think the lake has something to do with it. The University being right there in the heart of the city doesn't hurt either. American Flatbread, a visit years in the making After taking in some outdoor fitness and strolling the excellent outdoor farmers market in the town square, Patty and I returned to where we'd spent a couple of hours the evening prior. Come to think of it, it would have been extremely easy to spend our entire visit at American Flatbread (aka Burlington Hearth) if such a thing were possible. Not only did it remind me of Earth Bread + Brewery in Philadelphia, the owner and a couple of staff had just been to their friend Tom Baker's new brewpub in West Mt. Airy a few months back. Good people, like Tom, they are indeed. No wonder we loved spending our evening and our afternoon here. Okay, I'd be exaggerating if I said we spent all afternoon or all evening there, but definitely long enough to try most of their house-brewed beers and a couple visiting taps as well. I'd met Paul Sayler a few BCTCs ago at Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, NY. I was struck by his passion for food and for the filled growlers of spectacular beer that he was walking around and sharing during the Friday evening "session." (this was before the days of VIP dinners at BCTC.) After meeting Paul, I swore that American Flatbread would be at the top of my list the next time I was in Vermont; it felt like something truly special going on there. And, I certainly was not disappointed. Only disappointed that Paul is currently working out in Portland, OR readying the next installment of the American Flatbread vision. We spent about half of our time in American Flatbread on Friday evening and the other half during late Saturday afternoon. Both times were great for different reasons. When we arrived during the peak of Friday night dinner crowd, there was a wait of close to an hour for tables. Regulars at the bar said that this was not unusual. Plus, with college students starting to come back to school with their parents, the crush in local restaurants and bars was even greater than usual. We wound up with two perfect catbird seats at the end of the bar with a perfect view of the remainder of the bar and much of the restaurant. Even in the thick of the mayhem, our service at the bar for both food and beer was friendly and prompt. The aromas of fresh baking bread and assorted toppings made us hungry from the minute we walked through the front door. It didn't get any easier to resist as we waited for our flatbread (can we call it pizza?) to arrive. While we waited, we worked our way through a variety of Zero Gravity (that's the official branding name for the brewery operations) beers. Ranging from a Kölsch to a Blue Belle (yup, you guessed it, with a nice hint of blueberry) to a Brown, an ESB, and a Vienna Lager, a wide spectrum of beer tastes are covered...and done very well. I was only too disappointed, though, to hear that the Chinooker'd Session IPA had just kicked in the afternoon. That would have been one that would have perfected the visit. American Flatbread is very good also about representing and promoting other local breweries as well as locally-sourced and "sustainably-produced" food in the kitchen. Just a quick run down the list of beers is enough proof of that. During our time spent on Saturday afternoon after the farmers market, we were able to experience AF at a much different pace. With only a dozen or so other patrons, we were able to casually spread out (in the same bar seats, I might add...creatures of habit?) and talk at ease with others at the bar and the bartender as well. Oh, and speaking of chatting with the bartender, it reminds me of a great way to get that whole thing started. I wasn't even in my barstool yet when the bartender asked me how I was affiliated with Yards Brewery, the t-shirt of whose I was wearing. Now, this doesn't necessarily apply to every beer type of t-shirt, like one of Homer Simpson drinking a stein of beer. But, wear one from a recognizable brewery (or maybe a not-so-recognizable) and it's sure to get you somewhere, if nowhere other than in some good conversation about the industry we all care so much about. There's more than one good beer gig in town The only shame of spending so much time in AF was that we only spent an hour or so at Vermont Pub & Brewery. Admittedly, going into our Burlington stopover, I had no idea that Vermont would impress in the way that it did. We were able to settle in to a couple of front-and-center barstools at VP&B for an hour before we headed over to AF on Friday evening. The thought being that we'd have a couple of the more interesting looking beers on the menu with a small plate of food. Little did I realize that they would have so many good-looking beers on the menu. A Flemish Sour Red with Brett? yup. Sour-Mashed Wheat? Yes, please! Oak-aged Framboise? sounds awesome, and it was. A nice solid Bitter? Nicely done. A Belgian Trippel and an herbally/spicy ale (Ambergris) rounded things out so nicely. So, it was a sampler platter of beers, plus one tall one that I proclaimed big-boy-glass-worthy (that happened to be the ESB) along with what turned out to also be an exceedingly better-than-expectations sampler platter of cheese. And, it wasn't just your average Vermont Cheddar on the plate. With some simple saltines and apple, the six seasonally-appropriate cheeses made for just the perfect small plate of food that we were looking for...and, better still, the perfect beer and food pairing. The service, like the food and beer, was near perfect. As seemingly with every other place in town, VP&B was also teeming with crowds of tourists, college kids, and their parents. Yet, the two bartenders were tag-teaming the bar crowd and efficiently doling out both friendly and service...and both together. We finished on a short conversation about one of the bartender's upcoming Burning Man excursions. This now makes way too many friends and casual acquaintances that we know who have been to this dalliance in the desert. And that, really honestly, is a wrap I could go on and on (as I'm sometimes (really? sometimes?!) wont to do) about just how much we enjoyed Burlington, VT. As I mentioned earlier on, we were only due to stay one evening, but felt were enjoying ourselves so much that we stayed a second. It made for a longer ride home on Sunday, but it really didn't matter. So after a nice Italian dinner at Trattoria Delia on Saturday evening and a few more beers at American Flatbread, we called it a night and got rested up for an early Sunday morning ride home. Before we called it a trip in Burlington, we hit up the City Market, a locally-owned co-op, for some local beer to take home with us. This included Trout River, McNeill's, and Dieu du Ciel. Now, I just need to find some friends to share this all with. Hm, where can I find me some of these beer friends? Must be some around here somewhere! The day's drive home was the rainiest of our trip, but we really didn't care. This New England trip pushed itself to the top of our most enjoyable driving trips ever. Thanks to everyone along the way who helped to make it so.

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