Bonafide Farm

From Magic Hat to Alchemist

October 23rd, 2012 § 0

After more than three hours of wandering the Shelburne Museum, my feet were tired and my mind was buzzing with everything I’d seen. Though I wished I had the stamina to return for a second day, I pressed on toward Burlington, Vermont. I soon came across the Magic Hat brewery, and even though I think their beers are mediocre—and a six pack of their Oktoberfest I bought before my trip was the first beer I’ve every purchased that was skunked—I couldn’t resist a tour.

Once inside I was immediately overwhelmed by what felt like very forced “arty” kitch. The tasting bar area was decorated in neon and graffiti and steampunk mechanical madness. There were a bunch of frat boys standing around, and I had to fight my way through them to be noticed. I zeroed in on the only female bartender, who was very nice as she poured my samples. As I was drinking a boy, a economics student from the University of Vermont, took it upon himself to educate me about beer. His opening gambit was that he recommends lighter beers “for women.” No sooner was it out of his mouth than I was ordering the smoked porter. He looked suitable chagrined and beat a hasty retreat, but I was sickly comforted that, at more than a decade older than he, I was worthy of being looked after at a beer tasting.

I went ahead with the guided tour, and what struck me most was that the founder of Magic Hat, Alan Newman, definitely appears to be a pretty cool counterculture freak and yet has created not only a successful brewery but also several other companies, including Gardner’s Supply and Seventh Generation, which should ring a bell for anyone who’s ever searched for eco-friendly dish or laundry detergent. But none of his original passion came through in my tour. My experience at Magic Hat demonstrated to me that it was a company at at tipping point…in theory they espouse the artistic and personal freedom of their founder and yet have very much played into a corporate mindset pushing “fun” as their commodity (my bartender told me that the best way to make sure a trial beer makes it to bottling is to make a ruckus their Web site and social media).


I left feeling a bit like I’d been run through an amusement park, the most interesting part of which was not the beers, but the production line.

I continued up the road, rolling in to Burlington as the sun was setting. I saw the makings of a good photo op and dodged this way and that through their town center to the waterfront. It was truly beautiful…a colorful sunset over broad water ringed with purple mountains.


As the light faded from the sky, I headed back up the hill and picked up a chicken curry falafel from a storefront near the center of town. I found a bench on the Burlington pedestrian mall, which reminded me a lot of Charlottesville’s, and ate while watching a live band. I strolled the mall, stopping in to a neat bookstore where the proprietor looked like a hotter Jason Bateman, and then it was time to find a place for sleep for the night.

Friday dawned showery and with a full rainbow over my motel. It didn’t look like good weather for exploring Burlington, so decided to hit the road. By the time I’d gotten the car packed, it was starting to rain. I stopped in to a liquor store near the hotel looking for Heady Topper, a local beer made by Alchemist and recommended by my friend Brad. They were sold out. So I figured why not head up to the brewery and pick it up from the source? I merged on to I89 headed toward Waterbury with the intention of stopping at Alchemist and then heading toward Maine.

Immediately it started to pour buckets. The rain was sheeting across the highway, and my SUV was being blown too and fro. I couldn’t see a carlength in front of me. I don’t normally mind driving in bad weather, but I was on vacation with no timetable or set destination and wanted to avoid stress at all costs. So I made it to Route 100 and pulled off, ducking in to the Alchemist Brewery just before 11:00 a.m.


Alchemist is a brewery that focuses on one beer, the Heady Topper IPA. It’s a beer that’s heavily hyped and has its own cult following, so much so that even locals acknowledge it’s hard-to-come-by. With a Beer Advocate score of 100, it’s known for waves of smooth hops flavor. I had a taste, looked in on their small brewery, and walked out with a case. It was a Friday morning—the brewery isn’t open on weekends—and traffic was steady in and out of the place with massive amounts of money and silver cans changing hands. The woman who poured my tasting told me that they would sell out for the weekend in a couple of hours on a Friday morning, and that Heady Topper lasts only between 16 and 24 hours on the shelves in a few Burlington stores before it’s gone.

Case secured, I promptly went to the nearest supermarket and bought a bag of ice and loaded the beer in to my cooler. I felt like I was transporting an organ—this beer is so fresh and nonpreserved that it had to remain cool all time. And then I tasked my trained guard dog with protecting our haul.


It was still pouring rain, and the Ben and Jerry’s factory was nearby. Though I am not a huge ice cream fan, I needed something to do other than drive, so I took their tour. It was interesting only in so much as our guide was forced to elongate every “o” she said to sound like a cow. For example, “Let’s all moooove over to the production area, where you will see we are packaging a heath bar ice cream today.” Poor girl. We had samples of Late Night Snack at the end of the tour, and it wasn’t bad for an ice cream that features chocolate-covered potato chips.


Just as at Magic Hat, I was struck by the starting visions of Ben and Jerry’s founders, who got their start dabbling in something they found interesting. They learned how to make ice cream from a Penn State correspondence course, and now they have a thriving corporation that was acquired by Unilever. To hear stories such as theirs gives me hope that pursuing my interests may one day lead to the career of my lifetime.

It was still raining after the tour, and I didn’t want to waste my drive through the White Mountains if I couldn’t see anything. I started calling around for hotels. The Topnotch Resort and Spa was pet-friendly, so I booked a room there and decide to hole up and wait out the weather. While my room was being prepared, I had a great smoked turkey sandwich at the Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, along with a half of Heady Topper and another of Lawson’s Finest Maple Nipple Ale. Then I wandered into a lovely little bookstore nearby, Bridgeside Books, where I picked up a few cards and a 2013 calendar and had a nice chat with the proprietor.

By then it was time to head up to Stowe and check in to Topnotch and get out of the rain!

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