It’s beer of course. With the recent opening of Farm Road Brewing at the Four Corners, there are now three establishments brewing their own beer, and serving their own food, within easy walking – or crawling – distance of each other right in the heart of downtown Bennington.
As Vermont increasingly opens up for business, residents and visitors are happy to relax with a glass of beer so local that at both Farm Road Brewing and Madison Brewing Company a few doors down on Main Street, it comes with a view of the equipment used to brew it. Harvest Brewing, also in the center of town just below the renovated Hotel Putnam building on South Street, is also brewing beer. Together the breweries are making Bennington a new destination for beer tourism.
Madison Brewing has been at it since 1996, back when there were only a dozen breweries in the state. Now there are more than 60. In fact, Vermont leads the nation in breweries and beer production per capita.
“It has been great to see the Vermont craft beer movement grow over the past 25 years,” says Mike Madison, manager and sometime brewmaster. Two tanks are visible from the dining room, which serves locally sourced pub food. A variety of beers are tapped and ready behind the small bar in a menu that changes with the seasons and the tastes of the brewmasters.
If the day is cool, try a French Toast Brown; if it’s warm, how about a Mango Sparq kettle sour ale or a Sucker Pond Blonde? Madison’s now also cans its own beer; it’s available at the brewpub and in select stores across Vermont.
“There’s a homebrew culture around here,” says Seth Barrows, the owner and brewmaster at the newly opened Farmhouse Road Brewery. He himself is a product of that culture, he says. His experiences as an aspiring beermaker at Bennington’s Winter and Summer Homebrew Festivals served as the incubator for his present venture.
Twelve taps beckon from the bar, and a small kitchen serves wings, pizza, sliders, and salads in partnership with Ramunto’s, a well-known Main Street eatery. Among the beers currently on offer is Black Pearl, a smooth and creamy oatmeal stout, and a malty red ale brewed with Champlain Valley hops. “Vermont soil gives Vermont hops special qualities that we’re able to capture in our beers,” says Barrows. His brewery, anchoring the northeast corner of the town’s main intersection, has been open – and often full to Covid capacity – since mid-February.
Harvest Brewing, the third brewery of the trio, was started four years ago and has four to six beers on tap. Brewer-owner Sean Dunleavy changes his list to follow the seasons; Harvest Ale is a perennial favorite. Sean has been brewing for 20 years, the last ten professionally. His malt comes from New England and the Hudson Valley.
The brewery, which also has a tempting food menu, has been getting through winter with a limited take-out schedule but expects to open up this spring as conditions permit. There will be outdoor seating (and people watching) when the weather turns; inside, at the far end, there’s a dartboard for those who prefer to nurse their beer with fewer distractions.
One of the incubators of Bennington’s brewing talent has been the twice-annual Homebrew Festivals organized by local cablecaster and beer impresario Will Gardner.
The 2020 Winter Festival, which drew 350 people from all over New England and New York, took place just before Covid lowered the boom; there was no winter edition this year, but mark your calendars for August 7: that’s when the 2021 Summer Homebrew Festival will be taking place (we hope!) outdoors at a new downtown location.
The Festival is almost certain to sell out, so get your tickets early. They’ll go on sale later in April, Covid trends permitting – and will be 100% refundable if the festival has to be canceled. “It’s not a beer bash,” says Gardner. “It’s a great chance to meet and talk to homebrewers (more than two dozen of them), sample a wonderful range of beers, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow beer enthusiasts.”
Competition for the top prizes is keen, but the atmosphere is festive and fun. Beer isn’t the only beverage that will be flowing, either: there’ll be wine, cider, and mead, as well as food from local restaurants and food trucks, live entertainment, and plenty of local vendors.
Man shall not live by beer alone
At a holiday gathering in 2017, Glenn Sauer had a vision. He doesn’t call it that, but when (as he tells the story) a professional fabricator without prior distilling experience (that’s Glenn) announces to a friend (Matt Cushman, who is now his business partner) out of the blue that he is going to start a distillery in Bennington, it somehow recalls “Field of Dreams.”
One year later, the partners had acquired the former Bennington Town Garage, a spacious ca. 1950 building a short walk away from the center of town. They didn’t have to build it, but they did have to undertake a major renovation, now progressing nicely under the name Village Garage Distillery.
Down came the dropped ceiling to reveal beautifully curved trusses; in came boards reclaimed from old buildings; in came the pot stills and the casks. They’re working on the bar and food area now. Sauer won’t say when they’ll be open for business, but it seems that downtown Bennington is going to be getting a major new attraction for those who like their alcohol locally sourced; the partners are committed to using locally grown grains whenever possible. Sauer says he wants to give people another reason “to put on their blinker” as they approach town along the region’s highways.
Virtual tastings, real wines
Two years ago, Nancy Koziol also had an idea. A former English teacher and freelance writer, she would turn her passion for wine into a business. She wouldn’t become a winemaker but an independent sommelier (as wine specialists are known at the high end of the restaurant trade). She went to wine school and received international certification.
Having tested the waters (and turned them into wine) with friends, she hung out a shingle (couch + cork) on the Internet and began to get calls from individual clients and from local organizations that were putting on events and wanted to know what wines to serve. Her business began to flourish; then came Covid.
But here the plot takes an unexpected twist. Covid meant that a lot of people were staying home – and drinking more wine. Soon Nancy was arranging wine-tastings via Zoom for groups of friends across the country. She chooses the bottles, gets them shipped to the right addresses, and hosts the experience of drinking them in real-time in a virtual wine bar. She’s even had to add staff.
Her recommendation for a good April wine: Rosé d’Anjou, a moderately sweet, bright pink French rosé that pairs well with in-between April weather.
Watering Holes in Bennington
The Miller’s Toll, eastward on Main Street near the site of an old mill pond, surely qualifies as one of those. It serves food, but the historically-themed cocktails are the fun part. Screw your courage to the sticking place with a Stone Fence (dark rum and Woodchuck cider), said to be drunk by the militiamen who fought at the Battle of Bennington in 1777, and pick up your spirits with one of three versions of the Corpse Reviver (including the 2020 edition: gin, Cointreau, Lillet, Lemon, absinthe, and blackberry syrup). Vermont craft beers are on tap, too.
Another good source for Vermont brews on tap: the Tap House at Catamount Glass on County Street, with food and shaded outdoor seating in the neighborhood of the Bennington Potters and Hawkins House, two favorite Bennington retail destinations.
So drink up! Responsibly…
Phil Holland’s “Invocation for Eleven Tomatoes” was just published in the 2021 Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Guide.
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