When the weather draws colder, many New England beer drinkers stock up on stronger ales and hunker down to wait out the barrage of storms. While sitting near their fireplaces decrying the latest Nor'easter, a deep yearning grows stronger with each new inch of snow that falls in the driveway. Before long, winter sports enthusiasts can no longer deny the urge and they to higher points. After a day on the slopes, there is no better way to relax than with a fresh pint of New England craft beer.
While I'm certainly no expert on skiing in New England, having snowplowed my way down very few slopes here, I do have a few seasonal suggestions to offer about where to go when you're in the neighborhood of a few black diamonds.
After last issue's leaf peeping article covered both Moat Mountain (North Conway) and the Woodstock Inn (North Woodstock) in New Hampshire, I've decided to branch out to the other New England states.
This state is one for all seasons and offers beers to match every situation. In the southern part of the state lies Mount Snow. With a 1700 foot vertical drop and 106 trails, it offers nearby skiing for southern New Englanders. It also offers the opportunity to visit two classic smaller town pubs.
Located on the corner of Rt. 100 and 9 in old-fashioned, downtown Wilmington, the tiny Maple Leaf Malt & Brewing Company is a favorite haunt of local skiers. Brewer-owner Darren Fehring moved from sunny Key West to shovel malt and snow here. Fehring met his partner, Mark Marchionni, at another brewpub job, where Mark was the bar manager. Both eventually moved on to other places, with Fehring doing tours with regional powerhouse Frederick Brewing Company in Maryland. After re-connecting, the pair decided to open their own brewpub and spent three years searching for a location. Their travels took them from the Caribbean to the Pacific and through various mid-Atlantic states before they found their inspiration in a small, three-story, green and yellow dwelling in downtown Wilmington, Vermont.
Despite some local political problems, Fehring constantly fiddles with the pub's beers. Working from a list of 50 staple recipes, he clearly enjoys the luxury of small batch brewing. Born of his desire to experiment, the brewer changes each batch, even the core beers, in slight to substantial ways. "I haven't brewed the perfect batch yet," he notes.
In nearby Brattleboro, Mount Snow survivors can cast their lot with the legendary Ray McNeill. Don't visit McNeill's expecting to eat much more than simple nachos, hummus and pita chips, or peanuts. The kitchen is a hot plate off to the side of the bar. McNeill does, however, makes his own wonderful salsa. McNeill's always boasts local color, sometimes brought on by the owner himself. During many visits, I've watched McNeill play genial host to guests of his pub, myself certainly included. He floats between tables, talking with regulars, hugging friends, buying rounds, and sitting down to talk with complete strangers. Watching him in his own environment, it is clear that few pub owners in New England are so closely identified with their establishments.
The Stowe Mountain Resort and its "Great 48" trails is easily one of the most recognized skiing locations in New England. While the nearby Shed Restaurant and Brewery is an obvious choice for good beer and post-skiing cheer, I've decided to branch out and include one of my favorite post-skiing beer bars. Mr. Pickwick's on Mountain Road is as close to a true beer bar as you get in Vermont (disqualifying American Flatbread in Burlington as it is a brewpub). Most Vermont bars support local beer, but Mr. Pickwick's take passion for beer a step further with an international flair.
This well-appointed, British-style pub at the Ye Olde English Inne is replete with plaid carpeting, slanting rock archways, and exposed wood beams. Mr. Pickwick's boasts plenty of great nooks for both dining and drinking and be sure to take special note of the collection of silver and pewter tankards hanging above the bar area. The service at Mr. Pickwick's is impeccable, with ultra-informed bartenders who can guide you through the pub's well-considered tap and bottled beer list. If you're unsure which local or imported beer to choose, the staff happily inquires about your tastes and will aid in your decision-making.
The Sunday River Brewing Company is the quintessential ski pub, standing near the vast skiing area of the same name. After testing Sunday River's 128 trails spread over eight interconnected mountain peaks, skiers come to the brewpub for the après-ski scene
Run by manager and sometimes brewer Stew Mason, Sunday River has a sizable 7-barrel system, but by the numbers it is perhaps the smallest brewery in New England. Due to the importation of beers from the pub's sister production brewery in Portland (Stone Coast), Sunday River produces only a scant 126-barrels per year. Perched at the beginning of the access road to the resort, the brewpub is a true ski lodge pub in design and atmosphere. The pub now boasts an enormous and inviting wooden deck, pleasant for both warm summer nights and frosty-cheeked afternoons. Inside, a laid-back, casual vibe hovers around the big, horseshoe-shaped bar as skiers and locals bask in the late afternoon sun pouring in from a half-moon window.
Skiing in Massachusetts? Stop by the Wachusett Brewing Company in Westminster and ask co-founder and avid skier Ned LaFortune about the local scene. Wachusett Mountain boasts of being the highest mountain in Massachusetts east of the Connecticut River, stands more than 2,000 feet above sea level, and offers views of nearby Boston to the east.
Located in a small, cozy industrial park, the Wachusett Brewing Company is having a hard time keeping their brewery a secret. Possessed by an entrepreneurial spirit, LaFortune and two friends from college opened the brewery with little capital but a lot of technical knowledge. The trio had built and rebuilt the brewery several times over.
While Wachusett's beers won't destroy your palate with unconscionable levels of hops or malt, they are each solid, flavorful, and enjoyable offerings. The ales are easy-drinking, while the IPA and the stand-out Green Monsta (actually trademarked by the brewery), a self-described strong amber, should please even finicky beer geeks. The brewery offers very informative and spirited tours several times per week.