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Vermont inn brews Yankee spirit, English pints

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / October 12, 2008
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NORWICH, Vt. - Already a decade into its third century, the Norwich Inn retains an air of old-fashioned Yankee practicality. The inn's staff not only brews the ale that's served in the tavern, but also grows some of the hops (visible in the garden behind the parking lot) that go into the brew.

"It looks like they're climbing a clothesline," one of the staff told us when we asked about the slender vines tassled with cone-like green flowers.

The inn was founded in 1797 to serve travelers on the coach road heading north from Boston. But the current dark mustard yellow building with green shutters and a big front porch only dates to 1890, as it replaced the original inn destroyed by fire a year earlier.

Modest touches of wooden "gingerbread" ornamentation on the exterior attest to the "new" building's Victorian style, as does the interior decor, which relies heavily on boldly patterned wallpaper and marble-topped tables. With two cushy sofas and a couple of chairs arranged in front of the fireplace, the welcoming front parlor is arranged to encourage guests to settle in for a lengthy conversation.

Our deluxe room, No. 25 on the second floor, seemed to span the centuries. The large, almost square space with high ceiling and three large windows featured white walls below the chair rail and a blue and beige floral trellis wallpaper above. In deference to the assertive wall covering, the furnishings were simple: white headboard on the king bed, white nightstand, caramel colored love seat, and small white wicker desk. The yellow and green tiled bathroom with a small sink and walk-in shower was a colorful throwback to the 1950s. The flat-screen television, mounted on the wall so that it could be swiveled toward the sofa or the bed, added a touch of the 21st century.

The inn dominates the short commercial stretch of Norwich's Main Street, which has little to offer shoppers besides the excellent Norwich Bookstore and the quirky Dan & Whit's general store, where a sign asserts, "If we don't have it, you don't need it." A mile away across the Connecticut River, Hanover, N.H., has a larger shopping district, full of quirky shops catering to Dartmouth College students and their parents.

Norwich, in fact, circles in Dartmouth's orbit, as we discovered when we settled in for dinner at Jasper Murdock's Alehouse, named for the inn's founder. On a somewhat slow Sunday night, a young man who identified himself as a graduate student was engaged in a wide-ranging discussion - politics, geology, golf - with the bartender and the older woman on the next stool. At a nearby table, visiting parents discussed courses and the challenge of early morning classes with their undergraduate daughter.

Rather than the inn's fine dining room, we had chosen the pub, assuming that we'd find a livelier scene and a menu better suited for sampling the in-house ales. The inn has been making English-style ales since 1993. The yearly production of about 250 barrels, brewed in a barn on the property, is available only at the inn. During the year, the brewer makes about a dozen styles, four of which were available in true English (20-ounce) pints, half pints (10-ounce), or small (5-ounce) samples.

Whistling Pig Red Ale, a malt with a bite of hops, went well with a grilled tuna BLT on multigrain bread from Norwich's Baker's Store, part of the King Arthur Flour empire. The Extra Special Bitter, on the other hand, had enough dark malt oomph to stand up to a cheeseburger made with local grass-fed beef and topped with Vermont cheddar.

While the pub fare suited the slightly rough-around-the-edges ales, our homey-sounding desserts - a cold and gummy white chocolate bread pudding and a soggy apple tart that was anything but tart - were disappointing. But you don't need dessert when you're drinking beer, and as a brass sign beneath the taps proclaimed, "Our beer is rotten good."

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

Norwich Inn

325 Main St., Norwich, Vt.

802-649-1143; norwichinn.com

What we liked most: Complimentary coffee available in the lobby all day.

What we liked least: Creaky floor and lead-footed guests in the room above us.

What surprised us: In addition to brewing its own ales, the inn has an excellent wine cellar.

You know you're at the Norwich Inn when ... bottles of ale are on display in the lobby.

Rates: The Norwich Inn has 16 rooms in the main inn, seven more in the adjacent carriage house, and four efficiencies in the vestry, a house on the back of the property. Rates through October range from $109-$209 for rooms, $159-$239 for suites. From November through April, rooms are $149-$184, suites $179-$209. Our room, No. 25, was $189. The dining room serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner Tuesday-Sunday (and brunch on Sunday); dinner entrees $22-$33. The pub serves dinner nightly; entrees $8.95-$13.95.

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