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Beer chaser

Putting two breweries in Vermont to more than the usual taste test

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2003

Mountains 'n' beer. Mud 'n' beer. Beer 'n' a nice big bowl of Ben & Jerry's.

These days, locally brewed ale is as popular in Vermont as leaves or cheese. A few craft beermakers, such as Long Trail Brewing near Woodstock, distribute their wares throughout the Northeast, and two in particular -- Middlebury's Otter Creek and Burlington's Magic Hat -- are pushing on-site samplings and tours.

I decided to taste: Which tour experience was more filling? Was either one mostly foam? Was it worth the drive to get swallows of free beer and see bottles being capped? And what about beer mats, can cozies, logo caps, and sweatshirts: Who had the best beer gear?

Tour show

Both Magic Hat and Otter Creek have so many sidelines, it's easy to forget about the tours. But these are bona fide beer factories: You can get behind the scenes during afternoon tour times to take a look (and get a whiff) of how ale is made.

The day I visit Otter Creek, the tour guide is an informative guy named Kim with a bear-hunter's beard and . . . are those clogs? He makes you first put on goggles, which give the stainless steel fermentation tanks a rainbow glow. Bags of malt are stacked everywhere, grain is being cooked and filtered, and everything is clean, clean, clean.

At Magic Hat there are no goggles, but a mannequin in overalls named Gwen stands guard over the fermentation room. Look to Gwen's left and down, and hundreds of bottles march around inside a large machine. You watch them filling with beer, you see them getting their caps, and last but not least, you see each bottle get a label whapped on its side. Time for a taste.

Brew spaces

Miss the Sixties? If so, you'll freak out over the store and brewery space at Magic Hat. Strange steel sculptures, fluorescent Frisbees, and fuzzed-out base notes put you in the mood to chug down classic-rock beers like ''Blind Faith" and ''Number 9." More theme park than brewery, you get in through a black-painted portal swirling with vortexes and stars, and don't get out until you're humming and buzzing from black lights and the smell of exotic malts as intense as incense.

Heading down Route 7 to collegial Middlebury and a tour of Otter Creek is like trading the Fillmore East for L. L. Bean. Somebody's kayak is parked next to the Otter Creek tasting taps, the stuff for sale includes ''all-weather anoraks," and after touring the skylit brewery, you can stretch out on an Adirondack chair built out of snowboards.

Suds

At both breweries you can get shot glasses full of almost everything they make. Stay sober and come back again and again for more. Out of the Otter Creek taps foam meat-and-potato favorites like their flagship Copper Ale (which just won a gold medal at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival) and the very innocent tasting line of Wolaver's ''Certified Organic" ales. No additives or bug spray residue here.

Magic Hat, meanwhile, likes juicing things up with powerful flavors. There's ''essence of apricot," I am told, in their complex and tasty Number 9 Pale Ale, and their Humble Patience Red Ale goes down like cappuccino. Other hints in here: blueberries, I guess, and probably some Hershey's in the Heart of Darkness Stout.

It's not enough, I think, not in Vermont: What about a dash of Macintosh apple essence, just for fun? Or come to think of it, how about maple syrup? Just a drop, just for show.

By this point, the brewmaster is ushering me out. I've had my tastes. I'm over the limit.

Little does he know: I'll be back.

Beer gear

You were thinking mugs with logos? OK, got that. But what about a pea-green infant and toddler jumpsuit ($40 at Magic Hat), or a zip-up neoprene ''wetsuit" for your beer bottle ($7.95 at Otter Creek)?

Both brewery stores are stocked with the expected beer glasses and T-shirts, but, especially at Magic Hat, you can pore over merchandise for hours, deciding if you have any use for a $3 bar of Fat Angel beer soap (made with what's left in the brewing vats), a specially designed deck of Magic Hat cards, or a silkscreened limited-edition ''Artifactory Poster" that -- especially fascinating after you've quaffed a few cold ones -- glows in the dark ($12).

Mascots

Otter Creek boasts -- big surprise -- Ollie the Otter, a cheerful cartoon animal who hoists beer steins in the company's ads and sports all kinds of garb (lederhosen, ski scarves, etc.) depending on the brew being sold.

Magic Hat, meanwhile, has bees. Real bees. Bees buzzing around in wooden crates, right out back. (If you ask someone in the store, they may let you see them. No extra charge.) Brewmaster Todd Haire moonlights as a beekeeper, and one of his specialty oak-aged ales stirs in wild honey from this private stock.

Munchies

Beer always slides down best when there is something to snack on on the side. Magic Hat and Otter Creek must have the same out-of-work chef: At both you've got a choice of pretzels -- choose between stale whole sticks, or scattered crumbs and pieces. But over near the Otter Creek kayak, beer tasters seem to be dipping pretzels into little bowls. Gourmet beer mustard to the rescue! Otter Creek has it, it's excellent, and you can buy jars of it to go. Their roasted garlic mustard is made with the brewery's Copper Ale and the hickory smoked version is flavored with Amber Ale. Bring on the brew . . .

Peter Mandel lives in Providence and writes children's and humor books, including ''The Official Dog I.Q. Test" (Bonus Books).

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