There may or may not be a craft beer heaven, but this vibrant city wedged between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains is close. Located at the epicenter of Vermont's microbrewery scene, Burlington is bustling with pubs and taprooms. Finding one that serves craft on draft is not only easy, it's the rule.
To prove it, we set out on our own pub crawl to see how many bars serving local brews on tap we could find before we ran out of steam. (Yeah, it's a tough job.)
The rules were simple. The crawl had to stay within walking distance of the intersection of Main and Church streets. Burlington beer aficionados readily provided a list of places to check out, but this crawl, as they so often do, progressed randomly.
Note to those who are leery of craft beer: Burlington bars also serve traditional domestic and imported brands, so you will have something to drink as you accompany your favorite beer snob. Cheers!
We started at 7:30 p.m. on Main Street, in a hard, cold rain that threatened to turn to sleet, and quickly found Nectar's Restaurant. This sprawling, quirkily decorated complex has pool tables, numerous TVs, a large dance floor, and an eclectic reggae rock decor that more than offset the annoying disco ball. Phish, the legendary jam band, used to play here. Twenty-five bands perform at Nectar's on any given week, according to co-owner Damon Brink, who calls his place "the hub of the local scene."
The highlight was the $2 draft special for microbrews, served at a polished wood bar with a comfortable elbow-leaning ledge. Of the 23 draft beers, 15 were from local breweries, a couple of which provided a tasty respite from the brutally cold rain: Long Trail Hibernator, a brown ale with an almost sweet finish, and Trout River Rainbow Red, a pleasing, malty brew, almost fruity, definitely easier drinking than your average red ale. Pleased with having spent just $4 for two pints of quality beer, we moseyed back into the freezing downpour.
We did not get far on Main Street before ducking into Esox, a local dive with rough- hewn charm. A sign at the door warned patrons not to spit on the floor. A large, mounted northern pike loomed over the bar, next to the "I'm from Vermont, I do what I please" bumper sticker. The rickety bar stools twirled beneath walls covered in graffiti. "This is our bar," proclaimed one entry.
"Anybody can come in and we give them a piece of chalk," said bartender Lynn Bissonette. For $8.25, she served up an ice-chilled, 32-ounce pitcher of Switchback, a surprisingly fruity American pale ale, which Burlington beeristas agree is one of their best sellers.
Thus refreshed, the crawl set course for Three Needs Taproom, a pub on quiet College Street that came loudly recommended. It was easy to see why. The five offerings brewed on the premises were inventive and mostly delicious. The clear winner, in the opinion of this pub crawl, was the Belgian tripel, spicy and deceptively light (until the drinker tries to stand up and feels its 10.5 percent alcohol ferocity). To recover, the crawl sampled the thick and pungent coffee stout, and admired the hand-crafted taps made by regular customers.
Each day at 4 p.m., Three Needs serves $1 pints of a selected beer until the keg runs dry. Asked about the meaning of Three Needs, bartender Monique Ford produced a notebook in which patrons can write their own three needs - and read those of others.
"Buy a house, get Marge out of my life, clarity," read one.
"Love, passion, connectedness," another client wrote.
The crawl made its own entry - no, it was not "beer, craft, and draft" - and was on its way.
No pub crawl is complete without an Irish one, and Finnegan's was next door. It was a no-frills, no-holds-barred saloon, with darts, pool, and an all-black decor that made the place seem far more threatening than it was. The bartender, Tom Duboc, is a nice guy who offered samples of Long Trail IPA - light and spicy - and a Shed's Mountain Ale, a very sour, pungent brew that Duboc described as "something to warm you up on the slopes." Finally, the crawl sprang $3 for an Otter Creek Oktoberfest Autumn Ale, a malty brew that came in more than a tad hoppier than your average Oktoberfest.
Sweetwaters, the first stop on the Church Street pedestrian mall, was more of a bistro than a beer bar, but it had 12 taps with plenty of local offerings. Badly in need of a break, the crawl sampled a locally made root beer for $2.50 and stared in wonder at the bizarre neoclassical fresco, which depicts scenes of anachronistic bacchanalia set on the mall. Fawns and nude naiads commingle in merriment with shoppers and street performers.
The crawl also sampled Magic Hat #9, the apricot-flavored wheat offering of the South Burlington brewery, which had an intriguing sweetness not as present in the bottled version available in Massachusetts.
Security at Red Square Bar and Grille, also on Church Street, harkened to the bars on Novy Arbat in downtown Moscow; all that was missing was the metal detector and the request to check your handguns. Here, the burly security guards were polite, ready for trouble, and armed with those little earphones Secret Service agents wear. It was a lot more muscle than you'd expect on a Tuesday night in Burlington.
But this was reggae night, and once the DJ started spinning roots Rasta rock, gyrating co-eds filled the floor, sketchy-looking guys leered from the corners, and the need for the big men became clearer. The crawl focused on the 16 taps at the bar, and settled on a Magic Hat Circus Boy, a pale wheat beer that had the coriander and pepper tones of a Belgian witbier. Long Trail Blackberry Wheat ($4.50 a pint) was filtered, and fruity.
The fireplace glowing in the back of American Flatbread was a welcome sight when the crawl reached this pizza place and taproom on St. Paul Street. This Flatbread (one of three in Vermont; there's also one in Virginia) brews its own beer and serves a varying selection on 10 of its 21 taps. For a sampler, the friendly server, Kristina Woida, served up six half pints (at $2.25 each). The Kolsch was powerful and hoppy; the Saison was light and mellow with a spicy note that evoked a Belgian farmhouse; the rauchbier captured the smoky taste for which it is named.
And then the crawl ran out of steam! There was still plenty of time to dance; bars here close at 2 a.m., so we muscled back into reggae night at Red Square, and skanked the night away.
Of the many other venues suggested by Burlington beer mavens, Vermont Pub & Brewery on College Street was the most recommended. Alas, it ended up being a bar too far.
David Filipov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.