There's a movement underway spanning from Burlington VT to Northeast Kingdom towns like Newport, Hardwick, and St. Johnsbury. For many visitors, perceptions of Vermont center on bucolic foliage scenes, maple syrup, and skiing. But residents are increasingly making their living from the area's booming farm-to-table movement.
The Vermont Fresh Network (VFN) is a big driver behind getting seasonal produce from local farms & small batch artisans directly to your favorite restaurants' menus. This mutually beneficial state wide program now connects more than 150 chefs to hundreds of local producers. Restaurants benefit by having local sources for a wide variety of Vermont made products while farmers and artisan food producers have a growing client list to keep their businesses thriving.
Here's a tasting itinerary heavily skewed toward the locally produced beverage category:
Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center
Launch your excursions in downtown Newport VT just off I-91 near the Canadian border in a former storefront now revived as an under-one-roof bonanza of Northeast Kingdom artisan delights. Here you can taste a wide variety of spirits, syrups, and cheeses while browsing shelves lined with Made in VT foods and beverages like Switchel, an original thirst quencher before Gaterade or artificially colored energy drinks were concocted. Farmhands kept ice cold jugs filled with this gulp inducing mixture of water, vinegar, lemon juice, ginger, and maple syrup in reserve for energy boosting rehydration during hay harvests or wood chopping sessions. Have lunch at the Center's on site cafe serving up grass fed burgers, salads built with year round local greens, and several rotating local brews on tap.
Eden Ice Ciders
Cider is the next burgeoning craft scene in VT's Northeast Kingdom...some say bigger than beer. Production is skyrocketing as new technologically equipped facilities ramp up each year. Farm orchards are fueling the frenzy rediscovering long forgotten apple varieties originally bred for cider. Head down to the Visitors Center's basement which doubles as Eden Ice Cider headquarters. Banks of stainless steel tanks ferment ciders straight from their orchards. Eden was born when owners Eleanor and Albert Leger took a trip to Montreal in 2006 when cider making was popular only in Canada. A year later they bought an abandoned dairy farm in West Charleston and soon had over 1,000 apple trees yielding 5 vintages of ice cider. Their latest lineup is Orleans herbal and bitter aperitif ice ciders perfect for meal time sipping.
Similar to the way fans once endured long hours waiting in line for coveted concert tickets, beer aficionados now exhibit the same fervor over the latest Saison or Heritage Hop brew. Only open Wed.-Sat. 12-5 with limited outside distribution, lines often snake from the entrance to this Greensboro brewery's barrel room. Here small batch takes on religious proportions with 6 draft lines, limited release bottles, and a strict growler refill limit. Fresh sourced hops and creative fermentation like their Galaxy Single Hop Pale Ale are fueling Hill Farmstead's growth by leaps and bounds (they just finished a major addition). But they're trying not to grow too fast by shipping only to the local Vermont market.
Hold on to your hat, each Caledonia spirit has a distinct personality. Whether it's their taste bud tingling gin, versatile vodka, or Reserve Tom Cat, all are micro distilled from organic local grain from nearby Butterwork Farms. A touch of raw honey raised in on-site hives is added to all bottles as well. Added just before bottling, the honey imparts unique floral qualities that vary with season and blossom. With their signature gin, you're getting spruce on the nose and palate along with the noticeable pungency of fresh picked wild juniper berries. Barr Hill Vodka is smooth enough for sipping yet has enough personality for mixing. Tom Cat is Caledonia's modern day adaption of 18th century England’s most revered spirit, Old Tom gin. Barrel aged 4-6 months in locally harvested and produced charred American White Oak, Tom Cat is a completely unique gin with whiskey-like notes of oak, spice and a finish of juniper and raw honey.
Where to Stay
Since you're actively seeking out authentic culinary experiences, it's only fitting that you'd want to stay at non-corporate accommodations directly supporting the region's many small business owners. One fantastic example is Estabrook House B&B in St. Johnsbury. This isn't the place to stay if you require nightly turn down service, an onsite spa, or a guaranteed private bathroom. But you have found your temporary home if you want a room in a Victorian mansion restored to its original grandeur complete with stained glass windows, ornate wood carved banisters, and a living room filled with games, maps, and books,. Innkeeper Maureen Hennings cooks up scratch made breakfasts each morning and if you're lucky, a plate of her pillowy pumpkin pancakes. Best of all, staying here puts you within walking distance to nearby St. Johnsbury attractions like Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, and can't-miss dining at Bailiwicks and Kingdom Taproom.
Photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky & Hill Farmstead Brewery. Coverage made possible by participating in a visit partially sponsored by Northeast Kingdom Travel & Tourism Association. Check out travelthekingdom.com for more NE VT trip ideas.