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Archive for February, 2012

With absolutely no numbers to back it up, I’m confident that there’s more pizza consumed on Fridays than any other day of the week.  From pizza nights, to pizza parties, to school cafeterias, Friday is the day pizza shines.  Apparently American’s love pizza some much that the folks at The Week think its an addiction and an obsession.  To me it’s a reward for a long week of work, perfectly complemented by a beer it’s comfort food through and through.  No matter how good frozen pizza gets, it’ll never be as good as fresh pie.  Frozen pizza is great in its own right though.  Frequently I see it as a way to try something that I might not otherwise put on a pizza.

In this case it was trying a gluten free pizza.  Against The Grain’s three cheese pizza is like a blank slate, yet one that doesn’t necessarily need to be dressed up to be tasty.  The crust is thin and phylo dough like, slightly crispy.  There is an extremely thin layer of tomato sauce that gives a touch of flavor without softening up the pizza too much.  The cheese layer is thick and tasty and is really what makes the pizza.  At the edges of the crust the pizza has a taste that is a dead ringer for Cheez-Its.   Overall this was like a high quality cafeteria pizza (that’s meant as a compliment, some schools actually make decent pizza) that could be adapted with your own toppings.  One word of warning  this pizza did not reheat well at all the next day.

Verdict: A tasty thin crust frozen pizza.  

Made in Brattleboro, we snagged this pizza from the freezer section at City Market for $10.99. Follow them at @ATGG and check them out on Facebook.

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If foreign investment represents a path to grow for some Vermont breweries, for others the model of growth is purely local.  Lawson’s Finest Liquids has remained “limited in availability by design,” brewing out of a small barn in Warren and distributing until recently only throughout the Mad River Valley and limited locations in Montpelier.  Before it started showing up on shelves at the Hunger Mountain Co-Op and Beverage Warehouse in Winooski, I definitely made a pilgrimage or two to the Warren Store on Friday afternoons to grab a few bottles.  Lawson’s has succeeded for a host of reasons; the beer is great, it’s local, it’s rare.  But as it grows they’re going to need help.  You can only do so much on your own, brewing, bottling, delivering before you simply don’t have enough time for anything else.

One of the development tools in the box for those not interested in going after gobs of foreign money are local food hubs.  The Vermont Food Venture Center and Mad River Food Hub both recently came on line and represent an option for brewers who need space for processing and storage.  Seven Days’ Alice Leavitt reports in a conversation with Mad River Food Hub director Robin Morris, that Lawson’s is currently utilizing the facility for cold storage and potentially for distribution down the road.  This addresses two major issues for small brewers, the need for space and access to customers.  With recent flare ups in the debate over the role of distributors in the three tiered system, in Vermont its easy to the push and pull over control of distribution shifting towards producers.  Most likely that will manifest itself in additional state or federal grants for new or existing food hubs that look to have a role in distribution.

Storage and distribution represent the most tangible benefits to brewers from local food hubs, but one area I believe will emerge in the coming years will be processing of ingredients.  Access to certain hops and malts is becoming more difficult and issues around quality will only increase as an issue as demand for hops grows.  This has brewers contemplating how to adjust their recipes and beer lines in order to continue producing a consistent array of offerings.  Food hubs represent an area of opportunity as a means to process and store new ingredients, such as Harpoon’s using spruce tips in their 100 barrel series.  These can be gathered, processed and stored locally giving brewers an ingredient option they might not normally look for.

Looking further into the future, food hubs could also play a critical role in the resurrection of Vermont hops.  With brewers excited about the prospects but suspect about the quality of local hops, the food hub is a natural place to address this issue.  Classes and workshops, space and equipment will all have an impact on improving the quality of local hops and improving confidence among brewers about the products they are purchasing.  My guess is its only a matter of time before we see this connection develop.  In the meantime we’ll distract ourselves with exceptional beers like this Lawson’s Double Sunshine IPA. The beer poured a bright orange, amber color with an unfiltered look.  It has the bright citrusy nose you’d expect from a double IPA. While sometimes the descriptive notes on a bottle arelittle more than just flowery praise, in this case they are pretty spot on.  The Double Sunshine does have juicy tropical flavors, sort of the  sweetness of pineapple or papaya.

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Trapp Family Lodge Brewery Vienna Lager

So in the last few weeks a Vermont story was picked up in the national news and swept wildly around the internet.  It ignited passionate debate and commentary from all corners of the web.  No, we’re not referring to the pig decals on cop cars story, or the emu on the loose in the Champlain Islands.  We’re talking about the Trapp Family Lodge Brewery expansion plans.  And by all corners, we mean the various beer blogs and news sites that reside in the corner of the internet.  This short piece in Seven Days was picked up by Beer News and kicked off a debate by the good folks at Aleheads over the  appropriate role of foreign investment in small breweries and whether this fundraising effort was a sign of a larger craft beer bubble.  Before we get into the details of the debate and the beer review, its helpful to do a quick recap of the situation.

Vermont’s ski areas and resorts have struggled for years to create stability to their bottom lines.  It seems every few years a major mountain goes up for sale and changes hands.  Some ski areas have built golf courses to bring folks to the mountain during the summer.  That’s helped, but golf is also a weather dependant sport and Vermont’s northern climate means golf season really doesn’t get going until late May or June.  Resorts started catering to mountain bikers and other thrill seekers with amusement park like rides, which has added another revenue stream.  The next phase in diversification has brought new investment in base lodges, hotels and amenities.  Sugarbush and Jay Peak are the standard bearers of this latest phase, and no resort has been more talked about this year in Vermont than Jay.  January saw the opening of their massive new indoor water park, the Pumphouse, which is only a part of the new development which includes a new hotel and conference center (Tram House Lodge) and hockey rink (the Icehaus).

How did Jay Peak and Sugarbush make these new improvements?  A little known government managed foreign investment program called EB-5.  Here’s the basic framework.  An entrepreneur has an idea but needs capital to get it going.  In Vermont, they take their plan to the state run EB-5 Regional Center which reviews and signs off on the business plans.  Then the entrepreneur goes oversees to shop the project to foreign investors, where those interested commit $500,000 to the project.  In many cases the terms of these investments are extremely generous to the entrepreneur because the investor ‘s primary incentive for participating is the receipt of a green card from the US Government.  Interest on the investment might be close to zero or come in the form of property, depending on how the terms of the business plan are structured.  If the project is successful at creating or preserving 10 jobs (direct or indirect) and the investor maintains their investment for five years, they are then eligible for US citizenship and able to recoup some or all of their investment.

So what does this have to do with beer?  Well it seems anyone and everyone in Vermont looking to expand their business is considering utilizing the EB-5 program.  Including the von Trapp family, which has plans for a $22 million project at their resort and cross country ski area in Stowe.  The project would include a renovation to the existing lodge, new time share villas and an expanded brewery and restaurant.  The Seven Days piece notes a desire by Johannes von Trapp to raise $10 million specifically to expand the brewery, growing their production from a current level of 1,800 barrels to 50,000 over the course of a few years.  That would be a huge jump for the Trapp Family Lodge Brewery, which is currently only available on draft at about 70 bars and restaurants around Vermont.  For comparison sake, Otter Creek has capacity to brew 60,000 barrels and currently produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 barrels annually.  Long Trail is the most consumed beer in Vermont and produced 117,000 barrels in 2010.  They’ve also greatly improved their out of state distribution through their purchase of Otter Creek, having grown from about 75,000 barrels in 2008.

That would put a 50,000 barrel Trapp Family Lodge Brewery at the upper levels of production for Vermont beer.  Beyond some additional tanks, they’ll need bottling or canning equipment and additional staffing.  It’s easy to see the numbers add up quickly.  If they keep the quality of the Vienna Lager that we had in this growler, it’s likely they’ll meet their growth plans.  This beer had a nice amber color with a fluffy head.  The nose was sweet, slightly floral. The taste was a delicious malty-bready flavor with a distinct biscuit almost oyster cracker finish.  Will this be the new favorite of hop heads?  No, but I tend to agree with von Trapp that there’s room in the Vermont craft beer spectrum for this type of beer.  Add in the Rauchbier, Trostenbier and Helles Lager that are also part of the Trapp offerings and I think you’ve got a compelling line up that will be welcomed in bars and bottle shops around New England.

What does this investment mean for the state of craft beer?  Is this the bubble?  I’m split on that question.  On the one hand because this growth is one part of a larger resort expansion its a bit more protected than a brewery taking on this project on its own.  The investment mechanism also protects the project to a degree.  Alternatively, this is an enormous expansion for a beer line that really isn’t tested outside of Vermont.  The growth of other Vermont breweries has been slow and steady, developing their brands over a period of years.  The risk posed to craft beer at large is that Trapp tries to grow too quickly, fails and not only poisons the well for EB5 as an investment tool for breweries but depresses broader support for growth and investment in craft beer at large.

Verdict: Crisp and tasty, once they start bottling I wouldn’t hesitate to grab a six pack to quench my thirst for lager.  

Brewed in Stowe, we grabbed this growler at Hunger Mountain Co-Op’s Thursday Growler fill for $8.99.  

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Back Country Cafe del Fuego

Sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference.  For small producers that small thing might just be a website.  Its confounding that someone would work so hard to produce cookies, coffee or cheese and have absolutely zero web presence.  For those not interested in spending the money or time on a website, Facebook provides a perfectly legitimate option.  As a consumer, at a minimum I want to know where your product is made, some basics about you and how you came to make your product, a listing of the items you make, and where I can find them.  Seems pretty basic to me.

My assumption is that the reason some companies lack a website is they don’t have enough time or know how.  Which to me raises the question, where’s the Dealer.com of food websites?  Sure the internet needs of small Vermont producers are dramatically different that car dealerships, but isn’t there a Vermonter out there with a food website template that would meet most folks need?

Whatever is going on with Back Country Coffee’s website it is clear they could benefit from a little help.  When your packaging contains as little information as Back Country’s does, you could use a little supplemental help from your website.  That’s not to say their packaging isn’t incredibly attractive.  It starts with the brown bag that’s a few iterations more advanced (it’s foil lined, sealable top) than the bag your used to seeing at the store.  The imagery is alluring, a large cocoa bean with flickering flames rising up in front of what could be the silhouette of a forest.

I drank this almost every day for two weeks and kept searching for something that shone about it.  There’s not much aroma to the beans or the coffee after it’s brewed.  One of my favorite moments of buying a new coffee is the first whiff of opening the bag.  Usually the aroma grabs you when you open it and sticks with you until you drink from the cup.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case here.  Tasting the coffee is mild and dark, the flavor is a bit flat and bland.  It wasn’t overly bitter or acidic on the finish, and had almost a bit of burnt flavor.  The details page of Café del Fuego indicates it’s a blend of Indonesian, Central American and Ethiopian beans.  Apparently that makes it Back Country’s best seller, for my tastes it just didn’t work.

Verdict: Pretty packaging, but for our tastes not much more than that.

Roasted in Montgomery Center (we assume based on this Facebook site) we bought this bag for $11.99/lb at Newport Natural Foods on Main Street in Newport.  

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Do you ever take a bite of something that tastes delicious but then devour it so fast you completely forget what it tastes like?  When you’re done you think, I know that was really good, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it.  Dolly’s Delites cookies were that type of cookie.  I had one and then had to ask myself whether I had just eaten a cookie or imagined it.  Thankfully there were three in the package.

Dolly refers herself to as baker of the original fairy godmother cookie.  I don’t know if that’s some good old New England passive aggressiveness towards other Vermont bakers who also have a fairy godmother image or a reference that’s over my head.  These cookies might be made by someone with supernatural powers, but they’re not going to win any beauty pageants.  Not a problem given that if you buy them they won’t be around long enough for anyone to closely examine their appearance.  The outside texture of the cookie is sandy and it will crumble easily, the bottom of the bag had a handful of large crumbs and cookie dust.  The interior of the cookie is dense with a moist cocoa flavor.  It’s a contrast that works, the peanut butter cup in the cookie adds moisture and the sweetness it brings works to extend the flavor of the cookie.

Verdict: If you can take the time to savor this cookie you’ll be rewarded, and we’ll be impressed.  

Baked in Saxtons River by the star of fairy tales, we bought this package of cookies at the Putney General Store.  Apparently there’s a Dolly Delites site coming soon, in the meantime you can like Dolly’s on Facebook.

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Today chocolate week comes to an end.  It was a good week, with some highs and lows, and entirely much more chocolate that we expected to consume.  All in the name of supporting Vermont companies though, so we’re not going to feel guilty about anything.  Our last chocolate product this week actually is white chocolate.  Do you know anyone that actually likes white chocolate?  Or likes white chocolate more than dark chocolate?  I don’t, and I’d be suspect of their character if I met such a person.  Sure it’s made with derivatives of cocoa and using the same methods, but in my book it’s not real chocolate.  Mrs. Sapbucket shares my aversion to the white stuff, but I think that’s mostly derived from a traumatic life event.  A number of years back a canceled flight let her stranded in the airport and the only thing anyone in her party had to eat was a giant white chocolate Toblerone bar.  It wasn’t quite the Donner Party, but I know she’s never looked at white chocolate the same since.

If you’ve bothered to read this far your probably asking yourself why I’ve reviewed a white chocolate product if I’m decidedly anti-white chocolate.  Turns out that in some instances, it’s not all bad.  Douglas Sweets in fact takes a splendid chocolate shortbread, dips it in white chocolate, and then drizzles some chocolate on top for a remarkable little treat. The white chocolate flavor is tempered by the shortbread and drizzle and is pleasantly sweet.  The shortbread is tasty in its own right and I’m eager to give it another try.  I’ve already transferred the crown of shortbread making to Vermont from Scotland, and Douglas Sweets only helps to cement bringing the shortbread title to the Green Mountain State.

Verdict: Be thankful that the Douglas Sweets folks have kept a familial Scottish shortbread recipe alive and are making some to share. 

Made in Burlington, Douglas Sweets are available in shops around the Queen City.  We picked these up at Maglianero.  Follow them on twitter @DouglasSweets and like them on Facebook.

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There is nothing small about this chocolate.  The bar is large, the chunks are large and the flavor is large.  You would probably benefit from having a large knife to chop it up.  Granted it is slightly unwieldy to chop up into pieces, but if you wanted a small chocolate you would have bought some Hershey Kisses.  (Some of which are apparently also nut-free)  The relatively plain packaging belies the straightforward chocolate on the inside.  You wanted dark, nut free chocolate?  You’ve got it.  Reminiscent of Nestle’s semi-sweet chips, this chocolate has a nice sweetness with only minimal bitterness.  It’d be great as a substitute for Neslte chips in baking.

That a nut-free chocolate is made in Vermont really shouldn’t come as a surprise.  For a state with strong sense of community, there’s also an undercurrent of individuality that runs through the populous.  Sort of a, “I don’t expect someone else to meet all my needs, so I’m doing what I have to do to take care of them myself.”  I think that’s reflected in the number of nut-free, gluten-free, allergen aware products that are made here.  It makes sense and feels right, and even if you don’t have a nut allergy you’ll enjoy this delicious chocolate.

Verdict: Rich, dark and thick, this chocolate losses nothing by being nut-free.  

Made in Grand Isle, we picked up this hefty 6.5 ounce bar at the Natural Foods Co-Op in Middlebury.  VT Nut-Free has an inactive Twitter feed, but an active Facebook page.

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