American beer is rubbish, right? Wrong, so wrong. Forget Budweiser; there are plenty of brewers Stateside turning out classy ales, elegant lagers and pitch-black porters. I recently edited 1,001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die (Cassell Illustrated).
It featured hundreds of beers from the United States but I realized with shame that there was a glaring blind spot in my knowledge base: Vermont. It was time to visit the Green Mountain State and taste for myself. McNeills is a bare-floored, dimly lit bar in Brattleboro, a town in the south-eastern corner of Vermont. I sit quietly, sipping a pint of Warlord Imperial IPA, brewed on the premises.
A guy wearing a trilby, collarless shirt and tie (punk meets hippy meets surf dude) introduces himself. I'm Mike, he says with a grin. I give the beer a thumbs-up and he flashes me the shaka sign (the surfers version of approval: a raised thumb and little finger). It is my first evening and already, I reckon, this Vermont beer trail is going to be a cracker.
Brattleboro, with its clapboard houses, bookshops and a Thirties Art Deco hotel straight out of Edward Hopper, is charming. Traditional Americana contrasted with a green, earth feel (earth conscious clothes were offered at one store, while a bookshop concentrated on climate change and personal development).
Ray McNeill has brewed at his eponymous pub since the early Nineties. Like many in Vermont hes from elsewhere. As Mike says: Its a refugee state, man. Naively, I planned to get around by bus. Just one problem: public transport in Vermont is scanty, to put it politely. A Greyhound bus travels daily from Brattleboro to Burlington, the states biggest city, but arrives in the middle of the night. The Amtrak Vermonter also stops there once a day. It could be done but you need a more leisurely timescale than mine. My Boston-based brother-in-law, Chris, was pressed into taxi duty.
We travel northwards, the winding road fringing the eastern side of the aptly named Green Mountains. We pass moose crossing signs here, maple syrup for sale signs there. Rocking chairs on the porches; Old Glory fluttering in the breeze. It is picture-postcard New England and it is gorgeous.
However, Chris has to call last orders in Rutland, returning home and leaving me to my own devices. Rutland certainly isn't the most scenic of towns but, like most places in Vermont, it has several decent bars. I enjoy a glass of Otter Creek Summer Ale in one with Wendell. He is 27 and works in an office. Id love to get out of here, he says morosely. Kelly M Socia doesn't share that feeling. Born and bred in Rutland, he is proud of the place and even prouder of Vermont. I realise he just might be my knight in jeans and leather jacket as it transpires that he ran something called Vermont Backwater Tours. I began with the idea of doing scenic tours, he tells me, but then someone asked about breweries. He pauses to let the idea sink in. Up at 5am for the bus or a leisurely tour with Kelly? He was booked.
Our first stop is Middlebury, home to artisanal bakers, arty-crafty shops and, above all, to the Otter Creek Brewery where, as at every other I visited in the US, I am warmly welcomed. In the visitor centre I tasted with the brewmaster, Mike Gerhart.
The delicious Black IPA is dry and bittersweet, the Copper Ale crisp with a slight hint of blackcurrant. I eye the stouts but Kelly is keen to show me everything (so much for leisurely) and he hustles me back into the truck and on to Burlington, a bustling yet compact metropolis on Lake Champlain.
The Vermont Pub and Brewery is full of families enjoying lunch while barflies study the excellent beer menu. A beatnik-like chap next to me confides that he has driven up from Arizona and aims to visit every brewery in Vermont.
Kelly ushers me out and over the road to Zero Gravity part bar, part restaurant, where wood-fired flatbreads (a kind of pizza) make a perfect lunch. It is a mixture of New York City industrial (bare brick walls), Belgian bar opulence (classic brewery posters) and old-style British gin palace (massive mirrors behind the bar). You from the UK? asks the barman, Sky. I nod. Then try this. The Black Cat Porter is rich and chocolatey. I could happily stay all day, but Kelly has other plans.
Magic Hat Brewing is just off Route 7, south out of town. Its visitor centre (known as the Magic Hat Artifactory) looks to Dr Seuss and Willy Wonka for inspiration and is a hive of hippy consumerism. The Grateful Dead eternally jam on the speakers; beer is dispensed through Daliesque tap handles while the brewery tour takes me down spooky corridors. I leave with a Magic Hat Frisbee tucked under my arm.
Kelly had been a lifesaver, but my head was spinning (and not from alcohol) so I ask him to leave me in Burlington, in time for the Vermont Brewers beer festival.
Sitting by the shores of Lake Champlain watching the sun vanish over the Adirondack mountains to the west, a glass of excellent beer to hand, is as close to heaven as it gets.
The next day I finally manage to travel the way I had intended by bus. The trip to Waterbury is slow, bumpy and sticky. The town, it transpires, is enjoying its annual fete. A swing band plays, crowds wander through the stalls and I buy an enormous burrito.
I get lucky again with a bus that promises to take me up to the ski resort of Stowe, my last port of call.
Stowe is home to the states most famous refugees, the von Trapps. The Sound of Music family arrived from Austria in 1938 and set up their eponymous lodge. You can stay and meet the family but, much more importantly to my mind, there's a brewery producing some of the finest lager I have had outside Bavaria.
Vermonters are nothing if not hospitable. The bus stops short of the lodge, so I walk four miles in sweltering heat. Sam von Trapp takes one look and offers me a fresh shirt before pouring the perfect welcome a stein of his gorgeous Helles lager.
He is a former ski instructor who returned to the family fold in 2007. As we look out towards the mountains, he gracefully accepts my gushing praise. My father [Johannes] wanted to make beers like he remembered in Austria, he says with a shrug. Well, he along with his brewmaster, Allen Van Anda has certainly succeeded.
When it is time to leave, Sam lends me a mountain bike and I freewheel down the hills with the wind in my hair and a lightness in my heart. Despite Kellys best endeavors and my own heroic odyssey, I hadn't even scratched the surface of Vermonts beery wonders. I sip another glass of von Trapps Helles back at Ye Olde England Inne (which has an eye-watering 22 taps) and gaze for one last time at the mountains.
Nothing else for it: Ill have to come back and climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow until I find my dream (probably perched on a bar stool).