Burlington VT: Jazz, Cider and Beer

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cPhour performs at the Red Lounge on Church Street, Burlington Vermont. Andy Castillo photos.
cPhour performs at the Red Lounge on Church Street, Burlington Vermont. Andy Castillo photos.

Burlington: We Came for the Jazz and Stayed for the Beer & Cider

By Andy Christian Castillo

Water runs down the streets like rivers; rain falls in sheets into the night. It is absolutely pouring out. On the way over I could barely see, even with the wipers going full blast. Streetlights reflect off of the slick pavement like glass until cars disrupt the melancholy chaos.

It’s after 9 p.m. and one of those nights when my feet are soaked, but my spirits aren’t. How can they be, when I’m in Burlington, Vermont, for the Discover Jazz Festival.

A young girl watches a boat pass by at the waterfront stage.
A young girl watches a boat pass by at the waterfront stage.

The raspy wail of an electric guitar floats out from under the awning of a tucked-away bar on Church Street. I push open the door and the full brunt of sad notes invade my emotions. It’s like 90’s grunge met smooth jazz and produced an offspring. Or maybe John Bonham from Led Zeppelin reincarnated as a jazz drummer.

The bartender tells me that the band is Ethan Snyder. They have driving undertones with a light aftertaste; just like the beer. I like them a lot.

My brother is with me; we order local brews: a German-style ale and a hard cider. I’ve been to Burlington Vermont before, but this is a different experience.

There are a lot of layers to the city; there’s the tourist facade, the college crowd, and then there’s the real deal.

New York Jazz in Burlington, Vermont

We’re at 1/2 Lounge which seems pretty authentic; there isn’t any tacky decor and a lot of the beer brands are obscure. I like to think that it’s a local watering hole, but I can’t tell for sure.

Next door is Red Lounge. We run through the rain and are met inside by the murmur of conversation and the trill of a catchy tune. cPhour from New York is playing cool jazz; they have an active bass and a jumpy clarinet. The drums are succinct but the mood is light.

“They’re cool man,” said Frank Lacy in a thick East Coast accent, “I know them from New York.” Lacy is also playing this week; he’s one of about 70 bands performing in the city, over a little more than a week.

The Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.
The Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

On Church Street, a few outdoor stages have been set up, on which performers play during the day. Restaurants have musicians booked through the week. It’s like the entire downtown area has been converted into a musical sanctuary.

After exploring the street a little bit more, we head back to Homewood Suites, where we are staying (a pretty good pad that offers a good breakfast right off the highway).

The Growing Tourism Beer Scene in Vermont

We meet Matt Canning the next day; he runs a Beer Concierge program at Hotel Vermont. He helped start the program because he found himself repeatedly answering the same beer-related questions. Beer tourism is growing quickly around the United States, particularly in border states like Vermont, Minnesota, and California.

“The beer scene transcends the Vermont tourism scene,” he said; “So we decided to officially recognized beer tourism.” To fill the void, Hotel Vermont in Burlington offers structured beer tours, including guided bicycle tours.

He went on to say that popular beer in Vermont is “hop-forward;” it isn’t the typical light wheat (summer) ale or watered-down pilsner. Think double IPA’s. And the popular brews are locally produced; a lot of what’s on-tap downtown is craft beer.

Inside the Citizen Cider factory in Burlington Vermont.
Inside the Citizen Cider factory.

Sixteen-ounce cans are a popular trend that is sweeping the beer scene, especially in Vermont. Recently, popular craft beers are being sold in cans, instead of bottles. “It started in the mountains of Colorado,” said Canning; “They’re easier to take on hikes — they’re crushable and easy to pack.”

The growing craft beer scene is different from other beverage obsessions, like wine or whiskey. Pilgrims traveling the beer trail usually sport scraggly beards and a lot of tattoos, instead of J. Crew and expensive tastes. Beer is the official drink of the working class; so the people who love good beer, are usually a little rough-around-the-edges.

Hotel Vermont is one of the coolest hotels I’ve ever seen. It’s located just off of Church Street (a two-minute walk), and close to the waterfront. Just inside the entrance, a large, vaulted ceiling with a cozy seating area opens up to an in-house bar.

Canning said that they keep everything local; like a reclaimed, original Vermont barn floor, and locally crafted glasswork in the rooms. It’s independently owned, so commercialism is kept to a minimum. I definitely recommend it, and I didn’t even see the inside of the rooms.

Pine Street: Craft Beer Mecca

We left downtown and drove to Pine Street — a section of Burlington dubbed the ‘Southend Arts District,’ and the beer-seekers Mecca. On the street, there are multiple breweries located within a mile of each other; including Zero Gravity, Queen City Brewery (strong IPA’s, experimental), and Citizen Cider.

At Queen City Brewery, I tried a Rauchbier, which is an older-style German beer with a smokey taste. “We smoke the malt out here in the parking lot,” said Jason Held, Tasting Room Manager; “It goes really well with smoked cheeses and anything that’s grilled.” I’d never had anything like it before.

Across the street at Zero Gravity, we almost caught the first batch of canned beer (it was being run later in the day). They offer the best “American Lager” that I’ve ever had. Typically, I’m not a fan of pilsners (my taste has been ruined by commercial beers like Budweiser), but the Green State Lager changed my opinion.

“We decided that we’d take what we liked from a lot of different pilsners, and make something new,” said Matt Wilson, co-founder of the brewery. “We tried to make something drinkable – it’s tempting to call it the ‘perfect summer beer,’ because it’s the perfect winter beer too.”

Just down the street, toward downtown, we found Citizen Cider tucked into an unassuming parking lot.

Citizen Cider: One Good Apple!

A flight of Citizen Cider brews.
A flight of Citizen Cider brews.

I’ve always thought that cider is ‘fruitier’ than beer (pun intended), but after trying a flight of craft hard cider, made from locally sourced apples, my former opinion fell off of the tree. Citizen Cider rocks.

“What makes craft cider interesting, is that we can make the best cider in the world because we don’t have to source materials from around the world,” said Justin Heilenbach, President of Citizen Cider. “We are able to make regional craft ciders. Because of that, the industry has longevity in this region. Californians can make cider, but it will never be the same because they have to ship the apples in from another place”

He went on to say, that after the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, growers abandoned or cut down their apple orchards, which grew apples specifically for cider. The industry fell off completely. Today, with the reemergence of craft cider, there is a lot of room for experimentation. And planters are regrowing cider-specific apple orchards.

“It’s a really exciting time, we’ve watched the industry go bonkers,” said Heilenbach, “We’re able to redevelop an entire industry.”

All Local

We received a personal tour of their facilities and a close-up look at the inner-workings of the business. Everything is kept local; the apples come from Vermont orchards, or from across Lake Champlain in New York, and the local customer base is tremendously loyal; in every bar we visited we were told to check out Citizen Cider.

“We use to move our apples in cardboard boxes, in the back of people’s trucks,” said Caitlin Jenness, business manager, “When you grow small and quickly, you get people who are really excited about the business.”

Music on Church Street

After the breweries, we went back to Church Street to see performances happening throughout the day.

Musicians perform on Church Street despite bad weather.
Musicians perform on Church Street despite bad weather.

The sky was grey, but the music was bright and sizzled like summertime. A small crowd gathered in front of a stage, where a sharply dressed trio with all the right foot-tapping grooves and a cool style were playing tunes that sounded like Venice Beach. A warm wind drove pelting drops of rain-like meteors onto the sidewalk; they exploded in small patches of water.

Dark clouds shifted overhead; the crowd danced jubilantly (families, mostly), enjoying the moment and each other.

Just down the street Latin music drifted over a sea of improv salsa dancers; who twirled and spun to the sweltering beat, dancing despite the weather.

Shop doors were propped open, and a few patrons lingered in outside restaurant seating areas. Earlier in the day the strip was filled to the brim; there wasn’t an open seat anywhere. I overheard someone in Bruegger’s Bagels remark that it’s usually like that.

The North End Honeys perform on Church Street.
The North End Honeys perform on Church Street.

A band performing on the street caught our ear and we stopped to listen. They combined bluegrass rhythms with more mainstream songs. The result was absolutely sweet, just like their name, “The North End Honeys.” We stopped to listen for a while; I thought that they were one of the more talented bands that we heard during the entire week. A real treat to listen to.

Jazz Smoother than Whiskey

She stood under colored lights; eyes closed, fingers tapping against black jeans; dark hair swaying to the quick rhythm. Her cool demeanor carried me away to memories of the Big Apple. But this wasn’t a seedy New York jazz club shrouded in cigarette smoke and cheap beer; this was the Burlington Vermont Discover Jazz Festival.

The mood was right, the bass was deep, and the drummer is smiling. So was I.

Clear, crisp notes of a tenor saxophone floated through the packed-out atmosphere. Applause rose from the audience softly at first, and then stronger with confidence. She held them captive like the Pied Piper; slaves to the subtleties of the saxophone.

I walked into the cave-like room before the rain but didn’t order a drink. The crowd murmured in anticipation of a night filled with jazz smoother than whiskey; but I was silent, soaking up the humid atmosphere like the summer rain outside.

The sun sets over Lake Champlain.
The sun sets over Lake Champlain.

Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio is playing at FlynnSpace, right off of Church Street. According to the event’s website, she won “the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition;” and she was “the first female instrumentalist to take the prize.”

This is what I came to see–and she delivered.

The next night, we went to the waterfront, to catch the last show of our trip.

“Let’s Take it Down Louisiana Style”

I sit down on the rocks overlooking Lake Champlain; with the evening breeze on my face, the warmth of the rocks against my legs, the setting sun before me over the water, and Robert Randolph & the Family Band behind me, performing inside of a large white tent.

Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio perform at FlynnSpace.
Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio perform at FlynnSpace.

Children run through the crowds, parents sway hypnotically to the beat with beers in hand, boats bob at anchor just off shore — catching the free show, and seagulls dive for scraps.

Perfect.

That’s what it is.

Matt Schofield performs at the waterfront stage.
Matt Schofield performs at the waterfront stage.

Renowned British blues guitarist Matt Schofield opened up the night with classic riffs that squeezed the breath out of the tent and left the crowd gasping in awe. And I’d never seen a band having so much fun. They were loose, free and incredibly talented.

I’d also never experienced a setting so magical.

“This location is great,” said Robert Young of Jericho, Vermont; “Right on the lake, with the sunset.”

A couple embraces during a concert at the waterfront stage.
A couple embraces during a concert at the waterfront stage.

Walking back into the tent was like walking into another world; where the spoken language was the wail of guitar; and the culture was a driving blues rhythm; which left every head nodding, every foot stamping and all eyes closed in reverence to the guitar, which carried my worries away into the setting sun.