This article first appeared in the May 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
The big question on the morning of our departure was: how late was Max going to be?
He said he’d meet us in front of the hotel at 9:00 AM, but that seemed dubious. Max was the son of Dave “Hoop” Hooper, my cycling partner. The three of us had planned to ride a rugged bike tour in northern Vermont known as the Green Mountain Gravel Growler. Max had only recently turned 21 and was a “rising senior” (this being August) at the University of Vermont. He lived a mile and a half away from our hotel in south Burlington.
I was basing his likely tardiness on several conversations Hoop had had with his son the previous evening. It seemed Max was returning by car from a bike tour in Maine. After a few texts and phone calls, it soon became clear that Max was still hundreds of miles away and would not arrive home until 1:00 AM the night before our departure. Once there, he would have to wash all his dirty riding clothes, fit his pannier rack onto a mountain bike, get a few hours of sleep, wake up at 6:00 AM for his part-time job delivering bagels, and then somehow meet us.
I figured we’d be waiting for a while. But at 9:00 AM, while we were still packing, Max showed up. He had a mop of loose brown curls and an easy smile, and looked refreshed and ready to ride. Ah, to be young.
The Green Mountain Gravel Growler (GMGG) is a 250-mile, self-guided loop. Growlers are those reusable glass or metal bottles that breweries fill to take home. This “gravel growler” (a play on “gravel grinder”) was created so cyclists could enjoy quiet roads while passing by just about every brewery in northern Vermont — about 15 total. We planned on five days.
Burlington, the state’s largest city, is a logical start and end point. In contrast to his son’s laissez-faire philosophy, Hoop had spent months preparing for this adventure. He carried a GPS system, a cue sheet, photocopied maps of the route with the streets highlighted, and a phone with a bike app. Despite all this, we made three wrong turns in the first 15 minutes. Getting out of Burlington would prove to be the hardest part of route finding.
Eventually we reached a dirt road (first of the trip!) that ducked under busy I-89. A minute later we were on singletrack skirting the edge of the popular Chamberlain Hill mountain bike network. And then we arrived at our first brewery: Stone Corral.
It was just after 10:00 AM and none of us was ready to try a beer just yet. But the friendly staff welcomed us inside, and Hoop and Max each picked out a 16-ounce can for later. Max put his into a pannier (it would later break open); Hoop stuffed his in a jersey pocket.
We headed west to downtown Waterbury, stopping for lunch at the Prohibition Pig pub and brewery. Here we got out first taste of Vermont’s strict COVID-19 rules. Arrows directed customers up one side of the entry stairs, with a rope between the up and down sides. I had contacted the owners in advance and they reserved a table for us in the small, outdoor seating area.
Choosing from their 22 tap beers was difficult. I settled on half-pours of a vanilla bean porter and a brown ale, the latter made with maple syrup and aged on maple staves. You see a lot of maple-flavored beers in Vermont, home to the largest syrup farms outside of Québec. In this case, the beer paired well with the smoked brisket.
We had kept our bikepacking rigs light on this expedition — basically clothes, light camping gear, and protein bars. We would buy all our meals from the many fabulous eateries en route. “I’m not expecting to lose any weight on this trip,” Hoop told me.
The next few hours were spent climbing until the road degraded into a dirt track that traversed national forest land. At one point a FedEx truck, bumping down the road, stopped for directions. We had seen a few of these trucks chugging up improbably steep hills or burning their brake pads in the other direction. FedEx mechanics, I reasoned, must be busy in this state.
We crossed several covered bridges — these quaint New England staples were invented to reduce rot by keeping rain and snow off the wooden structure — and started our next climb to von Trapp Brewing. Of course, it was located on top of a hill.
Anyone’s who’s seen The Sound of Music knows the (somewhat fanciful) story of the von Trapp family, who fled Nazi Austria in the 1930s. They moved to Vermont and opened a Bavarian-themed cross-country ski resort. And, in 2010, a brewery. Today its modern facilities offer a grassy biergarten with a commanding view of the Stowe valley. Beers trend toward lagers, pilsners, and other crisp, German-style offerings.
We each purchased a “flight” of samples, along with a Frisbee-sized pretzel to share, and found an empty picnic table in the sun. With our first day coming to an end, things were looking good. Especially considering how dubious the trip had seemed only a few weeks earlier.
The GMGG was first conceived in 2013 by Logan Watts, who runs the website bikepacking.com, with his friend, Vermonter Joe Cruz. The route encapsulates the idea that “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” There are faster ways to get to Vermont’s best breweries, but they won’t be nearly as enjoyable as these backroads. Provided you don’t mind climbing.
It also helps if you like cows, or at least can tolerate the odor of same. Myriad farms and their accompanying smells are a constant, especially in the first two days.
Hoop had been planning the tour with his son for months when I asked if I could join. Then COVID-19 hit. For a time, Vermont wasn’t letting in out-of-staters. When New York’s infection rate dropped, Vermont opened its borders a bit. But we were still expected to self-quarantine for two weeks beforehand, so Hoop and I kept to ourselves before the trip.
Then there were the breweries. Some closed their doors to visitors; others reduced hours and required reservations (hard to make when your arrival time is in flux). Hoop, an avid beer aficionado, started keeping a spreadsheet.
The other question was whether Max would make it. In June he broke his foot while hiking. Inactivity doesn’t suit Max. He had to replace his cast twice during the healing process — once because he went sailing on a one-man catamaran and capsized, and another time thanks to a swimming hole. (Who swims with a cast? He does.)
Fortunately, the doctor gave him the thumbs-up to ride provided he wore hiking boots to keep his foot stiff and didn’t push too hard on the hills. Max was a pleasure to have around, with a fast wit and legs that easily kept up with his middle-aged companions.
We slept outside Stowe the first night, and by 9:00 AM we were on our way to nearby Morrisville. This was home to two breweries. We arrived at Rock Art Brewery by 11:00 AM, and co-owner Renee Nadeau told us about the place as she served us $1 sample pours.
She and her husband Matt had lived in Colorado, hence the Kokopelli logo. They began their business in a basement in 1997 and now work out of a beautiful building filled with artwork, with a covered porch that’s perfect for sitting.
Now one of the oldest microbreweries in the state, Rock Art has a strong local following. Their business is a family affair — Renee’s brother, Jason Brunault, a woodworker, built the Vermont-shaped trays the samples are served on. Their older son, Dylan, an artist, drew some of the cartoonish can labels. And the youngest, Cody, is assistant brewmaster.
“He’s not old enough to drink,” Renee said. “But he can follow a recipe.”
The Brewers Association, a trade group, lists Vermont as having 68 craft breweries — a paltry sum compared to California’s 907 or Colorado’s 425. But then again, when you consider that Vermont is the second-least-populous state in the nation, with about 624,000 residents, but has more breweries than Delaware or Rhode Island or Alabama, that number seems more impressive. In fact, the association lists Vermont as the nation’s top consumer of craft brews per capita at 22.3 gallons annually for each resident 21 years or older. Presumably much of that beer goes into the gullet of tourists.
Sonoma County has its wineries; in the Green Mountain State, hops are the grape of choice.
After we finished our samples, it was time for lunch. So we headed down the street to the other brewery, Lost Nation. We sat outside, next to a large smoker, and washed our delicious sandwiches down with more beer.
(This might be a good time to include an obligatory paragraph about drinking responsibly. We generally combined our tastings with food and took enough of a break to ensure that we were clear-eyed and sharp-minded when ready to leave.)
There were some serious climbs ahead as we headed into the remote Northeast Kingdom, Vermont’s least-populated region. The names of the roads said it all: Ketchen Hill, Echo Hill, Garvin Hill, Bridgeman Hill.
As we climbed higher, we could see ridge after ridge of untouched forest. Houses were isolated; cars few. Max had a friend from this area. “In the wintertime, people hold monthly or even weekly dinners for their neighbors,” he said. “Otherwise, they might never see anyone.”
At one point, the road degraded into an overgrown doubletrack, with wide mud puddles we had to skirt around. A horse exploded out of the bushes in the field next to us and raced along the fence, happy to have companions.
Our next destination was Hill Farmstead, an award-winning brewery. Their website lists more than 100 different varieties, each brewed in small batches. It’s not uncommon for aficionados to line up before dawn for a new release, and batches often sells out in hours.
While the Farmstead store was closed due to COVID, you could order a four-pack ahead of time and pick it up at the door. As the day went on, it was becoming increasingly clear that we were not going to make the 5:00 PM closing. Finally, Hoop called the office in desperation. Could they please leave the beer outside for us? They couldn’t. What if the local youths found it?
Max laughed. “There can’t be more than like eight ‘local youths’ around here,” he said. “And what would they be doing hanging out at a craft brewery in the middle of nowhere?”
Fortunately, the employee agreed to stick around for a few more minutes. At 5:15 PM, we rolled into the gravel parking lot. Peering through the windows, I saw a warehouse stacked with wooden barrels. Some of their brews are aged for as long as five years in such vessels, many of which had previously contained bourbon or similar spirits.
We wouldn’t get a tour of this storied establishment, but at least we got our beer. Hoop held the cans aloft in victory — a four-pack of Marie, an unfiltered German-style helles lager clad in an austere, dark blue label. We headed down the street and consumed it at a grassy intersection. Unremarkable, I critiqued, but certainly welcome.
A lone cyclist rode by, out for an afternoon ride. We asked him about the roads down to Hardwick, our destination for dinner.
“I’m not going to lie to you. There’s some more uphills,” he said. “But there’s some downhills too.”
We got another late start the next morning. Hoop’s rear derailer had problems and needed professional help. The nearest bike store was in Montpelier, Vermont’s capital, about three hours’ ride away. Hoop elected to take paved roads while Max and I veered up Buffalo Mountain Road. For this stretch, we would follow some of the most rugged terrain of the trip.
Vermont is said to have more dirt roads than any other state in the country. Despite being a small state, it’s easy to see how that could be true. Besides the many gravel roads that connect rural communities, there are hundreds of miles of “Class 4” roads, unmaintained but open to anyone hardy enough to ride it. Buffalo Mountain was one.
As Max and I climbed, the trail got more and more technical until we found ourselves pushing through sections too rocky to afford us a clean line. At one point, a gang of dirt bikers motored by, dressed like Road Warrior extras in body armor. “Now that’s the way to do this trail,” Max said.
Eventually the road improved and we popped back out into civilization next to an old church. Reading the historical marker was a lone dirt biker, dressed in protective clothing. He pulled off his helmet and asked where we were riding.
He was an older man, about retirement age, and he nodded approvingly at our route. “I did some cycling when I was younger,” he said. “In fact, I rode a bike around the world back in the 1970s. Took two years and cost $5,000. These days I need a bicycle with an engine.”
By the time we met up with Hoop, his bike had been repaired. We headed over to Three Penny Taproom, famous for its beer collection, for a late lunch. We got an outdoor table right away, and I tried a Hill Farmstead Convivial Suarez, which was brewed with hibiscus and lemon and had a unique pink hue. It was one of my favorite beers of the trip.
By now it was 2:00 PM, and we still had half the day’s ride left. In the interest of expediency, we skipped the next section of gravel, taking a busy two-lane highway down to Northfield. There was a brewery here, but it looked closed, and anyway we had no time to spare if we wanted to make Waitsfield before dark.
From here the route turned west, climbing up and over Waitsfield Gap before plunging down into the next valley. The road turned from blacktop to gravel to dirt before it finally regressed to an overgrown and unmarked doubletrack headed for the ridge. We were losing the light, but we had to go slow — the route was so rugged that we walked much of the way downhill.
As the skies darkened, we emerged onto a gravel road, which took us to Waitsfield, home to the Sugarbush ski resort. It was now well after 8:00 PM, and nearly all the restaurants in this tiny town were closed. We found a Chinese takeout place down the street and ate our meals by headlamp on a nearby picnic table. Luckily, a local suggested a great place to camp outside of town along the Mad River.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we headed south for a bit and then west. On the agenda was Lincoln Gap, the tallest drivable pass in the state. It’s a steady 20 degrees of steepness for two miles, topping out at about 2,500 feet. It would be the last big climb of the trip.
“Don’t bother waiting for me,” Hoop told us. “I’m going to walk it.” By now he had discovered that his Cannondale gravel bike was geared more for racing than touring. Even with a working derailer, he didn’t have a gear ratio low enough (or legs strong enough) to spin through such a steep ascent.
Not that Max and I had it much easier. As the road steepened, we switched back and forth across the lanes, watching for cars and stopping every five minutes to catch our breath. It took us an hour to climb those two miles, sweat pouring down our faces. Hoop, on foot, showed up about a half-hour later.
But now we were looking down into the Lake Champlain Valley, the northeastern portion of Vermont: more developed, less hilly. After a screaming descent, we headed south, passing waterfalls and maple sugar farms, a matrix of blue tubes running from tree to tree. Once we passed a spring with a built-in water fountain. If you put your hand over the end of the pipe, water would spurt out of a hole in the top, making it easy to drink.
Later we had a short conversation with a lady putting her child into a car seat. Her yard was surrounded by a stockade fence made from old snowboards. “My husband has some of the first Burton snowboards ever built, but we took those down because people were trying to steal them,” she said.
“He started snowboarding at Stratton in the ’80s, and he got banned because the ski patrol wouldn’t allow snowboarding. After a while, when they saw how popular it was getting, they hired him as a snowboarding instructor.”
A few minutes after that, the skies darkened and it started to thunder. A passing jogger invited us to shelter in his barn, which we accepted. The storm turned into a torrent, and his generosity saved us from an hour’s soaking.
We were in a jovial mood as we headed toward Middlebury, our next destination. At one point, a wild turkey ran across a farmer’s field.
“They’re raising road runners,” Hoop whooped. “He’s gonna paint a tunnel on the cliff and run right through it.”
“The guy next door is raising Wile E. Coyote,” Max replied.
It was a bit abrupt to find ourselves back in a bustling city with busy roads and traffic lights. We threaded our way through town and made it to Drop-in Brewery, behind a nondescript storefront located on the side of noisy Route 7. But the beers were good, and founder Steve Parkes had a few moments to chat. Born in Great Britain, he’d been running microbrews in the states for more than 30 years.
He reminded me of a book I had just finished reading: The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. In it, author Tom Acitelli tells the story of how America had gone from having one craft brewery in 1975 to the point where there are thousands today. Parkes, I realized, was one of the pioneers of the movement.
I would have loved to have asked him about it. A generation ago, nearly all Americans were perfectly satisfied drinking mass-produced and uninspiring lagers and pilsners. Now, it’s not hard to find aficionados who know the difference between a single and double IPA, or who go out of their way to try an obscure sour or a peanut-butter stout.
For many, beer is the milk of life; consumed not to get drunk but to explore the endless flavors an imaginative brewer can muster with water, malt, yeast, hops and a myriad other ingredients. It’s exactly what this bike tour was about.
Parkes was about to close up, so we didn’t have time to have this conversation. I did, however, ask him if he was familiar with Acitelli’s book. He scowled.
“He didn’t mention me,” he said, half in jest. “I just wrote him a long letter telling him all the breweries he left out.”
You can ride the GMGG anytime from April to October, although spring is muddy. In June, black flies can be thick in some areas, and in July mosquitoes will be buzzing. Late September to mid-October offer crisp, clear days and world-famous fall colors.
Gravel or mountain bikes are essential for this tour, although one could easily create a road-based tour following a similar route. Bikepacking-style packing is recommended to keep weight down and allow for negotiating some rugged terrain.
Most ride the loop clockwise and start from Burlington, which has a relatively easy first day and saves the biggest climbs for later in the ride. We did the ride in five days, but you could lengthen it to reduce the daily vertical and give you more time for sipping.
There are plenty of motels and a few campgrounds along the way. We elected to stealth camp most nights in the woods between towns.
You will rarely be more than several hours’ ride from great restaurants, cafés, and small-town markets.