Vermont Farmhouse Ale Raises Questions About American Craft with Origin

Austin Ray
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THE GIST
Late last month, a one-off beer release on the west coast triggered a forceful rebuke from a brewery some 3,000 miles away on the other side of the country. It started when Berkeley, CA’s Fieldwork Brewing released—and subsequently quickly sold out of—16 barrels of beer called The Meadows, described as a “Vermont Farmhouse Ale," with a photo of a barn and an actual meadow on the can. This caught the eye of Shaun Hill, founder of Hill Farmstead in Greensboro, Vermont, who has actual barns and actual meadows on his brewery grounds, and who in turn reached out to the local press and his own state representative to suggest the beer description violated the Representation of Vermont Origin Rule. The rule regulates the use of the state’s name as it relates to marketing food products, recognizing the value of the term "Vermont" on products that consumers might assume have a geographic origin. 

WHY IT MATTERS
Fieldwork says it named the beer sarcastically, describing it with a cheeky reference to the film So I Married an Axe Murderer. The company says this was meant to poke fun of the fact that “people instantly equate haze” with Vermont. There is nothing immediately apparent about this reference or the sarcasm, though. Instead, it's quite earnest in appearance, similar to the way others in the industry have invoked to sell their hazy or rustic beers on occasion. The reference likewise didn’t land with Hill, who viewed it more critically. Unsurprisingly, the drama spilled over into the realm of social media (thread here), where the two companies traded words.

Irrespective of these two breweries, the conflict at heart here is emblematic of a larger issue facing the American beer industry as a whole, which is maturing beyond the generic "craft" designator and into a possible series of appellations not unlike "Belgian." Which is to say, when the dust settles and the cans sell out, we’re left with a legitimate question: Given the perceived value and repute of Vermont-made beer, how should brewers outside the region recognize their inspirations without deflecting away from the true birthplace of a given product? As evidenced by this latest episode, there's no clear consensus, but as in other historic beer debates that started long before American craft, there could be some precedence.

“It’s more about looking outside the state and seeing people referring to things as ‘Vermont Blonde Ale,’ ‘Vermont IPA,’ ‘Vermont Saison,’ etc.,” Hill tells GBH. “Then, it sort of means, there’s some reason that people are alluding to, and drawing some sort of substantial correlation, and trying to evoke Vermont in the sort of platonic form of the idea of what it is that they’re producing.”

He has a point. If the word "Vermont" helps you describe and sell a beer, there's clearly a brand value in those seven letters. 

For his part, Fieldwork founder Alex Tweet believes people could reasonably feel misled by products that see wide distribution that are branded as if they were made somewhere other than their true home. However, he adds, no one could seriously be confused about the origin of any beer purchased at the manufacturing brewery or taproom itself.

“If we sell 100% of our cans out of our brewery, no one’s mistaking origin,” he counters. “Nobody that walks into a taproom in Berkeley is going to be confused if they’re drinking the beer at the brewery. So if anything, it’s a conversation of distribution.”

Of course, there are numerous instances of breweries outside of Vermont—and New England in general, for that matter—releasing so-called “Vermont” and “New England” beers. The American craft market is littered with West Coast IPAs from East Coast breweries and NE IPAs from West Coast breweries. And while perhaps this goes without saying, this issue, as it were, isn’t remotely unique to the U.S. This is an issue as old as appellation-anything, including Parmesan cheese (respected, legal) and Russian dressing (not respected, invented in New Hampshire).

As reported last month by the Burlington Free Press, Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe has asked the state attorney general's office to investigate the matter of Fieldwork’s Vermont Farmhouse Ale, spurred by Hill’s initial encouragement, as it related to Vermont produce products in general and beer specifically (the latter is not currently on the protected list). 

On a related note, just last week we reported that a Belgian nonprofit has taken issue with a stateside brewery’s attempt to brand a beer with the word “Gueuze,” as it believes such effort represents a headwind against the style’s true origin. In that case, the group said it didn’t have “the time or money to make a court case” out of it, but the thinking was clearly there.

How we navigate this going forward is unclear. But if the Fieldwork-Hill Farmstead ordeal is any indication, there seems to be at least two camps.

Hill (who built a brewery in Vermont): “No idea put out into the world exists in a vacuum, and that’s important to think about…whether that’s the word that you use, the images you put on your label, the descriptors you use, there needs to be more intentionality.”

Tweet (who built a brewery in Berkeley): “I think the bigger issue is breweries are so much more focused on what other people are doing than what they’re doing. I think that’s the broader issue. Honestly, I don’t give a shit what anyone names their beer. It has no effect on me.”

In either case, both breweries sell the idea of beer from—or inspired by—Vermont. One takes that seriously. 

 "Whoever said imitation was the sincerest form of flattery was the imitator," Hill says. "It is not flattering. It just feels cheap."

—Dave Eisenberg + Michael Kiser