A festival for the cold months: Bennington brings 'brew, food and community' together under one roof

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BENNINGTON — One thing that can be said about the Southern Vermont Winter Homebrew Festival, to take place March 7 at the Bennington Brush Building, is that its focus is on promoting local talent.

The Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce throws this event twice a year, summer and winter, in order to highlight the achievements of local enthusiasts in the brewing and culinary arts. According to Matt Harrington, the chamber's executive director, the chamber and Hopridge Farms held the first festival four years ago at the Masonic Lodge. Harrington said the event has grown each year, and has also been held in the former LaFlamme's furniture store on Main Street.

Harrington said the presence of hundreds of people in a large indoor space "creates this cozy festival feel." He suspects that by March, after the coldest months of winter, people are ready to leave their houses and are pleasantly surprised to learn there is a festival before summer.

"What this festival does is mix a couple of great things together. Brew, food and community," Harrington said in an email.

Spencer Lanning is one of the festival's champions. His home-brew has won awards not only at the Bennington festival but in competitions throughout Vermont. In 2016, Lanning won the Bennington Summer Home Brew Festival with his VT Maple Breakfast Stout and his Chai Spiced Cider won the Best Brew of 2019 at the Bennington Winter Home Brew Festival.

Lanning won the Rutland Brewfest in 2018 with a beer he called Mustaccio Squirrel Belgian Stout. The humane society worked with local homebrewers to create individualized brews each representing an animal. "This was a beer that I didn't think would win," Lanning tells me. "Belgians taste different." A Belgian stout is darker with deep, roasted flavors, often made with hints of fruit and even coffee.

Lanning, a home-brewer for 20 years, says his wife bought him a home-brew kit. His fascination with the hobby grew. "The only beer that my wife, and others, said was terrible was a Pumpkin Ale early on in my brewing." He is an all-grain brewer — instead of an extract brewer — and uses the "Mash in the Bag method," which means all of his ingredients go into a large sack instead of a megapot, which is what most brewers use. This method does not brew beer any faster — it still takes up to six hours — but does make the cleanup faster.

So, if you think you're a real authority on beer, then get yourself a VIP pass to this year's event and test your taste buds on the specialty creations the homebrewing world has to offer.

If you're interested in homebrewing, there is a resource in Manchester. Brew Your Own magazine operates locally and is the homebrewing magazine with the largest circulation in the world. It puts out eight issues a year and covers winemaking as well.

I spoke with Kiev Rattee, the associate publisher and advertising director of the magazine. Rattee tries to get his materials locally and has spent many years perfecting his own home brew. He grows hops, which give beer its bitterness, in his backyard.

Rattee began brewing more than 30 years ago with a friend from college. Rattee makes a few different beers, including Vermont Vapor, a rye whiskey barrel-aged California Common with a dark, maple syrup flavor and Two Loves Coffee Porter, made from Dorset's own Tall Cat coffee beans. Coffee is a flavor used in brewing that can add a nice accent to certain brews. He uses a recipe for a Kolsch German Ale, originating in the Cologne region. "I've had a couple of misses an Extra Special Bitter (ESB) that turned into an ester bomb for some reason that I've never determined was probably my worst brew. It wound up watering some shrubs in my yard."

Rattee gave me some insights into beer making. "Don't be intimidated!" he said. Beermaking is a passion that many people parallel with baking — "cooking, science and creativity."

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"It's social," Rattee said. "Pick up a magazine, have your own beer in less than a month."

Brew Your Own offers a brew kit for starters, and there is a home-brew club run by the Manchester and Mountains Brewers Alliance.

Both Rattee and Lanning agree that one of the fundamental changes occurring in the homebrewing world is the introduction of home-brew clubs. Rattee believes there is a higher quality of ingredients and equipment available and Lanning credits the online community as a "boon for homebrewers."

Along with home-brews, the Bennington festival offers a chance to try creations made by local restaurateurs. This culinary artistry is a new addition to the event. In past years, only chicken wings were available, but now there is an appetizer competition.

Harrington said wings tend to be more expensive at this time of year due to sporting events, and limiting the festival's menu to wings left out many local culinary options.

"Adding the app component opens up to more restaurants, is more cost effective, and is something different," Harrington said.

This year, the Elm Street Market in Bennington will add its own specialty slider to the menu. The Wild Bill is one of the market's most popular sandwiches and its staff will be making 500 of them, in slider form, for this year's festivities.

Culinary artists want to make something that pairs with beer, and as Ted Cutsumpas — the owner and operator of the Elm Street Market will tell you, "You want something spicy and salty to counteract all that beer." The Wild Bill is the perfect combination: a slider made with Boar's Head chicken, French fried onions, the market's jalapeno sauce and lettuce, either with ranch or blue cheese dressing. The sandwiches are normally served on sub rolls.

"It's got a nice kick and a nice crunch," Cutsumpas said as he served up one of his Wild Bills — a delightful sandwich that makes you wish there was more — as well as some beer to wash it down. The Wild Bill hits all the notes that one would want, or expect, from a popular sandwich.

Cutsumpas likes to use local products, from his produce to his cheese. Supporting local events such as the festival is important to the Elm Street Market. "Bottom line," Cutsumpas said, "we want the festival to be successful. For everyone."

This is what you can expect from the Winter Home Brew Festival: Local artists, producing local products, with local ingredients, at a local event.

Tickets to the festival are available online at bennington.com/winterhomebrew. Harrington said the event has sold out every year, and this year, has already sold more than 350 tickets.


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