Is this Vermont Town What Happy Tastes Like? Four Miles of Foodie Bliss in Waterbury
How did a 5,000-person rural Vermont town become a famous center for artisanal food and drink? Waterbury seemed to appear on the map in 1986 when two guys named Ben and Jerry expanded their ice cream factory from Burlington to Route 100 in Waterbury. The sweet-toothed pilgrims it attracts now fuel a local industry of gourmet goods. Over the years, a cider mill, barbecue restaurant, and tasting centers for locally made cheese, coffee, chocolate, and spirits have popped up in this Green Mountain town. The region is also a new center for craft breweries and produces what is arguably America’s most coveted IPA, Heady Topper. So head north—a stone’s throw from the Canadian border and less than a half hour from ski areas including Stowe—and bring your appetite. This outstanding locally produced food and drink is all within the same four-mile stretch around Route 100.
Vermont has a solid reputation for craft beer, but remember the state’s original sources of alcohol: its apple orchards. At Waterbury’s Cold Hollow Cider Mill, your starting point just north of the town center, cider is only the beginning. Its made-fresh-daily cider donuts have won accolades from Gourmet and Yankee magazines. Grab them right off the conveyor belt, see fruit being pressed, pick up a pie or pumpkin roll, and browse hundreds of Vermont-made products like jellies, mustards, and butters. Since 1976, Cold Hollow has operated in this location using an antique cider press from the 1920s. Vermont’s robust sap harvest shares the menu: maple walnut peanut butter, maple fudge, and maple hot chocolate are all made. There are plenty of non-alcoholic ciders for kids, but if you think you'd rather have the harder stuff, a good way to figure out if you prefer dry, semi-dry, or sweet hard cider is to order a flight of the four varieties made here and sold nowhere else.
Drive south on Route 100 to the Waterbury business district for the next five spots. There are lots of places to get a meal around here, but Prohibition Pig is especially popular—a 20-minute wait for a table even at 2:30pm is not unheard of (no reservations). Owner Chad Rich spent time in North Carolina, and his ‘cue reflects that state’s style of cider vinegar–based sauces. Each table gets a selection of homemade varieties like Bacon Barbeque and Pepper Vinegar. “Pro Pig” or just “The Pig,” as the place is often called, also pickles its own vegetables, and for dessert, vanilla ice cream comes topped with a bacon peanut butter helmet. But then there's also the beer...
Around the corner from the Prohibition Pig’s restaurant, its brewery is open daily and serves a separate menu of bites and brews made on the premises and from the region. The brewery’s own vanilla bean porter and Daly Palmer—a cream ale with black tea and lemon zest—are solid choices. But IPAs are hot, and none in this area is more smokin’ than Heady Topper. On the bucket list of craft beer lovers around the world (Men’s Journal called it “America’s most coveted beer”), the off-the-charts-rated double IPA with citrus notes is only available within a 25-mile radius of Waterbury to retain freshness and flavor. Fans stalk distribution points for rationed four-packs, and one person even flew from South Africa to try it. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it in a can here—never on draft, per the brewer’s instructions.
Seven hundred craft beers and ciders from 200 producers line the shelves and refrigerated cases of the Craft Beer Cellar, which is directly across the street from the Prohibition Pig Brewery. On a recent visit, these included the eye-catchingly named Clown Shoes’ Pineapple Space Cake IPA and Twiddle Pump Plumb Cider. Owners Mark Drutman and Victor Osinaga are beer geeks who keep up on new releases and love discovering breweries. Their staff knows what questions to ask to cater to your preferred flavor profiles and point you to libations you’ll love. There are six rotating taps for filling growlers, sold in three sizes, but they cannot dispense tastings per Vermont law. You’ll just have to take a few six-packs and bottles home with you.
Up the hill from Prohibition Pig at Stowe Street, Blackback Pub is a beer-obsessed gastropub with taps for about a dozen IPAs and a dozen more "non-IPAs" at a time. Linger here to sample intriguing-sounding varieties such as “maple and black raspberry milkshake IPA” and a “dark ale with…slightly smoky notes of licorice and chocolate.” Beer tourists from as far as Japan and New Zealand come here to talk shop and hops. If your tastings carry on so long that hunger pangs strike again, try the Heady Dipper, a French dip sandwich stuffed with pot roast slow-braised in that precious Heady Topper. Even the nachos are unabashedly Vermont—they're drizzled with a maple-chipotle glaze.
In 1919, 94 families from Cabot, Vermont, formed a cooperative that has grown to 1,100 farm families in seven states (New England plus New York). They now produce the dairy that 1,000-plus employees turn into an enormous variety of cheeses, sour creams, butters, and more. Today, Cabot products are sold in many supermarkets, but they are anything but pedestrian, winning awards year after year—three Cabot cheeses won top prizes in the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest. At the Cabot Farmers' Store, the champion cheddar is on sale, but the highlight is the tasting table, which is piled with samples of about 25 cheese varieties. Grab a toothpick and make your way around the perimeter to try the likes of Everything Bagel Cheddar Cheese. A refrigerated case stocks surprises like Macaroni and Cabot Cheese with Bacon.
Cabot Farmers’ Store shares the Vermont Annex complex with the next stop: Smugglers' Notch Distillery. In the early 1800s, bootleggers used a nearby mountain pass to circumvent an embargo on British goods. What better location than the foot of Smuggler’s Notch to start a craft booze business? At its tasting room, next door to Cabot, $4 buys samples of the full line of its small-batch, barrel-aged, blended, hand-bottled spirits. Each starts with Vermont spring water and all are surprisingly smooth: Its father-son owners, a businessman and a chemist, have won medals at the World Spirits Competition and their vodka and blended gin received respectively 95 and 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. The company has combined a plentiful local product—maple syrup—with bourbon in two ways. Its Maple Bourbon combines whiskey with pure organic Vermont maple syrup that has been aged in used bourbon barrels; and it bottles the same Grade A, dark, slightly bourbon-flavored Vermont syrup on its own.
It’s easy to drop a C-note in Lake Champlain Chocolates (also in Vermont Annex), which has been making excellent use of local high-quality dairy, maple syrup, and honey since its founding in 1983. Just as important is what these high-end chocolates don’t have: preservatives, extenders, or additives. The Chocolates of Vermont line reflects this multigenerational, family-run business’ local inspirations: Honey Caramel, Green Mountain (almonds and currants), Maple Crunch (butter crunch with maple syrup), and Evergreen Mint (peppermint crunch). Melt-in-your-mouth, fair-trade truffles and honey, sea salt, and apple cider caramels are also popular. If you fancy drinking your chocolate, check out the café in the back. (Factory tours are given at the company’s Burlington flagship, 27 miles away via I-89.)
At the Ben & Jerry’s campus a mile and a half down Route 100, a 30-minute factory tour ends with an ice cream sample that might be an unreleased flavor thought up by the resident "Flavor Guru"—past tour-only flavors have included "ChocoBanana" and "Peace, Love, & Lemons." The Scoop Shop features about 40 more flavors, from old favorites to more unfamiliar ones such as Bourbon Brown Butter. Some, like Maple Walnut, are only scooped at the factory. In the Flavor Graveyard (pictured), tombstones are erected for dearly departed flavors. Sample epitaph: “In memory of Rainforest Crunch. With aching heart and heavy sigh we bid Rainforest Crunch goodbye. That nutty brittle from exotic places got sticky in between our braces. 1989–1999.” The gift shop is clever and worth a browse—you may come away with cowbells, Chocolate Fudge Brownie lip balm, and Strawberry Cheesecake-scented candles.
In the 1980s, years before the Starbucks explosion, a man named Bob Stiller, who wasn’t a big coffee drinker, enjoyed his cup of joe at a Vermont restaurant so much that he started Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to supply good coffee to the masses. The 1875 Victorian Italianate Central Vermont Railroad Station (1 Rotarian Place), which also serves as the Waterbury Amtrak stop, is now where you’ll find the Green Mountain Coffee Visitor Center and Café. Through displays and touch screens, the company explains the business and how it sources and prepares its beans. The café and a retail store carry the largest selection of the brand, including rare blends. It also sells lots of K-Cup coffee varieties, because in 1993, with another prescient move, Green Mountain bought Keurig. If you’d like suggestions for where to explore from here, peruse the brochure rack that’s stuffed full of suggestions for farm visits, craft centers, and museums for the 200,000 people who pass through the station every year. After all this drinking and eating, though, you'll probably be looking for a nap.