The woman in the cute fake fur coat got out of her car and immediately slipped on the ice in the parking lot. “Is this it?” she yelled, laughing and grabbing the car door to keep from falling. “Do they have it? Please tell me they have it!” Her license plate indicated she was from New Jersey, but on that cold morning between Christmas and New Year’s she was in small-town central Vermont. She had come farther than I had: My drive was three hours from western Massachusetts, but mixed in with her out-of-state license plate and mine, I saw cars from New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. We were all there, hours from home, in search of the same thing: beer.
A lot of places in the country have a claim on great beer right now. Even the Germans and Belgians will admit that the best beers in the world are being brewed by American craft brewers, and there are pockets of world-class excellence in California, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan — all over. But western New England, in my humble opinion, is the center of the beer universe.
That morning trek by the happy lady from New Jersey, and me, and all those other far-flung folks, was to get a beer called Heady Topper, which is considered by many to be the tastiest in the world. It’s sold only within a few miles of its brewery in Waterbury, Vermont, and it sells out within minutes of arriving at any of the stores to which the brewery delivers, so the effort to get a four-pack has become a hilariously hapless tourist route of people following around delivery trucks and trying to coax store owners into estimating the exact moment the booty might arrive.
Another fervently sought-after beer is brewed in Connecticut by a Vermont company called Lawson’s Finest Liquids. The distribution of that one — it’s called “Sip of Sunshine” — is talked about online like leaked Beyoncé tracks; people line up for hours ahead of time when a store announces it’s getting cases, and by the time you make it to the front of the line, there’s often a one-four-pack-per-person limit. People line up anyway.
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In the scrappy little city of Worcester, Massachusetts, Wormtown Brewery started making its award-winning beers a few years ago in an old ice cream parlor attached to a downtown restaurant. Now it’s moving into a new facility that’s 10 times larger. IPA all around!
And it’s not just beer. Everyone I know in western New England seems to be starting a small business, or growing their smaller one into a bigger one. With the help of a Small Business Association loan, the awesome old lakehouse in Ashfield, Massachusetts, is becoming a significantly more awesome new lakehouse. New England’s top-tier freshwater fishing is becoming a less-well-kept secret now that we’re experiencing a minor explosion of world-class fishing guides and gear. Another friend has just started a magazine — yes, paper! — about the “new culture” of New England. It wasn’t hard to find either investors or advertisers. Did I mention it’s a magazine on paper?
Perhaps the clearest sign of what’s going on is that the newest big new business in college-town Northampton is itself an incubator of new businesses. It’s shared, flexible office space for entrepreneurs who need a temporary base. Demand was so great that it outgrew the old space and moved closer to the new Amtrak station that just started serving the downtown’s first new commuter trains in a generation.
It is one thing to see the top-line numbers that say the economy is humming: economic growth at 5 percent, unemployment below 6 percent, the number of jobs created last year at a 15-year high. Beyond those numbers, though, it’s that antiseptic, jargony phrase “consumer confidence” that, at last, we’re finally feeling.
Western New England is no Silicon Valley. We’re not going to see huge concentrations of capital flooding into these little ventures, and we’re not going to see rural small-business growth on the cover of the financial section anytime soon. But in a lot of far-flung corners of the country right now, you can see America’s new economic optimism in small-scale local ambition. The National Federation of Independent Business says its Small Business Optimism Index is higher than at any point since years before the “Great Recession.” That “small-business incubator” idea that has proved so successful in Northampton is actually a new sector of business real estate that’s taking off nationwide. The “StartUp” podcast is a hit. The Affordable Care Act remains a political football, but being able to take health insurance with you from job to job to self-employment has been a boon.
The perception that ingenuity and growth derive mostly from the tech sector has directed enormous amounts of money and political attention to places designated as tech centers. But if the economy really is back, the great challenge and opportunity of this time in our politics is to make sure it can come roaring back everywhere. Across the country, that makes for some very nonpartisan political imperatives. There has to be broadband, everywhere. If your town doesn’t have high-speed Internet, it’s like you’ve jammed a cork in the prospect of local business innovation. Transportation has to work, not just for moving products around, but for quality of life, so that smart young people with options will choose your town to live and work. That means roads and bridges, but also prioritizing public transportation and walking and biking.
There will always be ideological disagreements about tax rates and regulations and the role of unions and the structure of health insurance and blah blah blah. But as we keep fighting those interminable fights, the economic resurgence we’re experiencing right now is a moment we shouldn’t waste. If local, state and national politicians can get together to make progress on basic infrastructure, and soon — which ought to be the most nonpartisan thing imaginable — the confident, ambitious, creative people of this country will do the rest. Let ‘em loose.
Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and writes a monthly column for The Post.
Special to The Washington Post