New Year, New Beers

[This piece originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in the April 8, 2015 edition of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Windham County, Vermont. Access the current edition of The Commons here.]

The business of brewing is thrumming right along in Brattleboro, Vermont. McNeill’s Brewery has a new Czech-style pilsner on the chalkboard, Doc Feelgood’s Pils, that Ray McNeill put through traditional paces—Bavarian malt, 100% Saaz hops, Czech yeast, in a combination of upward infusion and decoction mashing.

Whetstone Station recently hosted its second (and sold out) Tap That Brewers Dinner, matching four beers with a cheese plate and then a five-course meal with five other beers. Another is scheduled for May 13.

And over at the still-nascent Hermit Thrush Brewery, on a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, the Governor came calling.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin (left) with Hermit Thrush Brewery owners Avery Schwenk (center) and Christopher Gagné

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin (left) with Hermit Thrush Brewery owners Avery Schwenk (center) and Christopher Gagné

Governor Peter Shumlin had wrapped up a meeting with Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce members and with a small entourage wandered over to the High Street brewery on February 27, where those of us who had been paying attention to his public appearance schedule were lying in wait.

The Governor was looking lean and fit, smartly attired in a dark blue suit, light blue shirt, red and blue-striped tie, but with a bit of the same winter pallor afflicting all of his constituents of late. Those of us in the scrum were layered in various fashions against the still-frigid weather, and on closer examination the Governor, too, had a sweater vest lurking beneath his suit jacket. The cold respects no office.

The undoubtedly excited owners and partners Avery Schwenk and Christopher Gagné seemed to be taking the hubbub in stride, but how often does the Governor pay a visit?

Shumlin asked the pair to describe what they were up to, took a tour, took some questions, posed for some pictures while having a taste of the flagship Brattlebeer, shook everyone’s hand a second time and then headed up Route 30 for a visit to the Saxtons River Distillery.

What the Hermit Thrush cans will look like

What the Hermit Thrush cans will look like

What the pair is up to in the near future will be canning four of their beers by May: Brattlebeer, Green Street Sour IPA, Hoppy Smalls and Farmhouse Tripel. The new canning machine was on display, evidence that things were moving along nicely and ahead of schedule for Hermit Thrush, their success mirroring the success of Vermont brewing in general. Shumlin put it all nicely into context when I asked if all the recent palaver about Vermont having the best beer in the world was doing anything for tourism?

The Governor, a skilled politician after all, immediately began talking about cheese: “We’ve added 4,000 jobs in the food and drink-related job sectors. And it’s not just that we’re growing jobs and bringing in young people to do them, but we’re doing them better than anywhere else in the world. I literally took the a U.S. cheese award from one Vermont farm to another Vermont farm this year. I mean, I saw [Governor] Scott Walker down in Washington this week and I say, ‘Scott, I brought you some cheese because you can’t eat that stuff from Wisconsin, we’re winning awards in Vermont.’

“The French are so mad they’re suing us to take the names of Camembert and Brie off our cheeses because we’re beating them in those markets. They come to all these world cheese awards and they have a French fit because they can’t keep up with us.

Author hanging out with the Guv

Author hanging out with the Guv

“And now we’re winning world beer awards,” the Governor continued, referring to the Internet rating site, which has listed Heady Topper from The Alchemist in Waterbury as one of the best beers in the world, and Hill Farmstead in Greensboro as the best brewery in the world:

“It’s an amazing story—these beer hunters are like deer hunters. They getting up while it’s dark, piling in their cars and driving up here from New York and Philadelphia and Boston and waiting outside these guys’ breweries hoping they get out of bed, then they line up for four hours and wait to put the stuff in their trunks, head back into traffic and hope it will all spark up their miserable lives because they don’t live in Vermont. So it’s huge.”

Those lives may become even more miserable before the year is out, as the number of southeastern Vermont breweries could double before the miserable winter of 2016 is upon us.

In about two months time, Jason Petrilli guesses, the Beer Naked Brewery should be up and running adjacent to his Pizzapalooza on South Main Street in Wilmington. “We’re building out the bar, have the financing and permitting lined up, and my buddy John Watson dialed in as the brewmaster.”

Beer Naked will be a three- to four-barrel operation, flowing right to the taps at Pizzapalooza, which are already dedicated to craft beer selections.

J ville logoThe J’ville Craft Brewery has all of its brewing permitting in place and test batches are underway as it revs up to be part of the Honora Winery & Vineyard in Jacksonville. According to general manager Brad York, the vineyard manager and winemaker Janice Stuart hopes to be putting on her official brewmaster hat by June.

The Bad Bones Brewing company is still something of a homebrewing gleam in Michael Giorgio’s eye, but he’s in the process of converting a barn into a brewery in Wilmington and plans to continue developing recipes that he hopes, “will turn into something.” That something could be in bottles by the end of the summer, though he has no permitting as yet.

Bad BonesMeanwhile Giorgio, the executive chef at the Mount Snow Resort, fully expects a three- to ten-barrel brewing system to eventually be installed at the resort, which is already doing monthly beer-tasting dinners. And he and the bar manager are heading off to Chico, California this month to work on their chops, brewing for five days with Sierra Nevada.

A little further north in Proctorsville partners Paul Kowalski and Tad Dedrick (with an assist from Ray McNeill), are still laboring to get the Okemo Valley Brewhouse up and running. (“Laboring” used advisedly, as Dedrick’s partner recently gave birth.)

“Everything takes longer than you think or say it will,” said Kowalski, who last predicted the brewery might be operational by the beginning of this year. So he’s given up predictions, but says, “The project is still alive.”

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