Roll Out the Barrels
In craft brewing, starting small can yield big results
Sean Lawson had brewed beer at home for 20 years. Eventually, so many friends and neighbors were raving about it that he decided to get into commercial production. So Lawson built a petite red barn in a pine grove next to his house in Warren. He fitted the barn with a tiny, one-and-a-half-barrel MoreBeer brewing system as well as a Blichmann kettle and fermenter. And he spent the next year fine-tuning ales, India pale ales (IPAs) and stout.
Three years later, he’s delivering 12 cases of Lawson’s Finest Liquids to the Warren Store once a week, where it usually sells out the same day. He occasionally brings cases of 22-ounce bottles to the Montpelier farmers market, too, where a line of customers is usually waiting. Some of them travel from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania for brews such as Lawson’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged Fayston Maple Imperial Stout.
Why? It could be his thoughtful, innovative blending of yeast and hops, some grown in his yard. Or the ultrasoft well water from beneath his house. Or maybe it’s Lawson’s creative flourishes — the 100 percent maple-sap base for his Maple Tripple; His infusions of cinnamon and sprigs of spruce in Red Spruce Bitter; and the citrus-like hops in his Double Sunshine IPA.
It could be, too, that Lawson brews in such small batches, there’s never quite enough of his product to go around. His production size makes Lawson part of the nanobrewery set — that is, breweries with five or fewer barrels. His customer base comprises beer aficionados who, like food localvores, appreciate beer made close to home.
On a recent brewing day, Lawson’s barn is filled with yeast-scented steam as he brings a batch of IPA to a boil. He alternates between checking its temperature and labeling bottles on a folding table. Ray Daniels’ book Designing Great Beer: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles sits nearby. Satisfied with the way the boil is going, Lawson invites me down to the basement.
There, along one wall, six barrels that once held bourbon and whiskey are now aging Farmhouse Rye, Imperial Stout and Maple Tripple, among others. The last has been aging since spring. Lawson appears with two curvy glasses of his Maple Nipple Ale. Held up to the light, it’s a light amber. “This is barley, maple syrup, hops, yeast and water,” he says, pausing to reflect, it seems, on the transformative alchemy of such simple ingredients — the result is something much greater than its parts. And stronger: At 9 percent alcohol, one glass can cause a bit of a haze in the middle of one’s workday.
For the Maple Nipple, Lawson uses Maine-grown barley, malted in Montréal, to give the beer a toasty flavor. The nose is wheat and candy; the first sip begins faintly sweet and ends on a bitter note. The sweetness grows on successive tastes. As a wine drinker who previously did not give beer props for complexity, I suddenly find myself searching for other hints of flavor.
Lawson pours his newest product, the Double Sunshine IPA. The pale-yellow ale’s head is a full inch thick, pillowy and dense. “You can smell this from an arm’s length away,” he says, and it’s true. It’s the smell of cannabis, as clear as can be. Hops are a member of the cannabaceae family, Lawson points out, thought they do not contain illegal THC, the active cannabinoid in the namesake plant. For this beer, he used a variety “that smells like Juicy Fruit.” The beer has a hoppy bitterness but is infused with citrus flavors.
Lawson thinks brewing in tiny batches has its benefits. The small scale allows him to experiment — with different grain and yeasts and minuscule changes in temperature — all the while remaining unhindered by the business-loan payments he might have on a larger operation. “I’ll raise the temperature on the mash just a degree, and people won’t notice the difference, but I will,” Lawson says. “This is kind of how I perfect my beers. I tinker with the ingredients. I have the freedom as a small brewer to do that.”
Lawson notes that he can make “big” beers because his batches are so small. That’s “big” as in strong — up to 11 percent alcohol — with flavor profiles that etch themselves in a drinker’s memory.
As he notes how the flavor of his harvested ingredients changes from year to year, Lawson has gained a new appreciation for the consistency with which megabrewers such as Anheuser-Busch maintain a beer’s flavor over time. “Each year brings a new crop of hops and barley,” he says. “No way around that changing over time. I thought, Budweiser is a master of blending.”
On the other side of the state, at the Vermont Beer Company in Bradford, a candylike aroma wafts through the back room of the brewpub that Adam Coulter opened last summer. He’s the chef/owner of the Perfect Pear Café in the same building.
The front room of the pub is cavernous, with a dark wooden bar zigzagging along one side, and the enormous beams and stone walls you might expect in a former grist mill from the mid-19th century. The brewing operation can be seen from the restaurant through a large window.
Coulter, who had been a home brewer for several years, decided to jump into commercial beer making when the space became available. He checked out systems of various sizes and configurations and eventually went small. Very small: a $5000 Sabco Brew-Magic system with a half-barrel capacity. That makes Coulter’s the smallest commercial brewing operation in the state. “This is about as economical as you can get without a 5-pound can boiling on your stove,” he says.
How small is a half-barrel? “I brew 10 gallons at a time,” Coulter explains. And he’s constantly brewing. In the months prior to his opening last summer, Coulter originated a line of what he calls “aggressive beers,” though he’s referring more to style than to alcohol content: Most fall within the 4 to 6 percent range, topping out with a Maple Oatmeal Stout at 8 percent that uses syrup from a maker in nearby Corinth.
Coulter rolled out a red ale, a brown ale, an IPA and a porter, which he rotates among the four taps in the pub, and serves alongside gourmet pub food such as rosemary lamb stew and duck confit.
Like Lawson, Coulter relishes the freedom to experiment. “If you make a black IPA and it doesn’t come out the way you want, you don’t have that much beer,” he says, and adds, “The Black Pepper Porter was a total experiment.” The day before my visit, he was messing around with a new cream ale. To satisfy the thirst of the growing number of hop heads, Coulter makes three times as much IPA as anything else.
His reputation attracts beer enthusiasts to his pub from across the state. Yet, when Coulter brought some of his concoctions to the Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington last summer, some people asked him, “Where’s Bradford?” he says. “Nobody knows where Bradford is. Next year I’m bringing a map.”
Coulter brews two to three times a week, two batches each time. He has nothing but praise for his Brew-Magic system, but seems frustrated with its size. “Brewing is a labor of love. I love mashing in,” Coulter says, using brewer lingo for the early stage of heating the malted barley and water. “But it would be a blessing to have a two-barrel system.”
Whether their diminutive output is a blessing or a curse, Vermont brewers expect nanos and micros to keep flourishing as craft-beer fever grows, and as oenophiles realize they can discover the same adventurous, constantly changing tasting experience with beer as with wine.
If they make interesting beer and manage themselves responsibly, tiny breweries have only one way to go: up. And they’re the darlings of the business world. “I don’t know how many inquiries I get from a business owner [who] has half of a building unoccupied and says, ‘Get me a brewery; I’ll get them a break in the rent,’” says Kurt Staudter, executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association. He points to tiny operations about to crop up in Chester and Saxtons River.
Another will open this spring in an old freight house in South Royalton. Former Norwich Inn brewer Patrick Dakin will open his own brewpub with no more than four barrels and using an open-fermentation system — one controlled by the ambient temperature of the room.
Dakin left the inn when the freight house came up for lease, offering him the chance to brew in the town where he lives. “People are looking for things that are more locally crafted, and they love the idea of being able to buy beer from the guy down the road or in the next town,” he notes. “So you get these tiny little breweries of two or three barrels. It’s easier to be successful.”
But back in Warren, Sean Lawson doesn’t plan to stay small forever. Though he originally hoped to make syrup in his barn, beer has trumped it so far. “The next step is a seven-barrel system,” he predicts. “Hopefully, this is the year.”