Sustainable, Sour and Terroir on the Rise in Vermont

Bubbling up in post haze-craze Vermont are a number of beers that are truly expressing terroir.  These beers may very well be ushering in the next chapter in the history of Vermont brewing, a state with beautiful landscapes, charming towns and laid-back residents. Being artisanal, local, and sustainable is in Vermonters DNA, and this is increasingly beginning to show in the local brewing scene.

Despite the fact that Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state, brewing here has a checkered past. There were no breweries in the state for over 100 years, in part due to the fact that Vermont was one of the leaders in the temperance movement. Breweries disappeared in Vermont well before the nation adopted the Eighteenth Amendment. Fast forward to today and the craft beer industry is one of the top economic drivers in the state.

Given the culture of supporting local businesses and being sustainable, it should come as no surprise that many of these new breweries have made efforts to incorporate local agricultural products into their beer, or are growing the ingredients themselves. Bent Hill Brewery in Braintree, and Kingdom Brewing in Newport, are growing and harvesting their own hops, berries, and other ingredients. They also make maple beers, perhaps the most notable of local ingredients, which has found its way into many local beers over the years, especially by Lawson’s Finest Liquids.  

About those sours


Far from the status quo, Backacre Beermakers in Weston do not release a new can of DIPA every week. Backacre is a blendery that makes one beer, a sour golden ale that they release a few times each year in green 750ml bottles (House of Fermentology in Burlington is another blendery, though it is partners with Foam Brewers just down the road). Their wort is their recipe, but it is produced by a nearby brewery, which Backacre then ages in oak barrels. They have no intentions of making any other beer, and I respect the hell out of that.

Embracing a contemporary aesthetic with 16 oz cans, Hermit Thrush Brewery in Brattleboro is making a fantastic array of wild ales, and they’re all about terroir. From their website:

Wild native yeasts offer an experience steeped in Vermont’s complex terroir, the basis for all that we dream up. We exclusively use our own wild yeast and native mixed-fermentation cultures from Brattleboro, which develop our signature fruity, phunky, and tart flavors, giving our sour beers a distinctly Vermont taste you won't find anywhere else.

Brattleboro was specifically chosen by the brewery’s President and brewer, Christophe Gagné, after he scouted numerous locations, testing ambient yeast. According to Joan Bulzacchelli, Events, Tasting Room, and Sales Coordinator for Hermit Thrush (and a Committee member of the Vermont Brewers Association), “We don't use any cultured strains; we are proud to say that we've never bought yeast.”  Four Quarters Brewing on the opposite end of the state in Winooski, is also making wild beers with ambient yeast, though it’s just a portion of their output. They also incorporate local produce. 

Sustainability is very important to Hermit Thrush. They’ve adopted an environmental policy, become a member of Vermont’s Green Brewery Cohort (an initiative created through the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation that fosters sustainability in brewing operations by facilitating relationships and discussions between like-minded brewers), and they created a Sustainability Coordinator position to help achieve their goals.  

Vermont brewers are indeed providing examples of sustainability tools recently promoted by the Brewers Association (BA). The BA has created benchmarking tools for breweries to measure and track their level of sustainability, as well as a series of manuals on the following topics: energy, solid waste, water and wastewater, and design and build strategies. Hermit Thrush is using the benchmarking tool, and they have committed, as required by their involvement in the Green Brewery Cohort, to reducing their energy use by at least 5% by 2020. With all they are doing, I’m sure they will have no problem achieving this goal.

Freak Folk Bier in Burlington is about to burst on to the scene with their wild ales. Owners Lillian MacNamara and Ryan Miller have 20 years of professional brewing experience, with impressive resumes (Hill Farmstead, Otter Creek, Magic Hat, Kent Falls, Tired Hands, and others). MacNamara is currently the Head Brewer for Queen City Brewery in Burlington, and Freak Folk is setting up shop in the same building. They will actually be brewing their wort on the Queen City system, and then piping into a new space they created to inoculate and barrel their brew.

Miller notes a strong sense of local pride, as well as a purist mentality when it comes to craft beer culture in Vermont, adding “goof ball trends aren't as popular as they are in some other places I've been.” Reflecting on his experience elsewhere “I’ve had to brew some of the most outlandish beers I could think of….I do not think that type of stuff would fly here - at least not yet.”  

While they are focused on mixed culture, barrel fermented and bottle conditioned beer right now, Freak Folk won’t rule out making other styles down the road. Time will tell how things evolve. As they state on their website “our goal is to remain a humble little company and to grow organically.” It doesn’t get much more Vermont than that.

Kevin Kain