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Doors closing, doors opening

For beer lovers, the catastrophes of 2011 are making way for exciting change

Tom Bedell has more on beer (and golf) at his website, www.tombedell.com.

WILLIAMSVILLE—The abeyance of my beer writing for The Commons was decidedly not causal in the Biblical trials of fire, flood, destruction, and death visited upon the area last year. Short of a plague of locusts, it didn’t seem like things could get much worse there for a while; thankfully, some kind of karmic wheel appears to have turned at last.

In the Brattleboro beer world, the most visible victim of Tropical Storm Irene’s ugly swath last August was the Flat Street Brew Pub. The 30 taps in the downstairs Tap Room Restaurant effortlessly made it the best selection in town for the curious or restless imbiber. But the downstairs was inundated.

After an intense cleanup effort, aided early on by fans who volunteered, partners Steve Pardoe and Chris McInerney reopened the street-level pub in mid-December — still the local record-holder with 20 taps.

Downstairs remains closed, but according to pub manager Will Bissonnette, “It may be optimistic, but we’re hoping to reopen by the end of summer.”

A similar inundation farther north in Waterbury ripped through the Alchemist Pub & Brewery on Main Street. After a few months agonizing over it, owners John and Jen Kimmich finally opted to shutter the brewpub and concentrate on the production brewery they had already started up — and which is now producing Heady Topper, a canned double IPA.

But in a good sign for Waterbury, the Main Street gathering place reopened on March 15 as the Prohibition Pig, a spot for “Smoked Meat & Libations,” which includes plenty of taps.

* * *

It was less climatology than economic storms that shuttered the doors of the Riverview Restaurant in early 2011. But the Bridge Street location will rise again.

On March 20, the Brattleboro Selectboard approved a five-year small-business loan of $40,000 that puts the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery on track to open within months. (The federal loan program requires Selectboard signoff, but a separate committee administers the town’s revolving loan fund.)

“We could open the deck as early as Memorial Day and the restaurant closer to July,” said Tim Brady, who with his wife, Amy, runs the 40 Putney Road Bed and Breakfast inn.

The Bradys are partnering with hospitality consultant David Hiler in the new project, which suitably came to life in a craft brewery.

“David and I never run into each other in town, only at hospitality industry conferences,” Brady said. “We were at one last August and decided to go have a beer at the Harpoon tasting room [in Windsor]. I half-kiddingly suggested we start a brewpub in the old Riverview site, and David said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So we started the process.”

Whetstone will be a nanobrewery — an imprecise term, although “real small” might work.

The enterprise will have but a 35-gallon brewhouse and five temperature-controlled fermenters, which means it will be brewing about a keg-and-a-half at a time, with a new beer coming on line once a week on average.

Brady and Hiler also plan to have 12 taps of other local and hard-to-find craft beers.

* * *

McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro appears to be growing; its beers now make their way to 10 (soon to be 11) states.

“We’re about to release our Kölsch (which never had a name before) as Green Mountain Gold, and the Summer IPA a little early,” brewery founder Ray McNeill said.

But McNeill is lucky to be alive at all.

Ray McNeill was a victim last year not from outside sources, but from an inside job — his own immune system, which for some reason couldn’t battle a Group A streptococcus infection.

He wound up at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center last spring for 10 weeks, and it was touch-and-go more than once.

Doctors were mystified: “They’d never seen anything like it, so every morning there were 12 doctors in the room. It was something like a one-in-a-billion case, so I became a specimen,” said McNeill, who almost died when his vital organs began shutting down, and he went through six operations.

Now back home in Brattleboro, McNeill can be somewhat wry about it all: “I’m in perfect health now, except I can’t walk and have terrible arthritis everywhere,” he said.

Actually, he can walk, but only with difficulty, so he’s not spending any time at the brewery.

“It’s brewer Doug Locke who kept us from going bankrupt,” McNeill said.

Meanwhile McNeill’s companion, Rocio Franco, redesigned and repainted the Elliot Street pub.

“She completely renovated the place,” McNeill said. “It’s never looked better, and we have 15 McNeill beers on tap and a cider.”

* * *

Like many, I found it tough coming to grips with the tragedy at the Brattleboro Food Co-op last year, after years of conversations around the beer shelves with beverage manager Richard Gagnon.

It’s still pretty bewildering, and there’s no happy second act here, frankly. But the Co-op will move into its new building soon, perhaps leaving a few ghosts behind. And Jeff Houle has the beverage manager’s position sturdily in hand. Life goes on.

The life of Brattleboro as a lively town for visiting beer aficionados continues to grow, and so the Brewers Festival will return for a third annual rendition.

But the date has been moved from May to late September, so more details on that down the repaved road.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #146 (Wednesday, April 4, 2012).

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