BRATTLEBORO—President and Brewmaster Chrisophe Gagné slid the glass barn door aside to give two photographers glare-free shot of the Hermit Thrush Brewery’s new piece of canning equipment.
The file-cabinet-sized stainless-steel apparatus is small compared to the expansion it will facilitate in the brewery’s business.
Hermit Thrush will start distributing canned versions of its Belgian-inspired ales in May, nearly nine months ahead of the growing business’ timeline. Along with canning its beer, Hermit Thrush will double its production floor space.
By summer, lovers of the local brew can find four Hermit Thrush beers in cans in coolers at grocery stores, beverage stores, and restaurants.
The duo behind Hermit Thrush — Gagné and Vice President and Brewer Avery Schwenk — walked Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and local business owners through the small brewery at 29 High St. on Feb. 27.
“Cans are better for the beer,” said Gagné — one of many reasons for distributing the brewery’s beer by that method instead of in bottles.
“They’re like a mini keg,” he added, noting that the linings in beer cans have improved. “Forty years ago, you could taste the can,” he said.
The beers going into the cans are Brattlebeer, a beer with 20-percent apple cider from Dutton Farm; Green Street Sour India Pale Ale, Hoppy Smalls, and Farmhouse Tripel.
Hermit Thrush, which occupies the front half of a storefront at 29 High St., will soon take over most of the back half of the space, which includes a loading dock.
Hermit Thrush produces approximately 14 barrels of beer a week. Gagné said with the expansion, the company expects to produce around 30 barrels a week.
The expansion will eventually triple the company’s beer production, said Gagné. The brewery anticipates adding two to three full-time-equivalent jobs by this summer.
Hermit Thrush held an online competition to find a designer for their new can label. A designer from the Ukraine won the honor.
Gagné and Schwenk said they have their eyes on expanding into larger markets, such as Boston and New York, by next winter.
It makes sense releasing the beer in cans before summer, said Gagné, as cans are more portable for summer activities like picnics or hiking. (“Pack in, pack out,” he said.)
Now three months old, the brewery offers its beer in 32-ounce and 64-ounce brown bottles called “growlers.” The brewery has a “CSB” — Community Supported Brewery, as they call it, described on its website as “like a farm CSA, but with beer.” Hermit Thrush also distributes its beer in kegs to bars all around Vermont.
Vermont food/agriculture sector bucks trend
“Thanks for doing it in Vermont,” Shumlin told Gagné and Schwenk of opening their business in Brattleboro.
According to the governor, Vermont has added 4,000 jobs in the food and agriculture industries since he took office.
Vermont farms are bucking the shrinking farm trend seen elsewhere in the country, Shumlin said.
He spoke with pride about the awards that Vermont cheeses have taken worldwide. French cheese producers are “having a fit” that they can’t keep up with Vermont, Shumlin said.
Shumlin believes in state programs like Farm to Plate or the Working Landscapes Enterprise Fund. These programs are aimed at increasing Vermonters’ access to local food and growing the state’s food and agricultural sectors.
Shumlin admitted the allocation for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, despite exceeding job projections, was decreased for fiscal year 2016.
“Hopefully, it’s only a one-year blip,” said Shumlin.
An environmental ethic
Gagné, 28, and Schwenk, 29, have been friends since meeting at Swarthmore College. The two moved to Brattleboro from Pennsylvania, where Gagné had a psychotherapy practice, and Schwenk worked as a paramedic.
Central Pennsylvania, the region they left behind, is being gutted by fracking, said Gagné, and that experience has informed the company’s environmental ethic.
Fracking — shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — is an extraction process that pulls oil from a tightly formed rock, such as shale.
Gagné said he’s happy the brewery is doing its part to decrease demand for fossil fuels.
Cans fit the brewery’s ethos of sustainability and brewing with a small footprint, said Gagné, who believes that Hermit Thrush is the only wood-pellet-powered brewing process in the state.
“Cans are infinitely recyclable,” he said.
It takes fewer resources to melt down aluminum than grind down glass, he said. Cans weigh less than glass, so they require less energy to ship than bottles do.
Brattleboro by choice
The microenterprise keeps both men immersed in all aspects of the business.
Schwenk described Gagné as the “brains behind the beer” at Hermit Thrush. Schwenk said with a smile that along with maintaining the brewery’s social-media presence and creative problem solving, he serves as the chief taste tester.
Gagné said he moved to Vermont looking for a better quality of life and a place to open a brewery. He combed Vermont north and south before settling on Brattleboro.
“We decided on Brattleboro in December of 2013, identified the specific site by May 2014, and then opened on Nov. 22, 2014,” wrote Gagné in an email.
Vermont is “a great state [in which] to be a brewery,” he said. And for a town its size, Brattleboro has so much art, culture, and community, he noted.
It also has quite a good beer name, thanks to places like McNeill’s Brewery and Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, Gagné said.
Schwenk added that the town provided a strong pot of seed money like its revolving loan fund to help the business partners get the brewery up and running.
Executive Director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Selectboard Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor said the governor discussed workforce development with local business owners before his tour of Hermit Thrush.
Finding trained workers and supporting entrepreneurs represent two, at times, separate business needs, she said.
“There are two parallel paths we have to take here,” said O’Connor, who noted the Hermit Thrush logo states: “Made in Brattleboro.”
It’s great for Brattleboro to have a growing company declare to the world where it calls home, she said.
“I guarantee this is just the beginning for them,” O’Connor added enthusiastically.