BRATTLEBORO—Hermit Thrush Brewery is getting a new home. But fans of their tasting room need not worry. The High Street location is staying put.
In December, the brewery signed a lease-purchase agreement for the former Leader Beverage building on U.S. Route 5, just over the Dummerston line.
Although the building still has the Pepsi logo over its entrance, it will soon have a pine-paneled facade and Hermit Thrush’s insignia.
Hermit Thrush, which produces Belgian-inspired sour ales using historical processes, oak barrels, and environmentally-sensitive technologies, will use the new location for storage, packaging, and aging.
By keeping the High Street spot for brewing, additional aging, the tasting room, and sales, Hermit Thrush can maintain its face-to-face connection with downtown.
Avery Schwenk, Hermit Thrush’s vice-president and brewer, explained the expansion.
“We need space to get the beer old,” he said.
At the new location, “we can constantly brew and release when the beer is ready,” Schwenk said. “Now, we have to wait until the barrels are empty” to fill them again with fresh beer. There is no room for more barrels at their High Street location, he said.
Plans to hire 20
This move will increase Hermit Thrush’s square-footage seven-fold, and plans are in the works to hire 20 employees in the next five years for production, sales, marketing, and administration.
“We do a very intensive [brewing] process,” said Hermit Thrush President and Brewmaster Christophe Gagné. They need extra time and space to demonstrate “just how exquisite sour beer can be,” he said.
The move to a bigger facility will also allow the brewery to expand their product line and introduce different varieties of beer.
Gagné and Schwenk opened Hermit Thrush at 29 High St. just before Thanksgiving in 2014 — “when the beer was ready,” they said. One year later, they expanded their footprint further into the building, but it still wasn’t enough.
When asked how long it took them to figure out that they needed more space, Schwenk exclaimed, “Before we opened!”
The business received expansion capital from the Windham County Economic Development Program, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the Brattleboro Savings & Loan, and the town of Brattleboro.
“It’s a regional-team package approach to funding,” Gagné said.
“Leader needed to move out when we needed to move in, so everything fell together nicely,” said Schwenk. “The Leader folks have been real easy to work with,” Gagné added.
Roll out the barrels
Gagné and Schwenk are excited about the collection of 200 empty barrels they recently received from Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick — and they look forward to the 400 more they expect to get throughout the year.
“The history of what was in the barrel is important to the flavor of our barrel-aged sour beers,” Gagné said.
The casks formerly held Caledonia’s award-winning Tom Cat gin.
“Their gin is so good,” said Gagné, who offered a visitor a chance to smell the pungent, juniper-infused air inside one of the barrels.
Hermit Thrush is also working on getting some casks from Middlebury’s Stonecutters Spirits, and will put a batch of beer in their barrels, and one in Caledonia’s, to compare the two results. “Same recipe, different affinage,” Gagné said.
“Barrels are our cheese caves!” Gagné said, and he added a comparison: “Barrel-aged beer is to vat-aged beer what clothbound cheddar is to supermarket commodity cheddar."
Had Hermit Thrush not signed a lease for the Route 5 space, there would be no barrels. There’s no place to put them at High Street.
“We’re outliers. Most breweries use stainless steel tanks,” said Gagné, but, “we like the oak flavors. About 96 percent of our liquid volume is in barrels, not in stainless steel."
“If the beer’s label doesn’t say ‘barrel-aged,’ it’s not,” Schwenk said.
Once it’s ready, the beer goes through Hermit Thrush’s new, efficient, five-head counter-pressure filler.
“It will use a lot less water,” Schwenk said.
Hermit Thrush’s old canning line uses water to sanitize the empty cans, and to rinse the cans after they are filled. The new line blows air into the cans to clean them. After they fill the cans, the system calibrates the amount of water needed to wash away the spills.
On the old line, “all the cans are hand-filled by Avery and me and [our brewing assistant] Nate, two-by-two,” Gagné said. The new system can fill five cans at a time.
This means Hermit Thrush will have enough product to expand their distribution further into Massachusetts and, soon, to send their cans to New York, Philadelphia, and other places.
The new canning line will also mean a better product.
“The counter-pressure filler sucks out the oxygen in the cans and injects it with carbon dioxide, which increases its shelf-life,” Gagné said. “Lowering the oxygen will freeze the beer in time.”
He explained the process. When they deem a batch ready, they take a sample taste from the barrel. “If we say, ’That’s the shit!’ we put it in cans, and that’s the beer’s flavor for the can’s life,” he said.
“This year, we can brew four times more than we package, which means 75 percent of what we’re brewing right now you won’t see for years,” Gagné said.
“Right now, our oldest beer is 12 months,” said Schwenk.
What they really want is beer aged at least three years.
“You know what happens when you age the hell out of a beer, right?” Gagné asked.
He answered his own question: “All you have left is pure heaven.”