Getting a handle on tap handles

Getting a handle on tap handles

Plus: the Beer Naked truth, drinking, and driving (a golf ball)

WILLIAMSVILLE — Steam was coming out of his ears the first time I saw Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery fame.

It was toward the close of the first Brattleboro Brewers Festival in 2010, his first year of operation. Hill was in angry pursuit and capture of two wobbly festival-goers who had purloined tap handles from the Hill Farmstead booth for what they thought would be nifty souvenirs.

Hill left the perpetrators with a tongue-lashing that surely helped them remember the day, and maybe for that reason he has never returned to subsequent Brattleboro festivals.

Well, who can blame him?

The cost of a single tap handle can range from $16 to $25, said Jason Gardner, who should know.

The founder of Green Mountain Taps in Hinsdale, N.H., Gardner and his company have been churning out tap handles for breweries in New England and around the country for 20 years.

In addition to the company's work for local and Vermont clients - like Whetstone Station, Hermit Thrush, von Trapp, 14th Star, Simple Roots, Lost Nation, and Zero Gravity - GMT has long created the tap handles for Allagash of Maine, Founders of Michigan, and upwards of 200 other breweries.

After graduating from Paul Smith's College in New York, Gardner worked at McNeill's Brewery for a few years, becoming Ray McNeill's first assistant brewer.

After that he sold ads for a while for the brewspaper Yankee Brew News. During that stint, McNeill asked Gardner, also a woodworker and cabinetmaker, to fashion some tap handles for the brewery.

He then used $35 to get some business cards printed up at Lotus Graphics (“Tap Handles by Jason Gardner”), handing them out while on the road selling ads.

“It just grew from there,” said Gardner.

He leased some space to make the handles from the shop in Williamsville where he also built kitchen cabinets, until he realized he could more economically move the whole operation to his parents' basement in Guilford.

Eventually, he took over their barn as well, and in 2006 he purchased the abandoned Gratton & Weeks paper mill in Hinsdale.

Gardner now employs from 25 to 36 full- and part-time employees, making signage, bottle openers and other products for breweries and other clients. But tap handles is the main business - about a $2 million business at that, growing about 20 percent a year.

“We've grown with the [brewing] industry,” said Gardner. “There are only about four tap-handle makers in the U.S. that really matter. Of that, we're probably number four, honestly. But we're 100-percent U.S. made, with a full in-house design service and fast turnaround.

“We've done it all with little advertising - some ads in brewspapers, our website, one trade show a year - and 20 years of what I would like to believe is an extremely good reputation.”

* * *

Pizzapalooza in Wilmington built its reputation on good pizzas before adding a small brewing operation in late 2015, Beer Naked Brewery. But space was a problem, so owners and partners Sara Jasinski and Jason Petrelli packed it in last year with an eye to reopening in their newly purchased location, the former Skyline Restaurant on Hogback Mountain in Marlboro.

That happened over the July 4 weekend. At this point, Beer Naked Brewery sells samples, pints, or crowlers (32-oz cans), as well as fills growlers - that's as far as a small tasting room goes.

The once and future restaurant is still a work in progress, although the couple hopes to have a wood-fired pizza oven in operation by January.

“But whereas we were predominately a pizza place with a brewery, this time it will be more about the beer than the pizza,” said Jasinski.

The couple lives in Connecticut, with plans to move to Vermont next year. Through his work as a design/builder, Petrelli met John Watson, who is neither a doctor nor, disturbingly, a Sherlock Holmes fan, but a plumber.

Watson is proof that plumbing is the perfect launching pad to becoming an accomplished brewer.

Over the years, Watson won a shelf full of home brewing awards before dipping his toe into the professional ranks at a variety of Connecticut craft breweries. He is planning to open his own farmhouse brewery in Southbury, Conn. next year. Meanwhile, he's also commuting to Vermont to brew for Beer Naked and to further mentor Petrelli in the brewing arts.

To date, Beer Naked has yet to repeat a beer recipe, so there's little point in suggesting a flagship brew.

But I was charmed by the clean, flavorful, and refreshing character of the four beers on tap two weekends ago: Wit-Ness, a 4% ABV wit beer; Curley Jefferson, a 5% farmhouse ale; A-Good-One, a 5.25% IPA, and Hop-Sedation XXIPA, an 8.5% double IPA.

The famed “100-mile view” from Hogback is pretty refreshing, too.

* * *

The day after my trip to Marlboro, I wandered north to visit the Good Measure Brewing Co. in Northfield, Vt., in hopes of talking about beer and golf.

No one was there to talk about golf, so I had to make do with tasting about nine beers fashioned by Good Measure's brewer, Andrew Leichthammer. Not hard labor, and I brought some East Street Bitter home for further study.

Good Measure is a phoenix of breweries, having arisen from the figurative ashes of the former Paine Mountain Brewing in the same, if highly refashioned, East Street location. Leichthammer is a partner in the brewery with Ross Evans and Scott Kerner, the latter a whirlwind of Vermont entrepreneurship in recent years.

With his brother, Kevin, Kerner opened the Three Penny Tap Room in Montpelier in 2009, and with various partners two Mad Taco outlets (Waitsfield in 2011 and Montpelier in 2012), the Mule Bar in Winooski in 2013, Carrier Roasting in 2015, and Good Measure last year.

He said in a subsequent phone conversation, “I'm a dreamer; I dream big and then see how close I can get to that expectation.”

Right now Kerner has a vision of Good Measure's tasty 4.8% cream ale, Early Riser, ultimately being served at every golf course in Vermont.

Some will definitely be served at Sugarbush Resort Golf Club on Sept. 16, along with other regional craft beers at various holes when another of Kerner's dreams takes shape, the first New England Craft Beer Open.

Sponsored by Community National Bank and benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Lifestyle Foundation, the tournament is open to all lovers of craft beer. Check the website at for more information or to register.

“We have about 100 players signed up so far - 25 teams - and we'll accept hole sponsorships right up to the last minute,” said Kerner.

“There will be some really good beers there,” he said - and an appreciation of craft brewing will be a far more useful requirement than any golfing ability.

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