July 21, 2017

Localfolk is the latest to tap into Vermont’s craft beer culture

Localfolks Smokehouse owner and now beer brewer John Morris cleans beer vats in the basement of his new brewing area in Waitsfield. Under the name Cousins Brewing, he is serving four house-brewed beers, with plans to start selling by the keg. PHOTO BY SANDY MACYS

WAITSFIELD — There are five new beers in central Vermont and, for now, they are available only at Localfolk Smokehouse in Waitsfield.

This spring, Localfolk owner and “pit boss” John Morris added four house-brewed beers to the 20 he had on hand — Tolerable Pale Ale, a four malt, seven hops beer; Big Brown & Down, a four malt, four hops, full-bodied malty brown ale; Giggles IPA, a light IPA brewed with four classic American hops; and Adequate Maple Amber, a beer made with Dark B maple syrup added to the boil kettle, which creates a full-bodied, mildly sweet, amber ale. Killer RyeLife, a session rye pale ale, brewed light and crisp, was added in July.

Why add your own brews when, for the past 12 years, your bar and restaurant has been a hot spot for skiers, hikers, tourists and locals? The motive for Localfolk, Morris said, was “to brew really good beer” and see what happens next.

“Currently we are serving only at Localfolk, but select distribution of kegs is just around the corner,” he said.

Morris is the sole owner of Localfolk, but has partnered in the brewing business with his brother, George, and cousin, Paul Noglows, at Cousins Brewing, a separate business. The brewery is located in the first floor, walk-out basement of the Localfolk building, which he owns.

“After two years of research, I gutted and renovated a utility room and installed a very nice, three-barrel brewery (a three-barrel brewhouse produces six kegs per batch) which is the largest that would fit in the space,” Morris said.

“I’m a rookie in the brewing trade, but I’m very experienced serving beer and knowing not only what sells, but what is a really well-made product,” he said. “Brewing is art and science, and brewers of all experience levels never stop learning. I’m definitely happy with what our brewer Josh Wedel and I have produced thus far.”

Sean Lawson, co-owner with wife, Karen, of Lawson’s Finest Liquids of Warren, helped John and his partners learn the craft. “Sean and I have been friends for a long time. I appreciate everything he’s done to help me and the Vermont brewing scene. When I told him I finally committed to opening a brewery, he patted me on the back and said, ‘Welcome to the party!’” John said.

“‘Help’ may be too strong a word. I gave him advice,” said Lawson, whose popular Sip of Sunshine IPA earned a “world-class” rating of 100 from BeerAdvocate.

Whether advice or help is correct, what Lawson did was provide knowledge to a direct competitor, an act Lawson said: “reflects the spirit of the small brewers in Vermont.” Lawson’s Maple Tripple, which uses Vermont maple sap, has won three World Beer Cup medals.

Morris did not disclose the cost to build and open the brewery, but said it was much higher than expected and the start-to-finish time was much longer than he planned.

“Vermont changed wastewater requirements after giving me the go-ahead. That was good for a two-year delay and an extra $50,000 in buildout expenses,” he said. The expected time for a positive return on his investment? “We’re trying not to think about that,” he said.

Despite the high start-up cost and time delays, Morris said brewing his own beers “definitely” was the right decision. Cousins’ beers are already the best sellers at the bar. Morris expects to brew 300 kegs in the first year.

Cousins Brewing is both a new kid on the growing list of Vermont breweries and the latest on the list of bars that brew their own beer. According to Melissa Corbin, executive director of the Vermont Brewer’s Association, the number of breweries in the state doubled between 2001 and 2015. There are now 51 members of her association, 14 of which also run a restaurant. According to Corbin, Vermont has more brewers per capita than any other state. The beer brewing business generated $367 million in revenues in Vermont in 2015, she said.

Vermont is “a destination for world-class beer,” Lawson said. Despite the recent growth in Vermont breweries, Lawson thinks there is room for more. “Who’s got a crystal ball? But at the same time, there is quite a bit of room for community brewing,” he said.

Brewing his own beer wasn’t “a necessary growth strategy” for Localfolk, Morris said, but rather he did it, in part, to meet customer demands. “We’re brewing particular styles that customers are asking for, but not finding elsewhere,” he said.

Localfolk Smokehouse is a casual, full-service restaurant and bar. “Our customers are mostly 21 to 50 years old, with lots of families during dinner service and a younger crowd later in the evening. Our locals keep us in business and tourists pay the heating bills during ski season.

“We opened Cousins out of our love for beer. You just can’t get a fresher beer than this,” he said.

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