From Nano to Micro
One small-scale brewer capitalizes on Vermont’s beer trend
Written onFebruary 21 , 2014
The day I went out to visit Bret Hamilton’s new microbrewery, Stone Corral, on idyllic Taft Road in Huntington, the 32-degree weather felt downright balmy. It was early January, and we’d just had one of the coldest snaps I’d ever felt in Vermont—wind chills down in the 30-below range.
But as the rest of Vermont was hibernating, Bret was expanding. He was eager to show me the two new fermenters he’d just installed with the help of his friend and neighbor, Gene Bouffard. With the installation, Stone Corral was officially moving from nano-scale to micro-scale.
Bret is a relatively unknown brewer compared to Vermont’s contemporary legends: Lawson’s, Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, and the like. But he’s a longtime home brewer who’s jumping into the local beer scene by starting small and growing from there. Aware of Vermont’s nationally recognized breweries, Bret says he knew the time was right to make the leap.
Anne Duany White of Vermont Homebrew Supply in Winooski says she’s seeing more home brewers setting up “nanobreweries” and looking for local distribution on a relatively small scale. “You’re seeing more people jump,” she says. “If enough people tell you that you’re good at something and they take pleasure from it, and you have a passion for doing it, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t be thinking to yourself, There are other people who get money for doing this. Why not me?’
Anne points to a number of successful operations that started out quite small, such as 14th Star Brewing Company in St. Albans and Switchback in Burlington. And today, there are a number of new small breweries hot on Bret’s heels, including Queen City Brewery in Burlington, Burlington Beer Company in Williston, and Four Quarters Brewing in Winooski, among others.
Bret was a home brewer for 22 years before he started selling his beer last August from his home and at the Waitsfield farmers’ market. But with the addition of the two new fermenters, Bret’s production was about to expand five-fold when I visited him, with production capacity of 125 gallons at a time. He was looking at very limited distribution for the foreseeable future, though. That would mean more selling from home and the farmers’ market, and maybe gracing a tap or two around the north-central part of the state.
“The people around Vermont have been more receptive and accepting than I’d ever imagined,” he said.
Sharing Underrepresented Brews
Bret’s ales, stouts, and wheat beers are a departure from many of the hop-heavy brews now coming out of Vermont. But this is intentional; Bret wants to sell beers that are underrepresented in the current market. The explicit focus of Stone Corral is on brewing ales that pair well with food, through one key element: “Balance,” says Bret.
Stone Corral may be part of an emerging trend, says Anne Duany White, noting that the pendulum is swinging back toward what she calls “sessionable” beers—the kinds that won’t knock you out with bitterness or high alcohol content after one glass.
“I think he’s onto something,” Anne says. “I think what people want to drink is something that tastes good, that you don’t have to pour in a snifter, or spend $20 a bottle on. You just want good, everyday kind of beer. I think there will be a good response to that. I hope so.”
If his initial success is any indication—Bret recalls a day after Thanksgiving when 75 people stood outside his tiny tasting room—the market is hungry for food-friendly brews. His most popular creation, Stone Corral Black Beer, is a balanced, velvety, German-inspired black ale porter cross.
To meet demand, Bret and his wife (and business partner) Melissa plan on expanding their brewing space and tasting room this spring. Bret’s current brewery, a repurposed tool shed 50 feet or so out his front door, had been doubling as a tasting room, but it was so small that when they got any more than four visitors at a time, it was shoulder to shoulder. The overflow would occasionally migrate into Melissa’s tack room in their reclaimed barn, which houses their nine horses. (Stone Corral shares an address with Willow Creek Horse Farm, where Melissa raises horses for trail riding.)
Getting the full experience of Stone Corral demands a visit to the brewery. It’s set right between Hinesburg’s town forest and Camel’s Hump, and neighbors are just as likely to visit by horse or snowmobile as by car. “Folks seem to like our quiet and beautiful mountain setting,” Bret says.
A Close Connection to Food
In addition to its taste, Bret’s beer maintains yet another close connection with food: he uses local products in the beer whenever he can. Last fall, he brewed a butternut squash brown ale with squash from Burnt Rock Farm in Huntington and T-Cascade hops from Square Nail Hop Farm in Vergennes. He says he’s enjoying watching the burgeoning Vermont hop industry, particularly as it’s caught the attention of the UVM Extension, which now holds an entire conference on hops and offers support and resources for Vermont hops growers.
He’s also used maple syrup from Taft Farm in Huntington to brew up a batch of Double Chocolate Maple Porter, a light porter. And he brews with Gleason Grains barley out of Bridport.
Still, it’s not like Bret is alone in using local ingredients in his beer; it’s a quintessentially Vermont thing to do. “I think Vermont has a pretty strong tradition of making things from scratch, wanting to do things for yourself,” Anne Duany White says. “This is a conversation we have all the time here at the store—about how to incorporate fruit, berries, nuts, maple. It becomes a very personal product when you start putting those kinds of things into it.”
True to his promise to brew underrepresented beers, Bret also plans to brew stouts, dark and light wheat beers, reds, and an original style he calls Mourbon Bash. He’s secured an oak cask from Vermont Spirits in Quechee and is brewing with Early Riser Cornmeal from the Northeast Kingdom. “It’s a style of strong, dark ale from England” that flips the traditional bourbon mash recipe ratios.
“I’m always coming up with ideas, and I’ve been talking for years about opening a brewery, mostly in jest,” says Bret, who has owned Shelter Analytics, an energy-efficiency company, since 2010. Before that, he worked for Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) for some 10 years.
Catering to Vermont Supporters
With all the excitement around Vermont beers (which can sometimes cause shortages), the Hamiltons are making sure their wares are available to their loyal followers and neighbors through the Stone Corral Brew Club. Members get access to all the latest and freshest brews, as well as all limited releases for 10 months. For between $250 and $975, fans can support Stone Corral, pre-paying to help the Hamiltons upgrade their space. They also plan to host some events for local supporters in the coming months.
“Vermont beer is in a very special place right now,” says Anne Duany White. “No one is selling out. Everyone is passionate. And it’s not just one producer; it’s a lot of producers making a lot of great stuff.”
With a brewery like Stone Corral now in the mix, beer lovers can get local food products in a beer that’s brewed to pair well with the growing list of world-class Vermont foods. Chalk it up as just the latest mind-bending victory for the Vermont localvore movement.