Written by Cheryl Herrick, Correspondent
Vermont Pub and Brewery owner Steve Polewacyk easily remembers when Burlington wasn’t a haven for specialty beers.
“In 1988 no one understood what craft beer was,” he said last week.
But Polewacyk and his friend, business partner and pioneering craft brewer Greg Noonan did understand — and the duo believed in Burlington’s potential to support a local brewery.
“We were the original brewers, with me assisting Greg. But no one knew what it was all about back then. We made the beer and we had to educate the bartenders and the servers about what was involved, and then they educated the customers,” Polewacyk said.
And as their customers learned what they liked, business grew, and those loyal drinkers educated the establishment, too.
“Eventually we had created a problem by developing so many beers with mainstream appeal.”
Their relatively small space didn’t allow them to stock the many flavors that had developed loyal fans, so they cut back — or tried to.
“We took Dogbite Bitter off the menu,” he said with a laugh. “You wouldn’t believe how people acted and how mad they were. What could we do? It went back on.” (It remains on the menu today.)
But Polewacyk remembers that Noonan wasn’t content to just produce good, small-batch beers that had a popular following.
“In 2007 Greg stepped things out of the box again ... He made things like Blue Nile beer with actual lotus flowers and the ‘spicy and floral’ Ambergris.”
But in 2009, while working on a research project about Irish history — one of many pet projects that kept his attention while he wasn’t in the brewery — Noonan told his partner that he had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He died in October of that year.
“We had been friends for 41 years, and business partners for 21 of them. All of a sudden I had lost my best friend, and I had to do everything I had been doing, plus everything he had been doing too. We had 60 employees, all impacted by losing him,” Polewacyk recalls. “It took nine months for all of us to turn the corner, just to keep things at a status quo.”
But the business has gone on to find new ways to satisfy Vermont’s locals and visitors, and to keep themselves and their customers engaged, too. It has started “Experimental Mondays” where the staff and guest brewers create small batches of whatever suits their fancy, with flavors like Lake Champlain Chocolatestout(which took three tries to get just right), Blueberry Muffin Hefeweisen, and Peppermint Blonde. They’ve had such success (and, he admits, lots of fun) with the interesting flavors, and with reaching out to other brewers and businesses as partners, that they’ve bought a special “pilot brewery,” a small-batch brewing apparatus that they’ve nicknamed “Amelia” (as in Earhart) to give them additional space to keep it going.
And their new flavors are attracting some serious attention in the world of beer. Vermont Pub and Brewery won three medals at the January 2012 World Championship of Beer in Chicago, a silver medal for its Chocolate Doctor Milk Stout (the top score in that category), and a bronze each for Noonan’s Strong Ale and Vermont Smoked Porter.
In February, the brewers are welcoming in local female brewers to add their creations to the Experimental Mondays line up. Look for a Snow Helles by Vermont Pub and Brewery staffer Tara Vasi, a Passionfruit Wit by Ruth Miller, and a Pre-Prohibition Lager by Anne Whyte of Vermont Homebrew Supply. In the spring and summer they’ll be introducing food pairings along with the new brews.
Polewacyk nods and smiles as he describes what’s ahead.
“We’ve been along that leading edge for 23 years, and we’re still there. I just go home and ask myself, ‘What would Greg do?’ I’m the gatekeeper of his legacy here now.”