words // Jake Tsacudakis | photos // Ben Sarle
Situated in the back corner of the Omega building in Williston is Vermont’s newest brewery, the Burlington Beer Company. Upon entering the 4,750 sq. ft. warehouse space, I was met with a cheerful smile from Joe Lemnah, the owner and brew master of Burlington Beer Co. and his business partner, Jake Durell. We sat down together at a small table on the north side of the warehouse, looking out at the to-be brewery, and talked about their new venture.
Joe, a native Vermonter, started brewing beer in 2006. He fondly recalled it took him only three batches of beer to get hooked and after a few short months of homebrewing, decided brewing beer was his life calling. Scratching his forehead with a slight smirk he talked about the early days of finding a place for him to turn his dream of being a professional brewer into a reality. “A lot of doors closed,” he said, “I was living in upstate New York, looking up and down the Hudson Valley for a job with no luck.” Despite these early setbacks, Joe eventually landed a position at Olde Saratoga Brewing Co. on the packaging line, placing beer bottles in six pack cases by hand. In the short span of two years, he’d move from the packaging line at Old Saratoga Brewing Co to a brewer in one of the most coveted craft breweries in the nation, namely Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. He talked humbly about his brewing experience at Dogfish head, recalling that in the end, the brewery was not a good fit for him. Because of the growing popularity of the brewery, Dogfish head moved to a more automated process of brewing beer. “I love getting dirty, sweating, and physically being a part of the brewing process to make the beer.” At Dogfish head that wasn’t the case. Beer production amounted to clicking a mouse and monitoring a computer screen. But now, with the lease signed back in July, Joe we’ll have his hands full running the 15 bbl. brewhouse of Burlington Beer Co.
Joe Lemnah, owner & brewmaster, at Burlington Beer Co’s new spot.
As Joe finished talking about his past experience at other breweries, he got up from the table and walked off to fetch a homebrew he had brewed as a gift for a friend. While he was away, I took the opportunity to look over the current state of the brewery.
The giant industrial white walls of the warehouse and the towering ceiling, as of now bare without pipes or gauges, made everything in the space feel small. On the opposite side wall stood the new stainless steel 15 bbl. fermentor, still wrapped in plastic with blue duct tape securing the ends. Not too far from the fermentor, in the upper corner of the warehouse clustered in a little group together, were the mash tun, the lauter tun, and the brew kettle. But what most attracted my eye was the work being done on the concrete floor. At the center of the warehouse a carved out section of concrete that resembled the shape of a cross, filled with dirt, was being tended to by two men. Beside them were 5 gallon buckets and an assortment of tools. Apparently, the men were working to finish the brewery’s floor draining system. Just to the left of the floor draining system ran a small dividing wall that separated the to-be tasting room from the brewhouse area. And if you looked down at the concrete floor, small layers of dust were littered about. The scene inside the brewery was pointedly a work-in-progress.
When Joe appeared again, he had three plastic glasses and a bottle of beer. He said the beer was an English amber ale and handed me a glass. It was damn good and the perfect complement to a hazy mid-afternoon day. With a beer in my hand, Joe turned to me and said, “Now, we’re ready for the tour.”
He led us over to where the mash tun, lauter tun, and brew kettle stood. In a spirited voice, Joe told us all three pieces of equipment were bought used from a stainless steel tank dealer down in Georgia. The idea that each piece had an already established history in some other brewery was exciting for Joe. He called it a Frankenstein-brewhouse. The only major piece of equipment purchased brand new was the fermentor tank, something Joe, as he circled around it, told us was a necessary investment.
It is there in that small 15 bbl. vessel Joe will ferment the four flagship beers and the limited release specialty brews. The flagship beers, a pale ale with an IPA flavor profile, an English brown ale, a farmhouse ale inspired Saison, and a golden ale, will be brewed and available year around. The limited release specialty brews are part of the novelty idea Joe calls, community-supported brewery. A community-supported brewery (CSB), in true Vermont fashion, is the beer equivalent of community-supported agriculture, allowing consumers to purchase beer directly from the brewery. Each month, Joe will brew an imaginative beer that pushes the limit of traditional beer styles using fruits and other funky asides with locally sourced ingredients. A lofty and potentially risky brewing endeavor, Joe hopes to celebrate the best of Vermont. “These beers are all about experimentation and challenging the ways in which beer is thought of,” Joe said, “And that means celebrating inconsistency, something I believe is a big part of Vermont culture.” The finished specialty beers will be available for all participating CSB members, along with a few other perks like Burlington Beer Co. merchandise.
We moved away from the fermentor tank as Joe drew our attention to a stack of plywood sheets spread across the concrete floor. Vibrant spray-painted images covered the plywood. Joe looked over at Jake with a whimsical smile, and recounted the story of acquiring the works of art from the very first Bonnaroo music festival. You’ll have to go to the tasting room to get the full story from Joe, but I will tell you he plans to hang the sheets of plywood on the walls of the brewery.
Art from the original Bonnaroo festival, which will adorn the walls of the tasting room.
I had just about finished the beer in my glass when Joe stopped just short of the small, 4 ft. tall dividing wall. He rested his hands on the smooth top and talked about his experience working at other breweries. “At previous breweries, I always felt like a fish in a tank, always stuck behind a piece of glass.” Joe was referring to the typical situation at breweries in which the tasting room is separated from the brewhouse by a sprawling piece of glass, giving the effect, from the brewer’s perspective, of being stuck in a fish tank. At Burlington Beer Co. the atmosphere will be different. There will be no glass barrier separating the two areas, just the small dividing wall for logistical reasons. This open atmosphere will be a welcomed change for beer enthusiasts, who will not only get to sample and purchase the beers in the tasting room, but also be immersed, in a very intimate way, to the process behind the beers’ production. This open transparency extends beyond just the physical make-up of the brewery too. Every beer Joe brews will be an open book, giving detailed notes on what and how much of an ingredient was used in making the beer.
We turned back around, and Joe with a soft sigh pointed, to the two men still working with shovels on the partially finished floor drain. He said the drain system is the biggest obstacle the brewery currently faces and overall, he estimated the drain system had delayed further development to the brewhouse by two months.
With that, Joe took our empty beer glasses and the short tour came to an end. I took one last look across the warehouse, imagining the brewhouse in its completion. There is no doubt in my mind, having spent an hour in Joe’s presence that the Burlington Beer Co. will contribute to the already deep and rich legacy of Vermont beer. The brewery’s dedicated mission to sourcing local ingredients, and paving the way for community-supported brewery program all ring true to Vermont tradition. I cannot wait to see what Joe’s imagination brews for the Burlington palate in the new year!
You can learn more by watching the video below, or visiting burlingtonbeercompany.com, and don’t forget to check out their Kickstarter campaign, raising money for barrels and kegs.