by Mike Dunphy
Among the faces carved into Vermont’s Mount Rushmore of Craft Beer is Sean Lawson’s. Together with his wife, Karen, they transformed a tiny one-barrel nano-brewery at their Warren home in 2008 into a 30-barrel, 7,500-square-foot brewery and taproom set to open this fall along Route 100 in Waitsfield. In between, the couple established an “alternating proprietorship” at Two Roads Brewing Company in Stratford, Connecticut, where they brew their flagship “Sip of Sunshine IPA” and “Super Session” series. That’s tremendous growth for just 10 short years, and any search for the explanation ends with a single sip of the sunshine—a rite of passage for anyone exploring Vermont’s vaunted craft beer industry.
With so much success and such a solid reputation, the Lawsons could have chosen almost anywhere to open the new brewery and taproom, but no other place than Waitsfield came into serious consideration.
“Sean and I live in the [Mad River] valley,” explains Karen Lawson. “That’s where our original brewery was. We were very clear that we wanted to create a public space in the same area as we live. We could have gone anywhere, but it’s not home. This is home.”
Indeed, it might seem like destiny when considering the fact that the land’s previous owner, James Kohl, had actually set aside approximately half of the on-site wastewater system years ago, hoping that Lawson’s Finest Liquids would purchase the property. “He had asked years ago when we weren’t ready,” Karen said. “He put it aside and purchased that quantity, hoping that we would get here, which we did, and he was patient, so really the stars aligned in terms of the actual location.”
And, according to Karen, the home area is just as happy as they are with the new complex, larger than any other structure in town, particularly as a stabilizing force for the dips in tourism and their attending dollars between the seasons. “What we are hoping is that we will help stabilize the ups and downs of the tourism in our area because during May and November, things really drop off. A lot of restaurants close. It’s difficult for employees at the mountain to plan their income.”
Furthermore, the Lawsons are making a point of working with local businesses, not against them. A big example of this is the dining options in the taproom, which will keep to tasting plates of Green Mountain Twisters pretzels, smoked meats, and cheese. “Our vision is really ‘come here, have a few drinks, some smoked meats and cheese, but then go and visit any of the existing, great, local restaurants for your meal,” Karen explains.
Locals no doubt also appreciate the 30 to 40 jobs coming with the business, all with hourly wages that exceed $15 per hour, healthcare, dental, vision, and even 401(k) plans. This also allows Lawson’s Finest to forgo tipping altogether. However, should customers feel compelled to give, all tips will go to supporting local non-profits.
Understandably, it’s generated a lot of response to the many job advertisements filling local papers, although not always with the needed qualifications. “Some people just want to be part of the Lawson’s Finest but don’t necessarily have the skills and knowledge needed for a particular role,” Karen reflects, “so that has been a little challenging. Some jobs are more trainable than others.”
As for the timber-structured, grand-hall style, taproom itself, the intention is to wow.
“We first want to see them walk through that front door, look at the fireplace, and then around to the timber frame and see their jaw drop and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” she said. Certainly, the vast space—capable of holding nearly 200 people—looks the part with high, pitched ceilings, ample light through wrap-around windows, a central bar, games area, communal picnic tables, and an outdoor beer garden.
Attention to the structure itself, designed in collaboration with Brattleboro-based Austin Design, also reveals much about the personalities of Sean and Karen. “Our construction manager tells us all the time that Sean and I are a rare breed in the sense that we made every single decision. He said he’s used to owners letting other people make those decisions, and Sean and I are so particular about what we wanted this to be. Our fingerprints are all over this.”
That includes the slaps of Vermont verde, antique, serpentine stone; chandeliers of blown Simon Pearce glass (with direct breaths from Karen and Sean); acoustical tiles in the ceiling to absorb sound; local artwork by Erin Bundock, a studio art major at UVM; and a tall, stone, gas fireplace (because wood would alter the senses, and therefore the taste of the beer), a games area for kids with foosball table and more, allows parents—as the Lawsons are—to have mini-dates. Adjacent to that is the retail area, with take-home packs of beer, T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and assorted beery schwag. It’s important to note that there will be no growler filling station, though, as they can’t control the quality.
Indeed, it’s the attention to quality that Karen claims will keep Lawson’s Finest from expanding any further. “We do not have any goals of getting bigger and adding locations.” A good example of this is the distribution from the Two Roads brewery, which now covers New England and New York. “We require our distributors to keep our beer cold from the minute it leaves the dock to our account. We are unique in that way.”
Also worked into the design is a wastewater filtration system to address the problem stressing wastewater facilities around the state, as beer waste has been causing numerous problems, including 1.8 million gallons of dirty water flowed into the Lake Champlain during three days in June. Happily, a new 9,000-gallon-per-day wastewater system was built on the Winter Park property, where the brewery is located, in 2017. The Lawsons went one step further, installing a pre-treatment plant that removes the biological solids—like yeast—and “digests” the organic load. “Being a brewery and using a lot of water and waste, it’s our job to make sure it’s filtered out to go above and beyond what we need to do to make sure it’s clean going into the town system.”
Once the brewery is up and running, it will draw water from a Scrag Mountain aquifer to produce 12 recipes, including fan favorites and new varieties, including Double and Triple Sunshine, Maple Imperial Stout, “Hopzilla” [IPA], Knockout Blonde [ale], and “Maple Nipple” [amber ale]. However, distribution will be more limited than the Two Roads brewery, with sales primarily on the premises and at some yet-unspecified local purveyors.
For Karen, the entire project, now coming to close two years after the first sit-down with the project manager, has been an education in business. “We don’t have enough time for me to tell you all the things I’ve had to learn. I’ve had to learn about the industry, running a business, you name it, the list is long.” It’s this experience that also gives her some insight into the “bubble” of breweries popping up almost everywhere in the state.
“The statistic of those that open and close within a year or three years is high,” she said. “I think what people don’t realize is that you are running a business. I think a lot of folks get into starting a brewery because they like to home brew but the business acumen that is required to have this be sustainable and a quality operation is not to be underestimated. I wonder if some people get into it and don’t realize it’s not just showing up and making beer. There’s a business to run.”
It’s perhaps also instructive that the Lawsons focused not only on direction, but also destination—a small and family-focused business. “We have been approached countless times by investors, and we made a very clear decision early on that Sean and I were going to maintain ownership, and the importance of an independent brewer is not to be underestimated as well. When brewers sell out to Anheuser Busch, people will stop buying their product. So, Sean and I are extremely cognizant of keeping it a family business. This is really what we’ve been working so hard for over the last ten years.”
For beer lovers statewide, the only remaining question is “When do you open?” At the moment, there’s still no clear answer. “We are publicly saying ‘autumn,’ Karen says with a grin, “and every day is a day closer.”