Brewery 802: Lawson's Finest Liquids
I have heard more than one Vermonter respond with a “Who?” at the mention of the name Sean Lawson. This could be because Lawson, the brewer behind Lawson’s Finest Liquids, produces only about 500 barrels of his deliciously hoppy beer each year. This is equivalent to about 15,000 gallons—not a lot for this beer-loving state.
To put this figure into perspective, Hill Farmstead, which has an equally devoted following, produces about 1,800 barrels annually. Lawson’s Finest is available in limited distribution in Vermont, including on tap at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington, the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier and Prohibition Pig in Waterbury.
Mostly, though, it stays local in the Mad River Valley where Lawson brews the beer in a seven-barrel facility adjacent to his house in Warren. On his website (LawsonsFinest.com), Lawson advises that the best inventory and selection of his beer can be found at the Warren Store.
Jack Garvin, who manages the Warren Store, has a standing weekly order for “as many cases as Sean can send.” Lawson delivers around 20 cases of one variety of beer every Thursday, sometimes to lines of expectant customers. His beer is so popular that Garvin imposes a four-bottle-per-person limit. Still, most of it is gone within a day or two.
“The Double Sunshine IPA (an American double IPA with an 8% alcohol level) is my customers’ favorite,” says Garvin. “This is typically gone the same day it is delivered. And I’ve seen people get creative to get around the bottle limit—having their husbands, wives or friends buy beer or offering to pay strangers to buy the beer for them. Very rarely do we hang on to the beer.” Last summer, Lawson created a special maple wheat beer for the Warren Store.
In order to keep up with the ever-growing demand for his beer, which he describes as “hop forward, with assertive bitterness,” Lawson instituted a numbers system at the Waitsfield Farmers’ Market, where he sold beer one Saturday a month last summer. Lawson says that this kept everything much more organized and happy, including the hundreds of customers who drove to the market to purchase his beer.
“Customers could fill out an order form and shop other vendors at the market until their time slot came up. We had nothing but positive responses from our fans.”
Lawson is entirely self-taught. “I have worked in a couple of breweries,” he says. “But I learned a lot more through many years of home brewing and research, by subscribing to home brewing magazines, reading books and talking to other brewers. There’s been a little trial and error, too.”
Lawson has been approached by a number of people interested in investing in his business. For now, he is content doing exactly what he’s doing.
“My approach is pretty simple and basic,” he says. “First and foremost, my goal is to put out a great product and to live a good quality of life. My wife, Karen, is my business partner and I don’t have any full-time employees. We are happy shaping the business to the type of life that we want to live.” The pair do everything themselves, including designing the labels and vending at several festivals each year, where they meet new fans. Incredibly, they haven’t had to do any advertising or marketing, which also keeps expenses pretty low.
Of course, it is the beer that has developed such a cult-like following.
“My focus is always on quality—on making the finest beer that I possibly can,” says Lawson, whose Maple Tripple took home a silver medal at the World Beer Cup, the “Olympics of Beer. “It is also the freshness of my beer. You are never going to get beer as fresh as from your local brewery. With IPAs and hop-forward beers like the ones I make, the fresher you can get it, the better.”
One of my favorite Lawson beers is that award-winning Maple Tripple, which is made only once a year, during sugaring season. The Maple Tripple is brewed from concentrated maple sap from his Valley neighbors. The ale is incredibly rich with a silky texture and gorgeous color. I once heard it called “breakfast beer,” maybe because it goes down so easily. To me, it is the quintessential Vermont beer.
Lawson admits that his vision for the future includes growing the business to include a bigger facility and employees, but he is not in a rush.
“That kind of change represents a big leap for me because I really enjoy making the beer myself,” he says. “I won’t be able to keep it up forever, and I would like to offer good-paying jobs to locals and to meet some of the additional demand that’s out there.” For now, Sean and Karen Lawson are content to keep things on a mom-and-pop scale.
Lawson’s Finest Liquids, LawsonsFinest.com