Riding The Beer Wave at Rock Art Brewery
In 2011 and 2012 the Brewers’ Association declared that Vermont had the highest number of breweries per capita of any state. This statistic was calculated from the most recently available census data crossed with the number of breweries in operation which, at the time, was 26.
We can only assume that the state has maintained that honor, given that just a few years later there are 40 breweries in operation with six more in planning.
Vermont has not only quantity but excellent quality, regularly receiving national accolades as well as an award for Best Brewery in the World for Hill Farmstead. Of RateBeer’s 100 best beers in the world, Vermont breweries took up 11 spots. Put another way, more than 10% of the world’s best beers come from our beautiful, yet sparsely populated, state.
To be one of those breweries requires both passion for the product and perseverance in the face of fierce competition. Even with the millennial surge of enthusiasm for craft beer, local brewers are still competing for shelf space with each other as well as the lower-priced national brands. Matt and Renee Nadeau of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville are an example of a couple that has stuck it out through not just one but two big waves of competition. And they have done it by keeping their focus local and their product top quality.
Rock Art Brewery was started by the Nadeaus 17 years ago. Matt had always had an interest in brewing so one year Renee bought him a how-to book. While still working for a lamp manufacturer in Hyde Park, he started making beer in his basement. His efforts yielded some very good beer, and his five-gallon home kit quickly became a 20-gallon kettle and soon after a seven-barrel system in an outdoor shed with a gravity-fed line to the basement for storage.
Their timing to get into the beer market worked both for and against them. On the one hand there was the first big explosion of interest in drinking craft beers. On the other, there were approximately 17 other microbreweries also entering the market in Vermont, resulting in stiff competition at a time when the public was just getting used to the higher price tag of craft brews.
Matt says, “It was a hard go of it in ’97 and ’98. There was a period when everyone was brewing; some for love of it and some for money. There was a shaking out process of those who were just in it for fun. As far as the extra competition—we were holding our own so it was fine.”
Those early years were full of long hours and constant work. Matt injured his back hefting bags of grain and equipment. Money was tight since all of their profits went right back into the company. In fact, he reports, he wasn’t able to pay himself for the first four years.
After years of steady growth, however, they had a solid business. Matt left his job at the lamp manufacturer to brew beer full time while Renee supported them through her job at a dental office. They took out a loan and moved to a space in Johnson, but sales continued to grow and they realized they needed an entire facility custom-built for the brewery. The basement hobby had become bona fide.
In 2010 the Nadeaus started construction on a 10,000-square-foot building off Route 100 in Morrisville. The facility now holds the brewery, a warehouse, a viewing room and a small tasting bar with retail space. Rock Art currently has 10 employees: six core, including Matt and Renee, and four part time. The tourist seasons are the busiest. Being just around the corner from Stowe, the brewery gets a good number of skiers in the winter and vacationers in the summer. In addition, there is a steady stream of locals who come to pick up kegs and fill up growlers.
One thing that seems to have come easily from the start has been building demand. Within the first year of going commercial, Rock Art beer started selling out of state to Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. According to Renee, however, the majority of their product is sold within 50 miles of the brewery, mostly to Montpelier, Waterbury and Burlington. They have no sales representatives and do very little advertising. When they first started, Renee went around to neighborhood restaurants, making the pitch to carry their beer on tap. She says from there they developed a local following and word-of-mouth has done the rest. In short, the quality of the beer has sold itself.
The fact that the two of them are a well-liked couple has also boosted local sales and it hasn’t hurt that they are very involved in the community. When local farmer Pete Johnson lost his barn to a fire, the Nadeaus created a beer called Pete’s Greens Barn-Raising Brown as a fund-raiser, with all profits going toward reconstruction. Journey’s End Kolsh and The Humble Harvester IPA were also fundraising releases for local charities. Renee and Matt are friendly and approachable and love to talk to their customers at beer fests and from behind their tasting bar. This has endeared them to local beer lovers, resulting in steadfast loyalty.
For the future of Rock Art, Matt will continue to experiment with different types of beer. The Ridge Runner and Vermonster are the most popular offerings. But Rock Art also has a selection of roughly 25 specialty and seasonal beers like their Belgian white Sunny and 75 or their dark Double Porter Smoked.
As a nod to Vermont’s other favorite product, Matt created a Maple Wheat, which is released in a small batch in the spring and sells out within a month. Currently he is playing around with aging certain brews in barrels that had been previously used for bourbon. At the moment some of the barrels contain Russian Imperial with a splash of maple syrup and cinnamon; in others he is trying an infusion of cocoa beans. The most recent release is the Galaxy IPA with hops from New Zealand. Matt is really pleased with this one and says it has surprised him by developing notes of citrus and mango.
Vermont is now in the midst of a second explosion of new breweries but the Rock Art brewers are still holding their own against the competition. Smart growth and quality product has been their successful business model for almost two decades and they see no reason to change it.
The passion for crafting beer is still there, too, as is evident in Matt’s face when he talks about the most recent brew he is experimenting with. Nevertheless, their ambition has tempered a bit with time. When I ask Matt if he wants to compete in the national beer market, he chuckles and replies, “No. I can let my kids do that. I’m busy enough and bills are getting paid.”
To find out more visit RockArtBrewery.com
Laura Sorkin is generally a wine drinker but took a shine to Rock Art’s Double Porter and considers a burger incomplete without a pint of Ridge Runner next to it.