Suds, Not Songs
There’s a saying in Austria that the best beer and bread are made around the corner. Hovering above Stowe since 1942, the von Trapp family (yes, the one from the musical movie) has been baking the latter in the idyllic Green Mountains. Sixty years later, they began fermenting the former.
Not only did the von Trapp family start a brewery, they started it in their pastry kitchen. Worry not— the pastry kitchen remains and simply moved upstairs. It’s a smaller space, but Sam von Trapp, son of Johannes and director and executive vice president, says it’s the pastry kitchen with the most sublime view in all of America with its picture windows over-looking the valley of the Green Mountains.
Beer brewing fermented in the minds of Sam and his father Johannes (the only son of Maria and Georg von Trapp and president of the von Trapp Family Lodge) for almost two decades before they enticed two of their enthusiastic managers to help them retrofit that bakery.
In the 1990s, Sam continuously prodded Johannes, as young folks will do, to taste the craft beers sprouting up across the United States. Johannes was game. He just wondered why every beer was an ale. Where were the lagers?
Certainly Johannes wasn’t new to beer. He first sipped it at age 11 in Austria. Decades later but not far away in age, Sam enjoyed his first brew at 14 years old, with his dad on their Arizona ranch. The taste didn’t make much of an impression (perhaps because it might have been Coors ... though this isn’t precisely recalled), but the chance to share his first beer with his dad was a memorable honor. Now, they share the beginning of a new von Trapp legacy in suds ... not songs.
They brewed their first batch just after the New Year in 2010. They didn’t go about this haphazardly. They researched all topics at length and consulted extensively with the late Greg Noonan, founder of Vermont’s first craft brewery, Vermont Pub & Brewery. Greg was a big von Trapp fan from the start. As
Johannes had noted, the U.S. craft beer industry had been (and remains) almost singularly focused on ales. The von Trapps had a different palate, and Greg knew there was a thirsty market seeking satisfaction.
Being laser-focused on “local” everything, the father-son pair searched far and wide for the right brewer. Two possibilities popped up. One, Allen Van Anda, had stepped away from brewing, but he reconsidered when the von Trapps approached him. Johannes bought Van Anda a plane ticket and told him to go taste beer in Germany. Van Anda did and brought back samples galore. Each one was a helles (pronounced “hell-us”), a southern German lager style whose name means “bright.”
Moreover, helles was Johannes’s long-time favorite. Maybe this isn’t a surprise given Spaten (the inventor of the Helles style) was always on tap at the Trapp Family Lodge at the time? It tastes crisp, clean and not high in sometimes controversial hops, which add bitterness. The Stowe tasting crew quickly reached a consensus on their favorite helles. Sam also suggested an amber lager, and their Vienna Style Lager began the von Trapp range with the helles.
The lodge was to be the sales arena. Were there leftovers, the von Trapps would branch out to Vermont restaurants. Yet within months of their first release in March 2010, outlets in 23 states asked if they could buy the von Trapps’ beer. A Vermont hotel soon asked for a pilsner-style beer, now the brewery’s most hop-forward selection. Today, the top sellers in close order are the Helles, the Bohemian Pilsner and the Vienna Style Lager.
There’s more than this trio, however. Their Dunkel serendipitously came along in those early days, too. It was freezing cold, and Mother Nature played with Van Anda.
He couldn’t control the refrigeration system during the malting process. Quick on his feet, he decided to make a dark lager. The Dunkel has been a mainstay since.
The experiment quickly became a business. The von Trapps were excited and ready to expand. Van Anda was so thrilled with returning to brewing that he decided to open his own brewery. So, it was time to approach the other brewer they considered from the outset: JP Williams. A self-taught brewer and Magic Hat Brewery alumnus, Williams has overseen the von Trapp brews since October 2016.
A new brewery built in 2015 today cranks out 10,000 barrels. That is but a third of the brewery’s capacity. Easing gently into their state- of-the-art, thoughtfully crafted facility, the von Trapps and Williams can expand easily to 30,000 barrels.
While satiating their market’s thirsts for a widened range of beer (eight are now available, some seasonal), the team opened a bierhall on the von Trapp Lodge property this October. Long in the works, Sam emphasizes that waiting a bit longer to open didn’t matter much. His father has a master’s degree in forestry, and he thinks in generations, even centuries. Better to get it right from the start. In designing their bierhall, the von Trapp family looked to where they love to clink steins: the Augustiner Bräu in Salzburg. It’s an old, high-ceilinged church where both locals and visitors gather.
Today, at 700 Trapp Hill Road in Stowe, similarly diverse merry-makers gather. Whether on a random local visit, a mountain biking trip, a ski weekend or a pilgrimage to the lodge, there’s an intersection of life. The Argentine-style parrilla grill, inspired by the von Trapps’ travels, is a highlight. Kennebunk-based Argentinian restaurateur German Lucarelli (who sells von Trapp brews at his establishment) helped them through the intricacies of managing the grill’s setup and intense heat distribution. Hearty fare is a feature, but plentiful veggie options offer unusual and much-appreciated balance on a bierhall menu.
What you won’t know unless you ask is that an important element of the brews arises from the property itself. Their water comes from one of the property’s three springs. This particular one was found almost 30 years ago by Johannes in an effort to secure a more reliable source for the hotel’s drinking water. Johannes scoured old maps, found a local source, hiked to its location then managed to purchase the spring from its owner.
First a lark, now a business, and all win. Yet what is on the market is not all. A few newbies will soon be sip-ready, but only at the bierhall in Stowe. One is their Trösten Lager aged in Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrels. The second is a still-to-be-determined and potential blend of helles aged in white and red wine barrels from the Höpler winery in Burgenland, Austria.
When you get there to taste these exclusives, don’t be disappointed if there isn’t the yodeling of songs from The Sound of Music à la “My Favorite Things.” But Johannes and Sam von Trapp are confident their brews will certainly fit that tag line.
Christy Canterbury is a Master of Wine, but beer has always been her antidote (and respite) to long days of tasting “wein.” Having first seen The Sound of Music at age five or six, she finds in tasting the von Trapp family selections of beer a sweet harmony between “My Favorite Things” and “Something Good.”