The Women Behind Vermont’s Brewing IndustryApr 26, 2021 12:00PM ● By Pam Hunt
Gretchen Langfeldt, Plant Engineer
Switchback Brewing Company
When Gretchen Langfeldt graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in mechanical engineering, she took a part-time job at Switchback Brewing Company to make some money and “maybe get some free beer,” she admits.
Now, 16 years later, Gretchen is an integral part of one of Vermont’s longest-running breweries. “I had the opportunity to do a little bit of everything as we grew from a three-person crew to a now 30-plus employee-owned company,” she says.
Over her years at the company, she has grown from a keg scrubber to helping to plan the packaging line and the brewery’s expansion. “My days look a little different now, but the satisfaction of starting with a bunch of raw ingredients and two weeks later having a finished beer in a keg, bottle, or can head out the door for someone to enjoy will never get old,” she says.
Gretchen sees a bright future for Vermont brewers. “Vermont has built a solid reputation as a brewing mecca over the last few decades and based on the sheer volume of breweries and tourists coming up to visit, that status doesn’t seem to be dwindling,” she says.
Gretchen’s beer of choice: “Anything smoky! I love smoked beers and really enjoy seeing what other brewers are doing with them.”
Samantha Sawyer, Head Brewer and Owner
Hogback Mountain Brewery
Samantha Sawyer and her husband Jamie were working as pharmacists and homebrewed in their spare time. The pair shared the desire to support local businesses and agriculture and, after seeing the success of a nearby hop yard, decided to take the leap into professional brewing.
“The first time Jamie said the words, ‘Let’s open a brewery!’” Samantha shares, “I thought for sure he was crazy.” After talking through the process, however, they realized it was doable.
Samantha graduated from the American Brewers Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering Brewery in Planning program 2017, and the couple set out to plan their next steps. They had initially envisioned starting a brand-new brewing operation, but serendipitously, they befriended Kevin Hanson, the founder of Hogback Mountain Brewing in Bristol. Hanson was interested in an exit strategy from his business, and the Sawyers realized that taking over and expanding an existing brewery might be their best option. The couple purchased the brewery and moved it to its current location on Rockydale Road in early 2019.
The brewery has grown, but the Sawyers haven’t lost sight of their mission. “We continue to strive to source as many ingredients as locally as possible, with the majority of our brews being crafted with 100 percent locally grown ingredients,” Samantha says.
She sees “local supporting local” as a growing theme among Vermont brewers. “I see a greater interest in more breweries crafting all-Vermont brews of late,” she says.
Samantha’s beer of choice: “I love Fiddlehead’s Betty Nelson—a tart, fruited wheat beer with raspberries, lemongrass, and dehydrated lemon.”
Indy Ewald, Co-owner, Head Shepherdess, and Heart of Operations
Vermont Beer Shepherd
Indy Ewald fell in love with craft beer in 1987 when she moved to Chico, California, home of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. It was at the brewery’s bar where she fell in love again, this time to her now-husband, Mark while drinking Sierra Nevada’s first IPA. Indy learned more about beer from Mark, an avid homebrewer, and for 25 years, the pair traveled around the United States, seeking the best craft brews from each region.
In 2015, after seeing that the large beer distributors weren’t a good fit for smaller breweries, they decided to start their own company.
To support their mission of caring for the beer to “ensure safe passage from brewer to beer lover,” Vermont Beer Shepherd invested in a cold chain distribution system to maintain the freshness of each beer. In her role as “Heart of Operations,” Indy takes care of the people in the company. “I am focused on integrating all aspects of our business and cultivating a work atmosphere that is empowering and supportive for our employees,” she says.
“Beer tourism in Vermont is a growing industry and I think this will continue to support growth in Vermont beer manufacturing,” Indy says. As for styles of beer that she sees as thriving, she notes, “IPAs will remain the most sought after and craft lagers will continue to expand market share.”
Indy’s beer of choice: “My personal favorite Vermont-made beers are Lawsons’s Finest Liquids Chinookered IPA and Four Quarters Brewing Dolla Dolla Pilsner.”
Jen Kimmich, Co-Owner and CEO
Jen Kimmich found her passion for beer and the service industry—as well as her husband John—while working at Vermont Pub and Brewery, first as a waiter and then as she moved up to manager. She and John had a dream: “To open our own brewpub. That was it. All we wanted was a community pub, someplace where John could make beer and I could run a restaurant and make ends meet and live happily ever after.”
For the first part of their life together, they worked on their business plan, developed beer recipes, and saved money. Their dream came true in 2003 when they opened the doors of The Alchemist Pub and Brewery in Waterbury with “a lot of salvaged equipment, lots of elbow grease, a $100,000 loan, and a bunch of maxed-out credit cards,” Jen says.
The Alchemist thrived as a popular restaurant and bar for many years, and in early 2011, the couple opened the Alchemist Cannery, a 15-barrel brewery and canning line, for the production of Heady Topper. After Tropical Storm Irene damaged the pub’s building, the Kimmiches regrouped and rebuilt a larger brewery up the road in Stowe, where they continue to offer their sought-after beers.
Jen sees quality as a hallmark of Vermont beers. “While lots of breweries around the country are trying to make the most outrageous beers possible—milkshake beers, beers brewed with chicken and waffles!—I am confident that we will collectively continue to shine a light on the great flavors that malt and hops produce. That’s why we all got into this business: a love for the raw ingredients and what they can magically do when they are together.”
Jen’s beer of choice: “I would be lying if I said anything other than Focal Banger, but I also frequently enjoy Allagash White—they’re a fellow B Corp brewery that I admire.”
Before working for Farrell Distributing, Anna Kinzly spent nearly two decades in the bar and restaurant business, where she developed a love for the hospitality industry. “Being able to learn so much about different Vermont breweries, and then showcase them, was incredibly rewarding,” she says.
She points to the evident importance of the brewing industry to Vermont during the COVID-19 shutdown. “I was pleased both that Vermont beer was deemed essential during the pandemic, and that it proved itself worthy as such,” she explains. “Beer is such a great part of the community and also the Vermont experience.”
She’s excited to be a woman in this industry, though she’d love to see more women join her. “Whether through homebrewing, rising through the ranks at established breweries, or starting their own, I am looking forward to the beer industry welcoming more women as leaders in production, distribution, and ownership.”
Anna’s beer of choice: She loves her double IPAs: “My favorite beers from Vermont are B-72 from 14th Star, Madonna from Zero Gravity, and Tropical Illusion from Goodwater.”
Taylor Radke, Brewery Sales
14th Star Brewing Co.
Taylor Radke got an introduction to Vermont beers as a server at several Burlington restaurants while a student at UVM. After spending some time in Costa Rica after graduation, she returned to the Green Mountain State and joined the team at Zero Gravity’s South End taproom, where she learned more about craft beer under the tutelage of brewmaster Paul Saylor. She currently works as a Vermont sales representative for 14th Star Brewing. “I am constantly amazed at the incredible sense of community within the craft beer scene here in Vermont and am looking forward to seeing the industry grow,” she says.
Taylor is proud that 14th Star takes part in the Collaboration Brew Day run by the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit organization that supports women working in the brewing profession. “Each year, Yakima Chief Hops provides a specific hop blend that the participating breweries receive to create a special Pink Boots batch of beer at the hands of all the ladies involved,” she says. After a year off due to the pandemic, the female staff at the brewery gathered recently to brew this year’s batch: an India pale lager with lemon and hibiscus.
Taylor attributes the success of Vermont’s breweries to their sense of community. “Vermont is a special place in regard to the craft beer movement. It seems as though our brave little state helped cultivate a widespread demand for craft beer within the New England region and beyond. This speaks not just to the quality of the liquid that Vermont is putting out, but the folks behind the tanks, so to speak.”
Taylor’s beer of choice: “It goes without saying that the 14th Star Citranade is my favorite beer of all time. I am also a big fan of Zero Gravity’s Bretthead as well as Stange, a Kölsch-style ale from Goodwater Brewery.”
Barbara Cote, Owner
Shelburne Tap House
Barbara Cote has been active in Vermont’s restaurant world for two decades, first as a chef and now as the owner of the Shelburne Tap House. “Owning a bar and restaurant allows you to become a fabric in the community,” she says. Looking forward to post-pandemic times, she notes, “I love nothing more than hearing the laughter and chatter mixed in with background music on a busy night!” The gastropub certainly draws diners for its cuisine, but it’s also known for its 12 seasonally rotating taps of local and regional beers.
For Barbara, the state’s craft beer and spirits community represent what Vermont is all about—“Hard work and craftsmanship.” She sees the industry “continuing to grow and impress, with no slowdown in sight.” The only downside for her: “I only wish I had more taps to showcase more!”
Barbara’s “brew” of choice: Citizen Cider’s bRosé. “It’s crisp, refreshing, and never disappointing!”