Elevating Taste in Essex: Black Flannel Brewing and Distilling Serves Excellence & EducationSep 30, 2021 02:14PM ● By Molly Ritvo
On a recent warm summer evening, the biergarten at Black Flannel Brewing and Distilling Company was filled with laughter, live music, and even a few dogs happily lapping up water. Inside, conversations filled the open dining room as staff carried pints of beer and carefully plated entrées to diners. Founder and brewer Chris Kesler might say hello to his regulars, but he is usually engaged in R&D and marketing and managing company direction, vendor relationships, quality control, and distribution. Chris is a serious and thoughtful entrepreneur who has worked tirelessly to keep Black Flannel thriving, even during immensely challenging circumstances.
Chris, a two-time winner of the Vermont Homebrewer of the Year, started brewing as a hobby on his 50th birthday. In 2017 he entered his first beer competition, a state-wide competition called Make The Cut. His Disco Montage New England IPA scored in the top 2. He then quickly realized that brewing might be more than just a hobby. Chris went on to earn a certificate from UVM (University of Vermont) Business of Craft Beer program. He has hosted Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and Certified Cicerone study groups, and the Greg Noonan Memorial Homebrew Competition. Along the way, he has formed friendships rooted in the love of beer education with the Green Mountain Mashers. And all of this while running a marketing company called Earthlogic, Inc.
A First Birthday
Today, Black Flannel Brewing and Distilling is just over a year old and has rightfully earned its place as a top brewery, distillery, and restaurant in Vermont’s crowded craft beer landscape. The 15-barrel brewery is unique in many ways, most notably in that Black Flannel has four certified Cicerones and multiple beer judges on staff. “A certified Cicerone is similar to a sommelier for wine,” explains Chris. “It is a professional credential earned through work experience, intense study, and a four-hour exam designed to be one of the harder exams a professional will take." There are only sixteen Certified Cicerones in Vermont, and it’s no surprise that Black
Flannel has four of them. Chris happens to be one of them. Additionally, Black Flannel is the only Vermont brewery with an on-site sister distillery.
"Starting a business is hard. Starting a combo brewery/restaurant/distillery is harder. Starting in the middle of a global pandemic… well, you can imagine,” Chris says. Yet, his optimism has remained and has helped his team grow. “I’ve aged quite a bit in the past year. But I feel strong, and my own optimism is at an all-time high. Seeing the look on the faces of our delighted guests continues to add fuel to the fire, and the love we receive on social media on a daily basis makes all the hard work worthwhile.”
Black Flannel's tagline, "exceptional craft celebrated at every turn," highlights the three crafts they offer: brewing, dining, and distilling.
“Our team came together naturally, with every member drawn to the Black Flannel vision. They happen to be some of Vermont’s best in their respective crafts,” says Chris. They include Head of Brewing Operations Dan Sartwell, Head of Beer Education & Brewer Drew Cunningham, Head of Barrel Program Aaron Ritchie, Spiritmaster Dave Mosher, Head Distiller Travis Johnson, Executive Chef Christian Kruse, and Head of Restaurant Operations David Nyhan. Chris adds, “My wife Deb is director of accounting; she keeps us all on our best behavior when it comes to fiscal responsibility.” As the Black Flannel website promises, “Everything we offer to our guests will be a carefully considered and crafted experience.”
Chris’s vision for Black Flannel was unique from the beginning. He is committed to encouraging “passion, creativity, and collaboration” within each operation and is passionate about creating opportunities for each craft to collaborate with each other. As an example, the brewers and distillers have collaborated with four of their products to produce both a spirit and a beer with the same batch of grain, using a technique known as parti-gyle.
Black Flannel is careful to pour only excellent beers. They have a rigorous tasting panel, dubbed the “Flannel Panel,” and frequently test their products, often at Zymology Labs, a local beer testing lab run by Certified Cicerone Amy Todd. While Black Flannel offers classic flavors, they aren’t bound to tradition. “We focus on traditional styles but really like to experiment,” says Chris. Their bestselling beers are their New England IPA, a Kolsch-style ale, and Märzen. “We tend to brew what we love to drink, and our brewing staff are big lager drinkers,” he adds. As for spirits and cocktails, Black Flannel has produced over a dozen unique varieties of spirits including whiskey, genever (Dutch gin), rum, tequila, and “garden spirits” made with fruits and vegetables. "The beer cocktails that infuse both our beer and spirits are quite popular," he adds.
Raven and Anvil
Black Flannel’s mascot is a raven and anvil because it “represents the practical application of craft and the physical work that goes into it,” says Chris, adding that he looks forward to offering craft beer educational classes again in the fall. He also holds in-house education for staff who are eager to pursue Cicerone study. “We believe an educated customer is a loyal customer, and when we have a hand in helping to educate our guests, they will appreciate our approach and quality,” he adds.
While the first year of Black Flannel presented many obstacles due to the pandemic, Chris is proud of what his team has accomplished. “We all get the distinct feeling that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible,” he says. “We are very excited for what the future brings, and we are inspired and humbled to be a part of the tight-knit communities of Vermont brewers, restaurateurs, and distilleries.
Essex Junction, VT