Forum explores creating a beer and spirits destination


BENNINGTON -- The Town of Bennington hosted its first "Beer and Spirits Forum" at Colgate Park on Wednesday evening, with guest speakers representing brewers, hop farmers, and government entities.

Organized by Peter Odierna, executive director of the Bennington County Industrial Corporation, and Michael Harrington, Bennington's economic and community development director, the forum was designed to start the conversation about how to turn Bennington into a destination for microbreweries, much like Burlington is today.

"Vermont has a great brand in this space," said Odierna, "Heady Topper is the number one beer in the country, and WhistlePig is the number one whiskey."

"Rather than let all the action happen up north, let's bring it down south!" said Peter Hopkins, a hop farmer from Pownal. He started planting hops two years ago, and currently cultivates four standard varieties and two of what he calls "heritage varieties," hops that have been growing in the wild since the hop industry left Vermont in the late 1800s. "These are hops that no one's made beer from in 150 years!" said Hopkins, "Nature abhors a vacuum, and I hope that we do, too, because there's a vacuum here. The Vermont beer culture is all in the north."

The forum also included guest speakers from government organizations designed to help farmers and small business owners get started, including the United States Department of Agriculture's Rural Development office and the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. "Our mission," said Jon Muise of the USDARD, "is to increase economic activity and improve the quality of life for rural Americans. There are staff from our agency that will work with you, we're not a funder that just gives you an application and you're on your own."

"Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state," said Janice St. Onge, deputy director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, noting that almost all of these are located in Chittenden County, "Think of what you could do in the southwestern part of the state. I have a map here, and you have access to 400,000 people in a very small radius in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont." St. Onge commented that in the mid-1800s, Vermont was the biggest producer of hops in the country, but that today, it offers much less in terms of barley and hop production, which is critical for producing local craft beers. However, she said, that infrastructure is growing.

Those attending the forum also heard from Bennington water resources superintendent Terrance A. Morse, who commented that Bennington has 1.2 million gallons of unreserved water resources for future growth. The water, he said, comes from two sources, Bolles Brook on national forest lands near Woodford, which is treated at the filtration plant in Woodford, and from the groundwater supply of Morgan Spring. Both of these, he said, are very pure.

"As Vermonters, we're always looking for the right businesses, and I can't think of a business that better fits the Vermont model," said BCIC board member Richard Collins.

"I'm really excited, the more we talk about these projects and what they might look light, the type of product that's going to be produced, where it might be produced, how it might be sold," said Harrington, "Many of you have talked to me about tasting rooms, and what that might look like, which I think is an awesome idea. Those are the types of things that not only give Bennington brand recognition and name recognition, but it also provides the opportunity for Bennington to be a destination." Harrington also spoke about Bennington's revolving loan fund, which is designed to help small businesses get their footing, and to help existing businesses expand.

The forum ended with a breakout session, which allowed the entrepreneurs, brewers, and farmers in attendance to mingle and connect with all of the evening's speakers. "I think there's a lot of momentum behind this concept," said Odierna, "and I hope before too long we can see it bearing some fruit."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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