Yes, they're all sour — and that's pretty sweet: Hermit Thrush pursues tart, smart brews
BRATTLEBORO — Terroir. It's a French word usually associated with winemaking, describing the completely natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. Collectively, these factors are said to have a character — or terroir — that makes the product unique.
The term can also apply to beer, said Hermit Thrush Brewery co-owner and brewmaster Chris Gagne, who gives a simple reason for the distinctive character of his brewery's all-sour creations: "Brattleboro's terroir is good."
Hermit Thrush uses Vermont water and collects wild yeast to create its in-house cultures. Gagne and co-owner Avery Schwenk age their beer in barrels obtained from local distilleries and wineries such as Saxtons River, Caledonia and Honora. They get fruit (apples, plums, raspberries) from local orchards. They buy hops and grain in abundance from nearby farms. The region's mountains, valleys, wind, rivers and fields are what make Hermit Thrush beer taste like no other in the world.
Even the brewery's name is uniquely local: the hermit thrush is the state bird of Vermont.
Gagne and Schwenk have been at it for five years now, producing crisp, tart, sour beer — sometimes funky, sometimes fruity — but always fresh and flavorful.
"We do use a lot of local ingredients, especially the yeast," Gagne said. "Most brewers think of yeast as an ingredient; you order the yeast and put it in the beer and it ferments. But for us, everything is in-house. Our propagation uses a wild Brattleboro mix culture."
"It's great that we get to use not only our local yeast but local hops, local fruit, local barrels," Schwenk said. "It comes together nicely. We can make a product that a lot of other people aren't able to because of what we have so close by."
Hermit Thrush has 33 sour cans available in its tasting room in downtown Brattleboro, and 22 all-sour taps. Gagne and Schwenk distribute their product to seven different states.
Yes, all their beers are sour — and yes, they know it's not everybody's first choice. But they're in the business of converting the nonbelievers, resetting the taste buds, refreshing the palate.
"When you're presented with a number of different sours, you can really explore in a way that hasn't existed a lot," Gagne said. "Sour beer up until recently wasn't that normal, but more recently it's kind of gaining acceptance. There's a lot of people that haven't really had a lot of sours. But whether it's fruity or hoppy or (barrel-aged) or malty, there's a lot of different directions to go with sours. We do everything from traditional, barrel-aged stuff to fresh, young, bright, hoppy and fruity things. There's all the styles of beer in the world, and then there's tartness, and that hasn't been put on all the styles of beer in the world yet. So it's an exciting category, it's a fun exploration."
Gagne argues that sour isn't even a style of beer as much as a process. "There's sour stouts, sour IPAs, sour fruited beers, sour barrel-aged stuff, sour sessions."
"It's an extra dimension that you can take your flavors and how you work the fermentation," Schwenk said.
Ben Atkinson is Hermit Thrush's personable and intrepid tasting room server, a position which calls for him to be equal parts bartender, teacher and sour beer missionary for the "unenlightened." Atkinson's motto (besides the ubiquitous "Yes, they're all sour") is: "Sours demand candor." He is truthful with people who wander into the tasting room from near and afar, knowing or unknowing that all they will get here is sour, drawn by a sign outside that says: "Beer lives here."
"Education is a lot of what we do," Atkinson said. "All wild yeast functions like terroir does with wine. Everything depends on the acquisition. We acquired our wild yeast right here in Brattleboro, and that tends to lend a more tart spectrum to the beer. It might not be what you're expecting. Sours aren't for everybody, I know that. I don't begrudge anybody for not liking it. There's nine zillion beers on the planet and ours are just one kind."
Gagne and Schwenk met at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. They had a radio show together, became lifelong friends and share a passion for home brewing.
"We had separate career paths for awhile," Schwenk said. "Chris was doing a lot of home brewing and looking at what it would take to start a brewery full time, and I was doing a lot of drinking of Chris's beer. At some point, we just realized that we were both more interested in pursuing a brewery than what we were doing before."
So how did they end up in Vermont?
"We were looking for good yeast, good water and a good community," Gagne said. "Brattleboro is a really welcoming place. There's a good number of transplants here, it's a pretty vibrant culture for a town this size, and there's a lot of wilderness around here. There's orchards, there's places where healthy, good yeast would come from."
"Both of us grew up in rural communities," Schwenk said. "That's what we were looking for, the politics and the people of Vermont. It just kind of clicked with what we were looking for."
They carved out the sour beer niche, partly because of the vacuum that existed in the craft beer market at the time and partly because Gagne made really good sour beer. "When we were doing home brewing, that was one of his passions," Schwenk said. "It was kind of a natural fit."
"I did, like, stouts and IPAs when I was a home brewer," Gagne said, "but they weren't a ton better than stuff I could buy for $11 a six-pack. There's not that many people that were only doing sours, especially that were doing just cans. Our passions and goals on clean energy and ethical business kind of coalesced along with our love of sour beer."
But what makes the beer sour? Gagne and Schwenk explained the process for the non-chemistry majors among us.
"Yeast ferments sugars and alcohols," Gagne said. "We're looking for a wild spectrum of micro flora. Instead of just one strain of Saccharomyces (a genus of fungi that includes many species of yeasts), it's a number of strains of yeast and bacteria. It's the same thing that makes sourdough different from typical bread."
"The yeast eats the sugars," Schwenk said, diving a bit deeper. "They spit out alcohol and carbon dioxide and some other by-products. So, in traditional brewing you get that one strain that does the one thing. They might have a couple of other flavors that come out of that fermentation process. But when you're using a few hundred strains of different things, you get other by-products, one of which is acids, which is what makes it sour. A lot of the bacteria that produces acid as a by-product of the fermentation is what makes the beer tart."
"I do think it's relevant that we only do sours," Gagne said, "because ... we are able to do things with a different baseline assumption than a lot of breweries. There's not a lot of breweries that could juggle a mixed culture yeast propagation for every single beer they release. We're pretty proud of that."
Hermit Thrush is keeping it local with another collaboration just in time for Valentine's Day. As part of its "Party Jam" line of fruited kettle sours, Gagne and Schwenk are brewing a strawberry sour with cocoa nibs from local chocolatier Tavernier. Party Jam Chocolate Strawberry will be available until the end of this month or however long it lasts.
"I was very skeptical," Schwenk said of the newest brew, "but the chocolate comes through very subtly. It seems like a winning combination."
Just one more sweet and proudly sour concoction from a brewery that is making the most of its unique terroir.
Bill LeConey is night news editor of the Brattleboro Reformer.
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