We were pretty stoked about this one. The Brew Enthusiast loves Vermont beer, and Rock Art Brewery is Vermont beer at its finest. It embodies the flavor and originality worthy of representing the great state it resides in.
But it's odd. They don't sell a lot of beer (by volume), they sell it one of the most rural states in the nation, and they sell most of it one size only. How has Rock Art Brewery, one of the nation's finest small breweries, managed to create a larger-than-life brand and a rockstar portfolio of amazing beer? We sat down with Matt Nadeau, founder and owner of Rock Art, to chat with him.
This is Matt Nadeau. He started his brewery 17 years ago in a basement.
TBE: Hey Matt. Great to meet you.
Hey there. Right off the bat, I want you to know that I’ve recently been working on building fireworks. Nothing illegal or dangerous. Just to have fun.
TBE: Uhh…ok. Fair enough.
I’m a scout master and den leader for the boy scouts, and I was building rockets with the boys (I have two sons). I started reading about rockets, and then I started reading about fireworks. That’s been taking up my time over the past few months. So far we’re working on just making some colors in the sky, but we might graduate to Disney characters eventually.
Other than that, my wife Renee and I have two boys. We love hunting, fishing, mountain biking. All the Vermont stuff basically.
TBE: How did you get into brewing beer?
I love beer. My grandfather took me out to eat when I was younger, and while everyone else was ordering Budweiser, I was venturing out and trying new beers. I used to go to Canada for heavy metal concerts, and the beer up in Canada was just better back then. More flavor. Much like fireworks, once I started reading about it, I realized I could make my own beer. Within months I started cultivating my own yeast in test tubes.
TBE: When did you start brewing beer?
I’ve been brewing about 22 years now. We started the brewery 17 years ago in my basement in Johnson, VT. When I first got going, I sat down with the ATF (that's the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), and they ask me all sorts of questions about my funding source. They told me there was a federal regulation that didn’t allow me to “live” in my brewery (which was my basement). I applied for a permit to get around that and managed to get by. After 4 years of brewing 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, I threw out my back and almost ended the brewery. It was physically exhausting. We decided to move the brewery to our old location in Morrisville, where we brewed for almost 10 years. We have been in the new brewery for the past 3 years and it’s been great.
TBE: What’s with the Kokopelli logo on all your stuff?
My wife Renee and I love the cultural history of the Kokopelli image, which we learned about when we lived out west. The Native Americans were making these symbols to communicate across wide stretches of territory. The Kokopelli figure is seen through a bunch of the tribes of the native peoples of north and south America. It has a rich history, and tells an amazing cultural story. When we moved back to VT, the figure reminded us of the fond times we had out west and we decided to use the figure for our logo.
TBE: What inspires you to make the flavors that you do? How do you come up with some of these recipes?
Most of the beers are just based on the “let’s try it” attitude. I love to cook and combine flavors. I’ll taste some grains and smell some hops, ferment them, and see what happens. I’ll small batch brew a lot of beers to try them out. I hardly ever use recipes when I cook at home, and I usually try to put together flavors with a reasonable expectation of a good outcome, but you never know. I base new beers on previous successful recipes most of the time. Obviously quality control is important to putting out consistently high product. I have to constantly check the yeast hasn’t mutated, the temperature control is good, and make sure the pH of the incoming water supply is consistent. Basic stuff to make sure the beer tastes good. The ingredients (hops and grains) have to be consistent, and it’s based on the information I get from good suppliers.
TBE: How do you source your ingredients for your beer?
Our whole philosophy has been based on local. We try to buy from around Morrisville as much as possible. Obviously it’s hard to get a lot of the malts and hops year around, just because of Vermont weather. We do a Vermont hop harvest series of beers, but sometimes we need pelletized hops to help with consistency. We get the ingredients from all over when it comes down to it (U.S, Europe, etc). The store at the brewery here in Vermont is all local though. We have cheeses, meats, syrups, woodcrafts, pottery, all from Vermont.
TBE: When did you get the idea to bottle your beers in 22 oz bombers?
About 12 years ago, craft brewing was coming along nicely, and we were constantly trying to get a fair price for the beer on the shelf. We needed a unique way to do it, so we started doing 22 oz bottles. Less packaging costs, which is why a lot of small breweries do it. Makes it accessible, and I don’t incur a lot of costs around 6 packs, 12 packs, etc. It’s our thing, and we love it.
This also freed up income for us to try new beers and really push the needle. Our fans love that we try new beers. Bigger beers and more flavorful beers. The “extreme” label that we use is a great example of this. Our reputation allows us to make great products.
TBE: How big is your capacity?
We do about 3000 barrels a year. Depends on the mix of beers. Some beers take longer to brew.
How do you market your beers?
We’ve got a really loyal base of people here in VT and New England who love Rock Art. Since we’re such a small brewery, we don’t really do a lot pure “marketing”. We’ve got enough distribution and our name really carries us for the local crowd.
TBE: Have you ever wanted to get bigger than you are now? You’ve stayed relatively “small” for quite a while now.
Most of the beer we sell is sold within 50 miles of the brewery. There’s a lot of demand for our product, but we’ve decided to hunker down and stay relatively local. Distributors have approached us from all over the country, wanting to distribute. But we don’t want to dilute our brand or just head into another state for the sake of it. We’ve seen so many beers hit VT shelves, stay there for a case or two, then leave forever. There’s a lot that goes into growing your brand successfully, and we don’t want the hassle right now. We can’t match up with the giant distributors, and they don’t sell our product the right way.
TBE: If you could give any advice to the up and coming craft brewers out there, what would you feel like saying to them?
Let’s see here. Secure your hops sources. They’re getting extremely hard to find. The ingredients have to be quality. Don’t try to fudge the beer. Live and love the passion of craft, but this is a business at the end of the day. You need to pay attention to your numbers. Stick with it as well, because some can have a rough ride. It’s a capital-intensive business. But make sure you enjoy it. It’s fun, it’s growing, and it’s a great way to join your community. The pie is still growing for everyone right now.
TBE: What’s your favorite VT beer that isn’t a Rock Art beer?
The one that’s in my hand. The flavors of VT craft beers are all over the place, and I enjoy them all. I love that we live in a time where I can try hundreds of great beers and they’re all so accessible.
TBE: What’s your favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream?
The ones with the chocolate base, the brownie chunks, and the nuts. When I was in school, the Ben and Jerry’s heath bar crunch factory seconds would get distributed to stores. The pint was a buck or two less than the normal pints. The pints would have giant chunks of heath bars in it. I used to love that.
TBE: Anything else?
Gosh. Talk to me another time and I’ll certainly have more to say. I hope craft beer continues to grow. We look forward to brewing new and exciting beers in the years to come!
Article published March, 2014.