Building on Success - Making the Most Popular Beer in Vermont
It was a fine morning, quite a few years ago, when Bill Cherry opened the Burlington Free Press to see a headline he wasn't expecting. The headline read "Can Vermont handle another brewery?" As a man on the eve of opening his own brewery in Burlington, this wasn't the sort of heartening editorial he needed to see. Opening a small business is never a sure thing, and when I asked him about those first days, full of uncertainty (and fear) about the future, he chuckled and recalled trying the first batch of Switchback Ale over 13 years ago. "I tasted the beer and thought...this beer is good enough to make a living off of." If only he know how on-point that statement would be.
Like any good Vermonter pushing the age 30, this brewery has been with me since the start of my beer career and throughout my formative drinking years. Having cut my teeth on Switchback Ale, you'll understand why I love great beer, and why so many others feel the same way. Bill Cherry, founder and owner of Switchback Brewing Company, was as famously approachable as ever during our conversation; a humble, smiling entrepreneur building a business on the back of some of this nation's most delicious beer. It's a stiff claim, but one that's been solidly backed up time and time again, both through anecdote and the measured growth they've experienced since their inception.
Bill opened Switchback Brewing Company in 2002 in an old brick warehouse off Pine Street, the heart of a now-abandoned industrial area located just off of Main street. Pine Street is now home to a few of Burlington's newest breweries, including Queen City Brewery and Zero Gravity's sweet new spot. Magic Hat, arguably Vermont's best known national craft beer brand, was born just a few doors down in the same modest industrial complex. Switchback hasn't moved from their original location; they've simply taken over more space in the building as the brewery has evolved. I asked Bill about finding an initial space for the brewery, and his glee, a glee that can only be felt by brewers, was hilarious. "It was great when I found it! It was this big, ugly building with lots of space and a floor drain!." Let this be a lesson to you...all you'll ever need in life is a good floor drain.
Bill remembers his aha moment in beer distinctly. "I had a little lightbulb go off in my head when I was in college in the early 80’s. We weren't that far off of that period when we had the smallest number of breweries ever in our country." He walked straight to school and pulled out of all of his engineering classes, switching his focus to microbiology and never looking back. Out of school, he took the now classic route to becoming a brewer of world-class beers, accepting a job in quality assurance at a bologna factory in Fremont, Ohio. Seeing upstart breweries like Sierra Nevada get off the ground during the time, he sent out resumes every year after that, seeking employment with domestic beer producers like Anheuser-Busch and Coors. At one point, Bill wrote personal letters to the executives at the these companies, requesting advice on how to get a job at their organization. Most of them actually responded, highlighting his lack of experience and training in beer. An executive at Coors even went so far as to send him a few books to read, a surprisingly kind gesture that Bill appreciates to this day.
After a little more formal education at UC Davis, he finally broke into the business, interning at Anheuser-Busch. From there, he eventually moved into the country's slowly-blossoming craft beer scene, taking the job of head brewer at Boulevard Brewing and building on his experience. Five years later, he left craft-brewing altogether, taking a job in the high-tech field in rural Vermont. That path to happiness is always an interesting journey, and it was his move to Vermont where he realized that his life was always going to be in beer. He started writing a business plan for Switchback, spurred on by a college friend with an entrepreneurial urge. He laughed quietly at this point, reminiscing about the trajectory of his career. "My business partner always asked me "Bill...when are we going to brew!?" We were college friends and he was the entrepreneur. There’s so much serendipity in these things, as I would never have left Boulevard to start my own brewery. It would have felt disloyal."
Bill brought years of experience as a professional brewer to Switchback's birth, providing a stark contrast to today's homebrewer-turned-probrewer growth in the business. As you may remember, the first major shake-out in craft brewing happened in the late 90's, closing down the operations of hundreds of breweries across the nation. Bill saw this happen while working at Boulevard, and used this as an impetus to build a solid foundation for his new business in Vermont. He kept asking himself, "What's our thing? What do we do?". This was the birth of Switchback Ale, which is as indescribable, stylistically, as any beer I've ever had the pleasure of consuming.
Vermont gets its fair share of time in the national beer spotlight, a result of its affinity for local breweries and the independent, forward-thinking entrepreneurs who started them. It pays to mention that this is done in a state with a little over 600,000 residents, making it the second most rural state in the nation. That being said, as often as we love to talk about the growth of craft, it's a rare place where the most popular draft beer is not a domestic product. Switchback Ale is a phenom in this regard, by far the most popular draft beer in the state. You'll be hard-pressed to walk into any bar or restaurant and not see that signature blue tap handle on the tower, such is the popularity of the unfiltered ale. This ubiquity, and subsequent cult status, came about through what Bill calls "natural differentiation," a term that perfectly describes the beer. Switchback Ale doesn't follow any specific style guidelines, and defies categorization more effectively than any beer I've had. Visually, it's opaque, with lovely light amber color complimented by its cloudy nature. The aroma is fruity and complex, and the taste and mouthfeel are the cherry on top, with a rich, estery, complex palate and slightly spicy, yet clean, hop finish. It's balanced, delicious, and unique. Along with their entire portfolio, including a few tasty new offerings, it's been a go-to in Vermont for over a decade.
I asked Bill why he ever branched out from the original ale, which was the only beer Switchback made for most of the brewery's operation. "I don't know actually. We're tiptoeing along and trying new things" said Bill, "We've been a Vermont beer for so long now, we won't just make a beer for no reason at this point. I want to make sure what we’re releasing is exceptional. We take a European approach working through the creative process, and we won’t let you have it until we’ve decided it’s perfect."
This also sheds some light on the entire approach Switchback has taken to growing the brand. At one point, Bill sent his staff home with a series of simple questions, including "Where do you want to be in 5 years?" His staff came back with great answers, collectively boiling it down to a blue pill/red pill scenario. Like many breweries out there, if Switchback decided to conquer the world and accelerate growth, they'd have to keep feeding the beast they created or risk losing the business. They could also maintain status quo, and keep the current trajectory. In the end, they wisely chose the slow and steady route."I wouldn’t make a lager until we expanded the brewhouse and could make it in the truly German style" says Bill, "I want to capture the process that makes the best, most flavorful beer." Since then, Switchback has invested in high-quality, custom equipment, including the recently(ish) installed 66-barrel brewhouse that is now dedicated solely to the production of Switchback Ale.
Like many of our favorite regional breweries across the U.S, Switchback grew in a marketing vacuum. Without any brewery representation, it grew in popularity, quickly becoming the go-to sell for its distributor. Magic Hat, just a short walk down the road, is distinctly antithetical. Seemingly born for world domination; full of clever, irreverent marketing and a founder (Alan Newman) that seemed like he was in 100 places at once. When I asked Bill about this aggressive approach to growth, it quickly became apparent that marketing was never in the books for his brewery, an idea that certainly jives with his soft-spoken approach. He stuck to his strengths, brewing great beer and putting together a great brewery.
On the topic of industry growth and the evolution of the craft beer drinker, he was confident. "No one gets upset if a small town has a bakery open, and they’re making fresh local bread. If you stay in that vein, and you’re happy with your place in the community, then you’ll do well. You'll see some breweries close quietly, like Infinity Brewing here in Vermont recently. It's an exhausting business, and getting burned out happens to people all the time."
As I said at the beginning, I had a hard time stifling the fanboy here. I love their beer, and I think that Vermont has come to love this business like many of its nationally infamous home-grown favorites (think Burton Snowboards, and Ben & Jerry's). They have a new taproom at the brewery, and a great staff more than willing to walk you through their entire portfolio. You'll probably see Bill there as well, mashing in and loving it.
At the end of our chat, I had to ask him where I could get my hands on a homebrew version of the ale recipe. He laughed at that point."You know, I never made a homebrew version of Switchback Ale, even when I brewed the first batch. I just knew what kind of beer I wanted to make and went for it."
Published in September 2015.