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Yankee Brew News Archive

Brewer's Profile: Greg Noonan

Originally Published: 01/96

By: Karen Kane

Regular visitors to the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington, Vermont, and the Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, know Greg Noonan as a man dedicated to the pursuit of making great beer. Noonan owns and operates both brewpubs, and has fueled the growth of craft brewing through his articles and books on brewing. His first book, Brewing Lager Beer, was a seminal book for homebrewers (the revised edition is due out next year); Scotch Ales is number eight in the Classic Beer Styles Series published by Brewers Publications. Noonan's latest publication, The Seven Barrel Brewery Book of Home Brewing, contains more than 100 recipes that fit within AHA style guidelines, and should be available in time for holiday gift-giving.

YBN: Tell me about your introduction to brewing.

GN: I knew some homebrewers back in the early '70s, and enjoyed drinking their beer. I moved away and it was like, "Man that's too bad. They brewed some really cool beer." Then, I was at a party once in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire and during the party we ran out of beer. As we're collecting money to go buy more beer, the guy who owns the cabin says there are 2 cases downstairs in the root cellar that look like they might be beer.

So we go down to this root cellar, and sticking up out of the dirt floor are the necks of bottles. We dig it all out, and it's two cases of homebrew, been there forever, with wax corks in the tops. Cracked those, and had a great time drinking this homebrew, and I think that's what did it for me. I was thinking, "Man this stuff's 50 years old." It was pretty neat drinking it. It had a very interesting flavor, sherry-like as you might expect, almost whiskey-like in flavor. It probably had no alcohol left in it--after that many years it had probably evaporated away.

When I started homebrewing in 1977, I went to a homebrew supply shop and told the proprietor I wanted to brew with grains. He said, "No, no, you don't know what you're doing. No one does it that way." It got to the point where he said he wouldn't sell me the grain, that I was throwing my money away.

Eventually I convinced him it was my money to throw away, and he gave me my eleven or twelve pounds of grain. I took it home, crushed the grain in a coffee mill, made total powder out of it. It was a nightmare mash. Then I came to the sparging--there was no information on how to do this stuff, Dave Line's book hadn't come out yet. I took a couple layers of cheese cloth, spread it over a frame over a bucket, poured all the grains in, then took all the sparge water and poured that over it. It was a god-awful mess. It was a disaster.

YBN: Was that experience the impetus for writing your first book?

GN: Yes and no. There was such a lack of information that I started going to libraries and reading brewing books. I took notes and collected information that most people didn't even know existed. About that time, Dave Line's book [Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy, Andover, England, 1981] came out, and there was a lot of information in that book. But it wasn't a panacea--there were differences in the translation from British practice and measures, and what was available in Britain was not always available in the US. I thought it would be a rip-off to just Americanize Dave's work. In deference to him, I decided to steer my book toward lagers. Moreover, I believe that once you understand the mechanics of the lager brewing process, all the other brewing processes and variations are much easier to understand.

YBN: When did brewing change from a hobby to a livelihood for you?

GN: Really with the Vermont Pub and Brewery. I had brewed at home, and I had some involvement in the writing end of it. I used to write a styles column for New Brewer back in the mid-80s. In 1986, it became obvious that my employer was going to be bought out, probably dissolved. I managed to get early retirement, and I took that time and the severance pay, then unemployment, to come up with the concept and the financing for the Vermont Pub and Brewery. In 1986, '87, it was a hard sell. There was only one brewpub in New England, Commonwealth Brewery, which was huge. Trying to convince people that we could do that kind of thing on a much smaller scale for a smaller investment was a stretch. It's still difficult to get money for a brewpub, but it's nothing like it was then.

YBN: You ran into other obstacles, as well.

GN: We had to get the law changed, to allow beer to be sold on the premises of the brewery. We spent 3 years on that, and it was an education. Vermont Legislature is government the way it should be done. It's slow moving, sometimes drive-you-nuts slow, because you have a bunch of Vermonters looking at things and saying "What if?" They look at all the possibilities, all the implications, and make darn sure they know the ramifications of what they're voting on. Madeline Kunin signed the law on May 18, 1988, and we opened the Vermont Pub and Brewery on November 11, 1988.

YBN: Your second book is on Scotch Ales. Your first is on lagers. Are these your favorite beer styles?

GN: Yes and no. Pilsner Urquell was available in this country when others weren't. Back in the early '70s, Carlsberg, Pilsner Urquell, most of the beers that were available for quality imports were lagers. Even Bass Ale was hard to find. I love pilsners. The Scotch Ale book was a labor of love. It was a good reason to go to Scotland and spend time visiting breweries and pubs on assignment. And I really like the style. It's a beer style not much is known about. Scotch ales are strong beers of a very pre-19th century style while at the same time making use of modern technology.

YBN: At your second brewpub, the Seven Barrel Brewery, you use a decoction mash for your lagers. Why go to the extra time, trouble and expense?

GN: There is a taste to lagers, a maltiness you don't find anywhere else. A good example is Muenchner Helles, light Munich style beers. They have this beguiling maltiness that is just a phenomenal flavor. Decoction mash beers are not just malt dependent, they're process dependent. We brew pilsners in West Lebanon that are great, that are just like European beers, and it's because of the decoction mash.

YBN: You've been involved in so many aspects of the brewing scene. What's been most satisfying?

GN: Ultimately, drinking good beer. Our beer, other people's beer--there's nothing I enjoy more than a good beer.

YBN: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

GN: My plan is to get back to the brewing end of it, to get the management down so somebody else can do it . And bottling. We have some beers that I would like to put into bottles. Within five years there will be some kind of a bottling brewery, very small, very regional. We won't be brewing any mainstream beers.

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