I have heard more than one Vermonter respond with a “Who?” at the mention of the name Sean Lawson. This could be because Lawson, the brewer behind Lawson’s Finest Liquids, produces only about 500 barrels of his deliciously hoppy beer each year. This is equivalent to about 15,000 gallons—not a lot for this beer-loving state.
To put this figure into perspective, Hill Farmstead, which has an equally devoted following, produces about 1,800 barrels annually. Lawson’s Finest is available in limited distribution in Vermont, including on tap at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington, the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier and Prohibition Pig in Waterbury.
“The Double Sunshine IPA (an American double IPA with an 8% alcohol level) is my customers’ favorite,” says Garvin. “This is typically gone the same day it is delivered. And I’ve seen people get creative to get around the bottle limit—having their husbands, wives or friends buy beer or offering to pay strangers to buy the beer for them. Very rarely do we hang on to the beer.” Last summer, Lawson created a special maple wheat beer for the Warren Store.
In order to keep up with the ever-growing demand for his beer, which he describes as “hop forward, with assertive bitterness,” Lawson instituted a numbers system at the Waitsfield Farmers’ Market, where he sold beer one Saturday a month last summer. Lawson says that this kept everything much more organized and happy, including the hundreds of customers who drove to the market to purchase his beer.
“Customers could fill out an order form and shop other vendors at the market until their time slot came up. We had nothing but positive responses from our fans.”
Lawson is entirely self-taught. “I have worked in a couple of breweries,” he says. “But I learned a lot more through many years of home brewing and research, by subscribing to home brewing magazines, reading books and talking to other brewers. There’s been a little trial and error, too.”
Lawson has been approached by a number of people interested in investing in his business. For now, he is content doing exactly what he’s doing.
“My approach is pretty simple and basic,” he says. “First and foremost, my goal is to put out a great product and to live a good quality of life. My wife, Karen, is my business partner and I don’t have any full-time employees. We are happy shaping the business to the type of life that we want to live.” The pair do everything themselves, including designing the labels and vending at several festivals each year, where they meet new fans. Incredibly, they haven’t had to do any advertising or marketing, which also keeps expenses pretty low.
Of course, it is the beer that has developed such a cult-like following.
“My focus is always on quality—on making the finest beer that I possibly can,” says Lawson, whose Maple Tripple took home a silver medal at the World Beer Cup, the “Olympics of Beer. “It is also the freshness of my beer. You are never going to get beer as fresh as from your local brewery. With IPAs and hop-forward beers like the ones I make, the fresher you can get it, the better.”
One of my favorite Lawson beers is that award-winning Maple Tripple, which is made only once a year, during sugaring season. The Maple Tripple is brewed from concentrated maple sap from his Valley neighbors. The ale is incredibly rich with a silky texture and gorgeous color. I once heard it called “breakfast beer,” maybe because it goes down so easily. To me, it is the quintessential Vermont beer.
Lawson admits that his vision for the future includes growing the business to include a bigger facility and employees, but he is not in a rush.
“That kind of change represents a big leap for me because I really enjoy making the beer myself,” he says. “I won’t be able to keep it up forever, and I would like to offer good-paying jobs to locals and to meet some of the additional demand that’s out there.” For now, Sean and Karen Lawson are content to keep things on a mom-and-pop scale.
Lawson’s Finest Liquids, LawsonsFinest.com
Spicy Pork Chili with Maple Imperial Stout
Sean Lawson will host the second beer-and-food-pairing dinner in February at Mad River Glen, where he runs the naturalist programs. The dinner will include food prepared and paired with Lawson’s Finest. Inspired, I developed this simple pork chili, which gets richness and heft from the Fayston Maple Imperial Stout.
3 slices thick-cut, smoky bacon, chopped
1½ pounds coarsely ground pork
Kosher salt, to taste
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1¼ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 cinnamon stick
1 to 2 large chipotles in adobo, chopped
1 (28-ounce) can whole canned tomatoes, crushed, with their juice
1 (14-ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1¾ to 2 cups Lawson’s Finest Fayston Maple Imperial Stout
1 tablespoon pure Vermont maple syrup
Heat large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon crisps and starts to brown. Remove bacon to a plate with slotted spoon, leaving behind the delicious rendered fat. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the fat into a jar; set aside. Add the ground pork and a pinch of salt; cook over medium-high heat, stirring a few times, until the pork is cooked through and nicely browned. Remove the pork from the pot.
Add another couple tablespoons of the bacon fat to the pot with the onion and the garlic. Season with a generous pinch of salt and cook over medium-low heat, adjusting heat as necessary to prevent burning, until the onions start to caramelize. Add a few tablespoons of water, as needed, to prevent the bottom of the pot from burning.
Turn the heat up to medium and add the spices; toast, stirring, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, beans, stout and maple syrup to the pot along with the cooked pork and bacon. Bring to a gentle boil then lower to a simmer to cook for about 45 minutes, until the chili has thickened and come together. Season with salt to taste and serve with warm corn tortillas, cotija cheese, chopped red onion and a squeeze of lime.
Chocolate–Maple Imperial Stout Cake
The wine-bottle size of Lawson’s Fayston Maple Imperial Stout contains enough stout to make a batch of the chili and this moist not-too-sweet cake (plus a nip or two for yourself in between). The cake is much better the day after it is made. Buy a second bottle of the stout to sip with the cake. Recipe adapted from Bon Appétit magazine. —EM
1 cup Lawson’s Finest Fayston Maple Imperial Stout
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
⅔ cup pure Vermont maple syrup
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. Melt the stout and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in cocoa and maple syrup until smooth. Cool slightly.
Whisk flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon together. In another medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream and vanilla extract until smooth. Carefully add the stout-chocolate mixture to the egg mixture, whisking to combine. Fold in the flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter in pan and bake the cake gives slightly to the touch, 20 to 25 minutes.
Cool cake in pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and cool completely. Serve with maple-syrup-sweetened whipped cream.