When you think world-class breweries in America, the first places that comes to mind might be California or Oregon or Colorado. But tiny Vermont can do battle with any of the big boys. The Green Mountain State is home to breweries such as Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist and Lawson's Finest Liquids, just to name a few. But in addition to bearing a batch of near-legends, this region has also seen a crop of fantastic new outfits. Most lack distribution, but their taprooms are already local cult favorites. Among them is Four Quarters Brewing of Winooski, which features a stellar selection of beers such as Janus—a farmhouse ale brewed with Vermont-grown white wine grapes and chamomile—and Fleur de Lis—a tart 3.5 percent ABV saison fermented in red wine barrels. I spoke with owner/brewmaster Brian Eckert about the past, present and future of a brewery that should definitely be on your radar.
So how did Four Quarters get started?
[Brewing] started as a hobby, probably 14 years ago. I always said I would never open a brewery, and then over the last few years, I've seen this new model pop up of small-brewery-plus-taprooms. So I could get started small and see if it works.
One day this place popped up in Winooski, and it was exactly what I was looking for physically: It had a nice big garage door, glass windows…and Winooski has an awesome music and food scene that's really taken off recently. There were also some cool signs along the way to let me know that I was on the right track: The Winooski city manager's office had this big stained-glass thing in the window that had all of the moon cycles on it, and that's part of my logo, so that was kinda comforting.
What were you doing for work at the time?
Tinkering around with graphic design landed me this great job as part of the Ben and Jerry's web team. But brewing can become pretty obsessive. This hobby [keeps getting] bigger and bigger—more technical. It kinda satisfies my engineering itch, too.
Yeah, your brewery kinda looks like a mad scientist's lab. Or a futuristic barn.
Yeah, it's not pretty. It serves its purpose. Everything was built by me. I hired a guy to do the welding, but the rest of it I built from graph paper. It's not the pretty stainless that you see in a lot of breweries, because that shit's…really f*****g expensive. A mash tun wrapped in spray-foam insulation can still make fantastic beer…but I'm not always gonna have this thing put together with duct tape.
How did you know how to build all that stuff?
The homebrew system that I built is based off this crazy thing called Brutus that this homebrewer in Texas came up with.
Have you left Ben & Jerry's yet, to run the brewery full-time?
I'm still working [at Ben & Jerry's]…but the brewery sucks up as much time as I give to it. It's not going to be able to really take off until I can do it full-time, and…it's time to take the leap of faith.
So how do you know it's time?
A lot of the restaurants I've always looked up to are hounding me for stuff. And recently at the Firkin Festival these breweries that I've looked up to were gushing about my stuff and telling me how I've inspired them, and I'm just like…"What the f**k? Are you kidding me?" That night, driving home, I was like, "I've gotta leave my job. I have to. I've gotta devote myself to this and just see where it goes."
Plus, the 100-hour work weeks are just really taking a toll on me physically, mentally and creatively.
Why, what's your schedule like?
During the week, I go to work [at Ben and Jerry’s]…and afterward, I pick my kids up, wait until my wife gets home and then work in the brewery from 7 or 8 until, like, 3 in the morning. And then Friday night we're open, so I'm working the bar; Saturday we're open all day, and Sunday we're open in the afternoon.
When do you get to drink?
The irony of this whole thing is that people are like, "You own a brewery? You must drink a lot." Well, actually, I don't drink anything anymore, because if I have a beer at 8 at night I want to go to sleep. So I'm drinking Red Bull or cold-brewed coffee to get through the night. And then on the weekends I can't drink because I'm tending bar. I'll get to have a beer at the end of the night sometimes.
You're launching a distribution company, too?
I finally got my distribution company approved by the state of Vermont, which enables me to distribute my own beer. I think the plan is to let my partners handle most of that so I can just concentrate on making beer. I'm so small that I felt like the established distribution companies wouldn’t have my best interest in mind. And I really wanted to deliver my beer myself and meet the people serving it. I also have small brewer friends in other states, and my hope is to bring their beer into Vermont and sell it at our place.
Did I hear a rumor that you're gonna serve sushi at the taproom?
Yeah. I'm definitely serving sushi.
How the hell does that make sense for a brewery in Vermont?
My wife and I used to host a sushi night [for friends]. I would roll sushi, and people would bring beer and different ingredients. And it just became this awesome, amazing time every Friday night. So I've always wanted to recreate that here [at the brewery]. The guys that work here just kinda laugh at me when I talk about it, because they don't know what's coming… But I do.
Where will you get the fish from?
A great little company here called Wood Mountain Fish has a partner in Boston, and they get fresh everything that day. But a lot of the stuff that I do is vegetarian or with smoked salmon, crab meat or shrimp. That way it's not too hard to get.
So which of your beers are you currently most excited about?
The one coming out this weekend called Dark Is Night [imperial stout] is about the winter solstice. Then there's a maple bourbon barrel-aged version [of the stout] and a maple liqueur version called Dark Heart that will be released in February.
Any beers you're excited about from other Vermont breweries?
I really like Hill Farmstead, I know a lot of people do. But I know [brewmaster] Shaun [Hill], and he's inspiring even on a personal level, too. I'm excited about anything he's got up his sleeve.
Do you have an all-time favorite beer or beer style?
I would say Belgian—and I would classify that as abbey beers, sour beers, wits and saisons. That kind of runs the gamut of what I do and what I like to drink.
Same here. And that new Whiskey Sour beer of yours is great. Lot of different layers to it.
Yeah, it turned out better than I expected. I have a friend who doesn't like beer, and she posted a picture of a homemade whiskey sour and I'm like…"Whiskey…Sour…Whiskey...Sour...Whiskey Barrel-Aged Sour beer...SHIT!" It all came together in about 30 seconds: I take the wit beer—which has orange peel in it—and sour it in a rye whiskey barrel with sour cherries.
Any new experiments?
I'm a beekeeper, and during the winter you have to feed your bees with bee candy, a thick sugar-water blend [with] lemongrass and spearmint extracts, to attract them. I wanted to brew a hoppy Belgian triple, and I got this idea for substituting Belgian candi sugar with bee candy. Instead of using sugar, I'm gonna use my own honey, some lemongrass, some spearmint, and I'll put that in when I'm making the beer. Then I'll dry hop it and call it Bee Hoppy. It'll be available January.
Also, Stollen bread is a fruit loaf: You soak fruit in rum, put it in the bread and sprinkle powdered sugar on it. It's delicious. So I asked this baker in town here, "What kind of fruit do you use in that?" [He said,] "Currants golden raisins, orange and lemon zest." I was like, "Dude, I've gotta make a beer out of those." So we took the fruit, put it in a rum barrel and added to it Opus Dei, which is my Patersbier, a 4 percent Belgian abbey table beer. It's awesome.
Man, how many beers do you have?
(long sigh) Ohhhhhhhhh, God...I don't know. To date we've brewed about 20 different beers. We'll have a staple set of maybe half a dozen or so, and then there's all sorts of annual things and one-offs.
Any parting advice for someone who wants to take the next step from homebrewer to commercial brewer?
Uh, quit your job first? (laughs)