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On Tap: Three Men and a Stout

From left, former Norwich Inn brewers Tim Wilson and Patrick Dakin stand by with the inn’s current brewer, Jeremy Hebert, as they heat water to make a beer in honor of the 20th anniversary of the inn’s brewery. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

From left, former Norwich Inn brewers Tim Wilson and Patrick Dakin stand by with the inn’s current brewer, Jeremy Hebert, as they heat water to make a beer in honor of the 20th anniversary of the inn’s brewery. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher) Purchase photo reprints »

Norwich — The three men peered over the edge of a steel tank being filled with water, waiting for it to heat as though it were charcoals burning in a grill.

It was a moment of tedium during the beer brewing process that each had experienced countless times before. Over the past two decades, each had taken his turn standing in the brewhouse of the Norwich Inn, soaking grains in hot water with the intent of serving up fine ales to thirsty patrons.

But this time they were doing it together. The three of them — Tim Wilson, Patrick Dakin and Jeremy Hebert — had decided to collaborate on a singular beer to mark the brewery’s 20th year in existence.

“I just thought it’d be kind of fun,” said Hebert, the latest to hold the title of brewer at the Inn’s Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse. “We’re all still brewers and we all still get along. I’m not sure how often that happens.”

“Especially the get along part,” Dakin quipped.

Much has changed in the Vermont beer scene since Wilson opened his brewery in 1993. At the time, it was one of only a handful of breweries in the Green Mountain State, which now boasts more per capita — one for every 26,000 residents — than anywhere else in the nation.

Vermont has earned a national reputation as a destination for superb suds, with breweries such as The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead gaining cult-like followings.

Amid all this hype, Jasper Murdock’s has been a quiet, constant companion for beer drinkers here in the Upper Valley. Its ever-popular English style ales such as “Whistling Pig Red Ale,” “Oh Be Joyful” and “Fuggle & Barleycorn” anchor a modest tap list that seeks to impress customers less with inventiveness than with consistency and craft.

“I’ve always thought of this place as the old reliable,” Wilson said. “The neighborhood place where you could come and have something you like.”

Wilson left in 2006 after he and his wife, Sally, sold the inn. Dakin succeeded him and stayed for several years before leaving in 2010 to start his own brewery in South Royalton. (He’s still working to get Freight House Brewing going in a space next to Worthy Burger.) Hebert has been crafting the beers in Norwich since then .

Each man brought his own interests and tastes, but they’ve each stayed committed to the essential “flavor” of Wilson’s original concept. It is a comfortable, familiar pub serving English style ales.

I asked Dakin why he stuck with Wilson’s approach.

“I carried Tim’s beers along, A, because there’s absolutely no reason to mess with success, and B, they’re the beers I like to make and drink,” he said.

Hebert has been willing to tamper with the lineup a bit more, expanding beyond English ales to include some bigger beers like an Imperial Stout, some Belgians, a Scottish Wee Heavy, pilsner and others. But like Dakin, he’s kept many of Wilson’s original recipes.

But for their 20th anniversary beer, the three of them were planning something special. They settled on a style that did not even exist when the brewery was opened — a Belgian style stout.

Belgian beers tend not to fit neatly into style categories, and the people who brew Belgians tend to like to break the rules. Belgian stouts, which only began popping up a couple of years ago, are even more difficult to pin down because the style is so new. They tend to feature the dark color and roastiness of a stout, with fruity aromas.

A bottle of Allagash Black, a Belgian-style stout from Maine, sat on a bench inside the brewery and Hebert acknowledged that it was among the inspirations for this beer.

It seemed like such a departure for three guys who have shared a commitment to consistency and subtlety.

I asked them, why do something like this? Given their shared interest in beers from the British isles, why not look to England, Scotland or Ireland?

They chose to make a Belgian stout, Wilson explained, exactly because there were no rules. It could be whatever they wanted it to be.

In that regard, the 20th anniversary beer is not unlike the first few experiments that Wilson carried out in 1993. It was a moment when there were relatively few models for inspiration or guidance. Jasper Murdock’s was going to have to be Wilson’s vision, not somebody else’s.

I’m not sure whether any of these guys considered the parallels. It seemed they just picked something interesting to brew. But as I consider it, this Belgian stout was an entirely appropriate choice.

“It is an experiment,” Wilson shrugged. “But with the three of us behind it, I’m confident it’s going to be a pretty good beer.”

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.