On Tap: Honor for a Brewer Who Inspired Many

Wednesday, February 05, 2014
You might soon find yourself at the grocery store, scanning a cooler along the far wall and land upon a six-pack from Smuttynose Brewing that bears the image of Greg Noonan.

His silver hair is swept back. A slight grin is framed by his salt-and-pepper goatee, and his eyes, creased at the corners, are looking back at you. He seems relaxed and happy to see you, like an old friend. He is the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.

If you enjoy good beer in New England, then you have Noonan to thank.

“Greg was such an ur figure in brewing in New England,” said JT Thompson, Smuttynose’s spokesman. “He was such a large, but quiet figure.”

This week, Smuttynose’s third release of Noonan Black IPA will begin appearing on shelves. The beer, dark and roasty and hopped like an IPA, is an homage to the godfather of craft beer in Vermont, brewed in a boundary-pushing sub-style that Noonan helped create 20 years ago that has since flourished elsewhere around the country.

Noonan died from lung cancer in 2009. He was only 58 years old, but left an unparalleled legacy. He almost single-handedly transformed beer in Vermont, and indeed Northern New England. He wrote several classic books on brewing, including a guide on making lager beer that remains a canonical text. He lobbied Vermont lawmakers to allow brewpubs in the state, and after the enabling legislation was passed, opened Vermont’s first establishment, The Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, in 1988. Six years later, he brought his talents to the Upper Valley and started Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon, where a young John Kimmich broke into the business as a restaurant server. Kimmich would go on to be Vermont Pub’s brewer and later open The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt., which makes what many consider the best beer in the world, Heady Topper.

Walk into any beer bar or brewery in the Twin States and someone will know Noonan’s name. There may even be a tribute to him hanging on the wall or served on tap. (Smuttynose is not the first to honor Noonan with a beer.)

Noonan was a legend in his own time. But part of what made him such a beloved figure was his friendliness and humility, according to Tunbridge resident and beer scholar Scott Russell. Noonan shared his expertise with others who hoped to follow in his path. He was never threatened by would-be competitors, Russell said, only eager to help.

“He would say, ‘Oh, you’re going to open a brewery? Cool. What can I do to help?’ ” said Russell, who co-authored a book with Noonan called Seven Barrel Brewery Brewers Handbook. “I don’t ever remember seeing him not want to help someone who wanted to do it right.”

Russell worked for Noonan, managing the homebrew shop at the West Lebanon brewery when it opened in 1994. Russell applied for the job after seeing an ad in this newspaper. When he called the number listed, which was Noonan’s cell phone, Russell was startled to hear the man’s deep voice through the receiver.

“It was like calling and having God answer,” Russell said.

Thompson had a similar reaction when he saw Noonan at the Vermont Brewers Festival in 2005, schlepping ice across the lawn.

“Seeing this guy carrying ice, I said, ‘Holy (expletive), that’s Greg Noonan,’ ” Thompson said. “He was pretty unassuming and pretty humble.”

Noonan never seemed to encourage his iconic status, yet he inspired a generation of young brewers who got their start in one of his pubs, who read his books and turned to him for advice.

His influence goes beyond New England. Travel north of the border to the world-class Dieu Du Ciel in Quebec, and it usually has a beer on tap named “Greg,” Russell said.

Noonan’s book, New Brewing Lager Beer , is required reading for anyone hoping to learn the craft. In studying to be a beer judge, I highlighted and underlined its dense passages about water chemistry, enzymes, hop characteristics and fermentation temperatures as though it contained the answers to life. Yet, even if Noonan’s books outlined the “rules” for brewing, he was just as fond of breaking them.

“He was never afraid to try something new or do something that people would scoff at because it wouldn’t work,” Russell said.

Which brings us back to the Black IPA. There was no template for this dark and bitter beer in 1994 when Vermont Pub released its Blackwatch IPA. It was actually the inspiration of Noonan’s assistant brewer, Glenn Walter, who told the trade publication Ale Street News that he invented it while going through a divorce.

“I wanted to brew something that expressed what I was feeling and Greg gave me a relatively free hand,” Walter told Ale Street in 2010.

The industry has thrived because of the creativity, openness and humility that Noonan exemplified. Go to any beer festival and you’ll find the best brewers standing under someone else’s tent, joking with the “competition” and delighting in their fermented experiments.

Noonan may have written the book on brewing. But he understood that other people had good ideas, too. Rather than jealously guard his secrets and battle brewers for market share, Noonan wanted to have a beer with them.

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.

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