When Vermont evolved into a craft-brewing Mecca, somehow Essex County, population 6,000, was left out. There doesn't seem to be a microbrewery to be found in the state’s remote northeastern corner.
But couple from Connecticut is working hard to fix that, with plans to start serving up microbrews from their new Dirt Church brewery in tiny East Haven on July 4.
Bruce Lindsay and Anna Cronin have spent the latter half of the pandemic renovating a 900-square-foot church that Lindsay bought in September for $85,000. The church came with less than an acre of land and a dilapidated former Grange hall that the two have replaced with a post-and-beam seven-barrel brewhouse. Lindsay is a longtime homebrewer.
With just 290 residents, East Haven itself isn’t a busy spot likely to draw drop-in visitors, but Dirt Church is located on Route 114, just up the road from Burke Mountain Resort and the town of East Burke, which has come to life in recent years thanks to its 100-mile mountain bike trail network, Kingdom Trails.
“We’re closer to Burke than some places in Burke are,” joked Cronin of the ski resort. Dirt Church is also right in the middle of snowmobile country.
The name of the business reflects the pair’s reverence for biking. They’re also strongly committed to the area at large, which has become a major biking destination, drawing an estimated 1,000 visitors a day just to Kingdom Trails in the summer. The area is also busy with snowmobilers, hunters, hikers and others, and Cronin and Lindsay are lining up food trucks as they anticipate a busy summer of live music and other activities.
Lindsay, 47, and Cronin, 33, first met while competing at Burke's Circumburke trail race in 2018 and started dating after they bumped into each other at a bike event a year later. Cronin was working as a professional triathlete in New Hampshire, and Lindsay, an arborist, was a consultant tree warden for the Town of Westport, Conn. When the pandemic hit, Lindsay was able to keep doing his job remotely, but Cronin's work as a coach and trainer disappeared.
Dirt Church Brewery
“The world of fitness is forever changed in the sense of how the public interacts in public spaces,” she said. In fact, she feels the world at large has forever changed, at least for her. The pair had been visiting the Northeast Kingdom separately for two decades, she said, and they knew that was where they wanted to be.
“We decided, ‘Let’s chase our dream,’” said Cronin. “We don’t know when this whole thing is going to end. But we know when it does end, we don’t want to be living the Connecticut rat race that is losing the mental health war.”
The former Methodist church is now ready for events and for its other planned use, as an art gallery. The pair are still working on the brewery, staying in a sleeping loft above the brewhouse when they’re in Vermont.
Cronin has become a Vermont resident and Lindsay plans to follow suit. Cronin has a son in southern Maine, and Lindsay has two kids in southern Connecticut, so they expect to hire people to help with the brewery as they continue to juggle their responsibilities in the three far-flung locations.
“We’re navigating a new normal in terms of what our day-to-day business and lives look like,” said Cronin. “We don’t have to go to the office every day. It feels like we’re entering in a new format of business ownership.”
In recent weeks, as vaccination levels rise in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott has predicted a return to near-normal by July 4. That’s news the state’s hospitality industry has been awaiting.
“When Anna and I came up with this idea last summer, we looked beyond COVID to a return to normalcy, and we determined it would be July of this year,” said Lindsay. “We were right. Bans are being lifted.”
Essex County is something of an outlier in Vermont, with just 165 businesses covered by unemployment insurance and a jobless rate of nearly 5 percent in March, compared to 2.9 percent statewide. A check of businesses registered with the Secretary of State's Office showed no other breweries in the county.
The area's real estate market stands out, too, for the fact that there are home deals to be had in and around Burke. The two don’t plan to sleep above the taproom forever.
“We’d like to live somewhere with a deck and sunset and more trees and less logging trucks,” said Lindsay.