The likeness of a mug was larger than life, with beer spilling over its rim. Greg Noonan hand-painted the image on an oval sign, then affixed it to the brick building he and his wife, Nancy, had leased on College Street. One raw, overcast November day, they unlatched the door of the Vermont Pub & Brewery and began selling the real thing: beers that Noonan brewed in the cellar.
Such a scene might hardly make us blink today, when Vermont has become an epicenter of craft brewing. But in the fall of 1988, only 11 brewpubs existed across the entire country, the majority out west. Brewpubs weren’t even legal in Vermont until the spring of that year, when the Noonans successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill allowing them.
On tap during Vermont Pub & Brewery’s opening weekend were a lager called Pesky Sarpent and the rich Burly Irish Ale, both brewed by Noonan on a 14-barrel system cobbled together in part from old dairy and maple-sap tanks. Also available were $2.50 glasses of porter from Catamount Brewing — which had opened in White River Junction the year before — and one of the first sessionable beers in Vermont’s history. “To demonstrate our commitment to the responsible enjoyment of malt beverages, we have brewed light, low-alcohol Pilot Ale for our opening,” reads a typewritten flyer for VPB’s debut.
Twenty-five years later, VPB’s staff of 65 has prepared for months for the pub’s silver anniversary, which takes place this weekend. But absent from the celebration will be the founder: Greg Noonan passed away from cancer four years ago at age 58.
By most accounts, the bearded Noonan was brilliant, affable and deeply generous; he was respected, and is now missed, by scores of people in the brewing community. Yet his presence is still felt in the house that he built, so to speak, from the photo taped to a tank near the foyer to the recipes that brewer Russ FitzPatrick continues to use in the cellar. “Greg’s ethos still exists in every nook and cranny of this place,” says Steve Polewacyk, the brewery’s owner, and Noonan’s longtime friend and business partner.
Noonan’s legacy extends well beyond VPB to the younger brewers he mentored, who include the founders of the Alchemist and Three Needs. Today, VPB no longer stands alone; Vermont is home to 28 microbreweries, and there are hundreds of brewpubs nationwide. But its brews remain a testament to the pioneering spirit of its founder, who raised home brewing to a science and then turned it into a successful business.
Noonan was a manufacturing manager living in Williamstown, Mass., when he began his foray into home brewing in the late 1970s. His brother, Jerome, recalls that Greg taught himself brewing by finding and reading obscure books, calling up brewmasters and gradually perfecting his own techniques. “Not many books were out there then,” recalls Jerome Noonan. “I was living in Boston at the time, and [Greg] would crash at my apartment and go to the Boston Public Library to get German brewing manuals. He became determined to talk to the head brewer of Pilsner Urquell [in Czechoslovakia], and it took several rounds of letters to set it up. It was pretty wild.”
Greg Noonan eventually compiled the bulk of what he had learned into a manuscript, which he put in a shoebox and handed to Brewers Association cofounder Charlie Papazian at a brewing conference in 1984. Published two years later, Brewing Lager Beer: The Most Comprehensive Book for Home- and Microbrewers became an instant classic among home brewers. It was one of the first volumes to offer technical guidance for brewing many styles of beers.
Fresh from his research, Noonan set his sights on opening a brewpub with Nancy. It was a bold, prescient idea: Yakima Brewing & Malting Co. in Washington State, the first modern brewpub, had opened just six years earlier, followed by a cluster in northern California and one in New York City.
The Noonans and their partners scouted spots in Massachusetts and pinned down a location and license in Northampton in 1987 — until they discovered that Peter and Janet Egelston were about to open Northampton Brewery. So the Noonans headed north, to Burlington, where they almost took a space in the South End.
“Thank God we ended up where we did,” says Jerome Noonan of the 144 College Street venue. “I don’t think we were savvy about foot traffic. The fact that we stumbled into that downtown location was a good thing.”
The building at the corner of College and St. Paul streets had held a succession of restaurants; Jerome Noonan says the inside resembled “an ’80s fern bar.” The group imprinted its own style by moving the bar from the back wall to the front and adding some of Greg Noonan’s artwork. Then they “crammed” a 14-barrel brewing system into the basement.
“I got [a tank] off of a friend of mine who is in the maple syrup business. We said, ‘We’ll make it work,’” Jerome recalls.
Greg Noonan designed not only the VPB logo but also tap-handle labels for each of the beers. A LaPlatte Angus burger was on the menu, along with a selection of seltzers and, of course, plenty of fresh, unfiltered beer. But business was uneven at first.
“It was an inauspicious beginning,” Greg Noonan told Business People-Vermont in 2007. “We eked our way through the winter of ’88 to ’89, barely by our teeth, with no cash reserves.”
Polewacyk had met Greg Noonan when they were both students at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and the two stayed buddies. Polewacyk visited VPB shortly after its opening and realized, he says, that Noonan was knee-deep in controlled chaos, working 120-hour weeks to keep the business going. “He was fabricating steel, he was brewing beer, he was writing menus, he was doing it all,” Polewacyk remembers.
Soon the self-described “computer guy” from the New York City area was traveling to Burlington for a few weeks at a clip to help his friend with his books, his bar and whatever else needed doing. Polewacyk came north so frequently — and met so many people — that the notion of a permanent move finally dawned on him. He became Noonan’s business partner. By 1990 or 1991, VPB was beginning to hit its stride, he says.
In 1990, Paul Sayler was an apprentice brewer across the state at Catamount Brewing. He came to VPB for the release of a beer that Greg Noonan had made with spruce, maple syrup and wheat in homage to colonial-era beers. “Greg mesmerized me,” Sayler wrote in a tribute after Noonan died. “With his deep, FM-DJ voice and a stunning knowledge of beer history, he set me on the path that would lead me to become a brewpub brewer.”
Sayler was not the only budding home or commercial brewer to turn up at VPB. Noonan’s book was the “gospel at that moment in time,” recalls Sayler, now the co-owner of Zero Gravity Craft Brewery in Burlington. Noonan’s beer recipes were consistently years ahead of their time — even as they resurrected deep, vital traditions.
“He was firmly committed to the great traditions, particularly lagers and Scottish ales,” Sayler says. “He didn’t just brew the traditional styles, but he researched them and made an effort to help craft brewing rise to where they could brew these styles.”
Also in 1990, Noonan began brewing a Scotch ale called Wee Heavy, which went on to win a gold award at the Great American Beer Festival (one of many award-winning VPB beers). In 1998, he published Scotch Ale for the Classic Beer Style Series, which became another mainstay of brewing libraries.
Noonan was among the first in the region to brew sour ales, spruce beers and ales with Brettanomyces yeast. Glenn Walter was VPB’s head brewer in 1994 when he created black IPA, a style that combines copious malt with intense hopping. (Though there’s some brewing-world conjecture over whether black IPA was first made at VPB or on the West Coast, Polewacyk says VPB’s records show it was first brewed there.)
That same year, a 23-year-old named John Kimmich packed all his belongings into his car and drove from Pittsburgh to Vermont in hopes of scoring a job at VPB.
“That’s what I told [Greg], that I had everything in my car,” jokes Kimmich. “‘In whatever capacity you want me, give me a job. I will do it.’”
A few years earlier, as a business student at Penn State, Kimmich had sipped a Catamount Porter that “just blew me away. It instantly grabbed me. And during my senior year, I came back with a renewed focus.” He wrote his senior project on the brewing industry, and after graduation worked in a home-brewing store in Pittsburgh. There, Kimmich became familiar with Noonan’s books and articles on brewing in back issues of the beer journal Zymurgy.
Though Noonan didn’t have a spot at VPB, he offered Kimmich a position as a server at Seven Barrel Brewery, which he and Nancy had just opened in West Lebanon, N.H. Kimmich didn’t hesitate. “I took it, and I didn’t really care,” he recalls. “I would go in on my days off and work with Paul [White, the brewer at the time].”
In November 1995, Glenn Walter left VPB to start his own Burlington brewpub, Three Needs, and Noonan invited Kimmich to become head brewer at VPB.
At first, Kimmich says, Noonan was close at hand as he executed his recipes. “He had this 24-year-old running his baby, and I drove him nuts with my questions,” Kimmich recalls.
Noonan was endlessly patient as Kimmich learned his boss’ oeuvre and was no-holds-barred with his critiques. “He was the most honest critic I could ever have. He taught me how to identify flaws and how to avoid them, all that stuff. He was a wealth of brewing knowledge,” says Kimmich. “It’s something that is quite often lacking in new brewers. Everyone thinks they’re the best, and they’re not willing to hear the truth. [Greg] was brutal, and it was humbling and important.”
Did the first stirrings of the beer that would eventually become Kimmich’s Heady Topper happen in VPB’s basement? Possibly, Kimmich says. “I started dumping in more hops here and there, without him knowing about it.” He also met his future wife, Jen, at VPB, and the two left the brewery after two years to work out west and in Boston. Later, they returned to Vermont to start the Alchemist in Waterbury.
Andre Blais followed Kimmich, then Steve Miller. Next came Russ FitzPatrick, who had frequented VPB as a barely legal home brewer before heading to the University of California, Davis, for formal brewing training. In 1997, FitzPatrick returned to his hometown of Montpelier to open a brewpub called Golden Dome; when it closed, Noonan hired him at VPB.
FitzPatrick recounts this story while balanced atop a three-foot stool, leaning his weight into a paddle as he mashes in malted grain for a batch of Wee Heavy. Blais, who now works at Stowe Mountain Lodge, has shown up to collaborate with FitzPatrick in advance of the anniversary and is throwing fistfuls of malted grain into the hopper. “I was the best guy they ever hired,” he quips, handing out his old VPB business cards.
As steam swirls around his head, FitzPatrick remembers how, as a 21-year-old, he’d come into VPB for pints after his shifts at nearby Something’s Brewing, then go home and brew beers on his grandmother’s stove. Noonan was a mentor, he says, and while FitzPatrick’s formal training acquainted him with microscopes and pH meters, he also brews beers with snow, piles of watermelons or local hops, participating in the spirit of experimentation that Noonan exuded. It’s a spirit whose influence extends way beyond College Street.
Many beers have been brewed in Noonan’s honor, including Greg, a stout from Hopfenstark brewery in Québec; and Pioneer from Dieu du ciel!, a Montréal microbrewery. Stéphane Ostiguy started Dieu du ciel! with his partner, Jean-François Gravel, in 1998, and met Noonan that same year at the annual Québec craft-brewing festival in Chambly. “He was in our booth, talking with my partner. I recognized him quickly, as I was reading his book about Scotch ales,” Ostiguy recalls.
Noonan invited the pair to visit VPB for the pub’s 10th anniversary, and what they tasted there turned them into frequent visitors. “[Greg] told us how to brew a good sour mash beer, the traditional way. He was known for that type of beer,” Ostiguy says. “It’s something you don’t read in books.”
A sour beer and a black IPA made it into Dieu du ciel!’s stable, and Ostiguy credits both in part to Noonan’s influence.
What Ostiguy particularly appreciated about Noonan was his well-roundedness. “Greg was an amazing brewer, but a genius in so many other fields — politics, art history, so many things,” he says.
VPB was a mecca and a classroom for home brewers. “He always maintained a consistent relationship with the local home-brewing community and was always there to answer questions and share insights,” Sayler says of Noonan. “Since the craft-brewing movement is underpinned by the home-brewing community, that’s a really important thing. Once Greg became a professional brewer, he never lost that connection.”
Adam Krakowski is a hops historian working on a book about the history of Vermont beer with Kurt Staudter, president of the Vermont Brewers Association (which Noonan cofounded). Back in 2009, Krakowski was a University of Vermont graduate student who dabbled in home brewing and would stop in at VPB for the occasional pint. “You could sit down for three or four dollars and get a pint of house-brewed beer. I loved it,” he says. “It’s not a Shaun Hill [of Hill Farmstead Brewery] or Sean Lawson [of Lawson’s Finest Liquids] kind of place, but all of their beers are 4 or 5 percent alcohol. I can have a few pints [of VPB beer] and still have my head attached to my body.”
Polewacyk has long realized that low-alcohol beers are an ongoing draw, as is VPB’s whimsical spirit. He also seems acutely aware that the brewpub’s torch needs to pass to a new generation. Greg Noonan’s nephew, Tommy Noonan, now helps manage the business. Polewacyk and FitzPatrick see the “pilot beers” that they roll out every week as the cornerstone of VPB’s ongoing relevance in an increasingly competitive scene.
In preparation for the big anniversary, Polewacyk and his staff — which he calls family — have been spiffing up the pub for months, laying in new floors, opening up the foyer and giving the place a gentle face-lift. What hasn’t changed is the adventurous tap list, which on a recent afternoon included Spuyten Duyvil, a framboise and a pumpkin stout. Nestled among them was the relatively sedate-sounding Oktoberfest. This was Jerome Noonan’s favorite of his brother’s beers.
“I’m prone to the Märzens, and Greg was, too, because it’s the brewers’ form of the art — lagers in general, but particularly the Märzens,” says Jerome Noonan, explaining his choice. “People make a lot of tribute beers [to Greg], and he made a lot of extreme beers in his career, from the black IPA to the beers with flowers. He was making sour beers before they were in vogue. Greg would gravitate to a really good lager, though — German or Czech-style lagers.”
The Oktoberfest is toasty, round and elegant, its hops tucked behind caramel and nut undertones. It’s a quiet but masterful beer, much like its originator.
Vermont Pub & Brewery 25th Anniversary Celebration. Friday through Sunday, November 8 to 10, at VPB in Burlington. Plaque dedication on Friday at 2 p.m. vermontbrewery.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Noonan's Legacy"