Business & Economy

An NEK brewery blends hope and hops while opening mid-pandemic

Gillian and Geoffrey Sewake of Peacham talk about the brewery they plan to open inside their space in St. Johnsbury. The couple were newcomers to the Northeast Kingdom in recent years, and Gillian has signed up as a host for the region’s chapter of the Vermont Welcome Wagon Project. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

ST. JOHNSBURY — In the weeks since Whirligig Brewing opened for in-person service, co-owner Geoffrey Sewake has seen a lot of out-of-towners and earned a few regulars.

Often, his patrons will marvel at the accomplishment of opening the small Railroad Street operation in the middle of a global pandemic. 

“It’s great to see the love and how they can’t believe how I opened,” said Sewake, a Peacham resident who runs the brewery with his wife, Gillian. 

“But then there’s the other side,” he said. 

The other side is that he had to start off in June selling canned beer online — never the plan — incurring hundreds more in costs each month to pay for packaging and labeling machines. Because he left his old job to build his business, he said, he didn’t qualify for unemployment. And because his business was new, he said, he wasn’t able to receive paycheck protection or other government aid either.

“The only way I did it,” he said before opening hours Friday, “was by borrowing money.”

Sewake has optimism despite the challenges. And so do others in St. Johnsbury. 

Town Manager Chad Whitehead was happy to see another business open downtown, where pushes for development have been underway for years. 

He pointed to the nearby St. Johnsbury Distillery, owned by Dan and Brendan Hughes and Brian Garvey, as another recent opening. Like the brewery, the distillery had been in the works pre-pandemic. 

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“My congratulations to them to endure and still get open,” Whitehead said.

One of Sewake’s silver linings has been non-locals stopping by Whirligig.

They’ve come to the Northeast Kingdom for its relatively shallow Covid-19 spread, he said, and some of them have stuck around.  

“I feel like a good 10% of my customers are people who either had a summer house here … or moved here permanently for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Regulars have given him opportunities to talk shop about brewing philosophy — and what he hopes will keep people coming.

“I try to seek balance,” he said of his brews. 

It’s great if people enjoy the drinks, but he doesn’t want people to get overwhelmed. He aims for subtlety, so that the beer complements people’s social experience. He calls it “sort of like a multiplier effect.”

“The purpose of building this was to help add a space … to come and meet and share,” Sewake said, which has become more important with Covid keeping people isolated.

He described watching recently as two couples sat and talked for an hour at his outside tables. “That is exactly the reason why I wanted to open a brewery,” he said.

And he’s optimistic that the typical slow season — from after the leaves fall to the spring — might not be as bad as feared.

“Instead of a dead season, I think there’ll be a sturdy group of people,” he said, adding later, “I think people are itching to get out.”

Sewake believes a key part of hanging on until then will be the sale of canned brews. 

He has halted those sales while he waits on parts for a professional machine. He had been using a small manual contraption that didn’t give consistent quality, he said. Because he can’t control how or when people will drink a packaged product, he wants to shore up any issues on his end. 

The other major piece to survival, he said, is the ability in the future to have people inside his taproom.  

“If we can’t be at 100% (capacity), it’s going to be brutal,” he said. In pre-pandemic times, he would’ve been able to fill the room with seats and welcome people to his shiny black bar, too. 

He also hopes the state can offer programs to new businesses similar to those meant to help existing ones recover. 

Whitehead, the town manager, said local leaders have been trying to spur downtown traffic to help businesses during the pandemic. 

The town recently partnered with Catamount Arts and the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce to host a music and arts series downtown. One event last weekend brought Modern Times Theater and several musicians.  

“It was really well attended,” Whitesaid said, adding that he saw people on social media say the weekend was the busiest St. Johnsbury had been in ages.

Early this summer, the town also created a streamlined process to let businesses use outdoor space, he said. Several have taken advantage of the new program so far, the manager said, including Central Cafe, Kingdom Table and Anthony’s Diner. 

For the meantime, Sewake wants to make the most of his opportunity.

“You only get to be new for a little while,” he said.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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