Brewers to whet(stone) your whistle

Brewers James Branagan and Connor Busch test their latest brew at the Whetstone Station’s brewery. Photo: Kristopher Radder

The men who make it happen at the Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery

Brewers James Branagan and Connor Busch test their latest brew at the Whetstone Station’s brewery. Photo: Kristopher Radder

By Cicely M. Eastman

It was “awesome,” Connor Busch said, when Tim and Amy Brady and David Hiler opened the Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery on the former Riverview Cafe location overlooking the Connecticut River.

Its opening filled the void after Tropical Storm Irene took out the brewery for Flat Street Brew Pub in 2011 just as Brattleboro was on the fast track to becoming a hotspot for the burgeoning craft beer industry.

With the long-standing McNeill’s Brewery on Elliot Street and the Hermit Thrush Brewery on High Street that opened in 2014, Brattleboro is a must-stop in a craft beer tasting excursion in the growing trend to come to Vermont just for beer. According to James Branagan, operations manager at the Whetstone and a member of Vermont Brewers Association, the craft beer industry in Vermont is surpassing the ski industry in drawing tourists to the state.

As a self-taught home brewer who had been making beer for friends for the past nine years, Busch watched with great interest as Brady began brewing operations at the restaurant.

As a co-owner, Brady wore many hats so when Busch approached him on joining the team as a brewer in 2012, Busch was interviewed and hired.

Talk about being at the right place at the right time: Busch is now the lead brewer whose job entails recipe design, production scheduling, and, of course, making beer.

In keeping with Brady’s original mantra, “never the same beer twice,” Busch (very distantly related to the beer-making giant) invents a different concoction for each batch.

He may take an old recipe and tinker with it, but it is never the same beer twice. He tries different things such as a mix of pale ale, or a grapefruit soda and shandy style beer.

They call themselves an experimental nano-brewery. The only exception is their flagship beer – The Whetstoner, an India session ale described on their website as “bright and delicious, hoppy pale ale (ok fine, session IPA) is big on aroma and easy on the palate.”

Connor said The Whetstoner is popular because it is low ABV (alcohol by volume), making it a good option for having a couple, and is reliably always on tap. He added, “It is a good session beer, good for any day, but especially in the Bier Garten in summer heat.”

Brewing partner Branagan – also a self-taught brewer – was originally hired three years ago to do maintenance based on his mechanically inclined merits, but his position has grown exponentially over the years.

Branagan coordinates ingredient orders and inventory, organizes their participation in festivals like the Brewers Festival (coming up May 27 on Brattleboro’s VABEC campus), BaconFest in September, and he is the spokesperson for the brewery since he connects well with people.

He works with Chef Nikki Peruzzi for the Whetstone’s “Tap That” beer pairing dinners. The next “Tap That” takes place on Wednesday, May 17, in collaboration with Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids.

And, of course, Branagan brews beer with Busch. It is all a good fit.

“We are a good team and produce good beer together,” James said.

Because the brewery is small, a three-and-a-half barrel brew house, there are only four tap lines, making it a challenge to keep up with inventory as there is always a turnover.

By last count, they have produced 250 different beers. Busch makes whatever strikes him, often brewing for the season. For instance, they just cycled through their Maple Brown Ale as their spring beer, that was included as one of the four beers offered on tap.

Their tap beers usually also include an amber, and a stout – plus The Whetstoner – at the bar. And, what is really unique, all of their recipes are posted on their website, lightheartedly referring to themselves as an open source brewer.

A lot of their creations are ales that on average are brewed for seven hours, fermented for 12 days, stronger ones a little longer, at 68 degrees maintained by computer. Branagan noted that the trend in New England is for more aromatic flavors, adding hops later to not extract as much of the bitterness.

The brewery itself glistens with stainless steel vats monitored on a computer that keeps track of the temperature. Branagan and Busch keep an eye on it on their phones when not at work. However, Branagan said it works pretty well so it’s not usually a concern.

Collaboration with other brewers such as Middlebury’s Drip In Brewing, a traditional brewer, and Brattleboro’s Hermit Thrush Brewery whose beer is on the sour side brings different aspects from different breweries to share at the Whetstone.

Branagan’s role on the board of The Vermont Brewers Association is in marketing. As part of the marketing committee, he monitors the website to make sure the industry is being represented accurately. The VBA not only represents the state’s breweries at the statehouse but promotes the industry as a whole, such as the popular Vermont Brewery Challenge – Passport Program. Information may be found online at vermontbrewers.com.

Whetstone Station’s website, whetstonestation.com, is updated regularly to reflect the current beer on tap, entertainment, and menu items. Or better still, go try out a beer at 36 Bridge St., Brattleboro.

Vermont Country magazine

Vermont Country has a hyperlocal focus on the Green Mountain lifestyle, its personalities, events, attractions and culture. The magazine appears six times a year, designed to complement the state and four-season living. VtCo magazine is a Southern Vermont publication of Vermont News & Media.

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