Geoffrey Sewake is a self-described foodie.
He used to live in New York City where he learned about making bread and charcuterie. He took culinary classes and delved into wine.
About a half-dozen years ago he moved to Peacham with his wife, Gillian. His fine food and beverage interests led him to explore home brewing.
For the next few years he kept busy learning and dreaming about his own brewery.
He also started a family, and now has two young children, a son, 5, and a daughter who is almost 2.
He learned more about beer-making while as working full-time at the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension as a field specialist.
He followed a long and careful planning process to build his dream business. He finally got there, just as a global pandemic started.
The new Whirligig Brewery on Railroad Street began selling beer in June, and has been serving at the tap room with very limited indoor space, and al fresco seating outside, for the past month.
Whirligig’s presence in the expanding al fresco scene of downtown adds to a growing energy, said Darcie McCann, executive director of the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce, on Wednesday.
“Whirligig is an appropriate name for this great new brewery as well as describing what is starting to happen in St. Johnsbury,” McCann said. “Things are really starting to turn around in the downtown… This pandemic could very well have been a real negative, but it has transformed into a real positive, making the downtown far more dynamic.”
Opening During a Pandemic
In an interview on Saturday morning at the brewery, Sewake, 39, said the first few months of to-go beer sales have gone well.
But having the tap room open and people being able to enjoy his artfully crafted beers and blends on the premises where the beers are made is what Sewake wants to see.
“This is really the reason I opened the brewery,” he said, scanning the cool, industrial-vibe space which formerly was a medical supply company’s retail store.
The front windows of the space were radically transformed and are eye-catching.
That’s a very deliberate move, says Sewake.
Luring would-be customers into the artisanal micro brewery by showcasing the magic that lies within is the idea behind putting the sophisticated stainless brewing equipment front and center, as well as allowing customers to peek in and see the antique barrels from a Barnard farm in which the Whirligig signature beers are quietly fermenting.
The business model and other small businesses supported by the new Whirligig venture are evidence of the important ties of small businesses hatching in Vermont.
Hops from the Sewake family’s own garden in Peacham were featured in a beer that makes a comeback on tap at the brewery, The Local with Fresh Hops (4.2 percent abv).
Free tastes of any beer are offered.
When the micro brewery first opened, they partnered with their neighbor, the Kingdom Taproom & Table, to provide food for patrons, but in a few weeks’ time, the handful of food options are now in-house at Whirligig.
There are “small bites” served at the brewery, made by the couple, and a luxurious sounding, but not snobby, emphasizes Sewake.
There is the Cabot Clothbound plate with cheese aged 9-14 months “in the caves at Jasper Hill in Greensboro” paired with local honey, a sprig of rosemary and artisanal crackers and almonds.
A second local cheese offering on a recent menu featured the award winning Jasper Hill Farm’s “soft bloomy rind cheese” a 5 oz. orb “perfect to share — although some have been known to eat it all by themselves!” also served with artisan-made crackers.
A Matiz Spanish Seafood Tin was featured on a recent weekend, too, featuring a choice of octopus, mussels or cockles also with crackers.
The beers on tap and the bar food available at the taproom will change, and the day’s offerings will be shared on social media, said Sewake.
Sewake says it’s a hyper colloquial term that relates to the beloved Vermont maple tree.
Another special Vermont takeaway: the symbol for the bar are technically called samaras and are the fruit of the maple tree.
The winged polynoses, which are also referred to as either helicopters or whirligigs, contain seeds, “which, as part of their brilliant design, float aerodynamically away from the tree before landing on the ground,” as described in one definition.
Sewake said opening just a few months into a global pandemic has been hard, saying “COVID presented a complete upside-down to my business plan.”
And he had just left his career with the NH Cooperative Extension to embark on his dream and was not able to collect unemployment nor Coronavirus Relief Funds being a new business with no books to show as yet.
Of the challenge of opening a micro brewery amid a pandemic with restrictions on capacity and guidelines like never before for serving the public, Sewake said, “I’m trying to do the best I can. The government is not helping me, but I have a lot of community support.”
Sewake is hopeful that Whirligig will begin to spin into a successful operation; he said he may have to take a second, part-time job, due to how the COVID crisis has hit simultaneously with him trying to get the new micro brewery off the ground.
As things began to slowly re-open, Sewake said he saw strong interest in canned beer and he was not happy with the initial can system he had purchased, so he has invested in costly equipment to seam the cans better.
Having his product retain the highest quality possible is important, explained Sewake, and the best way to enjoy his beers is on tap, at the taproom.
He likens it to making food at home then packing it up to go; he says, “It is a percentage of what it was.”
Moving the beer from one vessel to another sees changes that are slight, but there nonetheless, and Sewake said he is very aware of the quality of his products and works hard to maintain the best products he can.
Consumers really like their beer in cans, he said, and he’s worked to get a system that he feels is good enough for his precious cargo.
“I want you to have the beer that is at its peak performance, I won’t serve beer that I won’t drink,” says Sewake.
There will be new brews offered often, and Sewake said he specializes in while he terms “sour milds” beers, where balance is key. He samples the beers carefully to his exacting standards and is is not looking to be like other breweries, but unique and personal.
Unique Flavors Guaranteed
That he has not been making beer for too long - 6 or 7 years - means Sewake is not locked into rigid formulas or styles; he enjoys experimenting the way he loves to cook and play with flavors and ingredients.
“I prefer to make it unique,” he said. “I want you to drink my beer and have some food and have a great conversation here.”
Sewake said he is not alone in being a minority business owner in St. Johnsbury, pointing to the owners of Salt Bistro, the Central Café’ and Pica Pica.
He said the new businesses are infusing St. Johnsbury with a sense of revitalization, pointing too, to the distillery and other downtown businesses expanding and opening, giving the town a sense of vibrancy and hope even amid the significant challenges brought on by the pandemic.
One recent night when he was at the brewery late and installing equipment on his own, Sewake was having a hard time and sent out a plea for help.
The chef-owner of the Salt Bistro on Eastern Avenue’s owner, AJ Nommik,dropped what he was doing and ran right over.
al fresco scene
Like the micro brewery and Central Café across the street, and the next door Kingdom Taproom and Table, Salt, too, is part of the downtown al fresco trend that has resulted from the pandemic - there are tables and chairs, and soon, heaters, out on the sidewalks and on decks throughout the downtown. Salt Bistro and the St. Johnsbury Distillery are neighbors and are turning out food and drinks in outdoor venues around the corner, on Eastern Avenue.
But he’s hoping the devotion he’s put into Whirligig will begin to catch on and the community will support the new business. He said his reviews online are really strong already and he’s encouraged.
He said he could have opened up Whirligig across the river, in New Hampshire, but chose to be part of the revival of St. J’s downtown.
“I want to put my beans in this community,” said Sewake. “Our beans are in this basket.”
While most of the brewery’s seating will be outside for now, Sewake adds an important add-on, “I bought heaters” to place outside next to tables.
He said about 10 percent of the customers so far are new Vermonters, people who have moved to the area due to the pandemic. The town he lives in, Peacham, has seen an enrollment spike due to people moving in, he said.
“There’s a huge uptick in the area,” reported Sewake. “It is very interesting to see.”
“I hope that COVID passes and that there are low enough rates to allow an increase of our capacity,” said Sewake.
In the meantime, Sewake is working hard to craft delicious, small-batch beers that he thinks taste great.
“I’m going by my palate, not by convention,” he explained. “My intention is to create something you want to drink. My purpose is to create something unique … the beers really are me.”
For now, the taproom is open Fridays 4-8 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and noon-6 p.m., respectively.