Game Changer: Ballplayer Turned Brewer Hits Home Run With New Line Of 'Old World' Beers

photo by paul hayes

With the Ammonoosuc River reflected in a window, John Lenzini brews up a batch of beer at Schilling Beer Company in Littleton last fall.

John Lenzini is a ballplayer turned brewmaster.

He developed a taste for European beers while playing and coaching professional baseball in Austria, and today he produces those lagers and ales at Schilling Beer Co. in downtown Littleton.

In the five months since the micro-brewery and restaurant opened, Lenzini, a co-owner, has produced over 100 barrels of beer, ranging from Bavarian Hefeweizen to Baltic Porter.

"We're doing something a little different than what other local breweries are doing to an extent," said Lenzini, referring to Schilling's emphasis on traditional European brews. "We think people are enjoying it."

DREAM IS BORN

Lenzini brewed his first batch of beer in 1998 while a graduate student at Purdue University. The results were predictably bad for a first timer.

"It was a pale ale of some sort," he said. "Almost everyone brews a horrible batch their first time. And then you learn."

Lenzini -- who had already earned a double-degree in chemistry and Germanic language while playing college baseball -- proved to be a quick learner. Soon he was brewing buckets of ale and sharing them with Jeff Cozzens, a childhood friend from Traverse City, Mich.

"From that time, John and I dreamed of owning a brewery together," said Cozzens.

Later that year Lenzini traveled to Europe, to play professional baseball in Austria for the Attnang Athletics.

He returned in 2002 to coach the Athletics and serve as an assistant on the Austrian national team. During those stays he was introduced to old world brewing methods and took a more serious interest in beer-making.

"I met some folks who owned breweries, got special tours and got to see the process [of] how beer is brewed in the 'old world,' so to speak," he said.

BECOMING A BREWER

In the decade after brewing his first batch of beer, Lenzini became a student of the process. His chemistry background served him well.

He fine-tuned his approach, became well-versed in brewing different styles of beer, and began using larger and more sophisticated production systems.

"There's just a lot of study, a lot of reading," he said. "When I pick up books they tend to be technical manuals on different styles, techniques and ideas behind brewing and the chemistry behind the product."

Meanwhile his beers became a hit with friends and family.

When he returned from his second stay in Austria in 2006, to teach chemistry and coach softball at St. Johnsbury Academy, he was dreaming of turning his brewing hobby into a career.

"That's when I really attacked it and began to brew very seriously," said Lenzini.

SCHILLING IS BORN

In St. Johnsbury, Lenzini reunited with Cozzens, who had already relocated to the area.

They rekindled their dream to own a brewery and restaurant. They developed a business plan, scouted locations and eventually settled on a former 18th century grist mill located just off of Littleton's Main Street.

"It was meant to be," said Cozzens.

The company is a family affair. Lenzini is the president, Cozzens is the chief executive officer, and Cozzens' brothers -- Stu, the general manager, who relocated to the area and Matt, the chief financial officer, who still lives in Michigan -- round out the management team.

Cozzens father, Bruce, is a major investor and the restaurant takes its name, Schilling, from Cozzens grandfather.

"We call this a completely family owned business, which is what it really is," said Cozzens. "My brothers and I consider [Lenzini] a brother."

Schilling Beer Co. has been warmly received in its first five months, said Cozzens. Already he said the brewery and restaurant -- which serves wood fired, brick oven baked pizzas, calzones, stromboli and more -- has built a strong customer base and carved out a niche in the local landscape of eating and drinking establishments.

For Cozzens and Lenzini, it has been an immensely satisfying achievement.

"There are a lot of pinch me moments, a lot of fist bumps, a lot of 'I can't believe we're standing in our own brewery now' moments," said Cozzens. "Truthfully it hasn't even sunk in. It's very exciting to do something you're so passionate about and to share that with your family."

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Lenzini uses a state-of-the-art, five barrel production system on the first floor. Those liquids are piped into fermentation and storage tanks in the basement.

He plans to produce around 30 varieties of craft beer over the next few years, with between four and 12 on tap at any given time. Those beers will reflect his central European influence, and will consist primarily of Austrian, Belgian, Czech, German and Polish ales and lagers.

Lenzini aims to please a wide range of customers -- from casual beer drinkers to craft beer enthusiasts -- and has been thrilled to serve his beers to the public at large. After years of brewing at home, the former ballplayer wants to share his beers with the world. And he hopes they are a hit.

Said Lenzini, "That's always been one of the most rewarding parts, you want people to enjoy what you make."

Among those enjoying Lenzini's beers is Cozzens. His typical reaction?

"Wow, I'll be honest, it's wow," said Cozzens. "People ask me what's my favorite one, and I don't have a ready answer for them, because they are all so different."

For example, he said, Lenzini just introduced a new beer to the Schilling lineup on Wednesday night.

"He just made our first dry hop Belgian pale ale, we just tapped it tonight, I put that thing to my lips, and it was one of the best beers I've ever, ever had," said Cozzens. "To get that level of excellence on the first go-round is unusual. It's a testament to John's skills and hard work."

Lenzini and Cozzens are both optimistic about the future of Schilling Beer Co.

Cozzens said the restaurant is built on a solid business plan, has enjoyed steady business and a growing customer base since opening, and has found a unique niche among local eateries.

Said Cozzens, "As long as we're true to who we are, work hard and value the community, I like our chances."

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