Matt Nadeau of Rock Art Brewery

Going Pro by | Aug 2011 | Issue #55

Photo by Taylor Seidler

In 14 years, Rock Art Brewery has moved from a cramped residential basement to a sparkling new production facility in Morrisville, Vt. “I can’t even explain it,” says Matt Nadeau, who co-founded the brewery with his wife, Renee. “In the beginning, distributors were saying craft beer was done, and here’s this podunk brewery in a basement. These recipes were developed in our kitchen, and they’ve carried us to the point where we’ve built a brand-new brewery. The bills are getting paid, and the rest of it is fun.”

1. Get inspired
Matt Nadeau is a Vermont native, but he got inspired to try his hand at brewing while living in the Rockies, watching the Breckenridge Brewery get off the ground. He started homebrewing once he returned to Vermont, and something clicked. Nadeau was mechanical, he liked to cook and he was interesting in the science of brewing. “It exploded for me,” he recalls. Nadeau started cultivating yeast strains. He jumped from a 5-gallon pot, to a 10-gallon all-grain setup, and then to a 1.5-barrel nano system. He was hooked.

2. Jump in
Nadeau was homebrewing two to three times a week, churning out way more beer than he could ever hope to drink. Much of the brew was donated to friends, who told Nadeau he could probably charge for the stuff, if he was so inclined. Turns out, he was. He launched Rock Art in 1997, at the bottom of the 1990s microbrew bust. The initial plan was to brew a few times a day and crank out a couple hundred gallons a week on his nano system. Then he did some math, and realized brewing at that scale wouldn’t even cover the payments on the insurance policy he needed. He went with plan B: cramming a 7-barrel brewhouse and eight Grundy tanks into the basement of his house.

3. Come out from underground
Rock Art Brewery spent its first four years in the Nadeau family basement, with Matt and Renee lugging grain and hops downstairs, and hauling kegs and boxes of growlers upstairs. Brewing and bottling got dramatically easier when Rock Art graduated to a standalone production facility; after spending 10 years in the old brewhouse, Rock Art recently moved to a new, bigger brewery. New tanks, including a 90-barrel fermenter and a 100-barrel bright tank, will dramatically expand the brewery’s production capacity. Fourteen years ago, Nadeau recalls, it was a struggle to even get one distributor interested in his product; now, his crew can’t make enough beer.

4. Take your time
Nadeau has taken a cautious approach to growing Rock Art, and that approach will continue in the brewery’s new facility. “The attitude has been, take care of the current accounts, and as you can slowly add new things in, then do that,” Nadeau says. “Don’t rush and cause any ripples, because the customer you have is much better than one you might have. And there’s no need to rush.” Because Rock Art sells nearly all its output within 50 miles of its brewery, and its current distributors can’t get enough beer, the brewery hasn’t pushed and overextended itself. “All we do is plant those seeds, and let them slowly grow. They’re all growing, so it’s perfect.”

5. Stand and fight
Rock Art is a small regional brewery, but it burst onto the national stage two years ago. This was not an appearance of the brewery’s own making. In 2009, the makers of the energy drink Monster slapped Rock Art with a cease-and-desist letter, alleging that the name of Rock Art’s Vermonster Barleywine was infringing on their caffeinated beverage’s trademark. The Nadeaus’ lawyer told them they had two options: Sink a ridiculous amount of money into a court fight with a multi-billion-dollar company, or walk away. They decided to fight. An email to Rock Art supporters went viral, and soon Monster was besieged by boycott threats. Monster eventually stood down.

6. Speak up
Asked whether he’s sick of talking about his run-in with Monster, Nadeau replies, “It needs to be talked about. It’s not talked about enough. It’s a very black, bleak abyss you stare into when you’re a small business, and a big corporation gets you in its sights. Some get lucky like we did, but the vast majority don’t.” During the Monster saga, Nadeau heard from scores of small businesses who were engaged in similar fights. “For us, it wasn’t do or die, but for a lot of companies, their trademark is their business, and they lost it because somebody wanted to take it.”

7. Also, you can drink it
In addition to being the subject of legal wrangling, Vermonster is also a beer—a massive American Barleywine first brewed to celebrate Rock Art’s 10th anniversary. The 10 percent ABV, 100-IBU recipe has a monstrous hop profile, thanks to a full pound of hops per barrel. Vermonster was a reaction to criticisms that Rock Art’s Ridge Runner, which dates back to the brewery’s earliest days, no longer tastes like a so-called real Barleywine. Nadeau recalls that the 7.5 percent ABV Ridge Runner, which marries sweet caramel malts with earthy Challenger hops, was a big beer back in 1997. Besides, Nadeau reasons, “It was the biggest beer I could make in my mash tun.”

8. Blur the lines
Until a few years ago, Vermont brewers worked under a cap of 8 percent ABV. So when Rock Art released the first in a line of big beers, Nadeau brewed right up to that 8 percent max. He also wanted to put a different spin on the imperialization of beers. The result was a double ESB hopped with Magnum and Tomahawk. “I tried to emphasize the malt, but it’s definitely a hop-forward beer,” Nadeau says. “There’s not a lot to go by with these double styles.” When people question what a double ESB is, or whether Vermonster is more of a Double IPA than a Barleywine, Nadeau’s response is simple: “If you like to drink it, fine. If not, drink something else.”

9. Get modern
Rock Art’s new brewery allows it to release its IPA in six-packs for the first time. Nadeau updated his house IPA, which dates back to Rock Art’s early days, for the release. He modernized the recipe, pouring in more floral hops. The beer remains darker and maltier than its West Coast counterparts, but now it’s also a showcase for Cascade, Centennial, Crystal and Columbus hops. Nadeau didn’t want to release the beer in six-packs until he was happy with the recipe. He finally is.