Six years ago, back before I was married, or had kids, back when I was a real beer bro, I sometimes traveled up to Vermont strictly to score rare brews. Like on Memorial Day weekend in 2014, when Hill Farmstead was celebrating its fourth anniversary with total tap takeovers at nearly every bar in the small town of Waterbury, while nearby, The Alchemist was doing a drop of Focal Banger cans. But the most anticipated event happened early Saturday morning where, around 6 a.m., three friends and I lined up in the parking lot of a taco shop in order to nab bombers of Lawson’s Finest Triple Sunshine IPA and Fayston Maple Imperial Stout.
Back then, this was pretty much the only way possible to taste the Waitsfield, Vt.-based brewery’s extremely hyped beers.
Today, however, just six years later, if I want to drink the beers of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, I don’t need to camp out in some parking lot in Vermont. I merely need to walk a block to my shitty bodega in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where there are always fresh cans of the brewery’s beers. They’re still delicious.
And, somehow, Lawson’s Finest has still maintained its cache.
In fact, it’s hard to think of another brewery that has so quickly gone from overhyped beer geek bait, to a brand shoppers a few states away can buy while popping into a corner store to get chips and a few rolls of Charmin, all without losing any geek cred.
How did this occur?
A Glorified Homebrewer
“My goals were modest at the beginning,” explains Sean Lawson, the brewer, founder (along with his wife Karen), namesake, and even logo of his brand. “I just wanted to make some of the best beer in the world.”
He’s not joking. Unlike a lot of breweries today, preternaturally built to excite Instagram and online message boards, Lawson’s Finest had much more humble beginnings. As in, Sean Lawson didn’t even quit his day job. With a masters in forestry, Lawson had worked for 15 years as a coordinator of research, monitoring programs about forest ecosystem health for the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative, a partnership of the state of Vermont. He’d become a notable enough naturalist to even be featured in a 2001 Washington Post story.
By then he’d been homebrewing for 20 years, having learned the craft at the University of Vermont. For two decades, he made amateur beer in his spare time, producing things like a maple wheat beer inspired by Catamount Brewing, a once-popular Vermont brewery launched in White River Junction in 1984. Lawson dreamed of one day opening a nice little brewery just like that, something for locals — he wasn’t trying to rock the industry.
“I wasn’t convinced at the outset, I wasn’t ready to make the leap,” says Lawson. “I thought [Lawson’s Finest] would be successful, but I wasn’t willing to risk a great-paying job with the state of Vermont, and my benefits, a retirement plan…”
If Vermont has become a beer mecca today, things were a lot different back in 2008. There were then around 1,500 breweries in America (there are well over 8,000 today) and just 18 in Vermont. There was The Alchemist operating out of a brewpub in Waterbury; its now-iconic Heady Topper existed on tap, but wasn’t yet a canned sensation. There was Rock Art pioneering high-ABV “extreme” beers. Magic Hat was the big dog in the state, with its apricot-flavored #9 already becoming a national tap handle.
“It was a great scene to open up into,” explains Lawson. “A good mix of microbrewing stalwarts with larger production, along with small brewpubs and breweries.”
With help from family and friends, Lawson built a 280-square-foot nano-brewery in a shed next to his family’s house in Waitsfield. It was a one-barrel system he calls a “glorified and licensed homebrewing operation.” It was a hobby business, still, a proof of concept. Lawson would initially focus on two types of beers: Unique maple ales and, of course, IPAs.
“Because I’m a hophead,” notes Lawson. “Thankfully, my palate was where the entire industry was headed. We didn’t have enough beer to go around from day one”
The Warren Store, a nearby general store, was its only retail space. It would get a few bottles of one beer, once a week. Several local restaurants poured tap beer from 5-gallon corny kegs more typically used for soda. And that was that. Lawson’s actual brewery wasn’t zoned for the public, and since he literally lived there, he didn’t want anyone showing up at his home to buy beer.
“We were the rare brewery that actively discouraged visitors,” explains Lawson.
It didn’t matter. Lawson’s Finest was an immediate hit. Limited-release beers like Double Sunshine (the brand’s “first home run”) were a sensation, discussed on online beer forums, and by early 2013 was ranking in the top 10 on Beer Advocate’s top 250 beers in the world list. Its insane exclusivity only turbo-charged the hype and turned Double Sunshine into a certified whale — highly coveted and as hard to capture as Moby Dick — as East Coast fans able to secure a rare bottle began trading with other beer geeks across the country.
After that first year of business, Lawson’s mother died of cancer at age 59. That made him reevaluate his life and finally decide to go for it full-time. He quit his day job and thus was able to double production — though he was still only making enough beer to fill around 1,200 bottles per batch. He began selling them at Waitsfield’s Saturday farmers’ market, which drew even more crowds, now making beer pilgrimages to Vermont.
“I was only able to do it once a month,” he explains. “I’d set beer aside for four weeks until I had enough.”
By 2014, I was waiting in a pre-dawn line at Mad Taco, a local mini-chain taqueria located across the street from the farmers’ market. Scoring an early-a.m. deli ticket would enable me to return to that very farmer’s market at noon to buy bottles. Lawson’s Finest was by then a sensation among the cognoscenti — there was a massive line snaking through Mad Taco’s strip mall parking lot that day — but it was by no means a household name.
Meanwhile, The Alchemist had finally started canning Heady Topper in 2012, and it had almost instantly become the No. 1 beer in the world. Hill Farmstead was likewise drawing large crowds to its spot in Greensboro Bend, Vt. By 2012, it had become the No. 1- ranked brewery in the world, according to RateBeer. I personally thought Lawson’s Finest’s beers were every bit as good, but I was starting to wonder if they were being left in the dust by their Vermont brethren.
I shouldn’t have been so worried.
The Path Has Two Roads
Though his brewery size had expanded to a 7-barrel system in 2011 and the production was up to 400 barrels per year, Lawson was still unable to come even close to meeting the rabid demand for his products. Many brewers of this era, when faced with a similar problem, have stayed small, seemingly well aware that controlled scarcity would continue to feed into the hype and desire for their beers. Not Lawson, however, especially after he was approached by Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing Company with an interesting proposition.
In 2013, four partners had purchased a century-old factory in Stratford, Conn., just off I-95, with a business model built around not just brewing their own beers, but also utilizing their massive capacity to expand production for other craft breweries. Unlike the deal with typical contract brewers who might control every step of the process according to their own standards, Lawson would still be able to use his own ingredients and brewing processes; not to mention, the man who would now be brewing his beer, Phil Markowski, was an industry legend in his own right, winning acclaim at Long Island’s Southampton Brewing Co. and having literally written the book on farmhouse brewing.
Lawson wanted Two Roads to brew different beers than he himself was brewing up in Vermont. He aspired to come up with a spinoff of Double Sunshine, but one a little more drinkable and a little more mainstream; these were the earliest days of the juicy New England IPA revolution that was about to overtake the industry. He would employ the de rigueur hops of the moment, Citra and Mosaic, to create what he called Sip of Sunshine.
“If Double Sunshine was a home run, Sip of Sunshine was a grand slam,” Lawson claims.
It was a sensation back home in Vermont — where many locals didn’t yet realize it was being brewed elsewhere, despite the Two Roads logo on the back label — and quickly garnered national buzz, leaping into the top 10 on Beer Advocate’s top 250 list by the summer of 2014. By 2015, on a trip to Burlington, Vt., I recall craft beer fans hunting for Double Sunshine’s tallboy yellow cans as avidly as they were still hunting for Heady Topper.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that, just five years later, it is as well stocked at my shitty bodega as cans of Coke or bottles of Gatorade.
What other brewery can claim that? What other brewery has been able to go from being a limited release whale factory, to a convenience store staple, all while still retaining its craft beer cred?
Today, Lawson’s Finest’s two year-round beers — Sip of Sunshine and the rotating Super Session series — are brewed at Two Roads in Connecticut. The rest of its portfolio is brewed at a now-expanded Waitsfield brewery, making it all the more remarkable to see beers like Scrag Mountain Pils, Maple Nipple, and Chinooker’d make it to me in Brooklyn so quickly.
Lawson’s Finest is now available in all of New England, New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania. Pretty much the distance a refrigerated truck can drive from Vermont in less than six hours. Lawson claims, for that reason, it’s unlikely they will ever expand any further.
Every time I pull a can out of the glass-windowed cooler, I’m stunned to see a date stamp on the bottom of them that is from just a couple days only. It’s unfathomable that a beer brewed in Vermont could be packaged and shipped, and, within a day or two, I’m drinking it. Meanwhile, many New York City-brewed beers in the cooler are months old. It’s that attention to quality and handling (stores must stock his beers refrigerated), that belief in never taking any shortcuts, that keeps Lawson’s beer as great as it was when it was coming out of a nano-brewery shed.
“The key point to this success is the freshness of our beer,” says Lawson. When I talked to him in early October, he was ramping up production on Fayston Maple Stout, the beer I once waited in line for, which should be stocked at my bodega by late October. “From the beginning, we’ve been fanatical about getting beer to customers as fresh as possible.”
And that’s why, despite increased production, Double Sunshine, Sip of Sunshine, and Triple Sunshine (another beer I once stood in line to get) are still considered top 100 beers on Beer Advocate’s list. People don’t really hunt for Lawson’s Finest, or certainly line up for them anymore, but that’s only because they have become so easy to find.
Meanwhile, most every other IPA on Beer Advocate’s now top 250 list still does involve waiting in a line, or needing to “know a guy” at your local shop, or paying out the ass online for them. The Alchemist expanded to a 16,000-square-foot brewery in 2016, and though it’s now pretty easy to find Heady Topper and Focal Banger cans in Vermont, they mostly remain a unicorn outside the Green Mountain state. Hill Farmstead likewise underwent a massive expansion in 2014, and though its beer occasionally appears on tap in markets like New York and Philadelphia, bottles and cans still necessitate a trip to Greensboro Bend. Other hot breweries like Tree House, Trillium, and Monkish mostly produce beers for their markets only.
And then there’s Lawson’s Finest, maybe the one zeitgeisty IPA maker that managed to become so mainstream that its beer is now sold at Trader Joe’s … and yet still has beer-geek cache.
“Thanks to our customers, we have a great sales velocity on shelf,” says Lawson, meaning it sells through incredibly quickly, meaning more fresh beer comes to quickly replace it, meaning that no matter how much of it is made, it will continue to always taste fresh and delicious. It’s a seemingly simple process, yet one that so few other breweries have managed to accomplish. “The fans have really helped us grow in a big way,” Lawson says.