By: Nan McCreary
In the small town of Waitsfield, Vermont, an iconic brewery looms large among visitors. It is Lawson’s Finest Liquids, producer of world-class IPAs and unique maple beers and, according to many, a benchmark for hoppy beers among the nation’s beer drinkers.
“I’m a hophead,” owner Sean Lawson, along with his wife, Karen, told Beverage Master Magazine. “I’m a fan of hops in a big way.” This love of flavorful beers has been a driving force in Lawson’s life since he first started making homebrew as a college student at the University of Vermont. “In the beginning, I was making five gallons at a time,” Lawson said. “My friends loved it. I couldn’t make it fast enough.”
After graduation from college with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in forestry, Lawson pursued a career as a scientist and outdoor educator but continued to hone his brewing skills. The art and the craft of making beer were in his genes.
Finally, in 2008, with increasing demand for beer from his friends, Lawson and his wife, Karen, got a beer license and built a 280-square-foot nano-brewery in a shed next to their house. Lawson brewed his beer one barrel at a time, producing 31 gallons—or 10 cases of beer—all while keeping his day job.
“I worried that if I turned my hobby into a full-time job, it would end up being a drag, but the opposite happened,” he said. “It really sparked my passion. I loved coming up with new recipes, and I really enjoyed the whole process from start to finish. I would walk into the brewhouse and make things up as I went. I had a lot of ingredients, so I would look at what I had and say, ‘Umm, what do I want to brew today?’”
As Lawson’s passion grew, so did his customer base. “From day one, we didn’t have enough beer to go around,” Lawson said. At the time, he was making a few maple-infused beers —this was Vermont, after all—but the core of his business was IPAs, which were flying off the shelves. In mid-2008, Lawson decided to quit his day job and make his “hobby” a full-time vocation. He expanded the brewery to a seven-barrel system, which he thought was a big leap but, in fact, still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.
“The beer kept going away faster than I could make it,” Lawson told Beverage Master Magazine. “I could only do two batches a week because it was a small building, and I’d stuffed in as much equipment as I could.”
In the meantime, the accolades kept coming and coming and coming. In 2010, Lawson’s Finest Liquids became the smallest brewery ever to capture an award at the World Beer Cup, winning the Bronze medal with their Maple Tripple Ale in the specialty beer category, followed in 2012 by a Silver medal win and another Silver medal in 2016. Lawson’s beers were also a big hit at the American Craft Beer Festival in Boston, the largest beer festival on the East Coast.
“People were impressed with the quality and flavor of the beer,” Lawson said. “Skiers and tourists would come to Vermont, buy the beer and take it home and share with friends. ‘You gotta try this beer,’ they’d say. There was a lot of ‘word of mouth’ success for our products.”
All along, Lawson’s goal was to “produce beer of the highest quality with outstanding freshness.” Lawson strongly felt that to retain that freshness, the beer needed to be kept cold during the entire journey from the brewery to the customer.
“When I started in 2008, it was a challenge to get the local distributor to keep it cool in the warehouse,” Lawson said. “But once the brand caught on, I made it a prerequisite: keep it cold in the warehouse, on the truck and while on display at the retailer.”
Lawson’s persistence paid off. His “home run” beer was Double Sunshine, a double IPA packed with juicy, lush fruit character and herbal aromas with an 8% ABV. With the increased capacity of the seven-barrel brewery, this beer—and other specialty Lawson’s Finest Liquids—created a sensation in Vermont and throughout the Northeast, such a sensation that demand continued to get further ahead of supply. Clearly, Lawson needed to produce more beer. “I read about a brewery in Stratford, Connecticut—Two Roads Brewing Company—that offered contract services, so I decided to consider this option as a way to expand without investing in more equipment or employees,” he said.
From the beginning, Lawson was very particular about his requirements. His reputation was on the line, and he was adamant that this beer meet his and his fan’s expectations. “The first thing I wanted to know was if the chemistry of their water would meet my standards for making quality mash,” Lawson said. “As it turned out, the water they used for brewing was nearly identical to what we used in Vermont.”
Lawson also wanted to differentiate this beer from what he brewed in Vermont, so he created Sip of Sunshine, inspired by Double Sunshine but lighter in color and easier on the palate, and still at 8% ABV. Expecting some trial and error in creating a new brew, everyone was surprised—and delighted—that the first two batches were hugely successful. They hadn’t even packaged the beer yet, so they sold it on draft. “It took off from day one,” Lawson said.
Over the next three years, inspired by the continuing popularity of his beers, Lawson increased production at Two Roads, with its 100-barrel capacity, while making specialty beer at his brewery at home. He also began expanding his footprint with distribution in Vermont and Connecticut and eventually to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey. Sales skyrocketed, and, ultimately, the Lawsons were able to realize the culmination of their original business plan: To build a large production facility of their own and have a taproom where they could welcome the public. In 2018, that “dream” became a reality when the Lawsons opened their 40-barrel facility and timber-framed taproom in Waitsfield, located in the heart of Vermont’s Mad River Valley. The taproom is open year-round and features 10 to 12 beers on tap, as well as a food program with an emphasis on local fare. Lawson’s Finest boasts 41 full-time and 17 part-time employees. That’s a far cry from the mom-and-pop operation that began in an outbuilding on their property.
Today, after a 20-plus year journey, Lawson’s Finest Liquids is recognized as one of the best breweries in the Northeast, especially among hopheads. The brewery produces dozens of beers, some year-round and others as special releases. Year-round beers include the flagship Sip of Sunshine; the Super Session series, brewed with the same malt base and specialty malts but each brewed with a different single-hop variety; and Little Sip, a cousin to Sip of Sunshine but with 6% ABV. Sip of Sunshine and the rotating Super Session series are brewed at Two Roads, and the rest at the Waitsfield Brewery. Lawson keeps one barrel in his brewhouse for experimenting with new flavors. If he likes the beer, he will create small-batch productions on his original seven-barrel brewery. “We’re always looking for new flavors,” he said. “That’s where we have our fun. These are specialty beers that are only available in the taproom.”
While Lawson’s Finest Liquids has enjoyed phenomenal success, Sean and Karen have not forgotten one of the core values that inspired their journey—to give back to the local community and communities where they do business. “Even when we were very small, we’d give a portion of our proceeds to non-profit organizations here in the Mad River Valley or Central Vermont,” said Lawson.
Today, this mission is organized under their Social Impact Program. The SIP includes six initiatives that support healthy communities, food and economic securities, natural resource protection and sustainable recreation in the Green Mountains. One of these initiatives is a “no-tipping” policy that offers a living wage and generous benefits to all employees. In lieu of tips in the taproom, Lawson’s Finest Liquids invites guests to donate to the Sunshine Fund, the heart of SIP.
“It has been wildly successful, way beyond our dreams,” Lawson said. “In the first year, we raised over $380,000. Even with COVID, donations continued with our drive-thru retail store. From October 2018 to present, we have raised over $575,000 just through the Sunshine Fund.”
In 2020, the Lawsons received the Outstanding Vermont Business award in recognition of the brewery’s employment growth, success in the marketplace, company expansion and community involvement. The award is sponsored by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Vermont Business Magazine.
As Lawson looks to the future, he said the plan is to “grow the business to thrive and not to sell.” They hope to accomplish this by optimizing capacity and continuing the use of Two Roads to produce their flagship beers and Waitsfield for specialty releases. While they continue to increase points of distribution within the Northeast, there are no new market expansions planned in the near term. In the meantime, Lawson remains modest in his attitude toward his achievements.
“A lot of people make great beer,” he told Beverage Master Magazine. “Why have I been successful compared to others? Maybe a sprinkle of magic.” That, and creating a nirvana for hopheads.
For more information on Lawson’s Finest Liquids, visit their website at www.lawsonsfinest.com