The beer-loving cofounders of Vermont's Hermit Thrush brewery share their 5-step strategy for turning a hobby into a $1.5 million business

  • Christophe Gagne and Avery Schwenk’s brewery Hermit Thrush exclusively makes sour beers.
  • Its 21 taps and canned beers, on sale in nine states and D.C., brought in $1.5 million in revenue last year. 
  • Here’s the kicker: they launched the business in just six months.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A lot can happen during a 13-hour drive: Some people devour audiobooks, others play games, and entrepreneurs like Christophe Gagne and Avery Schwenk hatch plans to turn their home-brewing hobby into a business. 

Gagne and Schwenk are the cofounders of Hermit Thrush, a Brattleboro, Vermont-based brewery that exclusively makes sour beers. In 2013, the duo were living in Philadelphia and eager to leave the city, so they’d take long trips to Vermont looking for jobs as a social worker and paramedic, respectively. 

They shared a love of sampling beer and experimenting with home brewing, so when Gagne posed that they abandon their job hunt and turn their pastime into a profit, it seemed like a perfect fit. Hermit Thrush launched just six months later, in 2014.

Today the brewery has 21 taps and its canned varieties are sold in 9 states, plus DC. The brewery’s most popular concoction, Party Jam, is a collection of fruit-forward sours that typically sells for $12.99 on the company’s website. What’s more, Hermit Thrush booked $1.5 million in revenue last year, according to documents viewed by Insider. 

Here’s how Gagne and Schwenk built their business in six months, including choosing sustainable options over industry-standards and educating customers who’re on the hunt for something similar to Bud Light.

First, find a location that will welcome new breweries — and new small businesses

When Gagne and Schwenk searched for possible brewery locations, they sought a town near farmlands, with a downtown setting, and a beer culture. They were already set on launching in Vermont, but finding a specific home required a state-wide tour. 

In Brattleboro, which is about 100 miles northwest of Boston, the brewers found a local hop farmer. This was one of the nonnegotiable factors they’d agreed on for their brand: Use a local supplier establishes a terroir  — a term used in the alcoholic beverage world to describe the natural or environmental factors that impact flavor — and supports the community. 

“Establishing a sense of place and taste of place is becoming more a thing in beer,” Schwenk said. Working with a nearby farmer “helps make our beer unique and keeps the money in the local economy.” 

What’s more, Brattleboro has an enthusiastic community of small business owners, said Schwenk, adding that hugs were exchanged after their meeting with the Chamber of Commerce. 

While a chunk of Vermont’s population lives in Burlington, the city houses nearly 20 breweries, which was too much competition for Hermit Thrush. Brattleboro was less saturated with breweries and had a downtown area, which encouraged customers to walk up to the brewery.

Get your gear together, and find a place that can handle it

Brewing beers requires more than a passion for hops. For starters, Gagne and Schwenk needed to find a property with heavy floors to support their substantial equipment and large tanks of water. 

Next, the pair wanted to build a system that was as sustainable as possible and didn’t rely on fossil fuels. One of their “innovations of pride and joy” is using wood pellet fire boilers to brew beer, instead of oil or propane, the duo said. Additionally, they installed a more efficient system for collecting steam that comes off the kettles. 

The pair knew they wanted to make barrel-aged beer, so they bought used oak barrels from the California wine industry. They also needed stainless steel fermenters, pallet jacks, pumps, kegs, and machines to clean their tanks, among other items.  

Dive into the bureaucracy of beer 

Entrepreneurs interested in opening a brewery must familiarize themselves with the various license and permit requirements, which can depend on your location. For Gagne and Schwenk, they needed licenses from the town, state, and federal government — also known as a brewer’s notice — to open their brewery. 

They also needed a manufacturing, tasting room, and retail licenses along with permits for wastewater, sewer, and water allocations, fire and occupancy, health and safety, and construction. 

Unfortunately, brewery founders will find licensing is an ongoing process, said Schwenk. “If you’re not getting a new license, you’re renewing a license.” 

Road trips are the key to scaling 

While the pair wanted to live in a rural community and have access to local yeast and hops, they also needed urban customers and visibility in bustling markets. They worked slowly to scale outside of Vermont, focusing first on the New England area then working their way down the coast. 

The duo drove across state lines to talk with bar owners and retail beer buyers. They also hosted tastings and participated in beer festivals to increase awareness about their brand. 

As of now, Hermit Thrush sells in nine states and DC. “It introduces who you are as people, as a brand, and as a culture,” Gagne said. 

Create a plan for educating customers 

Sour beers are rising in popularity, but when Gagne and Schwenk launched Hermit Thrush, many people weren’t familiar with the beverage. “We had a lot of people showing up and asking, ‘what do you have that’s like Bud Light,” Schwenk said. 

The cofounders knew their beer would take additional explanations and factored that into their property decision: They wanted a retail location where customers could walk in, ask questions, and have a conversation about flavors. 

“We’ve consumed a lot of beer in our lives and are able to talk about beer intellectually,” Gagne said. “We can ask people what they like and find them something from our catalog.”

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