Entrepreneurs raise a glass in tough economic times

by Rob Roper

Everyone knows the Trapp Family as the singers made famous by the Broadway play and movie, The Sound of Music. Most everyone knows the Trapps are behind one of Vermont’s most iconic tourist destinations, the Trapp Family Lodge, in Stowe. But that’s not enough for the entrepreneurial youngest son (at 72) of Maria Von Trapp, Johannes Von Trapp. He’s got his eye set on a new business for the family – beer.

When the economy went south, Von Trapp described his own business situation, “Occupancy in the hotel was a little lower than I would have liked to see. Our real estate was not selling, like all of the real estate. Everybody was getting depressed, including me, so I said we’ve got to do something here to have a new revenue stream, but also, something, more importantly, to cheer us up.”

That something was to start a brewery. Von Trapp had done an analysis of the water quality of one of the springs on the Lodge property several years back and learned that it was perfect for producing lager beer. It was a bit of information he tucked away until three years ago when he brought in brew master Allen Van Anda, a graduate of Johnson State College, to turn the potential into a reality.

Von Trapp is not alone. Over the past twenty-five years craft beers, microbreweries, and brewpubs have become a staple of the Vermont Brand as well as a well as a vibrant and creative part of our economy. Vermont’s twenty-one craft breweries give us the highest number per capita in the country, and the quality of the product has earned an international reputation. In 2006, Burlington, Vermont, was named the 4th best city in the world for beer lovers, behind Amsterdam, Berlin, and Brugge.

What allowed this dynamic to flourish had much to do with a state government policy of getting out of the way an unleashing the creativity of entrepreneurs like Von Trapp and Van Anda.

Allen Van Anda describes the journey he took to get where he wanted to be with, according to him, the best job in the world. “I went to my local brewery when I was in high school down in New Jersey and said, I’ll work for free. What have you got for me? Everyone thought I was a little crazy, but they were kind enough to give me an opportunity…. I moved up to Vermont to go to Johnson State College, and continued to work in local breweries here, and watched the Vermont brewing landscape change and grow and become healthier and more vibrant year by year.”

Van Anda credits the genesis of this vibrancy to the work of Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub & Brewery who, back in the 80’s worked hard to change Vermont laws so that brewpubs, defined as a pub or restaurant that brews beer on the premises, could be legal in the first place. At the time, they weren’t.

Von Trapp faced his own challenge with the legislature regarding the definition of “premises.” He described the situation, “The whole beer production/distribution/consumption system is what’s called a three tier system. With the exception of ‘on-premises,’ you have to sell the beer to a distributor, he has to sell it to the retailer or consumer, and no one of those entities is allowed to control another of those entities. Now, [my problem] boiled down to the definition of premises. I felt that since the brewery was on the acreage [of the Lodge], we should be able to serve the beer in the hotel… The liquor control board did not define ‘premises’ that way, so we needed a legislative solution. [Stowe State Representative] Heidi Scheuermann was wonderful in getting this resolved.”

If it had not been changed, the law would have meant that the one place in Vermont Von Trapp could not sell his beer was in his own hotel.

Since its debut in 2010, Trapp Family Lager has expanded throughout the state and can now be found in over seventy-five locations from Brattleboro to St. Albans. The brewery produces three varieties of beer plus a seasonal lager. Still, Von Trapp has his eyes set on larger goals. “My plan is to build a new brewery that is large and efficient, and has a restaurant component able to produce enough product to distribute regionally. We’re having trouble keeping up with the demand now.”

One of the products Trapp Family Brewery would like to create down the road is lager beer brewed from organically grown Vermont barley and hops. “I think that would be a niche that would be hard to equal,” said Von Trapp. “My understanding is that the University [of Vermont] is conducting research on the best varieties of hops to grow in Vermont so that the agricultural community can develop another product here.”

Asked about the entrepreneurial spark that keeps him striving for new heights, Von Trapp shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know. I agree with the fellow who said that happiness is having something to look forward to, so it’s really great to look forward to a new product and making people happy with it, creating employment, and, hopefully, at the end of the day, having a few more cents than you started with. And, it’s fun!”

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Trapp Family Lager is now the official beer of the Stowe Rotary Oktoberfest, which is taking place this weekend (Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, Sept 23-25) at the Jackson Arena in Stowe. Learn more at www.stoweoktoberfest.com.

One thought on “Entrepreneurs raise a glass in tough economic times

  1. Great article, and a great beer! Like our cheese and our ice cream, good beers help further the Vermont brand and appeal to tourists and locals alike. Congrats to the Trapps!

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