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Switchback Brewing Company: Smokin’ In The Brewhouse

Some of the biggest hits of this year’s SAVOR were beers from the “Flynn on Fire” series from Vermont’s Switchback Brewing Company. If you were in attendance, you might have seen Bill Cherry, Brewery Founder/Brewmaster or Amy Lieblein, Marketing & Events at Switchback. They were kind enough to answer our 10 questions, here’s our lightly edited interview.

Bill Cherry, Founder and Brewmaster at Switchback Brewing Company in Burlington, Vermont
Bill Cherry, Founder and Brewmaster at Switchback Brewing Company in Burlington, Vermont

How was your 2019 SAVOR experience?

SBC: Fantastic! The event itself was wonderful and we got to network with some great brewers during and after the event. The attendees were interested in beer and learning about our methods and inspirations, so it was a delight to interact in that atmosphere. And the reception to our Flynn on Fire smoked beers was way beyond our wildest dreams. The look of mysterious pleasure on people’s faces when they took that first sip was so gratifying. The fact that so many people drinking their first smoked beer ever immediately asked to try the other flavors we had was a testament to how much they had enjoyed it.

Did you get to try any local/local-ish beers while in the DC metro area?

SBC: We did a little pre-gaming before the event and got to try beers from a few of the local beers. DC Brau’s The Corruption IPA gave an appropriate hop fix and Atlas’ Blood Orange Gose was perfect for us Vermonters trying to adjust to the hot D.C. climate.

Tell us about your brewery. How big are you and what is your ethos/guiding principles?

SBC: We are a brewer-driven brewery. Founded by a brewmaster first/business-owner second, we have a legacy of obsessing about quality and brewing beers that we ourselves love. All business decisions depend upon the impact on our beer quality and our employees’ lives, with our #1 goal being to never compromise when it comes to these two principals. Currently, we are available in all of New England and parts of New York. Despite requests from all over the country, we’re remaining focused on the East Coast for now. Never say never though, who knows what will happen in the future!

What malts are you using to get that smokey character into the beer?

SBC: We use Weyermann smoked malts in our Flynn on Fire series. The beechwood smoked barley malt is in all the beers. Our Bisou smoked saison also has oak smoked wheat malt which lends a delicate touch to the effervescent saison. Fun fact: the oak smoked wheat malt is made for the Polish brewers to make Grodziskie, their traditional smoked wheat beer. This is a good example of how we approach our Flynn on Fire smoked beer series – the untraditional application of traditional ingredients. So very American of us!

If I’m trying to convince breweries to make rauchbier, how do I do that (because nobody in DC wants to make them)?

SBC: Our job is to demonstrate that smoke is a legitimate flavor component that can enhance a beer’s character and add to its complexity. It doesn’t have to be the single defining characteristic of a beer. In fact, we are proving that appropriate smokiness can give a beer that mysterious extra “something” that makes it truly satisfying. Once a brewer starts treating the smoked character as another tool in their toolbox of ingredients a whole new world opens up. Another great case for adding smoked beers to a portfolio is how well they pair with food. As you can imagine SAVOR was the perfect venue to show that off.

Nobody buys smoked beer, so why do a whole series of them?

SBC: All revolutions start with the irrational belief that everyone will follow once they are shown the righteous way! We don’t think making one great smoked beer is enough to demonstrate where we think the flavors can go. At nine smoked beers to date, each one seriously different from the next (not to mention delicious), it draws beer-lovers and brewers alike to the conclusion that smoked beer has unlimited potential.

Corollary: what’s the reception to these beers like in Burlington and Vermont?

SBC: The revolution is growing! It is appropriate to say “nobody buys smoked beer”, but as we proselytize our devotion to smoked beer more and more drinkers are coming into the fold. We see it in our tap room at the brewery as visitors now arrive expecting to experience smoked beers, and our regulars go to mugs of Flynn on Fire beers more and more. Our sales keep inching upwards as people realize that beers like Gates of Helles, a light smoked helles, is the perfect beer for sitting on the patio on a hot summer day, or that Blackstrap just wants to help you enjoy a pulled pork sandwich. Most importantly, we are seeing folks finding that they are starting to feel like “something is missing” when they drink ordinary beer.

The obvious pairing is meat and barbeque in particular. Any wild and crazy pairings that unexpectedly work?

SBC: Our French-Style Saison, called Bisou, will transport you to a farmhouse in the French countryside if you pair it with a wonderful rustic goat cheese like Lazy Lady Farm. It’s the funk from the Saison getting it on with the goat funk, creating an explosion of umami.

Have you all figured out a way to measure the amount of smoke in a beer, something that you could take to discerning customers similar to IBU and pH?

SBC: We created the “Smoke-Ometer”™ to give customers an idea of how much smoke they are getting into. It is based on the percentage of the grist the smoked malt represents. Our current lineup ranges from 25% in Gates of Helles to 76% in S.O.S our Smoked Oyster Stout. All of our labels show the Smoke-Ometer ratings.

What would you like the greater readership to know about you and your brewery? Any final comments or concerns you think need addressing?

SBC: We love beer! More importantly, we love brewing our unique style of beers for all types of drinkers to enjoy – from aficionado to newbie. Our focus is on our beer, our employees, and our community. Switchback is proudly 100% employee-owned and operated and our company culture motivates and rewards dedication, efficiency, and hard work. In addition, we’re committed to giving back as volunteers and fundraisers to our home state of Vermont, which has given so much to us.

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