Podcast #1 - Mill River Brewing

Podcast #1 - Mill River Brewing

Groennfell Meadery
29 minute read

On our very first episode of the Professional Brewers' Podcast, we chat with Levon and David from Mill River Brewing in Saint Albans, VT.

Mill River is a father and son team with a 15 barrel brewhouse, a brewpub, a second restaurant, some self-distribution, some regional distributors, and a lot to teach us about balancing family and brewing.

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About the Podcast

Welcome to the Professional Brewers Podcast where we interview brewers, brewery owners, and other folks in the industry to take a deep dive into what it takes to have a successful brewing operation.

This show is for brewers of all kinds: folks considering going pro, professional brewers, people who wants to look behind the scenes of their favorite breweries, or merely the brewcurious.

Whether you’re hanging over a fifty barrel mash tun while you listen to this or you’re just starting your professional brewing journey, we hope this show helps you become a better, more profitable, happier brewer.

New episodes every Wednesday!


Hello friends! Welcome to the Professional Brewers Podcast hosted by Groennfell Meadery and me, Ricky the Meadmaker. This show is for brewers of all kinds. If you're just looking to get into brewing, you're already a professional brewer, you want to get behind the scenes at your favorite brewery, or you're just brewcurious, this is the show for you.

On this week's show, our very first episode, we talk to Levon and David from Mill River Brewing in St. Albans, Vermont. They are a father-son team that has a brew pub model that also has distro. There's a lot in this episode about how to navigate that space of  brewing with your family, the little hiccups of starting a brewery, keeping a brewery going,

and I was lucky enough to catch up with them one day before their sixth anniversary. 

So without further ado, let's get to David and Levon.

Levon and David from Mill River Brewing, thank you so much for being here for the very first episode of our podcast. I picked you guys specifically to join me because your brewing story, especially with a younger and older perspective, someone coming into brewing slightly later, slightly earlier than is normal, the brew pub model, the distro model, you guys have it all.

So welcome to the podcast. Introduce yourselves and tell me just a little bit about who you are, where the brewery is, and what kind of volume you're doing. And also if one of you could talk a little bit about choosing to have a mixed distribution and brew pub model, that would be great.

I'll introduce myself first. I'm Levon Fitzgerald, part of the family organization [Mill River Brewing] that runs the whole show. I'm the head brewer on top of many other things. I also do cellaring and keg cleaning and everything. I've been in commercial brewing for five years now. And yeah, about me, I live in St. Almond. We grew up in Franklin County. I have two kids, a wife, a dog, and I like to drink beer, make beer.

And amazing parents.


So on that note, I'm David Fitzgerald, Levon's father. I'm going to talk about my brewing background. I started with extract brewing with my brother because, well, it was easy. Really to get the fundamentals down, both of understanding the chemical process as well as understanding the cleaning and what it takes. And I'll talk a little bit about my other background to help with the cleaning process later.

Then probably three years into brewing, two years, three years into brewing, we decided to take an all grains classes. We started messing around with recipes from extract brewing, and we were doing a little bit of all grain on our own, but really felt like getting a really, I hate to call it a formal education in the process of all grain brewing. We took one at the beer shop in Waterbury. It was like a six hour course. And pretty cool. It definitely built on the foundation that we had already built with extract brewing. And it really led us to some cool recipes that we've developed. And believe it or not, some of the recipes that we were using then made its way into the commercial side of brewing.

And so yeah, then a couple years after doing all grain brewing, we had this sort of calendar, if you will, where my brother had every Monday off. And so once or twice a month, depending on what our schedules could fit, we would brew. And probably about six months, eight months into doing that, that's when barbecue is really starting to become popular again, if you will, outside of the South. And I started falling in love with barbecue and smoking meats.

And so we would combine those days and sort of make a family friends day where people would join in the afternoon, late afternoon, where we would celebrate with beers that we had previously made,as well as enjoy some smoked meat and products. And we're a pretty tight family, but doesn't mean we're necessarily smart. It took us a little while to figure out that we actually had a working business model. And then from that, sort of the idea of owning a brew pub started, which tomorrow at six years, Mill River Brewing and Barbecue and Smokehouse has been in business.

Well, congratulations and happy birthday to Mill River Brewing!

I now have to wonder how many people, so for me, it was cheese making, beer brewing, and then it was beer brewing, smoking meats. I have, as I once told someone, if you asked me how many smokers I have, and I told you that number, you would not say that's a reasonable number for one man to own. But yeah, so you guys really fused it up in a way that I used to when I had the restaurant, but what was starting a combined restaurant, and you're a full on restaurant. 

Yep. Yep. 

So it's not even just like a normal brew pub, where a lot of places in the States, people will get a hot dog, a bag of chips. You guys are a full restaurant, wait staff, professional chef working behind the counter.

What was that like building out that process? And also, David, I don't want to lose, you have the most important skill as a professional brewer. You do need to tell people what your other profession is. You do. 

And so one of the reasons why going into beer making was, one of the things I think is one of the highest qualities of making beer is understanding the cleaning process and being really, really consistent about cleaning and steps you take. And so I work at Ben and Jerry's in there. So many similarities between ice cream making and beer making, certainly through the CIP process and cleaning process, that it was a seamless transition in that regards to making beer. Regardless, if it was at the home brewing level or commercial level, that consistency and the details around cleaning are super important.

So thanks for the segue into that. There's other things that we took from Ben and Jerry's too. So some of the values that we have as an organization really stem from my growing up through Ben and Jerry's and seeing the impact it has in local communities. So having social events is really super important to us and certain organizations that aim at clean water or taking care of people, that's really important to us. Before I forget, friends in the Lake Champlain and Spectrum, two that come to mind, we really try to support them.

Yeah. And one of the things that I love to say when I have a new intern coming in is it seems glamorous, you get to drink for a living, 90% of what we do is glorified janitorial work.

The day I got to hang that shingle outside and say professional brewer was a day that I mopped 3,000 square feet by myself.

We have a really, really close friend, Terry Thompson, as well as he's a close friend of yours too. Yeah, he's a stainless steel janitor or a squeegee artist.

Oh, yeah. No, cleaning the outside of tanks is something that I think so many people forget about is part of the process because we focus so much on the inside of the tank and making sure that's all clean, sanitized, but watching for spores in the air, it's just surface cleaning all the time. So you have the full restaurant and the brew house and a second restaurant space now?

Is that right? 

Well, people didn't think we were crazy enough to have just one, so we felt like we need to really put out there that we are full on crazy. And so we opened a wood-fired pizza restaurant last November. So it's directly adjacent to the brew house and the barbecue location.

Actually, where we're hosting this podcast, certainly on Levon's and my side, is we're sitting outside underneath some sales and enjoying a beautiful day.

Beautiful beer. So it's a big jump to GoPro, even with cleaning background, brewing background.I want to talk about in general what helped you make that decision, but also my children were born after the brewery started. But if you've ever gotten meat from us and it's got a, you must be 21 or older sticker, it's a good chance my five-year-old stuck that on the box.

You find ways of working your kids into the business, but what was it like to go, this is what I want to do. I'm going to go into one of the most competitive industries and do it as a family. I know family is super important to you guys. It's super important to us as well. But what was that like? What was that decision like? And also, I'm going to ask it later, so you might as well answer it now. What is it like working as a parent-child team?

It's all right. I mean, I'm here every day running the day-to-day operations. So, I mean, obviously we still hang out and still talk and we still have family dinner nights on Monday, but we don't, we aren't around each other 24-7. So, I think it's a good balance. Yes, we butt heads. So does everybody else that is a son and a father and a boss and an employee and a co-owner and everything. So, to your point, going to go back to family is super important to us. If we lose sight of that, then it becomes a problem. But I think that there's a certain level of trust, a certain level of understanding, a certain level of give up control a little bit.

I'm certainly speaking from experience with Levon and I specifically, because I was bouncing between the restaurant and the brewery and it took a lot of trust for me to leave on and then certainly letting up some control. It sounds really nice now, but going through it was a little tough. 

I mean, I think I've said this for a long time, reflection is probably one of the most powerful tools we have for change. It took me a long time to get to know the people. It took me a second or two to realize that if we just step out of our own way at times, life can become a little bit easier. Since that recognition between Levon and I and me going, yeah, you've got this, life has become a lot better for us. 

What you're saying is you don't even need me. Yeah, which is absolutely true. I think it's a compliment to the level of commitment Levon has and other people that come in and help us. Still Terry comes in and helps us once in a while and you have Jake and Murray and the whole host of people that just swing in and just give us a hand too.

I would say it was tough at first, Ricky, and I hope you go through this because having family around is priceless. There's times when you don't even need to communicate, things can happen and based on your familiarity with each other. Yeah, it's been super rewarding and I don't know if I could have scripted it any better.

That is so wonderful. I'm married to my CEO, so I totally, totally understand that sometimes you just will look at one another and go, you know what, that question I was going to ask you that was super pressing, burning in my mind, the world was going to catch on fire if I didn't ask you. I'm just not going to ask it right now. Now is not the time. I think that's something that a lot of people lose is so many people in this world work in really disconnected jobs. They're not shoulder to shoulder on a canning line.

It's an ability to have both those layers of communication where you go, actually, I know you don't want to talk about it, but we need to right now.

Yeah, for sure. That's amazing and that's been my own experience. When people ask what it's like working with my spouse, part of it's like working with any other really competent CEO.

When we're at work, often she just gives me my marching orders, but there's also that many of my staff members, I've been there at their children's first birthday party. I've watched their kids when they need to go out for some reason. I feel like out in rural communities, it eventually all becomes family, whether blood or not.

Yeah, we give each other a hug every time I see each other, Ricky.

That's true. You give great hugs, David.

So much. I appreciate that. I think, though, there's a learning that we have to go through and I'll admit six years in, Joyce and I still struggled to go on a vacation and not talk about work. That was actually going to be one of my next questions is you've got a full-time job outside of this. Levon is full-time in the brew house. You're with your family. You have your family dinners.

Obviously, Kelly and I struggle with this, but before we get into the nuts and bolts, nitty gritty, nerdy details of your brewing operation and all of that, the last thing I want to touch on in that space is how do the two of you hang out on a Monday night and not talk about the brew house?

Drink Jameson.

I was thinking the same thing. Also, I know you guys are kind of joking, but not drinking your own product when you're off work. Like full disclosure, guys, I have Mill River beer in my fridge right now next to my mead. When Kelly and I are doing mead business, we drink mead. When we're off, we drink Mill River 14 Star and Scotch. What's that like other than just switching your drinks?

I think we don't avoid talking about the brew together. We try not to loop. We try to do it without Joyce knowing we're talking and not necessarily hiding it, but we don't want to impede them and the goal of ours to spend a night with family. But there's sometimes, we have two or three topics we want to quickly discuss, just become aligned.

Because honestly, unless we're forced to sit down to talk together, I'd say it's forced, but we don't have a lot of time necessarily to do that for a whole host of reasons. It's not that we don't want to, it just doesn't happen. Those Monday nights that I cherish so much with two beautiful granddaughters and beautiful daughter-in-law, obviously a beautiful son, and my beautiful wife.

Unfortunately, there have been times we've had to postpone those, and it breaks my heart. I usually have to swing in another night just to see the grandkids. Going back to the family is definitely my number one priority. I think that's the reason a lot of people listening to this podcast are thinking about it is they don't want to work for someone else or they want to start a brewery. They want to be a pro-bro where there's a lot of flexibility in that space, but you're always on.

Having also run a restaurant myself, there's at least the hard start and stop of the cooking day. I also did a lot of smoked meats, so my day was very long. Are you guys seven days a week at the restaurants now?

No, both are five days a week. Okay, so they'll be still work seven days. Yeah, so with that logistically managing that space, setting that aside, a lot of people listening to this, they're focused on the brewing.

I could talk about running a restaurant all day, but that's not what this podcast is about. Nuts and bolts, tell me about your brew house. What are you using? Tell me about your fermenters, your kettle. What volume could you do? What volume are you doing? What are your targets there?

We have a seven-barrel brew house with six 15-barrel fermenters and five 15-barrel bright tanks. We also have a one-barrel pilot system with one two-barrel unit tank that we use for, hopefully in the next year or so, we'll add a second one, second two-barrel unit tank because it comes in very handy. Almost all brew days are double batch days unless it's a sour or a goza or something like that because it's almost physically impossible for us to double batch that because it takes four days for one batch.

What's your mix of lagers? One of my favorite beers from you guys is a lager, but my actual favorite is an ale. What's your mix of lagers, sours, ales through your system these days?

This time of year, right now, we've got a ton of lagers going out between our Hello My Name is Beer and then we do a Hello My Name is Beer infused with jalapeno lime. We're getting ready to start making Oktoberfest in two weeks. We're making a German Pilsner and we've got a Smoked-Hellis and what else? Best beer for our Oktoberfest.

So yeah, there's quite a few lagers being produced right now, but typically it's probably almost 50-50 blend between lagers and ales. Usually, I use basically three of the six fermenters for lagers and then the other three for ales, whether it's a sour or a red ale, stout, or whatever in that case.

And for such a small brew house, because your footprint is about 48 by 22. Yeah, so the size of a normal garage and you guys got a lot of beer moving through that space. So for those listening in, don't let space be a limiting factor. It is amazing how much beer you guys get through that space. I want to know what it's like to do sours in such a tight space. What does your sanitization look like between a sour and whatever's coming next?

Sours aren't too bad. So we use yogurt instead of using a bacteria strain. It takes 24 to 48 hours longer to kettle sour, so we do mostly kettle sours. It ties up the kettle, so that's why it takes four days. Got it. So for those who don't know, can you talk a little bit about a kettle sour versus a batch or there are a lot of other terms for it, for a, some people call them true sour. Can you talk about the difference?

Our most popular is we have a sipping something sour, rotating, fruited, goza series. And yeah, it's basically, usually I do it on a Friday. It'll be mashing, mashing, cool down to 110 degrees, bring it up to 190 degrees just to pasteurize any bacteria that could be in the brain or anything. Bring it down to 110 degrees and then pitch the yogurt and seal the kettle up, put some CO2 in there, let it sit over the weekend. And then Monday morning, I come in usually between six and seven and start heating it up to a boil and then boil for, we boil for an hour. Some people boil for 15 minutes, some people boil for half an hour. We boil for an hour. And then add our hops, add our salt to make it a true goza. And then we add fruit within a few days, depending on the fermentation, but usually within two to three days, we'll add the fruit just to get it at its peak. Just to make sure if there's any residual sugar in the fruit, depending on the fruit, some are pasteurized and shouldn't have any sugar left, but some are, I should say. So depending on the fermentation curve, we'll add in within two or three days versus other sours where they can be barrel-aged. You don't sour in the kettle, you can sour in a barrel or sour in another one.

Not it. Yeah. So that's tough. I know a lot of larger breweries, they have a separate vessel, they'll pump over and just let it sit. It's not truly in their kettle and bring it back. But having the weekend off is a perfect way to do a kettle sour. I frankly, admittedly had never thought of it doing it that way. It always just tied up my equipment longer than it should have. How often are you doing those sours?

Right now, usually about every two months or so.

We'll come out with a new batch. We've done nine or 10 different flavored ones in the last couple of years and always trying new fruits and new recipes. Fruit is really important to people looking for sours. That's what we've seen. We've seen some pretty popular fall ones, pretty popular summer ones. We've got a watermelon going right now. That's a fantastic beer.

It is a fantastic beer. I will speak to that as a non-interested party.

Yeah, I hadn't thought of the fact. We have done straight sours a couple of times, just so just honey, water, and then let it sour. We also use wild yeast in all of what we do. But when we pick something as a sour, we just make sure that there was fruit as part of that fermentation. I think it matches people's mindset that cranberries are supposed to be sour and it doesn't have that off-putting initial reaction. Yeah, absolutely.

Yeah, and we've tried to do that a few times. That's how we opened up with actually the cranberry tangerine was our very first in the Sippling Series. We didn't know it was going to be a Sippling Series. It drew so much success. We turned it into a series. It's been a good one for us for sure, for the brand.

So with your mix, ignoring the restaurant income off the food, what's your mix between Brewpub and your new restaurant and those two versus distribution? You're self-distributing, right?

We distribute ourselves in three of the counties in Vermont and then a company out of Bayer and Vermont and then a company out of Barry, Calamont does the rest of the state for us.

Okay, so between the distro, whether you do it or it's done by those guys, and Brewpub, what's your volume moving? Liquid volume, not money.

Yeah, so we probably brew 30 barrels a week on average and about six of those stay in-house, so about a third. Okay, sorry, I was trying to do my math quickly. So about a fifth stays in-house. Certainly, that's seasonal as well.

Right, and both of your locations have great outside spaces and we're in Vermont, not Florida, so that's a very limited feature.

So with that, someone coming into the industry, I know you make literally five to 10 times more if you pour the pint yourself, but if I'm hearing that 80% of your volume is moving through distribution, how would you advise someone to consider those really high value versus your higher volume?

I mean, I think that you got to throw the business hat on and look at what are the margins you're going to make and for us, we think about in a glass, in a can in-house, in a can in our own distribution, and then in our can in a can, not in our distribution.

Okay. In kegs right. So certainly, we prioritize everything in that order as well. So we really look at serving in-house first, whether it's in a glass or a can, and then the rest goes out to distribution, which as you said, it's 80%.

It's always a numbers game, and so a lot of things come into play with that.

And so as much as we can control even our own distribution, we try to control that because basically it's a set price regardless. So you got to pay the labor for a salesperson. There are some fixed costs there that we've taken into consideration to try to at least net zero that. It's kind of a game. It's seasonal as well, right? So to that point, as much as we can push our own places, and June through September we do, and then the rest goes to distribution.

I would say we have a good tip with our distributor who understands our limitations and they're willing to work with us and understand what we're trying to give them and keep them satisfied. So it's a little bit of a game. I'd say a little bit of a game. It's a little bit of strategy, I should say. And that strategy is about looking at that margin and making sure that we're being good to the business, right? Good back to the business.

That's fantastic. So I've got two big questions and I'm going to call on you.

Yeah. I'm going to go leave on first, then David on the first question.

What do you wish you had known before you got into this, starting Mill River Brewing and the restaurants, etc.?

Good question. I wish I would have had a little more formal education starting, other than just home brewing and then trial and error and learning from the previous brewer. It was a lot of trial and error when I first started and there were some long days and some frustrations. And I mean, after I think it's been about five years now, just kind of taking a step back sometimes and looking at processes and seeing, okay, how can I improve this or what can we change on our equipment that can improve the function or the efficiency is huge. So I wish when I started that I had a little more knowledge of commercial brewing equipment and just a little bit of everything because I kind of, not going to say I was thrown into it, but I kind of jumped in head first and it was a huge change from home brewing to commercial brewing. A lot more automation, but you have to use some of that automation to your advantage.

David, what do you wish you would know? Oh, sugar. I think that there's, you rely on certain inputs to make decisions going into kind of what I'm going to call an unknown.

And I guess I wish I had a little more experience in that.

It really was all about the whole building and understanding the impact of the restaurant.

There were certain, just for anybody who started a business and dealt with banks and the SBA, you name it, there's a lot of numbers crunching and a lot of what they look for validation and what you're proposing. And I just feel like the validation we had wasn't as valid as the bank thought it was, to be honest. So I wish we would have second guessed and really would have gone into this more with better information, which really threw us for a loop for a while. And hence the reason why I'm still working at Ben & Jerry's. Part of it's having the benefits and there's a, but it's also, again, I think we're six years into it. We're maybe just realizing some of the values that were put out in front of us by so-called subject matter experts. And so, yeah, I would have just questioned some of the information we've been given to make decisions and no regrets. Fully love what we're doing and love who we're doing it with and love the way the community has an open arms for Mill River. And that's a perfect segue to the final question, which is what resources would you recommend to someone getting into the business who wants to get in the business, who wants to consider getting into the business? I'm gonna start with David this time because that's basically what he was just talking about.

Yeah, so I think it's sort of, it was a very good segue to question any, so if you're looking at P&L, projected P&Ls, talk to people who are actually doing it and try to get in.

And that's tough. We tried to, and people don't have the time. So we really tried to dig into using our contacts to get information. And some people don't want to share their P&L information. And even if it's like, give us a whack at it. I think it's necessary though, to try to find as many resources on the resources standpoint as possible. The SBA is great. That's another wealth of knowledge. But I would even question that, not question it, but get a second opinion. Just have a like eyes wide open view of opening either a brewery or a restaurant, or in this case, a brewpub. Everyone coming into this industry can't have their eyes wide open because there are stars in their eyes. I had them too. I would have never started if I had had all those resources telling me that it would fail. But here we still are. But I completely agree. People who can look at you and say, no, three times, not going to work, not going to work, not going to work. And having that kind of pressure early on, you can stand up to it. It just gets exhausting over time. Levon, your turn.

Yeah, I was just thinking about a conversation I had probably about two years ago with a younger, I mean, I'm 32 years old, he was probably 21 or 22. And he goes, you guys make a lot of beer, you guys must make a ton of money. And I'm like, yeah, I mean, we make money. But at the same time, he's like, well, you're selling your four packs for like $12.99, $13.99, $14.99, whatever the price may be, and this and that. And I started to break down some of the costs for him. He's like, oh, wow, there's a lot, a lot that goes into that. I'm like, yeah. So on that note, yeah, it's a balance. You've got to know where to save money. You've got to know where to spend money. Sometimes it's like my father said, it's good to have multiple opinions and weigh all options before jumping in. I don't know if I answered that fully or not.

That was perfect. You're never going to know anything or everything. But there's a way to strike a balance between jumping and just standing because I've talked to a number of people over the years who were like, I wish I had just blank. You know, I wish I had just when I was 28 and I had all the energy, I wish I had just opened that machine shop. All I really want to do is fix cars. And I know a lot of auto mechanics who own their own shops. They're like, what in the name of the gods was I thinking I should have just stuck with my job installing carburetors? There's no correct answer there. And it sounds like the two of you have a really good philosophical position on this is where we are now.

Yeah. And I think that goal's continue to grow the brand and grow the organization because we feel like there's actually, you know, we go back, I think there's a link to helping the community more.

So, you know, if there's one thing that sort of warms my heart, other than family, it's really, you know, helping nonprofits really do some good things in the community. You know, I don't think we're experts on what we need to fix in our area, but there are people that have a good handle on what they can do. So if we can support them, you know, through funds, whether it's beer or food, you know, we certainly have been doing that. 

And I think that is a perfect note to end on. That is why I wanted to start with talking with you, too, your focus on your business. You are so knowledgeable about the numbers, the volumes, all of that stuff. But also for me personally, I am so installed in my little local community. And most people that start a brewery, that's what they're going to rely on.

So thank you both so much for your time. And I can't wait to give you guys a hug when I see you at the farmers market tomorrow. We will see you tomorrow. Thank you guys. Yep. Cheers.

Thank you again to David and Levon from Mill River Brewing.

And congratulations, to Mill River Brewing, on six years in business. That's a pretty big deal. If you enjoyed this episode, please head over to professionalbrewers.com for more amazing content to help you on your professional brewing journey. And for exclusive content, as well as the opportunity to ask questions of upcoming guests, please consider supporting us at patreon.com/professionalbrewerspodcast. Your support makes this show possible. Thanks for listening, everyone!

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