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Remembering Greg Noonan

March 23, 2011

Bye bye Mr. Greg. I have this business card of yours and your books with your signature. I last talked with Greg in April, 2008 before I moved to Connecticut. And in 2009 Greg went too soon.

Vermont Pub and Brewery is so exquisite.

Remembering Greg Noonan

Greg Noonan Vermont Pub & Brewery burlington Vermont Greg Noonan Vermont Pub & Brewery burlington Vermont Greg Noonan Vermont Pub & Brewery burlington Vermont Greg Noonan Vermont Pub & Brewery burlington Vermont Greg Noonan Vermont Pub & Brewery burlington Vermont

On October 11, 2009, Vermont Pub & Brewery founder and our friend Greg Noonan passed away at the age of 58. Following is a fitting tribute and brief biography by writer Stan Hieronymous that appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of The Business of Beer magazine.

Greg Noonan, who introduced both information-starved homebrewers and fledgling commercial brewers to the science of brewing but who also taught a new generation of beer enthusiasts about varieties of beer they never knew existed, died in his Burlington, Vermont home early last October.

Noonan, 58, learned he had stage-four lung cancer not long before his death. Because he chose to keep the information private, the news sent shock waves through both the unprepared professional and amateur brewing communities. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) posted a tribute on its home page and warm rememberances flowed into the Brewers Association Forum from industry members. Such responses mirrored the fact that in 1997 Noonan received the American Homebrewers Association Governing Committee Recognition Award and that in 2005 the Brewers Association gave him the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Brewing.

“There are probably few brewers in the craft-brewing industry and even fewer homebrewers that haven’t read one of Greg Noonan’s books or articles on beer and brewing,” Steve Bradt of Free State Brewing Co. said in announcing the Scherer Award. “Through his writing and his work with other aspiring brewers, Greg has been a selfless contributor to the advancement of the craft and the industry for the past two decades.”

Noonan opened the Vermont Pub and Brewery along with his then wife, Nancy, in 1988 after spending three years lobbying the Vermont legislature to legalize brewpubs. Like many who would soon be commercial brewers, Noonan started out making beer as a hobby at home. He was working as a manufacturing manager for paper and wood product companies in Massachusetts when news of microbreweries opening on the West Coast helped him decide to open a brewery in Vermont.

Because there was little literature available for small-scale brewers, he literally ended up writing what was the book. He presented a manuscript to Charlie Papazian at a 1984 homebrewers conference and that became the first book from Brewers Publications, a division of Papazian’s young Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association). Brewing Lager Beer: The Most Comprehensive Book for Home- and Microbreweries was a guidebook for those opening small breweries in the 1980s and 1990s.

Noonan never intended it to be only about brewing lager beer but chose the name so as not to compete with the Big Book of Brewing by Dave Line, the only other text intended for use in small and home breweries. Noonan’s book provided details well known today but then mostly mystery, such as those related to decoction mashing or water chemistry. He thoroughly revised the book in 1996, calling it New Brewing Lager Beer. He later wrote Scotch Ale, one of the most respected books in the Brewers Publications’ style series, in 1990, and co-authored the Seven Barrel Brewers Handbook in 1996.

Noonan started two other brewpubs, and consulted on many more, but sold his interest in those to focus on the Vermont Pub and Brewery. It was only the third brewpub to open on the East Coast – initially he found ways to make use of a maple sap boiler, an ice cream maker and a pig-lot feeder in the brewery and was always known first for the quality and range of its beers.

“That first year, it was a real sell,” he said, ten years after opening the pub. “There was no built-in awareness of what a brewpub was. (Consumers) would look at you and think, ‘You are a brewery, you must make Budweiser.’ There was no style awarenss.

It turned out that 1988 was quite a year for new brewpubs. Anderson Valley Brewing Co. opened right at the end of 1987, and new brewpubs in 1988 included Vermont Pub and Brewery, Goose Island Brewing Co., Great Lakes Brewing Co., Deschutes Brewing, Wynkoop Brewing Co., and North Coast Brewing Co. Many of those pubs spawned production breweries, but Noonan knew he wanted to remain a pub brewer so he’d have the freedom to make a wide range of small batches.

When he introduced a ‘Wee Heavy’ for instance, nobody in the Northeast brewed a beer like it. Noonan constantly experimented, making a Tibetan chang beer and an ancient gruit. He smoked malt over local woods to create an award-winning porterm then decided he preferred a smoked stout. Every year, he made a maple ale that was served from the beginning of Vermont’s sugaring season until the end of “Mud Month” (April).

“He was making innovative beers in 1988, but experimenting with things other than high alcohol,” said Steve Parkes, owner of the American Brewers Guild and a former brewmaster at Otter Creek Brewing Co. “Adding his own twists with fruit and herbs.”

Noonan seemed to take equal joy in sitting in on the meeting of a Vermont homebrew club and addressing an American Brewers Guild class. “He taught a really good one on beer styles,” Parkes said. “The Brewers Association and BJCP guidelines you’ve got to have for competitions, but he crossed [over from] that and talked more about what beers have in common. He was good at bringing that back to what’s important – balance.”

More than two decades after it was published, Brewing Lager Beer remains – in its revised form; Noonan clearly acknowledged he did better the second time around – an essential reference for any brewer, if not the liveliest bit of writing. Quick to smile and almost as quick to laugh, he brought brewing to life in person.

“The industry is full of people who share what they know, but Greg really stood out,” said Parkes. “He was a humble man who really, genuinely was willing to share with anybody who asked.”

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