Welcome to our Happy Hour Question & Answer series, where we ask questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.
This week’s spotlight is on Bill Cherry, Founder & Brewmaster at Switchback Brewing Co. Switchback was founded in 2002 by Cherry and his longtime friend Jeff Neiblum. To maximize complexity and flavor, the beer is left unfiltered and carbonated during fermentation by the yeast itself, creating a 100% naturally conditioned beer. In 2017, Switchback officially became the first 100% employee-owned brewery in Vermont via an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), keeping the brewery locally owned and operated at its original home in Burlington, VT. Switchback beers are distributed throughout Vermont, New England plus parts of New York and Virginia.
Hops & Spirits: What drew you to craft beer/beer?
Bill Cherry: The obvious answer is that I like drinking beer quite a bit. I have a background in microbiology, so I find the beer-making process endlessly fascinating. I especially enjoy the fact that all beer making is the careful manipulation of completely natural processes that the plants (malt) and animals (yeast) want to do. Because it is nature controlling what is happening, it is a monumental task requiring great precision and attention to detail. That challenge keeps me going.
HS: When/how did the idea for Switchback Brewing come about?
BC: My good friend Jeff Neiblum had started his own electrical engineering company and was hot on the whole entrepreneur thing. He looked at my brewing education and experience and pitched doing our own brewery. I wasn’t anxious to take on the non-beer duties of a business, but after I left Boulevard Brewing to move to Vermont I was missing being in the industry. Starting Switchback gave me the opportunity to explore some beer concepts on my terms, with an ironclad commitment to quality and innovation.
HS: Why the name Switchback?
BC: After loads of bad ideas, I struck upon Switchback while thinking of a great cycling route that ends on horribly steep switchbacks over the mountain pass. Aside from liking the sound of it and the reference to mountainous terrain, it occurred to me that switchbacks were a great metaphor for my life as well as most people’s lives. Few of us get to our goal in life on a path straight up the mountain. We end up doing all sorts of things as we wind through our lives, and while we may not get there fast, we do get there. It’s a good representation of our brewery. We work hard and never stop trying to get better.
HS: How were you able to grow Switchback?
BC: Switchback is truly the people’s beer. I started with nothing but a beer and a tap handle. 100% of the growth was from word of mouth. I never knew why sales kept going up. I think drinkers responded to the fact that Switchback was so low key and clearly dedicated to nothing but the beer quality.
HS: What was it like being named, along with your business partner Jeff Neiblum, Vermont Small Business Persons of the Year?
BC: It was a huge honor and lots of fun going down to D.C. for the ceremony. Completely coincidental was that Jim Koch of Sam Adams fame was the celebrity dignitary giving out the awards that year.
HS: Why go the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) route?
BC: The ESOP is my attempt to give the brewery to the people who helped build it and understand it best. Plus, I get to keep working at what I love to do at the place I built. And how else can I stubbornly pursue my love of smoked beer even though the world doesn’t realize it wants more smoked beer…..yet. Maybe Katie’s Love Poem, our World Beer Cup Gold Medal winner will help us break through.
HS: What can folks expect when drinking a Switchback beer?
BC: Quality. We don’t make mediocre beer here. If you don’t like it, it’s because it is not the style for you, because the brewery will never release any beer that’s unworthy. Our beers have an unusual combination of complexity coupled with drinkability. This comes about from a big flavor up front with a super clean finish. With the clean finish, all that great flavor disappears and invites you to take another sip to experience heaven once again.
HS: What’s your approach to creating/crafting new beers?
BC: I spend a lot of time in my head, imagining tasting malt and hop combinations and deciding on what intensities of the flavors would be best and what flavors will complement best. Then, I work through what brewing techniques seem appropriate (dry finish, sweet finish, fuller protein profile, etc.) By the time I am done “thinking,” I can write a recipe that will be very close to what I’ve worked out in my head.
Deciding on what to brew usually starts with a broad category/style. From there, I think about what I’d like to taste in that style and what is not being represented by other beers. I am fond of breaking boundaries and utilizing ingredients or brewing techniques to bring a whole new take on the style. Switchback’s flagship Ale utilizes all of the above, combining American Craft, Belgian, and German ingredients and techniques to create a beer arguably unique in the world.
HS: How do you know when to take a beer from the taproom to distribution?
BC: That is particularly difficult, largely because most of the beers in the Tap Room are popular with our patrons just because they are enjoying the experience. There is also an interesting problem that a good portion of the visitors are traveling with a beer enthusiast, but they are not very interested in beer. So a simple, unchallenging beer may have an outsized positive reaction that is really just the least objectionable to people who don’t care for beer.
So, a combination of intuition and long-term interest for the beer in the Tap Room ends up informing us. For instance, our new hazy IPA Zaboo has become almost as popular as our flagship Ale and held that position ever since it hit the Tap Room. It gets a lot of repeat purchases, showing us that drinkers are choosing it as their drink to stick with once the sampling is done.
HS: What’s next for Switchback and you?
BC: This is the year of Zaboo. We are getting such a strong response to the beer we feel we need to keep the focus on it. That being said, we purchased our building earlier this year and are working on plans to build a full service beer garden and restaurant in the historic 1906 brick building attached to the production facility. Our customers have said loud and clear that they’d like to hang out longer, but they need something to nosh on!