Rock Art Brewery: the place is hopping

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Hard to resist Rock Art’s finest

The pungent smell of yeast and the earthy scent of hops alert your senses as soon as you cross the threshold of this Morrisville brewery.

The bar, which currently features eight beers on tap, is shaped in an “L” and is made of rich grainy wood decoratively embossed with Rock Art Brewery’s name as well as the logo, Kokopelli, the fertility deity of the Hopi.

Next to the bar is a quaint gift area featuring Rock Art swag, local artisans’ work, and seasonal ales and lagers. A second floor viewing area allows you to look down on the beer making process.

Matt Nadeau, owner of Rock Art, originally started out home brewing. After graduating from Johnson State College, Matt worked in resort management in Colorado for five years, living with his wife, Renee. After returning to the Johnson area, Matt started working at the House of Troy, a lamp company, in shipping and production management.

“I started a home brew supply store in anticipation of starting a brewery while I was working at House of Troy,” said Matt. “That allowed me to start buying things at wholesale prices so I could develop recipes, and start making contacts in the industry to purchase brewing equipment and supplies later on. I ran that for a year as just a store while I was developing things. I was still at the House of Troy, and on breaks I would make all my phone calls with the various government agencies to get the brewery set up, and that took almost a year to pull the paperwork together.”

In November 1997, Matt finally opened his brewery at his home in Johnson in a small building next to his house. His original home brewing set-up featured a gravity-feed tube down to his basement. Still working at the House of Troy during the day, Matt would brew at night and on the weekends until the brewery slowly began to consume all of his time. “I actually missed a few bank deposits [for House of Troy] and realized I couldn’t do both. I was just too tired,” he said.
After Matt turned to Rock Art fulltime, the brewery prospered in the Nadeau’s basement for four years. “It was truly back-breaking work,” said Renee, as she reminisced about the grooves left in the basement stairs from hauling up the kegs, step by step.

“It got to the point where I was working way too many hours so I said, ‘Forget it. I’m either going to move it or shut it down.’ It was way too inefficient,” said Matt. So in 2001, Rock Art moved to a location off of Brooklyn St. in Morrisville. Ten years later, they moved to their current location, off Route 100.

The brewery itself resembles an intricate maze with a network of tubes leading to and from huge, gleaming, stainless steel holding tanks which dominate the production floor. On the left side of the factory, 20,000 bottles of various brews are bottled each week, plus kegs. On the right side, stand an array of bourbon barrels which will hold Rock Art’s next specialty brew until it has fully soaked up the essence from the char-fired barrels.

Rock Art’s beer making process begins by grinding fresh barley grain. In the mash tun, fresh water is added to make the wort. From there it is boiled while hops are added to the mix. The mixture then ferments, which means the yeast eats the sugar to produce alcohol.

The beer is then left in conditioning tanks from one to four weeks before it is bottled and sent to various regional distributors ranging from Vermont to Maine to Pennsylvania.

Nothing goes to waste at this local brewery. “The grains that we have after we are done brewing, they go to a local farmer who feeds his beef cattle, and there is even Elmore Mountain Bread that makes a beautiful brewer’s bread with the Ridge Runner grains,” says Nadeau.

On tap brews regularly change. Included on any visit: Stump Jumper, Vermonster, Russian Imperial Stout, Cream Ale, IPA, Ridge Runner and Black IPA.

Each brew on tap had a distinct flavor. Vermonster has the highest alcohol content by volume, weighing in at a walloping 10 percent alcohol, which was immediately evident from the very first sip. My favorite, by far, was the Cream Ale, which had a light and homey taste.

Stump Jumper, meanwhile, nearly knocked me off of my barstool with the intense earthy aftertaste, which was complemented well by the oyster crackers the bartender provided. While IPA and Black IPA may sound similar, they tasted anything but. While the IPA featured citrus-like overtones, the Black IPA was dark in color and had a bold, unforgettable flavor.

The entire trip to Rock Art was well worth the time and effort considering the superb experience of touring the brewery, and that for only $4, not only do you get to taste test four of the eight brews on tap, but you get to keep the glass. It’s a deal you can’t beat, and the craftsmanship and pride in the small-batch brewing process comes out in every sip. “This labor of love has really taken off,” says Nadeau. “It’s what I love to do, I love to brew.”