From a distance, Foam Brewers in Burlington, Vermont, checks the requisite boxes for a young, hype-generating brewery—sticker-labeled 16-ounce cans, a destination taproom in New England, massive buzz around its rare out-of-state beer drops, and an Instagram following more than 72,000 strong. Yet Foam Brewers has an old soul that belies its five-year history.
Its ethos harkens to the earliest motivations of the craft-beer movement: stylistic experimentation, support for local farmers and artists, pursuit of quality, and a commitment to running a small business the right way. Its founders are fine with the idea of Foam’s popularity, so long as that popularity is tied to the quality of beer.
“It’s great to be liked,” says Jonathan Farmer, Foam’s creative director. “At the same time, we’ve always tried to stay true to the tenets of what we started Foam on. Everyone evolves over time, but we try to make sure that we’re not being pulled in one direction just because that’s where [trends] are going. We really are trying to stay true to who we are, and when that aligns with what everyone’s liking at the moment, that’s great.”
This wisdom reflects the brewery’s long view of the industry. Foam opened its doors in 2016, but its founders have decades of experience in the Vermont brewing industry; brewmaster Todd Haire logged a combined 15 years at Magic Hat and Switchback. Foam is the culmination of all five partners’ desire to build the creative, locally rooted brewery that they wanted to work for.
“We never promoted anything; we just delivered,” Haire says. “If that travels by word of mouth, then that’s cool.”
And yes, word has traveled. Bryan Ferguson, cofounder and president of the New England independent beer distributor Craft Collective, says his Instagram messages are flooded on the infrequent occasions that he has Foam beer to sell. This popularity isn’t superficial, though: As Foam intended, it’s the result of hard work and good beer.
“My sense is that everything they do, no matter how large or small, is pretty carefully considered,” Ferguson says. “I think that shows through in the quality of their beer, and the quality of their [taproom] experience. I remember an early visit there where one of my colleagues commented on how nice the soap in the bathroom was.”
Getting Priorities Straight
Foam strives to stand on three main pillars: supporting the local Vermont economy, taking care of staff and business collaborators, and making great beer. The brewery’s acclaim has allowed it to spend money on all three.
Foam doesn’t make a big show of its local supply chain, but about 50 percent of its base malts come from maltsters and growers in New England: NEK Grains and Nitty Gritty Grains of Vermont and Valley Malt in Massachusetts. Because of some current constraints on those suppliers, that percentage is lower than it once was; a few years ago, 75 percent of Foam’s base malts came from New England suppliers. It also has a relationship with Vermont’s Champlain Valley Hops, which pelletizes a specific blend for use in some Foam IPAs and double IPAs.
“It does come at a premium,” Haire says. “To buy local is expensive. But at the end of the day, that money that people spend on our beer visiting us from out of state stays in our state. That’s important to us—keeping the cycle of the economy going.”
It’s a similar story with the limited out-of-state beer drops and direct-to-consumer shipping that Foam launched during the pandemic. It had never intended to distribute beyond Burlington, where it self-distributes, but COVID’s blow to the taproom during the already-slow winter months in Vermont meant the brewery needed to find other ways to sell beer and keep staff employed.
Through limited distribution and direct-to-consumer sales, Farmer says, “we can really do some of the things that allow us to be a more stable, sustainable business for our team.” Foam has increased employee pay and benefits, hired more people in management roles to spread out responsibilities, sent its entire production team to the 2021 Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, and hired a third-party organization for training sessions with a strong focus on sexual harassment, safety, equity, and inclusion.
Distribution also gave the brewery a little extra cash to spend on technical upgrades, including buying a centrifuge and overhauling its draft system to reduce losses and improve beer quality. As Farmer sees it, the fact that Foam has enough cachet to sell its beer out of state means it can put money toward its priorities: farmers, staff, and beer quality. They are harnessing hype, and then they are reinvesting it.
New Beer and Beyond
Strong sales are helping to diversify Foam’s taproom draft list beyond the best-selling IPAs and double IPAs. In its early years, Foam didn’t have enough tanks to devote to lagers, which take longer to ferment, or to beer styles that wouldn’t sell as quickly on draft. Now, the brewery is adding tanks so it can devote space to lagers, hefeweizens, and other non-IPA styles year-round.
“Initially it was like, ‘How can we put a lager in a tank when it sells one-fifth as fast as the IPA, and we’re running out of tank space?’” Farmer says. “We’d get down to just one or two beers on draft at the brewery on a busy summer holiday weekend.”
Diversifying its offerings continues to be a goal for Foam. Haire has been spending much of his time at House of Fermentology, a Charlotte, Vermont, blendery that he co-owns with longtime homebrewer, author, and fellow beekeeper Bill Mares. The blendery is focused on wild ales and mixed fermentation. (House of Fermentology beers also appear on draft at Foam and at Deep City, Foam’s restaurant adjacent to the taproom.)
Meanwhile, Foam has been quietly tending 1,000 Marquette grapevines, part of a defunct vineyard that the brewery purchased two years ago. Haire hopes to use juice from those grapes to make natural wine influenced by his mixed-fermentation beers. They bottled the first release in that vein, a sparkling Marquette wine, at the end of 2021.
After five years of trying to grow Foam, ensuring that there was enough beer to serve at the taproom, and guiding a small business through a pandemic, Haire says he just looks forward to getting back to what has always motivated him: making cool beverages.
“For Foam, beer is the sun, and we have so many planets that revolve around that,” Haire says. He contrasts the varied projects in which he’s involved at Foam—from beekeeping to winemaking—with the rote production brewing he did at previous jobs.
“You have to step out of that day-in and day-out thing, or it’s hard to have inspiration,” he says. “Dreaming is always a big part of creative outlets.”
Foam is hoping 2022 will be a year of renewed creativity and inward focus after two years of dodging pandemic-related curveballs. In addition to beekeeping and winemaking, Haire looks forward to more time to play in the brewhouse.
Haire and Foam’s other brewers, Bob Grim and Josh Bayer, are clearly a group that doesn’t mind tinkering: In February, Foam released a salted IPA called Smirk of the Dolphin, a collaboration with local band The High Breaks, which had released an album—a “surf rock opera”—of the same name. (It tells the story of a man who falls in love with a dolphin.) Brewed with passion fruit and a gose-like level of salt, the beer was well received—and it was a chance for Foam to, once again, try something new.
Lately, the brewing team has enjoyed the natural carbonation produced by spunding, applying the technique to double IPAs to produce a smoother mouthfeel. Haire and the team have also tried using a spunding valve to suppress the strong esters in a Bavarian hefeweizen yeast, with the idea that it could be a fun strain with which to ferment an IPA. (For more about spunding, see “Gearhead: The Force Behind the Fizz,” beerandbrewing.com.)
“We like seeing what we can coax out of beer,” Haire says. “It comes back to experimentation but trying to take what you have in your head and put it in a glass.”