Suds & Sounds: Burlington’s Switchback Brewing Co. Keeps It Eclectic And Passionate

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In our column Suds & Sounds we turn the spotlight on breweries, focusing on the role of music in that brewery’s history, packaging, tastes, and in its city or town as a whole. The idea is to get beer and music lovers to connect with a side of the brewery that may often go overlooked, but one that we think is absolutely vital. To accomplish this, we are talking to the brewers themselves about their own love of music and the role it plays in how they approach their beer. And who knows, maybe we’ll even talk to a musicians from time to time to give a perspective from the other side.

Since being founded in 2002, Switchback Brewing Co. has gained a loyal following of beer lovers in the lakeside community of Burlington, Vermont. With a regular selection of quality brews like Roasted Red Ale, Dooley’s Belated Porter, Slow-Fermented Brown Ale, Extra Pale Ale, Märzen Fest Bier, Citra-Pils Keller Bier and SwitchBOCK, as well as limited runs of saisons, berliner weisse and more far out styles, Switchback’s eclectic style reflects the town of Burlington. In recent years, they have expanded their offerings to Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Maine and parts of Massachusetts, and it’s safe to say they are one more brewery fueling Vermont’s reputation as one of the top beer states in America.

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Compared to other breweries like say Denver’s TRVE or Lagunitas, the influence of music isn’t as obvious on the surface of Switchback’s identity. But, this is after all a brewery based out of the town that gave birth to Phish and has long had a vibrant music scene with clubs like Nectar’s and Higher Ground, despite its northern locale, and it would be hard not to let that seep into everything you do. Take other locally based companies like Magic Hat and Ben & Jerry’s for example, both of which frequently pay tribute to both their music and community through delicious beers and ice creams.

Recently we caught up with one of Switchback’s brewers, Sean Reen, who has been brewing with the company since 2008. As a lover of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Phish, and live music as a whole, Reen was more than happy to talk about the unique role that music plays at Switchback on a daily basis.

How long have you been brewing and what do you consider your greatest triumph so far as a craft brewer? 

I’ve been brewing here at Switchback for a little over 8 years and my greatest triumph as a craft brewer is simply becoming a brewer at all. I’ve always been a fan of good, craft beer, but I went to school for English and History and avoided taking science classes at all costs because I was so terrified of them. Now, I’m working with physics and chemistry and biochemistry and microbiology and all sorts of crazy equations and conversions on a daily basis, and a lot of it really has become second nature. That alone is my greatest achievement as a brewer.

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In your opinion, is there a particular band or genre that is ideal to listen to while brewing beer?

No, absolutely not. The music you’re in the mood for on any given day is the ideal brewing music for that day. Some days you’re pissed off and want to hear Rage Against the Machine and sometimes you’re feeling blue or nostalgic and want to hear BB King or The Beatles. And then sometimes you just want to zone the fuck out and listen to Phish play a 40 minute long version of “Tweezer.” Whatever it takes to create a mental balance so that you can focus entirely on making the beer is the music you should listen to while brewing. That being said, the worst thing you can do is listen to bad music or music that you don’t like, for whatever reason, because that shit will distract you and ruin your whole day, and maybe even ruin the beer. Keep in mind that the yeast is listening too, and Saccharomyces yeast hates shitty music.

Is there a hierarchy or system to which employee gets to pick the brewery playlist?

No. We’re painfully democratic when it comes to music.

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Has your brewery ever brought in any bands to play? If not, have you ever thought about something like that?

We have live music in the Tap Room every Friday, and we had a big Ten Year Anniversary blowout in 2012 with Japhy Ryder and Kat Wright both playing on a big stage in the parking lot, but that’s pretty much it. A few local bands have used the brewery as practice space over the years, which was awesome, but there really isn’t time or space for that sort of thing anymore. Hopefully when we expand on the patio and outdoor seating area of the Tap Room we’ll have some bigger outdoor shows, and I also think we’re long overdue for another big parking lot party with numerous bands and, of course, a whole bunch of beer, too. So, stay tuned for all of that.

Talk about the beer culture a bit in your city. What do people look for in a good beer and what do you hope to provide, and also do you see the beer scene as being linked in any way to the music scene? 

People in Burlington look for and expect quality, but also originality. If something sucks, whether it’s beer or music or food or whatever, the general public is going to be very vocal about it. On the other hand, if something is really good and unlike anything else out there, people are going to be very vocal about that, too. Fortunately, there are a lot of amazingly artistic minds in Burlington who have helped create an overwhelming amount of fantastic food, beer, music, etc. and all of these things help bring the community together. People here love to create things, but they also love to check out what everyone else is creating, too.

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Some breweries have gotten more into music through sponsoring tours, festivals, or even throwing their own versions of those. How do you think live music fits into the fabric of craft beer, and is this something your brewery has done?

Switchback has a long history of sponsoring local music festivals such as the Precipice and Grand Point North, and we also sponsor the weekly Bluegrass Thursday shows at Nectar’s as well. We feel that this involvement is important because, like I said, we feel very strongly about supporting other artists. In my opinion, the best way to escape the grind of everyday life is to go dance and listen to live music, and to have a few beers with a few friends. They’re both very much social activities, but they can also be very spiritual and internal as well. Also, the difference between live music and studio music is that it’s not going to be 100% perfect and consistent every time. There’s always some degree of variation. When a musician is performing on stage, there’s a constant risk for error but there is also the potential for something completely unexpected and amazing to happen, like a killer guitar solo or a jam that just seems to come out of nowhere. The same is true with craft beer versus the mass-produced stuff. There’s some degree of risk and variation with every single batch of beer that I brew, whereas the big guys basically just go in and push a button and churn out the exact same thing everyday. I like having to really pay attention to what I’m doing every step of the way, while also having the freedom to take my art in whichever direction I want to. There’s a certain amount of soul in craft beer that you just don’t find in the mass produced stuff, and I think that same level of soul is found in live music, too. You don’t just get that from listening to the radio.

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The Flaming Lips at Grand Point North 2015


Switchback Brewing Co. is located at 160 Flynn Avenue in Burlington, VT 05401. For hours, beer releases and more visit switchbackvt.com.

Check out other editions of Suds & Sounds:

NOLA BREWING

TRVE Brewing

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