Brewing Up A Storm

Good planning has helped Matt Nadeau create the little brewery that could

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Matthew Nadeau has a gift. The founder of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville is a natural-born planner. Not"planner" as in, "Hey, let's plan to order a pizza for dinner tomorrow night." It's "planner" as in, "Next year, I want to move to Breckinridge, Colo., but I've heard housing is an extreme issue there, so I'll subscribe to the local papers and lease an apartment a year in advance of my arrival."

He doesn't brag about his gift; it's just there for the discerning listener to catch.

Matthew Nadeau has nurtured Rock Art, the tiny craft brewery he started in his basement in 1997 to become a 100,000-gallon-a-year business in Morrisville. He has built many of the machines he uses in his plant and his adeptness at planning has kept him a step ahead of emerging challenges.

The move to Breckinridge happened after he graduated from college and he and his then-fiancée, Renée Brunault, headed west to give it a try. "We went out there with a five-year plan," says Nadeau, a lover of outdoor sports who had dreamed of spending time in Colorado. "We said, "At the end of five years, if we really can't leave, we'll stay.'" He really did arrange for the apartment a year in advance.

Nadeau was born in Montpelier and grew up in Essex. "I never had a hard time finding a summer job," he says. That was because his father, André, a civil engineer, was a partner in Aztec Construction Co. in Williston; and his grandfather, Albert Nadeau, owned a sand and aggregate business in Johnson, which is still in the family. "I didn't get the cream jobs, either," he says with a laugh, "but it teaches you how to work that things aren't going to be given to you."

It also taught him he didn't want to continue working "in the ditches." He moved into the hospitality industry, first at the Red Carpet Inn on Shelburne Road in Shelburne and later at Smugglers' Notch "for a ski pass." When it came time to enter college, it seemed natural to study hotel management at Johnson State.

He met Renée at a Johnson State social gathering. At the end of their five years in Breckinridge, they reconnoitered. "We couldn't grow a garden up there," says Nadeau. "It was winter nine months a year. You get a little homesick for the green grass." He pauses briefly, then adds, "The skiing was great, though."

They returned in 1994, and in September of that year, they were married. "Renée arranged the wedding in three months!" he exclaims.

In November, they moved into a house they had bought in Johnson. Nadeau had decided to set up a brewery. He launched a beer supply store for home brewing in his basement in May of 1995. "I wanted to start getting contacts in the industry for supplies and equipment, start developing recipes and get my name out as being associated with craft beer," he says.

He was working full time as shipping manager at the House of Troy, a "manufacturer of brass lamps and picture lights in Hyde Park," he says. "It was a good place for me to learn manufacturing for dollars: You've got a product, you need to make it, timely and efficiently."

He chose the name "Rock Art" for his beer to honor the image of Kokopelli he had encountered in petroglyphs in Desolation Canyon on the Green River near Moab, Utah. "I liked the history behind it," he says. "The figure was portrayed through a language written on rock walls, and it was a belief all around North, Central and South America." He designed the company's Kokopelli logo himself. Renée's brother, Jason, who owns Jay's Woodshop in Johnson, makes the wood signs and draft pulls.

All of Rock Art's six employees are cross-trained to do other jobs. David Capasso (left), assistant brewer/sales rep, and Rich Hazen, assistant brewer, handle a pallett of beer about to leave the plant.

Nadeau set up his brewery by making phone calls during his 15-minute morning break and half-hour lunch break. "I'd get on the phone like a madman arranging everything from insurance to bonds to equipment, trucking, and, of course, the big one, the federal government," he says wryly. "As they like to remind us, 'Brewing beer is a privilege, not a right, in these great United States, and that privilege may and has been revoked in the past.'" To give them credit, he adds, the inspector who reviewed his operations gave him clear instructions on what he had to do and how to do it to ensure there weren't problems.

By November of '97, Rock Art shipped its first beer to the distributor.

That same year, four other regional craft breweries opened, says Nadeau: "Long Trail, Otter Creek, Magic Hat and the now defunct Catamount, all with multi-million dollar breweries, based on massive sales. Sales were expected to just keep cranking, and sales went flat.

"Here comes a little Podunk Rock Art Brewery out of the basement," he continues. "I got beat up; but I guess with any business, you take a quality product, and if you do the right things, making sure the bills are paid and keeping things afloat, the quality product will pull through."

Nadeau found himself scrambling to get draft lines, "because there's a lot of politics around these in restaurants and bars, so I couldn't get my beer on tap, and if I did, it was instantly replaced with one of the aforementioned breweries."

He decided to try selling growlers, half-gallon glass jugs for carrying fresh beer. The distributor told him other breweries had tried growlers and they didn't sell. "I said, 'Hey, any sale to me is money to pay bills, and if you won't do it, I'll get my own distributor's license.'"

The distributor agreed to give it a try, starting them out in Johnson. Nadeau told him to "take the growlers down to D.J.'s Deli, and you won't have to warehouse them."

Growler sales did so well in Johnson that within three months, they were in Burlington, Montpelier, Waterbury, Waitsfield, the Essex area, "expanding everywhere. They were selling like wildfire." The growler sales built brand awareness because of the recognizable Kokopelli logo, he says.

Nadeau enjoys developing recipes for his beers. "I love to cook," he says. "I use a little of this, a little of that, but by doing that you learn to know when to add a certain amount of a certain ingredient to get a certain result." In the end, it comes down to math formulas, he says, "and you start hammering out the numbers to get the weights, how many pounds of this grain, that grain, how much hops, and then you brew this beer, ferment it, age it and try it."

Allen Van Anda, the brewer at Rock Art Brewery, minds the bottle filler designed and built by his boss, Matt Nadeau. It fills 80 bottles a minute to produce 700 cases in about five hours.

Nadeau, who says he's "really good with machines," built many of the machines at the brewery, including a bottle filler, a keg washer-filler and a growler filler which he couldn't find anywhere on the market. He's also good at wiring and plumbing for the tanks.

By the start of 2000, Nadeau's basement operation was at capacity. He was grinding fresh grains every day and boiling the beer in a shed on the side of his house, then piping it through a hose into the cellar for fermenting and packaging.

"It worked really well until it came time to get the beer from the basement up to the truck, and you had the stairs and bulkhead," he says. Producing more than 800 barrels in 2000, the last full year he worked from home, Nadeau put his back out and had to seek help. He went to Johnson State and hired a Rugby Club member, who treated the job as a workout.

He set out to find a building for his business. Financing was a challenge. Nadeau made proposals to several banks, but was turned down. When he adjusted the numbers the banks were interested, but "these ridiculous rates, and then you've got to sign everything over to them. It's a win-win for them. We said, 'No way.'"

Matt Nadeau holds draft pulls carved by his brother-in-law, Jason Brunault, who does all the woodworking for Rock Art, including the signs.

After a search, Renée found the building in Morrisville, and they went forward with a loan from his parents and used credit cards for the rest. "Since then, Renée and I have built up our personal credit," he says. "I move my balances around so I have my rates averaging 3 percent or less. Knock on wood, it's working up until now."

In November 2001, four years to the day from his first shipment, Nadeau moved operations to Morrisville. The move went perfectly the result of good planning, which involved having full tanks in Johnson, setting up the brew house in Morrisville to process and ship the beer, and when beer ran out in Johnson, moving the tanks to Morrisville. "It was just seamless!" he exclaims. Rugby players helped with the move.

Capacity for the new brewery, set to double what Nadeau had been producing in Johnson, was reached in four months. He obtained more equipment and doubled it again to the current capacity of 100,000 gallons a year.

True to his roots, Nadeau uses Vermont products wherever possible. If they're not available, he seeks U.S.-made products. "We buy U.S. grains and hops," he says. "Our cardboard is made in Sharon; our glasses and growlers are printed in Bennington (and I request U.S. made glasses from our supplier); the labels are printed in Barre and Brownsville; T-shirts are printed in Morrisville; and the embroidery on our fleece and hats is done in Cambridge." After an exhausting search, he found what he believes is the last known supplier of beer caps in the country.

Steve Blood, who owns, with his wife, Colleen, Three Mountain Lodge on Vermont 108 about a mile from Smugglers' Notch Resort, has known Nadeau as long as he's been in business. "He wasn't the first microbrewer on the scene," says Blood, "but he's certainly one of the best. We use his Ridgerunner ale pretty regularly."

Blood has told Nadeau if he makes his seasonal Stump Jumper stout year-round, he'll put it on tap. "We call that the official beer of Three Mountain Lodge," Blood says.

Since the move, Nadeau has hired six employees, all of whom wear many hats.

Rock Art's popularity continues to grow. Large distributors who, in 1997, declined to carry the beer are approaching Nadeau for business, but he's turned them down. Rock Art is sold throughout the state except for the Killington, Rutland and White River Junction areas, which his two distributors do not cover. He's about to enter discussions with a distributor for that region. The company has just signed with one in central New Jersey with access to 3 million people, says Nadeau.

Plans are in the works with distributors in Pennsylvania, then Massachusetts. "It's all going to depend on capacity, though," says Nadeau, "and on how big we want to get. Of course, it's not like you start shipping beer; it's a lot of work, and you've got to get people involved with it."

Originally published in August 2005 Business People-Vermont