Underground in an old cheese cave, this Vermont brewer makes one-of-a-kind beer
Vasilios Gletsos brews beer using ingredients foraged from the Vermont countryside, and no two batches are the same. His brewery is called Wunderkammer Beer Manufacture. 'Wunderkammer' is a German word for a cabinet of curiosities, or small, private museum of memories and found objects. Erica Heilman paid him a visit at his brewery in Albany Vermont.
Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio.
Erica: What is that sound?
Vasilios: Yeah, I heard that too.
Erica: What was that?
Vasilios: There might be something like weeping if you see that up there. There's active fermentation…
Erica: Oh, my God, I just want to lick it.
The sound is the sound of beer fermenting in huge oak casks, fifteen feet underground in a manmade cave in Albany, Vermont. This cave, which once was a cheese cave, on land that once was a multigenerational dairy farm, is now a brewery called Wunderkammer Bier Manufacture, run by Vasilios Gletsos, who mostly goes by Vasilly, and this beer is way craftier than most craft beer. You might taste lichen or myrtle bog, goldenrod, or burdock — a lot of stuff you can see from your car.
Vasilly makes his beer in a huge copper kettle cooked over a woodfire. It all feels a little bit medieval, or Druidic, which makes sense because unlike most craft brewers, who are after that one great flagship beer, Vasilly wants to make consistently great beer where no two batches will ever taste the same.
Vasilios: Breweries are more or less kind of assembly factories, you know, they take these raw materials from around the world, they try and implement various processes to get them to behave the same way to create this flagship beer that is unchanging, and unresponsive to seasonality. For me, I really want to make these beers a reflection of the landscape that's around me. I use hops that come from Vermont. I use grains that usually come from New England, if not Vermont, forcing myself to go out into the landscape and engage with the seasonality.
Erica: How often do you taste test these beers?
Vasilios: There's actually one I'm planning on transferring today, and I haven't actually tried it today. I tried it a little bit earlier. Yeah, this is a beer I dedicated to my father, who died a couple years back. It's a beer made with honey. He was also an amateur beekeeper. So this is a originally a beer that I made shortly after he died.
Erica: Do you think he would have liked it?
Vasilios: He was more of a wine person, being a Greek, you know. But yeah, he'd be excited. I'm sure it would make it into the annual letter. Man, I sounded so much better in those things than…
Erica: We all do.
Vasilios: So that's what this this version of it is, when I made it slightly stronger. It uses a lot of knotweed honey. So if you're familiar with the invasive knotweed, this is a honey that's made from the knotweed, and this is a new version that I plan to bottle in the next week or two.
Erica: So we're looking at a nail and you're going to pull this nail out.
Vasilios: These little copper roofing nails that are stuck in the head of the 500-liter Sherry puncheon, or pipe. This is one actually this year I made it with some sumac, as well.
Sound of beer dripping into glass…
Erica: So what do you notice?
Vasilios: So just a nice, nice golden color. Yeah, it's definitely got some nice, funky, pungent kind of aromas going on.
Erica: Is there any trepidation before you taste it?
Vasilios: Not really. No. I mean, I feel like it's a common character I've been getting in some of my recent fermentations, I mean, it's nice — kind of citrusy, fruity as well as earthy touch to it.
Erica: There's a kind of old trope about the way that people talk about wine being like, uh… like the way that you talk about beer, you have to be specific, because you make it, you have to be able to articulate what it is you're experiencing. If I walked in and started talking about beer with the number of adjectives, people would throw me out of the bar.
Vasilios: No, I get that. And I mean, I don't know, I'm not a beer writer. So I don't necessarily feel obliged to be able to articulate all the adjectives, but I feel like a chef — they can isolate a specific kind of flavor, and they can look through the rest of the noise and see what it is that they're looking for, or what needs to be enhanced or anything like that. I feel like beer is similar in that kind of fashion.
Erica: Where's your beer sold?
Vasilios: Yep. I have a distribution company. So I actually distribute the beer myself. I drive it around. And it's in a lot of the likely candidates here in northern Vermont. So I go out to Burlington, Waterbury, I go to Montpelier. I go to Waitsfield. I basically go as far as I can distribute beer in a day. And you're not always going to find it because I'll make a delivery and it'll be gone in, you know, three, four weeks. And you'll probably never see that beer again, in most cases.
Erica: So good luck out there, everybody….
Vasilios: I think I think with a little bit of effort, it's possible to get it. You might not get the one that somebody tried that one time, but you'll get whatever I'm up to next.
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