Zero Gravity: It's About Balance
It’s pre-happy hour on our first visit to Zero Gravity’s Pine Street location. The December day is bitter cold but Dylan and I are welcomed by a warm stream of sunlight leading us to two empty seats at the corner of the bar. The list of the days offerings are displayed neatly on the wall above the taps. Neither of us can decide on a single one, so we order a flight tasting, instead. We wait, taking in the rest of the space. My guess is that the long wood tables are locally made and the impressive mural on the wall is by a Vermont artist. This is Burlington’s South End Arts District, after all.
A lineup of four brews lands under our noses, ranging the spectrum from molasses, to caramel, amber to gold. We sip our drinks and grasp for descriptive words that may or may not be part of the beer lexicon; our vocabularies fail us but the beers are all delicious, nonetheless. Matt Wilson, the director of marketing and sales, comes out to greet us, wearing a Green State Lager winter hat. He is one of the three cofounders, along with brewmaster Paul Sayler and CEO Rob Downey.
The trio began Zero Gravity in 2004 as the brewpub for American Flatbread Burlington Hearth back when the craft beer industry in the state was still green. Many of the breweries that define the leading edge of today’s Vermont beer scene didn’t exist yet or were only just emerging. Wilson, Sayler, and Downey saw this as an opportunity to create their own line at Burlington Flatbread, and while the brewery has made hundreds of beers over the years, today the restaurant typically serves 15 or 16 original draughts on tap, along with one or two cask beers.
With a steady rise in popularity and a cult following for beers like TLA IPA, the owners expanded production for off-premise sales in 2012. After that, beers like Conehead took on a life of their own and before too long, the brewing operation at Flatbread had maxed out. When they looked at the space on 716 Pine Street, it not only had the square footage to accommodate a 30-barrel brew house with a full canning line, a tasting room, and a beer garden, it also had a prime location to boot. The doors to the new brewpub opened in spring 2015, and the facility began filling over 100,000 cans of beer per month for statewide distribution. Since that time, the numbers have ratcheted up considerably—now, in a single year, Zero Gravity is brewing 235 CE, or case equivalents, which translates to about 5.6 million cans! Where is it all going? To lucky residents in Vermont, of course, but now also in New York (as of 2016), and Maine and Rhode Island (as of 2017).
Among the dozens of new breweries popping up all over the Green Mountains, Zero Gravity has the stamp of a lasting, growing Vermont craft brewery. I ask Wilson how he would distinguish their identity. “I guess for us, first and foremost, it is about balance. It’s creating beers that are balanced. You can brew a beer that’s the highest in alcohol or has more hops than other beers but that doesn’t mean it’s going to taste good. More of a good thing is not necessarily good. So for us it’s finding those beers where the flavors might be a little experimental, but they’re there in a supporting role, not dominating what the product is, which is beer. We want it to taste like beer.”
This standard for balance is succinctly captured by the logo of a hummingbird, suspended in flight, with zero gravity, as it were. Inspiration for this mascot came from a serendipitous encounter back in 2008. The brewery had decided to add growlers to its offerings and it was Wilson’s job to figure out what would be on the bottle. “I sat down at a desk and no more than five minutes later did a little hummingbird show up outside my window, just floating there and I was like, there it is. So I take very little credit for it.”
Wilson’s favorite in the Zero Gravity lineup? He points to his Green State Lager hat. He describes it as a proletariat light lager you can drink all year round. “We kind of took some of the things we liked most about German Pils, some of the things we liked about Czech Pils, and really just tried to find the flavor profile that we liked, that worked for us.” In naming the beer, Wilson wanted it to have a sense of place, the way Brooklyn Brewery was able to declare their brew Brooklyn Lager. Green State Lager did that and then some, with collegiate connotations that rouses some team spirit—or in this case, state pride.
When asked what it is about Vermont that has made this place a fertile ground for the craft brewing industry, Wilson credits Vermonters. “I don’t know if it’s the new Vermont or the old Vermont, but people that are here, that are living here, moving here, seem to just have a greater respect for people who do things the hard way—the handcrafted. We’ve always believed that Vermont is a place that’s bringing creative people in.”
Handcrafted is a standard the owners of Zero Gravity take to heart. It’s evident at every level of their business, from their commitment to adhering to craft while innovating with style, to the decor of the brewpub. As it turns out, I was right about the tables, which were made for the brewery from locally sourced cherry wood by Riven Woodcrafts in Burlington. The concrete bar and wrought-iron bases were done by Anomal Design out of East Montpelier. I was only half-right about the murals on-site, one by native Vermonter, Mary Lacy, the other by Blaine Fontana out of Oregon—another great beer state.
We finish off our flight and snap some pictures. On our way out, Wilson hands us a Green State Lager hat, which we happily sported all winter long—and most of the spring, for that matter. Go Green State!
Photographs by Dylan Griffin.