John Armstrong and Peter Hopkins are two principals in Hoppy Valley Organics. The new company is opening a tasting and retail center in the Hillside House.
POWNAL, Vt. — A 1,300 square-foot section of the Hillside House is being transformed into a tasting center for beer, wine, cheese and other specialty products — all made in Vermont.
"The Vermont brand is so powerful and compelling now," said Peter Hopkins, who is one of five businessmen heading the venture. "The whole focus of this is on Vermont food and beverage."
The Green Mountain Tasting Center — just some 400 yards from the Massachusetts border — is the next project from Hoppy Valley Organics, which started just a year ago growing hops along Route 7. The hops will provide the organic ingredient for breweries.
The group of business owners then considered opening a tasting center. Armstrong owns the Hillside House, a furniture store with a small gift shop inside, and they ultimately decided to revamp the gift shop area with a C-shaped bar, eight beer taps, three coolers and seating for up to eight people.
"We actually started talking about putting a building up on the hop yard itself and have the microbreweries bring tastings there," Armstrong said.
The gift shop will sell an array of products including those offered at the tastings. The group has been traveling the state to find small companies and farms making cheeses, spreads, sauces, meats, crackers, maple products and other specialty foods. They've begun working with alcohol distributors to bring in Vermont-made wines, ciders and beers.
"[The customers] will pay a small fee to try products that they would not have been able to try before," Armstrong said. "It is going to be a real, nice, comfortable tasting room."
The room will hold eight people for a tasting at a time and a small separate section will be for non-alcoholic tastings. The company plans to open the tasting center for limited hours at first.
"We're not a restaurant. We're not a bar. We're a tasting room," Hopkins said.
The tastings also include an educational component, they said. During the tastings, the company will be explaining to the patrons how the various products are made, where they come from and the history of them.
After tasting an array of Vermont foods and beverages, the retail portion of the new venture will sell those items as well as well as other Vermont-made products such as wooden bowls, cooking utensils, wine racks, beer and wine glasses and other non-perishable foods.
A window is being placed between the gift shop area and the tasting room for customers to purchase and refill growlers of beer.
"We pretty much contacted all of the vendors we know that are Vermont oriented," Armstrong said.
In the future, the group is looking to also include home brewing ingredients — including the hops they grew just up the road.
The company has already been granted an alcohol permit for the tastings and resale so they need only to wait until the renovations are complete. They hope to open in May.
Meanwhile, Hopkins is lobbying the state Legislature to change laws regarding wine distribution so they can eventually bring in even more wine options. Currently, the state allows retailers to purchase from distributors and Hopkins says many wineries aren't large enough to do so.
Hopkins has authored a bill to allow second class license holders to drive to wineries, purchase the products and bring them back to the store themselves. Hopkins says the change will allow Vermont's wine industry to grow with the extra business the small wineries would receive.
"This is not one of those cases of eliminating the middle man," Hopkins said of the bill. "We're going to places that are not going through distributors."
State Rep. Bill Botzow sponsored the bill and Hopkins is hoping the change will become law and go into affect in July. Hopkins is traveling to Montpelier to testify on behalf of the bill on Wednesday.
In all, the new center is eyed to help build on those Vermont-made industries and brand by shedding light on the state's high-quality food and beverage products. While construction has already begun, they are hoping for a little help in starting up the new retail center with a Kick Starter campaign.