Photo: Sean Lawson and his wife, Karen.
By Tera Dacek
The name “Lawson” may make you think of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, one of Vermont’s most sought-after breweries. But when owner Sean Lawson returned to Vermont after living out west, it was to work in environmental science and forestry, not open up a brewery.
We talked to Lawson, a UVM alumnus, about changing his career path to start a successful craft brewery.
When did you first realize that brewing beer could be more than just a hobby for you?
After I graduated from UVM with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, I went to Montana to do fieldwork with peregrine falcons for a summer then set my sights on being a ski bum for the winter.
I got a job at the Breckenridge Pub and Brewery and eventually started helping occasionally in the brewery. At that point, I was already an avid homebrewer. After that stint, I spent a year in Flagstaff, Arizona working at Beaver Street Pub and Brewery. But I didn’t fully appreciate then how creative and fulfilling brewing as a career could be.
I returned to UVM to get my master’s degree in forestry and worked as a scientist and outdoor educator for 15 years. In 2007, I started to consider opening a small brewery. Friends and family had been encouraging me to do so for years.
When did you decide you should pursue your hobby as a profession?
It took a number of years of people asking me if they could buy my homebrewed beer, to which I always replied: “Sorry, no. I only make two cases at a time. I’d be happy to give you a couple of bottles as a gift.”
As my attitude toward brewing evolved from something that was largely done for pleasure, I started to appreciate how much hard work and creativity goes into crafting top-quality beers. I researched the brewing process, the investments required, and the mechanics of owning and operating a business. That’s when I decided to open a brewery part time with very small equipment.
When I started, I didn’t even know there was a term for my brewery—a nanobrewery! I was able to see if I enjoyed brewing as a job rather than a hobby, and if our beer would sell in the marketplace. I quickly found that I have a true passion for brewing as a career, and that people love our beer. From day one, people have always bought Lawson’s Finest faster than I can make it.
How did you learn the business, and did you make any mistakes?
My wife, Karen, has supported me as a business partner and soul mate throughout this journey. We’ve learned the business together, and over time her role in running the business has grown. When I started out, I already had a solid foundation of knowledge about running a business. The rest of it, I’ve learned along the way.
The distribution side of the business—ordering, sales, and maintaining equipment—was the newest aspect to me. On the brewing side, I’ve learned to be more self-sufficient and improved my mechanical inclination. With a very small business, you don’t often have the resources or employees on hand every day. When something like a pump in the brewery breaks, you have to quickly figure out how to fix it yourself.
I’ve made plenty of small mistakes in the brewery that were relatively easy to fix, had a few minor burns and injuries, but nothing major. When I look back at our history, I have no regrets.
As a small-business entrepreneur, how do you balance your personal life and your brewery?
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is one of the most challenging aspects of owning your own business. When we upgraded our brewing equipment a few years ago, I felt compelled to work long hours to ensure that we could continue to be successful (and pay for the equipment).
Over the last couple of years, I’ve taken some of the pressure off myself to work and have found it much easier to strike the right balance between family, work, and personal time. Family is the number one priority for me. I have two young girls, who are growing up fast. I’m pleased that we’ve kept our business until now as a home-based operation. This has made it much easier to spend time with my family.
Could you ever have predicted the success of Lawson’s Finest, and do you see change or growth in the future for your liquids?
No! I knew our venture would be successful due to my passion and dedication to quality in brewing beer, but I had no idea it would become part of this much larger Vermont beer phenomenon.
I feel fortunate to have started out when the opportunity was so great for new brewers, especially here in Vermont. It’s definitely harder starting out today with more and more brands and breweries opening every day. You have to find a niche and produce exceptional quality to be really successful.
Looking ahead, we plan to continue making the best-quality beer possible. My dream would be to have one or both of my daughters take over running the business when I retire, but that is years down the road. I want them to pursue whatever career path they have a passion for.
We are really excited to celebrate our eighth anniversary and look forward to many more years of brewing ahead!
Interested in learning more about the beer business? UVM is offering an online Business of Craft Beer program. Visit learn.uvm.edu/craftbeer.
–Tera Dacek is a consultant and freelance writer. She most recently worked as Marketing Manager for Alchemy and Science. When she unplugs, she can be found at her local mountain or one of the many wonderful breweries in her home state of Vermont.