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Legendary Vermont craft brewery to close, owner blames bad economy

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BURLINGTON — In an ever-growing sign of the times, another local business shuts its doors and a Vermont landmark becomes a memory. For a city known for its gravy fries, premium ice cream and a fondness for microbrew, the news hits especially hard. But it’s 2011 and as goes Nicotine Jim’s, so goes the nation.

Pioneer brewmaster Jim Sullivan — who single-handedly established the Burlington brew scene nearly 40 years ago — embraced his final days before closing for good on Sunday. While he has no regrets, he places full responsibility for this ending of an era squarely at the hands of a poor economy.

“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve ridden the highs and lows,” Sullivan says. “You sock some away in the good times because you know the bad is right around the corner. You learn how to manage when things get tight and that helps you take better advantage of opportunity when the tide rolls back in. ‘Turn, turn, turn.’ We should have been able to weather this if not for the horrible mess the economy’s in.”

Sullivan has put as much of himself into his work as a man can possible hope to achieve. Opening his first brewpub in a basement dentist’s office on the corner of College and Pine, Sullivan sold beer by the growler until receiving his license to sell alcohol in 1977. A short “reconfiguring,” as he calls it, saw a 6-month sentence reduced to time served and a new approach to business had emerged. Those humble beginnings laid the foundation to an enterprise that seemingly should have avoided demise.

“It’s not like we haven’t changed with the times,” he said. “We’ve met customer demand and always strived to offer new brews and menu items to keep things fresh and interesting. Unemployment’s getting worse and gas prices are shooting up, now inflation — people aren’t going out as often and it really hurt us.”


When asked about mistakes he may have made or a differing approach to business, the name “Nicotine Jim’s” invariably comes up. Much like Kentucky Fried Chicken adopted a less fried-sounding “KFC” to rebrand its image, Sullivan admits that, for years, many suggested he reconsider.

“It’s the same name we’ve always had. It’s who we are — Nicotine Jim’s,” he said. “I smoke cigars and my name is Jim. I’ve always smoked cigars, but not on the property. This entire building is non-smoking — it’s just words on a sign. If the public didn’t like the name 30 years ago, we never would have made it this far.

“They don’t call me ‘NJ’ or ‘N-Jim.’ I pose for pictures with a cigar in my hand, it’s what customers expect. Should Jimmy Buffett change the name of “Margaritaville” because it isn’t really a town? We built something strong here and it only got better. I get how the name became a negative but people always knew what they’re getting when they came to Nicotine Jim’s.”

Some may beg to differ, as both Sullivan and Nicotine Jim’s Inc., are facing fines of up to $272,000 after being cited with 48 serious health and safety violations. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched an investigation in September 2010 after “numerous serious and willful violations” were issued at the main brewery in Williston as well as the landmark Burlington brewpub.

Sullivan admits the OSHA investigation has has hampered business.

“But mainly it’s the economy,” he says. “Business was already slow by time that thing started and I’ve said countless times it was a witch-hunt that had more to do with what was on the label than what was inside the bottle.

“We’ve used the same ingredients for years, we’ve never changed the formulas. Only recently — a few months before this OSHA thing — that’s when we decided to update the names,” Sullivan said. “The public demanded more detail and a more honest brew. We answer to the customer, not the government.”

The beer receiving the most OSHA violations was Nicotine Jim’s Fecal Pale Ale. In a sworn affidavit, Sullivan describes it as “robust, a little hoppy and the fecal matter is 100% organic. The farm that provides it uses all-natural products and absolutely no pesticides. It’s actually the same pig farm that grows the broccoli rabe we serve with the double grilled pork chops, which is a very fine pairing with the pale ale. This was always our most popular seller, before the economy went south.”

Also cited were: Skunk Piss Lager (“unpretentious and spirited with a distinctive, unmistakable finish. Balances nicely with the broiled tomatoes or a marinara-based pasta dish”), the Hepatitis B Witbier (“Lively flavor that stays with you. Great to share, maybe you shouldn’t. The actual virus is mine, transmitted through saliva and venereal fluids, but the dose is low so as not to intimidate the subtle maltiness of a wheat beer”) plus the Lambdick Lambic (“exactly as it sounds. It doesn’t quite match the fruitiness of, say, a Magic Hat #9 but it’s refermented with sour cherries so it’s almost a bit of a Kriek, not too sweet and not at all gamey”).

Also receiving coverage by OSHA and the Sullivan affidavit: Pantry Weevil Oatmeal Stout (“totally by accident but it’s hard to tell with a stout. We tried going back to weevil-free but customers said it lacked the starchiness and clarity, it wasn’t as clean. It hit me — bingo. The weevils act like finings, they’re a clarifying agent. Without them, the stout didn’t hold up nearly as well in a black and tan mixed with the Fecal Pale Ale. The half-pound sirloin burger soaked in stout? We’d serve 50 of those a day.”); Missing Daughter Alert Amber (“a horrible beer. It tastes awful but it was meant to be in bad taste, that’s what it is. Not a good seller. Like drinking motor oil from a dirty sock, which is sometimes what it might have been. Never the same recipe twice. Our waitstaff reported 32 registered sex offenders since we changed the name because usually they were the only people who would order it”).

Not cited but mentioned: Cock Block Doppelbock and “Porter?? I hardly knew her” also the strangely not investigated Jim’s Own Cream Ale as well as The 69, a bitter-style ale that’s top-fermented and bottom-fermented at the same time.

Up next for Sullivan? He says a lot remains up in the air but a long vacation is probably in order.

“The arraignment is in two weeks and I’m probably going away for a while,” he says, “but that’s what happens in an economy like this. I’ll still find ways to be creative. Even if it’s just bread and water, there’s always a way to add some spice to the mix.”

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© 2011 – 2013, Soapy Johnson. All rights reserved.

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