Taste of the Town: Prohibition Pig
By Ryan Frisch
Photos by Jeb Wallace Brodeur
A Man, A Plan, Prohibition Pig
When Prohibition Pig opened its doors in March 2012, it was a near-instant hit with locals excited to see life returning to Waterbury’s business center after the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene the previous fall. Word quickly spread. Busy Saturdays can see the small restaurant serve upwards of 600 people. Minutes off of I-89, it’s a convenient stop for road-trippers; others make it a destination in itself. One group even took a day trip across Lake Champlain from Plattsburgh inspired entirely by a post they had seen on Instagram.
Like most “overnight” success stories, this one has been years in the making. When ninth-generation Vermonter Chad Rich had his first taste of imported Belgian beer nearly two decades ago, it ignited a passion for top-quality libations that would lead to his involvement in the craft brewing movement. Chad began home-brewing and investigating micro-distilling back in 1999 when he was living in North Carolina and running a business there. With a growing enthusiasm for craft brewing and accumulated business experience under his belt, he returned to Vermont to further develop his expertise in local food and craft beverage. By 2009 he had a business plan that would marry his love of better beer and craft cocktails with local food. He kept an eye out for the right type of location—something with a speakeasy feel that would match the vintage-inspired name: Prohibition Pig.
After the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene poured into the basement of The Alchemist Pub and Brewery in Waterbury in August 2011, the popular Heady Topper double IPA producer moved its operations to its nearby cannery. Chad, a longtime friend of the owners, helped reinvigorate the downtown property. Prohibition Pig had found a home at 23 South Main Street.
Seventh Generation Sauce
Chad based the culinary concept for Prohibition Pig on a souvenir he brought north with, him from his time living in the south. His friend and former roommate, inheritor to an eastern North Carolina hog farm, had shared with him a seven-generation-old family recipe for BBQ sauce. “The sauce is amazing,” says Chef Michael Werneke. “It’s one of the best I’ve ever had.” Michael, who came to Pro Pig on Halloween 2012 from Stowe’s Rusty Nail, found a kitchen already well-versed in the ways of smoked meat.
At that point, Michael set about diversifying ma menu inspired by the heirloom sauce recipe that also highlighted the best of Vermont’s fresh ingredients. “We’re trying to make the best food we can with what we have, using as much local as possible,” he says. “Almost everything is made in-house.”
In keeping with southern BBQ tradition, the preparation of the cuisine at Prohibition Pig is a lesson in patience. The namesake chopped pork takes about 12 hours to smoke. The beef brisket requires between eight and ten. Meanwhile, Craft Mac & Cheese is another all-season favorite, baked-to-order and loaded with a heady combination of sharp and clothbound Cheddars, Baby Swiss, and a garlicky Mornay. “It’s really an obscene dish, not spa cuisine,” Michael says with a chuckle. “But people really enjoy it.”
But BBQ is just the tip of iceberg. Some menu items,
like the Bánh Fire burger, are distinctly Asian inspired. Others, like the light
and crispy duck fat fries, are fresh takes on all-American favorites. Then
there’s the avant garde. Why not the Oreo cookie pâté for dessert? It’s
proudly made from “locally harvested Oreo livers.”
The kitchen shakes up the menu every few months, keeping the classics and building on them. There’s only one rule, according to Michael. “Everything has got to be fun, and a little bit tongue in cheek.”
It’s a motto Jeff Baumann, the bar manager, fully embraces in terms of the libations. A colleague of Chad’s from their days at American Flatbread, Jeff was on board right from the start, and immediately put together a stock list characterized by high-quality, hard-to find, and occasionally a little quirky, products.
Libations: Quality with Quirks
In developing a cocktail program, Jeff reaches far beyond the typical cosmo or mojito. A big fan of Italian herbal liqueurs, he designed a menu of drinks meant to excite, and sometimes challenge, the palate. He forgoes fruit bombs entirely, favoring tart or bitter flavors instead. For colder weather, he looks to warming whiskey concoctions.
“I’m a huge fan of simplicity,” Jeff says. “If I can come up with a three-ingredient drink that kicks ass, I’m way more into that than a ten ingredient drink that’s all involved.” Many of the bar’s ingredients come from far afield—Jeff has his sights set to expand into smoky, Mexican mezcals. The bar also showcases some of the spirits from Vermont’s micro-distillery boom, in addition to the many in-state brews.
Beer enthusiasts, look no further. In this age of craft brewing, Prohibition Pig’s drinks menu reads like a reference book on the top rated beers from Vermont and beyond. The bar’s 22 beer lines feature a rotating cast of diverse ales, lagers, porters, and more. Hard-to find Vermont superstars, like Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Waterbury’s own Alchemist Brewery are staples.
The latest additions to the line-up are brewed right on site by the newest member of the team, head brewer Nate Johnson. When it comes to Prohibition Pig’s beer list, he says, range is the key. “I’ve gone in places too many times and they have 20 taps and 18 are IPAs,” Nate says. “It’s really important that you have variety.”
A veteran home brewer, Nate first bonded over craft beer with Chad more than half a decade ago. Late last year, when Pro Pig acquired a single-barrel brewing system from Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Chad brought in Nate to run it. So far, they’ve experimented with about six brews. Typically one or two are on tap. “I want to brew clean, drinkable beers that are really enjoyable,” Nate says, “but I want to have some fun with that too.”
Take Prohibition Pig’s Brass Monkey, an idea Nate first conceived while listening to the Beastie Boys. He wondered if he could make a beer version of the cocktail by the name, immortalized in the band’s 1987 hit. The result? An Amarillo-hopped, orange-zested malt liquor.
Keep an eye out for more funky brews coming out of downtown Waterbury; the basement operation is moving to a new seven-barrel system currently under construction behind the restaurant. The new brewery will be up and running well before the end of 2014, with their first bottle release, a stout porter barrel-age in Pappy Van Winkle barrels, slated to liven up stick season. Down the line, Chad hopes to get into distilling. The facility will be the latest contribution to Waterbury’s status as the beer crossroads of Vermont.
“It’s almost like a little boom town,” Michael says of Waterbury. “Three bars within staggering distance of each other that all have amazing beers.”
By Elizabeth Hewitt