The von Trapp family of Austria sang its way into American hearts through the popularity of “The Sound of Music” on stage and in film after World War II. The family bravely fled the spread of Hitler’s tyranny into their homeland and made it all the way to Philadelphia in 1938 in part with money made from singing. They finally settled down in 1942 in the mountains of Stowe, Vermont, where they continued to perform and eventually ran a successful inn, the Trapp Family Lodge. The spot is surrounded by 2,500 idyllic acres of Vermont beauty, and the lodge highlights outloor fun and European food.
The singing performances have ended, but the family’s ambition to expand its business lives on. Maria, the mother played by Julie Andrews, died in 1987, and the family enterprise today is led by her still-active son, Johannes. After building up the lodge and moving the family into real estate development, the lanky 73-year-old heir of the von Trapp legacy and Dartmouth graduate is ready to push ahead on yet another new family enterprise: beer.
“I’ve always loved traveling in Austria, stopping in little inns in small towns. Almost anywhere in Austria, there’s a local brewery producing wonderful products that really taste good and don’t give you a headache if you had one too much,” smiles Johannes with a homeland accent still present after a half century in America. “I really want to produce a beer like that for sale here.” After mulling the idea over idea for years, he says, the U.S. recession in 2008 was the final nudge: occupancy at the 100-room lodge fell, and real estate sales dropped. “The time seemed right,” he said in a recent interview in Stowe.
So Johannes opened a microbrewery that produces “Trapp Lager” in a basement below a stand-alone lodge deli house. Though the startup operation is small, it’s been a hit: the family’s draft brew is sold in about 70 bars and restaurants, mostly in Vermont. Encouraged by that success, he wants to invest $12 million for a stand-alone plant, boost production to 50,000 barrels a year, expand into nine northeastern states, and perhaps even tap overseas markets.
It’s a crowded field. Tiny Vermont itself has more than a dozen microbreweries, among the most per-capital in America. And there is a regional heavyweight rival, Sam Adams of Boston. “There is a great deal of competition,” Johannes concedes. Yet there’s a “great big hole in the product line-up which we have driven our beer truck into, and that is the lager field. Most of the micro-breweries are brewing ale, and we are brewing lagers.”
This is where China enters the picture. The U.S. government allows Vermont to participate in a federal program that, subject to certain criteria, grants permanent residence cards to overseas immigrants who invest at least $500,000 in the state. Participants are usually willing to trade high investment return for a solid project that will lead to residence, and Johannes says his brewery will do just that. He is also interested in finding a partner that will help him crack the China market, which he views as growing and possessing demand for a good lager beer, though there is broader competition in the industry from the likes of Inbev, Tsingdao, Carlsberg, and China Resources Enterprise, not to mention investment restrictions. To promote his Stowe brewery investment project, he will be joining an “Invest in the U.S.” trade fair in Shanghai in February, and plans to stay after on in search of business.
If all goes well, he’ll break ground back on his investment project in Stowe this year. There’s no word yet on when beer drinkers in China will have a chance to order up a Trapp Lager.