Asked to describe brewpub fare, most Vermonters would list creative burgers, chicken wings, and fries slicked with gravy and dotted with cheese curds.
Whirligig Brewing in St. Johnsbury defies these well-worn expectations.
The brewery has stood out since it opened in 2020, displaying co-owner Geoffrey Sewake’s penchant for refreshing sour beers and his playful use of local brewing ingredients: flaked wheat grains, pears and sourdough culture.
While he was busy establishing the brewery, Sewake outsourced the taproom menu to other area businesses. But in December 2022, he took the reins in the kitchen.
“Now all the pieces fit together like a puzzle,” he said.
In a space packed with tables and beer barrels and equipped with stacks of board games, a sign directs customers to order at the bar. Diners can pair Sewake’s brews and other beverages with food that he has crafted to share the flavors of his Japanese American heritage and West Coast upbringing, sometimes combined with classic dishes he loves as an adult.
The Philly-inspired cheesesteak sandwich ($15) is a perfect example. Made on Japanese-style milk bread baked for Whirligig by nearby Boule Bakery, it features shaved steak, bell peppers, onions, a mix of cheeses and mustardy mayo — with Cheez Whiz available by request. It’s a surprising cultural mashup and a culinarily savvy combination.
The menu includes rice bowls topped with Japanese curry ($15), steak ($15), house-smoked ribs ($15), or kimchi and tofu ($14). The latter two, my favorites, come with sweet miso barbecue sauce, tamari mayo, potato crunch and Japanese seven spice. A mouth-torching sambal sauce accompanies the ribs.
Sewake suggested ordering a lager or sour beer to go with the rice bowls and pairing white wine with his many cheese-heavy dishes. Anybody tending bar can suggest a sake from a selection that Sewake said is among the state’s most extensive. They can whip up sake cocktails, too.
On one recent visit, the 10 brews on tap ($4 half pour/$7 full pour) ranged from a tart gose made with local beets to a lush maple milk stout that sat on dried figs while it aged. The bar also offers reasonably priced bottles of wine, Fable Farm ciders and a handful of nonalcoholic offerings.
For Sewake, bar food exists to do more than sop up drinks. “When you break bread with family, friends and new acquaintances, you can share your experience, your background and your culture,” he said. He aims to create “a unique experience that can be a memory.”
One memorable Whirligig dish is based on Swiss raclette. The original features Alpine cheese melted until bubbly, poured over boiled potatoes and usually served with cornichons and cured meats.
Sewake swapped Jasper Hill Farm‘s Whitney for the original Swiss cheese and offers both a classic version ($16) and a Whirligig original called cantina-style raclette ($17), to which he adds chipotle salsa, black beans, corn, cilantro and crumbly cotija.
If Sewake’s succulent smoked ribs are on the menu, grab them on a rice bowl, a sandwich ($15) or piled on a dish aptly named Happiness on Chips, a combo of potato chips, meat, cheeses and creamy sauces ($15).
Neil Glassman of Barnet is one of many regulars who find happiness in abundance at Whirligig, which he visits with his partner almost weekly. Asked if the couple have favorites, Glassman said they’re equal opportunity eaters.
“There are so many yummy things,” he exclaimed. “We’re going there 40-plus times a year, so we [must] like the food.”