Traversing the Booming Connecticut Craft Beer Trail
Whenever I’m waiting in line at a microbrewery, a growler hooked into each index finger, I can always count on my friend James to quote John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, from High Fidelity: “I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t, well, kinda one of them.” Craft beer aficionados are no different than vinyl geeks, RPG enthusiasts, and Comic-Con devotees. In a nutshell, they’re nerds, and I’d be embarrassed for them if, well, I wasn’t kind of one of them.
But as I found out recently, nerds are not only well-versed in their area of expertise, they’re dogged, sometimes vicious proponents of their particular cause. In June, I wrote an article about 50 can’t-miss New England breweries to visit over the course of the summer. It came with a map and a little illustrated checklist, something fun for my fellow nerds to work on while, presumably, their more urbane friends were visiting beaches and attending backyard barbecues. Unfortunately, that map, with its dozens of red markers, seemed to form a kind of horseshoe around the second most populous state in the region: Connecticut.
Later that evening, I was hounded on Twitter by hundreds of offended Connecticut natives, determined to ascertain why I had eschewed an entire state in the course of my research. Even Boston Magazine‘s arts and research editor, Matt Baker, who hails from New Haven, wrote me an email that began, “Connecticut is not some free-floating entity adrift between two continents ruled by Albany and the Hub.”
Truthfully, it was a giant oversight on my end, and one that I’ve regretted since publishing the article. Yes, I’m aware that New England consists of six states. No, I wasn’t aware that it was the birthplace of John Ratzenberger, as well as the American hamburger (thank you, Matt!). But now I do, because I’ve spent the past month crisscrossing that proud, bucolic state (often listening to Liz Phair, Thurston Moore, and the Who’s The Boss? theme song), trying to find the best beer that Connecticut has to offer. Below are six of my favorite brewery finds, all of which have tasting rooms open to the public. Once again, in order to limit the field, no contract or tenant breweries were considered.
1. New England Brewing Company
In 1999, Rob Leonard was so skeptical about the craft beer scene in Norwalk (“it was the type of crowd that thought Stella was good beer”), that he moved his newly purchased brewery to Woodbridge. “New Haven was the first place in the state to really start exploding,” Leonard says. “Now, there are great beer-forward bars and restaurants in Fairfield County and Hartford, and it feels like a new brewery is opening almost everyday in Connecticut.”
Leonard’s brewery has been one of the biggest beneficiaries, as booming sales of his Sea Hag and Ghandi-Bot IPAs have afforded him the capital—as of last December—to move into much larger facility with triple the capacity. Whereas early years saw a max production of 4,500 barrels of beer, Leonard will now be able to brew 16,000 annually. “Our Connecticut market is starving for good beer,” Leonard says. “Even with the expansion, we’re not even close to filling all the orders we get. The growth on Sea Hag alone is just out of control, and it’s driving all the other brands.”
175 Amity Rd., Woodbridge, newenglandbrewing.com, Wed-Fri 3-7p.m.; Sat 11a.m.-4p.m.
Must Try Beers: Gandhi-Bot IPA, Fuzzy Baby Ducks, 668 Neighbor of the Beast Belgian Ale
2. Beer’d Brewing Company
Co-owner Aaren Simoncini’s three-barrel nanobrewery in Stonington is in such demand that area bars and restaurants are volunteering to pick up their own kegs, and even drop off the empty shells. Despite the generous proposal, Beer’d is still limiting sales to five outside accounts, choosing instead to pour most of their production for fans who line up for growler fills of Hobbit Juice and Dogs & Boats Imperial IPA. Open since November 2012, Beer’d has experimented with over 34 different beers, as well as two barrel-aged variants, but Simoncini chooses to focus on the “juicy, hoppy IPAs” he prefers to drink himself. Things are going so well for Beer’d, that they’ll soon be able to shuck their “nanobrewery” status. Simoncini has just signed a lease to double his current space, which they’ll be unveiling by the end of 2014.
22 Bayview Ave., Unit 15, Stonington, beerdbrewing.com, Fri 5-9p.m.; Sat-Sun 1-5p.m.
Must Try Beers: Hobbit Juice DIPA, Dogs & Boats DIPA
3. Firefly Hollow Brewing
Another crowd-sourcing success story, this 10-barrel taproom brewery was predominately subsidized through a $40,000 Kickstarter campaign. Opened in the fall of 2013 in the former New Departure factory building in Bristol, this upstart is perpetually teeming with craft beer fans eager to sample brewmaster Dana Borque’s latest creation. Clamored-over favorites include Borque’s Cone Flakes brewed with seven different types of hops and Smokey Moor, a Scottish ale that incorporates peat smoked barley.
139 Center St., Bristol, fireflyhollowbrewing.com, Thurs-Fri 2-8p.m.; Sat noon-8p.m.; Sun noon-5p.m.
Must Try Beers: Cone Flakes, Toadstool Oat Stout
4. OEC Brewing (Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores)
One of Connecticut’s newest standouts—they opened their doors on June 7—Benjamin Neidhart’s apothecary-themed brewhouse focuses on a forgotten period in Germany’s illustrious brewing history. “Most people recognize German brewing for what it is, making really nice pilsners and lagers,” Neidhart says. “But that’s really only been in the last 150 years. Before that it was almost all ales, quite a bit of it in sour beers. That’s all but been forgotten.” Built next door to his father’s beverage distribution company, B. United International, OEC specializes in sour and barrel-aged projects like his sessionable Berliner Weisse, Exilis. Up the road from his family’s vineyard and greenhouse, Neidhart is also experimenting with a number of yeast strains from wild cherries, raspberries, peaches, and the four rows of grape vines. Unfortunately, even Oxford residents have a hard time tracking down OEC’s products with availability limited to on-site sales, but that will all change this fall when Neidhart ups production and branches out into restaurant distribution.
7 Fox Hollow Rd., Oxford, oecbrewing.com, Sat noon-7p.m.
Must Try Beers: Novo Dry Hopped Saison, Exilis Berliner Weisse
5. Relic Brewing Company
Inspired by Idle Hands and Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Colorado native Mark Sigman opened, what he describes as, “the first in the new wave of small, experimental craft breweries in Connecticut.” Over 80 beers are constantly in rotation at Sigman’s Plainville microbrewery, but he says there’s a method to his voluminous repertoire. “People think there’s no rhyme or reason to what I do at Relic, but I’m actually very organized.” For Sigman, this includes a brewing schedule divided up between four distinct quarters, for seasonal, one-off, and even, core favorites. “I approach brewing the same way I do cooking,” Sigman says. “I like exploring a range of different flavors, with several different types of yeast strains. That doesn’t mean I do anything gimmicky, though. You’ll never find a cucumber or French toast flavored beer here.”
95B Whiting St., Plainville, relicbeer.com, Thurs-Fri 4-7p.m.; Sat noon-4p.m.
Must Try Beers: Darkness Falls Saison, Abbygail Hoppy Farmhouse IPA
6. Two Roads Brewing Company
On the opposite end of the craft brewing spectrum, this colossal operation, named after Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Travelled,” embraced an aggressive, high-production philosophy right out of the gate. Opened in December 2012, in a 101-year-old factory building, Two Roads is a state-of-the-art facility that has the ability to crank out almost 200,000 barrels of beer a year. Owners Brad Hittle, Peter Doering, Phil Markowski (founding brewer at New England Brewing Company) and Clement Pellani, are all brewing veterans, who put in an estimated $18 million dollars worth of renovations, which includes a slick taproom with wood floors and seating for over 200 guests. Distribution is already scheduled for much of the East Coast, but you have to visit the facility for more rare offerings like their Imperial Stout, Igor’s Dream.
1700 Stratford Ave., Stratford, tworoadsbrewing.com, Tue-Sat 2-9p.m.; Sun noon-7p.m.; tours Fri-Sun
Must Try Beers: Lil’ Heaven Session IPA, Road 2 Ruin DIPA, Unorthodox Imperial Stout
Link out to Google map.