Last Saturday, the quiet town of Waterbury was overrun with relax-fitted baseball caps, half-chewed stogies and beer can-inlaid party hats. What may have looked like the biggest bro gathering this side of “Entourage” was actually the state’s largest annual beer celebration, the Brass City Brew Festival. This year, the festival featured hundreds of craft brews — some coming from as far as Australia and Mexico. Despite the annual festival’s international draw, many came for the local beer — a testament to Connecticut’s flourishing microbreweries and brewpubs.
The increasing popularity of microbreweries, however, conceals a historically volatile industry whose bubble burst 15 years ago. Those who survived the ensuing shakeout — Connecticut’s highest quality small-volume brewers — are a close-knit group.
“We’re a tight community,” BruRm@Bar’s head brewer Jeff Browning said. “[Connecticut] is a tough state to do business in, and we try to share time and ingredients.”
Browning, a recognized authority on the history of beer in Connecticut, has been brewing at Bar for 14 years. He has spent the better part of his time at Bar experimenting with beer legend Terry Foster, author of world-renowned guides to porter and pale ale. It’s hard to tell whether Browning and Foster’s brewing sessions are more science or art.
The result of their weekly meetings is a slew of full-flavored, English-style beers with relatively low alcohol content. Bar sells nearly a barrel of Browning’s crisp, dry Toasted Blonde every day. Even his smoky Damn Good Stout far outsells all outside beers on tap.
Today’s beer drinker is increasingly aware of beer styles and companies outside of mainstream American lagers. This development has generated business for small brewers and has forced purveyors to adapt to a more discerning beer palate. Basic liquor stores now carry established craft brands, such as California’s Sierra Nevada and Delaware’s Dogfish Head as well as locally produced microbrews.
“The micro trend is here to stay,” Eli Cannon’s Tap Room general manager Carrie Roberts said. “It’s like when people first had the TV and then they came out with the color TV. No one went back to black-and-white.”
With its easygoing atmosphere and large outdoor seating area, Eli Cannon’s, located in Middletown, Conn., is a pioneer of beer-focused eating in Connecticut. Restaurants such as Eli Cannon’s, New Haven’s Prime 16, and Delany’s Restaurant and Tap Room pride themselves on extensive beer selections that often feature local brews.
This tendency to stock locally produced beers reflects the preferences of loyal drinkers. The longest tasting lines at the Brass City Brewfest were for the Connecticut beers.
“The local stuff is excellent, and this is not a Bud Light drink-a-thon. You have to go sipping the Connecticut brew,” beer enthusiast and Brewfest attendant Johnboy Silverado said.
One of the state’s most successful breweries is Olde Burnside Brewing Company, an East Hartford, Conn., offshoot of a nearly century-old, family-run ice company. Old Burnside’s cooling equipment allows a quick 30-minute transition from boil to fermentation, eliminating chill haste and resulting in fresh, unique brews.
Their Ten Penny Ale, a light malty version of a traditional Scottish ale, is Olde Burnside’s flagship beer. It was originally brewed as a seasonal ale but its overwhelming popularity forced Olde Burnside to increase production. Their most unique brew is the Penny Weiz, a full yet refreshing spicy beer that owner Jason McClellan describes as Olde Burnside’s “homage to the Belgian Witbier craze.” In creating this unique beer, the brewers replaced traditional coriander with Scottish heather tips.
Perhaps the state’s best-known brew is Old Yankee Ale, a medium-bodied amber and, until recently, the only beer that Charles Buffum’s Cottrell Brewing Company produced. Buffum opened the microbrewery in Pawcatuck after quitting his longtime job as a management consultant. After 12 years of brewing only Old Yankee Ale, Cottrell recently introduced Mystic Bridge IPA, a complex yet accessible ale with savory hops that are not too overpowering.
When discussing his philosophy on beer, the soft-spoken Buffum is more Buddhist monk than New England brewer: “Beer is what mood you’re in, what time of the day it is.”
Closer to New Haven, at Southport Brewing Company’s five locations in southern Connecticut, brewmaster Mark DeSilva and owner Frank DelGrecco offer more than half a dozen regular brews and a number of seasonal ales. DeSilva’s American style of brewing produces flavorful beers with a clean finish.
Their popular English Pale Ale is a medium-bodied brew full of hops, yet without the expected bitter aftertaste. Similarly, DeSilva’s stout hits like a traditional Irish stout but finishes surprisingly smooth.
“With my beers, anything goes,” DeSilva said. “I follow the Magic Hat way of brewing. They don’t even have styles.”
With only a few standard processes and ingredients, Connecticut brewers are making distinctive, world-class brews. In a state that used to look to neighboring New York and Massachusetts for beer inspiration, microbreweries and brewpubs now create brews of which any beer geek can be proud.
“What makes any brewing process unique is the brewer,” Browning said. “It’s amazing what you can get out of the same four ingredients.”