From farms to the city, craft beer booms in Connecticut | Crain's Connecticut

From farms to the city, craft beer booms in Connecticut

  • Heather Wilson and husband Sam Wilson of Hop Culture Farms & Brewing Co. in Colchester are growing a variety of hops to sell to local breweries. The Wilsons are renovating a barn into a brewpub, scheduled to open next year. | Photo by Sujata Srinivasan

  • Brewer Alex Dee works the taps with co-owner John Doyle at the register at New Park Brewing in West Hartford. | Photo by Sujata Srinivasan

Heather Wilson, an emergency room nurse, and her firefighter husband Sam Wilson, bought a 40-acre farm in Colchester last year to grow hops.

With help from Sam’s parents, the duo have planted row after row of a variety of hops ranging from the popular Cascade to the American hybrid Zeus. At the entrance of their property stands a large, rambling old barn being converted into a brewpub, around which the couple, who have two young children and another one along the way, plan to build a play area.

“We want folks to bring their kids, spend a day on the farm, pet goats, pick vegetables—we want this to become a destination for agritourism,” said Heather. “We want to grow blueberries here for our blueberry ale, offer farm-to-table meals, and tie-up with local farms for food pairings.”

The Wilsons’ Hop Culture Farms & Brewing Co. is among a handful of farms statewide that are growing their own hops—Kent Falls Brewing Company was a pioneer, obtaining a special permit from the town—and is among 28 breweries in-planning across the state. An additional six are under contract, with close to a dozen poised to open by year-end, adding to the state’s 49 microbreweries and brewpubs, and one regional brewery, according to data from the Brewers Association. Earlier in June, the Connecticut State Senate approved a bill in favor of creating a manufacturer’s permit for a farm brewery, accelerating the growth of an industry that’s currently red hot nationwide.

In Connecticut, the Brewers Association estimates the economic impact of its 50 breweries at $569 million (26th nationally), with 129,825 barrels of craft beer produced each year. The craft beer market across the U.S grew at 6.5 percent as of 2016 to $23.5 billion, while the overall beer market remained flat at $107.6 billion, the Brewers Association reports.

“In per capita terms, I’d say Connecticut’s tracked national trends,” said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association. “Generally we see a healthy industry for most small brewers. Tasting rooms and brewpubs that sell direct have decent margins, and so more breweries are able to survive even in a competitive marketplace.”

The new brewpubs – as urban planners call it, are creating a third space – a gathering place for the community that’s “basically like your living room,” said Jobina Miller, co-owner of Epicure Brewing Company in Norwich, which opened its loft-style brewery earlier this month at the former printing site of the Norwich Bulletin.

At New Park Brewing, West Hartford’s first craft brewery, which opened in March, infants sleep snugly in car seats placed beside long tables that one might see in a tavern, and children pore over coloring pages as parents sit back and enjoy an IPA. Out by the patio is a food truck selling Greek staples – “We’ve made hundreds of sales today” said Niko Papathanasiou.

Ellie Novick and Tim Kavanagh of West Hartford dropped by with their toddler daughter. The family had recently relocated from Manhattan, N.Y. 

“Connecticut drinks a lot but they’re very buttoned up about it, and they seem not to want to do it with their children, which is very different from what we’re used to in Manhattan” Novick said. “So it’s nice to be here with our child, have a drink, and not be stigmatized.”

For a lot of customers like Kavanagh, part of the appeal is the community feel.

“Like the old European beer halls or beer garden—you meet strangers, sit and talk, and everybody is there to have a good time," she said."

Among the varieties available that day was Afterglow, made by brewer and co-founder Alex Dee. It's a slightly tart beer brewed with 420 pounds of raspberries in a six-barrel batch, with 31 gallons per barrel. Dee dropped out of a PhD program in biomedical sciences at the University of Connecticut after his home brewing hobby took a serious turn, leading to an investment of around $500,000—including a bank loan—and partnership with co-founder John Doyle.

Like Dee, Lock City Brewing Co. co-founder Michael Bushnell also left a more traditional path to start his brewery, which is scheduled to open this July in Stamford. Bushnell quit a 15-year-career in finance and invested $550,000 of his savings to turn his love of home brewing into a viable business.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” said Bushnell, who’ll be brewing primarily IPAs. “We just want to make beer that beer enthusiasts are going to love.”

His choice of IPA is right on trend, according to Rita Ghei, a Fairfield County-based beer judge. 

“IPAs and Belgian-style sours dominate the summers because they are light," Ghei said, adding that “America drinks IPAs by the gallon."

Americans are also willing to foot the launch of local breweries, as Brian Bugnacki, co-founder of Alvarium Beer Company, scheduled to open June-end in New Britain, discovered.

“We had set a modest goal of $15,000 on our Kickstarter, but had no idea it would blow up to exceed $35,000 before the 30-day campaign was over!” he said.

The company also raised funds from the City of New Britain and the Hartford Economic Development Corporation (HEDCO).

Food options at Alvarium will include local kielbasa, Bavarian pretzels and a lineup of food trucks. “We’ll also feature live music, shuffleboard, life-size Jenga and pinball,” Bugnacki said.

Beers will include a variety of traditional and avant-garde styles, including English, German, Belgian, New England IPAs, sours and barrel-aged styles.

“You name it and we'll be brewing it,” he said. “We'll also feature low ABV beers and beer fermented using traditional methods.”

Established craft breweries, meanwhile, are experiencing strong demand from distributors.

“There’s an opportunity in the beer market for us because there are hundreds of fantastic craft beer producers who are not yet widely available in Connecticut, including some of Connecticut's own highly respected brewers,” said Rich Veilleux, general manager of the Essex-based Cellar Fine Wines. “There is a great demand and interest from the public in discovering new beers, and the retailers we work with are competing to have the best selection.”

Celler Fine Wines distributes craft beer from Shebeen Brewing Company in Wolcott, Cottrell Brewing Co. in Pawcatuck, and its latest, Charter Oak Brewing Company in Danbury.

“Our top selling beer is the Turbo IPA from Shebeen,” Veilleux said. “I like to joke that IPAs are the color TV of our generation!”

Not everyone is jumping on the IPA train, however. Oceanographic technician Mike Lincoln of Noble Jay Brewing Co., expected to open in Niantic in August, doesn’t want to manufacture yet another color TV.

“The market is saturated with IPAs, so I started making lagers a few years ago—classic American Pilsner,” he said. “We will have a Noble Tap each month where 10 percent of sales will go to a different charity. I want the brewery to be about more than beer. I want it to be about community.” 

June 13, 2017 - 2:48pm