Published July 31. 2013 4:00AM Updated July 31. 2013 8:18AM
Brewing beer in Pawcatuck since 1997, Charlie Buffum has seen a lot of other Connecticut breweries come and go.
While others quickly built a lineup of beers and expanded into other states, Buffum took more of a tortoise approach with his Cottrell Brewing Co. He stuck with his flagship, Old Yankee Ale, deflecting requests for other year-round and seasonal offerings, and he grew slowly, converting one customer at a time.
It hasn't been easy considering his core market of Connecticut and Rhode Island rank 50th and 39th in beer consumption, respectively.
In convincing reluctant pub owners to put the local beer on tap, Buffum paved the way for those who would follow and today it's rare to walk into a local restaurant and not find a brew from Cottrell, Grey Sail or Narragansett.
He's done it by pouring beer at any event that would invite him and stressing customer service.
"I remember once getting a call from a nearby account on a Saturday who was out of product. I happened to be at the brewery and had beer there in less than 10 minutes," he says. "The account was in disbelief. I don't think they'd ever seen the CEO of AB-InBev walk through their door doing that."
Now, a second year-round ale, Mystic Bridge IPA, has joined the lineup, as well as seasonals Oktoberfest, Summer Ale and Perry's Revenge, which is named after Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry's 19th-century ship that Buffum and his diving partner found off Watch Hill. Cottrell also brews some Narragansett beers under contract, and Safe Harbor, New London's official beer, under a partnership.
Summer is a busy time for brewers, but Buffum found a few minutes to answer our questions.
Q. You've been in business 16 years, no small achievement for a regional craft brewer. How have your survived?
A. I attribute our ability to survive to several factors. First, very slow and controlled growth. As you may remember, we only made and sold one brand, Old Yankee Ale, consistently for almost 6 years. That allowed us to focus on doing one thing well. The thought was, once we've established a name and a brand, then there might be more interest in subsequent products. Second, we run a very tight ship on the spending side. As anyone that has visited our brewery can tell you, with the exception of some recent tank purchases, most of the brewery was cobbled together with "pre-owned" equipment or what I like to call "vintage" technology. While this can sometimes present its own challenges (and expenses) I don't think our beer is any worse for wear than those that have spent inordinately more money on brand new equipment. Third, keeping our capacity full is key to being able to keep cash coming in. We have achieved this through steadily growing our own brands as well as taking on contract work. We currently make beer for at least five other companies. Fourth, maintaining long-term relationships with both our wholesale and retail customers, especially at the local level. One advantage of being local is that we can personally respond to customer needs in a timely manner. If an account needs a tap handle or runs out of beer on a weekend, we can usually remedy that quickly.
Q. After being alone for years, Cottrell has been joined locally by Grey Sail in Westerly and Beer'd in Stonington. Is this a good or bad thing?
A. I see the net effect as positive. Having several breweries, wineries, hard cider makers and distilleries (Sons of Liberty in Wakefield, R.I.) in the area offers more attractions for visitors and locals alike, while increasing awareness and raising the profile of "locally crafted" beer. I believe we have way more to worry about from the mega "crafty," out-of-region brands than the addition of a few small local breweries.
Q. Was the brewing of Perry's Revenge personally satisfying?
A. I cannot deny it. The whole process, from concept, to recipe design, to brewing, to package layout and design has been a truly rewarding experience. With such a great story behind it, it all came fairly easily. A shipwreck story should have a rich, dark, potent, "stormy" beer behind it. I've always wanted to do a Scotch Ale, and besides, Perry's mother was a descendant of the famous Scotsman William Wallace, so it seemed a natural fit. This was our chance to put something out there a little more on the extreme side. Perry's Revenge is a total departure from our other beers, which are really quite "sessionable."
Q. In the book "Beer Lover's New England," the author calls Old Yankee Ale "probably the best amber ale being brewed in New England today." How gratifying is it to get a compliment like that?
A. Probably? Old Yankee Ale is the best pale ale in New England. All kidding aside, of course we are flattered to get compliments like that. We have worked very hard these last 16 years to continue to bring to the marketplace our fresh, flavorful, quality "flagship" offering. It is not a beer for one seeking to have their head blown off by hops or alcohol or weird spices from the far-flung corners of the world with all kinds of complex flavors. OYA will never get high marks from those seeking that type of beer. But if you take it for what it is, we think OYA is a pretty darn good beer, and it is nice to have a pat on the back every once in a while from those that feel the same way about it. The Bros. at Brewers Advocate also gave OYA their highest A+ rating and that was pretty nice as well.
Q. IPAs can be all over the map in hoppiness. What was your aim in making Mystic Bridge?
A. Our aim with Mystic Bridge was to make it appeal to a fairly wide audience. Some IPAs are so hoppy that it's hard to taste any of the underlying beer. Don't get me wrong, I love a big, strong, hoppy IPA as much as the next hophead, but for me it is all about balance. I want to taste some malty sweetness in an IPA as well as the hops. After all, we spend more money on our grains than anything else. Why completely drown out the flavors they are meant to impart? Mystic Bridge is at the lower end of the IPA range in terms of IBUs, so it makes a good entry beer for those just getting acquainted with the IPA style.
Q. Match up one of your beers with a food and tell us why they work together.
A. The strong characteristics of Perry's Revenge go well with gamey meats such as pheasant or venison as well as traditional roasts such as pork or lamb. The darker roaster malts of this beer also pair up nicely with the iodine, briny flavors of raw oysters on the half shell. But Revenge goes especially well with a rich dessert, given its chocolate, raisin, alcohol characteristics. Sip a Revenge with any dessert with dark chocolate, toffee or caramel....mmmm, it doesn't get any better!