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Editor's note: You can page through the entire summer issue of Sound & Country on The Day's new iMag, here.
Forget Thomas More.
It’s beer for all seasons.
This observation resonates particularly well since we’re experiencing a craft brewery explosion in Connecticut that’s starting to suggest the beer-happy cultures of Colorado, Vermont and Washington. This definitely includes our part of the Nutmeg State as well as nearby Westerly. Established icons such as the Willimantic Brewery and Brew Pub and Pawcatuck’s Cottrell Brewing Company have been joined in recent years by such within-easy-drive outfits as Beer’d Brewing (Stonington), Grey Sail Brewing (Westerly), Stubborn Beauty (Middletown), Thimble Island Brewery (Branford) and Top Shelf Brewery (Manchester).
As well, Safe Harbor Brewing of New London has their American Blonde Ale recipe brewed at Cottrell, and Bloomfield’s Thomas Hooker Brewery has opened a test kitchen and craft beer lounge in the Mohegan Sun Casino.
“When we opened in 1991, our theory was that every Main Street in every town has a cafe, and every town has a dozen pizza places — and they all make it. We thought, ‘Why not a brewery in every town?’” says David Wollner, the owner and head brewer of Willimantic Brewing. “And now we’re seeing that starting to take off. It only makes sense that, the more people who try fresh-brewed beer, the more they’re going to think differently about the way they enjoy beer.”
“There has definitely been a kind of explosion, and that’s definitely a good thing,” says Bergin O’Malley, who’s in charge of business and brand management for Cottrell Brewery. “There’s now a Connecticut Beer Trail and you can see not just from locals but also tourists that there’s an increased interest in local beers and a greater awareness and education about what we’re all doing.”
Indeed, the variety of beers and styles produced by the local brewers is as wide and creative as imagination and tradition allow — and the light lager mentality associated with Coors and Budweiser products scarcely touches the array of porters, stouts, India Pale Ales, lambics, bocks, bitters, pilsners and on and on.
“In Vermont or Colorado, the spirit of the independent brewer is ingrained in the culture,” O’Malley explains. ‘People there have a natural curiosity and affection for local breweries like they do farmers markets; they want to know where their food comes from and it’s important to them to support locally. It’s a better product and it’s representative of a sense of community.”
Jennifer Brinton, owner of Grey Sail Brewing, agrees. “Places like Colorado very much have a craft brew culture. If you live there, you’re very aware and involved with it. We’re not there — yet. The culture has to grow, but there are certainly signs right now that there is a lot of potential.”
In addition to just the sheer number of hometown breweries, there are other signs of growth and support.
The CT Beer Trail is an organization of fans of locally brewed beer, and it serves as a sort of clearinghouse for all sorts of Connecticut beer-centric stuff, from brewery bus tours to club memberships to special events. As well, the brewers themselves have started a Connecticut Brewers Guild to help each other with various issues about the business and opportunities.
In that spirit, local brewermasters and brewery owners are perhaps not typical in terms of business platforms.
“It’s a fun job. I don’t think people start microbreweries to make it big in the business world,” Brinton says. “My husband and I started Grey Sail on our 10th wedding anniversary. I said, ‘Let’s do this now. It’s what you love. This is my gift to you.’ And it’s been totally rewarding. We love our employees and we love the whole atmosphere and culture of the brewing community.”
Similarly, local brewers tend to not view their own products in an us-versus-them spirit of survival.
“In terms of competition, if someone is making good, fresh-brewed beer, it’s a wonderful thing for all of us,” Wollner says.
“At Cottrell, we’re very involved with ‘drink local’ campaigns aimed at tourists, and of course residents,” says O’Malley. “We do collaborations with other breweries and work together through events and promotions. It’s important to all of us that people know there is a beer culture here. You don’t have to be a connossieur starting out. You can come and get a beer and learn. We know what we’re doing and we want you to enjoy becoming part of the culture.”
Brinton hopes the energy and enthusiasm continues to grow. “Right now we’re all part of a really good thing. We’ll see if the consumer base sustains it.”
She points to the present renaissance in downtown Westerly, where restaurants and bars and shops are opening and doing well. “Everyone loves what’s going and the idea of growth,” she says. “But you hope people start to come from out of town and that the word continues to spread because we need to widen the support base so it’s sustainable over the years.”
“The idea is that, if someone tries a great local beer in Stamford or Pawcatuck and likes it, then maybe they’ll try one of our beers at a brew fest or a charity event or even here at our brewpub,” Wollner says. “And they keep trying more and more.”
967 Main Street, Willimantic
100 Mechanic Street, Pawcatuck
22 Bayview Ave #15, Stonington
180 Johnson St, Middletown
Thimble Island Brewery
53 East Industrial Road, Branford
Race Book, Mohegan Sun Casino
Grey Sail Brewing
63 Canal St, Westerly