Ice Ice Baby
Want to enjoy an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day? Olde Burnside Brewing Co. can oblige.
Let’s ask the obvious question: as the summer mercury rises, is there any “cooler” place to work than at Connecticut’s only block-ice manufacturing facility? Add in the fact that The Burnside Ice Co. is also home to Olde Burnside Brewing Co.—makers of Ten Penny Ale and its related brews—and it sounds like the perfect place to spend a hot summer day.
Unfortunately, the manufacturing facility—housed in an 80-year-old, hops vine-covered red-brick building on Tolland Street in East Hartford—isn’t permitted to sell liquor, so although they make both beer and ice here, you can get only ice if you stop in. (Talk about a cold shoulder!) Ice is sold in various forms from the folksy front-loading dock of the 6,000-square-foot facility; a large, red-white-and-blue “ice menu” lists the company’s offerings, from bagged “frosty nuggets” and crushed ice to dry ice and “cooler fuel” (15 pounds of chunk ice especially fashioned for prolonged use in a cooler). And of course, there’s block ice, upon which the entire Burnside Ice business was built.
Block ice has been sold here for almost a century, since current owner Robert McClellan’s grandfather Albert harvested it during winters from a nearby pond and delivered it by horse-drawn wagon to homes all over East Hartford. The icehouse was erected on the site in 1933, and block ice has been made here in essentially the same way for decades. The removable floor is a grid of empty forms (like a giant ice cube tray) surrounded with freezing equipment. Each form is filled with filtered water from a well beneath the property and then allowed to freeze. When solid, the 300-pound blocks are lifted by crane in pairs out of the forms and sent through a chute to a freezer before being distributed around the region. At full production capacity, Burnside churns out 10 tons of block ice per day (as well as 12 tons of cubes).
As you might imagine, July is prime time for ice. “When it gets really, really hot, it’s like war,” says McClellan, who bought Burnside Ice in 1982 from his father, Clifford (who had bought it from his father 40 years before that) and now runs the operation with wife Gail and sons Jason and Case, fourth-generation ice men. “No matter how fast you can make ice and get it on the street, or how much you can make of it, if one person runs out, they’re an enemy for life.” In addition to supplying stores like Sam’s Club, Burnside provides ice for venues like the XL Center and Connecticut Convention Center as well as for events like the Travelers Championship and UConn games at Rentschler Field. Since it is only one of four companies in the Northeast that makes block ice, it also distributes to all the other icehouses in the state that offer it.
Of course, it’s not like there’s a secret recipe for ice (cold + water, last time I checked), so Burnside’s sustained success can be attributed to . . . the water?
As mentioned, the water for the ice comes from a 400-foot well that was dug on the property in 1962, and because the water is so good, McClellan’s father had metered taps installed in the front of the building for public consumption. It was in 1994 while watching one particular patron filling up a five-gallon bucket that the seeds for business expansion were sown. “I asked him why he needed so much water,” recalls McClellan. “And he said, ‘Your water makes really good beer.’” A lightbulb came on; McClellan had the well’s water analyzed and discovered it was similar to that of Burton-on-Trent in England, which is used for many popular brews, including Bass Ale. Within a few years, the Olde Burnside Brewing Co. was up and running in a converted garage of the ice-making operation. “We kind of did it backward,” says McClellan, relating how initially icehouses were built to support breweries. “We had the ice factory first, then we built the brewery.”
Along with the icehouse, the brewing business is a full-time concern for the McClellans, who with the help of two brewers, craft award-winning Ten Penny Ale, Dirty Penny Ale and other specialty beers, which can be found in liquor stores and local bars across the region. The general brewing process starts with the grains (some of which are imported from England) being poured into a small mill, opened and crushed before being mixed into a large tank of water. Once it is “mashed,” the wort (as the mix is called) is transferred for two hours to a brew kettle, where high-intensity boiling brings out flavors and removes impurities. The brew is then cooled, pumped into large tanks and allowed to ferment for a few weeks. Finally, it is carbonated and put into growlers (half-gallon bottles) or kegs, for distribution to bars. On average, Burnside produces 124,000 gallons of beer annually.
Because of the unique access to the ice house, the folks at Burnside Brewing are able to use the freezing system to “crash cool” ales during the brewing process, which means they don’t have to pasteurize or filter them. That also requires that it has to be kept cold—not a problem if you own an icehouse.
Now if only there were a pretzel factory next door . . . .
For more information, visit oldeburnsidebrewing.com.Ice Ice Baby