It was not the grand opening anyone envisioned.
NewSylum Brewing Co. owners Mark Lennon, David Kingsley and Mark Tambascio had been planning their brewery for several years as a taproom-centered operation. One that took full advantage of their unique location in Newtown within a historic building at what was formerly Fairfield Hills Hospital, a psychiatric facility on a 100-plus-acre campus with more than a dozen buildings.
Then the coronavirus hit.
The brewery was slated to open the first week in May, but Connecticut was still shut down and the taproom the owners had envisioned as the centerpiece of their business couldn’t be opened. “We had to shift gears from our original plan,” Lennon says.
They hadn’t planned on canning their beer but quickly contracted with a mobile canning company, and began offering curbside pickup.
As the state reopened, they were able to allow customers outdoors and then indoors at limited capacity. In the midst of a pandemic, NewSylum became a destination.
Open only Friday through Sunday, the brewery’s 50-seat outdoor capacity fills up within 15 minutes most days. Head brewer John Watson, a longtime award-winning brewer, and assistant brewer Dave Linari’s beers are earning praise from beer geeks statewide. I’ve fallen in love with the Counting the Days IPA and Walking the Dog German Pilsner. Counting the Days’ name is a nod to the state lockdown and strange period when the brewery opened. It’s a hop-forward, hazy, New England-style IPA and one of the best examples currently around. Walking the Dog is named for the many folks you are likely to see walking their dogs around Fairfield Hills during your visit to the brewery. The unfiltered pilsner highlights the brewery’s lager-making abilities, which they aim to specialize in (there’s also a Walking the Dog Czech Pilsner that I’ve yet to try).
None of this success is surprising given the pedigree of the brewery’s owners. Tambascio is a co-owner of My Place, a popular local restaurant and one of the state’s original beer bars. A respected beer judge and homebrewer, Tambascio’s knowledge and passion for beer has long drawn craft enthusiasts to Newtown, including my parents who dragged a sometimes-begrudging 10-year-old there frequently in the '90s.
“At the time I think he was the second or third beer bar in the whole state of Connecticut,” says Lennon, who began managing the bar at My Place in the late 2000s. For NewSylum, Lennon and Tambascio have partnered with Kingsley, a builder and architectural designer who handled the design for the brewery, and worked with Jerry Birdsall who did plaster restoration and decorative painting with help from designer Joe Viola. It occupies a 1930s building that once was an executive dining hall for nurses and doctors.
Fairfield Hills was shut down as a hospital in the '90s and purchased by the town of Newtown in 2004. The campus has since become home to recreational and administrative buildings for the town as well as walking paths, but NewSylum is the first for-profit commercial tenant at the campus. Despite recent renovations, old and crumbling buildings remain, a grim reminder of the manner in which mental health was once treated. Driving through the campus following signs to the brewery, the sight of walkers wearing masks against the backdrop of the old hospital buildings is altogether apocalyptic. But as soon as I spot the brewery on the service road ahead, these dystopian visions fade.
Outside the brewery there is a large lawn with several tents and appropriately spaced tables, upbeat music playing and an oasis-like vibe. The inside space is anchored by a showstopping beer hall that is cool enough to serve as a setting for a movie, with a 26-foot ceiling overlooking 6-foot-by-12-foot, church-like windows and arches. I try the brewery’s Therapy Session Pale Ale and Flagpole Porter (named for the town’s iconic flagpole) and am impressed by both. I also enjoy a giant Bavarian Pretzel, as big as a kid’s bike tire, and served with spicy mustard. It’s a perfect beer garden snack. There is also pizza made in a hybrid wood- and gas-powered oven, and cheese plates and charcuterie boxes.
It’s a little after 2 p.m. on a Friday and the place is full. In a year when the food and beverage industry has been particularly hard hit, it’s nice to see a new business not just surviving but thriving, I think as I drink the aptly named Therapy Session, and on this sunny afternoon, I’m reminded even 2020 has its moments.
NewSylum Brewing Co.
36 Keating Farms Ave., Newtown
Hours: Fri.-Sun. 2-8 p.m.