The New Frontier of Connecticut Beer

Photo by Stan Tess ©

 

Craft beer in Connecticut is getting, well, craftier.

There are now more than 40 breweries in the state, nearly 10 times the number of a decade ago. And Connecticut’s brewing ranks continue to grow, with more than 20 new breweries expected to open in 2017. These breweries are not just producing a high quantity of beer, but high-quality products, as well.

From sour beers to wild-yeast beers brewed with spontaneous fermentation, and double IPAs with imported hops to farmhouse ales with Connecticut-grown ingredients, state beer is a whole lot more interesting than it was even a few years ago.

Kevin Mardorf, founder of CTBeer.com and beerfests.com, says he’s not surprised brewers in Connecticut are producing innovative beers. “These are outside-the-box thinkers to begin with,” he says.

This innovation has been driven in part by the state’s rapid brewery growth, which has led to a “anything goes” mentality, due in part to consumer demand.

“Every account (bar or liquor store) you walk into now, the first words out of their mouth is ‘What’s new?’” says Andy Schwartz, brewmaster at Stony Creek Brewery in Branford.

Take a closer look at some of “what’s new” and trending in the industry.

Sour Power(Photo courtesy of OEC Brewing.) 

For OEC Brewing, making beer is something of a mystical process.

The small Oxford brewery specializes in sour beers brewed with techniques inspired by ancient European traditions with some modern flair and technology thrown into the mix.

“Historically all beer was sour; ‘clean’ beer has only been around 200 years, give or take,” says Tony Pellino, assistant brewer at OEC. “Before that, people didn’t know what yeast was and fermentation was magic and it sort of still is magic.”

Most beers are fermented with lab-cultured yeast strains selected to produce consistent, predictable flavors, but OEC makes many of its beers with spontaneous fermentation, a process in which wild yeasts in the air are allowed to infect or inoculate a developing beer. These yeasts create unpredictable flavors that can spoil a batch of “normal” beer, which is why generations of brewers have worked hard to keep their brewing equipment sterile and wild-yeast free.

At OEC, they open the window and let these yeasts in.

The most common type of wild yeast is a strain of Brettanomyces known in the beer world as “Brett.” This yeast gives beer an earthy, barnyard funk that fans of wild and sour beers crave. OEC’s beers are also soured with lactobacillus or another bacteria, then barrel-aged for months or even years. After this labor-intensive process is complete, beers from various barrels are blended in order to accentuate desired flavors. The resulting beers are intriguingly tart and full of unique character. They’ve also earned high praise in Connecticut and beyond. In August, Bloomberg Pursuits declared OEC “North America’s most innovative craft brewery.”

But OEC isn’t the only Connecticut brewery offering innovative sours.

Schwartz and the team at Stony Creek offer constantly changing specialty beers in addition to their core lineup of more widely available brews. This includes a draft-only series that has produced beers like Crimsang, a soured double IPA, and a line of nitro beers (ones that have been carbonated using nitrogen).

These beers appeal in particular to the craft beer fanatics who are only “a very small part of any brewery’s real operation, especially a brewery of our size. We call them the two percent,” Schwartz says. “But they’re an incredibly vocal, incredibly knowledgeable, incredibly passionate part of our customer base. They’re extremely important. So you’ve got to keep them happy because they’re always wanting something new.”

Kent Falls Brewing Co. takes the local philosophy of the craft beer movement a step further: the brewery is located on Camps Road Farm, which has a hopyard and grows other ingredients featured in the brewery’s beers. Kent Falls’ specialties include sour beers and beers brewed with Brett wild yeast.

“There is definitely an increase in the popularity of sour beers, just like Brett beers,” says Barry Labendz, the founder of Kent Falls Brewing Co. “The real driving force is the consumer coming around to ideas about what beer can taste like.”

The Scene is Hop-ing(Photo courtesy of Relic Brewing Co.) 

While sour beers and those using wild or wild-style yeasts have increased in popularity, the most popular style in Connecticut by far is the IPA and its more alcoholic offspring, the double IPA.

Mark Sigman, brewer and owner of Plainville-based Relic Brewing Co., says he was told by a distributor that, “If you want to sell beer in this state, and you want to succeed as a business, you can do a couple of other beers, but really you must focus on high-alcohol-content double IPAs.”

Though Sigman enjoys brewing and drinking IPAs, he regrets that it’s hard to sell non-IPA beers anywhere but from his brewery taproom. “In the taproom environment you can make these less-typical beers. If you did a big run and made bottles, it’s tough.”

But Connecticut beer drinkers’ thirst for hops has helped flood the market with some truly excellent beers. Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford’s most popular beer is its double IPA Road 2 Ruin. Two Roads also brews the popular Sip of Sunshine IPA for the legendary Vermont brewery Lawson’s Finest Liquids. Pioneer Beer Co. of South Windsor brews its beer at Wolcott’s Shebeen Brewing Co. and has drawn hundreds of people for releases of its New England-style IPA, Trailblazer. (Pioneer is building a brewery in South Windsor.)

New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge produces a variety of intensely sought-after IPAs including G Bot, Coriolis and Fuzzy Baby Ducks. Matt Westfall, head brewer at New England Brewing Co. (who announced in September he would be leaving the brewery to start Counter Weight Brewing Co. in Hamden), says that many Connecticut drinkers are now searching for specific varieties of hops in their beer. “As people get to know a little more about these hop varieties, they kind of determine which ones they don’t like.”

The double IPA Hobbit Juice is one of the signature beers at Beer’d Brewing Co. in Stonington. It’s brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops, a popular and now hard-to-get hop variety from New Zealand. Owner and brewer Aaren Simoncini says, “There is absolutely a demand for beers made with the ‘sexy’ hops. Throw [hop varieties like] citra, mosaic, Nelson Sauvin and a number of other names on a label and it’s almost guaranteed to be an instant hit. This troubles me, though, because you can brew a great centennial, amarillo and nugget pale ale and it might not be considered as good as the exact same beer with a little bit of citra but labeled as ‘with citra.’”

Beware of the White Whales(Photo by Stan Tess ©)  

In the beer world, a white whale, or just a whale, is a sought-after, hard-to-come-by brew with a limited release. Connecticut beer drinkers seem to be more interested in these beers than ever before. “I’ve definitely seen an increasing trend of people wanting to get their hands on the hard-to-get beers,” says Chris Flynn, co-founder of Connecticut Beer Drinkers, a Facebook discussion group and Twitter account dedicated to all things Connecticut beer. “I think quality of ingredients, new hop varieties, and really great-tasting beer is a big factor in this increase.”

However, the passion for these hard-to-find beers can sometimes get a little intense.

“While I see the merit behind the white whale syndrome, at the end of the day, it’s all just beer,” Simoncini, from Beer’d, says. “Limited releases and highly sought-after beers bring a lot of funny reactions out of the fans. Everything from animosity to irrational behavior can be found when it comes to these events. I subscribe to the ‘they’ll make more’ thought process, and while we’re so flattered anytime someone waits in line, or takes a day off, or goes above and beyond in any way to get our beer, those who can’t shouldn’t be upset, because there are plenty of comparable or even better beers out there that you may end up getting your hands on, and we always plan to make more.”

Westfall, from New England Brewing Co., says the beer he’s most proud of brewing isn’t Fuzzy Baby Ducks, which disappears from kegs hours after it appears on draft, or G Bot, which many liquor stores never bring out of the backroom and only sell to regulars. It’s two of the brewery’s more widely available beers: Sea Hag IPA and 668 Neighbor of the Beast, both of which are fairly widely distributed in the state. Westfall says he loves the passion for the IPAs, but says in the future, “Hopefully we’ll see a little more interest in traditional lagers and some more drinkable beers as well.”

Even though Connecticut beer drinking has gotten more diverse, craft styles that are not hoppy, such as sours, still attract a primarily niche audience. That’s just fine with the team at OEC.

“Sour is not for everybody,” Pellino says. “We don’t have plans of being a super-big-production brewery. We don’t produce that much liquid. We sell 95 percent of it out of the tasting room itself and we’re comfortable with that. Eventually we hope to add some hours to the tasting room, but we’re pretty happy where we are.”

And right now most Connecticut beer drinkers are pretty happy with things, as well.

 Erik Ofgang is the author of Buzzed: Beers, Booze, & Coffee Brews — Where to Enjoy the Best Craft Beverages in New England. He is always happy to talk craft beer with other enthusiasts. Email him at eofgang@connecticutmag.com or on Twitter @erikofgang

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