By Scott Gargan
Last Wednesday at Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford, it was, like any other day, time to brew beer — and bottle it, and keg it and, of course, drink it.
On this particular day, brewmaster Phil Markowski, co-owner Brad Hittle and one lucky reporter taste tested a special brew that Markowski had recently concocted — the Igor Sikorsky Dream Rye Russian Imperial Stout. Aged in rye oak barrels over five weeks, the beer packed a rich, earthy sweetness that wowed the palate.
“You can really taste the coffee,” Hittle said, examining the black syrupy substance. “It’s delicious.”
Looking up from his glass, Hittle surveyed the sprawling, 100,000-square-foot facility and former U.S. Baird building that houses Two Roads Brewing Company. The place was bubbling with activity: the yeast for the company’s ’Ol Factor Pils was propagating; its Honey Spot Road white IPA was fermenting; its Road to Ruin IPA was being bottled.
Hittle launched Two Roads Brewery — now the largest craft brewery in Connecticut — in December. But with the amount of beer he and his partners plan on producing (a whopping 150,000 barrels a year), Hittle can already taste success.
“I’ve never had any doubts about this business,” Hittle said. “We’re making something people love.”
Hittle’s frothy optimism is backed by recent trends — like yeast in a vat of wort, Connecticut’s craft brewery scene is burgeoning. Apart from Two Roads, four new craft breweries opened in the state last year. And those are just the latest additions to the list of brewhouses in Connecticut (New England Brewing Company and Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. being among the most established).
The state, like the rest of the country, is riding a wave of nationwide popularity for craft beer and microbreweries — a phenomenon that flows from a more sophisticated consumer palate, a more favorable regulatory climate and a desire among entrepreneurs to ditch their old professions and follow their beer-soaked dreams.
In 2012, the Brewers Association, a trade group, reported that there were 2,751 craft breweries in the United States — an increase of more than 400 percent since the early 1990s. Though Connecticut’s craft beer culture reflects a drop in the keg nationally, it has expanded dramatically in recent years. Two decades ago, there were half a dozen breweries in the state; today, there are about three times as many, with eight more in the planning stages.
The thirst for more flavorful brews — from IPAs and stouts to brown and blonde ales — is a large part of what’s driving the market. The craft beer industry has continued to increase its share of beer sold in the state as consumers opt for artisanal alternatives to beer behemoths such as Coors, Budweiser and Miller.
Brewmasters have fed the craving for craft beers, experimenting with various types and quantities of hops, malts and yeast; adding unorthodox ingredients, such as fruit, spices and coffee beans; and aging beer in barrels previously used for whiskey and other distilled spirits.
Two Roads’ Igor Sikorsky Dream Rye Russian Imperial Stout is a great example. So is Half Full Brewery’s cherry vanilla porter, Thomas Hooker’s Old Marley Barleywine and Cavalry Brewing Company’s X-Limited Edition series (the ’X’ stands for experimental). The beers all pack a much bigger punch — both in terms of flavor and alcohol content — then the big-name lagers.
“Beer drinkers are turned on by the complexity of the product — and they are really good,” said Hittle, a Greenwich native who has worked for Rolling Rock and Pabst Brewing Company. “There is a whole chemistry behind the these beers.” He calls Markowski “the wizard.”
In addition to the demand for flavorful beers, microbreweries have benefitted from a spillover of the local food movement.
“In the same way that people like going to their neighborhood butcher, bakery or cheese shop, they love drinking beer that’s made right in their own backyard,” said Matt Westfall, a brewer at New England Brewing Company in Woodbridge. “They like to experience that connection.”
The state’s beer boom is impressive, given the “shake out” of microbreweries and brew pubs in the 1990s, Reid said. But there’s still a lot of catching up to do — places like Portland, Ore., Chicago and Vermont have long been meccas for craft breweries.
For their part, Connecticut lawmakers want to encourage the same growth spurt. A law passed last year laid the path for the Connecticut Beer Trail, a promotional campaign that brings beer lovers on a journey to the state’s breweries and brew pubs. What’s more, the bill that approved Sunday alcohol sales included a stipulation that permitted craft breweries to sell beer by the glass and allow consumers to purchase bottled brew on site.
“Connecticut is a lot more craft brew friendly than it was 20 years ago,” said Reid, adding that the new laws should bolster the number of craft breweries in the state and make existing ones more lucrative.
The new laws are a boon to Half Full Brewery in Stamford, which attracts a flood of beer drinkers to its Open House nights ($15 gets you a glass and unlimited pints of the company’s Bright Ale, India Pale Ale and a seasonal beer).
But owner Conor Horrigan didn’t just open Half Full Brewery for the profits; he’s not out to distribute his beer around the country — not just yet. Rather, for the ex-Wall Street worker, brewing beer gives him a chance to “meet people, try new experiences” and, most importantly, “create something tangible.”
“You can’t touch a stock,” he added.
Horrigan’s peers in the craft brew industry echo those sentiments. Many cite the personal rewards of doing something with their hands, interacting with people and producing a product that they are proud to share with fellow beer drinkers.
About a year or two ago, Hittle asked himself this question: “Do I want to work for another corporation and deal with bureaucracy and politics, or take a chance on doing something I really love and have a passion for?”
Luckily for local beer lovers, he chose the latter.
Scott.email@example.com; 203-964-2238; http://twitter.com/scottgarg
Half Full Brewery
Signature beer: Bright Ale, a hybrid blonde-pale ale, with citrus and grapefruit notes. 5.1 percent Alc. By Vol.
Hours: Growler fills and sampling: Tuesdays and Fridays, 4-7 p.m.; Open House: Every other Friday, 5:30-8:30 p.m.; Tour and Tasting: every other Saturday 1-4 p.m.
Address: 43 Homestead Ave., Stamford
Contact: 203-309-2821, halffullbrewery.com
Two Roads Brewing Company
Signature beer: Road to Ruin Double IPA, a big, hoppy IPA with a lean malt backdrop and brewed with four American hop varieties. 7.2 percent Alc. By Vol.
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 3-8 p.m.; Saturday, noon-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Address: 1700 Stratford Ave., Stratford
Contact: 203-335-2010, www.tworoadsbrewing.com
Southport Brewing Company
Best beer: English Pale Ale, an English-style copper-colored pale ale with medium body and a dry finish.
Hours: Contact individual location for hours of operation
Address/Contact: 2600 Post Rd., Southport. 203-256-BEER; 131 Summer St., Stamford. 203-327-BEER; 850 W. Main St. Branford. 203-481-BREW. 33 New Haven Ave., Milford. 203-874-BEER.
New England Brewing Company
Best beer: Sea Hag, an American IPA with a big citrusy grapefruit aroma. 6.2 percent Alc. By Vol.
Hours: Monday-Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (tasting and growler fills)
Address: 7 Selden St. Woodbridge
Contact: 203-387-2222, www.newenglandbrewing.com
Cavalry Brewing Company
Best beer: Hatch Plug Ale, a classic English bitter. 4.5 percent Alc. By Vol.
Hours: Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Satiurday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Address: 115 Hurley Road, Oxford
Contact: 203-262-6075, www.cavalrybrewing.com
Best beer: Hooker Blonde Ale, a brilliant gold ale that is mellow but flavorful. 5.3 percent Alc. By Vol.
Hours: Gift shop hours and growler fills: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday Open House: first and third Friday of every month, 5-8 p.m.; Tours and tastings: Saturday, noon-5 p.m.
Address: 16 Tobey Road, Bloomfield
Contact: 860-242-3111, www.hookerbeer.com
City Steam Brewery Cafe
Best beer: Naughty Nurse, an English amber ale brewed for a slightly bitter sweet finish. 5.2 percent Alc. By Vol.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday, 4-10 p.m.
Address: 942 Main St., Hartford
Contact: 860-525-1600, www.citysteambrewerycafe.com