Connecticut's Craft Beer Industry Booms

Five breweries opened last year, nearly a dozen are in the works.

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Chalkboard in Relic Brewing's tasting room.
Photo:J Holt
Some of Relic's labels.
Photo:J Holt
Mark Sigman, and intern, Brooke, in the brewing area at Relic Brewing.
Photo:J Holt
Connecticut's Craft Beer Industry Booms
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Connecticut's Craft Beer Industry Booms

The 2013 Craft Brewers Conference was held in the nation's capital this past week, and it drew over 6,000 attendees from an industry growing steadily amid an otherwise struggling economy. As WNPR's J. Holt reports, Connecticut's Craft Brewing industry is experiencing an explosion of it's own.


Mark Sigman: "Basically we're just transferring the second round of water, hot water, into the mash tun here." 

That's Mark Sigman, the owner and brewer at Relic Brewery in Plainville. He's brewing one of their spring beers called Prologue, a rye lager. 

Sigman: "Everything that you see here is really very professional quality, the same as the really big breweries, just literally on a smaller scale."

To give you an idea of that scale, his system incorporates all the different tanks and brew kettles you might see in use at a brew pub, and fits them into a space about the size of a one car garage. But as small as it is, Relic represents a significant step for Connecticut's Craft Brewing industry. When Sigmon opened his doors in February of 2012, he was at the forefront of a wave of new breweries opening here after a decade with virtually no new players in the industry. And when he compares this first year to his expectations, a big difference is

Sigman: "I underestimated demand quite a bit, I didn't realize it would become so popular so quickly."

With such a small system, finding a way to increase capacity is a challenge that lies ahead. In the meantime, Relic's already earned some national attention, and while their status as the first of the new breweries may have helped with the quick take off, they weren't alone for very long. Back East Brewery opened in August with a system that can brew 3 to 6 times more per batch than Relic, and has turned out some award winning beer. By the end of 2012, five new connecticut breweries had product on store shelves and bar taps statewide. 

Wollner: "It's an amazing resurgence." But it didn't just happen over night.

David Wollner owns the Willimantic Brewing Company, one of just a handful of brew pubs in the state, and considered by many to be a Connecticut craft beer mecca. Since 1997, he's offered customers his own beer, alongside that of the best craft breweries in the country, and regularly rotates product and recipes to feature what's new. As consumers have become more aware of what's available, he's witnessed a shift in who is seeking out craft beers.

Wollner: "I'm seeing all kinds of people now, from all different age groups who never really knew anything about what craft beer was either because they weren't raised on it, or because they never really had the experience of having such fresh beer right in their own town." 

As a greater number of beer consumers began to value the variety of craft beer and local production, it became glaringly apparent how few connecticut offerings there were. And Mark Sigman at Relic points out a common thread  among those who are stepping in to fill the void.

Sigman: "A lot of these businesses are being started by former home brewers. I think the beer people here just wanted to see more variety, or they would travel to denver or Portland or Asheville, and the'd see what was going on in one of these places, and they were like, "Why can't we do that in Connecticut." 

At least ten additional breweries are known to be in development, of which five are expected to open in 2013. The new companies hope that focusing on the craft of brewing may help the resurgence to be sustainable. In the early 90's, the first time the craft beer industry began to take off, many microbreweries were started by non brewing business people looking to cash in on the trend, but without a focus on the beer they fell apart. 

Another way brewers hope to avoid that fate is establishing a strong connection with consumers who make an effort to buy local. 

Braddock: "Which, I think, in general, is one of the great reasons the craft beer industry is going through a huge resurgence now."

That's Ben Braddock, who those in the Connecticut craft beer industry may recognize as the brewer at the Willimantic Brewing company. And he sees a lot of similarities between craft beer consumers and those who have made a point to support businesses in Hartford.

Braddock: "As we go through frog hollow here, this is actually the part of Hartford that really got me excited about opening a brewing company in the city."

He still is Willimantic's brewer, but opening his own brewery has been his goal since he started in the profession five years ago, and he's now determined to open a craft beer tap room called the Hog River Brewing Company.

Braddock: "It's my true passion, and what I'm currently working on, and making some great strides." 

He's been refining his business plan for years, and recently received his first substantial investment. Now he's shifted his focus to securing a facility. That search has been difficult, as most of the properties he's seen don't suit his project or have astronomical rent.

Braddock: "As we come up on one of the potential locations that Hog River has been looking at, it's a beautiful building here in Hartford, lots of parking, and the inside is home to lots of warm dark woods." 

The overall feeling has got to be just right, as Braddock hopes Hog River will be a place where customers can appreciate both great beer, and the area in which it's based. And it's that sense of community that Connecticut's growing craft brewing industry hopes will sustain it for the long term.

For WNPR, I'm J. Holt.