Tunes among the taphandles (Part 1)

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Matt James of Blacktop Mojo sings a little Phil Collins during an expected break from onstage rocking at Woodbury Brewing Company (photo by Will Siss)

(A version of this column was published on Aug. 23, 2019, in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American.)

I sat behind the keyboard along with the band and took in the gathering crowd. It wasn’t Wembley Stadium by any stretch, but for me, the tasting room at Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford represented something much cooler and personal. It was a space to merge my love of beer with my love of music.

Our six-piece band, South Road, specializes in 60s and 70s rock and R&B, and is not the kind of music I would have expected to hear at a brewery even five years ago.

But along with the expansion of breweries in the state has come a surge in the variety of live music. On any given weekend you could year bluegrass at Little Red Barn in Winsted, rap at Still Hill in Rocky Hill, blues at Stony Creek in Branford, folk at Kinsman in Southington and acoustic harmonies from established groups and open mics pretty much everywhere else.

The big stage

In preparation for my band’s brewery debut, I wanted to absorb as much live music at breweries as I could, and the spot most known for its sound is Woodbury Brewing Company. The reason why it’s become such a music destination has a lot to do with co-owner and booker Allan Cetrone.

While some folks might screw together a bunch of wooden pallets, Cetrone created an antique wood stage, acoustically balanced with sand and insulation beneath it, that’s large enough for nine musicians. And he hired local legend Gary Fulton to run a professional sound board.

“The music brings the energy and we have a room that helps support that energy and an intimate patron experience,” Cetrone said. “There’s no limit to what we can do here. The bands realize it’s a big venue in a little space.”

With inspiration and guidance from producer and musician Polo Jones, Cetrone centered and revised his plans for the stage and overall sound approach. Unlike many breweries, where the hard surfaces and high ceilings send sound ping-ponging around the audience, Woodbury’s room invites a warm tone, even at high volume.

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Mattson (photo by Will Siss)

One more Sunday night

Cetrone books all kinds of acts, from local songwriters to national rock acts. On a recent Sunday night, I was able to see both, with Middlebury guitarist and singer Greg Mattson opening up for Athens, Georgia-based Lullwater and headliner Blacktop Mojo from Palestine, Texas.

Mattson took the stage as part of a trio, brandishing a white Fender Stratocaster in the pursuit of some righteous licks and a smooth groove. His originals had hints of John Mayer, but he effortlessly wandered off to some space rock and r&b.

Mattson is setting his sights on California as he builds his musical career, and he’s appreciative of venues like Connecticut breweries to give him a place to gig out.

“The music scene in Connecticut is not that great, but thanks to the breweries, it’s kind of gotten a lot better,” Mattson said after his nonstop 45-minute set, punctuated between songs by prerecorded electronic dance music breaks.

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John Strickland of Lullwater (photo by Will Siss)

Second band Lullwater turned up the volume. The high-energy quartet is fronted by lead singer John Strickland, whose voice can bellow and strain with equal force. Their set, in support of their album “Voodoo,” was tight, and included a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Release.”

As if the power of rock was too much for even Woodbury Brewing, the power went out in the middle of Lullwater’s “Holy Water.” (In fact, it was planned a transformer repair that cut off power for part of the town.)

“It was blasphemy,” Strickland joked afterwards in the brewery’s backyard picnic area. “You can’t play that song on a Sunday.”

Stickland said he enjoys playing breweries, like Create Comforts Brewing in Athens. “If a brewery comes in with a good sound system, like this one, it’s a good time,” he said. “When you have the people who just want to drink and you have this loud rock band there, they’re like, ‘I do not want to deal with this music right now.’ But sometimes you’re able to get a good crowd involved and the ones that don’t want us to be there, we’re like, ‘Sorry: we didn’t book the show.’”

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Matt James of Blacktop Mojo works the crowd (photo by Will Siss)

Mojo Risin

Many of the dozens of people at Woodbury that Sunday purchased tickets and were there specifically to see Blacktop Mojo, whose album “Under the Sun” comes out September 13.

After a VIP acoustic set and meet-and-greet with ticket-holders before the show, lead singer Matt James and guitarist Ryan Keifer returned to back Woodbury Brewing’s back garden for a  few impromptu songs while the power was out.

The band then took the stage and ripped out a bombastic, joyful set. They brought things down while James climbed onto the bar and bassist Matt Curtis played an acoustic version of “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.

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Blacktop Mojo bassist Matt Curtis is rock and roll (photo by Will Siss)

James said he was amazed at the sound quality at the band’s first brewery.

“Of course you’d always like (the acoustics to be perfect), but it’s live music,” James said prior to taking the stage. “It’s all about the energy and having a good time.”

Next week, find out what happens with my band’s experience and learn about other breweries and the musicians who play them.

Until next time, sip well.

Bad Dog Brewing turns firehouse into brew house

(A version of this column was originally published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 8, 2019.)

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Christiopher Tkac of Bad Dog Brewing in the unfinished former firefirehouse in Torrington, Conn. (photo by Will Siss)

At the core of a firehouse is anticipation: the possibility that the crew could spring into action at any time.

That anticipation at 117 Water St. in Torrington last flared into purpose on in June of 1980, when the engines answered their final calls from the firehouse completed in 1901. 

It served as storage for the new firehouse, built next door. Designated a historic building on the National Register of Historic Places, it served as a museum during the 1990s, then languished for more than 20 years until a father and son team from Bristol decided it would make a great spot for a brewery. 

Now more than thirsty wanna-be hipsters like me are rooting for Bad Dog Brewing at the Old Firehouse to succeed when they open, perhaps this fall. With hopes that it will improve Torrington’s downtown economic situation and remain true to its historic roots, there’s a lot riding on a software engineer and his 21-year-old son, the head brewer. 

Firehouse history

The two-story Romanesque Revival-style building, designed by Charles S. Palmer, was built in an era when the fire engines were pulled by horses, who waited in stalls behind the building. 

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The Torrington fire house, circa 1901. (Photo courtesy of the Torrington Historical Society)

The first floor was primarily for offices and a gear room, and the spot where the horses, and later trucks, would head out. There were more offices on the second floor, along with furnished social rooms, a parlor, a reading room, and living quarters. 

It was a while before the firehouse had its own kitchen, explained retired Torrington Fire Capt. Joseph McElroy, who served after the old firehouse was discontinued. McElroy served as the president of the Northwest Connecticut Firefighting Museum of Torrington, an organization that lasted seven years, until 1997. He said he’s fought to keep the building from being torn down in the past, and is happy that a brewery will give it new life.

“There’s a lot of character in the building,” he said. 

Its firefighters faced arguably their biggest challenge with the Gavlick Fire in July 1973. The Torrington factory complex was tremendously destructive, but firefighters from Torrington and surrounding towns kept it from spreading. 

Architect Joe Alicata, who has been working on the restoration of the building with building owner J.R. Laliberte of Watertown for more than 10 years, said he was impressed with the original masonry done on the building. 

“This has a lot of challenges to it, while still keeping its character,” said Alicata, who remembers visiting the firehouse as a child in the early 1960s. “As a part of history, it’s worthy of preserving… It’s the history of the town and sort of a museum itself.”

Rebuilding a legacy

On a recent roasting morning, Christopher Tkac (pronounced “tack”), gave me a tour of the building, which is still more old firehouse than brewery.  In nice weather, patrons will be able to enter through two of the three bay doors, and they’ll likely encounter an imposing 1939 Seagrave fire truck, with its lights on. 

After a seating area, one bar will be toward the back of the first floor, probably with about 10 taps: five continuous and five rotating seasonal.

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Christopher Tkac on the second floor of his future brewery. (photo by Will Siss)

On the second floor,  which like the first boasts about 5,000 square feet of space, there will be more space to mingle, along with private rooms.

The 21-year-old started brewing beer before he could legally drink it, with his Father’s Day present to his dad two years ago.

Their brewing together felt like a continuation of a bond that started when the younger Tkac was in scouts.

Christopher has experience in retail food management and has brewed on a similar, but smaller, version of the 2-barrel brewhouse with which he plans to brew up to three times a day. He’s also brewed at Shebeen Brewing in Wolcott, he said.

“Everyone’s making beer,” he said. “You sort of have to offer more.” 

Choosing a spot

After looking at several surrounding towns, the Tkacs’ said that Torrington was particularly welcoming, with a meeting with the mayor and economic development team set up in a few days.

Christopher said working with the city has been easily. “Everyone is super excited about this coming here,” he said. “I really want to offer them a great experience they’re going to love. They were so welcoming to me that I just want to give back to the town to make it great, like the people are.”

Zoned as part of the “downtown district,” Bad Dog Brewing has gone through city approvals, so now it’s up to the reconstruction to bring the building up to code.

A father’s support

The elder Tkac, 52-year-old Matthew, said the brewery adventure may have come about quickly, but he and his son are fully on board in this new setting.

“It’s an old firehouse, and we are trying to keep that firehouse feel,” Matthew said, pointing out that he and his son are turning some of the old rafters into tables.

“I’m used to dealing with companies, but dealing with individual customers is new, and that’s where my son comes in,” Matthew said. “Plus, he understands the process (of making beer). He is really into it. He’s found his passion with beer. He can’t learn enough. He soaks it up.”

Until next time, sip well.

Norbrook Farm Brewery: How to Survive Success

(The following was published in a different form in the Republican-American on January 18, 2019.)

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The owners of Norbrook Farm Brewery will not soon forget last October 14th: the day success closed the business.

But we’ll get to that.

“Norbrook” is a portmanteau of Norfolk and Colebrook, the towns it more-or-less straddles. It’s one of the most subtly beautiful breweries in the state. That’s not just the gushing reaction of the stupefied: it’s verifiable.

From the sweeping vista you get on the winding driveway, to the grand fire pit on the patio, to the clean lines of the tasting room and the well-placed party area above the brewhouse, Norbrook has the design of an art museum that’s been around for years, not months.

It took a small army of contractors and craftspeople to shape it in the year and nine months from first application to opening day. This Connecticut beer explosion might appear to be mushrooming out of nowhere, but as Norbrook’s story demonstrates, each new addition comes with their own growing pains.

Behind the scenes

There are three key orchestrators of Norbrook’s story: brothers John and Randy Auclair and  Colin Coan. The Auclairs were co-owners of Electric Motion Company of Winsted, which was recently purchased by Hubbell Power. With a need to get back to work, John Auclair got to thinking that he would do something with the foreclosed farmland adjacent to his property in Colebrook.

John Auclair, 64, recently laid it out like this, after returning from a beer delivery to a local bar:

“It would make for a much better story if I could tell you that I’ve been passionate about beer my whole life and always wanted a brewery, but I can’t say that.”

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John Auclair

Not much was happening on the 450 acres, which was most recently used for hay making and cow grazing. Auclair used a building on the property to store equipment and vehicles.

“One night I had a party for a bunch of my contractor-type friends — electricians, plumbers, HVAC, and whatnot,” Auclair said. “We were all leaning up against the tractors and drinking beer and one guy said, ‘This would make a hell of a brewery. You got the high ceilings, you got floor drains, you got radiant heat in the floor.’ I said, ‘My son said the exact same thing. So I’ll think about it.’”

This led to the third member of the team: brewer Colin Coan, whom Auclair called “the architect behind the whole thing.”

The artisan

Coan is a Canaan native and son of master potter Delores Coan and the late woodworker Jeffrey Coan. He worked as a consultant for more than a year, building Norbrook into what could be a multi-use destination for beer drinkers, hikers, cross-country skiers and disc golf enthusiasts.

His journey from artists’ kid to vagabond informs Coan’s decisions.

In high school, Coan had honed his skills as painter, but chose to defer his New England College art scholarship and travel. After working in a kitchen on Saint John in the Virgin Islands, he focused on trompe l’oeil style of painting, meaning he could create hyper-realistic work. He wound up in Bar Harbor, Maine, and when the owner of Atlantic Brewing Company offered a job to whichever roommate won a coin flip, Coan called tails and got it.

It was Atlantic Brewing’s rich Coal Porter that inspired Colin to go from just cleaning up at the brewery to homebrewing, making his own recipes and building his own brewing rig. He moved out to Oregon for a while, working at a beer and wine store but continuing to make beer. A return to New England got him brewing at Barrington Brewing in Great Barrington, Mass.

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John Auclair and Colin Coan. Courtesy of the Beverage Journal

In 2003, Colin took part in a program set up for working brewers called the Intensive Brewer’s Program at Maska Laboratories Inc. in Saint-Hyacinthe in Quebec.

By the time he started working as a brewer at Rip Van Winkle Brewery in Catskill, N.Y., he was also distilling and designing equipment, along with consulting with breweries on their projects.

All that wandering was about the end when he learned about this venture in his home state.

“When I came across Norbrook, I closed my doors and said I’m going to focus on this,” Coan said.

The Auclairs’ original idea was to start a distillery on the property. “I said that a distillery takes a long time,” Coan said. He suggested starting a brewery first and adding a distillery later with ingredients from the brewery and farm.

“I was considering staying at Rip Van Winkle,” Colin continued, “but this was one of these opportunities from the farming to the art to the science and it all comes together.”

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Norbrook Farm Brewery partrons in early fall 2018.

Hurry up and wait

Starting a farm brewery in a town with no precedent means more time hiring land use lawyers, meeting with zoning authorities, crafting regulations and presenting plans to neighbors who might oppose them.  

Auclair credits Kent Falls Brewing in Kent for breaking down some of the barriers for Connecticut farm breweries.

Working with assistant brewers Bob Cormier and Travis Wilcox, Coan set about putting into practice his years of experience. As he values premium malts and delicate, sensitive beers, he crafted Cog Ale, a Kölsch that’s a fantastic ale that has nothing to hide behind. Clean, with only trace bitterness. His Dennis Hill Estate Saison, a farmhouse wheat ale with distinctive yeast qualities that let the coriander and orange peel whisper themselves to the surface, reflects similar artistry..

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It was all coming together well, and opening day in late September brought lines to the bar in the 5,300-square foot brewery, much of it designed by Deborah Auclair, John’s wife. The people kept coming.

“They’re all great people who we became close to during the construction, and they’ve been coming in ever since and bringing their families,” Auclair said. “I’m so glad we took that approach, as opposed to going with the lowest bidder.”

Then came October 14th. An episode of WFSB-Channel 3’s program “Something’s Brewing,” hosted by Courtney Zieller, aired, focusing on Norbrook. Auclair thought this was the catalyst because even more folks started streaming in.

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“Something’s Brewing” host Courtney Zieller on the infamous Oct. 14, 2018, episode, with John Auclair.

“At the end of that day we were totally out of both styles of [India pale ale],” Auclair said. “We were down to two beers. Sure, we could have remained open, and limped along. But I don’t want to be a two-beer brewery. I didn’t want people to come in and have a bad experience.”

Norbrook closed for a month, which in new brewery time is an eternity. “Everyone knew we ran out of beer,” Coan said. “It wasn’t the walk of shame, but I wanted to use our back door when I came to work. It was tough… It was a dark time for us, but game on.”

By law, Norbrook Brewing cannot serve another brewery’s beer on premises, so they had to make more of their own. Coan tripled their equipment capacity, adding four 15-barrel fermenters and two serving tanks and got to brewing with his assistants. They reopened for business on Nov. 14.

Subtle sophistication

The current rotation includes a variety of styles, although only a fraction of the 110 styles Coan said he has brewed in his career.

Not to belabor my point, but the subtlety in Norbrook’s beers really make them shine. In the hands of some brewers, an IPA might turn into a hammer blow to the throat. And some would still line up and demand more, as long as it was cloudy and was bursting with Citra hops. Mount Pisgah is not that IPA; it’s more balanced with a tartness to it that rewards reflection. While St. Nick’s Rye IPA was a bit busy for my taste, with the pepperiness bouncing off the bitter, it’s still a thoughtful sipper that I’ll try again, perhaps with a sharp cheese.

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The hops at Norbrook Farm Brewery in Colebrook, Conn., September 2018.

Norbrook is already growing hops on two acres of its property, and on two acres offsite. After a the traditional lackluster first-season crop, the team expect to yield more in the coming year and use them in their beer.

There are plans afoot to grow grain as well, which would make the brewery one of the few in the state — like Kent Falls — to use primarily all local ingredients. In the future, Auclair said, he’d like to make maple syrup and honey, and grow apples for cidering on the property, all marketed under the Norbrook name.

Now that the beer is under control, the folks at Norbrook are ready to design and improve 9-and-a-half miles of trails for cross country skiing and snow-shoeing, and 10-and-a-half miles of single-track mountain biking trails.

Auclair said the brewery’s success is only one shock he’s received since entering into this new venture.

“I thought when we started this, we’d see millennials and Generation Xers from a 50-,  60-, mile radius, and that those were going to be our customers,” Auclair said. “I thought that the locals were going to come in once, check us out, give us a high-five and [we’d] never see them again. It’s been exactly the opposite. All of the residents and Colebrook and Norfolk feel that this is their place.”

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On drinking less

Drink Less Beer
Keep Calm-o-Matic

It was a saturating summer.

Between some early afternoon starts and late-night carousing, I experienced a fair bit of over-indulgence in the beer department, especially while on vacation down at the Jersey Shore. I was not bathing suit-ready to begin with, and kept my modesty, so further filling my gut with carbs was for the most part a victimless crime. I never drove while drinking, so the damage was primarily to my already bloated physique.

 

There were a lot of good times. I’m not apologizing for a single sip. However, reality beckoned and for the past month I’ve dried out considerably, keeping my beer enjoyment to Friday early evenings and Saturday nights.

This coincided with my reading the book Genius Foods (2018, HarperCollins) by Max Lugavere.  It’s a wonderful guide I can’t recommend enough. It describes the best foods to eat and when to eat them for optimal brain health. A big side benefit has been the pounds shed, maybe five (although for a 5-foot-3 frame, that’s enough). I’ve cut out all grains and get my carbohydrates primarily from beer. I’ve incorporated more leafy greens, “good fats” from olive oil and avocado, wild salmon, nuts, dark chocolate. These are some of the “genius foods.”

I’ve also taken to eating as late as I can in the morning and finishing dinner as early as I can at night. That fasting period (ideally 16 hours) is helpful for cutting down on that which would cloud your thinking and bloat your gut.

Lugavere’s only words on the subject of beer are predictably negative (although, like him, kind and supportive):

“Avoid gluten-containing beverages, which may be a one-two punch. Gluten increases gut permeability, which may compound the same effect from alcohol. Beer drinkers, I’m looking at you.” (p. 313)

He goes on to make a controversial recommendation to drink on an empty stomach, which “may allow the liver to more efficiently process the alcohol without impeding digestive processes.”

Pick up the book and put down the extra beer. When you’re drinking better, you won’t need the volume anyway.

Charter Oak Puts Down Roots

[A version of this column was published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 10, 2018.]

There’s a question I’ve asked every new brewery owner, and from P. Scott Vallely of Charter Oak Brewing, I got the most unexpected answer.

Q: What’s surprised you most about starting a brewery?

A: There weren’t any surprises.

Coming from another owner, I’d have done a spit-take that covered the bar. But from Vallely, who started homebrewing more than 30 years ago and brewed Charter Oak at the former Paper City Brewing in Holyoke, Mass., for five, it made sense.

“I’ve been asking, ‘What keeps you up at night’ to owners so many times that there really wasn’t anything I didn’t expect,” he said, smiling through a bohemian beard as cool and relaxed as he is.

Vallely, who keeps his age a secret from the nosy press, sold his business Paper.com and transitioned to professional beer-making in 2012. After years of logging miles to and from Holyoke, Vallely was close to having his own brewery in South Norwalk, before that deal fell through. He said he’s received a much warmer welcome in Danbury.

The 10,000-square-foot former distribution site had its share of “rats and spiders” when Vallely was first able to enter, he said. By the June 28 grand opening, it had been scraped, sanded, scoured and reborn with a 70-seat gray and tan tasting room, 13-seat concrete bar, and a brewhouse with a 20-barrel system and a 5-barrel for pilot batches. Vallely employs Mike Granoth as his brewer, but continues to take a hands-on approach to everything.

Charter Oak treats all of its city water and puts it through a three-part filtration system to remove chemicals, including chlorine. “I’ve done everything I can to ensure quality here,” he said.

During a brewhouse tour, he let me try one of his upcoming India pale ales made with Equinox hops. It was delightful right off of the brite tank, a stainless steel vessel used to store and carbonate beer before it’s distributed to kegs and cans.

Tasting room as home

From the rotating 10-tap line, I enjoyed a flight of the Easy Riding Kolsch, which was smooth with a hint of tart; a gently malty King’s Extra Special Bitter; the bright and expressive Brewbury I IPA, featuring Citra and Mosaic hops; and a roasty Midnight Ride Porter.

So far no one beer has emerged as the most popular, sai Vallely, who was surprised that even the beers Vallely cans are as popular as the draft-only offerings.

During my visit, there was a group of friends gathered at a few four-person tables pushed together. That happens quite a bit, Vallely explained. His wife Michelle would separate the tables at closing time each night, only to notice that people would pull them back together again. They decided to keep a community table in the center of the tasting room.

The Vallelys had a bit of a rough start in one department: collecting payments from customers. Scott said he thought he’d set up new payment system properly for opening day for credit card purchases, but he did not. He ended up asking folks to come back and pay on the honor system. They did, he said.

While he’s settled into his own brewery, Vallely hasn’t stopped moving. He and Michelle were constantly on the go as new customers arrived, welcoming them and answering questions.

Michelle, who works as a secretary at an elementary school full-time, said she feels like she’s with family at the brewery.

“It’s like hosting a party every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she said.

Michelle was the one who added a poignant bit of decoration behind the bar. She took a greeting card she had given to her husband and framed it.

It says, “Never never never give up.”

Until next time, sip well.

never give up

Jersey Pour

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Jake Stablein of Ship Bottom Brewing

[A similar version of the following was published in the Waterbury Republican-American on July 27, 2018.]

Family visits to Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore in the 70s and 80s imprinted memories I’ll always cherish. Along with the sunsets over the bay and waves on a scratchy float, there were the tastes, like pancakes at Uncle Will’s and sweet scoops at the Skipper Dipper.  

Over the decades, my preferences have evolved from funnel cakes to pale ales, and LBI has evolved with me. In 2016, the island’s first brewery started pouring: Ship Bottom Brewery.

The brewery is named for a town on LBI, where in 1995 owner Robert Zarko homebrewed his first batches. After building his passion into a small professional brewery out of his Pennsylvania garage, Zarko decided to make LBI the brewery’s home.

This year my Aunt Christine and Uncle John organized a weeklong return to LBI for a new generation to have their Jersey shore experience. While my nieces and nephews headed to Fantasy Island Amusement Park, I climbed the welcoming stairs to Ship Bottom.

Bottoms up

During my first trip, the brewery was beset by strollers: I counted six infants enjoying a day out while their folks enjoyed it more in the airy tasting room, with four-seater table tops, picnic tables and a small bar. Ship Bottom doesn’t serve food, so I brought along a panini and salad from Spice It Up, a store next door.

I sipped my way through a “wave”: a flight of four beers placed in a hard-carved, wooden surfboard. From left to right, there was the gentle Barnegat Lager, named for the lighthouse at LBI’s northern tip; a biting low-alcohol IPA named Stupid Paddle Boat; a pungent coconut porter; and a stout on nitro that made the world spin a little more slowly at 8.4-percent alcohol by volume.

I decided to give myself an excuse to sail back to Ship Bottom by arranging an interview with the head brewer, Jake Stablein.

Wanderlust

Stablein met me on a sweltering Friday afternoon; the 31-year-old had just finished up an impromptu tour of the brewhouse, which along with the tasting room and gift shop is housed on the second floor of a busy shopping district called Bay Village.

The upbeat brewer had near shoulder-length wavy dark hair, black tortoise-shell glasses and something between stubble and beard. He emitted a beach vibe that was more genuine bliss than laid back guise.

Despite being from Denver, Stablein’s future in beer was far from being pre-ordained. In fact, wanderlust inspired him to go abroad instead of sticking around for college. Early dreams of becoming a chef were doused after negative experiences in kitchens where he worked the summer jobs that got him enough cash to head to Prague. There, he landed some jobs teaching English.

The beer Stablein had drunk up to this point was forgettable, and it wasn’t until he turned 21 and convinced his Czech friends to join him in Belgium that he grew to appreciate beer. “Over there it was no big deal to turn 21, but I told them it was important to me,” he said. Dubbels, tripels and saisons sparked something the culinary world could not.

Upon returning to Denver, Stablein made his own Belgian-style beers, and landed a gig at one of the city’s many homebrew stores. When a plan to create another such business in Delaware fell through, Stablein started working as an assistant brewer at Twin Lakes Brewing in Newport, Delaware.

That’s where he first crossed paths with Zarko, whose Ship Bottom Brewery was a small venture in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Stablein used Twin Lakes’ equipment to wash Zarko’s kegs, and joined Zarko for some brew days. A few years later, after Stablein had left the state to work at Duck Rabbit Brewing in North Carolina, Zarko asked him to be his head brewer in Beach Haven.

“He was pretty smart and knew more about beer than I did,” Zarko, 50, said in a phone interview. “I talked to him about moving to the beach… With Duck Rabbit, I knew he was strong in stouts and IPAs. He had a lot to bring to the table and we talked about making interesting beers and making them the best we could. We’re striving to get better and better.”

 

Lure of the beach

Brewing in seasonal paradise has its obvious advantages, but some come in unexpected places. For example, the brewery’s soft water lends itself particularly well to lagers, which Stablein and an assistant brewer make. “Lagers are near and dear to my heart,” Stablein said.

Stablein doesn’t believe in playing with water’s mineral content, so he creates recipes to work around it for IPAs as well, including a New England IPA that emphasizes hops that produce a tropical fruit flavor. “Right now the soft and juicy thing is in, but I’ve always liked it,” he said.

Being central to foot traffic and thirsty tourists puts a spotlight on Stablein’s work. “We get blasted in the summer,” he said. “We get a lot of people who don’t normally drink beer, so we’re on the education part of it too. … People just end up walking in that would normally never come to a brewery.”

Stablein enjoys giving tours of the 15-barrel brewhouse; these tours used to be mandatory by state law, until lawmakers changed their minds this year, finding that it unfairly hamstrung the breweries.

Creations

Not wanting to be seagull-holed into one category of beers, Stablein makes sure to create a wide variety: 18 different brands in cans so far, and another four in bottles. Two of his best beers are dissimilar: Peach Cobbler is made with extract and is light and refreshing. The Shorty’s Copo Coconut Porter benefits from Stablein’s trial and error; the latest version incorporates coconut puree and extract to perfect the aroma and taste.

He makes use of sea salt from Barnegat Bay harvested by local restaurant Black Eyed Susan’s for his Mexican Cerveza with lime zest, and a Mango Gose, a collaboration with a Pennsylvania brewery.

For a spicy twist on IPA, Stablein uses a honey-habanero hot sauce from The Chicken or the Egg, another local restaurant. “It’s hard to explain,” Stablein said, then did what every beer writer dreams of: got us some samples. The “Chegg IPA” starts with a wave of honey sweetness that recedes and leaves behind a slight tongue burn.

Pairing beer with food is part of Stablein’s passion, working with local chefs and arranging for meaningful mixes. His top recommendation: Shack IPA and clam pot.

Ship Bottom is available on tap at local restaurants, in four-packs, by to-go crowler (beer poured from a tap into a can), and sometimes by bottle. One bottle was the Wooden Jetty Whiskey Barrel Stout; it’s intense, even for experienced drinkers, but for lovers of spirits, this 11.4 percent alcohol-by-volume might be exactly what you crave.

Brewery for all seasons

After Labor Day and Chowderfest in late September, it gets very quiet on the 18-mile-long, narrow barrier island, which has only about 20,000 winter residents, as opposed to the tourist season, when more than 150,000 inhabit LBI. Unlike many local businesses, Ship Bottom stays open all year, even the quietest months of January and February.

“In the winter it’s easier to get here, but no one wants to have a few beers, then run the gauntlet of bored cops,” Stablein noted.

While there are more than 100 breweries in New Jersey, Ship Bottom remains the only one on LBI. “I’d like to see another brewery open on the island, actually,” he said. “Business attracts business.”

In general, Stablein wants the good folks of Connecticut to know that Ship Bottom is no tourist trap, and that as a year-round resident himself, he pours a bit of himself into every beer.

“I work hard to make great beer, and I work really hard to make sure that it’s an experience in a glass, whether you’re on vacation or drinking it at home,” he said. “And you gotta come for the sunset. It’s amazing. Even after living here for two years, I still stop and watch the sun go down. You look over and it wows you every time.”

Until next time, sip well.

You can contact Beer Snob at beer.snob@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter: @beersnobwrites.com.

 

IF YOU GO

Ship Bottom Brewing

830 North Bay Avenue, Store 23

Beach Haven, NJ 08008

Shipbottombrewery.com

One last pour: Farewell, Backstage

backstage
Backstage, Torrington, Conn. Last night: Jan. 7, 2018.

Backstage Bistro, a bar in Torrington that has grown to be my local during the past seven years, has announced that it will serve its last beer tonight. The rangy, high-ceilinged pub was a beacon for beer geeks in Litchfield County. Rising from the ashes of the failed Torrington arm of Cambridge House Brewpub, and prior to that the site of a much-revered department store, Backstage was aligned with Warner Theater. It was known by most patrons as the restaurant to grab a bite before a show at the Warner. For the rest of us, it was a thoughtfully managed beer bar with knowledgeable staff and some fun Thursday night tap takeovers.

I stopped by Backstage tonight to say goodbye, and it was bittersweet. I remembered my 40th birthday party held in the front room almost exactly five years ago. There was the night the bar expanded to 42 taps, and I lined up with 41 of my physically closest friends to pour 42 pints all at once.

I remembered the night I held my first book signing — a quiet night, if I remember — where I sat and hoped for someone to ask for my autograph and buy my book, two years ago. And then there were the many Friday late afternoons when I would perch myself on a stool to read a New Yorker and decompress over a porter and wings after a week of work. I would end up talking to someone I knew there every single time.

It was a busy tonight at 5:30 or so, and I decided not to interrupt the owner, who appeared to be eating with family, to get the scoop on why Backstage was closing. Maybe I’ll get the information later. “Our employees were well aware for months that we were doing all possible to prevent this from happening,” the Facebook representative for Backstage wrote tonight in response to the predictably hostile fringe. “For seven years, everyone that worked here got a good paycheck every week, and will next week as well.”

corner crew at backstage
The corner crew at Backstage.

I decided, instead, to interview a few barflies: the hardcore beer enthusiasts who were there whenever I stopped by.

“I’ve been a part of this group of people who have been coming here since Cambridge House left,” loyal customer Paul Griffin said. “We’ve met a lot of great people who like beer and like to commiserate down here. It’ll be a real loss to the city. I just hope something will come out of this.”

Don Garrigan agreed. “It has been a gathering place for friends at the end of a hard week. We’re going to miss it greatly. But we’ll see. Life goes on.”

“We’re perennial optimists,” Paul said from his corner stool. “We just hope a new place comes and takes this over.”

Holding court near the bar was Al Corpus, celebrating his birthday. Al and I met at Backstage years ago, and he and his girlfriend continued to be friends with my wife and me. Al is a bear of a man who has a gruff appearance but a warm heart. Any bartender who had the pleasure of serving or drinking with Al knew the depth of his love for well-crafted beer.

“The crew and the staff were very inviting,” Al recalled of his first visits, when Backstage opened its doors. “They made me feel like I was welcomed. I’m a big guy and I sort of scare people. But they made me feel like I was home. It still feels like home.”

Over the years, Al said, he met a lot of great people.

“It’s so sad that they’re closing on my birthday,” he said, taking a sip. “I don’t want them to close. I was hoping last night that I would have won PowerBall so I could keep them open.”  

Cheers, Backstage. Thank you for the pints and the memories.

al at backstage
Cheers, Al. Happy birthday.

READ MORE: Last call at The Old Corner Cafe

Relic Owns the Dark

srelic beersI feel an undeserved jolt of pride knowing that my small state has a really small brewery that cans two uncompromising dark beers. Relic Brewing of Plainville, Conn., has out now its Black Dawn stout and Spectral Beast Baltic porter, two aggressive, weighty contributions. I recommend them both, for different occasions.

Black Dawn (7% ABV) is a fine main dish beer — steak or pork, in particular — that won’t interfere with roasted greens or any side with sweetness. It’s the stout that coats just enough to deliver a burnt coffee blast without overwhelming what’s on your plate.

Spectral Beast (10%) is a robust dessert or post-dessert boozer. Raisiny without being too tart, it doesn’t try to hide its warming alcohol. On a cold night, it’s puts a life-affirming arm around you and says, “You’ll get through the year alright, I promise.”

California impressions

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If I lived here a month, I’d be in much better shape.

At least that’s what I tell myself as I’m scrambling over a low, flat rock on the bank of the lazy but insistent Kaweah River. I’m out of breath and my singed feet and knees are crying, but I’m happy to be out in nature, under a cloudless sky, and with family.

I’m in the first half of my weeklong trip to southern California, at the beautiful home that my aunt and uncle maintain and offer up to guests looking for a romantic, peaceful getaway. It’s tucked into the hills about 3 hours northeast of Los Angeles and quite close to the Sequoia National Forest.

Of course, I’m not hear merely to breathe deep the glory of nature. I’m here for the beer.

Bottles

My uncle is a recent convert, so he was happy to procure some local craft beer to sample while the sun set on each dry day. We enjoyed Bear Republic‘s Apex Special IPA, which delighted with an apricot/pineapple nose and featured a bright, crisp citrus mix. It’s from Sonoma County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. We followed this with a breather: the easy drinking Taco Truck Lager from Dust Bowl Brewing of Turlock in north central California, not too far from Modesto.

Over the next several days we tucked into more West Coast IPAs, including Plunder from San Diego’s Mission Brewery. After months of New England IPAs and their aggressive, soupy, throw-every-alpha-acid-into-the-bathwater approach, it was nice to experience some subtlety.

This reached its zenith with my favorite beer of the trip (so far): The Denogginizer by Drake’s Brewing Company of San Leandro, which is near Oakland. This double IPA was so smooth and inviting with its hints of overripe apricot and pineapple juice; with a solid malt backbone it was still hard to tell that this clocked in at 9.75% ABV. Stunning. I’m still remembering every luxurious sip.

We veered off into what for me was an unfortunate direction: Joaquin Murrieta Chile Pepper Beer from Tioga-Sequoia Brewing in relatively nearby Fresno. It was an assault on the senses, and my senses could not compute what was taking over. But that’s me. My uncle liked it a bit better after stashing the opened bottle in the freezer for about an hour.

The unifying quality of the beers I’ve liked best here is the bursting hops that still leave room for accompanying dishes, most of which seem to feature avocado. As I continue my week in Los Angeles, I plan to focus on the breweries themselves.

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