I had a chance to get interviewed by Phil Hall on “Nutmeg Chatter: Arts and Culture in Western CT,” which aired today. Have a listen if you want to learn a little more about me and my beer thoughts.
I had a chance to get interviewed by Phil Hall on “Nutmeg Chatter: Arts and Culture in Western CT,” which aired today. Have a listen if you want to learn a little more about me and my beer thoughts.
In this episode, it starts with Greek beer, rambles into Brooklyn, and lands on what the terroir of Connecticut might be.
Referenced in this ep:
Yiayias of Torrington, Connecticut
Music: “A Little Sympathy,” composed and performed by Will Siss and “Don’t Be Angry” by the Konstantinos Bouzouki Orchestra
Hi all! Enjoy this audio version of my column, which appeared in the Dec. 27, 2019 edition of the Waterbury Republican-American.
Finding the perfect pairing isn’t just about food and beer.
I was reminded of this recently when I got together with Naima Craft of The Craft, a new venture in Bloomfield, Conn., that gives clients a chance to learn the art of baking. She asked if I could lead a class on pairing food with beer, and I was excited to take on the challenge. You can sign up for our December 14 class here: The Craft Catering.
We had a lot of fun preparing for the class with her in my dining room, mixing and sometimes matching cuts of cheese, meat, and chocolate with a slew of beer styles, from hefeweizen to imperial stout.
Naima and I started with a plan, much inspired by Julia Herz and Gwen Conley’s Beer Pairing and Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table. We thought about which foods would pair best with which styles, and filled the table with chilled bottles and cans and samples of delicacies that might make the eventual menu.
Two things made two-hour preparation session especially enjoyable: the selections and Naima’s reaction to each combination. Whether it was a wrong-note failure, bliss-inducing alchemy, or somewhere in between, Naima – who claims not to be a “beer person” – absorbed it all.
Naima was born and raised in Trinidad, where she said that having a great time was always surrounded by food. “Trinidadians are known for something called ‘limin,'” she wrote to me. “In other words, hanging out with a good beer or mixed drink and of course flavorful food.”
She said Trinidadian flavors influences how she enjoy experiences surrounding different types of foods. Naima recently started her own business, teaching students ways to bake, which is her passion.
“I remember when I was around the tween age, my grandmother introduced me to basic baking: Cakes and quick breads, all by hand,” she said. “Then she bought me my own hand mixer! I felt so special, especially being aware of how much and how long she may have had to save to purchase that precious baking tool.”
After graduating from the University of Hartford, where she earned a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and attaining advanced certification in vestibular rehabilitation from the American Institute of Balance in Florida, she worked as a physical therapist. But her love of food never left her.
“I love sharing my creations with others and learning new ways to improve my outcomes,” she said, “always pursuing that ‘soul-hugging’ experience as best as I could.”
This is how The Craft was born, and I’m so honored to be a part of this journey. We hope you’ll take it with us. Sign up for this December 14 class and enjoy a “soul-hug.”
In Connecticut we’re coming up on 100 breweries, and we’ve seen a dramatic spike in the past three years. What was once a cause for celebration and curiosity and I-gotta-get-over-there has turned into…
But why? I’ve been an avid local brewery visitor for 15 years. I love everything about them, despite hit-or-miss selection and irritating acoustics. Weirdly bright lighting? Fine! Unfocused and uninformed bartenders? Not a problem. Every one that’s opened in Connecticut is in it for their own right reasons, I can almost always find at least one beer I like a lot.
So why did I lose that sensation, starting about a year ago? What numbed me to the excitement of a new venture and new beer? And how do I get that feeling back?
I suspect that overload is the culprit. If you visit any kind of arena too often over a period of time, be it baseball stadiums or concert venues or restaurants, you’re bound to face stimulation fatigue. And it’s not just the visiting, but the experiences themselves can smear into one another until you can’t quite discern what makes this former-frozen-yogurt-joint-now-brewery different from this used-to-be-farm-equipment-storage-now-brewery.
And I hate to say it, but after a while the stories behind them blend together, especially by the 70th or so brewery. That’s not to say that each and every one isn’t special and their lives aren’t unique and delightful. They are. But it’s kind of tough differentiating which white male team in their 30s used to be in insurance and which ones are middle school teachers.
What a luxury it is to have this problem: oh, no, you have too many cool breweries to visit! I’m not saying I’m actively suffering. I’m just saying I’m in a bit of a funk.
So, here’s what I’m doing to get out of said funk. First of all, I’ve already decided I’m not going to chase down all 100 breweries. Some of them are at least an hour away, and I wish all of those breweries well. (If they want to pay for my Uber, I’m ready to ride and give out 5-star reviews like Halloween candy.)
Secondly, to get back into writing about new breweries, I’m going to focus more on my experience than on documenting all the facets of what brought the brewery to life. I’ll include some of that, of course, as I’m endlessly curious about how people could actually risk their livelihood to run a brewery, even during this Golden Age. My recent column about Noble Jay Brewing in Niantic went in this direction.
Lastly, I don’t necessarily need to try every single beer. I’ll gladly try your double dry hopped, oak flaked NEIIPA, but I know my taste and that will lead me to your porter or stout and thanks for playing.
If you’re new to the beer scene or feeling a tinge of jadedness, there’s more to enjoy than ever. Just don’t let it underwhelm you.
I’m taking on a new venture with baker Naima Craft, and her business, Craft Catering. I’ll be hosting, at Naima’s home, personalized beer-tasting classes, focusing on the intricacies of tasting and the strategy and serendipity of pairing beer with food. We’ll include cheese, meats, fresh-baked bread and chocolate, with lots of education and conversation along the way.
If you’re interested, it’s Dec. 14 from 4-6 p.m. in Bloomfield, Conn. For more information and to sign up, go to Naima’s website. Hope to see you soon!
(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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
(A version of this column was originally published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 8, 2019.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
(The following was published in a different form in the Republican-American on January 18, 2019.)
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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..
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.
“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.
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.
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.”