Spirits, as the name suggests, evoke the magical, intangible and ethereal.
I’ve never spent a lot of time in the lands of whiskey, rum, or gin, mostly because they send me to a magical place a little too quickly for my equilibrium.
However, when I heard that a new distillery was opening in Waterbury that extracts alcohol from slushy beer runoff from other breweries, I was intrigued.
Continuum Distilling has the vibe of a brewery, and it even smells like one. Tucked away just a few doors down from Brass Works Brewing in an industrial park on Thomaston Avenue, it’s got a nice little tasting room with a bar made partly from barrel staves, while the back is filled with containers of viscous liquid.
There are racks of small casks, rows of blue 55-gallon drums, and a bevy of 275-gallon totes that hold a soupy elixir: semi-solid beer remnants reclaimed from brewery fermenters. Owner and head distiller Brandon Collins has added sugar to keep it fermenting, and it’s destined to become rum and two spirits so new that Collins had to invent names for them: Drops, for beers made with IPAs, and Charred, from maltier beers.
A few feet away, where the fermenters would be if this were a brewery, were two conic pot stills, which turn the sludge into distillates. The beer byproduct is placed in the stripping still, heated 110 gallons at a time until vapor rises through a copper column and mixes with cold water to become alcohol, one drop at a time. After another run through the spirits still, you get a nearly colorless liquid, and the best of that gets aged in casks that have charred black birch and white oak staves, from trees downed in a storm.
It was the slurry that sat in those giant white totes that all this fuss was about, and Collins, a 41-year-old chemist from Tennessee, walked me through it.
Continuum takes the “trimmings” that brewers usually throw out: the goo that doesn’t make it to the brite tank but still has residual sugars, hops and yeast.
“There’s a lot of alcohol in there,” he said. “Cloudy, murky liquid with a ton of flavor.”
It’s that flavor that comes from craft beer that makes his product special, he said.
“Upfront it’s a sustainable process,” Collins said. “But what’s exciting for me is the flavor you will get. It’s a finished beer. If I wanted to do this from scratch, it would be astronomical. Plus, a traditional spirit is using a base grain. It might be good, but it’s straightforward: corn, barley, rye. But we have roasted chocolate malts, flaked oats, all these awesome malt bills and impart a lot of flavor.”
The beer run-off comes from seven local breweries currently, but most comes from Oxford’s Black Hog Brewing, whose owners are also partners in the Continuum venture.
It was while working as an intern at Black Hog after being laid off by a major pharmaceutical company that Collins had his brainstorm about collecting and using other breweries’ beer slush for spirits.
“I was working the canning line and I could see how the bottom of the fermenter runoff was not being utilized,” Collins said. “I thought I had an idea. I went to them and started putting plans together.”
Black Hog co-owner Jason Sobocinski said that when he sampled Collins’ mason jar moonshine over two years ago, he was surprised to hear that its origins were from Black Hog’s beers. “This was amazing stuff,” Sobocinski said. “He asked, ‘So how do I do this?’ And here we are.”
Collins said he did a test batch at Litchfield Distillery in Litchfield in January of 2018, and a year later, while navigating the licensing needed to open his business, worked with Westford Hills Distillers in Ashford.
Opening a distillery in Waterbury was not his first choice; he would have preferred to be closer to Black Hog, but the options didn’t pan out.
As it turned out, though, Collins and Black Hog were happy to spread into new territory, and being next to Brass Works has its perks as well. They two businesses are already sharing ingredients and making drinks together, and plan to share food trucks, and of course, customers.
I had a chance to taste their three bottled offerings, and I’d say the beer plays a significant role in all of them.
Their ContinuRum is made with molasses, not beer run-off. However, it does use repitched yeast from Black Hog’s Granola Brown. I found it pleasant and smooth.
With Drops, I certainly got a tropical nose from the IPA. Collins said it’s close to gin, but without the juniper taste. What shines is the hops, and this batch came from three Black Hog IPAs: Ginga Ninja, Hog Water, and Piglet. It’s tingly in your mouth, and the bitterness is smoothed over at the end by sweetness.
Charred, which comes from the runnings of maltier fare like stouts and porters, is known unofficially as “beer whiskey.” Batches 001 and 002 are made from Black Hog’s Milk Stout during pilot mode, and clock in at 96 proof. Lactose does not ferment out in the brewing process and it’s present in the flavor.
You can check out the distillery yourself this weekend at their grand opening. They offer $10 tastings and tours and buy bottles of their spirits. Starting in July, their license will allow them to serve beer as well.
Until next time, sip well.
Listen to a podcast episode on Continuum Distilling at itstartswithbeer.podbean.com/e/ep-5-continuum-distillery/.
IF YOU GO
2066 Thomaston Ave., Waterbury