(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.”