Mike Smith and Tony Karlowicz of Back East Brewing.

(The following column was originally published on July 4, 2012, in the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American.)

By Will Siss

There were these cousins – Ed and Tony – and they hadn’t seen each other in a while, maybe a decade.

“It was a little awkward because we hadn’t seen each other in a long time,” Ed told me. “Then [Tony’s] wife said he wanted to start a brewery and we both just looked up.”

Once Edward Fabrycki Jr. and Tony Karlowicz discovered that they shared the same dream, it was only a matter of how hard they wanted to work to achieve it. As it turned out, they’d have to work extremely hard to make their Back East Brewing Co. a reality.

This month, they and their head brewer Mike Smith begin making beer on a regular schedule in their Bloomfield microbrewery. They’re turning their test batches of amber ale, imperial India pale ale and imperial stout into commercial beers so that Back East will be available in stores and restaurants by early August.

The bookkeeper

Tony, 35, paced meditatively in front of his new, stainless steel Premier brewery tanks while Mike the brewer checked up on how well a coolant was flowing through some pipes.

We were in a large unit of a small industrial park in Bloomfield. A giant pile of malted barley sacks sat together on one side of the room, bound by packing tape. The space was once used to make cabinets, and there was still room for more equipment, like a bottling or canning line.

Dressed in a preppy checked shirt and wearing black-rimmed glasses, Tony looked like a pretty athletic guy who was equally comfortable working behind a desk crunching numbers.

His parents, he explained, ran a candy store when he was growing up. Seeing his folks working with customers selling Munson’s Chocolate among other sweets and gifts made an impression on him. The connection to his current venture isn’t lost on Tony. “Candy makes people happy, beer makes people happy,” he said.

After running his own small landscaping business in high school, Tony took his entrepreneurial spirit to St. Michael’s College near Burlington, Vermont, where he majored in business. While there, he got his first taste of homebrewing, an experience that would later give him the confidence to make his own recipes. Tony returned to Connecticut after graduating in 2000.

Working for CIGNA Insurance kept him employed, but planning for his dream brewery with Ed became his other full-time job. They took on the giant tasks of researching the economics behind running what would become Connecticut’s seventh working brewery, how best to market and promote themselves and ways to raise money.

While they pitched their start-up to family and friends, they experimented with the product. Over years, 10 gallons at a time, Ed and Tony brewed from original recipes. Then they did the hard part: they duplicated them.

“We decided what kind of business we wanted to be and we put together a business plan,” Tony said matter-of-factly. “Because it was a partnership, we had to run ideas by each other, which is the way to go.”

They chose Bloomfield (also home of Thomas Hooker Brewing Co.) as their headquarters because it’s “pretty business friendly” and has many industrial park units to choose from. It took six months of work to get the unit’s plumbing and electricity up to their standards, but that was all calculated in.

“If you look at microbreweries today, all of their paths are different,” Tony said. “If you just copy one, you don’t have as much to show for it. Once you realize how you want your beer and your position in the market, you learn as much as you can.”

The engineer

Complementing Tony’s side of the equation, Ed knew that his engineering training and experience would play a role in the brewery. He knows his way around the brewing equipment and has used his engineer’s mind to help set up the brewery.

“I knew I didn’t want to deal with the business end,” he told me recently by phone. “But right now we’re both filling whatever roles need to be filled.”

Ed, who is in his early 40s and lives in Southington, also grew up in Connecticut and studied engineering. That career took him to San Diego in 1994, where the lure of the emerging microbrewery scene was particularly strong. He’d been homebrewing for four years by then, but seeing how craft brewing had expanded to become an exploding, profitable business intrigued him.

He moved back east in 2000, where he continued to brew out of his garage. When he joined forces with Tony, he knew they had something with their Back East Ale, the amber they hope will serve as their flagship beer.  “It was the first beer that made you think, ‘We could do this.’ It’s a beer that people would not be intimidated by.”

(Yes, I did get a chance to try it, and yes, it is an easy drinking beer. I preferred the stronger imperial stout, which is dry-hopped, meaning that hops were added late to give it a robust floral aroma.)

“Nothing we’ve done has been a gamble,” Ed said. “We’ve done our research and met with industry people and restaurants and package stores. We’ve done our homework.”

The brewer

With the business and engineering members of the team in place, there was now a need for a brewer. Ed and Tony turned to Mike Smith, who is tasked with taking their relatively tiny test batches and translating those recipes to work on a 10 barrel system that will generate about 1,000 barrels (or about 31,000 gallons) of beer a year.

Mike, who grew up on Cape Cod, studied biology at Connecticut College before he traveled to Austin, Texas in the mid-1990s. There, he landed a low-rung assistant gig at the Waterloo Brewing Co., which closed in 2001. It was Mike’s time at Boston-based Harpoon Brewing Co., where he worked before spending time at Plymouth, Mass.-based Mayflower Brewing Co., that caught the cousins’ attention.

“I started out at Harpoon as a shift brewer on the production line, focusing on one part of the equipment at a time,” said Mike, 40. “When you’re working a filter for 40 hours a week, you really understand that filter.”

Part of his legacy there was creating a beer that became part of Harpoon’s 100-barrel series. The series is a line of small-batch one-offs that give the brewers a chance to experiment. Mike created an Oktoberfest beer called Frankenfest for a festival in 2004. He used eight different malts for that one.

Mike joined the team after leaving his job as a brewer at Mayflower last summer.

Like Tony and Ed, Mike said that tradition will be a cornerstone to his creations.

“There’s always room for playing around, but you have to have a solid grasp of tradition to veer away from it,” he said.

Mike said he feels confident about Back East’s leadership.

“These guys have their heads screwed on straight,” he said. “There are two things going on. There’s a business and brewing and two different skill sets. I don’t know many people who do both well. But it is tempting to do both.”

The veteran

A member of the Connecticut brewing brotherhood, Curt Cameron, welcomed an addition to the growing brewery scene in the state. As head of Thomas Hooker Brewing for six years, Cameron knows a bit about managing a new business.

“I think there are good and challenging factors at play,” Curt wrote in an email. “It’s a good time for them to start up because craft beer in Connecticut has never seen such acceptance and growth.  I see people at our events really embracing our products and the fact that they are made here in Connecticut. It’s challenging because there is plenty of competition for a finite number of consumers.”

Tony said that working with a solid team and focusing on quality will earn Back East a vital role in the Connecticut microbrewery scene.

“We’ve been doing this for six years, and only in the past year it’s taken off,” he said. “There’s no substitute for not doing what you want to do.”

Until next time, sip well.

You can follow Beer Snob on Twitter (@BeerSnobCT) or on Facebook. Send E-mails to beer.snob@yahoo.com.

Beers from Back East Brewing will be available at the CPTV/WNPR Craft Beer & Chili Challenge from noon to 4 p.m. on August 12 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. For more information, go to www.beerandchili.org.

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