One last pour: Farewell, Backstage

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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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Hard to keep up, but worth it

Consider this one a place-holder: I’ve been so caught up with my “real life” that I’ve placed my beer writing life in a dusty corner, where it certainly does not belong. I’ve been able to squeeze out a column per month (except for June…), but I’ll forgive myself if you will too.

So many breweries have opened up recently that I’m having trouble keeping up. I’ve made it to Counter Weight in Hamden, which I liked very much, for the beer and the two floors of tap rooms. I’ve missed the openings of New Park Brewing in West Hartford and Alvarium in New Britain, but enjoyed the early entries from Kinsmen Brewing in Southington. There are plenty to venture toward this summer, and this weekend is as good as any to start.

Too Legitimus II Quitimus

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There’s something about a communal table that stirs an ancient drive in the socially needy. The prospect of having a real conversation, albeit brief, with an insightful stranger has real value in an era when an emoji counts as reasoned debate.

So when a brewer whose work I’ve come to enjoy opened up a brewery 20 minutes from my house with communal tables, my esteem for him rose. When I saw that Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford also boasts a communal sectional COUCH, I learned the true meaning of respect.

While I’ve only had one visit since the brewery opened late last month, I can with confidence say that it is off to a fine start. I enjoyed Brewery Legitimus’ Counter Surfer Brown Ale and Ovation Session IPA, but went particularly gaga over its Chelson Stout. Named for a traditional first name of brewer/owner Chris Sayer’s family, this chocolatey, lightly carbonated, rich-and-sweetish ale came home with me in a growler and is fueling this very post.

I plan to write more about BL in the future, but wanted the world to know now that I’m a fan and look forward to many chats with strangers at the tables and on the couch.

Hartford mayor big on beer

Luke Bronin

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Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin would like to see more breweries in Connecticut’s capital, where two recently opened this summer, joining City Steam Brewing.

“We want as many breweries as we can get,” Bronin said in a phone interview Friday. “We see breweries as catalysts for economic growth, and also as places that add to the livability and fun.”

This summer saw the openings of Hanging Hills Brewing on Ledyard Street and Hog River Brewing on Park Street, just a few miles northwest. Bronin attended both openings.

“Breweries are not just manufacturers of beer, but they are centers of community,” Bronin said.

Bronin alluded to zoning code changes that came into effect recently that allowed for Hanging Hills to serve beer relatively close to an elementary school. He said that such “overhauls” are necessary to continue economic growth.

“It’s important to me that we focus on…not just the big shiny development, but also the things that change the day to day,” he said.

In terms of where new breweries in Hartford might go, Bronin said he’s not biased.  He said he’s open to “any breweries who want to come and be part of the revitalization.”

Statewide, with more than 40 breweries, there’s been talk of a Connecticut beer trail, much like its wine trail, complete with signage. It only exists virtually — you can learn more at CTBeerTrail.net —  but Bronin said he loves the idea.

“For now,” he said, “we’ll focus on the Hartford beer circuit.”

Read my story about the opening of Hanging Hills and Hog River at the Republican-American: BIG TOWN, SMALL BEER.

Cape Ann lands in CT again

CapeAnnBeerWhen I got an email saying that Cape Ann Brewing of Gloucester, Mass., was going to distribute again in Connecticut, I thought exactly what you’re thinking: How do you pronounce the name of that city again? Then I thought: What does it taste like? (The beer, not the city.)

We Connecticut beer lovers are lucky to have so much Massachusetts beer on our shelves. Sure, we don’t have every Mass. beer… If Tree House Brewing were here, we wouldn’t get to go to Monson! But we do have Jack’s Abby, Wachusett, and Big Elm, among others.

Family-owned Cape Ann Brewing, which has been making beer since 2004 on Boston’s North Shore, distributed beer in Connecticut until 2008, then decided to focus on their local market. Now they are back in the Nutmeg state. A representative was kind enough to arrange for some cans for me to sample, and so I did. They foot the bill, but the opinions are mine.

Fisherman’s Pils (5.4% ABV) – I started off with this gem right after mowing the crispy lawn. It went down quickly, and I immediately regretted the chugging about halfway through. That’s simply no way to enjoy a beer. As anticipated, it was crisp and clean, with just enough hop bitterness to reward a slow savor. At 35 IBUs it’s no bland lager. I think I’ll pace myself next time and try this in the shower.

Fisherman’s Brew (5.5% ABV) – This amber lager had the crispness of the pils, but a slightly maltier balance. A beautiful pinkish red, this beer proved to be a hit with a non-beer lover (gasp) with whom a shared it. We paired it with peanuts, hummus, and chips and it seemed to compliment those just fine. Anything more aggressive might have overwhelmed this easy-drinking beer.

Sunrise Saison (4.5% ABV) – This Belgian beauty was, frankly, nicer to look at than drink. Packed with strawberries and rhubarb, the ale seemed to fighting itself. It was in some ways quite sweet, perhaps from the wheat in the grain bill. However, the tart and earthy components brought in by the fruit and plant complicated matters, making it more work than necessary to enjoy.

Fisherman’s IPA (5.5% ABV) – An India pale ale that doesn’t tear your taste buds from the roots, but still incorporates Sorachi Ace hops? This is the one. This English-style IPA has a pleasant bitterness and squeezes plenty of flavor from relatively low ABV. I happened to be trying this when someone passed cannoli around, and it went surprisingly well. Its malt base seemed to come to the surface.

Deadeye Double IPA (9.0% ABV) – This one was a bit of a bitter attack on the senses, with Citra hop invading the throat while delivering an aroma choke hold. Too strong for my taste, but right up others’ alleys, this beast might be the perfect partner to a spicy gumbo.

Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout (7.0% ABV) – A seasonal treat, this stout might be the one to wash back leftover Halloween candy with. This Pumpkin is sweet, but complex, opening up with hints of dark fruits like plum as it warms up. There’s certainly cinnamon here, but the sweetness tastes more like it came from honey.

With Cape Ann on our shelves, we’re that much richer. I happened to get mine at Bottle Stop in Torrington, but I’d recommend you seek out this brewery’s offerings at your own package store.

FURTHER READING: Big Elm Gerry Dog Stout

My library adventures

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Wowing them at the East Hampton Public Library

I can’t get over what a wild ride this whole book thing has been, and I’m floored by the places it’s taken me. Since Connecticut Beer: A History of Nutmeg State Brewing (History Press) came out in April of 2015, I’ve chatted about it on radio shows and a podcast, and taken it with me to brew festivals, restaurant fund raisers, historical societies, and even a yacht club. My most consistent supporters, however, have been the Connecticut libraries, and I wanted to reflect a little on how grateful I am of the men and women who have given me chance to talk about my love of Connecticut brewing history, lead beer tastings, and sell my book.

When you’re giving a talk at a library you’re entering a sacred space, at least from my perspective. Growing up, I stood up a little straighter and tried to sound a little more intelligent when I went to my public library. It was a well-lit oasis for a bibliophile and committed indoorsman like myself. My library was right next to the soccer field where I tried to keep up with the big kids and labored to breathe, so in many ways it was a sanctuary.

I learned as an adult that the public library system is still an asylum. Of course I stop by for books and books on tape CD as a patron, but ever since my first book talk at the Prospect Public Library in May of 2015 I’ve had a new perspective on what a library means to its patrons.

To keep relevant and viable, libraries offer what the internet cannot: human interaction. So they offer author talks, but also cooking demonstrations, storytelling sessions, business adviser meetings. Thanks to the Connecticut Library Consortium, program directors can find actresses, musicians, and time management gurus who do more than just perform. They interact.

So I’ve tried to do just that, and it’s been a blast. The people I’ve met have been a pleasant mix of beer geeks, local history enthusiasts, and mildly curious library groupies. I think my largest gathering was at Avon Free Public Library, where about 60 people gathered and Tina, the adult services manager, had set up a great selection of beer-related books for people to peruse. At the gorgeous Darien Library, I had a chance to speak in a lovely lecture hall with stadium seating. Other times I’ve gathered in a more humble side room and spoken in front of a well-behaved and encouraging crowd of six.

I’ve been challenged and chided, questioned and second guessed, but never disrespected and always inspired to dig deeper into history and up my game as a presenter.

The beer tasting, which comes after the talk (because, really, I’m afraid to have it first), plays a big part of the presentation — where I’m allowed to lead it, that is. Not all libraries have policies that allow for alcohol, so sometimes it’s just me talking with my PowerPoint presentation. I’ve come to enjoy the tasting not just for the Connecticut beer we sample, but for the discussions that come during the sessions. I hear reactions I won’t hear during a roundtable of beer enthusiasts. Of course, I love, “Wow: I don’t even like beer, but I like this! It’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?” But I also appreciate, “Yeah, this is gross…”

I should say that if it were not for Tess at Veracious Brewing, who recommended approaching libraries, and for John at Prospect Public Library who recommended me on a librarian list-serv, I’d never have had these great experiences.

On Tuesday, July 12, I’ll be talking at my 30th Connecticut library – Kent Memorial Library in Suffield,  to be exact. It starts at 7 p.m. Join me, if you can.

Author’s note: I charge libraries a fee for my services, and for their generosity I am also grateful.

Future speaking engagements include:

Aug. 11, 6:30 – New Milford Public Library (860) 355-1191

Aug. 15, 6:30 -Manchester Public Library (860) 647-5235

Aug. 18, 7 – Oliver Wolcott Public Library, Litchfield (860) 567-8030

Sept. 15, 7 – Windsor Public Library (860) 285-1910

FURTHER READING: Girls Pint Out