Beer gets spirited

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Brandon Collins of Continuum Distilling.

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.”

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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

Continuum Distilling

2066 Thomaston Ave., Waterbury

(203) 232-5037

http://www.continuumdistilling.com

It Starts With Beer – Ep. 2

I’m back!

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:

Mythos Hellenic Lager

Yiayias of Torrington, Connecticut

Music: “A Little Sympathy,” composed and performed by Will Siss and “Don’t Be Angry” by the Konstantinos Bouzouki Orchestra

Pairing prep

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Naima Craft and me hard at work preparing.

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.”

 

 

 

 

Why Don’t I Get Excited About New Brewery Openings, And How Can I Fix That?

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…

meh

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?

mojo

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.

all the sameWhat 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.

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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.

 

 

 

Pairing ad

        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!

Tunes among the taphandles (Part 1)

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Matt James of Blacktop Mojo sings a little Phil Collins during an expected break from onstage rocking at Woodbury Brewing Company (photo by Will Siss)

(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.

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Mattson (photo by Will Siss)

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.

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John Strickland of Lullwater (photo by Will Siss)

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.’”

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Matt James of Blacktop Mojo works the crowd (photo by Will Siss)

Mojo Risin

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.

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Blacktop Mojo bassist Matt Curtis is rock and roll (photo by Will Siss)

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.

Bad Dog Brewing turns firehouse into brew house

(A version of this column was originally published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 8, 2019.)

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Christiopher Tkac of Bad Dog Brewing in the unfinished former firefirehouse in Torrington, Conn. (photo by Will Siss)

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. 

Firehouse history

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. 

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The Torrington fire house, circa 1901. (Photo courtesy of the Torrington Historical Society)

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.

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Christopher Tkac on the second floor of his future brewery. (photo by Will Siss)

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.