Standing still at the brewery

Just hanging out during a Thomas Hooker open house on June 5.
Just hanging out during a Thomas Hooker open house on June 5.

It’s be a fun month of book promotion, and not because I’m filling a swimming pool with cash from all my sales. It’s been fun because I’ve been able to be a solitary figure, oftentimes just silent and unobtrusive, observing people drinking and making merry.

Let me give you an example. It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at Shebeen Brewing in Wolcott. I’m set up in a large room with communal tables, sitting on a high stool behind a table filled with copies of my new book, “Connecticut Beer: A History of Nutmeg State Brewing” (The History Press). After trading niceties with owner Rich Visco and some staff members, I’m left with my wife to just… hang out. We’d just driven up from New Jersey, so after three hours in the car we’d already conversed all we’d need to for one day. A few nice folks stopped by the chat, but after a while it was just the two of us, sitting behind a big table, watching people drink.

In a way I felt like a judge, and sort of felt like I needed to rate the merriment. For the loud foursome playing Cards Against Humanity, I’d give an 8 out of 10… that one woman’s laugh dialed it down from a solid 9. The hippy couple bonding over samples of what appear to be the pale ale get a 6; they could use a little more animation.

In other scenarios, like at Overshores Brewing in East Haven, I’m off to the side with my little stack of books. During their anniversary party, I was privy to several conversations, including one about a gent who’s keen on starting up his own brewery. This is one I’ve heard before, but it never fails to excite me too. You get caught up in their energy and confidence.

Meet the author... at House of Books in Kent.
Meet the author… at House of Books in Kent.

Books stores and libraries have a different vibe. They’re much quieter of course, and even though the events I’ve taken part in include beer samples, they never get too rowdy. There, I’m the focus, as in “Meet the Author” (or sometimes, Stare Bemusedly at the Author). But I still get to surreptitiously listen in on broken bits of conversation. I think there’s something about being surrounded by books that puts people on their best behavior, and perhaps makes them feel like what they say needs to be “important.” I’d love for there to be more breweries with bookstores in them; reading and drinking are two things I love to pair.

At Thomas Hooker Brewing in Bloomfield I had a chance to observe a group of bearded guys enter into the most animated of conversations. They were part of the Connecticut Facial Hair Alliance, whose motto is, “Life’s too short to spend time shaving.” By quietly standing back and observing, I got to see a rookie bearded guy mistake (getting foam in your mustache) and a sly veteran’s trick (he brought his own straw for samples).

So if you see me at an event and I’m standing behind my pile of books looking out of it, I’m really just taking it all in.

The books have arrived

books in boxes

It looks like it’s going to be a busy week for me. Now that the advance copies of Connecticut Beer (The History Press) have arrived, it’s all so very real that I’ve reached another milestone in this journey. My plan is to lug these puppies all over the state looking for people with the good taste and foresight to purchase them.

The next step is promotion, and I’m looking forward to a fun night on Wednesday at City Steam Brewing. At 6 p.m. I’ll be signing books with Ron Page, the brewer there who also wrote the forward to the book. On Friday, I’ll be down in Branford, signing at their first-anniversary party, then on Saturday I’ll be in Wolcott, signing at Shebeen Brewing’s second anniversary party. I’ll be wrapping up the weekend on Sunday at the Thread City Brewfest in Willimantic.

Last week I had a chance to talk to Leeanne Griffin, who writes for the Hartford Courant and CT Now; it was a bit weird to be on the other side of the interview, but she’s a pro and I think it went well. Now I get to feel like my subjects do and wait for the story to hit the web and get inked.

Shebeen Brewing focuses on expansion and image

Shebeen Rich Visco
Rich Visco of Shebeen Brewing Company

The Connecticut beer community is a small but passionate one. I’m not talking about the occasional drinker or brewery tour-taker. I’m talking about the geeks like me who obsessively rate local beer, thrive on news of opening breweries and new releases, and taste the beer with the attention some people devote to batting averages and brain surgery.

This community is also very chatty and web-savvy, so when a newspaper article (remember those?) comes out about a local brewery, we’re there to digest it and offer commentary on it. That was the case on Dec. 31 when the newspaper for which I write my column published “Brewer Slows Down: Wolcott Company Seeking Wider Market Out of State” by Andrew Larson. In it, Larson describes how owner Rich Visco is distributing his beer in South Carolina, and makes mention that sales in Connecticut package stores are not keeping up with supply. The brewery recently expanded to a 30-barrel system and is only operating at a quarter of its capacity, Larson writes.

What caught the brewery community’s attention was what Visco had to say in the article. Larson paraphrases Visco thusly: “It’s frustrating, [Visco] said, that more people in Connecticut don’t support their local breweries. There’s a beer for everyone at Shebeen, he said, but many consumers prefer national brands.”

Referring to frustration Visco expressed with bars not serving as many local beers as he would like, Larson quotes Visco as saying, “We’re all fighting for the same taps… If you want all of us to be here and to succeed, you’ve got to put more of our stuff on tap.”

Shebeen tasting room
Shebeen Brewing Company tasting room

Readers took this as Visco showing disrespect to drinkers in the state, and took the opportunity — on Reddit and BeerAdvocate.com, among other sites — to voice their primarily negative views of Shebeen’s beer.

I decided to check in with Larson and Visco a few days after the story had its chance to germinate within the community. By this time Visco had personally gone onto Reddit to address concerns, and apologized for past beers that were not to the drinkers’ liking. He said he’s brought on a new brewer and was ready for their business.

While Larson said he stood by his story and wishes Shebeen the best, Visco had a little more to say to me about the situation.

Visco said that his brewery had its strongest months in November and December, but that he was slowing down production to distribute beer in Connecticut “due to many factors some of which are our own fault.”

He said that he was trying to make the point to Larson that there were only a few dozen craft bars that “really support the CT model,” such as Eli Cannon’s in Middletown, J. Timothy’s in Plainville, and Pies & Pints (for whom he helps brew beer) in Waterbury. “The rest are hard to crack and if they do have CT beer, it’s usually only a few taps and they are usually dominated by New England [Brewing Company of Woodbridge].”

Visco said he’s seen “nastiness” in feedback for his brewery. I can attest to this; it’s a bit out of control.

“As for South Carolina,” he wrote in an email, “we saw it as an opening in a state that embraces beer. It’s 16th in the country and has a high number of transplants and vacationers.”

Visco said Shebeen is trying to “improve quality and consistency, do a better job of marketing and sales, [and] simplify our beers to distribution.”

I hope Visco continues to improve the quality of beer at Shebeen; that will go a lot further than any positive or negative press. But there’s little good that comes out of bashing a brewery online outside of the initial spark of satisfaction.

I’m all for free speech, and don’t plan on telling anyone to censor these remarks. I hope people continue to support the Connecticut breweries whose beer they enjoy.

RELATED POST: Shebeen Brewing: The Art of Confusion

Everybody’s thirsty

Firefly Brewing headquarters
Firefly Brewing headquarters

There’s just something about a Sunday at a small, local brewery.

If you’re a prowler of the scene like me, you’ll step into a little brewery, and there’s an instant snap of recognition. Not the recognition like, “Hey, I’ve been here before.” But more like, “Yeah, I know this vibe. I like this vibe.”

One of the best things about small breweries is that their tasting rooms have no televisions. If you come across one with a television, kindly tell the owner to rip it out and crush it into bits. The beauty of this forgotten no-TV experience is that people are forced to talk to one another. And it doesn’t matter if you know your beer stuff or if you’ve ever been there before. The conversation starts with beer, and it could go anywhere else. Continue reading “Everybody’s thirsty”

How to Be a Beer Snob

You, too, can be a beer snob!
You, too, can be a beer snob!

I want you to know right off the bat that there is a beer snob inside you. You need to let go of all the negative energy that’s keeping you from releasing that snob.

Maybe it’s the fear of being condemned. Or maybe it’s a tragic childhood spent watching your elders drink inferior beer and going on to lead very sad lives.

Whatever is blocking you, we’ll work together to create a path to enlightenment.

Let’s get the term “snob” defined right away. A “snob” has negative connotations, brothers and sisters. This is not the correct way to look at it. To be a beer snob is to recognize that life is short, and that we deserve the finest while we’re on the planet. We choose great beer and choose to pee in Port-o-Potties at crowded beer festivals because we appreciate and deserve great beer.

The fact that we eschew cheaper beers and spend a little more on artisanal beer is a reflection of our quest for quality, not an air of superiority. It’s only beer, after all.

My job is to help you celebrate the true snob within.
Continue reading “How to Be a Beer Snob”

Shebeen good to me

shebeen board

I had a chance to attend an early opening of Wolcott’s Shebeen Brewing yesterday, along with an enthusiastic crowd of invited guests. The Wolcott brewery’s tasting room has undergone a strong refurbishing since I saw it a couple months ago.

As tasting rooms go, this one has a nice atmosphere. A standing bar for pourers on along one wall with six taps means easy access to generous shot glasses. A mural of a quaint, vaguely Irish street scene dominates another wall. There are a few tables for comfort. And the faux exposed beams gives it an old-world touch.

Shebeen mural

There’s an open house today from noon to five, so treat yourself to a dry, mellow Irish Pale or biting Black Hop IPA.

RELATED POST: Shebeen Brewing

Sampling: Shebeen Brewing

Shebeen flies the flags of craft beer and three countries.
Shebeen flies the flags of craft beer and three countries.

“I’ve been weird for 20 years.”

From the styles of beer he’s concocted and actually plans to sell, brewmaster Rich Visco sounds legit when he talks about his brewing persona. The homebrewer-turned-brewery co-owner gave me a tour today of his Shebeen Brewing Co.

The former machinist shop in Wolcott, Conn., looks like it was built from the ground-up to be a brewery. It’s already got the floor drains, the vertical reach that cries out for stacks of kegs, and what looks to be a promising tasting room.

More importantly, it’ll have that weirdness.

Along with an IPA and a pale ale, Shebeen will be ladling out a bacon, oatmeal, coffee stout (that’s one stout, not three); a wild concord grape saison; and a dessert explosion aptly called a cannoli beer.

The brewery is set to open this spring. I’ll have a full column on Shebeen Brewing in a March Republican-American column. In the meantime, like them on Facebook.

RELATED POST: Sampling: Relic Brewing