Scott Vallely brewed beer at home for 30 years while running a successful career in the paper and pulp industry. But the digital age took its toll, and three years ago, Vallely sold his company, paper.com. He always brewed beer in the kitchen of his New Canaan home, and his wife had always been understanding — even when it made the kitchen smell like the day after a frat party. But now, unemployed, his presence in the kitchen wasn't as welcome. "My wife said, 'You're not hanging around this kitchen. Why don't you start a brewing company? You know about it and you love it, and you love starting companies."
Today, his Charter Oak beers are available in 400 outlets in Connecticut. He introduced Charter Oak brown ale in June 2012, Royal Charter Pale Ale last Thanksgiving, and Wadsworth's India Pale Ale a few weeks ago. It's just the beginning of a detailed 10-year business plan.
Before he jumped into the business, he "diligently studied" the craft beer market. While big corporations that make beers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors capture 95 percent of the beer-drinking market, he believes that the market for craft beer in Connecticut is poised for expansion. "States like Oregon and Washington, where craft beer has taken off, they are 50/50 with the big guys," he says. Looking at the growth in sales of craft beer in California, Vermont and Maine, "I look at Connecticut now as being at the very beginning of where those states were a decade ago. If just 10 percent of the market migrates to craft beer, that's huge."
Vallely had the beer part down. He had the recipes, in a range of beer styles. He knew what kind of beer he believed in, "well-balanced with a strong malted barley backbone, and plenty of hops." He needed a brand. Local is hot, so to establish his Connecticut location, he chose the name Charter Oak. Legend has it that when King James tried to revoke the Royal Charter of 1662, which granted Connecticut rights to self-govern, Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid the charter in an ancient oak tree in Hartford.
"It's very Connecticut-centric," he says, "All my beers will be an event, or a time within the legend, a new part of the story." Charter Oak's 1668 Brown Ale is named after the year Wadsworth supposedly hid the charter. Sanford Tavern Extra Special Bitter, which will be released toward the end of the year, commemorates the tavern where the patriots refused to give up the royal charter to the British.
Being a self-described, "army of one," Vallely needed help brewing his beers. He brings his own malt, hops, yeast and bottles to Paper City Brewing in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and brews with their team. In the next year he plans to build a Charter Oak brewery in Southwestern Connecticut. He is looking at locations, and says it will have a tasting room, tours and "be a destination."
The biggest challenge of starting his business has been competing for space on the shelves and coolers. That's why he spends most Wednesday, Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays knocking on doors and doing tastings at liquor stores around the state. "The question is why does Charter Oak stand out? A lot of the appeal of craft beer is the story behind the brand, and no one is going to tell it better than the owner and brewer. I think people get a kick out of it. I really want them to try all my styles and explain the story of the charter oak."
His beer is available at most restaurants in his hometown of New Canaan, and is on tap at the new Beer Garden at Harbor Point. "They're knocking the socks off my brown ale," he say. Another Harbor Point restaurant, Dinosaur, carries all of Charter Oak's beers. "Their menu and my brown ale go together like peanut butter and jelly," he says.
He believes that his solid background in business will make Charter Oak a long-term success. "I'm a businessman and a craft brewer. Many of the people starting breweries today are wonderful people, but they are craft brewers first and business operators second. There will be a cleansing process. The market will not support all of these breweries and some will go by the wayside unfortunately."
Here's where to get Charter Oak Beers:
Harbor Point Beer Garden
Dinosaur Bar B Que
New Haven County
Wood N Tap