By Gregory B. Hladky
12:50 PM EDT, May 8, 2013
Shebeen Brewing Co. just opened its doors in Wolcott this past Sunday. Firefly Hollow Brewing Co. is shooting for its Bristol kickoff in June. That's also the target date for Broad Brook Brewing Co. up in East Windsor.
In fact, new craft breweries seem to be popping up all over Connecticut these days.
"It seems like I hear every couple of months now about a new brewery working toward getting going," says Bryon Turner, who runs ctbeertrail.net and operates a monthly bus tour of local beer-making operations across Connecticut. "It's a pretty exciting time."
Rich Visco, the 44-year-old co-owner and head brewer for Shebeen, thinks it's high time Connecticut caught a ride on the craft-brewery wave that's been building across the nation for the past two decades.
"What you're seeing [in Connecticut] is a catch-up as well as a revolution," says Visco.
According to the Brewers Association, there are a total of 2,416 breweries and brewpubs operating this year in the U.S. The group's list shows 1,124 brewpubs (restaurants or bars that brew beer on premises), 1,139 microbreweries, 97 regional craft breweries, and 56 "non-craft" breweries that includes biggies like Budweiser and Coors.
The group's statistics show a 40 percent jump in the number of microbreweries across the U.S. just since 2011, with more than 300 small craft operations opening just last year.
Beerme.com shows 37 existing or planned Connecticut breweries in its February listings. On his website, Turner has 12 established breweries included as the "backbone" of the newly state-sanctioned Beer Trail, three other beer producers as also operating, and no less than nine in various phases of development.
"Last year and this year," says Turner, "you're seeing some substantial growth in the [Connecticut craft beer] industry."
Two Roads Brewing Co., now the largest craft brew operation in the state, opened up in Stratford in December. Four other new breweries also got up and running in 2012. Meanwhile, established operations like Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. in Bloomfield and Cottrell Brewing Co. in Pawcatuck are still going strong.
The rapid growth in state breweries will be showcased during Connecticut Craft Beer Week, which is slated to run May 11-18 and will feature a long schedule of beer tastings, brewery tours and other suds-related events. Those will included the Rising Pint BrewFest at East Hartford's Rentschler Field on Saturday; CT Brewery Night at the Cask Republic in New Haven on Monday, May 13; and a New England Brewing Beer Dinner at Pies & Pints in Middlebury on May 15.
Rich Loomis, one of the owners of Bristol's Firefly Hollow, believes there's plenty of territory and taste buds ready for brewery expansion in Connecticut.
"We are 48th in the nation in terms of beer drinking," says Loomis, "so there's so much room."
Loomis is one of the owners of Brew & Wine Hobby in East Hartford, which sells home brewing and wine-making equipment. He and his partner, Bill Collins, and their brewmaster, Dana Bourque, are now on "the final leg" of their journey to open up Firefly.
The partners staged an online fundraising campaign to help finance their brewing dreams. Loomis said they were shooting to raise $30,000, actually ended up with $44,000, and generated so much interest that more well-heeled investors jumped on their beer bandwagon.
"It's been fantastic," says Loomis, "really beyond what we anticipated."
Like Broad Brook Brewing and various other new beer-makers, Firefly is planning on having its own taproom-tasting operation when it opens in June. So devotees will be able to buy and take home offerings such as "Train's Midday Bitter," "Prototype Amber," and "Luciferin IPA."
Shebeen (the name is an Irish word meaning "an unlicensed establishment or private house selling alcoholic liquor") is also operating a tasting taproom. Among the beverages this brewery will be producing are "Black Hop IPA," "Cannoli Beer," "Concord Grape Saison," and "West Coast Pale Ale."
Visco says he's been wanting to make beer since as long ago as 1996, when he did his master's thesis "on opening a brew pub." Instead, he went into high-tech finance and is now the IT manager for a Hartford hedge fund.
It was one of his colleagues there, Pat Lacerra, who convinced Visco they could actually make his long-standing passion for beer into a going concern. "He brought me out of my shell," Visco explains. "He kind of coaxed me into doing this."
At the start of their venture, Visco is working his beer magic only part time while he continues his regular hedge fund job to make sure he can pay his bills. Eventually, he says, the goal is for him to become a full-time brewmaster for Shebeen.
As far as Visco is concerned, the timing of opening this microbrewery couldn't be better given the growing demand for local, artisanal brew.
"If I'd opened up 17 years ago as [originally] planned, I probably would have failed," he admits.
Now, he says, "It's kind of like a collective wave is happening" in Connecticut, and it's being pushed along by beer lovers in their 20's and 30's who want to try new and interesting brews being made locally by people who care about their craft.
Visco is glad to see so many new breweries opening up in Connecticut, but knows not all are going to make it. He says some of these new operations have Wall Street kind of money behind them, and that brings heavy pressure to make profits. Others just aren't producing very good beer, according to Visco.
Turner agrees that rising demand among consumers looking for good, local, artisanal brew is behind this growth spurt for Connecticut breweries.
He says younger beer drinkers want brewers "who take pride in their product, who aren't in it just for the buck." He says part of the attraction for lots of people is getting to know their local brewer in person. "With those big international breweries, you're not going to meet the guy making the beer."
Turner, who has a full-time job as a member of Connecticut's Air National Guard, thinks this boom in new breweries will help generate new customers for everybody.
Loomis is on board. The more breweries that open up, he argues, "the more awareness, the more interest, and the more people jumping on board there will be."
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