By John Adamian
10:20 AM EDT, June 20, 2012
95B Whiting St., Plainville, for more information about beers and tastings visit relicbeer.com
Mark Sigman has drunk fermented mare's milk in the wilds of Mongolia. He's slurped millet beer from a communal straw in East Africa. He's poked around small villages in the beer-brewing holy lands of Czechoslovakia and Germany on the hunt for beer made from centuries-old recipes. The guy has traveled to dozens and dozens of countries around the world, usually with a mind to sample some of the local brew. Now, as the owner of Relic Brewing, a "nano-brewery" operating out of Plainville, he's making and selling his own beer, and, though he's no purist, he's tipping his hat — clinking a sudsy pint glass? — in honor of tradition.
Relic Brewing opened in late February of this year. Unlike a lot of new business owners who want to announce their arrival on the scene with a bang, Sigman says he's "been trying to keep a low profile." In many ways, it's simply a practical decision: Sigman only brews about two and a half barrels per week. That means he's making about 80 gallons of beer a week — hence the "nano-brewery" name. Turns out that ultra limited supply only serves to boost demand. Sigman routinely sells out of his beers, and he has out-of-state beer nuts stopping by his tiny brewery to sample his products.
"I'm a very small brewery," says Sigman. (Sigman's is probably among the 100 or so smallest breweries in the country.) When he first opened, "the volume of beer was very small." And he often depleted his stock every week. But he's trying to avoid that now. Relic is open on Fridays and Saturdays, and the brewery sells growlers (filled from the kegs) and 22 ounce bottles. Relic brews are sold at four different stores: at Harvest Wines in West Hartford and at Liquor Depot in Simsbury and New Britain, and, as of this month, at the CT Beverage near Westfarms Mall. Sigman also occasionally sends kegs to restaurants and bars that feature the best local and regional craft beers.
Sigman, 40, has a background in computer science and marketing. He knows a thing or two about growing a brand. "I have everything spread very organically, very word of mouth," he says.
He also comes off as the classic beer fanatic, the kind of guy who can talk hops, malts, brewing techniques and boutique yeast until the bar closes. A deep knowledge of beer entails a blend of science, culture, agriculture and history. This isn't someone who just decided to dabble in brewing because of the craft-beer craze. Sigman, who grew up in Simsbury, has been homebrewing since 1994. Years spent out in Colorado and Wyoming doing what he describes as "ski bumming" — skiing the slopes by day, working odd jobs at night — helped to get Sigman plugged into the brewery scene. The breweries in Denver, Colorado have been at the heart of that city's revitalization over the last 20 years.
Eventually Sigman moved back to Connecticut and got a job with a marketing firm in Farmington. But his dreams of brewing didn't fizzle. "I always wanted to own my own business," he says.
"It takes a really long time to open a brewery."
Sigman says he spent the better part of a year getting all of the logistics, facilities, permits and equipment lined up before opening his Plainville brewery. It's a humble affair, tucked in a quiet industrial-feeling little strip. You can find Sigman there on most days, tinkering with his concoctions, a couple lines of old collectible beer cans from the '60s and '70s commemorating the glories of brewery packaging. Outside you might see buckets of spent barley from the brewing process (Sigman uses it for compost at his home in Farmington). The walls are stacked with boxes of bottles ready to be shipped off and brewing gadgets that would be at home in an industrial kitchen or a science classroom.
But the ultra-small-batch approach might be short lived. Sigman has new fermenters on order and he's hoping to expand possibly by as early as August. Still Sigman's unorthodox vision and his contrarian streak may be enough to keep things from growing too fast.
He's working for a "slow expansion to build up a boutique brand," he says. "I don't do six packs, and I never will."
So don't expect to see a six of Relic at your neighborhood summer cookout. But Sigman's passion for off-the-radar brews fits right into the current craze for artisanal beer, and his idiosyncratic style might feed right into Relic's success.
"I have been reviving old recipes," he says.
Relic's pre-Prohibition American Lager takes inspiration from the teens and 1920s when there were hundreds more breweries in America. "They made these old-school German lagers, but they were very American because they had a lot of flaked corn," says Sigman. "You don't grind the corn — you don't want to grind it — you just chuck it in there. It increases alcohol content. It makes it easier drinking."
These beers are tasty, nicely balanced, flavorful and crisp. They're not the kind of brash, poorly conceived and gimmicky beers that one associates with over-eager first-timers. The Relic IPA has a pleasant hopsy tang that creeps up on you, but not a taste-bud blasting bite.
Relic makes a traditional English old ale. "It's really dark like a stout, but it doesn't have any roasty character. It's all malty," says Sigman. "It's a completely different kind of drink from an IPA."
Other hard-to-find beers that Relic has brewed include its Prologue rye lager.
"Nobody had had a rye lager," says Sigman, obviously excited about bringing something rare to the region. "Nobody makes it. It had a spiciness from the rye. It was crisp."
Sigman doesn't have a clear plan for what he'll do next, but he lets his tastes and interest guide the business. With all of the mass-produced suds that wash over American consumers, going in a different direction might be a wise counter-move.
"I don't do anything normal," says Sigman.
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