September 4, 2018

New Breweries Hop into Sudsy Market

Photo | Liese Klein
Photo | Liese Klein
Newly opened Tribus Beer Company in Milford draws a Labor Day crowd.

The temperature outside was scorching, but the beer was pouring cold and fresh inside Tribus Beer Company in Milford on Labor Day. Every seat in the tap room and beer garden was full, with dogs and kids gamboling among the tables as suds fans enjoyed craft-beer styles ranging from flavorful IPAs to a crisp, German-style Kolsch.

His voice hoarse after five straight days of bartending, Tribus co-founder Sean O'Neill reflected on his first weeks of business: The brewery's grand-opening event drew 1,200 people on Aug. 11, followed by full houses in the following weekends. "It's pretty crazy," O'Neill said. "It's been a very humbling experience, very gratifying."

Tribus is the latest in a flood of new breweries opening statewide, with more coming this fall in the New Haven area. Dockside Waterfront Biergarten and Brewery is slated to open along the Housatonic River in Milford's Devon neighborhood any day now. East Rock Brewing on Nicoll St. has built and furnished its taproom and started limited distribution, with opening day expected in the coming weeks.

The brand-new breweries join a cohort of relatively recent newcomers who are making a splash in the beer world. Counter Weight in Hamden regularly packs its taproom in an industrial park off Shephard Avenue and has its brews on tap at hotspots like Modern Pizza. Bad Sons Beer Company in Derby is barely a year old but has already scored high marks from beer experts for its IPAs, and recently opened a taproom. Two Roads in Stratford, a large-scale craft brewery, distributes across the region and its products have become ubiquitous in grocery stores.

Craft beer can still be a good business despite a crowded market, said Marty Juliano, director of business development at New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge. New England is the granddaddy of local craft breweries, opening in its current iteration in 2002 when you could count the state's beer-makers on one hand. Much has changed in the market since then, but New England Brewing is thriving.

"The days of opening a brewery and becoming a national brand or even a regional brand are over," Juliano said. "There are few that are going to do it, but there are very viable business options." For New England Brewing, focusing on quality beers and local consumers has allowed it to triple in size over the last five years even as it cut back distribution from 11 states to just one – Connecticut. "We want to be a hometown beer," Juliano said. "The projection is we can double again in size and still just be in Connecticut."

Key to success in the current market is a range of beers and an appealing taproom, Juliano said. Brewers need to set up a comfortable space that can appeal to families and hard-core beer aficionados alike. "This is becoming the new family activity. For the younger generation, parents are still able to go out and have their kids with them and watch them," he explained.

Statistics show there is still room for growth in the state. According to the Brewers Association, a national craft industry trade group, Connecticut ranks 26th in breweries per capita nationwide. (Vermont ranks No. 1 and Maine No. 3.) Beer generates $718 million annually in economic impact here and brewery numbers have ballooned from 16 statewide in 2011 to 60 in 2017. Beer has also made a major impact on state tourism, with Stony Creek Brewery's waterside taproom in Branford ranked among the top Connecticut tourist attractions with more than 250,000 visitors annually.

From an expert's perspective, Tribus in Milford is doing everything right. Their taproom is accessible and attractive, drawing a mix of people. A high-end food truck parked at one end of the beer garden offered treats like lobster bratwurst and coconut shrimp to beer fans seeking to extend their visit.

When choosing a location, Tribus's founders planned for making their brewery a destination by choosing a spot near both I-95 and the Merritt Parkway, and not far from the Milford train station. They also designed both indoor and outdoor drinking spaces to allow for dogs and kids to roam around in order to attract families. On Labor Day, a baby bottle stood next to tasting glasses on one counter.

Behind the bar pouring pints at Tribus on Labor Day were all three founders of the brewery, Sean O'Neill, Sebastian D'Agostino and Matt Weichner. Opening a brewery was a longtime dream for the three, O'Neill said. The plan for Tribus took shape as O'Neill pursued a career in business and D'Agostino and Weichner studied beer-making in Germany and Chicago, then apprenticed at local craft pioneer New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge.

"The idea is to focus on the taproom and really built a culture and experience for people. That way our brand equity increases while the supply is still low," O'Neill said. "Because of those factors you can really bring in tourism over the long term."

Later, the Tribus team hopes to increase output and market to local bars and restaurants on a larger scale. Part of their strategy is to offer a range of products appealing to both fans of IPAs – strongly flavored and high-alcohol beers – along with lighter Pilsner and ale styles. "You have to brew beers that people want, like a juicy IPA… but you also need a light offering," O'Neill said. "There are so many breweries these days, you can't just do the cookie-cutter styles."

Starting a new brewery has been exhausting, O'Neill said, but the young founders are thrilled with their reception so far. "We love to see the place packed with people enjoying themselves, drinking the beer," he said.

Tribus's success is good for everyone, said Juliano of New England Brewing. "It's very different than the Bud, Miller and Coors mentality where you fight tooth and nail for your own space," Juliano said. "In the craft world it's about the rising tide raises all ships. There's a lot of upside."

Reach Liese Klein at news@newhavenbiz.com

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