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August 4, 2014

Hooray Beer! CT craft brewers realize national trend

(Left) Eric Mance (black shirt) and Tom Rossins, co-owners of Broad Brook Brewing Co. in East Windsor.

After years of trailing behind nearby states and the rest of the nation, Connecticut's burgeoning craft beer industry is finally creating some buzz.

Consumer demands and new, favorable state laws have spurred a surge of craft brewery startups in the state. The number of Connecticut beer makers has risen 88 percent since 2011 and there are nearly as many breweries in development today as there were in operation three years ago.

“Connecticut was a little late to the craft brewing game, but we are coming on strong,” said Curt Cameron, president of Bloomfield's Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. and the Connecticut Craft Brewers Guild. “There hasn't been this many breweries in Connecticut since the 1800s.”

Whereas Massachusetts and New York were early to the game with the Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams), Harpoon Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery, and Saranac Brewery, brewers in Connecticut really didn't start making their mark until the last five years with the emergence of Hooker and the New England Brewing Co.

“We love Connecticut, and, obviously, being named after the founder of Connecticut or the founder of Hartford — depending on whose history book you read — we fashion ourselves as Connecticut's beer,” said Cameron, whose 24-emploee brewery is busting at the seams in its 17,000-square-foot Bloomfield home.

To accommodate growth, Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. wants to build a new, 50,000-square-foot brewery, restaurant, and visitors center adjacent to the proposed Rock Cats baseball stadium in Hartford, a $5 million project that would create at least 50 new jobs.

That type of promising economic impact has state officials aiding craft brewers around Connecticut. The industry generated $373.6 million in economic activity in 2012, back when the state had 50 percent fewer craft breweries, according to the national trade group Brewers Association. That economic impact ranked Connecticut 25 out of 50 states.

Changing consumer demands

The growth of the industry mirrors a national trend in which consumers are demanding better, more diverse beer, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. At the same time, advances in brewing technology enable many different beer makers to give people what they want.

“The buy-local phenomenon has come to craft brewing,” Watson said. “Beer lovers are demanding more full-flavored beers, and people are demanding more local products.”

Nationally, craft brewers comprise 14 percent of the $100 billion beer market.

In Connecticut, craft beer makes up about 10 percent of all the beer consumed in the state, said Brad Hittle, CEO of Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford.

Of the 200,000 barrels of craft beer consumed in Connecticut, only 40,000-50,000 barrels are made in the state, presenting an opportunity for more local beer makers to break into the market, Hittle said.

“For Connecticut breweries, there is quite the upside to the market,” Hittle said.

Eric Mance and his two home-brewing compatriots opened Broad Brook Brewing Co. last October in East Windsor, after experimenting with various beer recipes for six years combined. In Broad Brook's first year, Mance and his partners predicted they would brew 800 barrels. After many positive returns and higher-than-expected demand, the brewery is on track to sell 1,500 barrels.

The company distributes in Hartford, Windham, Tolland, and Litchfield counties, and has been helped by a new state law that allows breweries to sell their products through onsite tap rooms, which has driven direct consumer interactions.

“It is fantastic. People want to have a variety,” Mance said. “It is great that Connecticut is finally getting on board.”

That 2012 change to state liquor laws, which allows breweries to have onsite tap rooms, has really helped craft brewers, Cameron said. Previously, brewers were considered manufacturers and could only give tastings, or they had to get a liquor license as a brewpub and sell beer along with food.

Now breweries can sell beer in tap rooms without serving food.

These tap rooms allow breweries to sell their beer with less overhead and higher margins because they don't have to pay for distribution, transportation, or even bottling, making it financially easier to get off the ground as a startup, Cameron said.

The Brewers Association categorizes craft brewers into three sizes: brewpubs making beer onsite to go with their restaurants; microbreweries producing up to 15,000 barrels per year; and regional craft breweries producing more than 15,000 barrels but less than 6 million.

While overall beer consumption is down nationally — about 1.9 percent last year — the craft beer market segment is growing, supporting more local brews, Watson said.

Todd Sullivan brought his Pioneer Brewing Co. from Sturbridge, Mass. down to Connecticut this year after forging a partnership with South Windsor investor Neil Caron, who is the owner of the company rebranded as Pioneer Beer.

While Pioneer builds its brewing facility and tap room in South Windsor, it's currently making libations as a contract brewer at Olde Burnside Brewing Co.'s East Hartford location, a common industry practice where microbreweries contract out their facilities to other beer makers.

“The South Windsor location is a destination point,” Caron said.

Too much competition?

Despite the industry's recent growth, however, Sullivan said he is concerned about too many breweries coming online at once. That could oversaturate the market. Beer makers that don't have solid business plans and set themselves apart with quality products will fall by the wayside, he said.

Pioneer will try to standout through its line of imperial beers, which are significantly stronger than the average beer. Sullivan is particularly excited about his Manifest Destiny series, three beers — a Vienna lager, double American brown ale, and a double California IPA — that symbolize a New Englander's trek to the West Coast.

“As a brewer and a business owner, it is crazy out there,” Sullivan said. “There are breweries in the works every single week.”

Sullivan and Caron believe the market expansion will get to the point where every city and town has a brewery, each infusing their own sense of local pride.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development wants to foster the growth of craft breweries in Connecticut by listening to the needs of beer makers and helping them with state incentives and favorable liquor regulation, like the tap room law, said Ron Angelo, deputy DECD commissioner.

Craft brewers tend to be young, creative entrepreneurs who add a level of excitement to the community and often choose to move into older, abandoned facilities, bringing those properties back to productive use, Angelo said.

“If you look at these craft breweries, they fill a nice niche,” Angelo said. “They are turning these old facilities into an exciting place where people can see beer being brewed.”

To further engage the consumer, the state brewers guild will launch a mobile app in August, so people can locate nearby beer makers and get details on their products.

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