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March 21, 2016

New brewmaster takes over iconic Hartford beer brand

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns As City Steam's new brewmaster Sam Pagano, shown towering over the Hartford brewpub's beer equipment, said he will experiment with new beer flavors, but also maintain popular brands like Naughty Nurse.
PHOTO | Contributed Retired City Steam brewmaster Ron Page.

City Steam Brewery in Hartford has a new brewmaster making beer, but the flagship Naughty Nurse amber ale and other popular brews aren't going anywhere. Instead, look for new beers to emerge to complement established ones as the brewery evolves with customers' tastes.

Ron Page, 62, who was brewmaster since the brewery opened on Main Street in 1997, retired this month after 19 years on the job. He created not only Naughty Nurse and Naughty Nurse IPA, but myriad other favorites like Blonde on Blonde American pale ale, Innocence IPA and Export Lager.

“It's unique to have a brewmaster for 19 years — it's unheard of,” said Wallace “Ron” Ronald, general partner at the brewery and a close friend of Page.

Replacing Page is Sam Pagano, 29, who takes over his second brewmaster job after working as head brewer at Mad Jack Brewing Co. in Schenectady, N.Y.

Increased production

It's a big step up in beer production and exposure for Pagano, who produced about 400 barrels last year at Mad Jack with distribution mostly in Schenectady. City Steam produces about 1,000 barrels annually at the Harford facility and contracts for roughly another 4,000 barrels made at two other Connecticut breweries that follow City Steam recipes for its most popular brands.

Those breweries — Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford and Stony Creek Brewery in Branford — primarily make the Naughty Nurse, Innocence and Blonde on Blonde brands, with the Nurse beers comprising an estimated 70 to 80 percent of contract production. Two Roads and Stony Creek also offer bottling and canning lines for the four brands.

City Steam's roughly 5,000 branded barrels of beer a year equate to 155,000 gallons, or 1.24 million pints. It distributes in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Ronald doesn't immediately envision expanding output or states.

“There are so many beers out there and we're all fighting for the same shelf space — and we're all fighting for the same taps,” said Ronald, one of the principals in the company with Jay DuMond, managing partner. They also have some limited partners.

Explosion in brewers

Numbers tell the story of the competition. When City Steam launched in 1997, there were 900 brewpubs, 403 microbreweries and 31 regional craft breweries nationally, according to the Brewers Association. In 2014, those numbers had soared to 1,412, 1,871 and 135, respectively.

While consumers are always looking for new beers, which could justify adding new states, Ronald is focused for now on deepening concentration in existing markets. Most of the City Steam beer made in Hartford is consumed in-house at the Main Street brewpub, with some kegs going to outside businesses like World of Beer in West Hartford.

City Steam chose to contract out production of its main beers for financial reasons.

“Why put your money in equipment when there's ample capacity out there?” Ronald said. “This was an easy way to expand without putting in a lot of money.”

The marketing of steam

Beer that's bottled or canned is branded as Citysteam, one word, after a 2014 trademark suit brought by San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing Co., maker of Anchor Steam beer. The brewpub, however, can remain two words.

City Steam uses steam piped from the Hartford Steam Co. to fire its brew kettles. That was a key factor in Anchor Brewing allowing the steam name since City Steam is said to be the only brewery in the country using externally sourced steam in its beer manufacturing.

The brewmaster transition represents a changing of the guard for City Steam, from Page's more classic brewing style to Pagano's newer, more modern style. Page embraced traditional lager styles and European ales, but also produced the newer generations of beer to meet market demands.

He used a music correlation in likening himself to an “old jazz player” who put up with punk rock and rap and played it. He was proud of his ability to make a broad range of styles, but his first love was German-type beers.

“I opted to be a jack of all trades … instead of a brewmaster of just one style,” Page said.

Mainstays and new styles

For his part, Pagano will maintain City Steam's mainstay beers like Naughty Nurse, which, as Ronald said, pays the bills, while also inventing new styles. Many of the newer styles and IPAs cater to Millennials, who are the driving force behind the craft-beer movement, according to Pagano.

Pagano likes to play around with different types of yeast strains, fruit, hops — he calls himself a “big hophead” — malts, spices and herbs. He also likes sour beers and unique Belgian brews.

“I'm not going to come in and put the place on its head, but over the course of the next few months, there will be some new stuff trickling in that probably hasn't been poured here before,” he said. Pagano's first beer with his own stamp, an oatmeal stout with more richness and depth than currently served, was scheduled to be released at the brewery March 17, followed later in the month by a white IPA with a lot of wheat malt and hops.

Pagano is no stranger to Hartford. He attended Trinity College from 2008 to 2010 to get his master's degree in English and work as an assistant football coach for the offensive line and tight ends. The 6-foot-3 Pagano played offensive left guard at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where he was elected captain as a senior and earned both all-conference and all-American honors in 2006 and 2007.

Ronald said he was so impressed by Pagano, he didn't interview anyone else for the job, believing Pagano is the right person at the right time for City Steam.

Beer over journalism

“You find these passionate people and that's what I'm hoping I have with Sam, that passionate person,” Ronald said of Pagano, who pursued his passion for beer-making as a career over English or journalism.

Ronald cites the new styles like grapefruit- and root beer-flavored beers as examples of changes in industry tastes. He pointed to Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA as an example.

“If you're not making IPAs, you're in trouble today, you have to make what the market wants,” Ronald said.

IPAs are, by far, the leading craft brand in the industry, according to Pagano, followed by pale ale.

City Steam makes a number of IPAs and its Naughty Nurse IPA, which it introduced last fall, is flying off the shelves — another Page hit.

“It's selling out,” Ronald said. “We haven't been able to make enough of it yet.”

Fading IPA craze

City Steam also is coming out with a new IPA, but Ronald believes the nation is in the middle of an IPA craze that will eventually begin to fade. He acknowledges many beer people would not agree with him.

Page, meanwhile, looks back fondly on his time at City Steam, a period he said spanned four Hartford mayors and millions of pints produced.

“A lot of people tried craft beer for the first time” at City Steam, he said, proud of his small stamp on an ancient craft.

He's also fond of the beer-related artwork, such as old beer ads, he matted and framed on the brewpub's walls, creating a kind of museum. He also created the beers' names. Naughty Nurse was named after a short, balding friend who was a male nurse at Norwalk Hospital, someone with whom he once home-brewed.

Page remembers telling his friend that if he ever got a job in a brewery, he'd name a beer after him. The name is slightly suggestive, funny without being too disruptive, said Page, who also writes poetry and whom Ronald calls a Renaissance man.

Naughty Nurse, created in 1997, “just caught on — it was just the right style,” Page said.

Jack Heslin, City Steam's brewery representative for Connecticut and Massachusetts, said Page “is certainly one of the most important people, brewery-wise, in Connecticut brewing history.”

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