Will Siss has had an enviable mission this past year, as he's traversed the state sampling stouts, IPAs and porters, and meeting the Connecticut brewers who produced them.
The only problem? Breweries and venues continued to open at a clip, even after Siss had to meet an early 2015 deadline for his new book, "Connecticut Beer: A History of Nutmeg State Brewing" (The History Press). At press time, another half-dozen breweries were in the planning stages, or were just about ready to officially open.
Despite the currently fluid nature of Connecticut's burgeoning landscape, Siss's book is still perhaps the most comprehensive modern look at the state's beer industry, featuring profiles of local brewers, brew pubs and restaurants and bars that focus on craft brews. "Connecticut Beer" is part of the History Press "American Palate" series, joining other books chronicling regional beer scenes across the country.
Siss, a former Waterbury Republican-American reporter turned teacher, continues to write a regular column for the newspaper called "Beer Snob." Though he'd profiled many Connecticut breweries for the column over the years, he said he wanted his book to be as updated as possible, so he revisited each venue and had fresh conversations with owners and brewers. "It might have helped that I had a little knowledge of the beer scene already [and] kind of knew some of the things they'd gone through," he said.
Siss's book begins with a brief history of beer in Connecticut dating back to colonial times, which then takes the reader through the Prohibition era and examines the business through later decades, leading up to the explosion of state brewery openings since 2007.
"There seems to be a switch that was flipped, and they kind of got the business model down," Siss says of the sudden increase in openings over the past several years. "There were a bunch that started and failed in the '90s and [2000s], but four to five years ago they kind of figured out the model and [they're] going about it a bit more conservatively. A lot of smaller breweries are opening up; I think that's the model that's going to work."
"Connecticut Beer" profiles each state brewery in chronological order according to the years they were founded, starting with the venerable New England Brewing in Woodbridge. BruRm at BAR in New Haven, Cottrell Brewing in Pawcatuck, City Steam in Hartford, Southport Brewing and Willimantic Brewing are the senior breweries in the state, all having launched in the 1990s. Olde Burnside, Thomas Hooker and Cambridge House Brewpub opened in 2000, 2003 and 2005, respectively.
Seven years later, after breweries were able to obtain licenses to sell pints and "growlers" directly from their taps, close to two dozen more have joined the state's scene in every corner of Connecticut — from Kent to Stonington. "If this were a graph, you'd really see it spike at the end," Siss said.
Even in the midst of this intense brewery boom, Siss found that Connecticut's beer makers are setting themselves apart with creative flavors, esoteric styles and innovative techniques. Of Oxford's OEC, a young upstart known for sour beers, he likens the brewery to "the new kid who doesn't fit in." He means that as a compliment. "I have a lot of respect for someone like OEC that wants to bring back a lot of traditional styles; it adds another color to the palette," he said.
Another Oxford brewery, Black Hog Brewing (run by brothers Tom and Jason Sobocinski of Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro, with head brewer Tyler Jones,) gets a nod for its unusual seasonal strawberry gose, "a gentle German-style beer that uses pink Himalayan salt and one hundred pounds of fresh strawberries." Siss also notes Concord grape and jalapeno saisons from Shebeen Brewing in Wolcott and Black Pond Brewing in Danielson, a lavender-infused Belgian-style ale from Relic Brewing in Plainville, a hibiscus-infused wheat beer from Broad Brook Brewing in East Windsor and the rich Chocolate Truffle Stout by Thomas Hooker, infused with ingredients from Munson's Chocolates of Bolton. "When you're an artist, as many of these brewers are, you are going to want to stretch your wings," Siss said.
The rapid brewery expansion will "definitely hit the top of the curve; at a certain point it sort of corrects itself," Siss said. But, he believes the state can support more, geographically, if the beer quality is up to par. "I think it would be wonderful if everybody was within 20 minutes of a brewery…Certainly at a certain point, the product has to be good. People are not just going to go because you're close and you have a fun name for your beer. They'll demand not just quality beer, but atmosphere."
Connecticut's beer scene may have some catching up to do, compared to other states, but Siss believes there's potential. "I can't say with surety that Connecticut is known as a beer state yet," Siss said, but as word gets out, he says he thinks breweries may help drive tourism. "It's still fiercely local, and I think that's kind of cool. In this era when you can get any music ever recorded in about 10 seconds, you have to physically go somewhere to get a [particular] beer."
Though Siss has been writing about beer for a decade, he said he was still in awe of how "gutsy" brewers are when starting up a small business.
"I was definitely surprised at how renaissance these people have to be. They need to be good with numbers, being mechanics, being custodians, being artists," he said. "They really are the whole package…It amazes that these [owners] can juggle this and have a home life. They're masters at multi-tasking. That's for sure. They're using all the parts of their brain."
"Connecticut Beer: A History Of Nutmeg State Brewing" (The History Press, $21.99) is available at local retailers, online bookstores or through The History Press at historypress.net.