When DRAFT magazine released its list of America's 50 best IPAs in late June, the rankings included predictable favorites, like Cigar City's Jai Alai out of Tampa and the top-rated Julius from Tree House Brewing in Charlton, Mass. But of the featured standouts across the country, only one brewery's name showed up three times in the top 25.
The judges, including certified cicerones, worked their way through a blind taste test of 386 submitted samples and chose three IPAs from Bloomfield's Back East Brewing. They ranked its Rakautra India wheat ale at No. 21, followed by the Galaxy-hopped Intergalactic Lupulinary at No. 16 and Ice Cream Man, with 100 percent Citra hops, at No. 5.
"Let's take a second to marvel at Back East, for of all the breweries who were part of this tasting, they alone had three beers make our top 50," DRAFT editors wrote. "And those were the only three beers they sent! In sports, they call that 'batting a thousand.'"
Co-founders and cousins Tony Karlowicz and Edward Fabrycki Jr. opened the Bloomfield brewery in 2012, leaving careers in accounting and engineering, respectively, to join the then-nascent Connecticut beer scene. Early on they made the decision to package their beer in cans instead of bottles, an unusual move at the time.
"We went all in and said 'We're a small brewery, we can either put in a bottling line or a canning line'," Karlowicz says. "Back then, there weren't a whole lot of beers in cans ... the most notable ones were New England [Brewing, of Woodbridge] and Heady Topper [from The Alchemist in Vermont]."
By the time Back East instituted its canning line in the spring of 2013, sentiment was changing and cans were more accepted, Karlowicz says.
"It's the de facto packaging now, that's what people look for." Now, beer enthusiasts line up at the building on Blue Hills Avenue for special "can release" events when Back East unveils fresh, limited batches of rare or specialty brews.
Following the DRAFT recognition for its IPAs, Back East's porter earned a gold medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, the country's premier beer festival and competition. Beer styles are evaluated by industry professionals; a gold medal is awarded to "a world-class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance," according to the competition's website.
FEATURED/NOTEWORTHY BEERS: Back East's beer selection goes well beyond its award winners. On a year-round basis, you'll find its medium-bodied amber ale, porter, Golden Ale and Misty Mountain IPA both in the tasting room and offsite at restaurants, bars and stores. Seasonal spring, summer and winter ales join the mix, along with a fall Octoberfest and a Shad Derby pale ale, which surfaces in the spring to commemorate Windsor's annual Shad Derby Festival in May.
Other beers appear periodically: a traditional Berliner Weisse in tart cherry and blackberry varieties; Unicorn Farm, an IPA brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops; and Suzy Greenberg, an IPA with added mango. On occasion, visitors will find double IPAs Palate Mallet and Tony Goes Dancing.
Ice Cream Man gets its name from its flavor reminiscent of "orange creamsicle," according to Back East's website, and it was originally brewed as a fundraiser for the Jason William Hunt foundation, which offers support to at-risk youth through outdoor experiential education. Back East supports a variety of other charitable causes throughout the year, including a monthlong fundraiser for Connecticut Children's Medical Center in September and a recent event to raise money for Puerto Rico hurricane relief through pint sales.
TASTING ROOM HOURS, AMENITIES: Back East is open Thursday and Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Guests will typically find 12 to 15 beers on tap, Karlowicz says, and they're welcome to taste a few free samples of beer before committing to a draft or flight.
The Bloomfield tasting room features games, like Jenga and a giant-sized wooden version of Connect Four, and Karlowicz says he recently bought a vintage arcade game to add to the entertainment options.
FOOD OPTIONS: Food trucks make occasional stops at Back East, particularly for special events. Guests are welcome to bring their own meals, and Back East sells small bags of chips and other snacks.
PRICING: Drafts are available in the tasting room in 12 and 16-ounce sizes (depending on the beer) for $5 to $6. Growlers in 64-ounce sizes are $10 to $12. Flights of beer, with four 4-ounce glasses, are $7.
Back East Brewing is at 1296A Blue Hills Ave. in Bloomfield. 860-242-1793, backeastbrewing.com.