Three Millennials Began Beer Fest To Bring Life To Downtown Hartford

It all began with a visit to a beer festival and a desire to bring back a little pizazz to Hartford’s Constitution Plaza.

Saturday’s Small State Great Beer event was the brainchild of three millennials who hoped to promote the state’s burgeoning craft beer brewing industry, while also enlivening downtown Hartford.

Last year, the beer and music festival drew 33 microbreweries and 3,500 people — about 1,500 more than anyone thought possible.

This year, with more than 35 breweries, three live bands and a bevy of food trucks, the organizers are holding two sessions on Saturday — to cut down on lines. (The first session is from 1 to 4 p.m. and the second from 6 to 9 p.m)

It was about two years ago that Pedro Bermudez and his friend, John Michael Mason, curious about the flourishing microbrewery business in Connecticut, went to a beer festival where they were struck by all the energy and enthusiasm.

“I wondered if we could take that energy and create a culturally richer experience in an urban center,” Bermudez said.

They talked about the idea with Bermudez’s fiance, Rory Gale, a co-owner of Hartford Prints!.

It would have been far easier and cheaper to have the event in a field, but all three partners were determined to have it in downtown Hartford.

It was Gale who came up with the idea of Constitution Plaza.

Growing up in Hartford, Gale said she had so many fond memories of events in Constitution Plaza like the Taste of Hartford and the Festival of Lights.

But those hadn’t happened for years and she felt the plaza, which offers an expansive space for events, had been far too quiet.

“This space is just so unique, yet so under-used,” said Gale, as she sat in the plaza Wednesday with her two partners.

While the plaza posed many logistical challenges, Mason said, “it’s tied to the core of the event … When you stand right where we are … seeing the tall buildings and the Traveler’s Tower, you feel like you’re in a big city.

“The point of it is to be in Hartford, to bring all the breweries in Connecticut to Hartford. It’s all about supporting the industry, but also about this live event experience in the city so that people want to come here and live here and think of Hartford as their cultural center, as a cultural center that we believe it can be.”

At a time when the state’s economic experts bemoan the loss of young people to urban centers north and south, the trio is not only committed to staying in Hartford, but determined to help it to thrive and become a vibrant home for young people.

“This is a beer festival with a full music lineup, a full food truck district, we have lights and art and it goes until the evening,” Mason said. “The plaza is lit up. It’s sort of a music festival vibe at a beer festival, so it’s not just about coming for the beer. It’s about coming to a big party downtown and activating the capital of Connecticut.”

Both Gale and Bermudez grew up in Hartford but went off to other places — Gale to Brooklyn and Bermudez to Los Angeles — but returned for other opportunities.

Gale came back from Brooklyn to work together with her two sisters on Hartford Prints! — a business that creates handmade goods related to Hartford and Connecticut, as well as holding events to strengthen a sense of local culture and pride.

Hartford Prints! is the host of Small State Great Beer, which draws its name from the company’s Small State Big Heart brand.

The event is also produced in association with Hartford’s iQuilt Partnership, a nonprofit urban design plan. A portion of the proceeds from “Small State Great Beer” will benefit iQuilt.

“I was born and raised here. I have deep, deep roots in the city,” Gale said. “With those deep roots comes the most insane amount of love. Every ounce of me is like oozing Hartford.”

Bermudez came back from Los Angeles when he discovered that he could return here, be close to family and still find opportunities for his work as a director with a video production company.

Gale said that she and Bermudez have visited other cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo to do research about what’s working there, then return with notes.

Mason, who grew up north of Boston, said he had never been in Connecticut until he came to interview at Trinity College. As a student at Trinity, “I was fortunate to be exposed to the city early on,” he said, through a class he took as a freshman.

When it came time to graduate, Mason decided to stay and is now an associate head coach in Trinity’s cross country and track and field program.

“I love Boston,” Mason said, but in such a large city, “you can do great things but you won’t have as much of an impact. It doesn’t need you.”

“In Hartford, I felt like I could make a difference,” Mason said. “I could do something if I worked hard.”

 The Small State Great Beer Connecticut craft beer festival returns to Hartford's Constitution Plaza Sept. 16 with two sessions: the first from 1 to 4 p.m. and the second from 6 to 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $48 for general admission and $28 for designated drivers. Find more of the state's fall beer fests here.

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