What happens when you get the owners and brewers of five Connecticut breweries in the same room at the same time and ask them pointed questions?
There's a scene in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou where Bill Murray, as Zissou, explains documentary filmmaking by saying "Nobody knows what's going to happen. And then we film it. That's the whole concept." I kept on thinking about that line as guests filed into a room at the Two Roads brewery in Stratford and watched Tony Pellino of OEC Brewing, Clement Pellani of Two Roads Brewery, Tyler Jones of Black Hog Brewing, Rich Visco of Shebeen Brewing and Conor Horrigan of Half Full Brewery take their seats in front of live mics. Whatever went down, it would all happen on the record.
On the record, in this case, means the proceedings would be recorded live for Ken Tuccio's Welcome To Connecticut podcast. The weekly podcast highlights businesses and personalities making an impact here in the Constitution State, and has previously broadcast with guests like Jerry Springer, Aaron Sanchez, Oh, Cassius!, the Nutmeg Curling Club, Miss Connecticut, and Anthony Bourdain's Russian sidekick, Zamir Gotta, among many others. The audio of the beer summit will go live on Thursday, March 19 on WelcomeCT.com, but CTBites was right there to bring you a first look.
The first question is one which has caused friends to fall out with one another: what do you think about macrobrewers like Budweiser/InBev buying and absorbing small craft breweries? As host of the event, Clem of Two Roads had the honors:
"I think everyone needs to focus on their own business first. There may be some distribution priorities shifting around, but we're not worried about InBev buying small brewers," he said.
"They're buying because they're scared," continued Tyler, Black Hog's head brewer.
Tony, brewer at OEC, had a bit of a different take, starting "It sucks that the 'evil giant' is buying them," he said, referring to Goose Island, specifically "but they're able to farm their big beers, like 312, out to regional breweries" He continued to say he believes this leads to Goose Island beers actually being fresher at the point of sale, while freeing up brewing capacity at the smaller, original Goose Island facilities for the brewers to make more experimental styles.
Tuccio's follow up question was what each of the panelists thought it would take to sell to one of the Big Three, like InBev.
There was much sarcasm on this point, but a few serious answers manged to sneak in sideways.
"It's foolish to say there's no way we'd ever sell Half Full to them," said Horrigan. "I love this, brewing is something I'm passionate about, and selling might let me move on to something else I'm passionate about, maybe do something like OEC is doing. I'd be comfortable with that as long as I knew my crew would stay in place and things wouldn't change."
One of the biggest splashes in the Connecticut beer scene lately has been the newfound availability of Lawson's Finest Liquids, and their Sip of Sunshine IPA, which is now contract brewed at Two Roads. How did that come about, asked Tuccio.
"Sean [Lawson] actually asked us about brewing Sip of Sunshine, and we hit it off immediately," Clem informed the listeners. He went on to say there has been some good back and forth between Sean and the Two Roads brewers. "You can't help but be influenced, ideas are constantly being shared."
Just because a beer is sold in Connecticut, doesn't mean seekers will be able to find it. The "white whale" phenomenon, where drinkers descend, locust-like, on bars and retailers selling highly touted beers and buy them out, sometimes within minutes, is sometimes considered an emerging problem. Knowing a special product is out there, and then being denied, is vexing, especially when the perception is the people buying a beer out are doing it for internet points on sites like Untappd.
"The 'white whale' [behavior] can ruin things, because the scarcity becomes more important than the beer," was Tyler's take. "It can also let people down when they drink a beer, too, because you have this buildup in your head."
Conor from Half Full explained how they balance their year round and limited edition beers:
"What I love about Connecticut beer is we're all doing something different. We [at Half Full] try to make more accessible styles, and still take the opportunity to do our rare beer nights."
"There's a difference between something rare and something hyped," was Tony's reply, concisely.
So what do the brewers think of rating sites like Untappd or Yelp?
Tony, OEC: "When our barleywine is getting a bad score because someone doesn't like barleywines, or because they don't like sours, I mean, I just stopped caring."
Yelpistas may want to glance at their phones instead of reading further, because this remark drew applause.
Tuccio turned to a more business oriented question next: what is more important, bar sales or package stores? The answers were as varied as the respondents.
"The industry has changed," said Clement. "It used to be 'bar sales drive bottle sales,' but I think people are looking to try something new now, and you have to focus on both."
Half Full, Conor said, focuses on draft because it allows them to be in more places, whether they are bars, bottle shops or special events. He liked that people could try tapped beer before making a decision to buy it.
Rich from Shebeen takes the opposite approach. His viewpoint was one of space:
"When you look at distribution, a package store can have a thousand SKUs [distinct products] on their shelves, but a bar may only have ten taps." It's simply easier to introduce a new product to consumers in a package store than it would be in a restaurant or bar.
Another Mason/Dixon line with craft beer drinkers is the eternal question: can or bottle?
The brewers were in universal agreement that cans provided the easiest, greenest, most compact shipping in a format in which light and air - the twin bogeymen of beer quality - couldn't harm the product. Conor brought up another point:
"Canning lets us put more information on there, compared to a tiny label on a bottle. We can take a little picture, a map, and some info about the brewery and put them all on a can."
Clem jumped in to note canning is also significantly less expensive, so there was more money to be made by startups than with bottles.
OEC's beers are sold exclusively in growlers or on draft, and Tony said they have no plans to can their beers, ever.
"All our beers are bottle conditioned, so if we put them in cans I'd basically be selling you little grenades."
The audience seemed to agree their beer drinking experience was fine enough without the potential for flying shrapnel.
A number of questions during the evening were suggested by Welcome2Connecticut listeners. Several wanted to know from where the brewers drew their inspiration.
Usually expansive, Tyler was within shouting distance of hesitancy, but bravely pushed on.
"From a bathroom at my buddy's house. I tell this story all the time, but it was a Yankee Candle my friend's wife had put in there. I thought 'this smells really good,' and I looked at it and it said 'citrus and sage' so I thought maybe I could do a beer like that."
Shebeen is known for inventive concoctions like their Canoli Beer, which Rich said came to him when he heard one of his friends call another "canoli boy." He often gets inspiration from food, like when he was eating at a Japanese restaurant and envisioned cucumber wasabi beer. He summed up:
"You just want to challenge yourself, all the time."
Continuing with the natural connection between food and drink, Conor was eating a hot oil pie at Colony Grill in Stamford when he decided to put their Colony's iconic "stinger" peppers into one of their beers. The firely brew will make its debut at an upcoming rare beer night at the brewery.
So what is it like, asked Tuccio, being a small fish and trying to sell your beer and make a living when you're competing with colossal brands like Miller, Budweiser, Corona, etc.
"We are going against multibillion dollar international corporations," started Rich. "When you go to a restaurant and they only have four taps, they don't usually have a local beer at all, and it's a challenge for a small, local brewery to get that level of support. We're here, ready to go, and then Yeungling comes in and spends millions in our market."
"The first thing that happens as a small guy," explained Clem, "when you get a tap, is the big guys come in and try to take that tap away from you."
Conor found it was helpful to look at the relationship between brewer and the owner at the point of sale.
"We find it helps to be a consultant instead of just someone walking it trying to make another sale that day and putting something on tap that maybe won't sell for them. It's about being in this together and trying to find something that works for everyone. We walk into bars and hear about Budweiser buying them 60-inch plasma TVs and obviously we can't do that, but we're part of the community. You can't underestimate the power of a good product and a community connection."
The night ended with a question which manages to be both a stultifying cliché and eternally interesting: if you were trapped on a desert island with a supply of just one beer, what would it be? Down the line they went.
Tony: BFM Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien. A Swiss beer he chose for its perfection.
Rich chose Sam Smith's Nut Brown, one of his first favorite beers.
Clem decided on Pilsner Urquell, as it was what he considered to be one of the finest of its style.
Tyler and Conor arrived at the same conclusion, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, although Conor allowed Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA would be his second choice.
All this is but a brief summation of what went happened at Two Roads last Wednesday night, and much more can be found in the ones and zeros of the podcast, which is available to stream or download on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, and WelcomeCT.com.