A lot of the time, when you write about food and beer, you realize the compelling truths in a story start with the people. Case in point, Brewport Brewing Co. If you've driven on I-95 through Bridgeport any time in the past several months, you have probably seen eye-searing electronic billboards announce its impending arrival as part of their scroll. The waiting is over, and the entire month of August has been designated a public "sneak preview" of the pizza-centric brewpub. I dropped by unannounced to get a taste of what we have in store. Here's your first look.
Brewport started out as an idea in the mind of its president, Bruce Barrett, of Barrett Outdoor Communications, hence the billboards. (You may also recognize his IWagePeace.org billboards.) The brewpub is located directly off exit 27 on 95N, below one of Barrett's billboards, and roughly at the radiant point in the center of the giant loop made by the exit 27A connector. The easy access, and the huge mural of brewing equipment painted on the building's side, make it hard to miss. Bruce and his brother John purchased the building in 2000, and it continued its life as a distribution center for the Fairfield County News for years before they contacted their longtime friend - and brewery manager at BAR New Haven - Jeff Browning.
Walk into Brewport and you'll immediately see a special events space, which is separate from the restaurant, and used to store magazines and other non-newspapers, giving the name the "book room." The main eating and drinking area is a) large, and b) already immensely popular. Capacity, seating and bar, is easily into the hundreds, and it was buzzing with patrons standing with beers, or sitting at private and communal tables, with the largely local staff coursing swiftly through the gaps between. Rows of shiny tuns, fermenters, and direct serving vats make a gallery in the back of the house, but the space is dominated by the long "U" of the bar and its capstone: a 10,000 lb. gas fired pizza oven.
"We set out deliberately to make New Haven pizza in Bridgeport," brewmaster Jeff Browning told us. With this in mind, Brewport hired not only BAR's brewmaster, but chief pizza chef Patrick Bohan, who worked in that capacity at BAR for ten years before moving to Stone Hearth, and then Brewport.
The menu at Brewport is perhaps most aptly described as "focused." Your options (as of the August sneak preview) are: salad or pizza. For starters, the salads are easily capable of being meals onto themselves. I saw a family size garden salad from their menu leave the kitchen in what would normally be considered a commercial mixing bowl. The antipasto, with artichokes, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, red onions, olives, ham, provolone, salami, pepperoni, giardiniera, and pepperoncini over house greens, also looked enticing.
There were four specialty pizzas on the menu, ranging from The Barrett, with Korean BBQ pulled pork and kimchi, to The Tree Hugger (peppers, onions, mushrooms, olives, broccoli, garlic), and The Meat Master, with pepperoni, sausage, bacon, and ham.
I chose a red pie with mozzarella (you can also get it in the New Haven style "plain" without the cheese), with meatballs, from the expansive list of build-your-own options. I tend to believe the simpler the pie, the better it is as a yardstick to judge overall quality.
Full disclosure: some of you reading this may know my writing on this site from the FridayFroth beer column; I am a beer aficionado who will also drink macro swill without complaint, but I am a pizza snob. I have been eating New Haven pizza since I could chew solid food, and I will go hungry before I'll eat a mediocre slice. That said...
... this pizza? This pizza right here?
It was outstanding, even within a peer group of the best regional pizza style in America. The crust was New Haven thin, which means it was seared and slightly charred, producing a crispy, crunchy crust, but it retained a soft and chewy interior, which kept elements of fresh, yeasty bread, and thus contributed fully to the overall flavor of the pie, rather than just being a durable delivery van for the toppings. The sauce tasted like fresh, summery tomatoes, and the mozzarella was blistered with flavorful browning. The meatballs were mostly small, easily bite sized, and assembled into rough, natural shapes. They were slightly meaty and juicy, but dominated by loads of garlic which I thought set the surrounding flavors off explosively. For a place almost under the interstate, in Bridgeport, to have pizza like this was revelatory.
Now, for the caveat: Brewport pizza's genetic link to New Haven institutions like Sally's Apizza and BAR in New Haven is readily apparent in more than just the flavor. The pizza's shape is an irregular oblong, and it's cut almost haphazardly: some slices are small triangles which taper from the crust to a point, some are long strips, and some are confounding to trigonometry itself. I had several pieces which tapered outward from a narrow beachhead of crust, and trying to eat pizza this way without the ability to properly fold it is infuriating. Browning says the cut is due to the inconsistent shape, but even with a pie on the mutant side of round, I would very much prefer traditional slices, especially with a crust this good at the end of each one.
The Beer And The Bridgeport Connection
Brewport is an active, beer-producing, brewpub. In fact, at 2,500 barrels, annual capacity, it's already the largest in Connecticut, having outstripped BAR (1,000bbl.), and two and a half times the size of City Steam in Hartford. There are currently fifteen taps of guest taps (with great options from SingleCut, Tröegs, Two Roads, NEBCO, Left Hand, etc.), and over a dozen canned and bottled options, but the fermenters are working right now, and Brewport should have eight house beers on tap this September. They'll also make Wellingtons Old Style root beer, which is named after a common middle name in the Browning family, and incorporates brewer's malt in the recipe. Look for that one on its own, or as a float.
Jeff Browning will create his own styles, alongside reborn pre-prohibition recipes from extinct Bridgeport breweries such as Eckert, Hartmann, and the Bridgeport Brewing Co., butremember when I said people are often the best stories? Brewport's beer menu is as packed with them as its pub is with patrons. I found out the stories behind several of them in a conversation with Browning.
Seventh Inning is a 4.6%ABV session IPA which is named partially because of Brewport's close proximity to the Bluefish games at Harbor Yard, but the name was really inspired by hall of famer, and Bridgeport native, James Henry O'Rourke, who got the first hit ever in the National League, way back in 1876.
"Plus," said Browning. "Everybody wants to stretch their legs and grab a beer in the seventh."
Dr. Porter's Stout is my favorite tale of inspiration, probably because of its ghoulish undertones. Dr. George Loring Porter (born in New Hampshire in 1838) was a long time Bridgeport resident and Civil War surgeon who was at the battles of Shenandoah Valley, Frederickburg, and Gettysburg, was a medical officer at the Washington Arsenal when President Lincoln was shot, and helped transport John Wilkes Boothe's body to its clandestine burial in the old Army penitentiary. He was an attending physician at the executions of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, as well as that of James Garfield's assassin, and moved to Bridgeport in 1865. He was one of the original founders of Bridgeport Hospital, and he also worked to bring back the dead.
The story (detailed in Michael Bielwa's excellent local history, Wicked Bridgeport) goes like this: in the 1780s an Italian doctor named Luigi Galvani realized he could restore signs of life to dead frogs by applying electrical current. He effectively discovered the link between electricity and muscular movement, and the resulting science was called "Galvanism." By the 1800s his nephew, Prof. Giovanni Aldini, had continued the study to include higher creatures, including recently executed criminals. By 1818 Mary Shelley had published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and in 1922 H.P Lovecraft wrote the short story Herbert West: Reanimator about a former army surgeon who brought executed criminals back to life. It was a scientific and cultural phenomenon. Dr. Porter tried it on Edwin Hoyt, a disturbed convicted murderer who gave his body to science so surgeons might discover what had caused his lifetime of mental problems. On May 13, 1880, Hoyt was hanged, and Dr. Porter performed galvanism with a battery, producing breathing, gesturing, and facial expressions which unsettled the gathered medical staff. Porter never tried again.
How's that for local flavor?
The less eldritch doctor on the beer menu is Dr. Terry Foster: chemist, friend to the Brownings, author of books and columns on beer, and allegedly one of the men who convinced President Jimmy Carter to legalize home brewing in 1977. He will have a rotating selection of specialty beers on tap at Brewport under the moniker "Doctor's Prescription," and the first will be a traditional English Mild, as they were served circa 1900.
Brewport's open space will be uncluttered by televisions, non-smoking everywhere, and no shots will be served, although house cocktails with liquor are available for $10. The idea, said Browning, was for the whole space to be social. I can confirm the atmosphere has achieved that aim, and huge crowds made getting a drink in a timely manner difficult, but Bridgeport has never had a spot like Brewport, at any time in its history.
Brewport Brewing Co., 225 S. Frontage Rd., Bridgeport, brewportct.com