Friday Froth: Roadtrip To New England Brewing Company

James Gribbon
 Photo: www.lookingfornewengland.com

Photo: www.lookingfornewengland.com

We're taking Friday Froth on the road this week, and making the trip to New England Brewing Company in Woodbridge. You can practically hit NEBCo from the Merritt Parkway if you had a t-shirt cannon or severely misjudged your speed upon taking exit 59. You should do this (not overcooking the exit, I mean - and standing on the highway firing large projectiles is probably some sort of Nanny State "offense," come to think of it), but you should nonetheless take the drive because the beer at the end is, as anyone living in the state for more than three weeks can attest, quite good. 

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This is where we run into the danger of writing yet another review of NEBCo's beers, and that is: everyone has had them. Sea Hag is common as sweet, sweet pond water in the Constitution State (thank the gods), and Fuzzy Baby Ducks is so overexposed it may as well be Kanye's low-wattage intellect. The theme this week will therefore be the question: what's new? The answer is, like our state's beer scene generally, quite a lot.

How We Got Here

Long time NEBCo brewer Matt Westfall, who deserves huge credit for reformulating Sea Hag into its current iteration and creating the FBD land rush, left the brewery to start Counter Weight Brewing in Hamden. He was succeeded by brewers such as Matt Weichner and Sabastian D'Agostino, who split last year to found their own brewery, Tribus, which opens (*sudden coughing fit*), and has their first beer tasting tonight at Eli's in Milford. Rob Leonard and John Dieli still run things at NEBCo's newish brewery location and tap room. The head brewer is now Jeff Koebbe, who looks to have risen to a high position at one of Connecticut's premier breweries at the age of 12, irritatingly. 

Growler in hand, and CTBites contributor Andrew Dominick in tow, I walked across the parking lot towards NEBCo's outdoor patio, which is shaded by excellent umbrellas and improbable palm trees, mercifully, located as it is in a car dealership's parking lot. The staff was actually placing growlers with oversize paper drink umbrellas in them on the tables to shade peoples' beers, which I give high marks for professionalism. This was my first trip to the "new" NEBCo, and the tasting room is a massive upgrade from the old space, with a good amount of table space, lots of natural light falling on lacquered wood and the coppery bar top, and hardly anybody there, since it was noon on a weekday and most people have jobs.

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I went specifically to taste b-side, a collaboration between NEBCo and Hartford's Hanging Hills brewery. b-side is Sea Hag run through the imagination of Hanging Hills. I spoke to Joe Ploof up in Hartford about it beforehand, and he told me the beer is Sea Hag’s malt and hop bill, note for note, but with a different dry hop schedule, and fermented using Hanging Hills' house yeast strain. The same thing, then, but different.

"It’s like Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT compared to Otis Redding’s," he said, which was a strong motivator for the trip. 

I'd also read about a few more new beers from the Woodbridge brewer in an article about their near artist-in-residence, Craig Gilbert. Gilbert is the man responsible for the iconic Gandhi-Bot label art, as well as the trailer couple on Weiss Trash Culture, the dinosaur on Coriolis, cartoon Fuzzy Baby Ducks, and most of anything else you'll see on NEBCo cans and tap handles. I went up with the aim to also try Yard Party pale ale, and Happy Season saison.

Before all of that, because I love the style, it was hot out, and that's the perfect weather for it, I started off with a tall, cold Dis-Kolsch Inferno. 

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Kölsch is a very light ale style which is easily confused with a lager beer, and NEBCo nailed the traditional look and aroma: crystal clear, and wafting pilsner malt and Hellertau hops. The malts, specifically, are beautiful, and each sip starts off creamy and finishes dry, yeasty, and slightly bitter, which does nearly as much to drive one's thirst as quench it. The well-named Dis-Kolsch Inferno is easy to sink by the pint, and I had mine with a few bites of lamb curry from the Clay Pot Chef food truck, which happened to hand them to me for free. The combination of a good kolsch, a curry, and this mildly socialist offering left me feeling slightly European like I should be smoking a cigarette in that effeminate way Germans do with your hand backwards, and while caring about soccer. Or I could continue not to do any of those and keep drinking it by the liter anyway.

I wasn't overly impressed with the Yard Party unfiltered pale ale, which seemed more bitter than the claimed 45 IBUs would suggest, but it wasn't by any means bad, and anyway I was there for the b-side.

Sea Hag IPA has been my main go-to beer for what seems like a decade. It's excellent, reasonably priced, and comes in proper 12oz. six packs instead of a four pack of pounders which always costs more anyway. I have put cubic yards of this beer through my liver, kidneys, and various  neurons and shirts, and am as familiar with it as the freckle extremely high up the thigh of a lady I once knew and to whom I mentioned being one of the few people who might use it to identify her body, should the need arise, before she became upset for some ironically un-identifiable reason.

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b-side flips the tape on Sea Hag with a semi-unfiltered to hazy visage and a more earthy aroma dosed with a few lingering, sappy, terpenes from the hops. There's also a yeasty aroma not present in the cleaner, piney Sea Hag, and a dry mouth feel and yeast taste to b-side, like a horizontal strata of ash in the geologic record of this beer - everything else is above or below it. Underneath is the familiar malt underpinning of Sea Hag, complete with the just-right bitter sting, and above the geocline there are the yeast esters and hop flavor, now transformed into more sweet fruit and moss. This altered IPA grows quickly on you, and it's easy to find yourself thinking about having a second pint halfway through your first. Great work all around, then. 

I was just about out the door to grab a growler from my car when Eileen at the taproom bar asked if we'd had the Happy Season, which I had forgotten. One hand slapped my forehead - thankfully my own this time, unlike the freckle incident - while the other reached for not a petite taster, but apparently a full pour of the hoppy saison. A good thing it was, too, both the reminder and the beer, which had a bright, floral, lemony scent I found completely enthralling. I wanted to stick my nose in it and keep it there. The beer itself has a light body, but with curves. Plump lemon lends a zest to the spring time pop and sweet pollen of Belgian yeast flavor over a body tinged with a few hoppy IBUs, tamed into submission by a flood of bready wheat. Just excellent. I highly recommend letting them pull you a pint, too, if you survive the off-ramp.

See you out there. 

New England Brewing Company, 175 Amity Rd., Woodbridge; 203 387 2222; newenglandbrewing.com