What Makes A Beer A Connecticut Beer?

James Gribbon

Recently there was some discussion on Twitter, that infinite forum for public opinion, as to what makes a beer Connecticut Beer. At issue was the newly released Sip Of Sunshine IPA from Lawson's Finest Liquids. SOS, as we'll call it, is brewed at Two Roads in Stratford, Conn., so Elm City Beer Lovers asked if it belonged on their "Best of CT Beers" list. The obvious catch? Lawson's Finest was established in Warren, Vermont circa 2009. So: does being brewed and sold in Connecticut make it a Connecticut beer you're drinking? It depends on what you think.

First, we have to consider how hard a line we're going to draw. Some beers are obviously capital C-B Connecticut Beers:New England Brewing in Woodbridge, Beer'd Brewing in Stonington, Relic Brewing in Plainville, Southport Brewing Company... all established, licensed, brewed and sold in Connecticut. 

Verdict: Connecticut Beers

That's easy, but are beers like these the only ones worthy of the name? What's the orthodoxy here?

Let's play with the idea and see what we come up with. You may have seen beers from Stillwater and Evil Twin around, maybe you've even had them. They are what we call "gypsy brewers." They started somewhere, obviously, but don't brew at their own facilities. Why? Commercially brewing beer is expensive. State fees, FDA approval, this all takes money, but the move from ten gallon batches in a garage to buying commercial brewing equipment is fire-breathing, radioactive Godzilla-level damaging to the wallet. Let's also keep in mind the whole point of going commercial is to make larger amounts of beer, so you're also going to need larger space to house said equipment, and hello commercial real estate. 

This is why you get "gypsies" who pick up contracts to brew their beer recipes wherever they can. Stillwater started in Maryland, and Evil Twin in Demark, and not all their beers are made in the Constitution State, so I don't think anyone can reasonably call them Connecticut Beers. 

Verdict: Connecticut-brewed, not Connecticut Beer. 

"Contract brewing" is when a brand farms out the actual hands-on labor of brewing to an operation with the capacity to actually make the beer. That's what Lawson's is doing in Stratford, along with Evil Twin, Terrapin, Stillwater, Fire Island Beer Co. and several other brands. Two Roads is massive. The facility is absolutely, jaw-droppingly huge. I don't have any way of proving this, but they may be the largest start up in American brewing history. They have room to spare because they planned it that way. Contract brewing was part of their business plan all along, and a significant contributor to why they were able to collect enough capital to buy the cavernous former U.S. Baird manufacturing plant in the first place. Two Roads' own beers, though? Definitively Connecticut Beer. 

Brands like Lawson's and Terrapin were established in their home states of Vermont and Georgia, respectively, and built up good enough reputations locally that their demand outstripped their supply.People demanding you take their money is usually a good thing, unless you have nothing to trade. This is the point at which success becomes a problem, but a good one. The resultant gap in supply is often filled with empty tanks at places like Two Roads. Beer from a brand that was licensed, established and made its name in another state just isn't Connecticut Beer, to my mind. There's no need to reach, we have too many new breweries and too many great beers in Connecticut. 

Verdict: Connecticut-brewed, not Connecticut Beer. 

*Lawson's though? I'm calling it Vermont beer.  

So what does this mean for brands which were established in Connecticut, but don't brew here?   Beaver Brewing and Charter Oak Brewing Company both draw special attention to their Connecticut-ness - Charter Oak even calls itself a "Connecticut-based brewery" on their web site - and both contract brew through Paper City Brewing in Holyoke, Mass. Farmington River Brewing Co. makes their beer at Mercury Brewing in Ipswich, Mass., which also contracts Clown Shoes, Cisco and Slumbrew beers. It feels geographically imprecise to call these Connecticut Beers, if we're being black and white about the question, at least until they start brewing in-state. 

Verdict: Connecticut-owned, not Connecticut Beer.   

So do we acknowledge grey areas? Beer isn't just Light or Dark, after all. Hartford Better Beer Company presents a more interesting case. This brand's lineage makes it one of the originators of craft beer in our state. Founders Phil Hopkins and Les Sinnock opened The Hartford Brewery Limited for business as a brew pub in 1990, making their own beer on site, but that venture shuttered several years later. They decided to try the brewing business again when American craft beer movement skyrocketed in the 21st century, and now their beer is sold under the Hartford Better Beer Company label, but brewed by the Shipyard Brewing Company in Maine - a fact about which the company is refreshingly upfront. Feel free to discuss the point, but...

Verdict: Connecticut-owned, not Connecticut Beer.

Further into the grey, we have OEC Brewing, who not only brews beer in Connecticut, they blend it, sometimes using imports. Categorizing OEC beers is difficult, especially since most people can't even make sense of their names. The easiest way I've found to remember what's what at OEC is this: beers with single names - Aeris, Albus, Amara, Exilis, Novale, Phantasma etc. -  seem to all be made from scratch on site. These are Connecticut Beers. The multi-name beers, like the OEC Artista Zynergia series are blends using beers imported by B.United, as are subtypes of the OEC beers like Phantasma Sour Blend. 

What? Yeah, I know, sorry. Stay with me. Have you ever heard of RUF? RUF makes cars - road-shredding, eyeball-flattening, oh-my-god-are-we-driving-this-thing-or-launching-it sports cars. They do this by taking a car like a Porsche Cayman, and changing it so profoundly that the ever technical German government considers it a whole new thing. Germany looks the same way at Alpina, who uses BMWs as an ingredient. 

That's the way I think of OEC. The blends they create are so far away from their component parts as to be new and original. After all, we don't nitpick Connecticut Beers which use hops grown in Oregon, right? There's really no need to think of OEC beers in different categories, here. 

Verdict: Connecticut Beer.

That's my outline of how the rows are laid out in the "Connecticut Beer Or Not" game. It is very important to remember that this is all just taxonomyCraft beer is craft beer no matter where it's made, or by whom, and should be judged on its own individual merits. I have had magnificent contract-brewed beer, and I've had beer from major craft brewers which I wouldn't use to poison a weed in my driveway. Keep an open mind, and I'll see you out there. 

(Thanks to Jie Yu, and @: A2K3D, CTMQ, ConnecticutBeer, and ElmCityBeer for their inspiration and info. Images via www.etsy.com/shop/hartfordprints)