Friday Froth: A First Look At The Hops Company in Derby

James Gribbon

I was running late early on a Sunday afternoon when the obligatory traffic jam on I-95 caught me like doomed comet streaking toward the Sun and sudden annihilation. It took the sight of a wrecked Ferrari to remind me I'd forgotten my car. I was driving, yes, but the car I'd forgotten - like the aforementioned comet - was set in motion by gravity, not gasoline. Jack's Abby was hosting a pine car derby at The Hops Company in (quelle apropos), Derby, and I'd planned on making the campaign of my old car from Cub Scouts the B-story to this column. The lapse in memory had left me momentarily enraged until I remembered I'd just seen someone's red F430 Spider completely taco'd by the rear bumper of an 18-wheeler. Score one for perspective. 

The Hops Company is the work of Umberto Morale, who spent his early life in his native Rome before coming to the U.S. and bouncing between the restaurant scene, college, and Wall Street. He had the vision of an inclusive, German style beer hall in his head, and looked at properties all over the state before seeing the location in Derby and signing immediately. The property totals five acres, and has a large field out back, soon to be surrounded by a perimeter of hop bines in cooperation with Koan Farms of Woodbridge. The hops will be used in brewing, the field will be filled with outdoor tables, and fresh air revelers will be served via a walk up outdoor bar. Bocce courts are already in place, naturally, and the space will play host to a Connecticut corn hole championship in June.

The main indoor area is an open, 300 person capacity, hall which had been used for receptions for decades. The interior has been extensively refurbished to include a long, straight bar with 36 taps for beer, with wine and house-made cocktails also on tap. Dart boards, foosball, and giant jenga - which could be heard to crash thunderously from time to time - made up the the permanent diversions, while spectators occasionally cheered for the pine cars rattling down a purpose-built track, supplied by Jack's Abby.

Morale intentionally left the majority of the original decor as a throwback. It's vaguely barn-themed, with lanterns, wooden yokes, and exposed wooden beams, all unrefurbished. Umberto credits his Roman upbringing for his love of the old, lived-in look, and says The Hops Company (THC, for short), has been nearly full daily since its opening in November.  

"The beer community has been so supportive, it's amazing," he said, contrasting it with his other forays into the restaurant business. "Even the crowds. I wanted THC to be like the community, and look: we have two parties here today... young people, older people by the fire, regulars, newcomers, everyone."

Variety is abundantly available at The Hops Company. Choose your drink (I started with a Jack's Abby House Lager, which was crisp and perfect for outdoor sessions in the sun), choose your spot (bar, indoor tables, outdoor tables on the deck by the waterfall, outside on the grass, or indoors by the fire on a couch or Adirondack chair made by Two Roads Brewing from spent barrels), and choose your food: Zuppardi's Apizza and Ricky D's BBQ are both available from on-site kitchens, and huge soft pretzels are delivered daily from the Hartford Baking Company.  

I started off with the Sunday special brunch pizza from Zuppardi's: a white pie with garlic and mozzarella, plus two fried eggs, and a triad of bacon, home fries, and bruschetta. The hot egg yolk, cheese and garlic blended excellently with the cool tomato and basil of the bruschetta (my favorite of the slices), while the egg and home fry slices were dressed up to mouth watering degree with a few dashes of sriracha, upon Zuppardi's suggestion.

Elsewhere in eats, I kept my personal streak of never turning down BBQ alive, and ordered a pulled pork sandwich from Ricky D's. The man himself was in the house, so I stopped to find out how he'd come to set up shop at THC.

"We used to just have the truck, Ricky D's Rib Shack, for about two years when I got a call to replace a truck with had dropped out of an event in Shelton," he told us. "I met Umberto there, and he asked me to come by the new space and think about becoming a part of it. The hall wasn't built out at that point, but I could see what he had planned, and we've been rocking and rolling ever since."

Ricky Evans has spent time all over the northeast, southeast, and midwest, and it shows in a hybrid take on BBQ he calls "Kansa-lina." His house sauce is sweet and dark, more akin to that of the midwest and deep south, but the sandwich came topped with vinegary cole slaw, more of a Carolina trademark. The edges of pork I got in the sandwich had a thick, chewy, smokey bark, and a deep pink smoke ring. The cole slaw was tasty on its own, and the Kaiser bun held up well to the various sauces and juices. The meat itself was flavorful, but a little dry on this occasion.  

The bar was festooned with dozens of glass mugs which hung from the ceiling in front of vintage ads for New England Brewing Co. beers, and THC offers a mug club for a yearly price of $75, netting members 20oz. pours of any beer normally poured by the pint, and early entry to special events at THC, like their 4/20 fest later this month, and the Craft Derby beer festival, with 40 breweries coming to the grounds on May 7th. A new brewery is invited to stage a tap takeover at the bar every Wednesday.

At just over 5 square miles, Derby is Connecticut's smallest town, but The Hops Company has managed offer quite a lot in their little location.

77 Sodom Lane, Derby, CT.