One of the greatest advantages of living in New England is our access to autumn. Our home in Connecticut means even if we live in urban convenience, the rural hills and river valleys of our state are a nearby drive away. This proximity gives us one of our best traditions: the fall weekend road trip. We can get out, see what nature has in store for us, and find ourselves in places which fall outside the rhythm and routine of our daily lives. Up towards the center of the state, past the historic colonial homes on Worthington Ridge in Berlin and into New Britain - a city many on the coast may not consider a destination - is 5 Churches Brewing, a place you should.
It's not the only brewery in the area - Alvarium is close by in town, and Relic is minutes away in Plainville, so if beer takes up more space on the pie chart of your road trip goals, it's a good place to be - but 5 Churches, blessedly, is the only one with a wood fired pizza oven built into one of its historic brick walls.
The work of New Haven-based artisans, the oven puts out variations on 12" pies for as little as $5 during happy hour, as well as fresh baked pretzels covered in everything bagel spices with mustard or beer cheese dipping sauces. Pair them with a beer made in view of your table or easy chair, and it's a precise fit for satisfaction after time spent touring the back roads of Connecticut.
A word on the brewery's name: 5 Churches is located roughly between - you guessed it - the steeples of five churches. Follow New Britain's Main Street past the solemn temple of the Ernest Flagg designed Civil War monument, past the lazy curve of Arch Street and the abstract contrast of Craig Frederick's "Home" sculpture in brushed stainless, and you'll come to the arched church doors of the brewery. Upstairs is a large space washed with natural light from big factory windows, and a panoramic view encompassing downtown and the twin stone turrets of St. Matthews a block away.
The space was already starting to pick up a hum of conversation on a Thursday afternoon as groups of people walked in to take tables or grab one of the plentiful bar stools which face in toward the glass walled brewhouse. The space is open without being echo-y, and a good cross section of locals seem to have adopted 5 Churches since it opened slightly less than a year ago. I walked in, ordered a Cool Side Of The Pilsner, and sat down with head brewer Austin Japs.
The pils is filtered in the old style - which is to say not at all - but the yeast is crashed out, leaving a clear straw color and a lager that's clean, slightly more malty than purely crisp, and tangy-bitter with Centennial hops. It's a thirst quencher, good for any pils fans, and Japs said it's meant to be an accessible inroad for New Britain locals for whom "craft beer" is a bit of an edgy phrase.
Japs followed the winding road from home brewing out of frustration with the local options in rural Maine, to a job at Sea Dog brewing up there, and stops at Steady Habit and New England Brewing Company in Connecticut before landing a gig and partial ownership of 5 Churches. The voluminous 20 barrel brewing system is... audacious for a startup, but America wasn't built by the timid.
The building itself is an old coat factory - a pile of ancient sewing machines came with - and when the Lemnotis family who owned the transportation company next door decided to open a brewery, part of the plans involved the emplacement of the brick and stone pizza oven in one wall of the tasting room. Visitors can look right into the fire from seats by the front windows. I watched orders of pretzels sail by with something like envy before ordering a margarita pizza with a sausage pizza chaser. Each would prove to be a good decision.
The margarita pizza's feature act was its bright, fresh tomato sauce - significantly better than average - spotlit in white by rounds of fresh mozzarella and flecks of basil. The crust was deeply tanned by the searing hardwood fire, maybe lightly charcoaled in spots, but crunched before chewing with substantial breadiness. I always start with a basic cheese pizza as a yardstick at a new spot, and this one passed the test. That's one check of approval.
I wanted to make sure I also got one with meat to review, and sausage pizza is another standard of mine. It's also one of the styles I tend to judge wide-eyed and at a full prejudicial bellow from my bench like Judge Hammer from Ghostbusters. First, if what I saw was going to be some discs of weakass hotdog with maybe some extra pepper, we were about to have a problem. Reader, it was not. The sausage was properly made as sausage, and then broken and crumbled onto the pie to create a rubble field of odd textures which caught the blasting heat and browned into crisp little bits. The cheese was evenly layered over this pie, well blistered in the oven, and ran with the liquefied and seasoned essence of the topping. This one reminded me of an honest to god New Haven pie, and that's about as high praise as any pizza deserves.
With all the brewing capacity they have, 5 Churches has the ability to have a dozen of their beers on tap at a time.One of the more conspicuous brews is a rotating gluten-reduced option they call Weerder.
"We play with wine, beer, and cider flavor profiles in this one, so 'Weerder' is our name for the style," said Japs. Mine looked like strawberry lemonade in the glass, because those were exactly the fruits they used in its production. The strawberry and lemon zest were all natural, and the non-malt malt bill was a bit of a secret, but Japs said they don't simply use an agent to drop the gluten out like some gluten free brewers do. This ethos carries over to other beers in the 5 Churches range, like their spring wheat ale, #Zest, for which the staff spent 12 hours zesting limes.
For its part, the Weerder was fairly dry like a flavored seltzer, but with a clear account of the agricultural ingredients. It felt more real, to put it bluntly, and with an ABV between 3-5%, it's no cop out. It's another surprise from a Connecticut brewery.
I sampled some other beers during my stay at 5 Churches as more people began to fill the space and the first band they'd ever had set up and began to play. The next two were visually indistinguishable hazy IPAs. Japs ran off to check what they were, but I thought a more amusing route to take would be to try them blind.
The first had a sweet and somewhat earthy aroma, but crashed across the palate with big, resinous pine flavors like juiced up versions of classic Pacific Northwest varietals. The single hop used in this one was called - perfectly - Lumberjack, and the beer Lumber Party. The juice/pine flavor came with a hint of something almost like rosemary which somehow worked. It was a flavor so out of character for an IPA the experience was like being sort of lost before getting really good directions from a stranger. I'm typing this now and getting angry I didn't buy a growler of it, so that should tell you something.
The second identical twin, like all twins, was completely different once you got close to it. I pulled this one under my nose and it grew orange blossoms like it was holding them in a vase. The citrus flavors continued on the tongue with a whisper of pink bubblegum esters. It wasn't a clone by any stretch, but it also wasn't out of telescope distance of Bissell's Substace. This one turned out to be the latest in a beer series 5 Churches calls "Someday" after a verbal misstep one of their number made, having consumed several large pours at a Yard Goats game and telling a pair of bemused parents - whiffing on the word "adults" - that someday their children would be humans.
Pew Pew (as in church) is meant to be the brewery's flagship IPA, and it's all fruit store with a bit of bitter back end, along parallel tracks to the classic American west coast IPA, but brighter, with the bitterness dialed back. It's a six pack type beer with enough tropics to pass modern muster, but with an awareness of malt and enough spinal rigidity from the hops to make it a legit IPA.
The Citra-rich tropical bomb to satisfy the hordes at the gates is called Steeple People IIPA, and is more straight ahead fresh orange juice than the hints in Someday and Pew Pew. This fruited imperial is fairly low in punch at 7.8% ABV, but I liked it quite a bit, and Citra hops, as Japs said, are "like bacon - they improve the flavor of everything you add them to."
The beer that brought me to 5 Churches was their Men Are From Märzen, which I'd had on draft at the Cask Republic in New Haven. Oktoberfest beers are precious and fleeting as cherry blossoms, and I tend to drink all I can, while I can. 5 Church's wasn't overly sweet and malty, and stayed clean and a bit toasty while smoothing out with a nod of caramel here and there. It's so easy to sink pints of this and, like the trip to the brewery in the first place, I suggest you do.
5 Churches Brewing, 123 Arch St., New Britain; fivechurchesbrewing.com