Mushroom stout? Non-alcoholic sparking water infused with hops? Move over traditional brews. From unique craft beers to fruity hard seltzers to nonalcoholic choices, Connecticut’s beer (and other beverage) brewing scene has changed substantially in the past decade.
Drew Rodgers, brewer and owner at Barley Head Brewery in Mystic, opened his business five years ago after a decade-long run at what was the oldest brewery in the state before closing its doors, Cottrell Brewing Company, established in 1997. Rodgers worked his way up to head bartender at his previous job before starting up Barley Head.
When he started at Cottrell in 2008, “you had to explain what craft beer was,” said Rodgers, adding that nowadays customers are more informed about the styles of craft beers due to their popularity.
Connecticut had less than 10 craft beer breweries a decade ago, and now has well over 100. Part of the reason for this surge can be attributed to the path Stratford-based Two Roads Brewing Company paved as well as the establishment of the Connecticut Brewers Guild.
Two Roads Paved the Way
“As we contemplated opening a brewery in 2012, there was one legal hurdle we needed to get over. Breweries were not allowed to sell beer over the bar; the law only allowed breweries to offer tours with a free sample. Also, the law limited the amount of take-home beer a consumer could buy to eight liters, which is less than one case of beer,” stated Brad Hittle, Two Roads’ president and CEO.
“Before we even opened, we had worked with the mayor of Stratford, John Harkins, to successfully get these two restrictive statutes altered by the summer of 2012,” Hittle added. “Today, beer may be poured and sold over the bar and the take home limit has increased a lot. At the time, there were seven or eight craft breweries in Connecticut; today, in part due to the change, there are over 120.”
Two Roads went for a home run, so to speak, from the get-go. Instead of starting small with a wait-it-out approach for expansion, Two Roads went big. The brewery started with a capacity of 40,000 barrels and produced 25,000 in its first year, including the barrels made for its contract customers.
“Our growth surprised us, and it did not take long to get to 140,000 barrels in 2017,” Hittle said. “The scene here has really dramatically changed. The Connecticut beer scene has just completely exploded—it’s just awesome. Super high-quality beer in Connecticut and really good people.”
Recipe For Success
Two Roads is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It has not only remained in business but thrived due to combination of the right recipe for success and adaptability when necessary. By 2020, Two Roads was the 44th largest independent craft brewery among 8,500 in the country, according to the Brewers Association.
“No business can succeed unless you attract really good people that work together, thrive on creative problem solving and are willing to openly debate things to get to the optimal solution. That sums up our culture,” Hittle said. “We had the recipe for success because we had a proven, well-known master brewer in Phil Markowski. We invested in a strong customer service team. We had great branding. We are in close proximity to Interstate 95 right off Exit 31. And we were able to invest in our sales efforts right out of the gate, which made our distributor customers all the more committed to our brands.”
Markowski wrote “Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition,” a book Hittle refers to as the master guide for most craft breweries.
“We are located in a really good area in Stratford,” commented Hittle, whose business has quite the setting, situated in a 110-year-old factory building. “It’s one of the most unique beer settings you’ll find.”
Pass the Seltzer
One of those changes and an example of innovation is Two Roads’ implementation of hard seltzer offerings with natural fruit. In the past five years, hard seltzer has significantly increased in popularity.
“You have to change with the industry. Innovation has become extremely important,” Hittle commented. “Product lifecycles appear to be getting shorter. For instance, seltzers came out of nowhere and, in just five years, they garnered 10 percent market share. It took craft beer almost 30 years to get a 10 percent share!”
“Consumers are chasing the next exciting product more and more. Up next, canned ready-to-drink spirits-based cocktails are storming the market now, and non-alc beers too. Two Roads is quick, and we now offer what I believe are the best tasting options in these two segments: Daybreaker Craft Cocktails and Juicy Non-alc beer. Daybreaker uses real fruit and no natural flavors to replicate a bar-made drink. Our brewer worked hard on perfecting a non-alcoholic beer that tastes so much like beer consumers are expecting to be buzzed,” Hittle explained.
Mushroom Beer Inspired by Ice Cream
In addition to customers across the state getting familiar with craft beers, they look forward to trying the new concoctions that Rodgers and other beer masters mix up.
Hittle sees customers continuing to look for new options. Two Roads Area Two Experimental Brewing gives Two Roads the setup to come up with new creations and allows customers a chance to sample them. In celebration of the 10-year anniversary, Two Roads will debut new brews.
“I love getting the feedback and love experimenting,” said Rodgers, adding that Barley Head uses locally sourced ingredients, and always has a wide variety of beer choices, including a dark beer on tap year-round.
One of the beers, a mushroom stout, features notes of maple and walnut which come from the candy cap mushroom. Rodgers got the idea when he was inspired by a specialty ice cream flavor made by Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream for the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Wild Mushroom Festival.
This year, Rodgers said Barley Head will have a stout float with ice cream for the festival, set for October 15, which happens to be National Mushroom Day.
With nine taps, Barley Head—classified as a microbrewery—offers two that are IPAs. Rodgers said one is a hazy IPA, which has become the most popular type. “The rise of hazy can’t be ignored,” he joked.
According to Barley Head’s website, its two-barrel brewing system allows it to make a wide variety of beers, offering something for everyone.
“Our beers will change each week. We will strive to have four to six beers on tap that showcase the versatility and range of flavors that can be achieved in a brewery,” explained Rodgers about the brewery offering a stout, IPAs, sour, blonde and others. Seltzers and canned cocktails are among the offerings that have come into play in recent years.
Bounce Back From COVID-19
Like other businesses, breweries were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“Today, after a downturn due to the impact of COVID in 2020, the brewery will produce around 120,000 barrels, between its six customer beers and Two Roads’ in-house offerings,” Hittle revealed. The pandemic had an impact on how Two Roads did business. “Consumers sought to decrease their shopping frequency and therefore switched to larger pack formats like 12 packs and 24 packs typically made by the larger brands.”
“Obviously, draft sales in 2020 dropped like a stone but consumption just switched over to cans. As it turned out, our canning line was working three shifts during this time just to keep up. COVID made us adapt and improvise; for instance, we offered outdoor seating in individual tent areas and required reservations. By offering a safe space, we ended up not losing as much business at our taproom but that year was a tough one for everyone. People simply opted out of going to bars and restaurants,” Hittle said.
Between some of the changes in beverage options and the impact of COVID-19, the landscape has changed a lot since Barley Head first went into business. Rodgers and his company set up an outdoor area and got into distributing to area restaurants and bars. When people were not leaving their homes, Barley Head offered beer and dinner to go. They have had to create multiple business plans since they opened up, Rodgers explained.
Athletic Brewing Company LLC in Stratford, which also brews in San Diego, Calif., is a non-alcoholic beer company that has donated 2% of all sales from day one to trail and park cleanups, maintenance projects, construction, and access. In 2021, that fund totaled over $1 million alone.
“Our product line is still pretty consistent with our launch product line. We’re still growing our distribution and awareness, so many of our most highly awarded beers are still relatively undiscovered! We have added some of our most popular beers from our ecommerce site to retail distribution,” said Bill Schufelt, co-founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing.
“In response to overwhelming demand, we made our Free Wave Non-Alc Hazy IPA year-round as it was selling out online in as little as 30 seconds per release. And, in March 2022, we launched Athletic Lite, a 25-calorie, non-alcoholic lite lager to service the biggest category in beer—lite lagers are 40 percent of the U.S. beer category—and bring a huge number of new customers into the Athletic portfolio,” Schufelt added.
Being that they are non-alcoholic, these selections are versatile. Athletic promotes its product as being ideal for any activity or situation, including playing in sporting events, not just watching them.
“In many ways, Athletic brews are the perfect beer for the modern lifestyle. Any day, any hour, anywhere. Our beers won’t slow you down and you won’t have to compromise,” Schufelt mentioned. “They are typically at a fraction of the calories of full-flavored beer, and without the hangovers, what’s not to like! Now you can have great-tasting beer and the full social experience without having to sacrifice on either.”
Non-alcoholic beer comprises 99% of Athletic Brewing’s output, but the brewery also makes a non-alcoholic sparkling water infused with hops called DayPack.
“That line is primarily sold directly to consumers via our e-commerce platform with limited distribution in Oregon, Washington and Maine,” said Chris Furnari, Athletic Brewing’s emerging brands manager.
Funari noted that Athletic Brewing was ranked by Inc. Magazine as the 26th fastest-growing private company in the U.S., with three-year revenue growth of 13,071% between 2018 and 2021. Athletic is the fastest-growing beverage manufacturer in the country and the fastest-growing private company in Connecticut as well.
Athletic produced 104,000 barrels of beer (more than 1.4 million cases) in 2021, compared to less than 1,000 barrels (12,000 cases) in 2018. It has grown to become the third-largest non-alcoholic beer brand in the U.S. and controls 51% of the craft non-alcoholic beer market, Funari commented. Athletic ranks as the 27th largest craft brewery in the country, according to the Brewers Association.
The New Haven-based Connecticut Brewers Guild was founded in June 2012 to promote the interests of the fledgling craft beer scene in Connecticut.
“As of May 2022, the Connecticut beer scene boasts more than 125 operational breweries, with many more in planning. The goal of this guild is to further promote our local breweries, move forward on guild member initiatives that foster profitability, and increase public awareness of all in-state breweries and legislative actions,” according to the guild.
Guild members include craft breweries, breweries in planning, associate members, allied trade organizations and more. Members of the guild support, protect and promote the craft beer industry across the state as well as join together in events and collaborate in brewing great beer.
“Independent craft brewers continue to turn the beer industry on its head by putting community over corporation and beer before the bottom line. They continue to better beer and our country by going beyond just making the beverage,” according to the guild’s website.
In an effort to educate beer lovers about which beers are independently produced, the Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers, launched a new seal touting independent craft brewers.
“Featuring an iconic beer bottle shape flipped upside down, the seal captures the spirit with which craft brewers have upended beer, while informing beer lovers they are choosing a beer from a brewery that is independently owned,” the association advocated on their website. “These breweries run their businesses free of influence from other alcohol beverage companies which are not themselves craft brewers.”
“Independence is a hallmark of the craft brewing industry, and it matters to the brewers who make the beer and the beer lovers who drink it,” the association said.
“These small businesses give back to their backyard communities and support thousands of cities and towns across the U.S.,” explained Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association, on the organization’s website. “As ‘Big Beer’ acquires former craft brands, beer drinkers have become increasingly confused about which brewers remain independent. Beer lovers are interested in transparency when it comes to brewery ownership. This seal is a simple way to provide that clarity—now they can know what’s been brewed small and certified independent.”
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