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The Craft Brew Revolution Extends Its Reach Through Contract Breweries

There are beer snobs or ("craft-heads" as they're sometimes called) who sneer at anyone daring to create their own special beer using someone else's brewery.

"I've had bars tell us, 'If you don't have your own brewery, we won't pour you,'" says William O'Brien, president of Westport-based Beaver Beer Co.

The reaction of O'Brien and other brewers and beer experts to that rather tasteless attitude is essentially a sad shrug of the shoulders. "It shouldn't make any difference at all [where it's brewed] if the beer tastes good," he says.

"Contract brewers" like O'Brien and several others in Connecticut say not having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for a building and fermentation vats and bottling equipment can make a lot of sense.

"It's simple," says O'Brien, who moved from a career as a marketing executive into beer-making less than two years ago. "Why invest a pile of money in a brewery when you have no idea how your brand is going to do? I think it's idiocy to build a big brewery when you're not sure."

In case you're wondering, Beaver Beer's Blonde, Brewnette and Big Red (all brewed at Paper City Brewing Co. in Holyoke, Mass.) are doing just fine despite the beer snobs, says O'Brien.

Often, not having to worry about putting huge gobs of cash on the line means a craft brewer can focus on other important stuff that can actually make his or her brew taste better and find customers to drink it.

"I wanted to get my brand established, make sure it would sell, get all the distribution and marketing in place, and my recipes honed down," explains Scott Vallely, who created Charter Oak Brewing Co. just two years ago.

And using someone else's facility doesn't mean simply handing over the whole delicate beer-making process to someone else.

Vallely, who lives in New Canaan, also uses Paper City to create his beers. "I physically go up there," Vallely explains. "I ship up all my barley, all my hops, even the bottles... These are all my recipes."

"I call myself a local brewer and I put right on the label that the beer is brewed in Holyoke," he adds.

Identifying where your brew is made is one of the few regulations the state of Connecticut imposes on contract brewers.

Vallely doesn't get why anyone in this state would object to him using a quality brew facility not far over the Massachusetts line, as long as the beer was tasty. He points out that he is Connecticut-born and -bred, has been a home brewer around here for 30 years, and is so proud of his home state that he chose Charter Oak as the name and symbol for his products. (Those, by the way, include 1687 Brown Ale, which refers to the attempt by a bloody English king to revoke Connecticut's colonial charter; Royal Charter Pale Ale; and Charter Oak Wadsworth IPA.)

Using an established brewery to make your beer and ale under contract also doesn't mean you'll never have your own brew facility.

Manuel Rodriguez says he intended to renovate an old industrial building in Branford to create a brew facility for his Stony Creek Brewery beverages. Environmental problems at the site nixed that idea, but Rodriguez says he still hopes someday to build his own brewing facility in his town.

In the meantime, so he could get his beers going, he turned to one of Connecticut's most established brewers for help.

Curt Cameron's Thomas Hooker Brewery in Bloomfield has been one of the state's most successful for years, and it does contract brewing for craft brewers from New York City to Massachusetts.

"I think it's a great way for somebody to prove a concept... to test to make sure your brand has a good following," says Cameron.

He says that, for nearly all contract brewers, "the ultimate goal is to have your own facilty."

"When I look at the Hooker brand, one part of it is our physical presence," Cameron says. "People can come and see where their beer is made."

Rodriguez and others say Cameron has been critical to helping other craft brewers get going.

"He's been a tremendous help," says Rodriguez. "He said, 'Come on up and cook with us.'" In July 2012, Rodriguez turned out his first craft brew, (203) India Pale Ale, and followed that up quickly with (860) IPA.

"I can't say enough good things about Curt and his whole team at Hooker," says Rodriguez. "We have more craft beers in Connecticut because of him."

Other brewers, including The Weed Co. out of Cheshire, also use Thomas Hooker's facilities to make their products.

Cameron says his Bloomfield facility also does contract brewing for Yonkers Brewing Co. (which needs additional capacity to make all the beer it can sell), Naukabout Beer Co. on Cape Cod, and Dyckman Beer Co. out of New York City.

Other Connecticut craft folks go farther in their search for the right brewery for their needs. Hartford Better Beer Co. in West Hartford has its beers made in the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, Maine.

Philip Hopkins is head of Hartford Better Beer and was a founder of Connecticut's first brewpub, The Hartford Brewery Ltd., which ran from 1990 to 2000. He says he eventually wants to create his own beer-making plant, but "didn't see any reason to wait."

According to Hopkins, he chose Shipyard because of a past relationship with a brewmaster there. As for when his new company might get around to building its own brewery, Hopkins says, "We're not in a big rush to do it."

Thomas Hooker and other breweries that make beer and ale under contract for craft brewers aren't just doing it out of the goodness of their hoppy little hearts. "We are charged a fee based on the amount of product we do," explains Rodriguez.

A straight fee arrangement is only one of the types of deals a craft brewer can use. Under other systems, one brewer can rent out another's facility for a specified period, or use something called "alternating proprietorship" involving actual ownership of the building, vats, etc.

Earlier this year, one craft beer website listed 37 different Connecticut breweries that were actually producing and selling beer or planned to soon.

Bryon Turner, founder of, believes that most of the half-dozen or so contract brewers in this state eventually "want to move to their own facility."

Contract brewing, he says, is simply "a quicker way to get their product on the market" than having to maybe wait years to get their own brewery plant.

Cameron believes that contract brewing has an unfortunate and unfair reputation with some snooty segments of the craft beer crowd. "I think people who don't understand it might look on it negatively," he says.

Even Boston's Sam Adams, whose Boston Lager was introduced in 1985, waited till 1988 before opening its own brewery, according to the brewery's website.

There are breweries around the country that will, from start to finish, create beer recipes and labels and do all the production work and bottling for you, if that's what you want. That's the way a lot of those "house brands" for restaurants and pubs are made.

But Turner says most craft-beer folks that make their beverages under contract with other breweries are "intimately involved in the brewing process," using their own recipes and procedures.

"I think most people who drink craft beer are very serious and very knowledgeable," Turner adds. "Most craft beer enthusiasts, yeah, they know (when the beer they're sipping is made under contract) and it doesn't matter to them."

At least, it doesn't matter as long as they like what they're drinking.

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Eddie Crowley Jr., the president of Stony Creek Brewery, at Thomas Hooker Brewery, where Stony Creek is brewed and bottled.  (Photo courtesy of Stonycreek Brewery)

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