This story contains a correction.

This has already been a great year for the Hartford region's commercial microbreweries. Sales are up at the Thomas Hooker Brewing Company and Olde Burnside Brewing Company and both establishments are in the midst of doubling their capacity. Hooker's added a hangout room with cozy amenities and earlier this year Olde Burnside pulled off a rare trifecta: their Ten Penny Ale Reserve, Ten Penny Ale and Dirty Penny Ale took the top three spots in the Beer/Ale category at the Connecticut Specialty Food Association awards.

Once considered to be a fad, craft-brewing remains a growing segment of the U.S. beer market. While overall beer sales dipped one percent in 2010, India pale ales, dopplebocks, stouts and other brews created by artisans rather than corporations increased 11 percent by volume and 12 percent in sales. There are more breweries in the country than at any time since 1900. In 1980, there were under 100; today there are around 1,750.

Bob McClellan** at Olde Burnside in East Hartford recently returned from the annual Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco. “Eight years ago there were 400 people there,” he said. “This year we had 4,000.”

McClellan got into brewing serendipitously. In 1961, his father, Albert, drilled a 400-foot well at the family's century-old ice business and let people fill up jugs at a spigot for a quarter. In the mid-1970s, Bob noticed that among the small army of people stopping by, many of them were pioneering home-brewers who prized the water. A subsequent lab analysis revealed that the water shares similar mineral characteristics to that of Burton-on-Trent in England, a famous brewing city and home to Bass Ale, he said.

McClellan sought to make “real ale” in the style of his Scottish ancestors and has done quite well. His beers, which are nonpasteurized and unfiltered, include a residue of yeast in every batch.

Ten Penny Ale is one of the top-selling microbrews in the state. “We grew 25 percent last year alone,” says McClellan, “and we're reinvesting it all back into the business.”

Though he plans to come out with a summer wheat beer called Penny Weis, and will bring out ales aged in whiskey barrels in the fall, McClellan steers clear of brewing fads and over-the-top experimentation.

“A lot of brewers make something they think is really good, but you need to brew for the masses, not your personal taste,” he said. “More brewers are pushing the envelope with alcohol content and new flavors, but no one in the country is making beer in the style that we're making it. You can sit at a bar and drink four or five without exploding. They're not too hoppy and not too carbonated.”

Ice tongs adorn the label of his flagship Ten Penny Ale, available only in kegs and growlers — 64 ounce bottles that resemble moonshine jugs that beer aficionados can bring to different breweries for fillups. Chalk up the brew's moniker to McClellan's grandfather, who mentioned that in the old days, a pint of beer at a pub cost a nickel, but extra good pours cost double that.

In 2007, the Thomas Hooker brewery almost closed its doors; sales were sluggish and their distributor didn't push their wares. Cut to now and things are looking good. Located in an industrial park in Bloomfield, weekend tours and tastings attract hundreds of people.

The company is undertaking a $400,000 expansion that will double its bottling capacity and add eight new fermentation tanks to the nine already in place. It also moved into a space formerly occupied by another tenant and created a lounge area with couches, big-screen TVs, a merchandise counter and a new serving bar.

And who knew that Thomas Hooker, founder of Hartford in the 1600s, was an avid brewer? Display panels created by the Connecticut Historical Society, which also chronicle the history of area breweries, reveal that at his death, Mr. Hooker owned plenty of beer-making equipment, including a copper mash tub.

Hooker, a Puritan, might not have approved of the new graffiti-inspired mural painted on the wall behind the serving station and the way the brewery plays on his name. Though mainstream marketing avoids double entendres to focus public attention on the quality of the beer, said company president Curt Cameron, they offer T-shirts with provocative slogans. On one, the front reads “Last Call?” The back: “Better Grab a Hooker.”

“We have fun with the shirts, but we try to delineate between sophomoric and clever,” said Cameron.

The establishment, which calls itself “Connecticut's Brewery,” has received requests from distributors in 20 states, including Hawaii, but because the beer isn't pasteurized, it doesn't travel or age well. Right now, it's available in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City, northern New Jersey and Philadelphia.

“We want all our beer gone within a month,” said Cameron. “If you start reaching out and sell to everyone, you lose control of the brand and can become a flavor of the day. Then everyone forgets about you.”

Spurring the craft beer movement is an increase in knowledge among consumers, he said; another reason why quality control is so important to Cameron, who grows a small proportion of the hops used to season his beer on a farm in New Hartford.

“A lot of the beers in past years were all marketing, no quality,” he said. “Consumers grasp onto what makes a good beer and they're more discerning. Lots more people know what an IPA is [now] than five years ago, and they appreciate it.”

Hooker is open to experimentation, though they generally avoid super-strong beers because it's difficult to get the balance right. Some double or triple alcohol brews taste “hot” — more like a liqueur that an ale — but not Hooker's dopplebock, or double bock, a German style that drinks smooth but packs a wallop.

Beer geeks give Cameron a hard time over his watermelon beer, one of 11 types the brewery produces. “At the end of the day, the typical consumer loves it,” he said. “It's like a Jolly Rancher on the nose, but it tastes like an essence beer.”

Visits to the brewery are fun. Dale Bourque cracks jokes as he leads tours and draws samples of IPA directly from the fermentation tank. Though lots of locals stop by, there are plenty of tourists. Home brewers often come in to talk shop.

“Craft beer is only going to get bigger,” said Stephen Andrews, Hooker's new brewer. “Like the local food trend, people want to know where their beer comes from and that it's fresh.”

 

Check out these other local breweries!

Cambridge Brew House Pub and Restaurant

Popular family brew pub.

357 Salmon Brook St.
Granby
(860) 653-2739
cambridgebrewhouse.com

 
City Steam Brewery Cafe

Known for its brews, the menu goes "way beyond" typical pub fare.

942 Main St.
Hartford
(860) 525-1600
citysteambrewerycafe.com

Willimantic Brewing Company

Brew pub beloved by both faculty and students from UConn; big portions of good food at reasonable prices, too, including pizza. House-made veggie burger delicious, nine distinctive beers on tap.

967 Main St.
Willimantic
(860) 423-6777
willibrew.com

 
**The original version of this story misindentified Bob McClellan as Tom McClellan. We also listed Carson's and John Harvard's in our list of breweries. Unfortunately, those two businesses are no longer open. We regret the errors.

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