Where Farmers Are Turning Into Craft-Beer Brewers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because New England has hops. Do you?
By Matt Foley
If the line stretching across the rear parking lot of New England Brewing Co. is any indication, it’s the buzz that’s brewing. And the customers haven’t even indulged. Yet. No, here in Woodbridge, Connecticut, an eclectic queue of thirtysomething hipsters, Yale students, and middle-aged public officials wait patiently not for a Father John Misty concert or an Oprah book signing but merely for a case of beer. If they’re lucky, a pack of the famously colorful — and famously limited — Fuzzy Baby Ducks IPA cans will still be available when they reach the counter. Across Connecticut, sights like this are becoming increasingly common.
Since 2011, the number of Connecticut breweries has more than tripled, from 16 to 54, a trend that doesn’t look to be slowing any time soon. This past July, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a new law allowing farmers to break into the beer business. Effective immediately, farmers across Connecticut can now brew, bottle, distribute and sell up to 75,000 gallons of barley pop per year — so long as they do their part in promoting the Nutmeg State’s cool factor: The licensing agreement requires all brew to be labeled “Connecticut Craft Beer.” According to the Brewers Association, more than 30 new Connecticut brewing outlets are being planned.
You won’t get these beers anywhere else.
Zack Adams, Fox Farm Brewery
“Technically, farmers were already brewing beer,” says Lora Rae Anderson, communications director at the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. “But now it’s official. [Craft beer] is much more accessible in rural areas, in part thanks to the new farm brewing license.”
Today, notes of malted wheat may waft from Kent to Putnam, but 14 years ago, when New England Brewing was nothing more than a rent commitment, Connecticut’s craft industry was hardly a crowded, trendy or profitable space. That, too, has changed. In 2012, the state’s craft brew sector generated $374 million in economic impact. Now that figure is over $569 million, with more than 4,600 jobs created, according to the association. It remains to be seen whether industry growth is due more to Malloy’s tenure, which began in 2011, or consumer trends.
Along with breweries like Stratford’s Two Roads and Kent Falls Brewing Co., New England Brewing has blossomed into one of the most coveted choices for local libations. “[New England Brewing] has a brilliant distribution strategy,” says Mark Barnhart, a Connecticut craft brew aficionado and the director of economic development in Fairfield, Connecticut. “If you have the right product, people will come. Even if they have to line up in a queue.” Barnhart is right, and while New England Brewing’s decade-plus head start in the market makes for easy brand recognition, other brewers are starting to catch up, including the newly aboveboard farm distributors.
When Fox Farm Brewery opened in Salem in May 2017, the classic red barn looked nothing like its past life as a neglected, vine-covered dairy operation. These days the barn’s beautifully clean wood interior and massive cathedral-style ceiling — high enough to check out a bird’s-eye view of the venue while brewer Zack Adams extracts a sample from one of the 15-foot tanks — practically beg visitors to stop and stay a while. According to Adams, the process of renovating the barn, building a brewery and sourcing local ingredients has created a product unique to Salem — and, to an extent, unique to his farm. “Our beer has a strong connection to our place in the world,” says Adams, who uses fruit, microflora and yeast grown on site in the brewing process. “You won’t get these beers anywhere else.”
And, adds Anderson, the excitement around Fox Farm and other new farm tasting rooms is leading hop-chasers to venture away from Connecticut’s congested coastline and into the rest of the state. “These farm breweries are popping up all over the state,” says Anderson. “They’re wonderful hangouts. It gives people a reason to travel a bit farther and go try something new.”
For a state that’s expected to run a $1.6 billion deficit over the course of the 2017–18 fiscal year, the recent craft-brewing surge has been a welcome addition to the seemingly sinking bottom line. Connecticut’s one historical economic constant has been manufacturing, with more than 4,000 companies and 160,000 jobs at one time accounting for one-tenth of the state’s economy. But over the years, many of those jobs have dried up. Whether it’s tech rendering jobs obsolete or tax hikes chasing away giants like General Electric and Aetna, there are economic holes to fill. No amount of kegs will totally suffice, but craft brew is offsetting some damage. “It’s been a real challenge to meet demand [in Fairfield] and find suitable locations for these operations,” says Barnhart. “Luckily, we’ve seen major growth in Bridgeport, for example, which had plenty of available manufacturing space that can be converted for brewing. It’s an excellent repurposing of these buildings.”
And according to Jamie Bratt, director of planning and economic development for Hartford, the reuse of industrial space is a sign to residents and tourists that good things are still to come. “It’s a signal that there are exciting things happening in the district,” Pratt tells OZY. “There are people coming into our breweries that haven’t visited Hartford in a very long time. That has a direct secondary economic impact.”
Next time you’re passing through the Northeast, take a backroad off Interstate 95. If you see a red barn or a silo with no cornfields in sight, investigate. Thanks to Malloy’s nifty new law, you’re bound to find a brew or two.