Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hartford Area

2013-01-03 MR IC 

Club-Belgique members in New England had made plans for a 2-day tour of breweries in early 2013. The first was a Hartford CT area jaunt for Friday, January 3. The logistics took a bit of setting up, and as you will read, plans had to be flexible, but in the end it was a great day out. Members came from as close as Wethersfield CT, to as far away as Liverpool, UK.

Also, as with all Club-Belgique events, there was a designated driver. This is always done, unless there is either: public transport available, a taxi called, or sufficient time allotted before driving (i.e. next morning).

First stop was at Tullycross Tavern & Microbrewery in Manchester. There was an odd sense of deja vu among several of us, until we realized this was a different brewpub before. For whatever reason, there are new owners, and they seem to be doing well.

What was nice was that - by politely contacting the manager well in advance - the brewpub was going to give us the nickel (well more like the dollar) tour before opening.

Brian, the head Brewer, gave a very detailed explanation from the grain to the fermenting (or aging, as the case may be). This was a good first stop, as for some C-B's newer members this was the first detailed tour behind the scenes.

Brian and his assistant did a great job fielding questions, as tour members ranged from chemists to former nuke submarine engineers!

Unfortunately due to schedule constraints, there was no time to sample anything. But some of us will be back for lunch or dinner. Given some experimental barrel-aging that is taking place; one can be sure of that!

We left for Max Burger in West Hartford. What was decidedly odd about setting up this tour was that apparently essentially every restaurant in Hartford opens at 11:30. Again, due to scheduling constraint, it was best if we were able to start lunch as 11. That is also a Club-Belgique rule, never ever consume alcohol on an empty stomach.

Well, in contacting manager Doug at Max Burger, he was more than happy to open at 11:00 as long as "you don't mind sitting in at the bar." I mean - where else? Sadly through no fault of their own, Max Burger did not have any Relic Brewing on tap, which is a nano-brewery in Plainville.

Happily, Doug had two bottles of New England Brewing's Stout Trooper. This was fortuitous for although New England was on the agenda, for reasons detailed later we did not make it (this time).

Max Burger's name is well earned; these are maximum burgers. Fresh, delicious, and actually not too big; they were just the right size for a hearty appetite. And the selection of beers at Max's is not at all what you might expect to have available for your hamburger.

They have quite an eclectic beer menu (which changes often). Beers sampled included:
Clown Shoes - Clementine
Stone - Vertical Epic 12.12.12
Sierra Nevada - Torpedo
New England - Stout Trooper

Sadly we had to leave, as the next stop was Hooker brewing.

Now this is where we again have to acknowledge and thank people. Hooker was in the process of installing some new fermenters, but Curt said they would be able to accommodate us on a limited basis outside normal tour hours. We arrived and were put in the capable hands of Lisa, who we assume is their PR person.

Due to the activity in back, there was understandably no real tour, but we were able to see the processes. It was also nice to see that since last visit Hooker has expanded dramatically.

Gone is the small tasting area, replaced with a resplendent tasting parlor that is actually one of the best we've seen.

Lisa explained how Curt the owner does all he can to source local. This includes growing some hops for experimentational brewing, and using local white wine casks to age their Saison. Yes, you read that correctly, more on that later.

At the new tasting taps, we tried their:
Munich Lager
Hop Meadow IPA
(note CT used to grow hops many decades ago, name like "Hop River" 
and "Hop Valley" are not due to the presence of members of the order Anura)
Chocolate Truffle Stout
(made with real Belgian chocolate nibs from Munson's Chocolates
who by no coincidence use Hooker beer to make their "beer brittle", 
which of course we also picked up a few bags on the way to the next stop!)

Now about this point the activity in back must've been a bit more under control, so Curt came out to chat. Like a proud parent, he expanded on the information Lisa provided, and - again - made it clear "Hooker" was in fact chosen for "Thomas Hooker", the founder of Connecticut.

As Curt's the boss, he decided it was "all clear" to go in back where the action is. We made sure we were out of people's way, as he took us closer to the processes that Lisa couldn't earlier. As with the new tasting room, it was nice to see how they have expanded.

There was much more to see, smell, even touch (hot spent mash).

We went back to the front, and Curt had some actual raw cocoa nibs brought out to smell. 

He also explained how the tasting area can be reserved for corporate events or meetings, which was one of their plans as they expanded. Hooker does something that is at least uncommon, and at best unique. As a rule, microbreweries are a bit more responsive to customer issues; and take great pains to ensure that their beer is a good, consistent product. In an attempt to replicate "worst case" storage, Hooker keeps batches of beer in their boiler room! This way they can try to identify the potential causes of off-flavours, etc.,

At this point we originally were to leave, for New England brewing, but decided to stay. The only schedule we had to keep was a firm 5:00 tour at the Willimantic brewpub.

We were glad we remained, as we were able to try the:
Saison (bottle #1,400)
(aged in white wine barrels and sold in 'caged' bottles - words can barely describe the subtleties)

Liberator Doppelbock 
(several growlers were purchased)
Nor' Easter 
and last but not least the 
Imperial Porter
(served by Mike the brewmaster - I mean how good can it get?)

Curt even provided information on which local shops carried the hard-to-find white-wine-barrel-aged Saison. This is a beer to try. We were able to pick up 8 bottles.

As we had stayed way longer than expected, we had to head directly to Willimantic brewing. Manager Kim had said we could get a tour at about 5:00; we knew if we arrived early there were other things to do; such as drink beer.

What was a nice surprise is that they offered their barley wine ale
Willi Whammer '10; '11; '12
as a flight of versions from three different years.

For some who have not had a chance, it was a great way to compare the rawness of a new barleywine (2012); the more mellowed taste as it ages (2011) and a less strong but more complex older one (2010). One of the next beers sampled was
Mayan Mayhem
brewed for the "potential end of the world" party. As David, the owner/brewer said "we had to make something special, I mean, what if the world had ended? You'd regret not celebrating". Amen to that!

This beer was also MR's #3,500, as he is a self-proclaimed "beer statistics geek", who has kept records on beers tried for the last 16 years or so. Mayan Mayhem was brewed with peppers and cocoa, and has a faint sharpness that was unique.

At 5:00 PM, the tour began with brewmaster David leading the show. He walked us through the process, and described how some of the recipes were arrived at.

Poor Richard's Olde Ale's
formulation was arrived at as part of a brewing contest. The recipe was possibly one from ol' Ben Franklin. It was great to taste this fresh from the fermenter.

And speaking of taste, one does not generally go to WilliBrew without trying the food. They have a complete and varied menu, and truly one of the best vegetarian burgers out there.

It was a great time; as once the spouses and children joined us we had 13 people there.

Rounding out the evening, two final beers were tried, the
I P D'Aley [black IPA]
IPA 2013

So, what are your brewery tour plans?

[and don't forget folks, comments are allowed and appreciated!]

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