On December 13, 2014, Johnny Pluckman and The Hipster King were cordially invited to attend BEER CONN at The Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They both missed their trains, but luckily they found a Good Samaritan willing to cart this precious cargo to the event. Armed with only a tasting glass, a pen and pad, 2 cameras, and the most grammatically correct rhetoric known to man, they approached the building.
THK: So, how does a beer festival work? What exactly is it? That depends on what you want to get out of it and how the day progresses. Essentially, though, it’s a lot like the world’s biggest pub crawl in the smallest area possible, crossed with that game that you played in college where everyone does a shot of beer once a minute until an ambulance comes. What did they call that? Century? I think so.
Pluckman: This was about to be my fourth beer festival. I know exactly how they start, but I’m not really sure how they end. Basically it’s like going to the world’s longest open bar stocked with the world’s best and nicest bartenders. The biggest difference with this one versus the ones I previously attended was the indoor venue; up until now I had only been to outdoor beer festivals during the early fall months. Fortunately the indoor venue worked out well, as there’s no reason this sort of thing shouldn’t be a year-round activity.
THK: We approached the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, ready for our adventure. First I was instructed (by “SECURITY”) to throw out my full bottle of Evian which, I guess, was to prevent me from smuggling alcohol. Into BEER CONN. Then, I was metal detector wanded. All my pockets went off as if I was wearing aluminum pants and the guy waved me through. I guess his only job was to cut the legs out from under the nefarious water cartels that run Bridgeport. Mission accomplished.
Pluckman: Security was all smiles and fanfare over my beard. The guy had a wand but I don’t remember if he used it — we just talked about how long it took to grow my beard and how cool it is, and the next thing I knew we were inside.
THK: Once inside, I was handed a 2 oz cup. Much like that Century game, you start the day thinking, “2 ounces?! What the hell am I going to drink with that?!?” Also, much like that Century game, you end the session thinking, “Why did they give me such a giant cup!??!? Is anyone else hungry for pizza??!? I love you guysssss!!!!”
Pluckman: They say it’s a 2 oz cup, but the 2 oz line is at least 2 ounces below the rim of the thing. This allows the VIP’s to get pro-level pours, while at the same time it keeps the noobs from spilling everywhere. It’s also worth noting that these tasting cups were made of plastic, which was a smart move on the part of management. They were using glass ones at the Harbor Brew Fest in September, and I saw more than a few people having a bad time because of that.
THK: The usual suspects were all there. Two Roads, Hooker, Shipyard, and almost 40 others. Also, in a move that demonstrated such temerity and balls that you can’t help but respect it…Shocktop was there. (Because it’s not enough that your product is made by Anheuser-Busch, nor that your bottle mascot is the bastard love child of a three way between Guy Fieri, the sun and a citrus grove or that you have more wildly flavoured beer than a variety pack of Ssips pouches….You have to show up to a craft beer festival, too.) Hey Anheuser-Busch, how about instead of shoehorning your “Fruity Bro Brew” into MY craft beer festival, you bring back American Ale? THAT was actually a good product.
Pluckman: This being my third beer festival in 3 months, I saw a lot of familiar faces. Dan at Two Roads, Nicole at Long Ireland Beer, The Silver Fox, the nice couple that brews Charter Oak, and that guy from Jack’s Abby; I don’t remember his name, I just know it’s not Jack.
Pluckman: And I share The Hipster King’s sentiments on Shock Top. I’m a huge fan of wheat beers, but the commercial overly citrusy ones (Shock Top and Blue Moon) are like the emo pop music of wheat beers. And on top of that, just about every bar with 6 taps or less has one of them thus eliminating any possibility of a good wheat beer being available on draught.
THK: The craft beer market gets a little bigger each year and it’s tough to even see if there even is a “craft beer market” vis-a-vis the “regular beer market.” It’s interesting to see the once smaller guys getting bigger. Shiner, the Abita of Texas, was in attendance and is getting more and more market penetration. Yuengling, also there, and previously barely available at Vista Market, has successfully expanded their distribution such that it’s more “expected” than “surprising” when you walk into a bar or liquor store and see their lager or Black and Tan.
Pluckman: I remember the time before I knew what craft beer was. I remember when the first friends of mine got into it and I didn’t get it. I remember the day I got over Sam Adams. Eventually the craft beer wave got big enough and it swept me in too. Craft beer is delicious, and is something you will never get out of a mass produced Coors, Bud, or Heineken. I’m really glad more breweries are popping up and events like this are happening, I just hope this popularity will not compromise the product.
THK: It’s hard to say whether the craft beer scene has had its day and is now flagging. It’s actually harder to say that it’s even niche, anymore. When every beer is a well made, interesting profile beer, that just becomes the standard. That said, they are still a hell of a lot of fun to drink and there are absolutely phases that come and go in the market.
Pluckman: Yes if all the beers are “good” beers and none are “bad” beers, doesn’t that normalize the experience? It’s like at the end of the White Zombie song on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience when Beavis asks Butt-Head why some stuff sucks and some stuff is cool, and Butt-Head explains to him that if nothing sucked and everything was cool then he wouldn’t know it was cool, and to illustrate that he hits Beavis upside the head. But just because all the beers are well made doesn’t mean there isn’t anywhere else to explore. The double IPA had its turn and all the fruit beers (“gruits” for the pro’s out there) are wearing out their welcome, so let’s bring on the sours!
THK: This past summer saw a ton of entries on the “session IPA” style. (For those unaware a “session beer” is typically one with alcohol content of less than 5%. The idea being that you can have a few in a drinking session and not end up incoherent.) From an actual brewing standpoint, that’s a neat concept because you’re typically going “heavy hopped” in an IPA and need a fair amount of malt to balance that out. Lots of malt equals lots of sugar. Lots of sugar equals lots of yeast food and lots of yeast food equals fairly elevated ABV’s. (This is actually one of the bitches I have with Lagunitas beers. They’re all delicious but I don’t think any of them are less than 7.5 ABV. You have two of those and not leaving the couch seems like an increasingly good idea.) Thankfully, the “shandy” trend is either dead or dying.
Pluckman: I’ve had some experience with session IPAs myself recently. But would you believe it was made by Lagunitas and has a 4.65 ABV? It’s called Day Time Ale, a Factional IPA, and it’s great for those mid-week working lunches.
THK: Maybe it’s because it’s winter or maybe it’s the way that the market is trending but BEER CONN was heavy on the stouts and the porters and I don’t think that I had one that was even mediocre. All were great and these weren’t easy, light British or Irish styles. They were robust, roasty, creamy American stouts and porters. These are beers for stews and warm socks.
Pluckman: Not being a fan of stouts and porters myself, winter is my least favorite season for beers. But there were still some great brews to sample – Two Roads had their Honeyspot Road White IPA, Long Ireland had their Raspberry Wheat, and Blue Point had their Rastafa Rye to name a few. Another great local brewery worth noting is Grey Sail out of Rhode Island. I sampled some of their beer here but also got to chat it up with the owner during a tap takeover at Coal House Pizza. Nice guy and great beer, I recommend Hazy Day, Captain’s Daughter, or if you’re into porter’s try the Leaning Chimney.
THK: For me, the biggest deal at BEER CONN was to see just how local “local brewing” is. Historically, this is notable. There was a time, before prohibition, when Brooklyn was the king of American brewing. In the late 1890s there was a 12 block stretch in Williamsburg that had 11 breweries on it. So there’s a precedent for local, East coast beers.
Pluckman: One town in Connecticut that has seen a lot of new breweries popping up is Branford. I was previously aware of Thimble Island and Stony Creek, but since BEER CONN I am now aware of a third Branford brewery – Duvig. Does this mean Branford is the new Brooklyn?
THK: Probably almost 30% of the brewers at BEER CONN were Connecticut based. All these guys have “stories” and they all want to tell them to you. We didn’t just get beer, we got lore, too. There’s Stamford’s hometown heroes from Half Full. These are guys who left already successful careers in completely other fields to start a brewery which has gained momentum and market share steadily since they opened. There was Tom and Joe from Broad Brook Brewing who when asked, “So, did you guys start this out of your own kitchens?” Chuckled and told us, “Nah, we got thrown out of our own kitchen. We started this by doing 20 gallon batches in our garage.” There was Bru Room from Bar in New Haven whose Jen Spencer explained that the absolutely delicious Gingerbread Ale beer is only available by actually GOING TO where it’s brewed and drinking it there. There was Shebeen who had to start every conversation with, “We have nothing to do with the bar in Bridgeport….” That’s not even touching on the other Connecticut breweries or the “close to Connecticut” ones like Captain Lawrence and Baxter Brewing.
Pluckman: For CT breweries there was of course Two Roads, who if you haven’t visited yet I highly recommend making the trip. They have a huge facility and tasting room, and they’re also available for events, have a ton of beer varieties to try, and have regular limited-edition releases. Also from Connecicut there was Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. I do have to dock them a couple points for not having the Watermelon Ale, but Jessica behind the tap was very apologetic and I forgive her. Firefly Hollow Brewing Company was a new one I met this time, in addition to tasty beer the guy behind the taps was sporting some serious looking goggles on his forehead. When I asked him why he had them, he simply replied “Just in case.”
Pluckman: And let’s not not mention Beaver Beer. They were there too.
Pluckman: As for the “close to Connecticut” breweries there was Massachusetts’ Shipyard hocking their Pumpkinhead Ale. The guy told me a nasty rumor that they’re not going to be making the Melonhead this spring (one of my favorites; if you’ve never tried a Watermelon beer I highly recommend it). I’m hoping they sober up in time to rethink that decision. And I definitely took some time to stop by Captain Lawrence. Brewed out of Elmsford, NY near where I grew up, I knew the founder was a fellow John Jay High School alumnus but what I didn’t know was the current head brewer was also a classmate of mine. I definitely enjoy what I’ve had from these guys, mainly the IPA and the Liquid Gold, and they have some elusive sours I’ve been meaning to get my hands on. I’m still chasing that dragon..
THK: Organization wise, I really have to hand it to the staff at the Webster Bank Arena, the organizers of BEER CONN and even the other attendees. Let’s do the math and face it, there were close to 50 vendors there and the session durations were 3 and a half hours long. At two ounces a piece, you’re talking about a bare minimum of essentially eight 12oz beers in a little more than 3 hours. (And the vast majority of the brewers on hand were eager to get you to try at LEAST two of their delicious specialities, if not more.) So the point is that odds are pretty good that you’re walking around and out of this thing pretty well smashed. It seems like a recipe for disasters. But there were none. No fist fights broke out, there was more than enough room to move around, and all attendees were friendly and deferential to one another (even past hour 3…). The organizers (brilliantly) provided designated driver tickets at a deep discount, the Webster Bank Arena is more or less across the street from a train station, and the Bridgeport police inside and out essentially ignored the public intoxication and illegal parking and standing that was necessary for all the non-attending sober drivers to come pick up their spouses and significant others. Great work by all involved.
Pluckman: Definitely hats off to the organizers of this event, the brewers, tap tenders, pretty faces, and everyone involved in any shape or form. Each part alcohol was met with an equal part order. There was a good size space to accommodate the mass of people, water was given out, and the bathrooms were clean.
THK: I can’t wait to head back for the next one and you should, too. To be entirely honest, I was half expecting it to be a crap storm and dominated by stuff that I had already tried and stuff that I hadn’t tried but really wasn’t that great. Usually, that’s how events like this seem to end up. It was actually, the opposite of that and I was a convert by the end. It was a good time, a great event and a great opportunity for the brewers to share their craft with people who seemed to really enjoy it.
Pluckman: As I said earlier this was my first “off-season” beer festival, having previously only ever seen them happen during the fall. But lucky for us this trend seems to be sticking, and the next one on my calendar is Smoke in the Valley’s Extreme Beerfest on March 7, 2015. Definitely try to make it out, I mean where else can you discuss the differences between a gueuze and a gose with a brewer over a sippy cup of beer? Hope to see you there, and remember to arrange safe travel to and from any beer festival. Bring a sober driver, ask a friend to pick you up, or just take public transportation.
We should also apologize to the organizers of this event who were considerate enough to provide us with press passes. As it turns out, it was a reasonably terrible idea to commit to doing a write up of this event immediately before all the family commitments and general busy-ness of the holiday season. It is our hope that they see this as a “better late than never” situation. We did both have a blast and promise to be more timely in our next reviews. Cheers!!