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A brewery grows in the elm city.

A Brewery Grows in the Elm City

The New Haven Brewing Co., of New Haven, CT, is housed in the shell of a 19th-century steamship terminal, flanked on one side by a deep-water channel and on the other by a long-dormant trolley spur. Although the trolleys and steamships no longer run, the sweet small of barley malt is in the air, an encouraging sign of a resurgent American industry.

The New Haven Brewing Co. fired its kettle in 1989, becoming the first operating brewery in Connecticut since the old Hull Brewing Co. closed down in 1977. The first of three microbreweries now operating in Connecticut, New Haven Brewing sold 600 barrels in 1989, and boosted that number to 2,760 barrels in 1990.

New Haven Brewing Co.'s existence owes much to Richter Elser, a New Haven restaurateur and long-time admirer of the Western microbrewing movement. After reading as much as possible about microbrewing, Elser began deluging his restaurant manager, Blair Potts, with books on the subject.

Potts, an accomplished cook, became interested and began experimenting with homebrew recipes. After a certain amount of trial and error, he came up with an ale that pleased his tasters, and sent the recipe off to the Briess Malting Co.'s pilot brewery for a check. When Briess confirmed the commercial viability of the recipe, Elser and Potts joined with partners Jim Gordon and Mike Gettings to brew and market this beer, which they dubbed Elm City Ale.

To capitalize the project, the partners set up a limited partnership, augmented with bank financing. "We had to be certain we'd have the resources to carry this through," Gordon says. "Quite a few microbrewers have died from undercapitalization, and we didn't want to be just another glossy obituary in Inc. magazine."

New Equipment

The partners looked long and hard for a location, eventually finding their turn-of-the-century steamship terminal on the edge of New Haven harbor. The next major decision was the choice of suppliers. After researching the arcanum of brewhouse construction, the partners settled on J.V. Northwest of Wilsonville, OR, to handle the fabrication of the brewhouse. "The people from J.V. Northwest were indispensable to us," Gordon reports. "A guy named Pat Weineke did a lot of the stainless welding and generally guided as through the project.

"Weineke was amazing," Gordon says. "It seemed there was nothing he couldn't do. By the end of the project I would have let him remove my appendix with a hot spoon."

To handle packaging, New Haven Brewing again decided to go for top-of-the-line equipment, purchasing a state-of-the-art bottling line from Krones. "A lot of micros get by with old soda-pop equipment," Gordon says, "but we've been glad we didn't skimp. The people at Krones were superb, and having dependable equipment leaves us one less thing to worry about."

Gordon says new equipment has also provided unforseen dividends. "If we hadn't bought new equipment," he observes, "we wouldn't have had the caliber of assistance we got from the suppliers. We cringed every time we had to pay for something, but we're glad we went that route."

To guide the company through the intricacies of a brewery start-up, New Haven retained the services of Brewing Systems, a consulting group captained by veteran Pabst brewer Karl Strauss.

"I'll admit I was a skeptic about consultants," Gordon says. "I felt they told you what time it was, and used your watch to do it.

"Working with Karl Strauss changed my mind," Gordon states. "He is a marvelous man, and he's got a great ability to teach and explain. He continues to be a kind of spiritual partner to us."

A Peculiar Affliction

Soon after the start-up, Blair Potts stepped into the role of brewer. In the world of microbrewing, it is not unusual that Potts, a Yale history major and restaurant manager, would become a brewer. What does set Potts apart is his peculiar affliction - an allergy to hops. Although he can taste beer, Potts cannot swallot it. "I don't think it's been a handicap," he states, "because my sense of smell can tell me a lot, and I love malty smells."

This olfactory preference may be a contributing factor in the malty character of New Haven's brews, which currently include Elm City Connecticut Ale, Elm City Golden Ale and Blackwell Stout.

The Right Hop

The Elm City Connecticut Ale is the first brand New Haven produced, a brew in the English mild ale style. "When I was putting together the recipe for Connecticut Ale, I'd been doing some reading about mild ales," Potts says, "so I invented what I thought would be a mild. People liked the color, but found it too bitter, so we changed it around until we found the right hop."

Connecticut Ale has received considerable acclaim, particularly from beer critic Michael Jackson, who gave the brew a coveted three-star rating and wrote, "[Connecticut Ale] is splendidly assertive, with its full amberbrown color; its clean malt emphasis in aroma and palate; and its lightly fruity, dry finish."

The companion Elm City Golden Ale is in a lighter style, that of a typical American golden ale. "The Golden Ale is more mainstream," Gordon notes, "because our distributors and retailers wanted something lighter from us. When you come in from mowing the lawn," he observes, "the last thing you want is a heavy beer."

According to Potts, the products represent a conscious effort to satisfy mainstream tastes. "We want our beers to appeal to mainstream beer drinkers," Potts continues, "and in our experience those drinkers prefer malty beers to bitter beers.

"Homebrewers have occasionally told me our beers aren't hoppy enough," Potts relates, "but they're the only ones who've said that - not every beer drinker wants to get socked in the face with a lot of hops

"Many American microbreweries are already exploring hoppier beers," Potts says, "so it's a lot less crowded in the maltier end. I may be an iconoclast, but I feel there a lot of avenues in that direction that remain unexplored."

Selling the Product

"I think microbrewers have proven that you can make any kind of beer in America," Potts says, "but the question is whether or not you can sell it. "Some people insist there are enough homebrewers and beer enthusiasts to keep microbreweries in business," Potts continues, "but as a former bartender, I would disagree. Those groups don't contribute any large sales volume, and I think to be successful we've got to sell beer to the everyday consumer."

New Haven is working to prove that can be done. While the brewhouse remains a one-man operation, Jim Gordon and Mike Gettings concentrate on sales and marketing. Their efforts seem to be paying off, with Elm City Ale available state-wide in 140 draft accounts.

Initially, sales objectives for the brewery were somewhat more modest, Gordon recalls. "Then people started asking for our beer," he says, "and we decided to go for it. We interviewed almost every distributor in the state, and eventually went with three: Star Distributors, Inc. in New Haven, Fordham Distributors, Inc. in Hartford and S. Levin Inc. in London. "By giving our distribution to wholesalers," Gordon says, "we felt it would leave us one less thing to worry about."

According to Blair Potts, this rapid growth is just what New Haven is looking for. "We don't worry about growing too fast," he states. "we worry about not growing fast enough. If things keep going the way they're going, we'll sell 5,000 barrels in 1991. So right now," he says, "the best way to deal with the future is to keep dealing with the present."

PHOTO : The New Haven Brewing Co.'s stately home.

PHOTO : Brewer and history major Blair Potts now studies traditional ales in his New Haven brewhouse.
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Title Annotation:Small-scale Brewing in America; New Haven Brewing Co.; Connecticut
Author:Reid, Peter V.K.
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:May 13, 1991
Words:1300
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