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Taking a new tack: the New England Brewing Co. emphasizes traditional American beer styles.

The city of Norwalk, CT, was a booming port during the age of sail, and the Norwalk river was thronged with schooners loading manufactures and produce. During that period, Connecticut's local breweries produced beers very different from today's light American pilseners.

The face of the country changed dramatically over the intervening century, and the Connecticut brewing industry changed with it. Prohibition drove many local breweries out of business, and industry consolidation conspired to close the rest.

Fortunately, however, the pendulum has swung back. Small-scale brewing has returned to fashion, and a microbrewery--the New England Brewing Co.--has sprung up on the banks of the Norwalk river.

The New England Brewing Co. is a small-scale craft brewery with an annual capacity of 2200 barrels, dedicated to producing authentic traditional beer. The company began operations in early 1990, and enjoyed a strong first year, selling 992 31-gallon barrels.

Quality Beer

The brewery was founded by Dick and Marcia King, a Norwalk couple with an interest inhistory--and in brewing. "I've always been interested in quality beer," Dick says, "but it wasn't until Marcia and I tried a Catamount Ale a few years ago that we realized it was possible to brew quality beer on a small scale. That's when we began to consider the idea of opening a microbrewery."

Although microbrewing is sometimes considered the province of starry-eyed idealists, the Kings donot fit the mold. Dick is the owner and president of a Norwalk manufacturing firm that has operated for over 60 years. This background left him few illusions about going into the brewing business.

Historic Resonance

History echoes in the name the Kings chose for their brewery. Teh "New England Brewing Company" is a moniker that carried several Northeastern breweries through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This resonance was not lost on the founders of the latter-day New England Brewing.

"We are very conscious of New England's brewing history," Marcia says, "and we try to be true to tradition in our beer and in our packaging.

"When we began researching New England's breweries," Marcia continues, "we were struck by the pride people took in their local beer. Unfortunately," she says, "that was lost when most of the regional breweries closed down. We wanted to bring it back."

Today the Kings are working to do just that, assisted by a pair of talented local brewers, Phil Markowski and Ron Page.

The Kings had met Markowski, a local electrical engineer and award-winning homebrewer, soon after beginning their search for a brewer. According to Marcia, the chemistry was right from the first. "Once Dick and I began to discuss the microbrewing idea with Phil," she recalls, "we knew we could work well together. Everything progressed from there."

Markowski is assisted by Page, another avid homebrewer who has been chosen as the American Homebrewing Association's New England homebrewer of the year on three consecutive occasions. Together, Markowski and Page are producing all-malt beers that are attracting a growing following in their local market.

World-Class Beer Styles

Markowski has developed a love for the brewer's craft over the years, and wants to share that with consumers. "I'm passionate about beer," he says, "and so is Ron Page. We'd like to show American consumers that beer hasn't always been the kind of stuff we've grown up with. It has a history, and there have been great contributions by American brewers to world-class beer styles.

"People have just forgotten that Americans used to brew and enjoy more flavorful beers," Markowski says. "As small brewers, we see it as our responsibility to try and preserve that history. It's not profitable for the big brewers to do it, so they won't. But we find it very satisfying to think that we are helping to educate consumers--even in the slightest way. If consumers start to realize that beer can have flavor, and they enjoy those flavors, it gives us a lot of satisfaction."

New England's flagship brew is a product spawned by that philosophy. Called Atlantic Amber, it is a rich all-malt beer brewed from an original gravity of 1048. The recipe uses two-row English barley and a mix of American hops--Northern Brewer, Mt. Hood and Cascade. According to Markowski, the beer is brewed in the style of "steam" beer a distinctly American beer style that evolved in California in the last century.

Indigenous Beer Style

"Steam beer is an interesting style bedause it is one of the few beer types that actually originated in the United States," Markowski says. "That's important to us since we're trying to brew the most traditional American beer we can."

Markowski cites an early reference to the steam beer style from a periodical called The Western Brewer, dated February 15, 1898. In a piece discussing steam beer, the writer states, "Although it is often erroneously asserted that steam beer is top fermenting, it nevertheless is bottom fermenting, and th efermentation proceeds at the high temperature of from 12 to 16 R.[59-68 F].

"I think that article confirms the existence of a specific steam-beer style," Markowski says, "a bottom-fermented beer that ferments at a rather warm temperature, which is exactly what we are doing." An article in an early issue of Modern Brewery Age also alludes to the popularity of steam beer, pointing to the existence of 50 Californian steam beer breweries in 1900. During the 20th century, however, steam beer breweries withered away. Only the Anchor Brewing Co. of San Francisco carried the steam-beer style into the present day, and trademarked the term "steam beer" in the process.

As a result, New England does not call their Atlantic Amber a "steam beer" on their labels. "We're content to refer to it as a steam-style beer," Markowski says, "and there's been no attempt on our part to capitalize on Anchor's success. We see Atlantic Amber as a sincere attempt to reproduce a historically-documented style of beer from the 19th century."

"Lagered" Ale

Beyond steam beer, New England Brewing Co. is looking to produce other traditional brews, including a stock ale, once a staple of New England brewery portfolios. "I've talked to retired brewmasters who worked at the New England breweries," Markowski notes, "and they defined stock ale as a high-gravity golden ale that was cold-conditioned for an extended period. Basically, it was a 'lagered ale.'

"In taste," Markowski says, "stock ale was fruity like an ale, but not as fruity as some, since the cold-conditioning period tended to mellow it out."

New England's recipe for the stock ale is their own, according to Ron Page. "we won't tell you it's an old family recipe," he says, "because those old recipes that you hear about are pretty useless. We have no idea what the old hops were like, for one thing.

"We do know that those beers were incredibly strong and extremely bitter," Page continues, "they used darker malts, and the gravity was very high."

Markowski and Page say New England's stock ale will hew to that tradition as closely as possible. "Our motto is going to be 'better than it has to be'," Page says. "We guarantee it will be strong--at least 15 degrees. We'll put our malt where our mouth is."

Markowski is also researching the background of a lost New England beer style called "cabinet" ale. "That style appears to have been a stronger ale intended for laying down," Markowski says. "We will interpret it as a relatively high-gravity reddish-brown ale. It will be dry-hopped and bottle-conditioned."

Seasonal beers will also be an ongoing part of the portfolio, Markowski adds. During the past holiday season, New England produced a special seasonal ale, accented by cinnamon, cardamon, vanilla and nutmeg. The product was packaged in a handsome 17-oz. bottle with a ceramic swing-top--a bottle that proved popular with consumers. "We sold several thousand bottles," Dick King notes, "and although we were hoping to get a few back for the deposit, we've only gotten three or four."

The diversity of the New England's product portfolio is belied by the modest brewhouse facilities. The plant is shoehorned into a narrow former grain storehouse on the banks of the Norwalk River.

The brewhouse has undergone a gradual evolution, with the first vessels fabricated out of stainless steel by local welders. As the brewery has evolved, new vessels were designed and manufactured. Currently, the brewhouse includes a direct-fired 21-bbl. brewkettle and 15-bbl. hot water tank. The mash tun is also stainless steel, and incorporates a pre-drilled stainless screen false bottom with 1/16-inch holes on 1/4-inch centers.

The brewing vessels were fabricated by from stainless steel forged by DCI, Inc. in St. Cloud, MN, to New England's specifications, and welded together locally. The welders put copper facings on the vessels, for aesthetic and cost-saving purposes. Several 10-bbl. fermenters and a 30-bbl. bright beer tank round out the production facility.

A Schilp 16-station long-tube filler was installed in the summer of 1990, and the packaging set-up includes a trusty 1940s vintage World Tandem labeler.

Grander Surroundings

According to the Kings, the lack of additonal space in the current brewery building makes a move likely in the near future. If all works out as planned, the company will soon be housed in grander surroundings. The Kings are engaged in the hunt for a new location, large enough to allow expansion into a brewpub.

To that end, the company has acquired a pair of 50-hectoliter Huppman copper kettles, vessels that were previously used by the Fuschbrauerei in Bavaria. The stainless steel vessels currently in use will also be installed at the new location, providing the second-generation New England Brewing Co. with substantially increased capacity.

In the meantime, New England's brewers continue their labors in their original home. They report the brewery has begun to attract attention, and consumers stop by frequently to tour the plant. "It's great that people still feel the excitement and romance of brewing," Markowski says. "It makes all the long hours worthwhile."
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Author:Reid, Peter V.K.
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:Jul 15, 1991
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