- Associated Press - Sunday, January 19, 2014

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) - Rich Visco’s friends looked at him funny when the craft brewer vowed to make a beer that tastes like a cannoli pastry.

But his friends weren’t laughing when they put the cannoli brew to their mouths and tasted vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg on their palates: They were asking for more.

“These experimental brews can be hit or miss, but I get the most satisfaction out of doing this when someone really likes what we’ve made,” said Visco, co-owner of Shebeen Brewing Co. in Wolcott, which opened to the public in May.

Visco, who has brewed beer for 25 years, is able to sell brews that taste like cannolis, bacon and even pineapple because many beer drinkers these days are stepping out of their comfort zones to try something unique. It is one of the factors propelling the growth of the craft beer industry, across the country and in Connecticut.

While the craft beer market has thrived for years in other parts of the country, it is just catching on in a big way in Connecticut. Today there are 21 craft breweries in Connecticut - more than triple the number 20 years ago - with several more in the planning stages.

The CT Beer Trail website (ctbeertrail.net) estimates that 15 breweries have opened in the state since 2010, including Shebeen in Wolcott and Cavalry Brewing in Oxford.

The statewide numbers mirror a national trend as small breweries continue to thrive in the United States. The Brewers Association, a national trade group dedicated to the craft beer industry, reported there were 2,403 craft breweries in the United States, about four times as many as there were 20 years earlier.

The growth of the craft brewing industry in 2012 was 15 percent by volume and 17 percent by retail dollars, according to the Brewers Association. Craft brewers currently provide an estimated 108,440 jobs nationwide, including serving staff in brew pubs.

While the growth is impressive, craft brewers still own just a small share of the total beer market - about 5 percent of all beer sales nationwide are from craft brews, said Gerard Nutcher, craft beer distributor for Dichello Distributors in Orange.

Still, craft brewers are clamoring to get a piece of that 5 percent because that, in itself, is a big number, Nutcher said.

“The craft segment of the market is the only one that is growing,” he said. “We are seeing significant growth every quarter.”

The reason for that, he said, is because a new generation of beer drinkers is demanding more flavor in their beer. Rather than drinking a Pilsner, such as a traditional Budweiser, Coors or Miller product, they are looking for India pales ales, porters, lagers, Belgian white ales and other more flavorful beers.

Bar and restaurant owners have no choice but to meet the demand, Nutcher said.

“Every bar that opens now, and even the existing bars, are moving to craft beer,” he said. “Their customers want to experiment more and if they can offer something different, the customers are more likely to come back.”

In Naugatuck, Ryan Whipple and Tara Mirto recently bought a more-than-100-year-old bar that had for years been known as the Old Corner Cafe. The first thing they did, besides renovating the inside, was to reach out to craft beer distributors.

They now have several dozen beers on draft, a large majority of them craft brews. They have a row of eight taps dedicated to Connecticut craft beers, such as Back East from Bloomfield, Two Roads from Stratford and New England Brewing Co. from Woodbridge.

“People don’t want to drink the same old beer that their father drank,” Mirto said. “The young people love it, but it’s not just the young people who are ordering it. We’re seeing a lot of our more mature crowds giving these beers a shot. For the most part, they like the new varieties.”

Will Siss of Harwinton, a teacher and former reporter who writes a beer column for the Republican-American under the title “Beer Snob,” follows the Connecticut craft brew community closely. In fact, he’s working on a book about it. He said part of the reason for the industry’s success is that the state’s craft beer community is close knit, and brewers are willing to help each other.

The brewers, he said, view the overall success of the industry as being good for their own business.

He’s excited about the state’s beer industry explosion, but said Connecticut still has a way to go to compete on a national and even regional level.

“There are many states close to us that have been doing well in this market for several years,” he said. “We could double the amount of breweries we have and still not match what they have in Massachusetts (53).”

It appears Connecticut state officials realize the economic growth opportunities breweries offer. A bill approved by lawmakers last year making it legal for package stores to sell beer on Sundays also included a stipulation that allows craft breweries to sell beer by the glass and allows customers to buy bottled beer at the brewery.

That’s welcome news for Visco and his partners at Shebeen, where much of their business is done on premises via large bottles called growlers.

And while he loves his part-time venture - he has a full-time job - Visco says being a brewer is not as glamorous as it may seem. There is a ton of paperwork and regulations that go into the business, the startup costs are high and brewers spend three-quarters of their time cleaning tanks; brewing is a very small portion of the time commitment, he said.

“Everyone thinks you’re living the dream,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of businesses in the near future asking themselves why they are doing this because it’s hard.”

Still, he said, the people willing to work hard can thrive and, most likely, have a lot of fun in the process.


Information from: Republican-American, https://www.rep-am.com

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