Last weekend I attended Connecticut’s longest running Oktoberfest, a showcase of local breweries well established and up and coming.
For 19 years, the Hamden Knights of Columbus Lodge has hosted their popular Oktoberfest (plus a matching event in spring). Widely distributed brands like Two Roads and Black Hog share the banquet room with upstarts like No Worries. Lines for admission can stretch out the door and around the old brick building.
It’s an intimate setting. Without the crush of larger festivals (Hamden typically hosts about two dozen breweries) drinkers have a chance to chat with the beer-makers. Moreover, this Oktoberfest is an incubator for Connecticut’s newest breweries.
Only two years ago, Black Hog manned a corner booth with barely labeled growlers. Today, their cans are ubiquitous throughout the state and expanding into New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. (My Black Hog preference is their Granola Brown Ale, brewed with a granola mix for a unique, complex flavor profile.)
Filling the newbie role last in 2015 No Worries. Not yet officially open, the Hamden microbrewery poured their brown ale from a plain cooler. The beer was smooth and malty, though perhaps lighter on flavor than other browns I prefer. This is no concern for No Worries. With more time to grow, I’m sure the brewery will pump out interesting selections.
It helps having the support of the Connecticut beer scene. “The community atmosphere in this state is awesome,” said Dan Zeek, of Two Roads. “We all help out each other. If someone is low on one ingredient, they call up another brewery, who will bring it over. It’s friendly competition.”
Two Roads sampled their typical solid selection, plus a tart and salty Geyser Gose collaboration with Brooklyn’s Evil Twin. This unfiltered, malty German wheat beer was more restrained than other American goses I’ve tried, with a nice mix of of herb and funk. It would have been my favorite pour of the night, if not for brews brought in by the festival’s co-organizer, a founding father of Connecticut craft beer.
The Oktoberfest is the brainchild of two men. Nearly two decades ago, Dave Koch of the Knights of Columbus — who’s known affectionately as “Coach” — approached the organizer of a beer fest in Wallingford about doing something similar in Hamden. This second party was Jeff Browning.
Much of Connecticut’s craft scene has grown from Browning’s tutelage. Brewers throughout the state and beyond point to him as instrumental in their careers. He is head brewer at the New Haven hotspot Bar, a must-visit for beer aficionados passing through Connecticut.
Browning’s creations range all over the beer map, but share remarkable balance of smoothness and flavor. This balance is so distinctly flawless that I could likely identify his beers while blindfolded.
He always brings something special to Hamden. This year he poured Dr. Foster’s 1868 Porter, based on a midland England recipe of that year. It was a porter paradigm: light body, dark malts, smooth on the palate, refreshing. The name refers to legendary beer writer Dr. Terry Foster, with whom Browning researched the recipe.
Then he blew my mind with his Lupalicious, a wicked mix of multiple dry hops, the best beer I had all night. A legend in Connecticut craft culture, Browning is affable and modest. “I’m almost of legal age,” he replied when I asked how long he’d been in the scene. “These new brewers bring so much to the industry. I was just lucky enough to have been born before them.”
It’s Browning who makes sure the Oktoberfest features the newest CT breweries, like Back Hog in 2013 and No Worries in 2015.
“Nineteen years ago, nobody understood what craft beer was,” he recalls. Thanks to him, Coach, the Knights of Columbus, and the scene they all helped create, the future of craft beer in Connecticut is as bright as ever.