From Stamford up to Granby and as far east as Pawcatuck, microbreweries that make specialty craft beers are putting Connecticut on beer-drinkers' maps.
Without the advertising budgets of the big domestic beer companies, microbrewers rely on grass-roots marketing and face-to-face interactions to promote their products. Through a new "Brew and Buy Local" campaign, Connecticut beer manufacturers, distributors and retailers are highlighting the state's growing craft beer industry and encouraging consumers to buy locally-produced brews.
The initiative launches during CT Beer Week, which begins Saturday with a brewfest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. About 17 production breweries and more than 35 bars and restaurants are set to participate in the weeklong festivities that include brewery bus tours, beer tastings and live music performances. The events coincide with American Craft Beer Week, which starts Monday.
But the tap will keep flowing even after the week is out. The promotional week highlights recent growth in the craft beer industry and collaborations among brewers, distributors and others to strengthen the market.
Willimantic Brewing Co. has served home-brewed beer since 1997 in a renovated post office building. It produces about 800 barrels of beer annually and runs beer dinners and other events to educate customers.
"We don't believe that our beers are any better than anyone else's," said owner David Wollner. "We do believe that ours are unique."
About 2,300 craft breweries operate in the U.S., according to Colo.-based Brewers Association. About half are brewpubs, which brew and sell beer on location, and the other half are microbreweries that are usually restricted from selling retail. The association defines a craft brewery as a facility that produces 6 million barrels or less of beer annually, is independently owned and uses traditional ingredients.
Consumers appreciate the choice that craft beer offers, said Patrick Bailey, import crafts manager at F&F Distributors in New London.
"Each beer has its own quality that speaks to its particular drinker," he said.
Microbrewers benefit from the local and organic food movements that have swept the nation. Jason McClellan, owner of Olde Burnside Brewing Co. in East Hartford, said he buys many ingredients in-state.
"People want to know where their beer is grown, where their food is grown," he said.
As demand for locally brewed beers increases, new brewpubs and microbreweries are popping up. John Suchy, director of the liquor control division at the state Department of Consumer Protection, said his office regularly receives inquiries about the permitting process for such establishments.
The state government regulates the production and sale of alcohol at brewpubs and microbreweries, but it also plays an active role in promoting the industry. Legislation signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2011 established the Connecticut Brewery Trail, which permits authorized beer manufacturers and retailers to display signs advertising their association with the trail.
Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut tourism office, said he has worked with the industry to capitalize on the popularity of beer-centered tourism.
"People are more and more traveling on their stomachs so to speak," said Fiveash. "They're traveling from a culinary standpoint."
The brewery trail is intended to make residents aware of what's available in their own backyard and to inform out-of-state travelers about what Connecticut has to offer. Wollner estimates that most of his customers live within a 10- to 15-mile radius of the pub, but he said many also come from neighboring states and some from as far away as Europe.
"We wanted to be a destination location," he said.
McClellan called the amount of out-of-state traffic at his East Hartford brewpub "astronomical" and said he even had a recent customer from Taiwan.
Physical signs for the brewery trail have not been erected yet, but the information is available online.
Connecticut beer aficionado Bryon Turner launched CTBeerTrail.net in 2011 to collect information about the state's craft beer industry. The website lists most of the breweries, brewpubs and beer bars in the state-nearly 30 total.
Turner also runs bus tours, bicycle rides and other events that attract people to Connecticut's beer hotspots.
"When we started the beer trail efforts almost three years ago," said Turner, "there were only a handful of pubs." He says the state's craft beer industry has witnessed "rapid growth" since then.
And the brewery trail might soon be available on mobile phones. Kevin Bradshaw, a Scottish programmer who moved to the U.S. 10 years ago, designed the Beerdog app to allow users to identify and learn about beer by taking a photo of its label.
Bradshaw describes the app as "a bit like Pinterest for beer mixed with Twitter." He's working with members of the industry to customize the app for Connecticut.