WILLIMANTIC BREWING MAINTAINS WORLD CLASS STATUS
Connecticut may not get the same respect its New England neighbors receive, but there’s a few wonderful Constitution State breweries competing favorably against the best public houses dotting Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. Besides five decent Southport Brewing franchises, Granby’s upscale sportsbar, Cambridge House, New Haven’s fabulous pizza-brewpub, BruRm @ Bar and Hartford’s terrific City Steam deserve plaudits.
On my January ’12 trip, I reinvestigated one of the best Northeast brewpubs and another one just getting restarted under an Irish banner. The former, WILLIMANTIC BREWING COMPANY, serves a quickly rotating selection of finely detailed handcrafted beers alongside fine food. The latter, TULLYCROSS recently changed hands from John Harvard’s affiliation to craft its own likable libations.
Growing up in Bridgeport during the Seventies, entrepreneurial Willimantic brewmeister David Wollner discovered microbrews when visiting his older brother at New York University. There, he was introduced to Samuel Smith Taddy Porter and Aass Bock at nearby Bleecker Street’s Peculier Pub.
Afterwards, he entered UConn, became an early Sierra Nevada Pale Ale supporter and bought a homebrew kit. When a local general store started yearly amateur brewing competitions, Wollner tried his hand.
“The critics wrinkled their noses at what tasted like carbonated cider,” Wollner recalls as the Allman Brothers play in the background. “The judges said next time double the malts, cutback sugar and add fresh hops. The next few years I won with a stout, old ale and pale ale.”
In ’88, Wollner met his wife, Cindy, and by ’94 they’d open a full service restaurant and craft beer bar with 16 taps led by Shipyard, Samuel Adams and New England brews. Christened Main Street Cafe, the pair slowly convinced Bud-Coors-Miller drinkers to try microbrewed pale ales.
Then, he found the boarded-up, water-damaged post office that’d be a local sanctuary for hardened beer enthusiasts. By ’97, the spacious Willimantic Brewery would open and thrive, becoming a true destination point.
Though Wollner still enjoys a brisk pale ale or hoppy IPA, he’s currently enamored with saisons and funky sour ales. His assistant brewer, Ben Braddock, helped make the varietal Summer of Saison special. Six different summer beers came from one saison yeast strain, including a Belgian Double IPA and Saison Noir. The duo also did a delicious propagation batch with Saaz hops, Simon Saaz-On. Then came well-received Flower Infusion, utilizing hibiscus, rosebud, chamomile, galanga, and wildflower honey.
At age 50, the seasoned owner-operator realized the long hours were taking their toll. So he allowed Braddock to take the reins on a few recipes. A current Thomas Hooker associate with a production background, Braddock helps organize, take inventory and brew on-site.
“I was invited to go to Boston’s Extreme Beerfest, but failed to fill out the $200 Massachusetts license form. I’d donated beers for years and got invited as a guest but was left with a special beer from an old English homebrew recipe,” Wollner shares. “I boiled a chicken, soaked it in the driest country wine, put in a bag with raisins, mace and clove, stuck it in the beer and let it ferment. I had ten gallons of this Cock Ale for Weird Wednesday on cask eight months later. Needless to say, Cock Ale caused trouble. ‘Pump that cock!,’ customers groaned. Some said it came with a large head. It was spicy, like a winter warmer. The chicken added some body.”
Maintaining only one constant year-round draught from the beginning (approachable mainstream moderation, Certified Gold), I’d tried 25 diverse Willimantic beers before downing another four offerings post-haste.
As I dig into my wife’s LA Smog pizza (spinach, mushroom, onions and garlic atop mozzarella-cheesed wheat-floured dough), Wollner joins us as we break into Bohemian Hopsidy. Lively lemon-seeded and grapefruit-peeled orange rind bittering and woody hop dryness contrasted its creamy crystal malting.
Chill Pilz, a feisty schwarzbier, carried coffee-roasted dark chocolate and dry cocoa above bourbon, burgundy and black cherry illusions. Described as a ‘chocolate wheat malted and hop-forward pilsner with ale yeast,’ Wollner may give it permanent seasonal rotation.
Poor Richard’s Olde Ale retained a leathery cedar-burnt mocha fruiting, allowing black cherry, red grape, raisin and burgundy to infiltrate chocolate liqueur, Godiva chocolate, Begian chocolate, vanilla, Kahlua and cocoa passages.
When Wollner’s beverage manager passed away suddenly in 2011, he made a tributary Maibock, Marge’s Meisterbrau, a wonderful honey-dried, orange-fruited, peach-licked, Vienna-malted medium body that warmly concluded my latest Willimantic journey.
Don’t miss out on this extraordinary brewpub. There’s a certain antique grandeur Willimantic Brewing’s marble columns, gothic ceilings, capacious interior and wall-bound ephemera expressly capture.