The Brew Biz: Werts and All

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years. This edition of Brew Biz was originally published in The Score: a publication of Music City Brewers, two years ago. And republished here at PGA in 2009. It is a review of a fine brewpub in Connecticut.


Written by Ken Carman

Willimantic Brewing
967 Main Street
Willimantic, CT 06226
Phone: 860-423-6777

Brewer and co-owner: David Wollner

Going postal?

Hey, if Willimantic is “going postal” I’m all for stopping by this old post office started in 1909; surrounded by beers brewed to the extreme, and interesting menu entries identified by zip codes and outdated postal cliche’s. Besides, one person’s “outdated cliche…” …a little like saying “I’m repeating my repetition…” is another old man’s nostalgia. And I’m “old,” so it suits me fine.

One of my first reviews was Willimantic. I only do a second review if I am really, really impressed. David said “that’s quite the compliment.” He’s right, it is: intentionally so… and he deserves to be one of the first re-reviews. As a man with many hats: brewer, server, menu consultant, moose caller, owner and much, much more, if any one deserves kudos: it’s David. He does admit he rarely chefs though: “I do make one of the sauces.” But with all the different uses he finds for his plentiful house yeast; and other yeasts too… at least 8 beers on tap the first visit… I’m amazed he has time to do anything else.

It’s all true, except I made up the “moose caller” bit. Could you tell?

When I interviewed him in the 90s I asked him what he saw in the future for Willimantic. He said, “Not much. I’ll be surprised if we’re here when you come back.”

Surprise! You were wrong: I was right; “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

I’ve been back many times: twice this year. Why twice? I tend to prefer not interviewing the brewer when he finally gets an unannounced chance to stop by to talk to me, after serving lunch and many other his many other duties, and I’ve had quite a few beers: including three glasses of MephistHOPheles that deceptively hovers around 10%. If I had tasted it blind I would have guesses 7% at best. That takes talent. If I had known he was coming I would still have been tempted to do the 666 three times.

I’m soooooooo evil, can you tell?

When I asked how he explained their un-demise; that his brews had flourished sans wrecking ball, his single answer: “good beer,” probably provided one of the smallest and most perfect quote-based puzzle piece-phrases I have ever fit into a review. Yet they also offer plenty of guest taps, a trend I have found quite pleasing at New England brewpubs: none of this “it’s all, and only, about our beer” nonsense. And I have noticed those who do so often have better product.

Continuing on with the puzzle motif just a tad here… Willimantic is one of those few cities that leaves one very puzzled: how did this almost medium sized city get in the middle of nowhere? Why do they have frogs as their mascot, with funny colored/dressed frog statues… all over town, including all over a bridge? Anything to do with… HOPS??? Why isn’t it closer to the more populated east CT near NYC, or Hartford? Then you wonder, “With extreme brewing being a more west coast item, how did Willimantic survive; here between the rolling hills, the bovine moos and a lot of nothing else? And how did it do so while getting the respect of every brewer I have spoken with in New England?”

Because not only David, and his co-owner wife, Cindy, do it right, but the soothsayers are wrong when the brewers at blander pubs keep claiming, “We can’t brew like that here, our crowd is a Bud/Miller crowd.” I’m sure Willimantic had its share of the “I love blase’ beer” crowd when they first opened. Aggressive beers are definitely on the table… and the bar, and in the hands of patrons here at Willimantic. Proving a mantra I’ve heard from other pro-brewers: “Brew it, at least for a tap or two, and they will (eventually) come… around.” Well, as David as proven, maybe sometimes more than just, “a tap or two?”

I started; first visit, with the 666. It reminded me a little of “Hop-It,” an Urtel concoction that is a marriage between higher alpha acid hop brewers in America, and Belgian yeast. Wow, what a “nose,” with Nugget, Galena, Chinook, Magnum, Centennial and Ahtanum. Yet a fruity nose with little alcohol at all… the fruity nature literally seems to hop into the nose, curl around and around, then take a nap before it fades away. What “fruit,” specifically am I referring to? If you’ve read any of my previous columns on beer you know that’s something I won’t do, and feel unfair both to both the beer and the fruit.

I asked David about the 666 name and how it’s similar to the many Tim Rastetter beers; brewed at the now defunct Brew Works in Covington, still brewed at Bluegrass in “Lou-Ah-Ville,” KY, and at many brewpubs back and forth across the Mason Dixon. He acted surprised: “NO, I found it in a dictionary.” Having tasted many of Tim’s beers I would speculate that “666” would only make him proud. What a fine, well balance, product.

David’s other beers are just as tasty. Probably one of the most perfect Browns I’ve ever had at a brewpub: on hand pulled. Pony Express Stout was to style: even with a hint of soured beer to tingle the buds. He had three IPAs, “Address Unknown,” that over the years has showcased one of the best American fruity, high hopped, beat your taste bud beers vs. “International Mail:” with more earthy; British hops… and also a good mid-range IPA IBU-wise: unfiltered. Yes! David does IPAs well: I’ve had various versions over the years; though I did sense an aging problem with the “Address” hops on the last visit. Some of his brews remind me of the old Covington Brew Works where IBUs rarely dipped anywhere near below 100. Ah, memory… slipped between my palette and tongue like the slap of a nail studded two by four. Hit me again! Again!

When I mentioned the aging hops in “Address,” is it any surprise when he told me, with the current market, “Hops have become a real pain?” No, not at all. He spent some of our time mentioning Hop Union was getting slow and doing partial orders. I did suggest he follow the lead of Ithaca Brewing and get their steady and plentiful supply of locally grown hops. “I didn’t know, I’ll have to ask.” As I told him, it couldn’t be his only supplier by any means, but during these days of even high IBU wheat beers it might pay for him to hop.. to… Witte?

OK, it’s a bad pun. Stop gagging: you still have more to read, bucko!

High ceiling, gray granite half walls: they have taken “post office:” and turned it a gentle place for beer lovers and lunch/dinner-bound tykes… who have no idea what post office really used to mean when the eyes were treated with postal splendor. We used to take all those high; sweeping ceilings, smooth rock walls and service counter/windows for… granite… um, granted.

Their menu is quite varied. I had a Rhode Island Chowder, which should have had “fish,” not seafood, for a moniker in some places it was listed besides the menu. The menu also mentioned “New England.” Well, only if you’re smart enough to know “New England” isn’t always milk based. This wasn’t quite the clear Chowder I don’t care for… thank the Brew Gods, but it sure wasn’t milk. Excellent, tasty, but all the various descriptives were a bit misleading; especially for those who haven’t had the various NE “chowdas.”

Their Canterbury… (Why “Canterbury?” Somehow the “tale” behind this lit reference is missing.) Vegetarian Chili had a nice assortment of multi-colored chips, sour cream and a nice chewy nature, though some textured soy protein might make it a bit more “meaty” in the more traditional sense. Shrimp cocktail on the menu? I thought that died in the 60s. Love it.

All menu items were well priced.

Now, when it comes to David the brewer, he never studied professionally. I can’t hold that against him. Some of the blandest beers I’ve ever had are from “classically trained” brewers. (Some of the blandest music too… but that’s another: non-beer related, column.) Homebrewers could learn a lot from David about balance, brew-wise. He started homebrewing in the 80s; went pro in the 90s (97 in their present location), Their 7bbl system pumps out plenty of product: there are usually about ten or more on tap; give or take a few brews.

The second time I visited this year I bought a burrito which stuck to the plate: obviously slightly over cooked… though not to taste and the majority of the non-plate stuck texture… which is where it counts. Nice squares of chicken. A side of lettuce with appropriate dressing or something else to put all the salsa on might add to the dish. The two, only slight, imperfections didn’t distract from the tasty and well proportioned serving. And under $10? Even better!

They do offer hand pulled for those of us who feel a regular tap is an inferior way to serve good beer.

His only advice for homebrewers?

“If you don’t love it, don’t do it!”

Great advice from a great, and talented, brewer.

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Brew Biz is a column by Ken Carman that offers reviews of brewpubs, beer-related businesses, trends in the beer industry and the homebrewing community. In other words: all things “beer.”

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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