03 Jun Get hoppy on the Historical Hartford Ale Trail
People often overlook Hartford when talking about the great, historic cities of the Northeast. CT’s capital city, though neither on a coast nor as large as Boston and New York City, was actually our nation’s richest city for decades after the Civil War. It’s been a hotbed for innovation, manufacturing, the insurance industry and the arts at various times in its 385 years, making for a story people should appreciate – especially with a beer from one of the many cool craft breweries, some old and some brand new, within and on the edge of its borders.
So let’s start on the Historic Hartford Ale Trail on its western edge.
New Park Brewery Company (https://www.newparkbrewing.com/), opened in March 2017, is actually in West Hartford and that suburb’s first craft brewery. It soon earned a nomination for USA Today’s top 10 best new craft breweries in 2018.
Long lines and regular sellouts almost from the start led to New Park Brewery to more than double its beer-making capacity, swapping its seven-barrel system for a 15-barrel, within two years of its opening, making its many fans and even another local craft brewer ecstatic (more on that below).
The founders chose West Hartford because of their strong, deep ties to the area. You quickly understand once you step into this 2,500-square-foot – yet still cozy – facility, lovingly retrofitted into a late 19th-century industrial building. The indoor space features the building’s original concrete floor buffed to a sparkle, a 23-foot L-shaped bar made from a single piece of endangered American Chestnut (don’t worry – it was reclaimed from a barn under demolition), and artwork provided by local vintage shops. A greenery filled 400-square-foot patio rounds out the seating, which is often filled thanks to a regular lineup of food trucks, live music events and – oh, yeah – great craft beer.
New Park Brewery devotees rave about its Blender series of tart and fruit-filled Berliner Weisses that even non-beer lovers tend to enjoy. Whether you fancy a hoppy double IPA or its juicier New England cousin, a rich oatmeal porter or refreshing wit, New Park is regularly mixing up its lineup so you’ll always find something to enjoy on site or to go in a can or growler.
Head about a mile and a half north, and you’ll enter the Hartford neighborhood of Parkville, which is listed on the U.S. National Park Services’ National Register of Historic Places. Shortly after the Civil War, this former farmland developed into a major manufacturing site. Among its tenants were the Underwood and Royal typewriter companies (leading some to call Hartford the “Typewriter Capital of the World” for while) and the Hartford Rubber Works, a factory that made the country’s first pneumatic car and bike tires and, since 2016, has been home to the Hog River Brewing Company (https://www.hogriverbrewing.com/).
Hog River Brewing, named Connecticut Magazine’s 2017 “Brewery to Visit,” boldly honors its past with two massive machine presses and other memorabilia placed prominently in its taproom. However, Hog River Brewing is not stuck in the old days. Husband and wife Ben and Joy Braddock keep their “mom and pop” operation lively with musical performers, pop-up markets, homebrew competitions, yoga classes, pet parties and many more events. Even with all this activity, the place maintains a chill enough vibe to bill themselves as “Hartford’s Living Room.”
To quench your thirst, Hog River Brewing always keeps a wide variety of styles on tap, including the occasional barrel-aged fare. Their specialties include classic German brews from light kolsches to dark schwarzbiers, and a popular fruit sour series that’ll put some tang on your tongue.
And why do they call it Hog River Brewing? The Park, or “Little,” River once ran right through the neighborhood. Over the decades, waste from humans, factories and – yes — hog farms along it made the waters a bit ripe. After odorous “Hog River” started to regularly flood the upscale areas of the capital city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rerouting large parts of it – nine miles in total — into underground concrete tunnels that run into the Connecticut (or “Big”) River. Trust us, you’ll get the better of the two Hog River’s when you stop and grab a pint here.
Take a sightseeing break
American literature fans may want to take a short detour before the next brewery stop takes you into the heart of Hartford. A few minutes to the north of Hog River Brewery sits, side-by-side, The Mark Twain House & Museum, where the Huckleberry Finn author penned his many of his greatest works, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, where the writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin spent her last 23 years. Then wind a few miles through downtown to check out the state capitol and Bushnell Park – the nation’s oldest publicly funded park.
And then – it’s refreshment time!
City Steam Brewery and Cafe (https://citysteambrewery.com/) in downtown Hartford is one of the state’s most distinctive and unique (if not quirky) brewpubs. It operates out of an ornate 1880s building designed by H.H. Richardson, who along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, is considered one of the Holy Trinity of American architects. The rough-hewn brownstone — accented with bright limestone flashes and features multiple arches, corner towers and detailed gargoyles — is a landmark in Romanesque design and on the National Register of Historic Places. What’s inside is just as interesting.
Whereas most modern breweries embrace wide open floor plans, City Steam features nine – NINE! — levels of seating. These include a beer garden, dining and bar areas, and a rathskeller comedy club called … Brew HaHa. City Steam, which opened in 1980 but run under a different name until the mid-‘90s, is one of several tenets in what for years was home to Brown Thomson & Co., once CT’s largest department store. Cast-iron railings and woodwork from that store adorn the interior while brilliant copper accents add to the charm.
You’ll also spot, and occasionally hear, some antique steam whistles when inside. City Steam gets its name from the nearby Hartford Steam Co., whose steam pipes power its 23-barrel brewing system. You can see these huge copper brewing vessels through a window right behind the bar.
Ah, the beer. You’re probably familiar with its flagships – the original Naughty Nurse amber and newer Naughty Nurse IPA – and maybe the one or two others available in stores. However, City Steam Brewery usually has many other styles – from traditional pilsner and porters to more exotics like smoked maibocks and spiced lagers – only available on tap or in to-go format on site. Sample several as you enjoy some great pub grub, take in a comedian or just soak up the funky vibe.
Now meander a bit more than a mile south, either heading past the Wadsworth Atheneum – the oldest public art museum in the country – or, if you have kids in tow, the notable glass façade of the Connecticut Science Center to your next watering hole.
Brewers – old and new
Thomas Hooker Brewery, founded in Hartford in the mid-1990s, is steeped in Nutmeg State history. It’s one of our state’s OG craft brewers; it’s named after the 17th century Puritan pastor who founded CT; and now it has a taproom in one of Hartford’s most iconic and historic locations.
Thomas Hooker Brewery at Colt (https://hookerbeer.com/colt/) opened in late 2017, bringing the brewery its first hometown outlet since moving the main production facility to Bloomfield in the mid-2000s. The wait was worth it. The 2,800 square foot facility is part of a former mid-19th century armory where for more than 130 years Colt firearms – yes, another CT original –manufactured that famous six-shooter revolver that tamed The Wild West.
Hooker at Colt respects its past. Southern yellow pine timbers from the armory’s old test firing range have been repurposed into a bar that’s truly “fully loaded” with beer, wine, liquor and hundreds of copper-clad lead bullets fired into it over the years. Whether sitting inside or outside on its patio, you can quaff a fresh brewed beer while gazing upon the Hartford skyline and the distinctive onion-shaped blue dome topping one of the main buildings at the former Colt manufacturing complex, part of a National Historic District given new life as a mixed-used development. The dome gets even more due inside the taproom. Look up and you’ll note the ceiling is painted to match the famous blue and gold star flecked dome.
Hooker at Colt is much smaller than the brewery’s main facility, brewing only about 100 gallons, or six full kegs, of beer at a time. However, you find all your favorite Hooker year-round brews like #NoFilter New England IPA and Super Duper Double Citra double IPA along with rotating seasonals and some limited releases, most available to go in cans or growlers. You can also order food, which is prepared by a neighboring café.
Think about timing your visit to Hooker at Colt with one of its many popular entertainment events. Live music, trivia nights, board game meetups, charity fundraisers to support local nonprofits are all part of the regular schedule. In the warmer months, look for Pups and Pints so you can enjoy a brew with your favorite canine companion.
Your final stop is only two miles south, right next to Hartford-Brainard Airport. Phantom Brewing Company (https://phantom-brewing.com/) began like many newer breweries do — as a collaboration between homebrewing friends. Except in this case, one of these friends also happened to own a homebrewing supply store and the other was one of his steady customers.
Bo Kolcio, owner of Beer and Wine Maker’s Warehouse, is well known to Hartford area makers of potent potables. In addition to supplies, he has been teaching classes on the art of making beer, wine, kombucha, cheese and many other delectables. His work partner, physical education teacher and homebrewer Jon Patrei, quickly bonded over their shared loved of crafting beer. Together, they decided to add a brewery and taproom to Bo’s store so they could share their knowledge and tasty creations with like-minded people.
They started by purchasing the old seven-barrel system from New Park Brewing (told we’d get back to them helping the local beer community) when that operation expanded, and in 2020 opened Phantom Brewing debuted its spacious taproom. Here, you can sample something special — whether you dig a hearty Russian Imperial Stout, a juicy New England IPA, or a tart and fruity Berliner Weisee or sour IPA – or learn how to make one yourself by taking one the many educational classes.
And if you love a good story about the origin of a brewery’s name, you’ll enjoy Phantom’s. On an icy January day in 1647, a large ship sailed out of New Haven bound for England never to be heard from again. Either that summer or the next (the story varies), a violent thunderstorm rolled into the harbor. Multiple witnesses claimed to have clearly seen a ghostly version of the ill-fated ship, masts battered and sails torn, floating up in the storm clouds as they approached. Thus was born “The Phantom Ship of New Haven.”
Until next time … cheers.