Beer Trails: Northern Connecticut’s Willimantic Brewery and Tullycross Tavern Prove Worthy

Willimantic Brewery

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 sports bar, 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 ‘70s, 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 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 dubbed Simon Saaz-On. Then came the 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 L.A. 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, Belgian 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.

Tullycross Tavern

Located inside a tan barn stable with green and brown trim in a freestanding mall-bound building, Manchester’s Tullycross Tavern had its grand opening October 1, 2011. A hybrid sports bar, mahogany furnishings bedeck the hunter green walled interior and a rectangular oak bar serves the main area and outer perimeter dining space. A new patio to be constructed in spring will provide outdoor dining. Plus, a newly designed menu featuring upscale pub fare with an Irish flare was just introduced.

Like Willimantic’s Wollner, Tullycross brewer Brian Flach grew up on Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Sam Adams Boston Lager, becoming a Dogfish ‘Head’ thereafter. After home brewing several IPA’s, an 18-month New England Brewing internship afforded the Worcester resident the chance to come aboard for Tullycross’ July ’11 soft opening. A 22-ounce ceramic mug club offers discounts and special happy hour pricing on Flach’s solid offerings crafted at the front side brew tanks.

On my initial visit, it’s Tuesday Night Trivia, and following some chicken wings and quesadillas, a large crowd gathers for tonight’s 9 p.m. contest. While digging the scene, I tried four year-round libations, a nifty winter stout and a Belgian IPA.

Eric Burdon & War’s cryptic “Spill The Wine” played as I revisited Tullycross the following day to meet with Flach, who promised a cream ale, German altbier and sundry IPA’s in the near future.

As for today’s beers, I started off with Tavern Light, a Kolsch-styled sourdough softie with citric esters, rice niceties and popcorn buttering that’s just right for indiscriminate pilsner fans as well as bolder folk better suited for the next three ales.

Best selling Tully’s Irish Red retained a bigger body than most stylistic competitors, bringing pliant red-fruited spicing and caramelized wheat-honeyed cereal grains to a stable earthen bottom. Better yet, TCT Pale Ale had a heady IPA-like wood-toned grapefruit rind bittering and tangy peach-tangerine spicing.

“If you’re gonna drink a pale ale, why not go to an IPA,” Flach confers. “It’s made hoppier for our customer base. But there’s not a lot of alcohol.”

Next up, Flux IPA #8 saddled subtle yellow fruiting with spiced hop bittering.

Flach contends, “All Fluxes have different hop profiles but the grain bill generally remains intact.”

Another Tullycross standard, Silk City Stout, maintained a soft cask-like chocolate creaminess, malt-smoked hop char, vanilla sweetness, dewy peat resonance and peanut-shelled cola-walnut conflux. Likeminded Siberian Winter Imperial Stout doused Christmastime cinnamon-toasted gingerbread spicing atop oats-toasted dark chocolate, nutty coffee, black cherry and raisin notes.

Though not in regular rotation, mild Scottish 80 Shilling plied toasted cereal grains to peat-y earthiness in an approachable manner.

But the best bet may be Convergence Belgian IPA, where white-peppered basil, thyme and peppercorn regale lemon-dried orange rind bittering, snippy juniper piquancy, tangy peach-pineapple sweetness and buttery crystal malting.

“Convergence was a collaboration with New England Brewing, whom I’m still good friends with,” Flach affirms. “They were happy to oblige. They make 668 Neighbor Of The Beast. We borrowed their yeast strain and hopped it up.”