The Thomas Hooker Brewery rests in a corner of a squat brick
building that also houses a less than popular night club and a
catering company. Its asphalt parking lot is choked with weeds
and there is a hulking, abandoned power plant about 20 yards
away that is filled with squatters. In short, there is nothing
desirable about the building or the surrounding area.

But inside is a different story. There, Paul Davis, the brewer, is
hard at work most days creating handcrafted beers that for now
are only available at a few select places in five states but are
more distinct and flavorful than brews made at large commercial
breweries.

"We are all about fresh, being local and high quality," said Mr.
Davis, during a comprehensive tasting session that included five
different brews and a lunch of lamb chops from the catering
company. Mr. Davis goes beyond the traditional beer recipes and
brings some big flavor to the bar. Their Blonde Ale, is a
refreshing beer with a sweet finish that reveals more of its
complex flavor and aromas with each sip.

The Hooker brewery - named for the founder of Connecticut's
capitol city - is one of several dozen microbreweries in the region
(hard to get a firm number actually since it keeps changing) that
over the last decade or so have carved out a small niche in the
beer market. Microbreweries cater to brew aficionados who
prefer locally crafted concoctions above the mass-marketed six-
packs from Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Company.

In the last two years microbreweries around the country have
seen their sales increase by nine percent in the overall beer
market, according to research conducted by the American
Brewers Association.

While states like Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Colorado
routinely receive praise for the quality of their microbrews, there
has been brewery growth in the New York region in recent years
and the ales and lagers that flow from the steel-lined tanks have
developed a following.

On a humid Thursday night in late July, about 70 people gathered
at the Granite Springs Inn in Granite Springs, Westchester
County. The diners, dressed casually, paid $49 for a five-course
meal that included a different beer from the Captain Lawrence
Brewery with each course.

Among the cacophony of loud conversation and clinking utensils
and glasses, nearly each person paused as each new beer was
served. For Example, the Liquid Gold, a spicy and smooth ale was
paired with littleneck clams. Dessert   joined a bittersweet
chocolate sabayon with the Smoked Porter – a delightfully thick
beer that could be a dessert by itself, with hints of espresso,
licorice and chocolate.   

Each new brew was swirled in the glass, held to the light and
examined for clarity, color and carbonation and inhaled deeply
before sips were taken.

"Thanks for helping spread the good word about good beer,"
said brewer Scott Vaccaro, raising his glass of the porter. He then
received a resounding standing ovation from the crowd.

It was a gathering of beer drinkers who loudly booed when
breweries like Miller and Anheseur-Bush were mentioned,
clapped when beers with 11 percent or 12 percent alcohol were
served and groaned in agony when a server dropped a tray of
the pale ale.

"Beer is to man as milk is to children and if you have a
handcrafted beer it makes a world of difference in taste," said
Stephen DiGangi, 54, of Somers, N.Y. who attended the dinner
with his wife, Elizabeth. "With microbrews you get variety,
something to go along with every taste."

Captain Lawrence, based in Pleasantville, has grown from a small
operation in Mr. Vaccaro's kitchen to a 1,200 barrel per year
brewery. It is one of two breweries in Westchester; the other is
Saw Mill River Brewery in Yonkers that is available in only a few
bars.

A barrel equals two kegs or about 248 pints. A microbrewery is
traditionally defined as one that produces 15,000 or less barrels
per year.

The brewery business can be a tough one, said Ray Daniels,
director of craft beer marketing for the American Beer
Association, a nonprofit group based in Colorado. Although 66
new microbreweries opened in 2005, another 66 closed.

"I think it is more difficult to be a microbrewery today, than it
was 10 years ago." said Mr. Daniels. "A lot of it has to do with
beer quality and presence in the marketplace."

One example is the Heavy Weight Brewing Company in Ocean
Township, N.J., that after seven years emptied its tanks this past
summer.
"In order to take it to the next step it would have to be a totally
different company and I'm not ready to do that," said owner and
brewer Tom Baker in an interview with the Mid-Atlantic Brewing
News, a trade publication.

With microbrews there are rarely flashy advertising campaigns,
no cardboard cutouts of bikini-clad women next to cases in the
liquor store or celebrity spokespersons. But there is a sense of
community and a fierce loyalty from customers.

It was the last Friday of July and at the New England Brewing
Company in Woodbridge, a few dozen people - mostly in their
30's and 40's - stood in the brewery's warehouse listening to a
band that used bags of malt and palates of empty cans as a
backdrop. People paid $5 and drank from red and blue Silo cups,
some of their children ran around the property playing games. It
seemed like a college party a decade after graduation, except this
time the people were drinking exceptionally good beer.

"This beer is made by three guys," said David Kane, 39 a
plumbing supply salesman from Naugatuck, CT. "This is made by
real men, made close to home, its not made by a corporation.
Maybe it's psychological, but I think this tastes better because it's
real."

What makes NEB different from other microbrewers is that all
three of its beers - the Sea Hag IPA, the Elm City Lager and the
Atlantic Amber- are sold in cans. There are a lot of beer
aficionados who say that any brew that comes in a can isn't
worth the effort it takes to pop a pull tab, but Rob Leonard,
brewer and owner, says it is not a bad thing because the beer is
in contact with metal through the whole brewing process.

"It doesn't damage the flavor at all, and it can't get damaged by
light," he said. "Besides, if I put my beer in bottles, then I'd just
be another bottle on a shelf with other bottles. This way I'm
different and stand out."

But local customers, not marketing techniques, are what the
microbrewer counts on. Every Thursday Rick Reed, the owner of
the Cricket Hill Brewery in Fairfield, N.J., opens up the brewery
doors to volunteers who help him bottle that week's quota. It is
an eclectic bunch, a retired banker, a few frat guys, a husband
and wife who teach square dancing and a few men from a nearby
auto repair shop.

"We all enjoy the same beer," said Mr. Reed. "Good beer."

In some cases, there are microbrews that do not have the benefit
of being packaged in commercial bottles or cans. Some are only
available on tap at local restaurants or in half-gallon growler jugs
at the brewery. One example is the Olde Burnside Brewery in
East Hartford, Conn., which produces about 2,500 barrels a year
using water that comes from an aquifer under the building that
the company also uses to make ice. Ted Gordon, the brewer, said
the owners of the ice company noticed a lot of home brewers
buying gallons of fresh water to make their own brews and
decided to get into the game themselves.

Every microbrewery has its own story but most of them begin
with a pair of friends sitting at a bar downing a few pints and
talking about how they should open their own brewery.
For Mark Burford and Pete Cotter that moment came in 1998
when they decided to open Bluepoint Brewing in Patchogue on
Long Island.

"We were just at the right time of our lives," said Mr. Burford
who had been working  as a brewer at some now-defunct
brewpubs on Long Island. "We decided to mortgage our houses
and max out our credits cards and just go for it. Everyone we
knew told us not to do it."

But eight years later business is thriving. They produce nearly
15,000 barrels a year and in late September won a silver medal
for their toasted lager at the Great American Beer Festival in
Colorado, where hundreds of brewers compete for top honors in
every imaginable beer-related category.

While most of the microbreweries in the region only serve their
immediate areas, a few, like Thomas Hooker, Blue Point and
Flying Fish in Cherry Hill, N.J., are branching out beyond the tri-
state area.

And with the right tastes and marketing -- like Magic Hat in South
Burlington, Vt., and Dogfish Head in Rohoboth Beach, Del., have
done in recent years -- the local breweries have the potential,
many believe, to expand into national brands.

"The demand is out there before we can even supply it," said
Curt A. Cameron the President of Hooker Beer, who hinted that
the brewery could be moving to more spacious digs in the near
future. "In a few more years we could become - maybe not a
regional brewery - but a big enough operation to really cover this
area and beyond."

It is not necessarily a new golden age of beer, but it is certainly a
good time to be a beer drinker.

--
John  Holl
More by John Holl:

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Trash or Tribute -
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Newark's Fizz
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beernexus.com presents
The Beer Briefing
by John Holl