The Early Beers

O n a recent Saturday afternoon, each miniature glass lining the bar at the Branford-based Thimble Island Brewing Company (where the public is invited to enjoy free tastings and tours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays) offered a couple gulps of frosty brew.

By comparison, the congregation of beer enthusiasts milling about was pint-sized, which, in this case, means it was sizable. While I was there, conversation often turned to—what else?—beer-making, and it’s something co-founders Justin Gargano (the brewery’s President, pictured right above) and Mike Fawcett (the Brew Master, also pictured above) know a thing or two about.

Thimble Island just celebrated its first official birthday on July 1st, but the story really begins a few years earlier in a shared apartment in Branford. Gargano and Fawcett, both working in IT, were roommates who home brewed together in their spare time.

“We had too much to drink one night and said, ‘We should open a brewery,’” remembers Gargano, remarking that every home-brewer is bound to utter this exact phrase at some point.

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For these two, it clearly wasn’t just a boozy pipe dream. In 2010 the pair rented a garage in Hamden to start experimenting part-time. The passion was there but the execution was off, recalls Fawcett. The enterprising duo had the wrong equipment for large-scale brewing, for one thing, and they soon discovered how tough it can be to satisfy the licensing requirements of a bonafide brewery.

As licensure hurdles were met, Gargano and Fawcett resolved to return their base of operations closer to home in Branford, where it stands today. Come July 1st, 2012, the newly minted operation boasted large shiny kettles, quality hops and yeast and a better understanding of how to translate home brewing skills into commercial production. They named their enterprise Thimble Island Brewing Company after the charming islands dotting the Branford coastline and chose a nautical square knot as the company emblem.

But what’s a brewery without a brew? Thimble Island’s debut was a smooth, crisp American Ale, and takers showed up quickly. KC’s restaurant and Pub in Guilford was the first restaurant to carry Thimble Island beer in-house; you’ll now find them in roughly 20 area restaurants, many of them in Branford.

Tasting a beer with food in a restaurant is one kind of education, and tasting it in the brewery, with the makers present, is another. A visit to the brewery itself, which is unassumingly located in an industrial complex in Branford, makes a fine pursuit for a free afternoon. The welcoming team, consisting of Gargano, Fawcett and a small staff, provides tours to those interested in checking out the goods in their pre-beverage states. You might get to climb a ladder to check out a simmering “mash” in a large, shiny, silver vat, for example.

During my visit, 21-and-uppers were able to taste the three beers on tap. Besides the American Ale, there was a delightfully hoppy India Pale Ale and—my favorite—a Coffee Stout brewed with coffee from local roaster Willoughby’s. The stout was bracing and bold but avoided much of the heaviness characteristic of the type.

Although the brewery doesn’t serve actual pints of beer due to liquor laws, visitors are permitted up to four tastings, and many take growlers (64-fluid-ounce jugs) to go. It’s $4 for the refillable growler itself, $8 for a fill of American Ale and $10 for the I.P.A. and Coffee Stout. Kegs are even available for order and there are t-shirts, baseball caps and pint glasses for sale as well.

Meanwhile, Gargano and Fawcett are talking about acquiring new machinery, instituting in-house bottling and increasing restaurant/bar and package store distribution. Of course, they’re also talking beers. As an overall expansion strategy moves forward, so will their product line, with more specialty brews—perhaps a Russian Imperial Stout this winter, I hear.

The two still make home-sized brews, in fact, trying out new recipes on friends at parties just like in the old days. The major difference, says Fawcett, is that nowadays they’re not likely to keep the best recipes to themselves: “If it tastes good, we’re going to sell it.”

Thimble Island Brewing Company
53 East Industrial Drive, Branford (map)
Tasting & Tours: Thurs-Fri 3-8pm, Sat 10am-6pm
(203) 433-1890

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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Cara McDonough has been a journalist for over ten years. She writes regularly about family, parenting, religion and other issues for The Huffington Post and chronicles daily life on her personal blog. She lives in New Haven with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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