Road House

Road House

In 1975, Brad Hittle stood where college ends and the ‘real world’ begins. He opted to go halfway around that world on a one-way ticket to Indonesia where, for a year, he worked on a cramped, dangerous oil rig alongside a host of American Vietnam War vets who hadn’t gone home after the war.

“I don’t have many regrets in life,” Hittle says, “but one of them is that I didn’t do it longer.” After the year, Hittle went to Abu Dhabi to sell oil drilling equipment, though he suggests it wasn’t half as exciting as it might sound. He returned to the States to earn his MBA, then took a job in food marketing, which he says left a bad taste. But it would lead to a job he loved: marketing for Rolling Rock, which, at a time when just a few huge brands dominated the country’s beer market, was about the closest analogue, he says, to the small craft brewers driving America’s beer renaissance today. Many years later, following a subsequent stint at Pabst Brewing Co., Hittle left what had become the mainstream for the genuine craft scene, by opening his own operation in Stratford: Two Roads Brewing Co.

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Named as a tribute to the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” and thus to his company’s commitments to integrity and excellence, Two Roads has made a huge splash in the three years it’s been brewing. In New Haven and surrounding towns, its brews are easily found both on tap and on shelves, having also flowed into Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and, just this past month, New Jersey and Maine. New Hampshire, Hittle says, is next.

An impressive high-rising maze of vats and pipes and valves and dials and belts and barrels and bottles and machines feeds that growing demand. During a late-afternoon visit to the factory floor, sunlight streamed through western windows, gleaming in a matrix of curved metal, and glowing in the foamy tops of brown bottles freshly filled and capped.

The brewery has a 175,000-barrel capacity, with more tanks on the way. Taking up a good part of the floor is high-end bottling machinery from Italy. In one corner, arrayed across six large computer screens, a high-tech brewing control system from Germany gives employees an incredibly detailed view of the state of the operation. A small lab in the opposite corner is for consumer safety and quality control, to catch anything other than yeast that could be munching on the hops. The setup is so effective that other, smaller brewers—like Lawson’s Finest, City Steam, Evil Twin and Notch—pay to contract-brew their own product using Two Roads’s facility.

The company’s own line of beers, comprising year-rounds and seasonals—13 of which I sampled in the tasting room—is exceptional. For those missing summer, the sour Geyser Gose—a Gose-style beer, naturally, and the result of a collaboration between Two Roads and Evil Twin—will take you back, but also up. Wafting more like lemonade than suds, it goes down like a tart beachside shandy. But its flavor profile is so distinctive, so complex, that the comparison doesn’t quite fly, and you feel compelled to keep sipping to wrap your taste buds around it. In the other direction, the substantive but highly drinkable Holiday Ale does a simple job with aplomb: making you feel like Christmas is already here. My drinking partner tried it and immediately said, “It’s so bready it almost has a crust.”

For those who want to go down another, darker path, Two Roads obliges. Route of All Evil, a winter seasonal, is a devilishly good black ale with a gentle punch of mocha and 7.5% ABV. If you want a high-ABV route that’s available year-round, the Road 2 Ruin is always open. A double IPA with 8.0% ABV, it delivers the collective bite of seven different American hops.

Many of the company’s pun-derful beer names come from its employees. When a new variety is rolled out, Hittle appeals to his staff for prospective titles, typically getting 50 or 60 ideas from all parts of the company, from the tasting room to the brewery floor. This, among other corporate practices, makes the distance between top and bottom feel uncommonly short. On the Friday I visited, I saw employees from all strata—the CEO, the CFO, the sales manager, a sales rep, a brewer and two guys from the packaging line—sitting around a repurposed, industrial-size wire spindle, enjoying a beer together in the tasting room. In the moment, it was difficult to tell who outranked whom.

The brewery’s tasting room is both its social epicenter and its museum. Highlighting moments from Stratford’s industrial past, photos of Igor Sikorsky and his flying machines, among other images, decorate the hallway. One photo shows him standing by an early helicopter with Henry Ford. Another depicts Sikorsky’s first helicopter flight, which took place in Stratford in 1939.

What’s more, the brewery building is itself a relic of Stratford’s industrial past. U.S. Baird, a factory that made machines for other factories, was located here. A re-painted 20-ton crane and two belt-operated machines, artifacts from Baird’s legacy, are kept in view of the tasting room bar. Many of the nearby windows were recycled from the former resident’s old powerhouse, while the bar itself is assembled entirely with lumber salvaged from other parts of the factory. “I’m into restoration,” Hittle says, understating the point. Even the shuttle from the nearby Metro-North station—simply text the driver (203-449-1452) two hours ahead of time with your last name and party size—is a refurbished 12-seat school bus from 1957.

On the Friday evening I observed, the tasting room was packed with people who seemed to represent all walks of life. Hittle notes with pride that both beer-happy hipsters and ex-cons getting a second chance are among his employees; that the company’s special events room has hosted political parties from both sides of the aisle; that they’ve honored war veterans and hosted weddings—both traditional and same-sex.

Two Roads has chosen its road, and in its small but tasty ways, it helps the rest of us choose ours.

Two Roads Brewing Co.
1700 Stratford Ave, Stratford (map)
Tues-Sat 12-9pm, Sun 12-7pm
(203) 335-2010

Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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