The following is an article by Cara Gardner. Cara is a freelance writer with 10 years experience publishing news stories and features for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including Sommelier Journal, a national wine publication.
Submitted by Cara Gardner, freelance writer
When David Wollner and his wife, Cindy, openedthe Main Street Café in Willimantic, they servedbreakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer was on the menubut it was not the focus. The Wollners worked hard tomake The Main Street Café a staple in Willimantic,and the business evolved from a deli to a full service restaurant. Along the way the Wollners began servingAmerican craft beers, but at that time – 1994 – thesupply was limited. “We offered some New Haven brewing, Elm City, New England brewing, Sierra Nevada, Shipyard…maybe about 16 draft lines, which were otherwise unheard of in ’94. We weretrying to turn people on to the fact that local beeris fresher than what’s coming across the ocean,”Wollner says. “We didn’t feature any import beer at all.”
An amateur brewer since his days at UConn inthe ‘80s, Wollner always nursed the idea of oneday transforming his restaurant into a full-fledged brewpub. In 1996, when a couple purchased the long-abandoned Willimantic post office on MainStreet, Wollner jumped at the opportunity to partner with them on the renovations. His dream of running a brewery quickly became reality. Willimantic’s historic post office opened its doors for the first time in over 30 years as a newly minted brewery in 1997. The transformation was a success and has helped turn Willimantic’s downtown into a destination for beerenthusiasts all over the state.
Like most amateur brewers, when Wollner firststarted experimenting at home, he followed therules. “I adhered to styles like pale ales or stout or German lager,” he explains. Like anything, becoming a good and creative brewer requires a certain base knowledge about both beer and brewing. There is a time period where a brewer just needs to follow the rules. Wollner’s brewing evolved, his confidence grew, and he started having some success with his creative brewing attempts. He says experimentation is the real heart of Willimantic Brewery’s philosophy. “I’ll find a new malt or hopvariety and try to accentuate those characteristics andfind beer that focuses on those ingredients.” Wollner finds great inspiration playing with barrelaging, souring, and yeast variations. He uses about 30 repeated beer recipes every year; everything else iscontinually changing. There is always something new– often completely experimental – on tap. Some of itworks for everyone; some it works for only a smallnumber of hop enthusiasts or malt fanatics. But all of it is respected as part of Wollner’s ongoing devotion to brew creativity and playfulness.
Almost all of Willimantic Brewery’s beer is drunk at their location. In 2010, Willimantic Brewery brewed 700 barrels (a barrel is 31 gallons). That number is expected to exceed 800 barrels in 2011. Based on Willimantic Brewery’s success, customers are loyal and willing to play along with his constantly changing draft lines. “I’m lucky to have a huge clientele who give honest feedback,” Wollner says. “Many of my customers are knowledgeable beer drinkers.”
But what about the customers who belly up to the barfor a quick and easy cold one? They are in the wrong place. Wollner is clear about his mission to spreadbeer knowledge. “I want them to take a sip and pay attention to what’s in their hand,” he says with emphasis. “It can sometimes take years to get peopleto do that. I want to make beers people like, but alsobeers that people need to learn to drink.” Making “beers that people need to learn to drink” is part revolutionary, part controversial. Wollner’s opinions about what people should be drinking couldbe construed as snobbish, pushy, or even taking allthe fun out of the good old American tradition ofchugging a cold one. But Wollner has a point: you can’t discover new and wonderful things unless you try them, and you can’t try them unless someone is there to open that door for you. American craft beers aren’t developed based solely on what people demand; they become popular when a brewer does something truly interesting and then has the opportunity to share it. Wollner sees his brewery aspart of the larger craft beer movement. “If they go to the liquor store and buy the same old stuff then I haven’t done my job.”
Despite his passion for educating beer drinkers, Wollner is hesitant to relinquish control of the beer itself. The only Willimantic beers you can drink outside his pub are the ones he pours at community and charity events. “I don’t sell outside the brewpub,” he says. “You can purchase growlers and take them out, but if you package your beer you don’t know how it’s treated after it leaves your brewery. If it starts behaving yeasty or otherwise bad, I can unhook it. But if it did that in someone else’s place, well, you never know.” Wollner explains that the main reason he chooses to pour most of his beer in Willimantic is because he wants people to come to town, and to experience the living landmark that is his brewery. “This is just a beautiful building and honestly, you have to come check it out. We are a destination.”
Willimantic Brewery (Directions)
967 Main St. Willimantic, CT 06226
Check the website for hours of operation and an upcoming schedule of specials and events.
From time to time, guest freelance writers will take on writing assignments for the CT Beer Trail. In some cases, they will publish their articles directly on their own CTBeerTrail.net user blogs (ex: Joshua Mead), others will be posted here. Many of these article will likely appear in other publications as our freelance writers are encouraged to re-publish their work to help get the word out about Connecticut's beer community.
> All photos courtesy of Willimantic Brewery