There’s a saying among residents of New Britain, Connecticut, that if there’s anything the city has an abundance of, it’s churches and package stores. “Package store,” for the uninitiated, is Connecticut-speak for liquor store—one of just a few regional linguistic quirks, like “grinder” for one of those long sandwiches. Growing up, I’d hear this every now and again from my aunts and uncles, especially those who had packed up and left once they had gotten the chance, much like I did.
This little saying is a way townies poke fun at what New Britain has as much as what it doesn’t. While lifelong New Britainites will defend the city for, among other things, its melange of resilient and hard-working ethos—most notably due to a strong Puerto Rican and Polish immigrant community, with some Irish, Italian, and German mixed in as well—many will readily admit that as far as things to do for fun and for work, old New Britski can be a little lacking. Hence, the two main weekend activities: church and drinking.
In recent years, that tune has begun to change. The city poured millions of dollars into cosmetic makeovers of the once seedy looking downtown, while attracting new businesses and the customers who come with them. That’s how Alvarium Beer Co. came to be. Located in an unsuspecting industrial building on John Downey Drive, where many of the city’s factories sit, both active and defunct. The craft brewery opened in 2017.
Upon its opening, Alvarium was the first commercial brewery in the city in over 60 years (the city’s last brewery, Cremo Brewing, closed in 1955). Its debut sent a buzz through the city that still hasn’t died down. Mayor Erin Stewart was present for its ribbon-cutting. Alvarium displays its hometown spirit proudly, taking its name from the city’s seal the beehive, “Alvarium” in Latin, and filling the taproom with beehives. "Industry fills the hive and enjoys the honey," is New Britain's 150-year-old motto.
New Britain’s backstory is a familiar one in the U.S., particularly in New England. Through the late-1800s and early-1900s, New Britain became a manufacturing hub, home to several companies that employed 35,000 people by the mid-20th Century, all within its mere 13.4-square-miles. But by the 1960s and 1970s, mergers and outsourcing took many of those once-plentiful jobs from the city. Today, manufacturing only accounts for about 13 percent of jobs in New Britain. More than one in five residents of the city fall below the poverty line. If you search “New Britain” on YouTube, you’ll find mostly news videos about crime and one particularly unflattering song. And yet, the city’s less offical nickname, “Hard Hittin’ New Britain” is one worn with pride.
Two or three generations of New Britainites have only known it during economically precarious times, but they’ve found ways to make it work. Those who can’t find jobs make them, and always have. Alvarium co-founder Brian Bugnacki is familiar with this idea. His family ran a meat company in the 70s and 80s, which his father revived in his retirement. Bugnacki spoke about his family’s history of “entrepreneurial spirit” in an interview a couple of years ago saying, “There was some motivation with my dad having that entrepreneurial background. And now we’re launching companies at the same time, so we’re helping each other. We plan to have the kielbasa here at the brewery to enjoy with our beers and also for purchase to-go.”
The most New Britain thing about Alvarium isn’t the locally made kielbasa or Avery’s soda—it’s the resourcefulness that brought it to life. Chris DeGasero, Alvarium’s head brewer, is originally from Queens, New York and had previously worked in breweries. The other two co-founders, Bugnacki and Mike Larson, were from the area but came from careers in software sales and mechanical engineering, respectively. In early 2016, the three got together and started sketching out ideas for their very own beer business. Soon enough, they had a plan, a loan from the City of New Britain, and some investors that didn’t require any of the three to shrink their 33.3% stake. A little over a year and a successful Kickstarter later, Alvarium was in business.
In a city where entertainment mostly consisted of house parties—or driving to a movie theater or mall the next town over—suddenly there was not just a new manufacturer, but something cool and uniquely local to do. While Alvarium piqued the interest of beer geeks across New England and the tri-state area, DeGasero says the people “keeping the lights on” at Alvarium are locals rather than “the Untappd crowd.”
“It’s like you’re throwing a party at work. I love the people who come in here, everyone just wants to learn more,” DeGasero said. “I can’t walk from the brewery to the bathroom without someone pulling me aside to talk about beer, talk about what they’re excited about. It sounds like a problem, but I love it. People are just so enthusiastic, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Before Alvarium, only a smattering of local bars and restaurants served craft beer at all—if you’re eating or drinking out, you had better be happy with Coors, Bud, or maybe an import if you’re feeling fancy. The Frosty Mug has been open in its current form on Beaver Street in New Britain for the last eight years, but was known as Meadowland Restaurant for the prior 70-plus years. Most of the craft beers you can find on their tap list, mirroring other bars and grocery stores in the area, are from the farther reaches of New England. But having a brewery in town seems to have opened the eyes of city residents to what beer can be.
The Frosty Mug general manager Bob Layman said he is “Proud to serve Alvarium beer.” He continues, “Alvarium has been a tremendous dedicated craft beer for us. I always have at least one on draft at all times and they also support us with cross-promotions.” The spread of craft geekery among economical New Britainites may not be rapid, but it’s happening.
Alvarium owes part of its success to its broad beer list, which span tastes from traditional German to funky and creative. “We weren’t gonna brew boring beer, and we weren’t gonna just jump on the train and brew IPAs,” DeGasero said. “We wanted to brew beer for everybody, so to do that, we had to have a really wide tap list.”
The lineup points to the old, the new, and, of course, the local. The flagship ale is named Cremo, a tribute to the last brewery to grace New Britain. The Alvarium team even salvaged the trademark with the help of Avery’s Soda, whose owner had been holding onto it. The beer is meant to resemble something that factory employees might have drank after a day of work in the 1950s, but reimagined to suit a contemporary drinker.
The Hefeweizen, Kraftwerk, is a classic formula made entirely with Connecticut-grown ingredients, which DeGasero takes pride in not only because of the quality of the product from Thrall Family Malt in Windsor and DeFrancesco Farm Hops in Northford, but because he likes having a mutually supportive relationship with small local suppliers—gesturing to the community-building opportunities craft beer creates not just among consumers, but among businesses and even across industries. And of course, adventurous drinkers can try all manner of fruited sours, pastry stouts, and, yes, New England IPAs aplenty. When I visited this spring, I was gobsmacked by the Purple Sour Diesel, a barbeque-like sour made with malt smoked by Bear’s Smokehouse and black currants.
In a way, it’s very fitting of both New Britain’s history and the interests of pop culture today that of all the things to revive a sleepy manufacturing town, it’s craft beer. Alvarium is still a tight operation, but it now employs thirteen people, six of whom are full time—brand-new manufacturing jobs that, due to the local nature of craft beer, are unlikely to be outsourced like the previous generation’s jobs. And having one brewery eased the way for the second. DeGasero says Alvarium was happy to offer advice when Five Churches Brewing, the city’s second brewery, was getting on its feet.
“The thing I always say is, people don’t go to Napa Valley for one winery,” DeGasero said. Far from competition, having two breweries in town works as a complement. “Five Churches was one of the best things to happen to us…now it’s a destination. People are taking New Britain seriously.”