How to Become a Craft Beer Expert From Two Alumni Who Bleed Brew

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Jennifer Doak-Mathewson

4 min read

Firefly Hollow Brewing Co. is housed in a long, red brick warehouse off a busy street in downtown Bristol. Its unassuming exterior conceals a welcoming, industrial-chic tasting room and brewing facility, with dark wooden floors, comfy red chairs, and a happy throng of beer lovers.

Bill Collins ’98 (CLAS) and Dana Bourque ’10 (CAHNR), along with a third partner, Rich Loomis, opened the brewery in 2013 after a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. “A lot of the people who supported us, we could connect back to who we knew at UConn,” Bill said. “It’s those people who believed in us enough to help us take that next step.”

Bill’s the business guy. He grew up in a small-business family in Connecticut and took MBA courses at UConn after finishing his undergraduate degree. “The MBA classes were helpful, and I also worked with people at UConn to prepare my small business plan and apply to the state for a job loan, which will help us build our capacity and create those jobs.”

And as a fun side note: Bill and his wife met in college, when they were both part of the UConn Marching Band.

UConn alumni Dana Bourque '10 (CAHNR) (left) and Bill Collins '98 (CLAS) (right)
UConn alumni Dana Bourque ’10 (CAHNR) (left) and Bill Collins ’98 (CLAS) (right)

Dana is the master brewer. “Studying nutritional science, there was a big food science aspect to it, it’s chemistry, microbiology, so it was a good foundation for all the science I use,” he said. That scientific knowledge allowed him to get into the American Brewer’s Guild and learn the craft. “I’d love nothing more than to see Connecticut’s beer culture rival what Colorado and Oregon offer.”

And Firefly Hollow is one of a cluster of breweries trying to do just that. Since Connecticut relaxed its permit laws in 2013—allowing tasting rooms and manufacturing facilities to be in the same place—there’s a new community of small-business owners throughout Connecticut offering craft beer that rivals what’s on tap in other states.

The growing industry helps other local businesses, too: Firefly Hollow gives its spent grain to a nearby farm, which uses it to feed sheep and cows.

How to Taste Craft Beer in Five Easy Steps

All beers are comprised of four basic ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. But where do you start with craft beer? What sets it apart from a Blue Moon or Bud Light? We settled into a few of those comfy red chairs with Bill, Dana, and a table full of tasting glasses to find out.

Firefly Hollow's White Brick Saison
Firefly Hollow’s White Brick Saison

Step 1: Get a flight. Collins recommends throwing caution to the wind and ordering the full range of what a brewery has to offer—most will offer five or six beer tastings in what’s known as a flight or paddle.

“You want to start with the lightest beer, then move on to any medium-bodied beer, and finish with really strong flavors—either IPAs or roasty porters and stouts,” said Collins. If you try strong beers first, the hops and roast malt profiles will overwhelm lighter beers and you’ll miss their flavor profile. We started with Firefly Hollow’s White Brick Saison.
Step 2: Take a good look at your beer. Before sampling your beer, Collins recommends holding the glass up to the light. We hoisted our tasting glasses of saison and examined its light straw-colored hue, with just a hint of lacy carbonation on top. If it’s cloudy, that usually means either it’s an unfiltered wheat beer or a hefty IPA, while stouts and porters are often close to opaque.

Step 3: Give your beer a sniff. A huge part of a beer’s taste is its aroma, and it’ll also give you hints of what style of beer it is. Our saison—a farmhouse-style beer that originated in Belgium, often highly carbonated, fruity and spicy, with a distinct tartness from the yeast—smelled like biscuits and sour apples.

If you get a huge whiff of pine, grapefruit, or floral notes upfront, that means your beer has a generous helping of hops. Caramel, toffee or toast aromas signal a more malt-forward beer, while dark beers—stouts and porters—will smell like chocolate or coffee.

Step 4: Toast your friends and take a sip (finally!). The saison was crisp, pleasant, and refreshingly tart—pretty much what the eye and smell tests indicated. And if you haven’t met a hoppy beer you like, give them a shot anyway. Just because you didn’t like the pale ale your friend made you try doesn’t mean that the whole style of beer won’t be to your liking.

Step 5: Rinse and repeat. You don’t have to finish every beer in your flight, but taste them all and finish the ones that are most to your liking. And if the tasting glass isn’t enough, feel free to order another pint!

Ready to put your new knowledge to the test? You’ll get a chance to sample a wide range of craft beer and local wine at the Huskies Forever Weekend Beer and Wine Tasting. Firefly Hollow will be joined by local brewers and vineyards in the area—many of whom are owned by or affiliated with other UConn alumni. Cheers!

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