It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon and we are down a side road, up a hill, and in the far corner of a nondescript industrial park in Oxford, CT, tasting some of the finest beers that any of us have had in a very, very long time. The large, hanger-like facility is packed with bags of hops, massive silver brewing vats, and we are struggling to decide between the Woodruff Weisse, a crisp IPA, and freshly brewed Italian Plum Gose. As we mull it over, an experimental brew appears on the table, having been flavored with some kind of strange Scandinavian wheat, as well as small containers full of odd fruits whose flavor profiles our hosts start debating the the kind of passion that can only be found among true beer aficionados.
This is the headquarters for Black Hog Brewery, the fledgling creation of brothers Jason and Tom Sobocinski, and childhood friend Tyler Jones all with backgrounds as restaurateurs and brewers who had long harbored dreams of creating their own beer label together.
“We always loved food,” Jason tells me as we walk past a towering stack of cask barrels. As the founder of the well-known New Haven restaurant Caseus, Jason knows his way around the restaurant industry. “We’d worked in the industry as professionals but whenever we would get together for fun, food was still at the center of things. And we’d always talked about doing beer.”
But making the jump from beer enthusiasts to professional brewmasters required a significant investment, particularly to deliver the level of quality to which the group aspired. That opportunity came when the trio had a chance to purchase a small brewing facility not far from New Haven. They pounced.
“We went around to a whole bunch of people we knew to see if we could raise the money to do it. We were ready to go in three weeks.” Jason laughs.
As we walked, it was clear from the pumps, vats, hoses, and various electronic displays that this was serious business indeed, especially for those who — to our eyes at least — seemed obsessed with every detail in the process.
In a beer industry awash with micro and craft brews, opening up a beer label is at least in part a labor of love. But Black Hog’s experimental approach to brewing, the spirit of fun that goes with the brand, and a little business savviness earned from years of experience, has paid off.
“It’s a combination of getting the details right as well as keeping plenty of fun and creativity in the process. I mean we’re making beer here - this is supposed to be fun”, Tyler tells me.
Tyler, Black Hog’s master brewer, had honed his skills at the Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and had been intrigued by the idea of having creative control over a new label.
“We had a mutual friend who kept bugging me,” Tyler recalls, “he kept saying, ‘Listen, Jason talks about cheese with the same crazy passion that you have for beer. You guys need to meet.’ So we did, and he was exactly right. From there it was a short leap to teaming up.”
To date, Black Hog keeps several “core” beers in regular, year-round production - three different IPA’s, a world cup gold winning American Brown Ale, and a coffee milk stout that’s served on Nitro gas, all with colorful names and labels. The real fun, though rests in their limited production brews, each of which has a different angle. The Farmland Series focuses on ingredients grown on local Connecticut farms, with a portion of sales going to support the Connecticut Farmland Trust. The Hop Collective series focuses on single-hopped American pale ales, and both the Disco Pig and Bush Pig series are experimental productions made with different bacteria and yeast strains all of which are cask conditioned. The beers produced range widely, from the ginger based IPA “Ginga Ninja” to a Golden Sour, to the cask-conditioned Weisse that’s currently on tap.
It’s a bewildering array for such a small brewery, but the chance to experiment widely with ingredients and sourcing is irresistible. Jason tells me about their first crack at using local CT hops in the brewery.
“Hops are really ready only once a year, at harvest, so most of the industry relies on dried and stored hops, which allows you to brew year round. But we really wanted to try using fresh hops, you know, harvesting it ourselves and brewing it right there. We wanted to get that fresh flavor. It’s not really scalable, of course, but it was a tremendous education, not to mention a heck of a lot of fun.”
And when it’s all said and done, fun is clearly at the heart of Black Hog’s operation. Even as they keep a watchful eye on the myriad brewing machinery, it’s clear that the trio is enjoying themselves immensely. So much so, that they’re throwing themselves a birthday party to mark the second year they’ve been in operation and as we talk, extended friends and family keep showing up, some grabbing beers, others mops and lending a hand in preparation for the festivities. Friends, family, and beer - it doesn’t get much better than that.
Where to Get It:
Black Hog is expanding rapidly and their beers are making their way into more distributers every month. They’re currently available in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York, with New Hampshire on the way.
Of course the best thing to do is to swing by their brewery in person where you can check out the Tasting Room firsthand. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the best times to go, when the team is more readily able to take breaks from brewing to show people around.
If you go, tell them we sent you. :)