Recently reborn as an “aggressively laid-back” beer company, Stony Creek Brewery is living up to the tagline by quietly scaling production to more than 10,000 barrels during its first 12 months since taking up residence in a newly constructed Branford, Conn. brewing facility.
Originally formed in 2010 by Manny Rodriguez and Peggy Crowley, the wife of former Dichello Distributors co-owner Ed Crowley, Stony Creek first launched as a contract-produced craft brand focused on beers named after regional area codes.
That approach changed in late 2012, after Ed. Crowley Sr. decided he would sell back his 50 percent stake in Dichello Distributors and jump full time into craft brewing.
“I started seeing some of the more local brands coming in and taking a half a point of market share,” he said. “I would sit back in my chair as an A-B guy or a Heineken guy would say ‘I am loosing taps to local brands.’ Dichello’s core brands started to suffer and, at that point, my family and I decided that 2012 was the proper time to get out.”
Crowley, fresh off the sale of Dichello, got to work building the foundation for what he calls “the new Stony Creek.”
Prior to his full-time involvement, Stony Creek products were being made at Thomas Hooker Brewing Company in Bloomfield, Conn. and the brand’s reputation in the marketplace didn’t match the expectations Crowley had moving forward. In order for Stony Creek to succeed in an increasingly crowded craft environment, Crowley felt the company needed to overhaul its image, reinvent itself as a dependable local craft option and become a destination for locals and visitors alike.
So Crowley turned to a familiar face, Andrew Schwartz, who at the time was serving as the senior innovation brewer for Craft Brew Alliance. Crowley, who sold CBA brands during his time at Dichello, had known Schwartz from run-ins at various industry events and needed his help writing the job description for head brewmaster at Stony Creek.
“He (Schwartz) sent it to me and I sent it right back with a note that just said ‘interested?’” Crowley said.
After some consideration, Schwartz accepted the brewmaster position he helped to define, and joined former Blue Point Brewing sales manager Jamal Robinson, who at the same time had left the New York-based brewery (which had just been acquired by A-B InBev) to takeover as Stony Creek’s director of sales.
One month later, construction of Stony Creek’s 30,000 sq. ft., $20 million brick & mortar brewery and taproom, financed in part by proceeds from the sale of Crowley’s stake in Dichello, began.
As crews raced to build a state of the art craft brewery from the ground up, Schwartz and Robinson got to work on a new brand proposition.
“The old brand didn’t have a positive influence on the market,” said Robinson. “There weren’t a lot of people who were huge fans of it. That’s why we came on early — to sell the future.”
Stony Creek tapped Good Beer Hunting’s Michael Kiser, a brand strategist and expert storyteller who has helped breweries like Goose Island and Solemn Oath define their identity. With Kiser’s help, Stony Creek found a new voice, reimagined its product set, and ultimately created the most recognizable piece of the brand as it exists today — a vibrant, multicolored heron that is prominently displayed throughout the company’s entire portfolio.
“We needed to give the people that doubted a reason not to doubt,” said Robinson. “We treated this as an opportunity to create a new brewery and an entirely new brand.”
While the brewery and its new look were under construction, Schwartz turned his attention to the beer.
“We had to make the existing contract-brewed beer better, rewrite recipes and redo as much of the brewing process as possible,” he said.
Schwartz spent nine months brewing dozens of test batches of would-be flagships and seasonal offerings, sampling key accounts along the way in an effort to build “new enthusiasm” behind the brand.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” said Robinson. “We needed all the time we took to convince people.”
Stony Creek finally opened its doors in February, and has since grown to become one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the state of Connecticut, Crowley said.
“We are projected to have over 288,000 people through the brewery this year,” he said. “It is unbelievable how many people are coming in and thanking us for building a brewery. This is the best thing to ever happen to this town.”
Recognizing that demand was quickly outpacing supply, Stony Creek reinvested $3 million on 13 new fermentation tanks, two bright beer tanks, a dedicated mash tun and a centrifuge.
“Three months in, we realized that we had completely underestimated what this brand could be,” said Schwartz. “We are probably three years ahead of our projections.”
Stony Creek, which could eventually produce 60,000 barrels in its current footprint, will build out 45,000 barrels of capacity by next March, Schwartz said. And the company has already begun planning for a secondary brewing facility.
“We know where we are going to go,” said Crowley. “This brewing facility will always be our main brewery, but we will put another brewery in Branford, at another location.”
Still Crowley believes Stony Creek’s biggest asset isn’t capacity or access to capital — the company enjoys a nice relationship with JPMorgan Chase & Co., he said — rather it’s veteran brewers and salespeople driving the day-to-day decisions of a fresh craft brand.
“With 38 years of experience, I know exactly what a distributor knows and what their needs are,” said Crowley. “And I’ve learned over many, many years, to bring in experienced people. Andy has many years of experience and Jamal has been in beer for more than 10 years. They decide, along with my son Ed Jr. and Manny, what we’re going to do in the marketplace.”