NORWICH — Owning and operating a brewery has given a local public servant a taste of the obstacles faced by entrepreneurs and investors.
Jason Vincent, director of planning for Stonington, co-owns Epicure Brewing Co., in Norwich, with his wife Jenny Vincent and four other partners.
In June 2017, the group opened a 6,000-square-foot space with soaring ceilings in what was a printing press room for the Norwich Bulletin located at 40 Franklin St., in a 1960s brick building with a long history.
“Back then, the printing presses were made at Harris Corporation in Pawcatuck,” said Vincent, “Whenever Harris was selling a printing press, they’d bring [the customers] here so they could see a functioning press room.”
It took six years of thinking, talking to experts and rewriting a business plan to figure out how to open an economically viable brewery, Vincent said.
“We started in 2011 trying to understand what it would cost to open and how much money we’d need to create a brewery and be profitable,” he said.
In 2016, the group began renovations on the space, working under tough conditions, removing old wooden paneling and a dropped ceiling.
“We were working in the dark because we didn’t have power and the roof was leaking,” Vincent said. “That was a tremendous amount of work, it took months and months.”
Built to support printing presses, the 24-inch-thick concrete floor had to be jack-hammered through to put in floor in drains and bathrooms.
“The building was sprinklered so we were in good shape, but they didn’t have traps and clean-outs for the sewer line back then so that required additional work,” he said.
The existing staircase was also demolished to make space for a ramp to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The space now has a large ell-shaped bar and a wide expanse populated with chairs and tables for customers. The raw-brick walls are decorated with original artwork and a vintage motorcycle is suspended from the ceiling behind the bar.
The brewery comprises 15 barrels, which are huge, shiny steel cylinders with spigots, configured in rows at the back of the space. Each barrel holds 31 gallons.
“When we make a batch of beer we’re making 465 gallons of beer; it’s about 3,700 pints per batch,” said Vincent. “Right now we’ve made about 15-20 beers, it depends on what customers want.”
The beer menu has a range of ales, stouts and porters, and India pale ales and each one has a story behind it, which “is important for the customers because it helps them connect with who we are,” said Vincent.
For example the Le Chocolat Chocolate Porter is an homage to the French-Canadian ancestry of several team members, including Vincent, who emigrated to the Norwich area during the industrial revolution to work in many of the area mills. And, Damned Yankee IPA was named for Benedict Arnold, who was born in Norwich, and reflects an incident involving a British sea captain insulting Arnold, followed by a duel.
Behind the bar are rows of mugs on shelves, each belonging to customers in the brewery’s mug club.
Epicure has about 100 mug club members, Vincent said, and they have embraced the brewery and each other as a community.
“It’s about how they’ve become connected to a place; they put their stake in the ground that this is a place they really care about; and it cares back about them,” he said.
Creating a social place where people can interact was partly based on the Irish pub model, Vincent said.
“One of the things that inspired us was the Irish pub way of interaction; the pub is not about getting drunk, the pub’s about connecting with your neighborhood,” he said.
Going through the process of opening the brewery also changed Vincent’s perspective on the risks entrepreneurs take when starting a business.
“Until you do it yourself, you just don’t know what it’s like and so now I have a much broader appreciation of the risks these people are taking,” he said. “When people want to invest in the community, they’re spending a lot of money that they may never get back; if we want our neighborhood to be a stronger neighborhood, we have to enable the people who want to invest to have a shot.”
Vincent said his brewery experience has also helped him develop a new attitude toward providing excellent customer service in his public sector work.
“In the private sector, customer service is such a critical part of the work that you do; it’s so hard to get a customer, your best effort is in keeping an existing customer than to try to get a new one; but in the government, we don’t have to get customers,” he said. “It refined the way I do my job; [the planning department’s] goal is create a moment of magic every time we talk to a customer and that’s something I talk to my team about all the time — it’s on the top of our mission, to be known as best in class in customer service.”
The Vincents’ partners are Rob Miller, chief technology officer and assistant brewer; Jobina Miller, chief financial officer; Kerrie Thiffeault, Chief Health Officer; and Ken Thieffeault, brewer.
For more information, go to epicurebrewing.com.