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Rob Leonard started making beer in his kitchen. 1992 saw him land a home brewers dream job at New Haven Brewing… cleaning kegs and packing cases. But his obvious passion for the brewing craft led him to the title assistant brewer and eventually head brewer in a short three years. Fast forward a few years: Rob has become the brewmaster and operations manager for New England Brewing. In 2001, when the owners wanted to get out of the brewery business, Rob immediately took the opportunity to acquire the name of the company and re-locate the whole business to Selden Street in Woodbridge, CT… just down the street from the kitchen where he first started making beer. It’s this location where he makes his assortment of canned beers, including Atlantic Amber, Sea Hag IPA, and Elm City Lager as well as his limited bottled offerings such as Imperial Stout Trooper. And now he talks to DrinkCraftBeer.com…

First off, I know there is draft NEBco in Connecticut, but I haven’t seen it here in Massachusetts. Is it available? 

Yes, it’s distributed by La Resistance. It’s not everywhere, but it’s there in limited quantities, so keep your eyes open for it! 

I’ve seen the Sea Hag IPA and the Atlantic Amber around. They both seem to be doing fairly well. I was just wondering, will the Elm City Lager be hitting Massachusetts shelves any time soon? Or is it already here? 

The Elm City Lager is, in fact, available. When the Sea Hag came into MA, the lager kind of took a back seat, but it’s still there. 

So the Imperial Stout Trooper has been getting a lot of recognition around the area in the beer geek circles. Is this a one time only thing, or will it be brewed again? Also, why the bottle and not the can like the rest of your beers? 

Once a year we do a special brew. Last year was the Three Judges Barleywine. This year was the Imperial Stout Trooper. Next year will be a yet-to-be-named Scotch Ale. 

We didn’t do cans because the minimum order for a run of labels is 20,000. That’s way more than we need for these small batch brews, so we hand bottle them. We’d like to figure out a way to put it in cans, and as soon as we can find a way to do so without the large batch label issues, we will. With people paying $8-$9 per bottle, we want it to look great, though. 

We thought the Imperial Storm Trooper would be a one time only brew, as we expected a cease and desist order from Lucas Films. It never came, though, so you’ll probably see it again next year. 

Why cans? It seems to be the way at least a few craft brewers are going right now, but what was behind your choice? 

At first, it was an economic decision. Bottles cost too much money, we can’t afford to buy warehouses of glass. If you’re a big brewery you can buy large amounts but, because we’d have to buy by the pallet, we pay top dollar for the glass. We just couldn’t make enough money if we had to do it that way. 

When we looked into it further, we realized canning really is the perfect way to ship beer. It blocks the light and doesn’t break. It’s allowed us to get into markets we wouldn’t have been able to. For instance, we’re in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. People can take it on boats there, without worrying about glass breaking. Also, people who can afford boats are also probably people who are willing and able to spend a little more for good beer. The benefits also extend to camping. Cans weigh less and don’t break, so they're easier to pack in and out and you don’t have to worry about broken glass. 

There’s no worry about metal taste either. When you think about it, the beer sits in steel tanks at the brewery; kegs are metal as well. The only time the beer isn’t touching metal is in the cans, as they’re all lined. 

Lastly, cans are also better to recycle. They’re aluminum, which is a single element, versus glass. When we really thought about it, we couldn’t think of positives for bottling. 

Lastly, I read on you website that the Atlantic Amber is a steam beer. This is an unusual beer to see for a flagship. What made you brew a steam beer for your main beer? 

It was the original flagship in the old Norwalk brewery (when NEBco was under different ownership and Rob was the brewer), and it was the last beer brewed there. We were having trouble getting the lager yeast to drop, though. So now I use a very neutral ale strain; now it’s top fermented. So there’s a little inside info for you. Maybe if we find a good lager strain, we’ll bring it back to a steam beer. But for now, it’s an ale. And nobody seems to have noticed a difference, it still tastes great. 

I think your description on the site was right on. It’s an easy drinking beer, but still with flavor. It won’t destroy your taste buds, but we have a beer that will do that, that is very hoppy, in the Sea Hag. It’s Craft Beer 101. It’s good for the spring and summer, when it’s warmer and you don’t want an imperial stout. 

Well, as I know running a growing craft brewery is a never ending job, I’ll let you go. Thanks Rob!