Serial entrepreneur Curt Cameron launched and sold a startup and owned, operated, and sold two larger stores before becoming owner of Thomas Hooker Brewery. Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke to Curt about his entrepreneurial experience and how and why the brewery recently created a presence in Hartford.
NAN PRICE: Have you always wanted to own your own business?
CURT CAMERON: Not so much a brewery. I always laugh because most people who start breweries have a love of home brewing. And that is not me.
NP: That is funny—most of the craft brewery startup owners I’ve met began by homebrewing.
CC: My desire was more to build a brand than it was to brew. I don’t brew beer. I’ve always hired people to do that. I enjoy more the business component of things.
NP: So, how did you end up owning a brewery?
CC: My degrees are in business and computer science. After school, I worked at a software company where I did well. I left making lots of money to make almost no money. A friend and I started a landscaping company, which we grew nicely. I ran it and sold it off. Afterward, I traveled for a bit and then got back into the software business.
When my son was born, I was traveling three days a week, which was not very conducive to being a new dad. So, in 2001 I opened my first liquor store, which was fairly large. And then I opened another bigger store. That industry helped me realize the craft brewing world was really taking off.
Eventually, I sold the wine stores took another year off. I was looking at different opportunities and one of the attorneys I had worked with asked me what I knew about Thomas Hooker beer. I remember saying: It’s a good brand, but they don’t do much with it. He asked if I thought they’d want to sell it. I said: I don’t know, but let’s go ask
He and I approached the owners and they agreed to sell us the brewery and made it very easy for us. We took it over in 2006.
NP: Give us a little history. When was the brewery actually founded?
CC: It was founded in 1996 as the Trout Brook Brew Pub. In 2003, the second owners rebranded it to the Thomas Hooker Brewery. Thomas Hooker ale was their best-selling beer, so they renamed the company.
The brewery was in Hartford when we took over. It was originally located in the old Spaghetti Warehouse building on Bartholomew Avenue in Parkville.
When we took over ownership, we know we didn’t want to be a restaurant. With an eye toward production brewing, we found a building in Bloomfield that fit our needs and moved the brewery out of Hartford to Bloomfield. So essentially this brewery started in Hartford then we moved it out mostly for real estate purposes.
NP: Why did Thomas Hooker Brewery decide it was important to come back to Hartford and have a presence in the city?
CC: We’ve always said we’d love to get back to Hartford. I even tried coming to the Colt building before we moved out to Bloomfield. But, at that time it wasn’t nearly as far along as is now, and we were looking more for production space.
Before the ballpark was built, we were going to buy a big piece of land right off I-91. That never panned out. Then we were going to go to the Hartford Times building, but the University of Connecticut ended up in that space. We looked at a couple other locations, but the planets didn’t align.
And then eventually the managing partner here at the Colt building asked if I wanted to look at a space. It was at the North Armory and I wasn’t interested in it. He said he had one other space that had been a nursery school. When he showed it to me, I thought: This is the place. It’s got a patio, great windows, and production space. I can work with this.
NP: When did you open in Hartford?
CC: We officially opened the taproom and small batch pilot brewery July 20, 2017.
NP: Thomas Hooker is one of the first breweries in Connecticut—and you continue to innovate.
CC: When we started I think we were the fourth craft brewery in Connecticut. It’s funny how you find inspiration. I remember when I first took the company over I was in a restaurant where I knew they didn’t have our beer on tap. I would always ask anyway: I see you don’t have any Thomas Hooker on tap, do you ever think about bringing it in?
I remember there was an older lady at the bar who asked where that beer was made. I told her it was made in Hartford, and she said: If it’s made in Hartford, it can’t be any good.
That conversation always stuck with me. It’s been a little bit of motivation. I wanted to prove that good things can come from Hartford. So, we continue to build and grow the brand and then obviously the market has sort of grown up around us.
If anything, our big challenge is that we are not the new guys anymore. How do you stay relevant and exciting? I think it’s by creating not only great product but having a great facility, like being located in the Colt building.
NP: You mentioned you were the fourth craft brewery. What are your thoughts about the growing brewery scene in Connecticut?
CC: There’s the good and then the not so good. Obviously, not too many people would want to be in an industry that all the sudden has 10 times the competitors enter the market within a couple of years. So that can be challenging.
The great part is that when I started, it seemed the general feeling was that Connecticut didn’t have any good beers. Now, I love the fact that Connecticut craft brews are getting the recognition they are due.
We’ve got some phenomenal breweries here in Connecticut. With any industry that has a whole bunch of competitors start up in a short period of time, there’s going to be a fallout. There are going to be some winners and there are going to be some losers. What we’ve got going for us is we’re pretty much paid for and we’ve been doing this for a while, so I think we’ve got a little more knowledge than a lot of startups.
Our biggest challenge is staying relevant—and we need to do that by constantly innovating. Gone are the days of making one beer and having everybody just buy it. You’ve got to change, innovate. That’s one of the things we’re really focusing on. And one of the reasons we opened at Colt. It’s a test facility for us. This is where we’ll pilot brew products. That’s the other thing we love about this facility—it’s got a great little pilot system.
NP: So, you’re testing different beers at Colt then you can take them back to the brewery in Bloomfield to make larger batches?
CC: Exactly. We brew 100-gallon batches at Colt. What we brew in Bloomfield is essentially 14,000 12-ounce beers. You don’t want to be doing too many test batches at that size. What we’re doing in Hartford is great. We brew 100 gallons and let the public taste them and give us thumbs up or thumbs down. The beers we really like we can fine-tune and then brew on a production level.
NP: Let’s talk about distribution.
CC: We’ve kind of come full circle. At one point, we were in seven or eight states. I had to ask myself: With the explosion of the number of brands, why would Thomas Hooker be relevant in Florida?
It used to be that we were a smaller subset of brands and people would ask for the beer. But if you don’t have a physical presence to really tell your story, and you don’t have the marketing to do advertising, how does your story really resonate with the consumer? It doesn’t.
Over time, after I expanded to all these states, I slowly started to pull back. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just asking for your brand back. If you give your brand to somebody, they can get rid of it at any time, and they can also decide to keep it in perpetuity. Some wholesalers can make things challenging. Rather than letting you go to a competitor, they would rather sit your beer on a shelf, so you don’t become competition.
So, I wait for what I call “the equity event”—if a distributor gets bought or merged, that’s one time I can get my brand back. I’ve pulled the brand back from Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. I pulled out those states because I thought the wholesalers were doing marginal jobs with our product. And, frankly, we are at capacity in Connecticut and we love our Connecticut wholesalers.
We’re only distributed in the southern part of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Philadelphia corridor. Believe it or not, our largest growth market right now is Norway. We’ve built a partnership with a Norwegian distributor who specializes in importing American specialty food products and beer for the Norwegian and European markets. We send container after container of beer to Norway now.
NP: Aside from that, it’s really working for you to have mainly a Connecticut focus.
CC: Yes. I call it doing deep rather than wide. We’re distributed by the Budweiser network in Connecticut. They’re wonderful partners to us. We have a couple sales reps in Connecticut. We stay focused right here, and thankfully we’re able to sell all our product in a smaller footprint.
NP: Where do you see the company in the next few years?
CC: I’m not completely sure. A lot of it is going to be market-driven. I think the challenge we run into is not knowing what this market is going to do.
Our plan is to expand our production capabilities to satisfy our current demand. We have already purchased a 30,000 square-foot building next to the brewery, which gives us plenty of expansion room. I’m sort of proceeding with caution because of the fickleness of this market.
NP: Any advice for those thinking of opening a craft brewery?
CC: My advice for anyone looking to get into this business today: Unless you’ve got millions of dollars to build a huge production facility, stay small and open a tasting room. Build your brand and knowledge of the industry on a smaller scale before spending millions on a large-production facility.
Find out more about Thomas Hooker Brewery