Jonathan Patrei is a full-time physical education teacher in Rocky Hill. His love of cooking and passion for trying new crafts encouraged him to learn to brew beer. Here, he talks to MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about how one thing led to another, and he now co-owns Hartford-based Phantom Brewing Company.
NAN PRICE: Let’s start from the top. How does a P.E. teacher end up co-owning a brewery?
JONATHAN PATREI: I started home brewing at a small scale when my first son was born in 2008 and my passion just exploded. I took the home brewing class in this space on Murphy Road in Hartford when it was the Beer and Wine Maker’s Warehouse and met the owner, Bo Kolcio, who is my business partner now. He taught me a lot of things. Eventually, I began teaching classes here and doing demos. With my teaching background, it was a natural progression.
Over the years, Bo and I discussed creating a brewery in this space and having it be a brewery/homebrew shop. In 2018, we started pooling some funding from our two families. We’re a small, family-owned brewery. It’s not a major operation or a major production facility yet. Hopefully, it’ll get there. In 2019, we renovated the whole place. Most of what you see, we did ourselves.
NAN: Did you receive any mentorship or collaborate with any local brewers?
JON: I have family that own customer service and sales and marketing companies, so I learned a lot from them.
As we were building this out, we got a lot of mentorship from Hanging Hills, which was right around the corner. I’ve remained friends with the owners, who were instrumental in helping us open. Before they closed, during my free time, I’d hang out over there asking questions and getting guidance. Hanging Hills wanted us over here because they knew two breweries would bring more business to the area. We still wish they were there, because now we’re the only game in this area of Hartford.
The owners at Alvaruim Beer Company in New Britain have also been awesome answering our questions about operations and financials and loaning us tools or equipment.
Our brew system came from New Park Brewing in West Hartford. When they upgraded in 2018, it was perfect timing for us. They posted on Facebook that they were selling their system and they were surprised how much interest they received because there are a lot of local brewers and breweries looking for equipment. When I saw the post, I ran over there that day and begged them to give me 24 hours! It was a great way to save some money. We brought our little crew over, picked up the system, and brought it here. Our fermenters, bright tanks, and peripheral stuff is new and a lot of the other stuff is built by us.
NAN: You opened in April 2020. How did you push through with the pandemic, which was looming as you were planning to open?
JON: In January and February 2020, we started hearing the rumblings about the pandemic and we were just mid-construction. We were ready when we were ready, and we were closely watching the state. We had a little launch party in early March, right before everything shut down. When the pandemic hit and shut everything down for a while, it gave us more time to tune up the space and finish a few odds and ends.
As far as our opening went, it was unbelievable. Watching the regulations, breweries were allowed to operate with to-go sales and they never really shut down like the restaurants did. For this type of industry, it was conducive to that. We couldn’t let people in the tap taproom, but we could sell beer. People flooded the brewers’ websites and everything started to turn to online ordering. A lot of brewers scrambled to put that together, but we already had it set up.
NAN: You’ve been open more than a year now.
JON: We’ve come a long way in that short time. We’re doing a little bit of distribution now. For about six months, we just had the growlers and the 32-ounce cans, and then we started having a mobile canner come in to get four packs available.
In May, we opened for outdoor and then in June we became open indoors but with restrictions. We’ve been operating like that ever since.
NAN: You’re coming at this from a unique perspective because you partnered with someone who has business ownership experience. What has learning to run a business, manage, and hire been like for you?
JON: It’s divide and conquer. As far as the employees and the front of the house, I run a lot of that stuff. Bo runs the accounting and the business practices. We also have accountants and lawyers.
Small business ownership is about the people. It’s about us. It’s about how we interact with our customers. It’s about who we’re hiring to serve our products.
Small business ownership is fragile; it’s a little delicate. You have to pay attention to a lot of details. You need to keep your focus on the fact that people are buying you, they’re not buying your beer as much as they’re buying your overall vibe.
NAN: What’s next?
JON: Phantom Brewing loves being part of the beer community in Connecticut. We love being on the scene and contributing as much as we can. We joined the Hartford Chamber of Commerce and we hope to be involved in more community-based Hartford initiatives and part of events and programs that happen in the city of Hartford. We’re also excited about the growth that’s supposed to happen in the city in the next few years.
We love our taproom in this space and we have the homebrew shop here, too. But we’re always looking to expand and do new things and move more product. So, we’re actively looking for a second taproom.
NAN: Would you stay in Hartford?
JON: We’ll keep our current space here in Hartford as a production facility. Adding another bar or taproom to our business somewhere in the region would help us grow.
Parkville Market serves our beer on tap, so we’re available locally. We’ve had talks with urban development and some other companies that are working to develop Hartford. We’re touring some spaces and trying to find the right niche where we want to do something and there are opportunities to grow. Right now, we’re just trying to stay the course and keep on chugging along so we can keep the lights on and keep our business afloat.