North America's Most Innovative Craft Brewery Is in Oxford, Conn.
The trajectory of many small craft brewers is the same. They start independent, develop a following, and grow in influence and production capability. Eventually, they might open a bar or restaurant and one day might get swallowed by a larger corporation. Suddenly, your dad is buying it from Stop & Shop.
Not so with Oxford, Conn.'s OEC. (This stands for Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores, a winkingly imprecise Latin phrase that sort of means "The Order of the Eccentric Boilers.") It was conceived in early 2013 as an extension of the importer and distributor B. United, which represents such brands as Belgium’s De Dolle Brouwers, Germany’s G. Schneider & Sohn, and Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery.
As such, OEC began life better connected and resourced than just about any other craft brewery in North America, with access to an international portfolio of nearly 70 producers of artisanal beer, cider, mead, and more across 17 countries. Head-brewer/owner Ben Neidhart and his two assistant brewers have taken full advantage of the tools at their disposal.
“The design process for us is fairly chaotic and unstructured. It mostly comes down to inspiration,” says Neidhart. “Sometimes we will start with a style and decide how we would like to put our on tweak on it. Other times we’ll just start out tasting barrels and come up with a blend on the spot.” OEC focuses on bridging Old World brewing practices and antique recipe research with a New World sensibility of experimentation. More often than not, their beers have sour-leaning flavor profiles, with a depth that comes from having been matured mostly in oak.
(Historically speaking, all beer existed somewhere on the sour spectrum before the properties of ambient yeast were fully understand and then domesticated.)
OEC releases some of the same recipes and blends at least once a year, like its saison-style Tempus, which is "actually three different recipes that are barrel-aged for different amounts of time and then blended,” Neidhart explained. “So while Tempus is a single product line, every blend will be slightly different.” Despite this blend-to-blend uniqueness, it is always quenchingly tart, with a stone fruit quality.
Perhaps most exciting are the other projects run by Neidhart and his team. They use each as a way to push the limits of their craft.
Learn more below about their seven experimental projects, available mostly at the brewery, with kegs sporadically shipped to the 44 states in B. United’s distribution zone.
In this project, OEC collaborates with other breweries in the B. United portfolio. “It is always a blend of products produced both locally and abroad—rather than just one recipe—that we collaborate on,” says Neidhart. For Morpheus & Phantasus, Belgian micro-brewery Picobrouwerij Alvinne sent a small tank of a sour beer stateside. The Connecticut team decided to round it out by blending it with four aromatic OEC beers aged in barrels that had previously held pinot noir and Ransom Spirits Gin.
“Experimentalis is a special series we do that must utilize fresh fruit, which must be grown on the OEC Brewing property—our greenhouses and orchards—and then aged in oak barrels,” explained Neidhart. “There is not one base beer for this project, and there are no other limitations.” These are easily the most sought-after releases from OEC. A noteworthily delicious example of this experimentation has been Experimentalis With Meyer Lemons, which opens up citrusy sweet/tart and finishes botanically dry, thanks to time spent maturing in a former gin barrel.
Here is where OEC goes truly rustic and out there. “Frigus is our project where barrels are aged in our small outdoor barn,” said Neidhart. “The barn is neither heated nor cooled, and in the winter it drops well below freezing—exposing the beer to the natural fluctuations of the climate.” One of the first beers released from the barn was Vetus, which came out just as funky, sour, and vinous as you could expect from having spent a year freezing and thawing naturally in South African red wine barrels. (Above, pictured, is the wheat wine "Imperium," another product of the Frigus project.)
Everything in the Hydromelita collection integrates honey wine in some way, and these products are often called "braggots."
“A true braggot is a blend of two finished products—a mead and a beer,” said Neidhart. “Our braggot incorporates a finished OEC beer and a finished mead from one of our imported partners.”
Grandis Hydromelita is one such terrific blend of OEC ales (matured in barrels for up to three years) and a South African gem, Makana’s iQhilika Coffee Mead.
The result is as complex as it sounds: rich, roast-y, and sweetly sour.
“Shocking as it may seem, we love traditional lambic ales from Belgium,” says Neidhart. “Spontalis is our homage to those spontaneously fermented beers.” These brews sit in a custom-built coolship (a wide, shallow, flat copper, open-fermentation vessel) for 16 hours, catching airborne yeast that starts the fermentation process. Then they mature in oak barrels in the re-popularized lambic style. On its own, Spontalis can be ruthlessly tart, thanks to its wild genesis, though it is also used as a blending component in some of OEC’s other enterprises, as with recent batches of Tempus.
Based on a Kenyan method of brewing, “Urwaga is our project where barrels are selected to age in our underground fermentation pit,” said Neidhart. This is the least-explored project of OEC’s, as just one Urwaga experiment has seen release. It was a Roja barrel that was filled with Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen (a classic smoked wheat-beer from Bamberg, Germany), matured underground for more than a year.
There is nothing else quite like the Zymatore premise, in which OEC doesn't brew at all. Rather, it takes base beers from other breweries in the B.United portfolio and ages them in barrels that have previously stored other wine and/or liquor. “All this is done with the original producers’ consent,” said Neidhart. “No two Zymatore will ever taste the same, and we do not intend for Zymatore to taste like their base product.” Case in point: the reliably clean, crisp, traditional German Reissdorf Kölsch spent time in Pazzo barrels (a fortified Madeira wine) for the Zymatore project and came out with more yeast-forward sour woody notes—a genre unto itself.