NAUGATUCK — A year ago, two friends quit their jobs and bought Naugatuck’s most historic tavern, the former Old Corner, in the Union City section.
Tara Mirto and Ryan Whipple had an idea to combine the old with the new — the tavern’s historic charm with the rapidly expanding craft beer culture that is changing the beer industry in Connecticut and nationwide.
Thus far, the outcome can only be described as a resounding success. The bar, now called the Corner Tavern, has a steady lunch crowd and is packed from dinner time throughout most evenings. Beer drinkers who previously knew only names like Budweiser and Coors are now turning to names like New England Brewing Co., Black Hog and Thimble Island, all Connecticut-based craft beer companies.
And last month, the Corner Tavern was named best craft beer bar in Connecticut by a man well known in the state by beer aficionados, Todd Ruggere, who runs Todd’s CT Pour Tour.
This year, Ruggere visited hundreds of establishments and had a beer in all 169 Connecticut municipalities to raise money for pediatric cancer research — he has raised more than $50,000. At the end of his run, he gave out awards, including rating the best craft beer bar.
The early success of the Corner Tavern does not surprise Whipple, who said the area was ripe for this type of business, which seems to be popping up all over Connecticut in the past year.
“We knew this area had great package stores selling a variety of beer that people wanted, and there were beer tasting events all over this area,” he said. “We said, ‘If people are drinking this at home, they must want a bar in Naugatuck where they can get it, too.'”
He was right. When he and Mirto bought the bar, it came with 11 tap lines. They added another 22 and all of them are filled with craft beer, or beer produced in small quantities. The taps usually turn over very quickly, meaning customers are buying.
Getting people to try something new has taken some effort. When someone comes in and orders a Coors Light, for example, Mirto, Whipple or another bartender will give it to them but also urge them to try free samples of some craft beers that the customer may also like.
“We carry a lot of small stuff that people don’t recognize and it’s our job to sell it,” Whipple said, adding that all bartenders at the Corner Tavern are educated on the beer varieties and discuss them with patrons.
Mirto said locals love that she and Whipple have renovated the old bar — they put months worth of work and thousands of dollars into renovations. The bar has been part of the community since it opened under the name Behlman’s Tavern in 1911 at 178 North Main St.
“People thank us all the time for turning this place around,” she said. “So many people want to see this place succeed. It’s a great feeling.”