On the bustling Main Street of Middletown, Conn., a UConn alumni-owned establishment is attracting foodies and beer aficionados from across the region by offering a new take on a classic combination: pretzels and craft beer.
Opened in April of this year, The Hop Knot sets itself apart by serving an assortment of gourmet stuffed pretzels, hot sandwiches, “knot” dogs, and dipping sauces like beer cheese made with New England Brewing’s Sea Hag IPA. The bar also curates a rotating tap list that includes some of the newest, most celebrated, and most obscure craft beers from Connecticut and across the nation.
“We realized that a beer and pretzel bar had never been done in Connecticut, and it just seemed like an obvious choice,” says John Schauster ’14 (SFA), who runs the bar alongside co-owner Michael Boney ’03 (CLAS) and manager Anthony Calamusa ’14(CLAS).
The Hop Knot is the most recent alumni-owned establishment to make waves in Connecticut’s thriving craft beer community. It is also the second entrepreneurial venture for Boney, who co-owns Top Shelf Brewing in Manchester.
“I’ve always wanted to own my own business and do something that I enjoyed, and it’s great to see it all come together,” he says.
Discovering the Craft
Although they are beer tastemakers now, Boney and company say that their palates weren’t always so refined. Schauster and Calamusa, who met during their freshman year as roommates in Towers Residence Hall, came of age as independent microbreweries were reaching new heights in popularity.
“My older brother got me into it more than anyone else. I quickly figured out that there are better beers than what college students normally drink,” says Schauster. “The field in itself keeps getting more interesting as we go along.”
Boney, who graduated from UConn in 2003, recalls trying some of his first craft beers – among them Ten Penny Ale by Connecticut’s Olde Burnside Brewing Company – at student watering hole Ted’s Bar and Restaurant in Storrs.
But it wasn’t until after college, when his wife’s uncle exposed him to home brewing, that Boney was inspired to take up the craft himself.
“I started to try a lot of different styles of beer, found ones that I liked and some that I didn’t,” he says. “I fell in love with craft brewing, and at that point I just wanted to do something I enjoyed.”
After ten years of brewing at home, Boney left his job at Liberty Mutual Insurance, and in 2013 opened Top Shelf Brewery in Manchester, Conn. with Joe Frost ’00 (CLAS) and TJ Lavery ’03 (CLAS). Shortly after, he started to discuss the idea for the Hop Knot with Schauster, a frequent Top Shelf customer.
“Once we decided on a concept, we got to work cooking in our homes, trying to come up with our own pretzel recipes,” says Schauster.
Schauster also pulled in college friend Calamusa, who brought a distinct perspective thanks to his personal knowledge of craft beer networks and his area of study while at UConn.
“My economics major helps with a lot of things business-wise,” Calamusa says. “I took courses in economic development, so to see a town like Middletown continue to grow, you get a sense of what opportunities there are for our business and how we can market ourselves to people.”
“My best experience at UConn was the social aspect. Through that and my classes, I learned how to communicate with people, which helps in a sales position,” adds Boney, an English and history major. “It helped mold me into someone who can be a self-starter.”
The Hop Knot owners recently shared their success with fellow UConn graduates at an event hosted by the UConn Office of Alumni Relations on Oct. 5. It was the first event in a series that will tour alumni-owned breweries throughout Connecticut.
“I have friends who posted a photo at the Hop Knot to Facebook, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to come here,” says Amanda Falcone ’05 (CLAS), a communications specialist at the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford and event attendee. “I think it’s really great when alums can support their own, so to be a part of this is fantastic.”
That evening, Boney and Schauster also announced their plan to open another restaurant a few storefronts down from The Hop Knot by the end of 2016. Disco Chick will serve gourmet wings and poutine-style “disco fries,” and—in the spirit of the craft beer movement—it will be a “Bring Your Own Bottle” establishment.
“We don’t want to end up doing stuff just because that’s what our competitors are doing. That’s not our game plan,” says Boney. “We want to keep expanding with ideas that are original.”
By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences