It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Twilight Zone
Velvet Libations, Wolcott
Velvet Libations – yes, that was the actual name – closed in September 2022.
Velvet Libations existed in our lives for 189 days. In the year 2022, from their grand opening on St. Patrick’s Day until a quiet, unremarkable Sunday in mid-September, we could sit on cheap knockoff midcentury furniture, watch silent reruns of The Twilight Zone on a television, and drink whatever the hell this was:
I assume many of you know the history of the building this brewery occupied. It was a decade of sordid tales, missteps, gaffes, stunt beers, bad beers, one white whale (yet terrible) beer, decent beers, infighting, broken dreams, anger, and regret. Yes friends, this was the home of Shebeen Brewing Company. And the Connecticut Brewing Collective. And, finally, Velvet Libations.
I won’t spend more than a minute or two on the interconnectedness of the various breweries that had a tie to this place. As I understand it, the owner of Shebeen restructured his business in 2019 and changed its name to The Connecticut Brewery Collective in April of that year. This was a smart business move, as the business was trying to build a contract portfolio, but the Shebeen name had become a bit too tarnished. Shebeen beer was still brewed and sold in Wolcott, as were the contract brands brewed there, and another bigger Rhode Island Brand.
That’s because Shebeen’s owner was able to buy Foolproof Brewing in Pawtucket, RI during this time and rebrand that brewery as The Brewery Collective. Then, in late 2021 in the midst of the pandemic’s second big spike, the “Collective” in Wolcott closed for a bit and a few months later, voila, Velvet Libations was born.
This was branded as a wholly new brewing entity. The stink of Shebeen was gone, the building had been smudged with sage and they were ready to roll. Behind the scenes, that wasn’t entirely true as Velvet Libations was under the umbrella of The Brewery Collective and therefore Shebeen’s owner, now the Foolproof/Brewery Collective owner, was still involved. There is some mystery “owner from New York” involved in this whole thing as well, and there’s also the Black Horse Garage Brewing planned for a 2023 opening in Bridgeport.
You know what they say: you can never truly leave Wolcott.
Regardless, aside from the building itself, all traces of Shebeen were gone when I visited about a month after Velvet’s opening. Or, to put it another way, 1/6 into its entire life. I just looked it up. The average life span of both fleas and bedbugs is about six months.
Fleas and bedbugs live as long as Velvet Libations did.
I visited with my boy KO, who – to his immense joy and credit – knows nothing of anything above. This was his first time in this cursed building, and it was cute watching him get mildly excited for this new experience. The interior layout was shifted around a bit from the last days of the Collective. The most important change, of course, was the theming and the décor.
It was something else.
Someone got it in their head that what Connecticut needed after the difficult struggles breweries faced during pandemic shutdowns was a throwback to the 1960’s. Someone was under the impression that this two motif was what would put them over the top. ProTip: This didn’t work. And Mad Men’s run on TV was 2007-2015. Ancient history in brewery-world.
(Okay, to be fair, if someone laid out the cash for a truly mid-century modern taproom, I’d be all over that joint. But even so, the majority of people would scoff at it and ruin the expensive furniture in mere weeks… rendering the idea dumb in the end.)
Don’t worry, Velvet didn’t spend much on their taproom furniture. The cute little “Mad Men Living Room” area looked to be… not expensive.
Velvet also added a little kitchen, specializing in pizza. The brewer had brewing experience down in New York City and was the head brewer at )checks notes) Hell or High Water Brewpub in Norwalk that lasted )checks notes) six months. The taproom manager woman had experience at (checks notes) Better Half Brewing in Bristol that lasted )checks notes) only 24 months.
She made a cameo on the “Something’s Brewing” with the dearly missed Courtney Zieller and had a chance to show off her bartending skills.
I’m not going to pick on that woman, as she is a very nice woman. Her luck with breweries employers just isn’t the best. (She is the mom of one of the Better Half halves. In an article extolling this brewery the week before it opened, the Collective’s Marketing Specialist said, “She’s going to bring a great crowd with her.” I’m not sure the marketing specialist had ever been to Better Half. Also, from what I gather, a slew of “influencers” and local “foodies” were given free reign here in the summer of ’22, 2014-style. That didn’t work either.)
Slightly murky ownership, the brewer who is still brewing for The Collective somewhere, in some capacity, and this unlucky taproom manager, and… the general manager guy. Let’s check in with him.
“It’s got a retro vibe, a ’60s look,” said Don Laviano, the general manager of the Brewery Collective, which operates Velvet Libations and operated the Shebeen, said. “You walk in and it’s supposed to be the early-to-mid-’60s, kind of how when you watch ‘Mad Men’ it has that look and feel, ‘Twilight Zone,’ that look and feel.”
“It’s a homey, living room setting,” Laviano said. “Like a den. We’re going to have ’60s televisions shows and movies. You sit down and you might see a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode or ‘Bonanza’ or something like that or maybe one of those early James Bond movies.”
Music will be played from the relevant time period as well, Laviano said, adding that the taproom will also accommodate patrons’ choices as well.
According to a Waterbury Rep-Am article, Laviano traded 20 years experience as a television sports producer with NBC Connecticut to help launch a brewery on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It wasn’t an industry I was looking for,” Laviano says. “The road opened up for me, down that route. I like beer. I don’t know anything about making it, but I’ve been having a lot of fun learning about it and learning the industry.”
Like. Okay. Taking risks makes life more interesting. Totally get that. He was a local television producer; no service industry experience at all .I’m sure this dude has landed back on his feet just fine. But… ProTip 2: general managers should have at least a tiny bit of relevant experience in the industry you’re hiring the general manager for. The brewery industry had all grown up by 2022; it was mature. Long gone were the days of just brining in your friend from college because he drinks beer. I’m telling you, it’s this building. There’s just something about it that ruins people’s cognition and decision-making abilities.
But maybe the brewer is immune to that historically proven bad ju-ju. I ordered a flight. I’d read a bit about the brewer – who is, even after Velvet closed, the head brewer overseer overlord of all the Brewery Collective’s brewing operations past and future – and he leans experimental. He likes mixing traditional styles and turning things upside-down.
Which is fine, especially since there were some straight up classic styles on tap. Let’s see, I had The Chaser (Belgian dubbel), A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain (sour Berliner), Can’t Help Myself (pale), and The Fab Four (lager) – the latter two were “Collective” beers, not Velvet beers. I think. The kind and matronly spigot-dipping taproom manager bartender ordered my flight backwards, but whatever. I’m a big boy and can sort that out.
In Will Siss’s piece about this place, he noted two things that really jumped out at me: “… A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain, a tart Berliner Weiss that’s also somehow an India pale ale” and, “Things get weirder. On one of the several large-screen TVs, there’s a movie from 1951 playing, plus some sort of “Everybody Loves Raymond” marathon.”
I hear you, Will, I hear you. This short-lived brewery had no clue what it wanted to be – and if they did, they didn’t seem to have the foggiest idea of how to be it. Those two sentences from Siss sum up the entire experience. There was talk of barrel aging and a legit sour program (two things that certainly never came to any meaningful fruition in 189 (mostly summer) days.
Let’s see… my notes. The dubbel was “awful.” (I do see that they did release that “aged in sherry barrels” before they died, but Untappd was not kind to that iteration. The sour was “worse than awful.” The pale and lager were okay, I guess, but all four were flat and thin and just not good beers. I am pretty happy I didn’t make it here in their final months, because that’s when they got a bit more experimental. ProTip 3: Don’t get experimental unless you know what you’re doing with traditional.
And for the love of god, don’t ever serve whatever that thing is at the top of this page.
I have no idea why Velvet closed. It happened abruptly, but no one whose job wasn’t affected seemed to care. Maybe Mystery New York Owner did was Shebeen should have done a decade prior and ran the numbers. Maybe the brewer was tired of being in two places at once. Maybe the smoothie machine broke. Maybe having a general manager with literally zero experience didn’t work out so well. But honestly? A whole bunch of breweries should probably close in six months, but owners are stubborn and like to go really deep into debt.
In the end, the taproom, with all it’s goofiness and earnest attempt at creating a unique vibe, was probably the best thing about this place. Maybe the food was good? The beer wasn’t good, the execution of whatever they were trying to do wasn’t fully formed, and the name was terrible. Heck, even the branding font was off.
This brewery named beers after Twilight Zone episodes and played reruns of the very same show. In an ironic twist befitting the building’s infamous past, all of us who visited Velvet Libations were apparently unknowing players in an episode of that show all along.