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The Art of Craft: Jersey's Booming Beer Industry

New Jersey’s rapidly growing craft-brewing industry is creating—and slaking—a statewide thirst for local beer with character.

Posted February 11, 2013 by Tara Nurin

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Flying Fish Hops
Hops are the female flowers of the species Humulus lupulus. They add a desired bitterness and complexity to beer.
Photo by Stuart Goldenberg.

Flying Fish Assembly Line
On the Flying Fish assembly line, jiggling bottles hustle toward being filled with one of the brewer's craft varieties. Exit 7, anyone?
Photo by Stuart Goldenberg.

Flying Fish Brewery
In steel fermenters (like these at Flying Fish Brewery) the slurry of malt, hops, water, yeast and other ingredients becomes beer.
Photo by Stuart Goldenberg.

When brewer Chris LaPierre left the West Chester, Pennsylvania, location of the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant to open the company’s first site in New Jersey, his coworkers sent him off with a friendly taunt.
“Get ready to brew a lot of Light Lager,” they teased, hinting that his move to the new brewery in Maple Shade was less a promotion than an exile.

Light Lager is Iron Hill’s most subtle brew, mildest in malt and hop flavor. In craft-beer circles, such thin-bodied brews—in the reigning style of the Bud-Miller-Coors trifecta—are considered wimpy and uncool.
But with the tapping in 2009 of the first keg at Iron Hill’s Maple Shade outpost, LaPierre and his bosses proved their instincts correct: The Jersey branch from day one has topped the entire 10-restaurant chain in total beer revenue, eclipsing the next-highest earner by 20 to 30 percent—and Light Lager accounts for just 10 percent of Maple Shade’s sales. What’s more, Maple Shade’s loyalty “mug” club boasts 2,000 members, almost double that of the next-best Iron Hill location.

“We were astounded at how well the Maple Shade location did,” says co-owner and Ocean Township native Mark Edelson, who is launching a second location in Voorhees early this year.

Iron Hill’s Jersey success reflects gains made across the nation by craft brewers—defined by the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based trade group, as breweries that are independently owned, produce fewer than 6 million barrels per year (1 barrel equals 31 gallons) and brew predominantly with traditional barley malts instead of corn or rice. The nation’s approximately 2,700 craft breweries enjoyed 14 percent growth in sales and 12 percent growth in volume in the first half of 2012.

In New Jersey, more beer brewed locally is flowing than at any time since before Prohibition. By the latest count, 27 craft breweries and brewpubs are operating. The latest, Bolero Snort of Ridgefield Park, brewed batch No. 001 in January. Four more will open in coming months, three more have licenses pending.

Leaders in the state’s tight-knit beer community now generate cult followings like star brewers from well-established craft-beer states like Colorado, California and Oregon.

“You can get so much good stuff here now,” says Mark Haynie, retired casino worker and coauthor of New Jersey Breweries, whose friends envy the bounty he stores in his beer cellar and appreciate his generosity in sharing these treasures with them. Haynie traces the modern craft movement to 1976, when a Californian named Jack McAuliffe opened the now-defunct New Albion Brewing in the city of Sonoma. It took New Jersey brewers more than two decades to follow his lead and another decade for out-of-state brews to make their presence felt here to a significant degree on taps and shelves.

New Jersey didn’t always lag in production. In the 250 years preceding Prohibition, the state was home to hundreds of breweries, including cherished brands such as Ballantine and Krueger. The latter was the world’s first brewery to can its liquid gold. New Jersey brewers shipped massive quantities of beer to New York, Philadelphia and points beyond. Budweiser and other brewers built plants in Newark, New Brunswick and Camden—river cities with easy access to transportation. In its heyday, Newark boasted about two dozen breweries. Though a few of the state’s breweries began making beer again after Prohibition, mid-20th century consolidation eventually obliterated all but the Bud plant.

“Brewery history just kind of died until craft beer came in,” Haynie sighs.

The initial signs of rebirth came in 1994 when Climax Brewing opened in Roselle Park, followed by other small-production breweries that sold their beer almost exclusively through established retail channels. In 1993, Trenton passed a law allowing brewpubs (restaurants that brew and sell on-site), and two years later the Ship Inn in Milford became the first of many such establishments to serve their own beer. During the late 1990s, the market purged at least half a dozen of these brewpubs and breweries, in part because of quality issues and a general lack of awareness. More recently, a new generation of mostly under-40 home brewers has taken advantage of the reawakening beer culture to brew and sell minuscule quantities. In 2011 alone, five microbreweries and even smaller nano-breweries opened, with most owners keeping their day jobs.

Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands and Kane Brewing in Ocean Township are considered among the best of the 2011 batch. Carton, which distributes all over the state and New York City, has five full-time employees and claims to have exceeded its production expectations by 150 percent within the first nine months.

The owners, cousins Augie and Chris Carton, work with brewer Jesse Ferguson to invent unique recipes. For instance, a President’s Day release was set for GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), a peanut butter-chocolate porter fermented with black raisins. Strange and surprising? Yes. Unusual? Not for a bunch of guys developing a beer brewed with wasabi root.

“We aspire to be innovative without losing track of the fact that drinkability is the most important thing in a beer,” says Augie Carton, a financial professional and former assistant film director who usually dreams up the brewery’s liquid concepts before determining if they’re technically feasible (with Ferguson), and economically viable (with Chris).

The Cartons and other craft brewers toasted the state legislature’s passage last year of a reform bill—signed into law on September 19—that eases restrictions on their industry. Craft breweries can now sell up to half a keg directly to consumers and offer full pints for sale in their tasting rooms. Previously, they could not sell more than two six-packs to visitors, nor could they sell beer for consumption on their premises. At the same time, brewpubs were given the right to sell their beer off premises through a wholesaler.

The law, passed despite opposition by the New Jersey Restaurant Association, further boosts brewers by lowering licensing fees, raising production limits and permitting brewpub owners to open as many as 10 locations.

The changes have not escaped the attention of Garden State beer lovers. “We have devout fans who are here constantly,” says Ryan Krill of Cape May Brewing Co. “They’re like, ‘Thank you, this is long overdue.’” Krill, a 31-year-old former bank vice president with bulky glasses and a wide smile, is even asked to sign items, “like a celebrity.” Since opening Cape May with his father and his best friend less than two years ago, the former home brewers have twice expanded production and space at Cape May County Airport and have welcomed as many as 700 people on a single day to their tasting room for limited free samples. At last year’s Atlantic City Beer Festival, by some accounts the second biggest in the country, judges voted Cape May’s Centennial IPA the best India Pale Ale of the nearly two dozen represented from around the nation.

The Cape May team started their business in a county with almost no beer competition and a thriving wine-tourism industry. The neighboring vintners, as well as local officials, restaurateurs, hoteliers and retailers, have welcomed the brewers to the area. “We send people to the wineries and they send people here,” Krill says. “It’s more of a reason for people to come to Cape May County.”

Twenty-five bars in the county carry Cape May’s brews—which, as with many nascent breweries, are not available in bottles. As a result, you have to track down craft beers on draft. But that’s part of the fun.
Rick Reed, owner of the 12-year-old Cricket Hill Brewing Company in Fairfield, has taken that ethos to the taps by relaunching his Rebellion for New Jersey Beer campaign. To persuade bar and restaurant owners to support local brewers, he sells shirts at the brewery emblazoned with the slogan, “Live Jersey, Drink Jersey." He also hands out cards, which supporters can plunk down with their bar checks, printed with the message: "If you’re a New Jersey bar and you have no New Jersey beers, we may not come back.”

“Everyone comes out to support the Shore [after Hurricane Sandy],” he says. “So why can’t we support all parts of Jersey?”

Beer author and journalist Don Russell, who writes the weekly “Joe Sixpack” column in the Philadelphia Daily News, agrees that Jersey bars, as a whole, aren’t doing enough to promote the state’s brews. On the other hand, he doesn’t necessarily think all New Jersey beers are ready for prime time.

“I think there’s a lot of good beer in New Jersey, but I think a lot of it’s uneven,” he says, admitting he hasn’t tried as much North Jersey beer as he’d like. “The smaller guys go back and forth. I get good batches and bad batches. I think maybe there are some control issues.”

Russell applauds Somerdale-based Flying Fish Brewing Co. and its nationally renowned Exit Series beers, named for exits of the New Jersey Turnpike. The series embodies the “buy local” spirit, styling each beer after an agricultural product or landmark situated near that exit, then including local ingredients in the recipe. Flying Fish claims Exit Series beers have been strong sellers since the first release in 2009, suggesting they may tap reservoirs of Jersey pride.

Remarkably, even difficult economic times have not blown the head off Jersey’s craft-beer boom.

“When the recession hit, I thought, We’re not well-positioned to survive this,” says Michael Short, cofounder and president of Hunterdon Brewing Company, a Phillipsburg-based distributor specializing in craft beer, including product from Jersey brewers Cricket Hill and River Horse Brewing Company (which is about to move from Lambertville to a larger facility in Ewing). Instead, Short says, belt-tightening caused consumers to see craft beer as “an affordable luxury.” What’s more, “No one feels good about supporting a big international corporation,” he says, “but when you buy River Horse you’re really helping your neighbors.”

River Horse is one of Hunterdon’s best sellers—a welcome development, given that the distributor’s Jersey beers evoked more snickers than sales when Short and his partners launched their business in 1996.

“It’s completely night and day,” Short says. “When I first started selling craft beer, nobody had any idea what it was. Nobody had any enthusiasm for it; retailers had very little interest in it; consumers weren’t talking about it. Now…every savvy retailer knows craft beer is a profit center for them.”

Hunterdon says its sales volume has risen by a staggering 86 percent since 2010, and the company has hired almost a quarter of its 75 employees in the last 15 months. Its sales personnel are raising the bar for other Jersey wholesalers by studying to become certified as Cicerones—the equivalent of gaining sommelier status in wine.

Short and his colleagues say New Jersey beer lovers likewise have educated their palates, often discovering craft beers while traveling or during nights out in Philadelphia and New York. New Jersey retailers and publicans have reacted by making room on shelves and draft systems to meet and foment demand for craft beer. It’s good business. According to the Brewers Association, craft drinkers spend an average of $9.99 per six-pack at retail and ring a bar-and-restaurant tab that’s $16 higher than their mass-market-drinking brethren.

Many establishments have gotten hip to the importance of hosting beer events and promoting them through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. Social-media followers re-post news of beer happenings, broadcast their attendance, log beers they consume, review events and beverages online, and trade for beers they can’t buy locally on sites like BeerAdvocate.com.

“Everybody’s a beer geek now,” says Jay Rose, beer manager at Joe Canal’s, a liquor store in West Deptford in Gloucester County. On Black Friday in late November, he opened his doors to 200 people who had stood in line for up to three hours to score single-release beers he had hoarded all year for the occasion. He also advertised his debut of the year’s version of Mad Elf, a strong honey-and-cherry ale released in limited quantities each winter by Tröegs Brewing Co. of Hershey, Pennsylvania. He sold all 50 cases in four minutes.

“They know what they want and they come in and get it,” Rose says, adding that his craft customers are typically well versed in brewery locations, brewers’ names and ingredients—as well as the finer points of cellaring, or aging, certain styles of beer that drink well up to 10 years after bottling.

Even the old guard is coming around.

Rose tells of a customer who buys five 40-ounce bottles of Colt 45 a day. One day, the 50-something retiree asked him about the store’s growler station, where employees dispense the week’s hottest craft beers from taps into take-home glass containers. Rose offered the man a taste of Southern Tier Crème Brûlée, a high-alcohol sweet stout from Lakewood, New York. The customer not only took home a growler, he now adds a weekly fill to his daily Colt 45 haul.

Mike Kivowitz, president of newjerseycraftbeer.com, a public site that offers discounts for members at more than 245 New Jersey bars and restaurants, explains: “People drink craft beer because there’s flavor uniqueness. There’s a story behind it. There’s a passion. It’s like going to a high-end restaurant instead of going to McDonald’s.”

New Jersey’s growing taste for craft beer prompted Gene Muller, founder of Flying Fish, to move his brewing operation last spring from Cherry Hill to a former Motown record-pressing plant in Somerdale. Once it reaches full capacity in the new location, Flying Fish—already Jersey’s largest craft brewer—will triple its output to 45,000 barrels per year.

“Our first summer—it would have been 1997—we went to the Shore to sell beer, figuring it’s a local spot, they’ll want it,” says Muller. “But at that time most people would walk into a bar and if they had crap, it wouldn’t matter. Now people ask for Flying Fish everywhere.” Donning safety goggles, Muller leads a visitor around his new 42,000-square-foot factory and warehouse, pointing out towering fermentation vessels; up-to-the-minute digital controls; eco-friendly features; and a temperamental machine to open and pack cardboard cases that’s earned the nickname, “the Crusher.”

To meet his goal of increasing Jersey sales by 50 percent in the next three years, Muller, a Haddon Township resident and refugee from the finance world, distributes mostly within just 100 to 200 miles, as do many small-scale brewers.

“Our philosophy is not to start sending stuff all over the place,” says Muller. “Beer’s heavy. It takes a lot of money and fuel to ship.”

With its shiny machinery churning alongside kegs stacked floor to ceiling, Flying Fish is worlds apart from the closet-sized office and storage space in Pompton Lakes where Brian Boak pours a beer he bottled in 2008 for guests who sit shivering on a desk in the unheated cubbyhole.

Lacking the funds to invest in building and running a brewery ($1 million minimum start-up for a well-equipped, profitable operation, he estimates), the former home brewer contracts with High Point Brewing Co. in Butler to produce the recipes he sells under his own name. But that means that Boak—who sells insurance for personal luxury items like yachts and fine art—can produce only a limited supply of his eponymous brew—about 25 barrels a month this year.

“I’d like to make 100 barrels a month, because at 100 barrels a month you can make money,” Boak says. “I could quit my job tomorrow.”

Outside investment has rejuvenated New Jersey Beer Company, founded four years ago in North Bergen by four college friends. It soon became clear, as partner John McCarthy told the Jersey City Independent, “We needed an uncle to bail us out.” Enter Jersey City developer Paul Silverman, who invested in the company and is now its chairman. The staff was beefed up, the beer is now available in bottles as well as kegs, and NJ Beer is with Allied Beverage, the state's largest alcohol distributor.

Another craft-brewing newcomer, Jeremy “Flounder” Lees, might wish he’d followed Boak’s example and gone the contract-brewing route. Lees and his brother, Daniel, are finishing construction in Hillsborough of what will be New Jersey’s smallest brewery. Their equipment is no larger than a decent home-brewing rig, and their lone fermentation tank is plastic and holds a mere 31 gallons. The Lees had invested $40,000 to get their bare-bones business going when the project was set back a year (and an additional $12,000 to $15,000) by an engineering error and a vanishing contractor. Regardless, the Lees are already selling baseball hats and accessories stitched with the Flounder Brewing Co. logo and accepting offers from local officials to attend the ribbon cutting, which they hope will take place in the next few months.

At press time, the Lees had almost completed their customer tasting room. “We are banking on the opportunity to be able to sell more than two six-packs [at a time],” says Lees. “For somebody our size, that’s a huge amount of product.” He believes Flounder can break even just from on-premises sales, without distributing a single drop.

The Lees and other newcomers pledge to carry on the work of promoting Jersey-brewed beer.

As Muller, owner of the state’s second oldest craft brewery, treasurer of the brewers guild and recipient of four coveted Great American Beer Festival medals, says, “You hear about beer brewed in Oregon or Colorado and you get this romantic image. Then you hear about beer brewed in New Jersey and it’s like the record scratches. We’re all trying to change that.”

Tara Nurin reports on tourism, sustainability, food and drink trends and politics, though not always in the same story. She lives on the Camden waterfront.

Spring Beer Events

March 23 Beer on the Boards: The second annual festival at Martell’s Tiki Bar plunges ahead post-Sandy—their part of the boardwalk is open, and so is the ramp next to the restaurant. 308 Boardwalk, Point Pleasant Beach; 732-892-0131; beerheads.com.

April 5-6 Atlantic City Beer & Music Festival: Rusted Root. Reverend Horton Heat. 90 breweries. What else do you need to know? Atlantic City Convention Center, 1 Miss America Way, Atlantic City; 609-412-9056; celebrationofthesuds.com. (Part of Atlantic City Beer Week, which runs April 5 to 13 at various AC venues.)

May 11 Jersey Shore Beer Fest: Belmar’s Bar Anticipation anticipates the start of a new Jersey Shore tradition. 703 16th Avenue, Lake Como;732-681-7422; beerheads.com.

June 15 Brew HaHa Craft Beer Festival: BeerHeads.com, which stages some of the state’s biggest beer fests, brings breweries back to the park. Great Adventure, 1 Six Flags Boulevard, Jackson; 732-928-1821; beerheads.com.

June 23 Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Beer Festival: Battleship New Jersey, berthed on the Camden waterfront, salutes the state’s breweries for this Jersey-only festival. Now in its 17th year. 62 Battleship Place, Camden; 866-877-6262; battleshipnewjersey.com/news_events/.


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