“All guys in their early 20s talk about owning a bar as their dream,” says Brian Kulbacki. That talk became serious for Kulbacki and his best friend from high school, Chris Ward, after Kulbacki, who had majored in marketing and finance at Boston College and worked for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in Miami, took up home brewing in 2009. Though Ward, a Kean University graduate, loved his job teaching at Bridgewater Raritan High School, the dream scenario became a brewpub, with Ward running the restaurant side and Kulbacki, who moved to Hoboken in 2010, the brewery.
After Ward was diagnosed with celiac disease, Kulbacki began to experiment with brewing gluten-free beer, made from sorghum rather than wheat or barley. Sorghum has an inherent sweetness tricky to mask, making it a difficult base for beer’s range of bitter, malty and citrusy flavors. “Surprisingly,” Kulbacki says, “the first one wasn’t terrible.” Each batch got better.
Then in October 2010, Ward, 24, was killed in a car accident. Though Kulbacki, now 27, has no gluten issues himself, he decided to continue on the path. “I wanted to keep Chris’s memory alive, but I also grew to love brewing gluten-free beer,” he says. “It’s a huge challenge.”
Kulbacki named his nascent company Departed Soles. The name refers to his father’s East Brunswick funeral home, where he works as business manager; to Ward’s death; and to the flashy sneakers the two friends enjoyed collecting. “Right now,” he says, “the investors are limited to me, myself and I.”
In February, in the Homebrew Alley competition of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, Kulbacki’s gluten-free Goodbye Pale Ale took first place in specialty beers and third place overall, against regular beers. Kulbacki hopes to open a brick-and-mortar space, making Departed Soles the first entirely gluten-free brewery in New Jersey.
It’s a meaningful designation. In order to be certified gluten free by the Food and Drug Administration, beer cannot be brewed with equipment also used to make regular beer. Popular gluten-free beers made by Delaware’s Dogfish Head and Anheuser-Busch’s Redbridge don’t meet that standard.
Kulbacki plans to launch Departed Soles with four beers—his award-winning pale ale, a blonde ale, a porter or stout and, daringly, a wheat-style beer that will require “some sweat and creativity and a wee bit of luck.”
In homage to all things Jersey, the brewery’s logo features what Kulbacki calls the New Jersey skyline: Jersey City, Liberty Science Center, the Statue of Liberty and the doomed Jet Star rollercoaster from Seaside Heights, among other images. Kulbacki wants the public tasting room at Departed Soles to function as a community center of sorts, where local artists, musicians and authors can gather. “I want to support the community that supports me,” Kulbacki says. “It’s important to be grateful to everyone who helps get you where you want to go.”