At Height of Tourism Season, Shore Breweries Are Anxious to Fully Reopen

In the meantime, many are now offering outdoor seating and open-air tastings in addition to delivery and curbside pickup.

Cape May Brewing Company employee Maddison Devlin loads cans into a van for home delivery. Courtesy of Cape May Brewing Company

There are more than 30 breweries up and down the Jersey Shore, including Carton in Atlantic Highlands, Kane in Ocean Township, Beach Haus in Belmar, and Hidden Sands in Egg Harbor Township. During any other summer, their tasting rooms would be packed with people sampling flights of beers and possibly stocking up on six-packs. But the pandemic has made 2020 like no other year, and the necessary shutdown of tasting rooms has hit breweries hard, especially on the Shore. 

The breweries—as well as the state’s wineries and distilleries—got a shot of good news June 3 when Governor Phil Murphy gave them permission to provide outdoor service starting June 15. 

Throughout the lockdown, breweries all over the state have remained open for pickup and delivery. The majority have reduced the number of kegs they’re filling, which they’d be forced to dump after three to four months, once the beer went stale. Instead, they’ve shifted to canning, because cans are more shelf-stable and don’t require the same temperature control kegs do. Cans are also ideal for selling directly to consumers.

By happenstance, not knowing Covid-19 was around the corner, Backward Flag Brewing Co. in Forked River purchased a new 16-ounce tabletop canner. “It has been completely instrumental in giving us the ability to pivot our retail operation into something somewhat sustainable,” says founder Torie Fisher. 

Selling canned beer and refilling growlers has helped breweries hang on, but the loss of tasting-room business has been bruising. 

“We bleed money all year long to get to this point, and now we can’t open,” said Robert Zarko, owner of Ship Bottom Brewery in Beach Haven, in late May. 

[RELATED: Jersey Shore Restaurants Offering Takeout and Delivery This Summer]

In the week following Memorial Day, when beaches were allowed to reopen, Backward Flag noticed an uptick in phone calls from customers inquiring about tasting-room hours. “We certainly do see a big influx of tourists during the summer months,” says Fisher. “I can only assume the calls are from tourists who did not realize we cannot currently be open.” 

Fisher says she offered the callers curbside pickup, but no purchases were ultimately made. Even the ability to serve outdoors won’t be a great benefit to Backward Flag, which doesn’t have much outdoor space to utilize. As a result, Fisher sadly predicts “the beginning of a loss-of-sales trend we can expect to see while competing with businesses that can offer outdoor options.”

But breweries with outdoor seating, such as the Whitechapel Projects in Long Branch, Asbury Park Brewery and Cape May Brewing, welcomed the news that they could soon begin open-air tastings. As this story went to press in early June, Ship Bottom’s Zarko had just received approval from the Borough of Beach Haven to operate outdoor seating across the street in Taylor Avenue Field—a smart move for a brewery with a second-floor tasting room and no outdoor seating. He was looking forward to opening. “I really miss seeing people come in here and smiling—the interactions with the customers,” he said. (The outdoor space is now open daily.)

As of late June, breweries were still awaiting word on when they can reopen their indoor spaces. In the interim, they’re figuring out how to meet social-distancing guidelines. “Our tasting room is a fairly tight space, without much room to spread out,” Fisher says, “but we’ll do the best we can.”

When Cape May Brewing’s tasting room is allowed to reopen, it “will be a very different experience,” says tasting-room general manager Christopher Costello. Social-distancing guidelines will be enforced, including spacing tables to allow for six feet between visitors, maintaining a one-way flow through the tasting room, employing single-use items, and ensuring staff use of protective gear. “We hope, over time, we’ll be able to move back to how service used to be,” Costello says.

Click here to leave a comment
Read more Coronavirus, Eat & Drink, Jersey Shore articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.