Focusing on Local Ingredients Has Helped This Brewpub Stay Afloat

Blairstown's Buck Hill Brewery discusses their "farm-to-foam" brewing process and how the pandemic has impacted business.

A glass of Hitchin' Post, a West Coast-style IPA "with an abundance of citrusy hop character," per the menu. Photo courtesy of Buck Hill Brewery.

When they opened in June 2016, Blairstown’s Buck Hill Brewery certainly hadn’t intended to become a pandemic-era local brewpub. But amidst all of the misfortune and bad luck of 2020, something unexpected seems to be happening: from-scratch places like Buck Hill have become a model for what post-pandemic, locally-sourced, community-oriented New Jersey dining might look like. (And per a recent menu, they’re still doing great food.)

Not all of Jersey can eat and drink in the rural environs of Warren County (that’s part of what’s kept Buck Hill insulated in part from some of the blunt of Covid, says owner Jay Mena). But restaurants and brewpubs can take a lesson here and there. For instance, by brewing every beer they serve—with some hops even grown on their own farmland—and sourcing locally as often as possible, Buck Hill built up a sort of immunity to infrastructural interruptions we’ve heard of elsewhere in the food supply chain. Not only that, says owner Mena, they’ve re-cemented their mutual connection within the community. (Over a cold one, no less.)

We caught up with Mena, as well as master brewer Bud Usinowicz to ask how Covid-19 impacted the brewery, why they bother growing their own hops, and what beer styles we can look forward to when fall finally gets here.

Table Hopping: How has Covid-19 impacted production?
Jay Mena: It was kind of like the Twilight Zone. And it was four months ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. We never technically shut down. We always offered to-go options. But we’re a very large restaurant—we hold over 200 people with our party room. So the impact of not having people walking into your place, that’s huge.

TH: Were you able to brew?
JM: We just started to brew our beer again, approximately three weeks ago. But we had enough in our conditioning and fermentation tanks to keep up with demand. And people were very supportive. A lot of communities have definitely put their best foot forward to help the restaurant industry.

TH: What does the current tap list look like?
Bud Usinowicz: Up until Covid, we had 20 beers on tap, all made here, in-house…Right now, we’re offering 11 beers.

TH: What has proven appealing to New Jersey beer drinkers?
BU: The biggest seller is IPA…and there’s a lot of variations of it—we have a session IPA, a West Coast style, an East Coast style. In fact, when we have space and a serving tank, we will be releasing a Milkshake IPA.

TH: What’s a Milkshake IPA?
BU: The style calls for a blend of grains that give a hazy appearance. We also add lactose, which is milk sugar, and a special yeast.

TH: Yeast really impacts the final flavor in beer?
BU: Oh yeah. All things being equal in brewing, your strain of yeast makes the difference.

TH: Speaking of brewing ingredients, you guys also grow some of your own hops at Buck Hill Hop Farm. What varieties? Do you grow all the hops you need in production?
BU: The varieties we grow there are used to give a special finishing flavor and aroma to the beers. We can’t grow the volume needed for [all the beers]. But we’ll use whole hops when we dry hop, to finish a beer. It’s when you add hops after all the brewing and fermenting is done. We get ours from the Buck Hill Hop Farm. It really brightens the beer, adds a lot to the aroma.

TH: You use Cluster hops in one beer, the oldest U.S.-grown variety. Do you grow them? Can you grow any hops variety you want?
BU: No, we don’t grow those here. There are certain hops that do well in certain climates. A lot of varieties are susceptible to pests, including fungus. We grow Cascade, Newport, which is a general purpose bitter hop. We also have Columbus.
JM: And we have some Willamette hops.
BU: One hop grower told me the correct pronunciation is “Will-AM-ette, damnit!”

TH: It sounds like you have a stable hop roster you choose from. Do you think you’ll ever add to it, increase the kinds of hops you farm?
JM: We’re going to be adding to the roster next year. It’s time. We have a 64-acre farm, but we have very little of it attributed to hops right now—only half an acre. At this point in our brewing, we can start to add more acreage. So we plan to add another half-acre. We’re not unique in what we’re doing. But we do have a nice niche up here. We’re able to utilize a farm we have very close by to grow some hops, and that adds to the impact of what we’re doing with our beer.

TH: Do you distribute your beer? If not, do you plan on it?
JM: We’re a brewpub. We only produce beer we sell inside our restaurant. We might open up another restaurant or two, but right now have no plans on going into commercial brewing. I mean, stranger things have happened. But being realistic about my intentions, I’d like to put another restaurant or two out there first. I’m really proud of what Bud and Nick are doing. And we’re getting fantastic results in terms of what our customers are saying about the beer.

Buck Hill Brewery’s patio is open for outdoor dining. Photo courtesy of Buck Hill Brewery

TH: The restaurant aspect seems like an opportunity for coordination—pairing dinners, cooking with beer, etc. Does that happen?
JM: We were definitely doing pairings prior to the pandemic and we also cook with our beer all the time. One of our favorite dishes is the Pilsner Clams, made with our beer. We utilize our beer whenever we can. It’s in a lot of our sauces.

TH: You use the term “farm to foam.” What does that mean?
JM: Utilizing local farms for some or if not as many of the ingredients what it is you’re preparing. In this case it’s beer, owning a farm and producing some of the hops we utilize.

TH: Do you ever incorporate other ingredients, beyond hops, in beer styles?
BU: Yeah, we’ll use a lot of fruit that way. Strawberries, raspberries—those are big flavors. Pumpkin, of course. One thing I’d like to mention is at Buck Hill we have a tremendous chef, Adam Hebel. He’s excellent with the smoker, and that’s not only another pairing we’re able to do, we can also incorporate the smoke flavor into some of the beer. You smoke the grain before your brew and that imparts some flavor into the beer. We’ve also messed around with smoked hops. We’ve only done experimental batches so far, nothing large-scale.

TH: Current temps aside, you must be thinking ahead to brewing for fall. Anything we can look forward to?
BU: Two weeks ago we actually brewed our Oktoberfest. That’s fermenting right now and that’ll be released at the beginning of September. That one always sells well.
JM: Let’s see what type of guidelines they throw at us and we’ll make a plan accordingly. I’m proud to say we didn’t close our doors one day. Our business model definitely wasn’t “to go” or curbside pickup, but it evolved very, very quickly.

TH: People seem to be engaging their community food and drink sources more during Covid-19. Has that happened for you—and do you think it’ll last?
JM: No doubt. We’re lucky in the sense that we’re a rural community. The impact of the pandemic has been lesser. But other local restaurants could not have been more supportive. And as an owner, it’s a nice thing to see how responsive our community has been.

Buck Hill Brewery is currently open for outdoor dining and has growlers to go. 45 State Route 94, Blairstown; 908-854-5300

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