The Craft Beer Boom

Would you like to taste a bold, hoppy IPA? A creamy stout? A hearty, Belgian-style dubbel? You’ve come to the right place: New Jersey.

The tasting room at Kane Brewing Company in Ocean Township was voted number 1 in our poll of Jersey beer experts.
The tasting room at Kane Brewing Company in Ocean Township was voted number 1 in our poll of Jersey beer experts.
Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

It’s no exaggeration to say that New Jersey’s brewing landscape has changed more in the last three years than in the prior eight decades that followed the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. In March 2013, when New Jersey Monthly published its first cover story on beer’s new wave—the state had 27 independent craft breweries and brewpubs. Today we have 43 craft breweries—plus 15 brewpubs—with 40 more breweries expected to open in the coming years. What’s more, many of the breweries that existed three years ago have moved to larger spaces or otherwise expanded their operations.

What changed? In short, the state’s Craft Beer Bill, signed into law in 2012. The bill allows breweries to sell pints in conjunction with a tour instead of limiting visitors to a few free sample ounces. This created a significant new revenue stream for brewers early in a heady decade that would see the number of U.S. breweries hit an all-time high.

Since 2013, tasting rooms at craft breweries have become magnets for beer fans. These days, it’s common to see entire families enjoying lunch in a tasting room while sipping suds or juice boxes, as appropriate. “The law change allowed us to open a tasting room and make it a center for community events, while creating a thriving brewery culture in New Jersey,” says Gene Muller, president of Flying Fish Brewing Company in Somerdale and one of the driving forces behind the legislation.

Some brewers—including Village Idiot in Mount Holly and Third State in Burlington—make only enough beer to serve in their storefront tasting rooms. Both have received widespread credit for helping revive the historic downtown streets where they are located.

But as much as Village Idiot, Third State and others may resemble pubs, the law ensures that they’re not. Though guests can bring in food, breweries are forbidden to sell food or operate a restaurant on the premises. The tasting rooms voluntarily refrain from showing televised sports or presenting live music.

“We’re not competing with bars, we’re making beer to sell to them,” says Don Russell, executive director of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, which pushed for the law. Russell, hired last year, is the guild’s first paid staffer.

With the tasting-room law passed, the guild is pushing for a new reform that would allow in-state brewers to sell containers of fresh draft beer at farmers’ markets. “We think we’re a Jersey Fresh product,” Russell says.

The bill will likely pass, thanks to a favorable climate for beer in the Statehouse and because for the most part, communities—even dry ones like Collingswood and Pitman—are greeting craft brewers as job creators, tax generators and community builders. The numbers support them. According to the Brewers Association, a national advocacy group, the craft brewing industry made a $1.2 billion impact on New Jersey in 2014 and accounted for 9,500 jobs. That’s up from $77.7 million and 8,565 jobs in 2012.

Gary Monterosso, author of Artisan Beer (Burford Books, 2011) and host of the South Jersey TV show What’s on Tap, says beer entrepreneurship is easy to explain.
“It’s the idea of creating something,” he says. “You can follow that dream and still generate a little bit of money and a whole lot of respect.”

Opening a brewery is expensive and physically taxing, but entrepreneurs can keep their day jobs while creating groundbreaking, sour, malty or hoppy beers they dream of sharing with others. Augie Carton, owner of Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands, for instance, has continued to work in finance while developing a national reputation for concocting unlikely brews whose ingredients usually sound like they belong on a dinner plate rather than in a can.

Brewers in New Jersey compete, but they also trade advice, lend one another supplies and pal around at beer festivals. The owners of Spellbound, Village Idiot and Third State have home brewed together as members of the Barley Legal home-brew club. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member.)  Some New Jersey breweries have brewed collaboratively with one another, following an international trend.

Jersey brewers don’t stick to one style of beer, and they do follow national trends, albeit a little behind some other brewing states. Kane Brewing Company in Ocean Township, whose limited-bottle releases cause long lines at the brewery and pandemonium on social media, was among the first in New Jersey to launch an extensive barrel-aging program. Ryan Krill of Cape May Brewing emphasizes local ingredients in his beers. Krill and his team brewed the first beer officially designated Jersey Fresh—a porter that uses 90 pounds of honey per 15-barrel batch. Cape May also is the first in the state to dedicate a building to souring.

Souring? Most often, that’s a lengthy process using bacteria to create flavors that can’t be achieved with normal yeast. And it’s an example of the extremes to which craft brewers will go to create something unique. How else do you explain the use of ingredients such as jalapeño, wasabi and apple cider in various Jersey craft beers?

Amazingly, craft brewing in New Jersey is still in its infancy. Continued exponential growth is virtually certain. After all, beer is an agricultural product and we are the Garden State.

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