Bars Lash Out Vs. Craft Beers

A handful of South and Central Jersey tavern owners protest possible changes in brewery rules.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: Quinn Dombrowski.

A small number of South and Central Jersey bar owners have unleashed a boycott against New Jersey-brewed craft beer, citing pending state legislation that they say would allow the brewers to compete more effectively with their bars.

To date, only a handful of taverns have joined the boycott. They say the proposed rules would devalue their pricey liquor licenses. Meanwhile, at least one association for craft-beer drinkers is calling on members to amp up their patronage of bars that carry Jersey brews.

The bipartisan bill (A4602, S3024) aims to let small, independent breweries sell pints of their beer in their tasting rooms without requiring patrons to tour the facility. The breweries also would be allowed to sell or give away packaged snacks, like chips.

The bill is intended to clarify language and relax two provisions in the 2013 law that opened the market to dozens of new breweries by letting them sell pints for on-premises consumption. The 2013 law specifies that breweries cannot “operate a restaurant” and that visitors have to tour the brewery before buying. The new bill has passed out of committee in the state Assembly; the Senate has not taken action.

Though many of the state’s 7,200 on-premises liquor licensees gripe about the new bill, NJM could confirm only a handful that have stopped carrying New Jersey beer: the Ott’s restaurant locations in Medford, Berlin and Washington Township, plus Braddock’s Tavern in Medford (all owned by Bob Wagner, a New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association board member and the driving force behind the boycott); Dadz Bar & Grill in Lumberton; and the Neighborhood Pub & Grill at Ellery’s in Middlesex.

In supporting the boycott, John Ellery, owner of the Neighborhood Pub, cites the relative cost of liquor licenses. Bars and restaurants sometimes spend more than $1 million to buy their liquor licenses, he says, while craft breweries only pay the state between $1,250 and $7,500 per year per license.

“If they want to be a bar they should buy a liquor license,” says Ellery. “They’re not only affecting my profit they’re taking money out of my staff’s pockets.”

Local brewers and advocates don’t buy that argument.

“Eliminating the burdensome mandatory tours at breweries does not make breweries ‘bar-like,’” emails Jason Carty, executive director of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild. “Brewery owners simply want parity with surrounding states [whose laws are looser].”

Augie Carton, whose Carton Brewing Co. brand was kicked off the draught lines at the Village Pub, calculates that if all of New Jersey’s more than six dozen craft breweries sold all their beer into the state at once, there’d only be enough for a two-day party. He adds that a bar/restaurant’s liquor license allows owners to sell beer, wine, spirits and food while a limited brewery license allows brewers to sell one product – their own.

“Selling that amount of beer isn’t actually competition and seeing it as competition is wrong for the community,” he says.

The New Jersey Craft Beer membership discount program has cut ties with the boycotting bars and is asking the state’s craft beer fans to order New Jersey brews at their favorite watering holes and breweries from September 14-17.

Scott Wells, sales director at Ridgefield Park’s Bolero Snort Brewery, estimates that New Jersey craft brewers produce less than 2 percent of the beer sold in the state. Neither he nor Carton expect to lose much volume from the boycott. Among the participating venues, only Cinder Bar has established itself as a craft-beer stronghold, and it’s barely over a year old.

Bob Platzer, who founded the Haddonfield-based P.J.W. Restaurant Group that owns and operates 18 beer-centric bars in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, agrees tasting rooms shouldn’t behave as bars. Despite that, he plans to keep featuring local beers “where it makes sense.”

“Our customers are actively seeking out locally brewed options,” he says by e-mail. “Many of our customers and neighbors are connected to a microbrewery in some way. We are proud to support these local businesses.”

As the number of U.S. breweries pushes toward 6,000, bars (and sometimes wholesalers) across the country are starting to lobby for stricter tasting-room legislation in their own states. So far, New Jersey bar owners seem to be taking the most drastic action.

UPDATE: A previous version of this story reported that the Village Pub locations in Swedesboro and Washington Township and Cinder Bar in Clarksboro were among the restaurants taking part in the boycott of Jersey craft beers. However, while the owners believe breweries should not be allowed to operate as bars, they say they have not stopped selling local craft beer.

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Comments (54)

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  1. Bigbudd45

    The liquor laws in this state are absurd to begin with. Breweries are opening up in industrial and corporate parks that have long been abandoned. The people who care about drinking local will go to the breweries anyway. Im tired of taking the mandatory tours, ive seen them. I know what they are doing at that level of production. If my local bar stopped carrying Kane, Carton, and the other local beers…id just end up going elsewhere. They are looking to sell chips and snacks, not food. Sorry you paid so much for your liquor license, except im not. Plenty of people invest in their industry or business and the times change.

  2. Carla Domenica

    I can’t speak for many of the other Jerseys brewery’s but I can speak for Demented in Middlesex. I grew up drinking wine. But they made me love beer. I’ve never had a bad beer OR a bad experience there. The crew they have on board there are some of the best people I know. It shows in the look of their building, it shows in the way there beer tastes and it shows in the way that each new face becomes a familiar one. Places that feel threatened by Demented and the other brewery’s in the state should think about why they do. Anyone can serve a beer, but can you serve them a beer made by the guy who came up with the idea for the notes? Can you be served by the manager who cares about people coming back to try new beers? Places like Demented aren’t loved because of just their beer, they are loved because of the hardworking New Jerseyans who make it with their heart . Things make with love just taste better. Don’t make it harder for these brewery’s to exist because it’s hurting your bottom line. Find a way to coexist with them and be more like them.. and you’ll find your wallet will grow too.

    • Fuzzy Dunlop

      Couldn’t have said it better myself!

    • disqus_YVhu8Totsm

      You’re missing the point. Nobody wants to get rid of places like Demented. I own a Rutgers bar and I love craft beer. But when a place like Demented turns itself into what is basically a bar for less than $5000 for their license, it’s not fair for me to compete with that when I paid over $150,000 for my license. They should not have flat screens, serve food and sell pints. That’s a bar. Pints aren’t tasting.

      • Apatheticsheep

        I think you are fighting the wrong fight. You should be fighting to have exorbitant cost of liquor licenses reduced. charging hundred’s of thousands of dollars to do business is a reprehensible practice that should be abolished. but I guess artificially limiting competition in the industry has it’s upside for those who can afford to move past the bureaucratic hurdle.

        • disqus_YVhu8Totsm

          Yes true, but that does nothing for the people that already own those high priced licenses

          • Eric Levin Deputy Ed/Dining Ed

            Indeed, holders of consumption licenses form a potent lobby, and no reform (though unquestionably needed) will be possible without finding a way to compensate them in some way for the inevitable loss of value of their investment once licenses are no longer limited by town population.

      • Sergio Moutela

        The argument that a brewery can run a “bar” for a low yearly license cost is nonsense. Restaurant owners aren’t the only ones who made an investment. The breweries spent a lot more money than just the cost of a $1250/year license… The brewing system, fermentors, brite tanks, CO2 setups, kegs, pumps, glycol chilling units, money involved in fitting out the space to be able to run a brewery, etc… Never mind the amount of TIME and practice that was also invested in learning their craft. That’s all not even getting into any of the costs involved with packaging of beer.

        Let’s not forget all the other restrictions breweries already have to deal with, the most prominent one being only being able to serve the beer that they make in house… That’s one advantage that the restaurants will always have over everyone else whether it be a breweries, winery, distillery or meadery.

        Patrons visit a restaurant for their food, and they visit breweries for their beer. End of story.

        Stop crying about non-existent issues that don’t make one damn bit of difference. What you should be doing instead is fighting to have the State of NJ buy your liquor license from you at a fair market rate in form of tax credits, and then there won’t be any more of this sensitive bullshit.

      • Bob Lager

        Pints? Breweries have been allowed to sell pints since the law was changed in 2012. Get your facts straight before you complain. There are less than 100 breweries in NJ and 7,200 plenary retail licenses. To suggest that breweries take money out of your pocket, is sophistry at it’s best.

      • Jer-Z Girl

        The point you’re missing is that your license entitles you to sell *any* alcohol you want, while Demented can only sell their product — not to mention your license is an asset you can sell anytime you want. They don’t own their license, it’s a permit. They can’t get that money back.

      • PatNJ

        Demented (which I frequent), or a place like it is nothing like a bar, particularly a “Rutgers bar”. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and spaghetti. As a patron of both bars and breweries, I can say with confidence that they serve two different purposes. I go to a bar or a bar/restaurant to eat, drink, watch a game, etc. In my younger years I would go to college bars to spend as little as possible to drink as much as possible. I go to a brewery to try local, unique, and quality beer, often with my wife and young daughter in tow. Are there people who might choose to have a pint or two at the local brewery instead of the local bar? Of course, but the majority of the people who go to a brewery would not otherwise be at the local watering hole. Also before reading this article I was a fan of Ellery’s in Middlesex, largely because they were one of the first bars in my area to serve Demented. They have lost my future business.

  3. Dr. Obvious

    As usual the real problem is N.J. gouging its citizens with excessively high taxes and rates on items. Nowhere in the country are liquor licenses as pricy as in N.J. I feel bad for bars and they are lashing out.
    But I believe 100% that laws for people to sell their own produced product should be very unrestrictive and licenses cheap to obtain. The rise of local breweries have turned around slumping towns already and this is in its infancy in N.J.
    Unfortunately, NJ taxes us to death, pisses money away faster than a drunken sailor & fully believes their citizens are stupid enough to just keep taking it.

    • KrayMurica

      I think the bars like the high costs…they have a monopoly.

  4. Julia Trovarelli Pacitto

    I wish I could carry the beer from the breweries like they allow the wines from local wineries in the restaurants. That would be another way for them to get their products out there. Shame people can’t work together. Listen I can’t afford a liquor license but I survive against restaurant s that do have them. Many restaurants now are doing byob because of insurance costs and they survive. Work together.

  5. raudi1

    After reading this article I was wondering if the boycott is driven by the non craft beer companies. You want to sell “bud”, then stop selling the local craft beers that we can’t buy. Just a thought…. live local…drink local beer.

  6. Greg Valvo

    I love craft beer and I actively seek out local breweries to visit and look for their beers in bars and restaurants. But, what problem is this new legislation trying to solve? “Burdensome Mandatory Tours”? Really? Give me a break. Many times, the tours are “self-guided” which means I guide myself directly to the tap for a pint. No “tour” I’ve ever been on has lasted more the 5 minutes, and sometimes they’re interesting.

    So rather than getting everyone’s panties all bunched up, why not just leave well enough alone?

    • Fuzzy Dunlop

      Because it’s completely unnecessary to require a tour. I know 3/4 of them are self-guided, but the law is nonsense.

      • Greg Valvo

        There are plenty of unnecessary laws in NJ. Correcting all of them would be a full-time job and nothing else get done. At least this one doesn’t seem to put an onerous burden on anyone. Would rather the legislators spend their time fixing the ridiculous overall alcohol licensing laws. Again, what problem is this new legislation attempting to solve?

        • italianplatinum

          I guarantee the tour provision of the 2013 law allowing taproom sales was bought and paid for by the retailers and wholesalers because wanted to create a burden on the breweries. If the real issue is the cost of liquor licenses, why not use their powerful lobby to fix that problem for themselves?

    • Scott

      Mainly because wineries aren’t required to provide a tour. All the breweries are asking for is equal footing with wineries. I assume that these bars are going to stop selling NJ wine, too?

  7. Earl King

    First of all, liquor licenses are artificially high…I would say stupidly high. Many years ago when I left the state of CA…a beer and wine license cost $500. 7-11’s sold beer and wine. The neighborhood Mexican joint could sell beer. NJ with its arcane “blue laws” and towns that parse out liquor licenses like gold nuggets simply are losing out to sales taxes. In some fashion people might be thinking that they are preventing alcoholic consumption but that is absurd. Why in some town should a liquor license cost $1,000,000 and others cost $500,000? Its goofy. As for breweries…they have tasting rooms so people can taste there wares…They have poor distribution again because of the arcane liquor distributor rules. Everyone is trying to keep their monopoly and the state and local governments are losing additional sales tax.

    • Eric Levin Deputy Ed/Dining Ed

      Earl: The cost of a consumption license in NJ is all about supply and demand. Supply is limited by the law to one per every 3,000 residents. In a town where demand for licenses is high—a town with a vibrant and growing restaurant scene, for example—the price of a license will be driven upward. But towns cannot create new licenses unless their population grows sufficiently. So existing licenses, most of them auctioned off by the town years or decades ago, become a form of private property. See above.

      • Earl King

        thank you for making my point…its a ridiculous system…Almost like out West…I think Kansas you have to join a drinking club or some other nonsense. I have no problem with towns limiting restaurants/bars….but in cities like Red Bank or Atlantic Highland or Asbury…the barrier to restaurants and bars is simply prohibitive. Breweries Restaurants, Bars…who cares if they sell food…Antiquated…and leads to artificial barriers to business and consumers. Thanks for the post.!

  8. Wayne Robinson

    Greedy bastards. Let them COMPETE. Or put another way, no Kane, no me.

  9. disqus_YVhu8Totsm

    I own a Rutgers college bar and I am on the board of directors for NJLBA. These brewpubs are getting more agressive and keeping pushing the laws. Once they start selling pints of beer, they become a bar/pub. The one guy says he just wants the laws to be similar to those of other states. Well we cannot do that in New Jersey because the cost of a liquor license in New Jersey is much more that it is in other states. So if they make the laws to coincide with those of other states it devalues the value of my liquor license.

    • Jon Baker

      lol. i live in Colorado.. There are breweries every block.. there are as many as Starbucks. I love them. its more laid back with great beer and atmosphere. oddly enough; i have not been to a brewery tasting room where there are drunks, fights, or loud people there. they are just; chill..

    • Camden Chrissy

      Brewpubs aren’t “pushing the laws”. If you or Mr. Ellery or anyone else wants to open up a brewery – and take on the burden of the expense, maintenance, staffing, licensing, state and federal taxes, branding, packaging…etc., and the RESTRICTION of only selling the beer you make, then you should. So what if brewers are selling pints?! Following your logic – why don’t you only sell small portion appetizers? Aren’t you taking away business from the true ‘restaurants’ by doing so? ‘These college bars are becoming more aggresive and keep pushing the laws…’
      As for the licensing and costs of your licenses, if you are wondering how this will play out – see: Uber and NYC taxi medallions. The solution to bad legislation (ie. liquor license restrictions) isn’t worse legislation and digging in your heels. How about partnering with brewers to collectively push for a change or buyout of the liquor licenses, instead? The market, and consumer preferences are changing, and craft beer is bringing MORE people into the fold – giving you MORE potential customers. This is incremental growth – but only if you choose to be dynamic in your business planning and aim for positive, collaborative action – otherwise, proceed at your own risk, and don’t say you haven’t been warned.

      • Greg Valvo

        Well said.

    • hacker13

      The liquor laws are way behind the times in NJ – I live in PA, and have been to breweries in PA, NJ and CA. Only in NJ do I have to tour a facility before being able to sample a beer. I stop into a brewery to sample a few beers and go on my way. I’m not there for a meal or night out. Why do I need to waste 10-15 mins doing a tour?

    • kjaggy

      @disqus_YVhu8Totsm:disqus What bar?

      • kjaggy

        The only bar represented on the NJLBA board of directors that falls in a Rutgers market is Kilkenny Ale House, 27 Central Avenue, Newark, NJ 07102; if so, you are most definitely not the Rutgers college bar. Everyone goes to McGovern’s (also Dino and Edison). Also – nobody goes to either McGovern’s or Kilkenny for craft beer – your list includes a bunch of macro stuff, plus a couple of Goose Island macro beers, and Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. So this discussion doesn’t really concern you.

    • Mike

      Regressive and over-priced laws in New Jersey, seems to be the real problem, not the brewpubs.

    • StuffNThingsNStuff

      Once they start selling pints of beer, they become a bar/pub. not if they only sell their own beer dude. If they were selling outside beer too you’d have a point. And what about people who like craft beer but aren’t in to going to a bar to get it? We get gouged at stores too. Bars crying about craft is about as petty as “Big Beer” trying to eliminate it or buy it out because it threatens their crappy, flavorless, watered-down yellow fizz.

  10. Peter Hagemeyer

    The truth is bars are scared and loosing money because they charge $7-10 for the likes of Miller and Coors Lite, $12 for well drinks. Who can afford that kind of swill? I’d rather stay home and drink some GOOD stuff comfortably, where it isn’t noisy, cramped, and I don’t have to worry about getting pulled over on the way home.

  11. Jon Baker

    makes me want to move back to NJ and open a brewery.. Colorado is saturated with them.. lol

  12. David Hoffmann

    I think that mindset is very small and short sighted of the bar owners. People will visit micro breweries regardless of whether or not they have local beer on tap. In fact as the owner of the oldest micro brewery in NJ I think this will just make their customers angry and not want to frequent these establishments. The word is out that now you don’t have to buy beer from the west coast or Midwest to get a quality product you can get it right from a brewery here in NJ. So support your local micro brewery. We are small business trying to survive too.

  13. Mike

    While I disagree with the bar owners and their take on the brewerys, the biggest culprit here, is the gouging that the state is doing to the taverns. $1,000,000??? Crazy!

    • Eric Levin Deputy Ed/Dining Ed

      Mike: It isn’t a gouging. It’s more like NYC taxi medallion owners trying to protect their investment as non-medallion services like Uber and Lyft undercut them. See above.

      Also, prices of existing consumption licenses in NJ vary quite a bit, depending on size of town, number of restaurants, affluence of area clientele, how hot the restaurant scene is, and so on. In towns like Montclair, maybe Asbury Park, major restaurant towns, yes, the cost of buying an existing license from its current owner is astronomical. In places where demand is less or there isn’t a lot of foot traffic or a major restaurant scene, the cost is less. The market sets the price for existing licenses, which are always in private hands. Towns rarely get the opportunity to create new ones anymore. See above.

      • Mike

        The market setting the price, for a license that is required by the government, seems pretty crazy. Where i live, pubs have much smaller origination fees, than a tavern or bar. There are restrictions on the pub license (can’t have a kitchen, for example). I get that a tavern license can run $75,000 (which is the max here, though that still seems high), but when the bidding for a license is over $1 million, that’s gouging.

  14. StuffNThingsNStuff

    We need to stop this asinine rule about liquor licenses in NJ. There should be NO limit to the amount issued. If you can make a go at it and survive, there should not be a license shortage standing in your way of opening up. It should never be a coveted commodity tied to the amount of people in a town and a town’s arbitrary idea of how many licenses is enough. Get the damn government out of the way. They’re probably claiming that by limiting the amount of licenses, it limits the number of places people can drink and somehow that’s supposed to translate into less drunks driving or something. Total BS. The government rarely works to help safety, it’s all about control and extorting money from people. Just like the “crackdowns” on speeding and texting. They don’t care about anything but nailing you with a big hefty ticket because it helps the town’s bottom line. That’s why the traps. If they really cared, they’d be out PATROLLING instead of hiding behind something in their cars waiting for a radar gun to go off. It’s projections of revenue built into the town’s budget for the year. If they aren’t meeting it, unleash the crackdowns on traffic violations. Just like half the laws that get in the way in this state it’s all about shaking down people for more money if they can’t bleed it from you through taxes.

    • Eric Levin Deputy Ed/Dining Ed

      There’s no analogy to traffic violations. A town makes money from a consumption license only when it creates a new one, and it is allowed to do that only when its population, measured by census, has grown enough to meet the law’s restriction of one consumption license for every 3,000 residents. (This system was adopted at the end of Prohibition and has not materially changed.)

      When a new license is created—and that happens seldom because population growth is not robust enough—the town auctions it off and reaps a one-time windfall. After that it is private property, like a NYC taxi medallion. The license owner can profit by selling the license if demand in the town raises its value.

      The reason NJ license owners resist changes to the law—such as adopting a system like New York’s, where restaurants pay a reasonable monthly fee to the state—is that it would instantly devalue the investment they made in acquiring a license. The only way forward, I think, is to find a formula that compensates existing licensees over time while making new licenses available for a reasonable fee not linked to town population.

      • Mike

        There is not a small annual fee, for the license? And, doesn’t the municipality benefit from the business being in it’s area, like it would from any business (sales tax and payroll tax, etc.)?

  15. SF Sorrow

    The real problem is the ridiculous system of liquor licenses in New Jersey. There needs to be wholesale reform of the system. As it is, it completely discourages entrepreneurs who might be willing to take a chance and start up a bar/restaurant. By limiting the licenses to those who can afford a million bucks, New Jersey discourages creative and unusual approaches for eating and drinking establishments. It’s nuts.

  16. goyavo

    As noted by many here, the breweries total sales is a pittance compared to the bars. One of the bars mentioned, Cinder Bar, has a brewery essentially next to it called Death of the Fox. It’s an ideal situation for Cinder Bar since people go to DOTF to get a really good beer and then walk next door to get food and more beer. The cost of the liquor license for the bars is the real issue. I would rather they were a tenth of the cost and we had ten more bars available. The problem seems to be confounding large retailers like Canals etc with bars. People do not buy cases of beer at bars. That would be ridiculously expensive. Delineate licenses for bars and retailers so the bars are not gouged. Their loss of six pack and case sales would be insignificant.

    • Shawn

      That’s finally open? Have to swing by

  17. Matt L.

    Although it is unfortunate that these establishments made this decision, I do not see myself patronizing any of them anytime soon. Dadz has long been considered one of the top 3 dive bars in Burlington County and has several competitors in the vicinity. Ott’s Medford has PJ Whelihan’s located one-half mile down the street from them. Therefore, there are plenty of options available to enjoy NJ Beer.

  18. Craig Tollting

    F@&$ these dinosaur bars. Oh, you don’t like breweries selling their beer directly to patrons? Get better beer in your bars.

    I am bookmarking this article to make sure I remember to never enter one of these “boycott bars” ever again. And I’m going to double my efforts to visit every tasting room within 30 miles of my house in NJ. FREEDOM!!!!!!

  19. Charles Butch Weiss

    The New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association is blaming the small local breweries for affecting profits and taking money out of staff’s pockets. Clearly the Breweries are not to blame for this. The entity at fault here is the State and it’s regulations which have made an unnatural and unfair market. The high cost and limited numbers of Liquor Licensees is nothing more than theft by the state. That is who and what is affecting tavern and bar profits and is taking money from staff pockets, not the new craft breweries that are popping up all over. I say lift the regulations, the fees and taxes, and let the brewers sell food and the bars and restaurants brew their own beer. May the best products win!

  20. Howard Ontell

    Interesting, you quote Scott from Bolero Snort as they are not a brewery, but a distributor. Distributors can not have tap rooms under this law. Bolero Also only distributes in NJ. Thanks for playing.

      • Howard Ontell

        try to visit them…at their warehouse

        • PatNJ

          They are self distributing.. i.e. a brewery that delivers their own beer to their bar/restaurant/retail customers. They are also a contract brewer, meaning that they “rent” equipment from other local breweries to brew their own recipes. Thanks for playing.

          • Harvey

            You can split hairs all you want. In the state of NJ they are recognized as a licensed distributor, not a licensed brewery. A distributor cannot produce the beer or have a taproom, so going back to the original point, there is no reason interviewing Bolero Snort or having them featured in this piece of legislation, none of this pertains to them.

          • Howard Ontell

            see Scott, Harvey knows how the game is played, now ask Bob for a brewhouse and your comments can be relevant.