Friday, April 29, 2011

Saison's greetings

Saisons figure big in the South and Central Jersey beer picture this weekend, with River Horse Brewing pouring one at ShadFest 2011, and Iron Hill Maple Shade releasing its saison to mark a brewing collaboration and fete women beer enthusiasts.

River Horse will pour its Brewer's Reserve No. 7 saison (7% ABV) at the annual, two-day townwide event in Lambertville along with seven of its other brews, the most RH has ever put on tap for the festival. (Here's the lineup: Lager, Hop Hazard, Tripel Horse, Special, Double IPA, Double Wit, Summer Blonde and the saison. As in the past, the back lot of the brewery is blocked off for festival crowds and bands. Beers are sold and poured via a ticket system, and commemorative glasses are available for sale.)

RH's head brewer, Chris Rakow, says the Belgian farmhouse ale is a choice style of the brewery, yet one that had not made it into the production pipeline.

"It's one we always wanted to do, kind of a favorite style of the brewery, and we finally got a chance to do it," Chris says. "It has nice citrus notes, earthy notes, a little bit of tartness to it. But we wanted to accentuate the citrus notes in it, so we used lemongrass. To accentuate some of the earthy notes to it, we did white peppercorns. The white peppercorns give a little bit of funk to it, not much."

The saison gave RH a chance to bring its Brewer's Reserve series back around and settle an issue with the brewery's 12-bottle variety pack. Past Brewer's Reserve beers have ended up becoming either year-round brews (like Hop-A-Lot-Amus Double IPA) or seasonals (Oatmeal Milk Stout, Belgian Double Wit).

"In our variety pack, we always kinda struggle on a fourth beer to put in there. Usually it was Tripel. But Tripel's so popular, it's hard to steal that away from (distribution) orders," Chris says. "Then we were putting Double IPA in there, and then same thing, that was taking off. So we were like, 'Hey we could do a Brewer's reserve, get it out there again, and then we'll have a fourth beer to put in the variety pack along with Special, Hazard and Lager, and then have it draft, too.' "

Four bands are on the ShadFest music bill for the brewery back lot. Look for Chris' band, Ludlow Station, to hit the stage on Saturday. (Chris plays guitar in the group; more on that in a future post.)

Meanwhile, down in Maple Shade, Iron Hill brewer Chris LaPierre's fifth turn at a saison is probably his most endearing. Maybe that's because he made the peppercorn-spiced brew, dubbed Saizanne, with his girlfriend, Suzanne Woods (pictured at left), a Sly Fox Brewing representative.

The beer is an informal collaboration aimed squarely at the pleasure of beer, not trying to break new ground. Besides, saisons are a fav of Suzanne's. (Note: The ale isn't an actual Sly Fox-Iron Hill brewery collaboration. However, a round of Sly Fox's saison yeast was used to make it. "Which is pretty much what we always use for this beer," Chris says.) The brewpub will tap the beer (7% ABV, with a golden hue) at noon on Saturday.

Collaboration beers have been a craft beer industry trend lately. Despite that, Chris thinks they're less about fusion than beer enthusiasts may be led to believe.

"They're more about having fun than exploring," he says. "A lot of the collaboration beers I've seen out there, I kinda have to wonder did they really do anything that they wouldn't have on their own?

"With Suzanne and me, it's a little bit different because she's not a professional brewer. So it's more about her influence in brewing something that she likes, that she really enjoys. She loves saisons, and peppercorns are her favorite spice, so it was kinda more about that."

As part of the beer's release, members of In Pursuit of Ales (yes, its acronym is IPA), the Philadelphia-area women's beer club that Suzanne founded about four or five years ago, will gather at the brewpub. As will Beer for Babes, a South Jersey women's beer club founded by beer and food writer Tara Nurin, with the help of Kate Burns of Haddon Township.

Women's beer groups, Tara says, are a way to nudge perceptions of beer away from old conventions. That is, beer is not exclusively your dad's or granddad's drink. It's for everyone, and the visibility of women who enjoy craft beers for the flavor of the beverage, for their power to pair with food and for the camaraderie is growing.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Turtle Stone picking up momentum

There's a tailwind for Turtle Stone Brewing that's giving the planned South Jersey brewery some new momentum.

Ben Battiata, who's developing the enterprise with his girlfriend, Becky Pedersen, says they've worked out a deal to buy a 9,000-square-foot building in Cumberland County. They've already moved into the site the fermenter and bright beer tanks they bought a couple years ago.

Their 15-barrel brewhouse, picked up from a closed Rock Bottom brewpub, remains in storage in Oregon. The brewhouse will be shipped to New Jersey once he and Becky close on the building, located on the Boulevard in Vineland. Their site is a couple of miles south of where Blue Collar Brewing made pale, blonde and Scotch ales, in addition to a porter and Bavarian lager, before closing shop around 2004.

Finding a viable building was a long time in coming for Turtle Stone, and Ben expressed some relief Monday night at landing a site that will fit current needs and those down the road.

"That was the biggest thing holding us up, finding a place that allows us to grow, because I do anticipate some growth," he says.

The brewery will most likely make use of just over half of the building's space, with the remaining 4,000 square feet to be leased out.

Aside from closing on the building, there's other work to tackle, Ben says, namely paperwork: squaring away Turtle Stone's brewer's notice with federal regulators and getting licensed by the state. Wrap into that securing the blessing of Vineland officials, who Ben says support the project.

"Everybody's pretty into it. Originally, they were hoping we'd do something downtown, be part of their revitalization," he says.

Ben envisions getting the brewing equipment installed over the next couple of months. Turning out the first batch of beer depends on how quickly regulators can give the green light. But striking that first mash could happen in the fall, or perhaps a little sooner.

A stout (think American-style at 6% ABV with a hop presence) and a honey blonde ale (accentuated with green tea and jasmine flowers) are still part of the game plan, but Ben says "I've got couple other recipes I'm working on."

He plans for the beers to be available in draft, then bottle and says the to-do list includes scouting for packaging equipment.

The recent growth in the craft beer industry isn't making that easy, though. "The market for used equipment has kind of dried up. I definitely got my (brewing) system at the right time. I'd probably be paying twice as much for it now," he says.

Turtle Stone has been a pursuit of Ben and Becky for five years now (Becky will handle the business side and marketing, while Ben will deal with brewing). Ben took the brewing course at the Seibel Institute of Technology in Chicago in 2007, spent subsequent years networking and last year hit the Craft Brewers Conference when it was held in Chicago.

He passed on last month's 2011 conference held in San Francisco. "It was right in middle of getting this deal down for this building," he says.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rider U students lens NJ brewer docu

At the intersection of collegiate youth and beer is where you'll find a short-form documentary destined for the Worldwide Web.

And it has nothing to do with beer pong.

Just a year past being of age to drink, Rider University senior Dennis Quartarolo, of Wall Township in Monmouth County, thought New Jersey's 16-year-old run of micro and pub brewing to be worthy of examination in a video, for which he and four other students just wrapped up interviews and shooting.

The students (Dennis is a radio-television major at the Lawrenceville school) chose Princeton brewpub Triumph, Cherry Hill production brewer Flying Fish and East Coast Beer Company, the nearly year-old purveyor of contract-brewed Beach Haus pilsner, to shape the perspective for their 15-minute production. They also turned to a Jersey beer industry-watcher for some additional observations.

At a shoot in Jack's bar in Long Branch on Wednesday, Dennis discussed the origins of the project, titled Jersey Brewed, his flirtations with the big brewers' offerings and his embracing of craft-brewed beers. The docu project, Dennis says, was a class assignment and will also be uploaded to YouTube some time in May.

"Every single one of us in the class had to pitch a documentary idea, and I pitched the idea of a documentary about New Jersey breweries," Dennis says. "I figured it was a cool story to tell, to focus on this state, go to these guys and find out their stories about why they do it.

"They all had jobs before they decided to start brewing. They all come from different walks of life. I think that's interesting, all of them have the one common bond of craft brewing. It's almost like kind of a language that only a few people speak. All three of them have different ways of doing it; all three of them have different stories to tell."

At 22 years old, Dennis falls into a demographic cohort that became legal drinkers at time of incredible choice, a veritable wall of brands and styles, a situation that's increasingly making the Big Three – Bud, Miller and Coors – less and less the entry point for new beer drinkers.

Dennis' own backstory with craft beer begins with Flying Dog's Old Scratch Amber Lager, a brew he embraced after moving quickly beyond the Bud Light from a friend's party and the Pabst he had been buying.

"I was like, 'Whoa, this is completely different than what I usually have,' because up to that point I was buying PBR or Yuengling," he says. "From there, I started going out and buying more: I got Rogue Dead Guy, Elysian the Wise, Arrogant Bastard ..."

It didn't hurt, either, that Dennis got a job at Wine King, a packaged goods store in Sea Girt where a friend was working. Dennis started to think Jersey and drink Jersey after that.

"We actually have a section for New Jersey beers. That's when I started trying out Flying Fish, River Horse, Cricket Hill ... When Beach Haus came in, we tried that," he says. "I've just been going from there, getting more and more into them."

Among his favorite beers: Dead Guy; his favorite Exit brew, No. 13. ""I really enjoyed the chocolate. That was really good."

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Dennis (right) is joined by Rider seniors Tom Mellaci and Caroline Downing at video shoot at Jack's in Long Branch. It's worth noting that despite the Miller Lite memorabilia, Jacks has some great craft beers on its taps: Lagunitas, Blue Point and Dogfish Head to name a few.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beach Haus fall seasonal in pipeline

East Coast Beer Company will follow up its Beach Haus pilsner with a dark lager as its second label on the shelf and its first seasonal.

Named Beach Haus Winter Rental, the new brew is being targeted for the close of the summer season, says John Merklin, of one the founder's of the contract-brewed brand.

"If we can debut it Labor Day weekend, which is the same time we debuted Beach Haus Classic American Pilsner, it would be all the more fitting," John says.

The new lager is leap-frogging over an ale that Point Pleasant-based East Coast had in the pipeline. The ale is now being tabbed to early spring 2012,

"It's the logical, best next step for us. We always wanted to have a fall-winter seasonal to accompany the pilsner, even though it's a year-round beer," John says. "We wanted to further the brand with a seasonal."

The lager was actually being developed along with the ale, both brewed in pilot batches going back to the end of 2010. John says the new lager will share some flavors with Beach Haus pilsner, especially from the use of Horizon hops in both.

"But you're going to see much different body from it, both in color and in flavor, probably increased maltiness to it, certainly not overbearing," he says. "We'll continue to make these – we like to call them accessible beers – where both the high-end craft beer folks and some of the craft beer newbies are going to be able to enjoy different aspects of it."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Heavyweight reunion

Diehard fans of Heavyweight Brewing, the now-closed brewery famous for its artisanal beers, gathered for a reunion of sorts on Sunday, sampling practically every vintage that brewer Tom Baker made at his digs in Monmouth County.

Sure, the beer was past what you would reason to be a freshness date. After all, Heavyweight ceased to be in 2006, and Tom crossed the Delaware to open Earth Bread+Brewery brewpub in Philadelphia in 2008.

But despite the years, quite a bit of the beer held up, especially the Old Salty barleywines.

Most of the brews were supplied by Mark Haynie (pictured above pouring), who back in the day lent a hand to Heavyweight, helping Tom brew, bottle, pour at festivals and generally keep things going at the brewery in Ocean Township.

So did others. That's the kind of place – and beer – Heavyweight was.

And contributing from their long-held collections were Heavyweight faithfuls Steve Lander (the brew Ste-ve is named for him), Doug Duschl (Doug's Colonial Ale was based on his recipe) and John Companick.

If you were there, you saw more than beer and the remains of a now-gone brewery. You witnessed what comes from craft brewing – a kinship that keeps going long after the beer.

Friday, April 15, 2011

In search of a better way to choose

Decisions, decisions, decisions ...

To get there, you sometimes gotta grease the wheels by making some comparisons.

And therein lies the point of's search engine that compares beers across a range of factors, i.e. price, alcohol by volume, calories and of course beer styles. It's all to help you make a choice that leads you to actually tasting a brew, the ultimate decision-maker for repeat buys or the point of no return.

Right now, FindTheBest's beer page is stocked with 940 different beers from 50 different brewers from around the globe (sounds like the teaser to a beer festival, doesn't it?). Alas, you won't find any of the New Jersey brands in that cache. None of their data has been uploaded to the site. However, Garden State brewers are welcome to provide details about their brews and get listed.

The innards of FindTheBest's beer page is an algorithm that can combine expert ratings and reviews from several sources (think BeerAdvocate and RateBeer).

"It's highly unbiased. It doesn't use expert ratings from marketing companies," says Brandon Coakley, a business development associate for the Santa Barbara, California-based site. "We're just trying to give the user every piece of information."

FindTheBest launched the beer search engine toward the end of last year, recognizing the explosion of beer brands as craft beer gets more popular, as a it becomes a consumer passion with a galaxy of options. (Here's a tidbit about that explosion: The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the agency that has a say in breweries and beers coming to market, notes it has seen a steady uptick in the required applications for beer label approvals in the past couple of years.)

"The Internet is cluttered. We're trying to structure data from places. We're trying to make it an even playing field for comparing anything," Brandon says. (He notes the folks there at FindTheBest are beer enthusiasts themselves.)

Other things for which FindTheBest has been a consumer-minded data cruncher include cigars, colleges, automobiles (and car insurance companies), laptop computers and smart phone, baby-sitters, even amusement parks.

But with beer, this may make you wonder just a bit. One the one hand, there's something to be said for being forearmed; you're forewarned, caveat emptor and all that. But there's also something serendipitous about going into the packaged good store scouting the latest oak barrel-aged Belgian that's on everyone's lips (or blog post) and taking a chance on an unknown porter that ends up becoming a constant in your fridge.

So to compare, or not to compare. You decide. Play with it below. (And yeah, we know, Jack Curtin covered this topic late last month.)

Ram(m)steins & Aquarians

Ramstein one M; Rammstein, two M's

Go with one M this time. It's featured in the current issue of The Aquarian Weekly music newspaper.

High Point Brewing, which markets its German-style wheat beers and lagers under its Ramstein brand, made the publication's Beer Trails column, a feature that Aquarian started last year.

Ramstein (one M) just brewed an imperial pilsner that should be ready by mid-May. Guitarist Richard Kruspe of Rammstein (two M's), by the way, was featured in Aquarian back in December.

Aquarian has been a backbeat for the New Jersey-New York region for just over four decades (the publication's based in Little Falls now but once operated out of Fairfield, home of Cricket Hill Brewing).

Over the years, a wide sampling of rock 'n' roll royalty from near and far (The Who and Springsteen, for instance) has graced its cover. The publication has also been a voice on up-and-coming local acts (think Skid Row breaking out back in the '80s).

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Jersey Nano-Brewery Roundup

For something that by definition means very small, they've become big in craft beer.

And the Garden State.

Nano-breweries, sized 2 barrels and smaller, if you need a general definition, have been popping up across the country like dandelions in spring. The unofficial coast-to-coast count is nearly 60 now making beer and 40-plus in development.

In New Jersey, they're a big part of those itching to enter the brewing industry. Half of the 10 craft brewing projects to emerge over the past 12 months have been nanos. Of those, one has started brewing; another is on the cusp of striking a mash.

Great Blue Brewing at Suydam Farms in Somerset County, licensed on Feb. 28, christened its 2-barrel setup with a red ale. Deep in South Jersey, down the shore, is where Cape May Brewing installed a one-third barrel rig that federal regulators signed off on April 1. Cape May Brewing's state approval is expected soon.

But wait, there's more.

Flounder Brewing is settling into leased space in an industrial park building in Hillsborough to become a 1.5-barrel brewery; in Ocean County, homebrewers calling themselves the Jersey Shore Brewing Experience are shopping to bar owners the idea of installing a 2-barrel brewery. The intended result: a brewpub via the nano track.

Meanwhile, Pinelands Brewing, the handle taken by a homebrewing duo in Atlantic County, has set its sights on a building in Egg Harbor City, the former host town of Cedar Creek, a now-defunct brewpub that made beer in the mid-1990s. Its 2-barrel system is now used at Great Blue.

The buzz about über-small, commercial brewing isn't lost on the trade group that represents most of New Jersey's craft brewers. "We'll welcome anybody that makes craft beer in New Jersey into the guild. That's always been the case," says Trap Rock brewpub's Charlie Schroeder, vice president of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild.

By all accounts, the nano wave is the result of ambitious brewers – many of them rather accomplished homebrewers – looking to put their beers in front of someone besides their friends. They want to go pro, and they see nanos as an affordable foot in the door of the burgeoning craft beer industry. It's an entry point that steers around taking on the steeper expense of 10-, 15- or 20-barrel brewhouses and accompanying tank space.

With nanos, you can hang onto a day job that you're not financially ready to leave; yet you can still brew commercially and try to carve out local markets for beers that range from session strength to imperial. Nanos may be baby steps, but for some of the folks behind them, the vision includes going big someday.

"It's an effective way to enter the business, enter a market and build a brand," says Flounder Brewing's Jeremy Lees, a senior sales manager for a North Jersey manufacturer. Flounder (yes, the name's an Animal House reference) is a family affair that includes Jeremy's brothers, Mike and Dan; his brother-in-law, Greg Banacki Jr.; and cousin William Jordan V. "A nano lets us do this while dealing with responsibilities we now have. I do hope one day my full-time job is to be brewing beer. But you can't have a full-time job brewing beer as a nano brewery."

Paul Gatza, director of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, the craft beer industry's trade group, says nanos started showing up on the association's radar around 2008. "I think the movement of homebrewers into more sophisticated brewing systems and the availability of those systems are definite factors in pushing nanos forward," he says.

Those more sophisticated systems are what companies like Sabco, Blichmann and Psycho Brew are all about. They're the bridge between homebrewers and craft brew start-ups that jumped into the game on the larger scale.

Chris Breimayer and his brother, Pat, are the people behind the year-old Psycho Brew in Belding, Mich. Breimayer, an architect/engineer and homebrewer, turned to making custom brewing rigs after the slowdown in the housing industry.

Psycho Brew has sold a dozen systems – nearly all of them to nanos in development – since the fall, when Breimayer placed an ad on ProBrewer. Psycho Brew's biggest system runs about $13,300 and can produce 3 or 4 barrels. Breimayer spends a couple of hours each morning working out price quotes for prospective buyers.

"A lot of poeple don't have the money for the bigger systems. They can buy ours and prove their prowess and then step up," he says. Nanos that eventually outgrow their Psycho Brew rig can still use them as pilot systems for recipe formulation. (Psycho Brew is putting together a pilot brewing system for Brewery Ommegang, by the way.)

Keeping tabs on nano-brewers across the country is a side interest of Mike Hess, whose eponymous 1.6-barrel nano-brewery in San Diego started making beer last July. One of San Diego's 37 licensed breweries, Hess Brewing was expected to hit a total production mark of 70 barrels by the end of last month. (Hess features among its brews an 11% ABV pale ale and a rye imperial stout that's just under 10% ABV.)

Mike's blog, the Hess Brewing Odyssey, chronicles the nano niche and has become the de facto guide on starting a nano-brewery. The Brewers Association even steers folks interested in nanos to the Odyssey. Under the heading The Great Nanobrewery List: From CA to MA, Mike keeps a running coast-to-coast count on nanos that are operating or are in planning stages.

"I get email twice a week with something to add to the list. It gets updated as often as we get new information. We've done our best to keep it as thorough as possible," says Mike, who also owns a financial services business and has homebrewed since 1995.

The current count: 57 brewing, 42 on the drawing boards.

Andy Crouch, author of Great American Craft Beer and keeper of, finds a contrast between nanos and some brewing enterprises tripped up by a past industry shakeout. The people behind nanos have more beer savvy and are driven by something more pure of heart than those past entrepreneurs who envisioned a payday in microbrewing.

"They didn't really know about beer, know about distribution. They were just in it because they thought it was a good fad or a trend, and they just wanted to make some money. A lot of them lost a lot of money," he says. "These days a lot of the growth we're seeing is, oddly enough, in the opposite direction, people who aren't necessarily in it for money; they're in it to make very small batches, these nanobreweries. Here in New England, where I live, there are probably at least 10 that have opened up in the last two or three years, making 1- to 2-barrel batches."

These days the Garden State is witnessing the biggest surge in brewery or beer company development in more than a decade.

In 2009, the well-established Iron Hill brewpub chain opened its eighth location – but its first in New Jersey (Maple Shade). Last year, production brewer New Jersey Beer Company (North Bergen) launched, as did Port 44 Brew Pub (Newark) and East Coast Beer Company (Point Pleasant in Ocean County), a contract-brewed label. Turtle Stone Brewing (Vineland, Cumberland County), an enterprise in development from late 2009 and through last year, was still looking for a site while warehousing brewing equipment (a brewhouse from a shuttered Rock Bottom brewpub and some 15-barrel fermenters).

By the start of 2011, seven more projects were in development: production brewers Kane Brewing and Carton Brewing (both are located in Monmouth County and have licensing paperwork pending with the state) and nanos Great Blue; Cape May; Flounder; Pinelands and Jersey Shore Brewing.

Great Blue entered the state's craft beer scene with a concept to use hops grown at Suydam Farms in its beers targeted for bars and restaurants near the farm. The owners say they still have some bugs to work out on their brewing system, but they plan to put it in service a second time later this month.

Cape May Brewing hopes to be making beer in time to hit the summer season and build a following throughout the shore region. A tiny one-third-barrel system was installed in their building in Lower Township to secure approvals from federal and state regulators. Plans call for upgrading as quickly as the brewery's market will allow.

Flounder Brewing
hopes to be making test batches of beer by summer and launch the brand with a bottled Hill Street Honey, an American amber ale made with honey from a New Jersey farm. "My grandfather was a beekeeper, he was the original artisan in the family," Jeremy says.

The guys at Flounder hope the market lets them grow to 2 barrels quickly. "To start we would be doing 20 gallons at a time, two cycles being 40 gallons a brew session, so about 1.5 barrels per brew day," Jeremy says.

Bottling will be handled on a counter-pressure filler like some brewpubs use to fill growlers (his model is an older version of the kind in use at Iron Hill). If their market takes off, he says, they may contract out some brewing and offer draft beer.

For now, Jeremy says, the brewery's tour/tasting room has been finished; an architect was hired recently to do utility work design for the brewery buildout.

Farther south, in Ocean County, Wayne Hendrickson and three homebrewing colleagues in Bayville have been pitching nano-brewing to bar owners, hoping one will take them up on the idea to invest in a restricted brewers license and let them install a 2-barrel system to turn the tavern into a brewpub.

Their sales kit consists of a white four-pack carton of sample beers: Screamin' Demon English Red, Gütesbier German Alt, Trouble Maker American Ale and XPA Extra Pale Ale.

Their company name comes partly from the sense of community that craft beer creates.

"We're all Jersey Shore guys," Wayne says. "We wanted it to say a little more. It's more than the beer; it's about the (beer) experience."

After months of making their pitch, Wayne says they may have a bite, someone who's interested in buying a bar and adding a small brewery.

Jason Chapman of Hammonton (Atlantic County) says he unsuccessfully made similar pitches to bar owners before coming up with Pinelands Brewing, a nano he and his homebrewing partner, Luke McCooley, want to get rolling with a German-style wheat brew spiced with coriander and dried lemon peel, a smoked English special bitter and an imperial stout.

The brewery's name is an ode to the Pine Barrens and those things associated with it. "I'm from this area. I grew up camping, fishing and canoeing, all the activities that are typical of the Pinelands area," Jason says. "Cranberries are in the plans for brewing. I've brewed some tasty cranberry beers, and being from Hammonton you have to brew with blueberries."

Last winter the two put money down on a building in Egg Harbor City.

"It was built for a soda company some years back. It has the high ceilings, a floor drain system already built in, which is a big sticking point for breweries," says Jason, whose day job is a heating and air conditioning technician.

"I have the equipment and the experience and recipes to brew 1- to 2-barrel batches. It's just a matter of getting the capital together to get the kegs, the advertising, the intricacies of starting an actual microbrewery."

FOLKS IN THE PHOTOS ... Top to bottom: Jeremy Lees (photo supplied to BSL); (from left) Robert Krill, Chris Henke and Ryan Krill; (from left) Luke McCooley and Jason Chapman.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Six-pack market around corner for Climax

What's got a dozen heads and can go through 1,440 beers an hour?

The bottling line acquired by Climax Brewing.

The new addition will put the Roselle Park brewery's ales and lagers in six-packs for the first time and will likely double brewing volume over the course of a year.

Six-packs will also give Climax a wider reach across the state, says owner Dave Hoffmann. He's already been talking to a South Jersey distributor.

The 12-head Criveller bottler, bought from Fegley Brew Works in Allentown, Pa., and recently moved into the brewery, can handle 12-, 16- and 22-ounce bottles, Dave says, and run at speeds of 60 to 80 cases per hour.

"I'm pretty stoked about this," he says. Climax did 1,000 barrels last year, and Dave thinks six-packs will enable him to double that.

Bottling could begin around July. Between now and then, new labels need to be made, as well as six-pack holders.

The next step is to sit down with Gregg Hinlicky, the Toms River commercial artist who has done all of Climax's brewery artwork, and work out revising the labels that have adorned the half-gallon growlers that Climax has plied the bottled beer market with for years.

Those jugs of ESB, IPA, Nut Brown Ale and German-style lagers assigned the family name (i.e. Hoffmann Oktoberfest, Helles, Doppelbock etc.) were filled using a counter-pressure filler that Dave, a machinist in a past career, built himself.

Climax's jugs were nearly unique on the store shelves (often the only other beer in that kind of packaging was Rogue's Dead Guy Ale). But sometimes the growler size gave buyers a moment of pause, thus turning six-packs (and even four-packs) of 12-ounce bottles into a critical market to hit.

So what happens to that six-head, counter-pressure filler that drove Climax's bottle lineup?

"I'm gonna keep it and use it to fill jugs when I start making root beer," Dave says.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

From speakeasy to craft beer bar

Don't stop us if you've heard this one before. It's about a former speakeasy.

Those places really never were well-kept secrets, except from the law, and then only when bribes didn't work. Word gets around. And around.

So, with the 78th anniversary of beer becoming legal again, April 7th is a fitting time to spread word about Murphy's Suds & Sawdust, a pint-sized bar (if you'll pardon the pun) that began as an oasis for the thirsty yoked into a dry world by the 18th Amendment – and still exists to celebrate that heritage.

The Prohibition Era gives Murphy's a certain cachet. But what makes the bar modern-day unique is its location: the basement of a Victorian Colonial-style house in a quiet residential neighborhood in Rumson, a 5.2-square-mile upscale town situated between the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers in Monmouth County.

After Prohibition, the tavern stayed put as the town grew around it and town hall wrote rules for where you could and couldn't put such establishments (i.e. not in basements of homes). A retired postal worker now lives above the bar that's fire code rated at a 50-person capacity, and parking at Murphy's means you're probably pulling up in front of a neighboring house. One of the town's business avenues is just a 200-yard walk west of the bar.

What makes Murphy's a cozy, welcoming haunt is not just its size, but its proprietors.

Heather Vena, 36, and Robb McMahon, 47, are two veterans of the area's bar and service industry who were handpicked to become custodians of the Murphy's story and tend to the locals who make the tavern their go-to place.

"Their grandfathers drank here. They'd come in after work and drink here; now their kids are drinking here," Robb says. "There's a lineage to it."

A lineage that comes with responsibilities. "Nobody wants to be the one who screws up Murphy's," Robb says.

Murphy's began its run as a tavern on the down-low when booze was given an unpopular 13-year timeout under the Volstead Act. The congressional measure passed in 1919 set the rules for the 18th Amendment's ban on the once-legitimate liquor, beer and wine industries.

Taking its shorthand title from Andrew Volstead, the Minnesota congressman with a push-broom mustache who served as the legislative front for the temperance crew that actually authored the anti-booze rules, the Volstead Act took effect in January 1920, outlawing the manufacture and transportation of intoxicating alcoholic beverages.

It didn't, however, prohibit drinking a cocktail or two. Provided you could find it.

That's where Fred André's family comes in. The Andrés started the basement tavern, looking to slake Rumson's thirst without being too obvious.

"That's why it's located where it is, in the cellar," says Fred, 68, a lifelong Rumson resident who retired from AT&T/ Lucent Technology and now works for the town's zoning office. "It would never be permitted today where it is."

Fred was just a babe of 2 when his dad died. So, much of the lore about the speakeasy was passed onto him by his now-deceased mom.

She told him stories about liquor and beer being made in a garage behind the house on the 4,300-square foot property. The stuff didn't exactly taste good, Fred recalls his mom telling him. A carpenter who helped make the tavern's beer was always trying to drink it before it was ready, he says. Boat owners from nearby towns would meet up with rum-runners offshore to bring booze back to town.

"Oldtimers here were runners and took their boats out. But a lot of that went out of Highlands and Sea Bright," Fred says. "That's where a lot of the risk was, and the money."

In as much as the cellar was intended to be the bar's cover, the tavern wasn't exactly a secret.

"It was known to the people in town. The authorities knew it. My mother told me you didn't get into trouble so long as you sold it on premises," Fred says. "Another tavern in town got busted for selling off premises."

The tavern went legitimate after Prohibition's repeal in 1933. Beer became legal April 7 that year as an initial step toward washing away the failure of legislating morality. By Dec. 5 that year, with ratification of the 21st Amendment, Prohibition was beginning its existence as a constitutional footnote.

In the 1940s, the Andrés' once-furtive enterprise changed hands, winding up with the Murphy family (hence the bar's name), which ran the place successfully for quite some time, until the family matriarch, Mary Murphy, died several years ago and the business was sold.

"She was an old woman by the time I met her," Robb says. The bar was "very much a neighbor's basement back then. She'd walk downstairs, turn a light on outside the door. The light goes on, she was open, and you'd come in. And if she got tired, she'd say, 'Well, fellas it's time for me to go to bed,' and everybody would clean up and leave and she'd go back upstairs."

When the place changed hands again, it ended up with the owners of Val's Tavern, another bar in town. Dave Ciambrone and Gerald Goodman bought Murphy's largely as a real estate deal.

Ciambrone and Goodman refurbished the place with new cabinets, a new bar and floor. Robb, who knew Heather from when they both worked at separate establishments (Dublin House and Downtown Café) in nearby Red Bank, tended bar at Val's and took some shifts in Murphy's at the owners' behest. He invited Heather, recently returned from a summer working in Italy, to come guest-bartend on Mondays for service industry night.

The duo drew good crowds, and the owners approached them with the idea of taking over the bar.

"I didn't take him all that seriously," Robb says. "But then he (Dave Ciambrone) got us together and said, 'We can make this work.' So we worked out a lease agreement, and they gave us some time to get some capital together, and we all sat down with the lawyers."

That was in mid-2006.

"It was a passing of the baton," Robb continues. "Everybody wants to do right by Murphy's. One of the reasons we were handpicked is because there were other people involved ... doing like a cigar club or taking it over as a private thing for a sporting group or something like that."

Protecting a legacy like Murphy's is almost as unique as a basement tavern in a tony shore town. "In this business that's very rare," Robb says. "They could have made more money than they did off of us."

Under Heather and Robb (he grew up in Rumson, she in Asbury Park), Murphy's is as modern as as a tiny tavern can be – a widescreen TV over the bar, a digital TouchTunes jukebox near the entrance.

Yet the ambiance speaks to bygone eras as well: a shuffle board game (circa 1955) stands along a wall opposite the bar, while pictures of classic New York Yankees days (Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio) and Marilyn Monroe hang above it. The decor reflects Heather and Robb's personalities.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by her," Heather says. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be on regular TV, and I'd just be glued to the set."

Murphy's opens at 4 p.m., and a typical flow of patrons is usually three different crowds: blue collars and retirees come in early, drinking Pabst and Bud, followed by couples out for the evening and looking for a nightcap; late night is the younger crowd and service industry crews just off work.

"We never close early; we're here until 2 (a.m.) seven days a week," Heather says. "All the other bars in town, if they're not busy, they close. Everyone knows they can come here for one last pop."

In warm weather, it's not usual to see dogs hitched to fixtures outside, waiting on owners to finish their drinks. "You should see what good husbands live in this area, taking their dogs for walks. If we put a swingset in back ..." Heather jokes.

Bottled beers at Murphy's run the familiar gamut of Coors, Yuengling, Samuel Adams, PBR, Corona and Ballantine. On their four taps (they'd love to have at least two more, Heather says) you'll find Guinness (it replaced, you can guess, Murphy's stout), Miller Lite (a domestic light is a necessity, Robb says), Pilsner Urquell and a rotating craft beer.

"We've had Blue Point, the Toasted Lager, and then we had Hoptical Illusion ... (Dogfish Head) the 90 Minute. I was surprised when we put it on. You learn about your clientele. The kids, the 25 to 30s and just out of college, they knew it right away. They're on their phones going 'They got Dogfish Head!' "

Baseball's opening day is celebrated with a big bash, and Robb and Heather still make a point to send some love the way of their fellow service industry colleagues. The bar's Prohibition past has been given only mild attention (it's highlighted on their Facebook page and in an image on their menu). But doing a Prohibition-theme night is a distinct possibility.

"Now that we're getting a little more savvy, getting a Web page, we're going to try to do a Prohibition night, dress for it, have the right music, the '20s," Robb says. "Heather would make a good flapper. I could wax up the 'stache, put on a butcher's apron."

CONTACT INFO: Murphy's Suds & Sawdust, 17 Ward Lane, Rumson. 732-842-1600.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Samuel Adams – brewer, patriot, lender ...

This one is the hot link flying around, from The Wall Street Journal, via boatloads of Facebooking and blogging: Samuel Adams – brewer, patriot, lender.

It's a sip of financial aid for start-up craft breweries, from the well of Boston Beer Company. On the face, it seems quite cool, and given the stirrings of beer-minded folks trying to break into the ranks of New Jersey craft brewers lately, it's worth highlighting.

It also conjures up this flashback: When The Beatles started Apple Corps, and John Lennon explained their motives, "It's a company we're setting up, involving records, films, and electronics, and – as a sideline – manufacturing or whatever. We want to set up a system where people who just want to make a film about anything, don't have to go on their knees in somebody's office. Probably yours."

Hope Jim Koch's beneficence proves sustainable and no one gets burned. And a lot of great beer gets made.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Red ale 1st brew for NJ's newest beer-maker

You've heard of farm to fork, locally produced foods delivered to local consumers.

Well, New Jersey's newest craft brewery wants to be a farm-to-glass operation, using its own Somerset County-grown hops to add a unique Garden State signature to beers targeted for local restaurants and bars.

Granted a production brewery license on Feb. 28, Suydam Farms in Franklin Township made a scarlet red ale as its inaugural batch of beer last Saturday, using a 2-barrel system installed in a milk processing building spared an arsonist's flame in the late 1970s that claimed a dairy barn and some other structures on the nearly three-centuries-old, family-owned farm.

Ryck Suydam (pronounced RIKE soo-DAM), one of the people behind Great Blue Brewing (as the farm's brewing entity is called), says the brewery is still working out some snags with its system and will make some tweaks before brewing for a second time in about two weeks.

"It's not a perfect system," he said during a phone interview Monday, noting that Great Blue's brewing set-up was cobbled together by collecting brewing equipment over the past few years.

A nano operation by today's craft brewery size descriptions, the nucleus of Great Blue is a brewhouse that once made beer at Cedar Creek, a now-defunct brewpub in Egg Harbor City (Atlantic County) that longtime Jersey brewing industry followers will remember from the mid-1990s.

Once the brewing process is ironed out, Great Blue will brew twice a month. "We're going to crawl before we walk, walk before we run," Ryck says.

Initial plans call for distributing to a trio of select restaurants – Steakhouse 85 and Stage Left in New Brunswick and Sophie's Bistro in the Somerset section of Franklin. The three restaurants already buy produce and other commodities from Suydam Farms.

"Steakhouse 85 uses a lot of our tomatoes, okra and honey, Stage Left our eggs. Sophie's uses a lot of our squash," Ryck says.

On the heels of their beer hitting taps, Great Blue will follow up with some marketing research. "We'll see what the market thinks of the product," he says.

Suydam Farms, with its sprawling 300 acres, dates back to 1713, when the Suydam family, Dutch settlers who came first to New York (Brooklyn), then, after a half century, pulled up stakes for Colonial New Jersey. (One of the farm's buildings dates to the 1760s; two arson fires during the summer of 1978 claimed a lot of the other old structures, Ryck says.)

Well diversified in its commodities, the farm is known for its locally grown/locally used philosophy: hay for New Jersey horse farms; a variety of vegetables and pumpkins; melons, blackberries and raspberries; honey; firewood; flowers; as wells as eggs, pork, poultry, and lamb. It's also well known for its greenhouses and Christmas trees, with 800 planted just last week.

Ryck says the berries will figure into the brewing picture at some point down the road.

In the late 1990s, after some prodding by Paul Corkery, Ryck's homebrewer brother-in-law, the farm began growing hops: Cascade, Northern Brewer and Willamette to name a few varieties. (Paul also helps with the farm's hosting of the annual Big Brew/National Homebrew Day event held in early May.) With just under an acre in production, the farm has seen its Cascades do the best in the New Jersey soil.

This year's crop has already begun to poke through the soil and next month will be twined on trellises that soar 17 feet skyward. Harvesting has been done via the help of homebrewers and friends, sometimes at picking parties.

To dry the hops, Ryck says the farm fashioned an oast by forcing hot air through a closet (the drying process takes about four hours, depending on humidity); the dried hops have generally been crushed into bricks and vacuum-packed. Lately, Ryck says, the cones have been pressed flat then vacuum-packed.

Homebrewers have been the primary users of the farm's hops, but Triumph brewpub in Princeton also has made use of them. With the brewery in development, the much of the 2010 crop was set aside for the farm's use, Ryck says.

ABOUT THE NAME: Great Blue Brewing is an homage to one of the farm's patriarchs, Abram Suydam (Ryck's grandfather), and his appreciation of nature, especially the great blue herons that feed at a pond on the farm. "He was a bit of a naturalist; they (the herons) were a favorite of his," Ryck says of his grandfather.

Feds OK Cape May nano-bewer

Cape May Brewing Company clears a key hurdle and moves one step away from being able to make beer.

Federal regulators – the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – OK'd the budding South Jersey nano-brewery last Friday.

That puts the enterprise started by Ryan Krill, his dad Robert, and Chris Henke in position to get the blessings of New Jersey regulators.

(In photo above, from left that's Chris and Ryan sharing a toast with Flying Fish sales director Andy Newell at the Atlantic City beer festival last Friday night.)

Barring any hitches, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control could grant a license by mid-April, enabling Cape May Brewing to fire up the one-third-barrel system Chris assembled and get the brewery up and running at their location in Lower Township, adjacent to the Cape May County Airport.

"We got the TTB license today. The only thing the ABC needs is our TTB license," Ryan said Friday night. "They've already given us comments, and we've responded."

Chris notes the brewing system was designed to achieve short-term goals. "We're calling it our pilot system," he says. "Hopefully that all it is, a one-third barrel system. We built it to get our license. We're going to use it to get our license, we're going to brew on it. But as soon as possible, we're going to upgrade to something bigger."

So close, yet still so far away.

Ryan and Chris say they'll be tending to details big and small before they're striking a mash, meaning there's a lot to do before trying to stand up beers in front of the bar crowds that are part of the state's southern shore population surge in summertime. Cape May Brewing is a business, they say, not a race, so rushing to market is something to be avoided.

"We're a local brewery, serving Cape May and the South Jersey crowd," Ryan says. "The peak is in the summer and we would like to be able to hit that. It would be good for us. But if we're unable to do that, then we're going to have to pass because we're not going to get in over our heads."