Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cash for Sandy, an IPA & a Beach Haus brewery

A new beer, a shot of cash for Superstorm Sandy relief and efforts toward a new brewery ... East Coast Beer Company has been busy lately.

OK, the Point Pleasant Beach contract-brew enterprise, like all of the state's beer purveyors, is always busy. 

But if a beer release targeted for next month isn't enough, the guys behind Beach Haus pilsner, Winter Rental schwarzbier and Kick Back amber ale are also hoping that by the end of 12 months they will have their own brewery in New Jersey.

Here are the latest details:

Kicking Sandy
If you live at the Jersey shore or its environs, then by now you're used to seeing the green-orange-and-white Servpro vehicles buzzing around (or, happily, you are seeing fewer of the flood-cleanup company's vans and trucks at this point). You've probably likewise grown accustomed to the buzz of saws and rapping of hammers. 

The shore is bouncing back from the Oct. 29th hybrid storm (a $30 billion hurricane cum nor'easter) that rewrote New Jersey's coastline, and displaced a lot of people. 

Getting back to normal has taken time and money. East Coast Beer's founders are shore denizens, from northern Ocean County, an area that saw extensive damage  from Sandy. As such, the guys felt compelled to help.

In short order after the storm, John "Merk" Merklin and Brian Ciriaco committed themselves to raise money through sales of their beers and channel it to storm relief. Three of their distributors – Kohler, Ritchie & Page, and Harrison Beverage – backed them up on the endeavor.

Last week, East Coast announced $4,068 had been raised for the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, the organization founded just days after the storm by first lady Mary Pat Christie. 

"We went to the distributors simply with a print request, saying 'Hey, we're going to look to donate 50 cents for every case we sell to this fund, can you just print up the flyers and make sure to get the information out?" Merk says. "Our distributors said, 'You know what? This is a great idea. How about we match you?' So it wound up becoming a dollar for every case."

A dollar for every case, plus what others may have been inspired to donate after seeing the flyer. Merk says there were some instances of that kind of giving.

Beer No. 4
Beach Haus Cruiser IPA, East Coast's fourth beer to come to market in bottle and draft, is due out in mid- to late March. It's the company's hoppiest beer to date, a combination of Centennial and Horizon hops that clock in at 60 to 65 IBUs on top of about 6.5% ABV maltiness. (For comparison purposes, that's the flavor-profile neighborhood of Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale.) 

For hops fans, the beer will be familiar (think West Coast inspired) and assertive, but not over the top. "It's what you would expect from an IPA; you get all of that hop flavor. But we're not out for the moon on this one in terms of IBUs. For us, that was not the objective," Merk says.

Cruiser's about embracing the IPA style, a beer that is "something you can put a couple back, and do it having fun with the experience," Merk notes.

The beer has been on East Coast's drawing boards for quite a while. It would have seen introduction in late 2011, on the heels of the company's flagship pilsner, were it not for a reshuffling of the lineup plan. The reordering put it behind Winter Rental, which debuted as a fall season in 2011, and Kick Back, which came out in spring 2012.

Drafting new approaches
For any beer company or brewery, fine-tuning production is an ongoing matter. For East Coast, that has translated into some tweaks in managing their draft beer production, generally now treating it as seasonal while bottles are year-round. (The company distributes to six states now: New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Carolina and South Carolina.)

"We've had some success with the draft market, with obviously local accounts, and even national chains like Applebee's," Merk says. "But we noticed no matter who the account is – and there's a few exceptions which we're absolutely thankful for – we're never going to grab two (draft) lines. It's very difficult for anybody, let alone us, to say, 'Hey, we're going to have Winter Rental on one line and Kick Back on another.'  

"So what we've done is, we've kind of said, unofficially but just operationally, that our draft is somewhat seasonal. For instance, Kick Back is available for three months of the year; it's going to fall into late summer, early fall this year. The bottle (version) is available year-round. The pilsner ... again, draft is going to be available late spring throughout the summer, but the bottles are obviously available … Same thing with Cruiser. It's going to be early spring, mid-summer availability in draft, but you're always going to be able to get packaged."

Further tweaks to that are likely. 

"We don't see how producing draft year-round – it doesn't work out to our favor right now," Merk says. "The good part is, we're holding onto lines more and more. There are a number of accounts – it's starting to grow where we have 12-month presence with at lease one of our beers. But it's probably less than a dozen where we've got folks pouring two of our beers."

With the help of Tom Przyborowski, East Coast's R&D-brewer, Merk and Brian entered New Jersey's craft beer market in 2010 with Beach Haus Classic American Pilsener, brewed under contract by Genesee in Rochester, N.Y. Amid that, having a brewery in their home state was always on their minds. 

But back then, logic dictated that a brewery take a back seat to building the core brand in what has become a rapidly expanding craft beer market in New Jersey. Almost a year ago, though, East Coast began to give the brewery part of their business model more attention. Now it's front and center, with the company scouting locations and working through the options for equipping a brewery (i.e. new versus used equipment). 

"We're looking to be in a decent-size space, be a decent-size brewery, something that people want to come visit. We're pursuing it, operationally committing resources to it," Merk says. "It's going to help our business evolve. It's going to give us greater flexibility in terms of putting out styles and such. We've talked to a number of new equipment manufacturers; we've kept our eyes on the industry classifieds."

But, of course, settling the matter of a location must come first. 

"You have to get the location, and the location's got to get the approvals, so when you put equipment on order, it's not going to just sit in a warehouse after it's done," Merk says.

Just exactly where East Coast is looking to put a brewery is being held close to the vest. But some options look promising.

"There's a particularly interesting location, again without naming it, where it's fairly drop-and-go for us," Merk says. "Structurally, there's not much to do with the building. We'd like to get this done in 12 months. But this is a business where people say, 'twice as long and three times as expensive.' I certainly hope it's not twice as long. But there's a couple of properties we're looking at that, if it were to go through, we could be in and up and running in as soon as 12 months. It's exciting. It's driving us right now to make this happen."

East Coast's timing is appropriate, too.

Governor Chris Christie signed into law last September new rules that grant some freedoms that had long been kept out Garden State craft brewers' reach, namely lifting restrictions on how brewers could retail directly to the public during brewery tours. The result is, production craft brewers can now mine an additional revenue source to supplement the traditional channel of beer sales through distributors.

"Between tasting rooms and little retail rooms, it's amazing how much that can pick up the slack where you don't make money or where you lose money, between the licensing and being in compliance in various states, things like that," Merk says. "It's a good opportunity from a business-model perspective; it makes a ton of financial sense to do it. That wasn't always the case."

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