Tuesday, May 4, 2010

River Horse – after ShadFest

ShadFest in Lambertville helped run down the clock on April (it was the weekend of the 24th).

And if you follow River Horse Brewing, this go-round you may have noticed something a little different about the brewery: It's really starting to hit its stride under the new ownership (RH changed hands back in 2007), getting there with a contagious enthusiasm.

To make that point may also imply that RH had fallen from favor in a few places. It's true, that happened. But since the folks there now in the red brick of the Old Trenton Cracker factory have worked really hard to get beyond that, we'll just say 'nough said 'bout that.

What supporters of Jersey beer should know is this: The atmosphere at the brewery along the Delaware River is as sunny as the playful packaging that envelopes RH's beer. Production was up 40 percent last year, and a co-owner Chris Walsh will point out they can't brew beer fast enough.

Still smiling as he tells a couple who popped in the brewery's souvenir shop about an hour before ShadFest got rolling, Chris notes: It's happening without throwing a marketing campaign behind the beer.

And for months now, Walsh and Glenn Bernabeo, RH's other co-owner, have been scouting around for more fermenter and bright beer tanks. But it's been a challenge to find tanks on the used market that fit the brewery's specifications. Glenn says it could come down to buying new.

In the meantime, managing demand calls for closer examining of orders from the brewery's distributors.

Chris Rakow, who took over head brewer duties back in January, likens the growth to an imminent blastoff. (That's Chris at left.)

"I think of this place as a spaceship on the pad. It's rumbling, the engines are going," hes says. "This past winter we sold more beer than we did the previous summer ... Summer is the busy season. The orders just keep doubling in size from every different distributor. That's why we're really trying to get some (extra) tanks in here.

"Summer Blonde, we're on our seventh (40-barrel) tank of it. And with the other beers we make year-round we're probably on our seventh tank of those beers, too. So in the past month and a half, two months, we've just been cranking that out. We're probably looking to do 12 to 15 tanks of it."

Since the 2007 ownership change, River Horse has been very much about trying new things: a cherry amber ale, a dunkel, a honey wheat, a double wit, a double IPA, a hefe-rye beer and an oatmeal milk stout. Many of those lay the foundation of RH's brewers reserve series, while some emerged as seasonals and others as year-rounds.

Chris says the next reserve brew will be an imperial pumpkin ale with fresh pumpkin, spices, maple syrup and vanilla bean. "I'm a huge fan of pumpkin beers, and it's just how the schedule worked out that the next brewers reserve was fall, so I was pushing for a pumpkin beer," he says.

Chris is from Bloomsbury in Hunterdon County and studied electrical engineering at Rutgers. He also enjoyed a turn as a homebrewer. "As soon as I found out you can make beer at home, I jumped on it. All throughout college, I was homebrewing as much as possible."

(He also plays guitar. That's him playing the Paul Reed Smith guitar with his band at ShadFest, part of the brewery's back-lot entertainment; Chris Walsh's son, Collin, a bass player, also took a turn on stage with his band. See photo below.)

Rakow's first stop after college was American Brewers Guild as a "mini-vacation before I started working." Next stop was a job as an engineer. "Loved the money, but I just hated the desk job, sitting in front of a computer all day," he says. "My ultimate plan was work as an engineer, save up some money, open a brewpub."

Chris brewed at Boston-based Harpoon Brewery's Windsor, Vt., location and was already at River Horse when the head brewer job came open in January. He ably took over those reins and welcomes the challenge of growing the brewery.

"We're just getting this place geared up to be higher volume but still stick to really good beer and really care about it."

More photos from ShadFest ...

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