Thursday, March 11, 2010

Craft brewing returning to Hudson County

The last piece of the puzzle was still sitting in Port Newark on Thursday, where federal regulators corralled it to give it not the once-, but twice-over, before releasing it to its final destination – a 5,000-square-foot building in North Bergen.

Once that bureaucratic hurdle gets jumped, Matt Steinberg says he can finally install his 10-barrel mash tun and kettle, four 20-barrel fermenters and same-size bright beer tank, get them inspected and get licensed as a brewer under the name New Jersey Beer Company.

Steinberg hopes that's all done by next week. When it is, NJ Beer will bring craft brewing back to Hudson County for the first time since Hoboken Brewing and its Mile Square brand went bust in the late 1990s. NJ Beer will also become the Garden State's sixth craft beer production brewery.

An IT consultant by profession and homebrewer for a half dozen years, Steinberg, 32, began making the transition to commercial brewer a year and a half ago, putting together financing and scoping out possible sites in Jersey City and Bayonne before committing New Jersey Beer Company to a location along Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen, where he makes his home.

He still works full-time at his IT gig, so he hired Matt Westfall from New England Brewing (Woodbridge, Conn.) to help craft the trio of beers under which NJ Beer will begin making its name – Hudson Pale Ale, Garden State Stout and 1787 Abbey Single Ale, a first-gear Belgian style to beckon session drinkers.

The beers will hit the market in both draft and sixpacks. Plans down the road call for brewing some of the heartier, imperial beers. (Steinberg joined the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, so look for NJ Beer at the guild's festival in June aboard the USS New Jersey in Camden.)

"The great thing about craft brewing is you can pull in styles from around the world, brewing techniques and hop varieties. The fun part is you can do whatever you want," says Steinberg, whose own palate trends toward big stouts, Belgian brews and other extreme beers.

The company name owes much to a desire for simplicity – beer brewed in New Jersey. But Steinberg says there's also plenty to celebrate about the Garden State, and on NJ Beer's Web site, you'll find references to Brick City (Newark) and Silk City (Paterson), homages to Jersey days gone by.

George Washington's at-the-bow Delaware River crossing pose forms the background of NJ Beer's abbey ale label, and the 1787 in the brew's name is the year New Jersey claimed statehood.

The state's pre-Prohibition history isn't lost on Steinberg, either, and he'll remind you that New Jersey was once a player in the beer industry. And the fact that Hudson County shared some of that title, a title that says New Jersey beer.

Trivia: Some people cite Hoboken as the home of the first brewery in North America, in 1641. But others give credit to Manhattan when New York City was known as New Amsterdam.

On the horizon

Like green shoots breaking through the soil of spring, beer events are popping up all over.

So here's a quick hit of calendar items to consider:

High Point Brewing holds its first open house of the year on Saturday (2-4 p.m.) at the brewery in Butler, and the makers of the Ramstein brand say on their Web site it's the debut of the 2010 edition of their maibock. Bring your growlers. We haven't heard back on our inquiry with owner Greg Zaccardi yet, so we can't say if there will be any Icestorm eisbock available. Also, the maibock was one of the Ramstein beers that Greg has been making plans to put in bomber bottles. When we catch up with Greg, we'll repost.

One other thing to consider, unlike Ramstein open houses of the past, the brewery plans to cycle attendees through in two shifts. The events have become so popular that a little crowd management has become necessary to ensure everyone gets a taste, a tour and the chance to have a growler filled.

The Brewer's Plate is Sunday at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Now in it's sixth year, this is very much a worth-your-time event, with beers from select breweries within a 150-mile radius of Philly paired with food from the city's great restaurants. Tickets are still available as of this writing. The premium ticket is a little pricey, $115, but the event benefits Fair Food, a nonprofit that promotes community sustainable/fair trade farming.

Climax Brewing, Cricket Hill, Flying Fish and River Horse are New Jersey mainstays at this affair, while Brian Boak is making his second appearance with his Boaks Beer brand of Belgian brews and imperial stouts, which a lot of folks remember are brewed under contract at High Point.

But the Jersey connection runs a little deeper: Tri-state brewpub Iron Hill will be there, and those who have followed Iron Hill know it was started by three Jersey guys who struck a mash first in Delaware, then Pennsylvania, and last year enjoyed a homecoming to the Garden State. Then there's Tom Baker's Earth Bread + Brewery, the phoenix that rose in Philly's Mount Airy section from the ashes of Tom closing Heavyweight Brewing in Monmouth County four years ago. Tom's reputation as an artisan brewer is still intact.

You'll find the full list of Brewer's Plate restaurants and breweries here.

The Atlantic City beer fest is March 20-21 at the Convention Center. In the past, we've been a little down on this festival. In fairness, we'll back away from some of things we don't like about Celebration of the Suds and be positive: Atlantic City is probably one of the best locations for a beer festival in New Jersey. AC is destination, and if you want to book a room, there's plenty of hotel space, not to mention enough glitz to occupy your time before or after your festival session.

The downside (we're not going to skip that completely) is, this is a monstrously big festival, and with that there's been long lines to get in and to hit the restroom; there's also been a little bit of rowdiness (sorry to rain on parade, but it's true). There's plenty of beer, a lot of which can be found at packaged stores with good beer managers. That said, this festival is a good fit for those who are just coming to craft beer, folks who are a few steps beyond that juncture, or people who love the buzz of a big crowds in a gambling mecca.

Look for Boaks, Cricket Hill, Flying Fish and River Horse to be poured, as well as Hometown Beverage, whose light lagers are contract brewed by the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barr, Pa. The Tun Tavern brewpub, located across the street from the festival site, is also on the bill. The Tun will be pouring the dunkelweizen made as a tie-in At The Shore and The Press of Atlantic City.

If you're looking to hit the Tun for dinner after the festival on Saturday, make reservations. It's still a recessionary climate these days, and you might get a table without calling beforehand. But over the years, the Tun generally hasn't accommodated walk-ins for looking for dinner. Not to be a buzzkill, but if you go there for just drinks or whatever, please do everyone – yourself included – a big favor by not showing up drunk. If the Tun is too crowded (and it gets crowded post-festival), try Firewaters at the Tropicana casino. You'll find a wide variety of craft beer on draft and in the bottle there.

On March 27, Pizzeria Uno in Metuchen holds its fourth cask ale festival at the brewpub on Route 1. Brewer Mike Sella has done a great job assembling a rack of casks from breweries around the region for this pay-as-you-go event in Uno's comfy pub atmosphere. Cask ale is a real delight, and this festival, which begins at noon, has generally lasted as long as the beer flows, meaning it could run a second day.

Lastly, even though it's a long way off, the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild holds its 14th annual festival on June 26. Once again, it's aboard the USS New Jersey battleship museum, moored at the Delaware River waterfront in Camden. More on that festival later.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gains in craft beer for 2009

There's more growth in US craft brewing despite the recessionary hangover the country has been experiencing. And in New Jersey, craft brewers have been working like mad to keep up with demand.

For 2009, River Horse Brewing (Lambertville) was up about 40 percent and has been looking to boost production capacity; High Point Brewing (Butler) was up 30 percent; Cricket Hill (Fairfield) came in with a 22 percent increase; Dave Hoffmann at Climax Brewing (Roselle Park) had to put some idled fermenters back online to keep up with a 30 percent jump in demand.

Flying Fish (Cherry Hill), the state's largest craft brewer, saw a 6 percent increase in organic growth. (The business world defines organic growth as a growth rate achieved by increased production and enhanced sales. FF's figure may appear smaller than the others, but the brewery's output is at least twice the size of the next largest New Jersey craft brewer, which has typically been River Horse.)

A number of Garden State brewpubs have been busy, too, filling growlers as fast as people can bring them in.

According to the industry trade group Brewers Association, craft beer sales edged up from $6.3 billion in 2008 to $7 billion last year (10.3 percent), and the Colorado-based organization tabbed the increase in craft brewers' production at almost 614,000 barrels year-to-year. (Volume went from 8.5 million barrels in '08 to 9.1 million last year, a 7.2 percent increase).

This is all happening in the face of overall beer sales falling, namely for the macro brewers. And the stats say a lot for craft beer, whose share of the market in the US beer industry is just 4.3 percent of sales and just under 7 percent for volume. Across the entire US beer industry, sales were down nearly 5 million barrels (210.4 million in 2008 to 205.4 million last year.)

Meanwhile, nationally the ranks of craft brewers also grew, from 1,485 to 1,542 from 2008 to 2009.

Last year, brewpub Iron Hill opened in Maple Shade to mark the first new brewer in the Garden State in 10 years. This year, brewpub Port 44 in Newark is expected to get up and running, while production brewers NJ Beer Co. in Hudson County and Turtle Stone Brewery in Cumberland County are working toward that goal.

NJ Beer, located in North Bergen, said on its Twitter and Facebook pages that its brewing system arrived, although it remains in Port Newark, and next week is likely to be a busy one with installation.

Monday, March 8, 2010

You, too, can brew

Friend of the blog John Holl steered us to this piece he wrote recently for his former task masters at The New York Times.

You can sit on the couch and have a commercial tell you all about (bland) triple-hopped Miller Lite (as if most beers don't get hops for bittering, flavor and aroma) or you can put on your work boots and find out for yourself, take at trip beyond the taste and aromas of the finished product.

Scott Cronick of The Press of Atlantic City gave that idea a shot, spending a day at the Tun Tavern in Atlantic City last month to help brewer Tim Kelly create a dunkelweizen that will be served at the Atlantic City beer fest March 2o-21 and, of course, at the Tun, under a tap logo that commemorates the occasion.

Scott has Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale on tap in his kegerator at home in Somers Point. So he's by no means a stranger to craft beer. And his interest in the brewing process comes mostly from a tie-in The Press has with the Tun for its weekend features supplement, At The Shore, which Scott edits.

Still, taking a turn at the mash tun and kettle as a brewer's apprentice did open Scott's eyes to a few things about beer that go beyond bubbles rising in a pint glass to buoy a head of foam.

Namely, there's the enzyme action that happens when hot water meets malted barely (and in this case wheat, too) to convert the grain's stored starch into malt sugar and collectively the wort; the rolling boil of that wort and protein changes that take place; not to mention the boil time necessary to let hops do their thing.

These are all things pro brewers know, and homebrewers, too, have memorized and can chew the fat endlessly over at Big Brew in May. But to the beer enthusiast whose compass doesn't point to beer geek, the experience is a little bit like pulling back the curtain on the wizard to discover some chemistry is responsible for his magic.

"I never realized how much of a science it was," Scott said. "It was eye-opening from a work perspective ... and how everything is so precise."

It's also like cooking and serving a big dinner: Someone has to clean up afterward. Like Scott did, digging out the spent grain from the mash tun. Anyone who has done that can tell you it's a bit of a workout.

But there's no shortcut to quality. And the same goes for brewing quality small-batch beer.

On Monday, Scott said Tim informed him the beer they brewed nearly two weeks ago is coming along nicely, with some aroma notes of banana and bubblegum that you may typically find with such a wheat beer.

All that's left is for the beer to condition a little more and it will be ready for the pint glass.

In the meantime, as part of the Press-Tun tie-in, you'll see mention of the brew in At The Shore. If it's a hit, other Tun seasonal brews and At The Shore tie-ins may follow in the dunkelweizen's footsteps.