Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NJBC looking back & moving forward

Hudson County's only craft brewer is closing in on its first anniversary.

And with that, there's certainly cause to celebrate. New Jersey Beer Company began brewing April 28 last year, then launched the brand in May at the Copper Mine Pub (North Arlington) and The Iron Monkey (Jersey City), two craft beer bars that have shown the brewery some love.

Since then, the North Bergen beer-maker has worked to carve out a regional market and build a local fan base as it navigates the sometimes-stormy straits (i.e. the brewery's crippled bottler) of being a start-up business.

On the first day of this spring, a foursome doing a beer-circuit tour of North Jersey stopped by the brewery's tasting room; moments before, a fan from Jersey City restocked with two growlers of 1787 Abbey Single. Outside, a truck driver who spied a guy leaving the brewery with a freshly filled growler took advantage of the red light at Tonnelle Avenue and 43rd Street to strike up a conversation about his favorite NJBC brews.

Heartwarming moments indeed, but founder Matt Steinberg (above) is keeping a practical focus as he looks forward to toasting the first anniversary. Between brewery tours, Matt took some time to talk about the first year, some of the rough spots and some of what lies ahead.

BSL: How are you marking the occasion, the first anniversary?
MS: I haven't got so far as to plan anything yet. But I think I'm definitely going to talk to Vito (Forte) about doing something at the Copper Mine. That was the first event, the first time our beer was served. It went on that weekend at the Iron Monkey as well. They were our first two customers at the same time. We did a second launch party at the Monkey. There's a decent chance we'll look both of them up and talk about doing an anniversary celebration, a typical (meet the) brewers night kind of thing.

BSL: You opened with a flight of three flagship beers, the 1787 Abbey Single, Garden State Stout and Hudson Pale Ale. What else did you stir into the mix, what seasonals?
MS: We added two. We had the Wee Heavy, which, I guess, is our winter seasonal. Then we did a second running of Sixty Shilling Mild out of that, a Scottish style pub ale, real mild, like a 3.2, 3.5 (ABV) kind of ale. We didn't sell that outside the brewery; we had it here, basically sold growlers of it. We used it for some events, too.

Ideally our spring seasonal would be out by now but it hasn't happened that way. The next thing coming out will be an IPA; in theory it could be in our next run of brewing. We may try to squeeze something out in the summer, too ... It might be awhile before we add something into the full-time rotation.

BSL: Let's talk about being a start-up. There's some choppy water that comes along with that. What are some of the hurdles you've encountered?
MS: It's politics; it always comes down to money. It's all the things you didn't think you were gonna have to pay for, and kegs that don't come back and you have to go repurchase ... the taxation at all those various levels you try to anticipate; things like insurance cost an absolute fortune, a lot more than they probably should. Things like that have definitely played a part.

BSL: And getting on sound footing with your brewing system?
MS: I definitely think we've ironed out a couple little issues we had with the brewing. In the first few batches, there were some glitches in the system, things we had to figure out workarounds for, figure out how we were going to do things, and equipment breaking down ... stuff like that here and there, just the typical kind of stuff you would run into in a brewery and a lot of other manufacturing kinds of business.

BSL: The equipment breakdowns ... the unhappy thing there is your bottler isn't in use anymore.
MS: Yeah, you'd think you'd get more than six weeks out of a brand-new piece of equipment.
BSL: What happened with it?
MS: The thing was breaking from day one. It took us about six weeks to get the thing to properly fill bottles. We had parts falling off, breaking off. We literally broke almost every damn piece just in the normal operation. The manufacturer put some wrong parts in, which ultimately ruined the fill head. So it got to the point where we were getting maybe one out of every six or eight bottles that would actually have 12 ounces of beer and a cap on it. It got to the point where we couldn't properly fill bottles with that thing. You could fill them faster with a hand bottler, but you can't send stuff out to market with a hand filler.

BSL: So what's going to happen with the bottler? Are you going to be able to sell?
MS: I may throw it on ProBrewer – see if somebody else wants to take a crack at it – for a horrible loss, considering it's a 6-week-old piece of equipment. Worst case, we'll sell it for scrap, see what we can get out of it.

BSL: And you're committed to being back in bottles?
MS: I think we have to. That's just what the market is around here; we have to be able to supply it. I sit there and see whole lot of untapped market. It's got to be dealt with ... I don't know if I'd add another year-round beer until we have the bottling situation fixed. That's really what kind of determines a year-round beer, something you're going to put in bottles and have out on the shelves all the time.

And frankly, that's the higher priority right now. I'd rather fix that and get our three flagships back out in bottles rather than worry about bringing a fourth beer out into the rotation. Seasonals are a way we can get something out there in a small run and at least be doing some new stuff.

BSL: Let's talk about something more positive, where you've solidly made inroads, where people like you the most right now, your fan base.
MS: Up north, in Hudson County and Jersey City in particular. More beer has moved in that town than anywhere else. Last summer, we definitely had some good runs down the shore, in particular the Abbey I know seemed to do really well in the beach kind of towns. The Philly area has done all right for us. After that, it's really kind of spotty, it's a couple here, a couple there. But, you know, we're trying to bring them up where we can.

BSL: In terms of getting your message out, how many events have you done in the past year?
MS: Seems like back in October we were doing two a week at least. Our typical meet-the-brewers nights at bars, I would say we did at least 20 or so of those and then we probably had another half dozen in festivals. Then there's some random stuff here and there, more like charity sponsorships where our beer ended up getting served.

BSL: Are you glad you go into this business?
MS: Yeah, absolutely. No regrets at all. I certainly wish we had done some things differently, but hindsight is good like that. I certainly didn't do everything perfectly, a few things I wish we could have back, but never once did I go "I can't believe I did this."

BSL: You can take pride in that you brought a local craft brand back to Hudson County (Mile Square Golden Ale and Amber Ale were mid-1990s craft brands of the now-defunct Hoboken Brewery.)
MS: I'm trying to. Right now, we're still in the weeds enough that we've got to get over the hump. So I'm going to save the celebrating for another day. I think we're well on our way. I'm happy with the way we've grown the brand. I think the beer's steadily gotten better and better throughout. More and more people are having it now than had it before. I'm really looking forward to the summer when people start flooding New Jersey to head down to the beaches. I'm really hoping we can make sure they're drinking our beer when they're doing it.

Tara Bossert of Jersey City (middle picture) holds growlers of 1787 Abbey Single. She discovered NJBC through Dorrian's. "I prefer to support entrepreneurs and local businesses because I really think it helps form a community. It's always great when you have local businesses around. It connects a company with an actual person, versus a big conglomerate like Bud," Tara says.

Foursome (from left in third photo) Jim and Jeanne Woodhouse and Judy and Frank Sharkey sample some Garden State Stout.

1 comment:

beertography said...

Great article! Can't wait to celebrate a year's worth of NJ Beer Co.