Thursday, November 17, 2011

NJ Beer Co. eyes return to bottle market

A planned to return to the bottled beer market for New Jersey Beer Company.

The Hudson County production brewery is in the process of acquiring a new six-head filler that will enable it to once again bottle its Hudson Pale, 1787 Abbey Single and Garden State Stout, the triad of brews that NJ Beer entered the market with about 18 months ago.

John McCarthy, CEO of the North Bergen-based brewery, says NJ Beer expects to order the Meheen bottler before the end of this month and have it up and running at the beginning of next year.

"It's been a long time coming. We're really looking forward to it," John said by phone Thursday, the eve of the brewery's re-opening of its refurbished tasting room.

Shortly after launching in 2010, NJ Beer expanded its packaging beyond kegs and had its flagship brews in six-packs on store shelves. The product diversification in the marketplace was short-lived: NJ Beer was forced back to draft-only business when the filler from Applied Bottling of British Columbia irreparably failed after little over a month's use.

"The thing was breaking from day one ... 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," brewery founder Matt Steinberg said in an interview last spring, just before NJ Beer marked its first anniversary. "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 ... we couldn't properly fill bottles with that thing."

Now, NJ Beer is enjoying a rebound, having tenaciously endured the dark moments like the crippled-bottler episode and flooding last August from Hurricane Irene, which spared brewing equipment but ruined malt inventory. (The storm amounted to about a $1,000 sting to the brewery.)

"We've had some serious ups and downs. The bottler going down was devastating blow, losing all of our bottle accounts. It was a huge hit, emotionally and financially," John says. "We had to make some hard decisions and some sacrifices, but we weathered it, got some new investment."

The brewery is again poised to release its cold weather seasonal, Weehawken Wee Heavy, an 8.3% ABV brew that found favor among hordes of Jersey craft beer enthusiasts last year. "We're excited to get it out again. It should be out on draft at the end of the month," John says.

Along with the big Scottish ale will come its lighter sibling, the renamed 60 Shilling Mild (3.5% ABV), now called Sasha's 60 Shilling Mild, a salute to the brewery's now-deceased mascot Rottweiler, Sasha. (Head brewer Brendan O'Neil is a former dog trainer, and Sasha was his top dog.)

Both brews will be available for sampling, poured beside the Hudson Pale Ale, 1787 Abbey Single and Garden State Stout, when NJ Beer reopens its refurbished tasting room Friday (11/18, 4-8 p.m.). The end-of-tour room has been open intermittently of late, John says, but Friday's event will be something akin to a grand re-opening.

Meanwhile, NJ Beer is scouting a new, larger location, since the Tonnelle Avenue site in North Bergen where the brand was launched is becoming a little claustrophobic. Nearby Jersey City may hold some prospects, John says, but as far as a new location goes, the only thing that is settled is that NJ Beer intends to remain in Hudson County.

"Everything right now is looking really, really positive for New Jersey Beer Company," he says. "We feel stronger."

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