Thursday, February 3, 2011

Around the world in 100 beers & Jersey, too

Jersey-made brews pouring in Secaucus on Saturday.

Festival promoter Starfish Junction is bringing the international beer show it staged last fall at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and last June in Philadelphia to the Meadowlands Exposition Center, marking Starfish's first foray into Garden State beer festivals.

The International Great Beer Expo boasts 100 beers from 50 breweries hailing from 25 countries.

"This is a festival for those who enjoy imports and not so much the craft brands," says Joe Chierchie, sales and marketing manager for Starfish Junction.

Still, if you're going, you can get an array of 2-ounce pours of American craft beers in your logoed sampler glass, including Jersey-made beers from Cricket Hill, Flying Fish, High Point, and River Horse, and contract brews from Jersey-based Boaks Beverage, East Coast Beer Company and Hometown Beverages.

You'll find the Garden State brands interspersed throughout the international labels. "We like to mix in the local guys with the big guys, so you can get a real taste between certain styles," Joe says.

Starfish Junction is widely known for its beer shows in Philly and New York. The timing was right, Joe says, for Starfish to set its sights on New Jersey.

"We're based in Long Island and the business partnerships made with those festivals there led to the (2007) Philly festival," he says. "There was an outcry for a Jersey festival. Through distributors and the connections made in New Jersey we found venue that would work."

Tickets, priced at 40 bucks ($10 for designated drivers), are still available for both the afternoon (12:30-4 p.m.) and evening (5:30-10 p.m.) sessions.

Growler mania

Out West, in Big Sky country, folks want some clarity on legal aspects about selling growlers.

The question on the floor in Montana is who can legally sell 'em. Here in the Garden State, Beer-Stained Letter sort of put that question to New Jersey regulators, (specifically, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control).

The answer is: If you're licensed to sell by the pint, as in you're a bar owner, you can fill and sell growlers. Also, some packaged goods stores have additional licensing that allows growler sales. Brewpubs may seem like a special case, but they fall within the category of bars and taverns.

This quest for an answer about Jersey growler sales results from what seems like some of the larger packaged goods stores jumping into the business of draft beer by the half-gallon or 2-liter jug. Not to mention the bars that have capitalized on sales of to-go draft beer. So we fired off a quick inquiry to ABC.

And here are the numbers Trenton provided:

As of December 2010, New Jersey had 473 package goods stores licensed to sell growlers. (It seems like a high number, but that's the count ABC provided. It doesn't mean all 473 licensees are doing growlers.)

As of December 2010, the state had 5,665 bars that could fill growlers at their taps and sell them over bar.

Growler mania.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Signs of spring, talk of winter

Forget groundhogs as harbingers of spring.

Here's a sure sign that winter will make its scheduled hand-off: a collection of green Post-It notes stuck on the production calendar at High Point Brewing.

The notes read maibock.

Yes, spring is coming. So is that maibock, officially on March 12th at an open house at the brewery in Butler. There are 30 barrels of it fermenting right now, brewed at the end of last week, the headwaters of a planned run of eight 15-barrel batches, already pre-sold to Ramstein draft accounts.

But as much as there is a longing for spring, there's still a reason to talk about winter: High Point saw some firsts with its current versions of Winter Wheat Doppelbock and Ice Storm eisbock, some minor but noteworthy circumstances that illustrate how hot craft beer continues to be nationally and in New Jersey.

For starters, High Point dedicated two 12-barrel batches of its multi-tank run of the winter wheat exclusively for freezing and concentrating into Ice Storm, the Ramstein brew (12% ABV) in the Aventinus vein that has grown from a one-keg experiment eight years ago to a wildly popular beer that's expensive to make, sells out fast and has helped underscore the Ramstein brand. (This should give you an idea of the cost involved with producing Ice Storm: those 24 barrels of winter wheat doppelbock yielded 8 barrels of eisbock after freezing part of the water content and drawing off the remaining concentrated liquid.)

"This year we made more eisbock than we've made in the cumulative amount of time that we've ever made it. For the first time, we actually brewed batches of winter wheat that were dedicated solely to becoming eisbock," High Point founder/owner Greg Zaccardi said last Saturday, a snowy day that saw a steady stream of beer enthusiasts swing by the brewery for sample tastes and to get growler fills.

"This batch that's on now never was served as winter wheat. It was converted to eisbock, and that's a new thing for us. And the reason for that is we had so much demand for it that it made a lot of sense to just focus on it."

Then there's this: High Point bottled only a tiny fraction of the winter wheat doppelbock this year – 10 or 15 cases to have sixpacks on hand during its release open house last year – leaving the lion's share as draft. To be sure, the backbone of High Point's business has been draft beer; the winter seasonal is among only three of High Point's dozen beers that get bottled. But the brewery's tilt toward draft business is growing, and it signed on with Micro-Star keg service last year to ensure an ample supply of half barrels.

"This year the decision to not bottle was essentially (draft) pre-orders," Greg says. "This was the first year we really never did a substantive quantity bottling. Normally we do hundreds of cases.

"We always wanted to be at least 65 percent draft. Since we started with Microstar, we're up to about an 80-20 ratio," Greg says. "The more draft beer we can do, in my opinion, the better it is. It's a 100 percent reusable container; there's a lot less waste in terms of beer spillage going through the bottling line ... the system is set up to have better turnover, better management of draft beer than bottled beer. The consumer has a better chance of getting a very good draft beer than a very good bottled beer."

The draw of seasonal brews can't be ignored, either. Ice Storm is "wow factor" kind of beer, Greg says. "At this point if you really want to make something special and make an impression in the community you have to do something that is wow," he says. It's a situation that seems to steal the thunder from brewers' year-round labels, but you probably won't hear many complaints.

"As a brewer you really want to put all of your energy behind a couple of flagship beers, seasonals being something to mix it up, to accent your core brands," Greg says. "But it's not only me; it seems that Sam Adams and a lot of my contemporaries have a lot of more excitement when it comes to their seasonal releases than their core brands."

But just as seasonals have been helping brewers' bottom line, so have the rising number beer bars in New Jersey and in neighboring states. That's enabled High Point to grow (up 15 percent for the business year that ended last month) in a smaller sales market than it served a dozen years ago. It's also translating into some planned expansion this year, a couple of 30-barrel tanks due to come on line at the end of the spring.

"There's a lot more taps available, a lot more tap space available. There are places that normally wouldn't carry a sixtel of craft beer but have given it a try, and now they have two sixtels that they rotate through, in a place that's a beer and a shot joint," Greg says. "That didn't exist 10 years ago. Even the specialty beer bars these days didn't exist. If they did, what was exotic was Molsen and Bass; it wasn't a local craft."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Atlantic Highlands brewery in development

Another production brewery is under development in New Jersey, with hopes of entering the state's craft beer market with a draft brew around Memorial Day.

Cousins Chris and Augie Carton got the blessing of Atlantic Highlands officials for their planned Carton Brewing Company late last year. They've been spending this month gutting the interior of their building (pictured below) on Washington Avenue in the Monmouth County bayshore town to get it prepped for delivery of brewing equipment.

The equipment from Newlands Systems in Canada – a 15-barrel brewhouse, three 30-barrel fermenters, a 30-barrel bright tank and same-size hot liquor tank – is expected to arrive some time in March. Barring any glitches or delays, the cousins hope to have their state and federal licensing squared away in April so they can launch in time for the summer with a hoppy, kolsch-like beer. That brew could be followed up with a steam beer (working name Carton Common) or an IPA.

For their brewer, the Cartons have hired Jesse Ferguson, a Brooklyn friend and trusted homebrewer now turning pro after a stint managing the indie hip-hop record label Definitive Jux. Over the holidays, Jesse did some on-the-job training at Terrapin Brewing in Athens, Ga., where his brother-in-law, Bob Weckback, works. For the past couple of weeks, Jesse has been dividing his time between some on-site work in Atlantic Highlands and additional brewery training at Greenpoint Beer Works in Brooklyn. (Pictured at top around their half-barrel test brew kettle is Chris, Jesse and Augie.)

"It's my version of beer school. I'm trying to learn everything I can," he says.

New Jersey's craft beer scene is enjoying a growth spurt since of late. Iron Hill brewpub opened in 2009 in Maple Shade as the first new Garden State brewery in 10 years. In April 2010, New Jersey Beer Company launched, and last August, Port 44 Brew Pub began turning out its lineup of house ales.

By the end of 2010, there were four limited brewery license applications pending before state regulators.

Carton Brewing's development is tracking closely to that of Kane Brewing, which is taking shape about 20 miles south in Ocean Township and also eyeing a potential launch this spring. (Kane and Carton would become the second and third breweries in Monmouth County behind Basil T's brewpub in Red Bank.) And then there's the planned Cape May Brewing in Lower Township, which, like Carton and Kane, also has designs on a spring 2011 launch.

On Saturday, in separate telephone interviews, Chris and Jesse outlined plans for Carton Brewing.

The vision for the brewery goes back two or three years, says Chris, who's an attorney in Newark. (Augie works in finance in Manhattan.) The cousins, both longtime residents of Monmouth County's bayshore, were enjoying some beer (Troeg's Nugget Nectar, Chris recalls) one day, and in some discussion, came to the conclusion that their home state could and should be more of a player in the craft beer scene. Homebrewers themselves, they decided to take matters into their own hands and make the leap into the industry.

Fast forward to now, and Carton Brewing is shaping plans to hit the market initially with a draft beer, self-distributing to regional accounts. In time, packaging could include bottles or cans, with an early preference for cans, Chris says.

As the brewery project moves along, Jesse says, there's a palpable sense of excitement.

"I was down there (in Atlantic Highlands) yesterday taking some water samples and doing some measuring for the grist mill. I had to pinch myself," he says.

Jesse described the brew they plan to launch with as leaning toward a kolsch but with some hop assertiveness.

"The goal isn't to be a kolsch but to have a kolsch-like quality, with a hoppier profile," he says. "It will be complex enough that craft beer drinkers will know they're getting something special."

(NOTE: Interior shots courtesy of Jesse Ferguson and Carton Brewing.)