Thursday, March 10, 2011

No. 9, No. 9, No. 9

Beatles references aside, the big announcement from the owners of the Iron Hill brewpub chain today is word of a ninth location, this one planned for Chestnut Hill, Pa., toward the end of this year.

But the more interesting news nugget for New Jersey beer drinkers was found toward the bottom of the news release: Iron Hill intends to open a North Jersey location by 2015 as one of five new brewpubs in locations from the Washington, D.C., area to the Garden State's northern half.

Iron Hill's Maple Shade location, which opened in July 2009, was the brewpub chain's eighth and a homecoming for the trio of Jersey guys (Mark Edelson, Kevin Finn and Kevin Davies) who founded the company in Delaware and built it up there and in Pennsylvania before making a go of things on this side of the river.

The Maple Shade site has become wildly popular among South Jersey beer enthusiasts. The tidbit about North Jersey was something of back-channel discussion among Iron Hill faithful and insiders.

Now it's in the news release. So stay tuned for a specific location.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Munich study for Iron Hill's No. 2 brewer

Iron Hill assistant brewer Jeff Ramirez will get to hone his brewing skills in Germany this spring.

Jeff heads to Munich March 26th for a five-week study gig that comes as the back end of his training with the Seibel Institute of Technology.

"This is their 12-week international brewing diploma," says Jeff, who's been with Iron Hill's Maple Shade location since it opened in 2009.

"Basically there's seven weeks in Chicago, different modules (of study). They'll go over the wort production, raw materials, fermentation biology, cellar stuff, packaging, the business of brewing. Then you go out to Germany, in Munich, and work at Doemens, which has the World Brewing Academy. There you do applied techniques."

The training abroad wraps up with a brewery tour of Europe. "You go to Belgium, London ... go to different places like maltsters and different breweries," Jeff says.

Jeff enrolled at Seibel while awaiting word on a job at Iron Hill. The folks who run the show there have supported his endeavors, letting him take time away from work with head brewer Chris LaPierre for the course work in Chicago.

And now Germany.

Before Iron Hill, Jeff worked briefly at Trap Rock brewpub in Berkeley Heights, helping out brewer Charlie Schroeder (in the photo above, that's Jeff on the left, with Charlie). But it was at Kenyon College in Ohio that Jeff decided he wanted to be in the beverage industry.

It was either tea or beer.

"Tea is more research and travel. Beer is more labor and science, hard work," he says.

Fans of Iron Hill's beers, no doubt, are glad Jeff chose beer.

Big brew theory

How do you make a big imperial beer when your business model is dedicated to making accessible beers that invite Bud, Miller and Coors Light drinkers to step up to craft brews, but also promise not to overwhelm?

That's the challenge for Cricket Hill Brewing, as it works to replicate a brew the Fairfield beer-maker crowned the winner in a homebrew contest it sponsored last year. CH has pulled off big-yet-accessible brews in the past with some beers made to celebrate brewery milestones.

Founder Rick Reed (pictured applying an instant Cricket tattoo on festival-goer) says the brewery will do that again with homebrewer Bill Kovach's recipe for a Russian imperial stout. The specialty brew isn't due until January 2012, but test batches are already being produced. Rick took some time at the Philly Craft Beer Festival this past weekend to talk about the stout and how the beer landscape in New Jersey has changed since Cricket Hill opened its doors 10 years ago.

BSL: You've done bourbon barrel and cask beers, a barley wine ... they were higher-alcohol beers.

RR: Only 8 percent, even the barley wine was only 8 percent. We did it as a signature for our 500th brew, and we kept it at 8 percent, low-balled the alcohol because we're trying to do gateway beers.

BSL: So even though you're doing an imperial stout, you're going to keep to your traditional approach?
RR: We going to try to keep the alcohol as low as we can, as long as we get the full flavor. If that means the alcohol goes up, then it has to. The homebrewer (who had) the winning recipe, we've altered it to his satisfaction. We've done two different pilot brews with the modifications – he used some (malt) extract, and we won't do that. We're having some preliminary tastings ... it's very, very good, and it looks like the alcohol is going to be held down.

BSL: What kind of range, 8 percent like the barley wine?
RR: Eight percent, yeah. We're also doing some small-batch stuff with the second, third and fourth-place winners. One is an imperial IPA; one's an American pale ale, and the other's a dubbel.

BSL: And again you're dialing it down in that Cricket Hill style of making an accessible beer that still has craft qualities?
RR: We consider it the gateway philosophy. We're trying to get the Coors, Miller and Bud drinkers of New Jersey – and there's still plenty of them, only the lord knows why – to come over to an all-malt without getting scared off. In a perfect world, if you're a beer geek, and somebody says, "I want to try a new style," you say, "Try Cricket Hill first, they'll show you what it can taste like without overwhelming you." And from there, you can go hog wild.

BSL: You guys have been at it for 10 years now. Do you feel like you've carved out a niche?
RR: We're comfortable now. If things continue the way they have over the last year and half, we're going to be very comfortable. New Jersey's accepting craft beer now with open arms. Our (brewery) tours, we're averaging 100-plus people every Friday. Our sales are up over 50 percent from the year before and the last two years.

BSL: What about your volume?
RR: This year we think were going to hit just over 2,000 barrels. For a brewery our size, that's really amazing. We lend ourselves to draft; for a small brewery, 50 percent of our beer is draft, 50 percent is bottles. Usually it's 80-20, bottles to draft.

BSL: Is your East Coast Lager still your top beer?
RR: Yep.

BSL: What's No. 2?
RR: I would bet No. 2 is the IPA (Hopnotic IPA). It's amazing, because no matter where you go and do these shows, they either love IPA or don't drink it. In Pennsylvania, they're IPA freaks, and Stockertown (Beverage, a CH distributor) sells a lot of it for us. We're the official beer of the Philly Roller Girls (roller derby team) and they take the lager and the IPA, until the Summer (Breakfast Ale) comes one, and then they take the Summer. The lager's also in some minor league baseball clubs.

BSL: You've also been a friend, lent support to the newcomers on the Jersey beer scene, New Jersey Beer Company in North Bergen and Port 44 Brew Pub in Newark ...
RR: It's a tight community. The more the merrier.

BSL: Beer in New Jersey is dramatically different than it was, even just four years ago. Talk about that.
RR: When I first got in this business, New Jersey really had nothing. It had microbreweries that were selling their beer anywhere but New Jersey. Flying Fish was selling their beers in Philadelphia; you had River Horse selling in Pennsylvania and New York; you had Ramstein selling in upstate New York, because New Jersey's a fickle marketplace.

We've been banging our heads against the wall, all of us breweries, and now New Jersey is coming around. New Jersey is a very hot marketplace; you can tell because all the little breweries from across the country are trying to get into New Jersey because they see it perking up and coming alive.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Beer fests, figuratively speaking

Atlantic City's annual beer festival is less than a month off, and this past week, the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild announced the date for its annual June gathering aboard the USS New Jersey battleship museum at the Camden waterfront.

Beer festivals have become ubiquitous across New Jersey, one for almost every weekend of the year, it seems.

Chris Walsh from River Horse Brewing may have said it best when he joked awhile back, "They're happening on the half hour now."

But whatever the case, festivals are something of a numbers game, especially the behind-the-scene kind that support the attendance figures. (Yeah, yeah, the most important number is the net sum from ticket sales, plus whatever spinoff dollars that make their way into the local economies, i.e. site rental, parking, hired security and concessions.)

So while at the fifth annual Philly Craft Beer Festival on Saturday we asked its promoter, Andy Calimano of Starfish Junction Productions (that's Andy in the orange shirt in the photo at above left), to run through some of those figures.

Here are some numbers:

Beer – More than 5,425 gallons of kegged beer, plus cases of bottled and canned beer.

(Starfish's promotional literature notes 100 beers from 50 breweries, but those round numbers always seem to be the case.)

Plastic sampler cups: 6,000

Ice: 3.6 tons

Volunteers: More than 150.