Thursday, April 7, 2011

Six-pack market around corner for Climax

What's got a dozen heads and can go through 1,440 beers an hour?

The bottling line acquired by Climax Brewing.

The new addition will put the Roselle Park brewery's ales and lagers in six-packs for the first time and will likely double brewing volume over the course of a year.

Six-packs will also give Climax a wider reach across the state, says owner Dave Hoffmann. He's already been talking to a South Jersey distributor.

The 12-head Criveller bottler, bought from Fegley Brew Works in Allentown, Pa., and recently moved into the brewery, can handle 12-, 16- and 22-ounce bottles, Dave says, and run at speeds of 60 to 80 cases per hour.

"I'm pretty stoked about this," he says. Climax did 1,000 barrels last year, and Dave thinks six-packs will enable him to double that.

Bottling could begin around July. Between now and then, new labels need to be made, as well as six-pack holders.

The next step is to sit down with Gregg Hinlicky, the Toms River commercial artist who has done all of Climax's brewery artwork, and work out revising the labels that have adorned the half-gallon growlers that Climax has plied the bottled beer market with for years.

Those jugs of ESB, IPA, Nut Brown Ale and German-style lagers assigned the family name (i.e. Hoffmann Oktoberfest, Helles, Doppelbock etc.) were filled using a counter-pressure filler that Dave, a machinist in a past career, built himself.

Climax's jugs were nearly unique on the store shelves (often the only other beer in that kind of packaging was Rogue's Dead Guy Ale). But sometimes the growler size gave buyers a moment of pause, thus turning six-packs (and even four-packs) of 12-ounce bottles into a critical market to hit.

So what happens to that six-head, counter-pressure filler that drove Climax's bottle lineup?

"I'm gonna keep it and use it to fill jugs when I start making root beer," Dave says.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

From speakeasy to craft beer bar

Don't stop us if you've heard this one before. It's about a former speakeasy.

Those places really never were well-kept secrets, except from the law, and then only when bribes didn't work. Word gets around. And around.

So, with the 78th anniversary of beer becoming legal again, April 7th is a fitting time to spread word about Murphy's Suds & Sawdust, a pint-sized bar (if you'll pardon the pun) that began as an oasis for the thirsty yoked into a dry world by the 18th Amendment – and still exists to celebrate that heritage.

The Prohibition Era gives Murphy's a certain cachet. But what makes the bar modern-day unique is its location: the basement of a Victorian Colonial-style house in a quiet residential neighborhood in Rumson, a 5.2-square-mile upscale town situated between the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers in Monmouth County.

After Prohibition, the tavern stayed put as the town grew around it and town hall wrote rules for where you could and couldn't put such establishments (i.e. not in basements of homes). A retired postal worker now lives above the bar that's fire code rated at a 50-person capacity, and parking at Murphy's means you're probably pulling up in front of a neighboring house. One of the town's business avenues is just a 200-yard walk west of the bar.

What makes Murphy's a cozy, welcoming haunt is not just its size, but its proprietors.

Heather Vena, 36, and Robb McMahon, 47, are two veterans of the area's bar and service industry who were handpicked to become custodians of the Murphy's story and tend to the locals who make the tavern their go-to place.

"Their grandfathers drank here. They'd come in after work and drink here; now their kids are drinking here," Robb says. "There's a lineage to it."

A lineage that comes with responsibilities. "Nobody wants to be the one who screws up Murphy's," Robb says.

Murphy's began its run as a tavern on the down-low when booze was given an unpopular 13-year timeout under the Volstead Act. The congressional measure passed in 1919 set the rules for the 18th Amendment's ban on the once-legitimate liquor, beer and wine industries.

Taking its shorthand title from Andrew Volstead, the Minnesota congressman with a push-broom mustache who served as the legislative front for the temperance crew that actually authored the anti-booze rules, the Volstead Act took effect in January 1920, outlawing the manufacture and transportation of intoxicating alcoholic beverages.

It didn't, however, prohibit drinking a cocktail or two. Provided you could find it.

That's where Fred André's family comes in. The Andrés started the basement tavern, looking to slake Rumson's thirst without being too obvious.

"That's why it's located where it is, in the cellar," says Fred, 68, a lifelong Rumson resident who retired from AT&T/ Lucent Technology and now works for the town's zoning office. "It would never be permitted today where it is."

Fred was just a babe of 2 when his dad died. So, much of the lore about the speakeasy was passed onto him by his now-deceased mom.

She told him stories about liquor and beer being made in a garage behind the house on the 4,300-square foot property. The stuff didn't exactly taste good, Fred recalls his mom telling him. A carpenter who helped make the tavern's beer was always trying to drink it before it was ready, he says. Boat owners from nearby towns would meet up with rum-runners offshore to bring booze back to town.

"Oldtimers here were runners and took their boats out. But a lot of that went out of Highlands and Sea Bright," Fred says. "That's where a lot of the risk was, and the money."

In as much as the cellar was intended to be the bar's cover, the tavern wasn't exactly a secret.

"It was known to the people in town. The authorities knew it. My mother told me you didn't get into trouble so long as you sold it on premises," Fred says. "Another tavern in town got busted for selling off premises."

The tavern went legitimate after Prohibition's repeal in 1933. Beer became legal April 7 that year as an initial step toward washing away the failure of legislating morality. By Dec. 5 that year, with ratification of the 21st Amendment, Prohibition was beginning its existence as a constitutional footnote.

In the 1940s, the Andrés' once-furtive enterprise changed hands, winding up with the Murphy family (hence the bar's name), which ran the place successfully for quite some time, until the family matriarch, Mary Murphy, died several years ago and the business was sold.

"She was an old woman by the time I met her," Robb says. The bar was "very much a neighbor's basement back then. She'd walk downstairs, turn a light on outside the door. The light goes on, she was open, and you'd come in. And if she got tired, she'd say, 'Well, fellas it's time for me to go to bed,' and everybody would clean up and leave and she'd go back upstairs."

When the place changed hands again, it ended up with the owners of Val's Tavern, another bar in town. Dave Ciambrone and Gerald Goodman bought Murphy's largely as a real estate deal.

Ciambrone and Goodman refurbished the place with new cabinets, a new bar and floor. Robb, who knew Heather from when they both worked at separate establishments (Dublin House and Downtown Café) in nearby Red Bank, tended bar at Val's and took some shifts in Murphy's at the owners' behest. He invited Heather, recently returned from a summer working in Italy, to come guest-bartend on Mondays for service industry night.

The duo drew good crowds, and the owners approached them with the idea of taking over the bar.

"I didn't take him all that seriously," Robb says. "But then he (Dave Ciambrone) got us together and said, 'We can make this work.' So we worked out a lease agreement, and they gave us some time to get some capital together, and we all sat down with the lawyers."

That was in mid-2006.

"It was a passing of the baton," Robb continues. "Everybody wants to do right by Murphy's. One of the reasons we were handpicked is because there were other people involved ... doing like a cigar club or taking it over as a private thing for a sporting group or something like that."

Protecting a legacy like Murphy's is almost as unique as a basement tavern in a tony shore town. "In this business that's very rare," Robb says. "They could have made more money than they did off of us."

Under Heather and Robb (he grew up in Rumson, she in Asbury Park), Murphy's is as modern as as a tiny tavern can be – a widescreen TV over the bar, a digital TouchTunes jukebox near the entrance.

Yet the ambiance speaks to bygone eras as well: a shuffle board game (circa 1955) stands along a wall opposite the bar, while pictures of classic New York Yankees days (Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio) and Marilyn Monroe hang above it. The decor reflects Heather and Robb's personalities.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by her," Heather says. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be on regular TV, and I'd just be glued to the set."

Murphy's opens at 4 p.m., and a typical flow of patrons is usually three different crowds: blue collars and retirees come in early, drinking Pabst and Bud, followed by couples out for the evening and looking for a nightcap; late night is the younger crowd and service industry crews just off work.

"We never close early; we're here until 2 (a.m.) seven days a week," Heather says. "All the other bars in town, if they're not busy, they close. Everyone knows they can come here for one last pop."

In warm weather, it's not usual to see dogs hitched to fixtures outside, waiting on owners to finish their drinks. "You should see what good husbands live in this area, taking their dogs for walks. If we put a swingset in back ..." Heather jokes.

Bottled beers at Murphy's run the familiar gamut of Coors, Yuengling, Samuel Adams, PBR, Corona and Ballantine. On their four taps (they'd love to have at least two more, Heather says) you'll find Guinness (it replaced, you can guess, Murphy's stout), Miller Lite (a domestic light is a necessity, Robb says), Pilsner Urquell and a rotating craft beer.

"We've had Blue Point, the Toasted Lager, and then we had Hoptical Illusion ... (Dogfish Head) the 90 Minute. I was surprised when we put it on. You learn about your clientele. The kids, the 25 to 30s and just out of college, they knew it right away. They're on their phones going 'They got Dogfish Head!' "

Baseball's opening day is celebrated with a big bash, and Robb and Heather still make a point to send some love the way of their fellow service industry colleagues. The bar's Prohibition past has been given only mild attention (it's highlighted on their Facebook page and in an image on their menu). But doing a Prohibition-theme night is a distinct possibility.

"Now that we're getting a little more savvy, getting a Web page, we're going to try to do a Prohibition night, dress for it, have the right music, the '20s," Robb says. "Heather would make a good flapper. I could wax up the 'stache, put on a butcher's apron."

CONTACT INFO: Murphy's Suds & Sawdust, 17 Ward Lane, Rumson. 732-842-1600.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Samuel Adams – brewer, patriot, lender ...

This one is the hot link flying around, from The Wall Street Journal, via boatloads of Facebooking and blogging: Samuel Adams – brewer, patriot, lender.

It's a sip of financial aid for start-up craft breweries, from the well of Boston Beer Company. On the face, it seems quite cool, and given the stirrings of beer-minded folks trying to break into the ranks of New Jersey craft brewers lately, it's worth highlighting.

It also conjures up this flashback: When The Beatles started Apple Corps, and John Lennon explained their motives, "It's a company we're setting up, involving records, films, and electronics, and – as a sideline – manufacturing or whatever. We want to set up a system where people who just want to make a film about anything, don't have to go on their knees in somebody's office. Probably yours."

Hope Jim Koch's beneficence proves sustainable and no one gets burned. And a lot of great beer gets made.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Red ale 1st brew for NJ's newest beer-maker

You've heard of farm to fork, locally produced foods delivered to local consumers.

Well, New Jersey's newest craft brewery wants to be a farm-to-glass operation, using its own Somerset County-grown hops to add a unique Garden State signature to beers targeted for local restaurants and bars.

Granted a production brewery license on Feb. 28, Suydam Farms in Franklin Township made a scarlet red ale as its inaugural batch of beer last Saturday, using a 2-barrel system installed in a milk processing building spared an arsonist's flame in the late 1970s that claimed a dairy barn and some other structures on the nearly three-centuries-old, family-owned farm.

Ryck Suydam (pronounced RIKE soo-DAM), one of the people behind Great Blue Brewing (as the farm's brewing entity is called), says the brewery is still working out some snags with its system and will make some tweaks before brewing for a second time in about two weeks.

"It's not a perfect system," he said during a phone interview Monday, noting that Great Blue's brewing set-up was cobbled together by collecting brewing equipment over the past few years.

A nano operation by today's craft brewery size descriptions, the nucleus of Great Blue is a brewhouse that once made beer at Cedar Creek, a now-defunct brewpub in Egg Harbor City (Atlantic County) that longtime Jersey brewing industry followers will remember from the mid-1990s.

Once the brewing process is ironed out, Great Blue will brew twice a month. "We're going to crawl before we walk, walk before we run," Ryck says.

Initial plans call for distributing to a trio of select restaurants – Steakhouse 85 and Stage Left in New Brunswick and Sophie's Bistro in the Somerset section of Franklin. The three restaurants already buy produce and other commodities from Suydam Farms.

"Steakhouse 85 uses a lot of our tomatoes, okra and honey, Stage Left our eggs. Sophie's uses a lot of our squash," Ryck says.

On the heels of their beer hitting taps, Great Blue will follow up with some marketing research. "We'll see what the market thinks of the product," he says.

Suydam Farms, with its sprawling 300 acres, dates back to 1713, when the Suydam family, Dutch settlers who came first to New York (Brooklyn), then, after a half century, pulled up stakes for Colonial New Jersey. (One of the farm's buildings dates to the 1760s; two arson fires during the summer of 1978 claimed a lot of the other old structures, Ryck says.)

Well diversified in its commodities, the farm is known for its locally grown/locally used philosophy: hay for New Jersey horse farms; a variety of vegetables and pumpkins; melons, blackberries and raspberries; honey; firewood; flowers; as wells as eggs, pork, poultry, and lamb. It's also well known for its greenhouses and Christmas trees, with 800 planted just last week.

Ryck says the berries will figure into the brewing picture at some point down the road.

In the late 1990s, after some prodding by Paul Corkery, Ryck's homebrewer brother-in-law, the farm began growing hops: Cascade, Northern Brewer and Willamette to name a few varieties. (Paul also helps with the farm's hosting of the annual Big Brew/National Homebrew Day event held in early May.) With just under an acre in production, the farm has seen its Cascades do the best in the New Jersey soil.

This year's crop has already begun to poke through the soil and next month will be twined on trellises that soar 17 feet skyward. Harvesting has been done via the help of homebrewers and friends, sometimes at picking parties.

To dry the hops, Ryck says the farm fashioned an oast by forcing hot air through a closet (the drying process takes about four hours, depending on humidity); the dried hops have generally been crushed into bricks and vacuum-packed. Lately, Ryck says, the cones have been pressed flat then vacuum-packed.

Homebrewers have been the primary users of the farm's hops, but Triumph brewpub in Princeton also has made use of them. With the brewery in development, the much of the 2010 crop was set aside for the farm's use, Ryck says.

ABOUT THE NAME: Great Blue Brewing is an homage to one of the farm's patriarchs, Abram Suydam (Ryck's grandfather), and his appreciation of nature, especially the great blue herons that feed at a pond on the farm. "He was a bit of a naturalist; they (the herons) were a favorite of his," Ryck says of his grandfather.

Feds OK Cape May nano-bewer

Cape May Brewing Company clears a key hurdle and moves one step away from being able to make beer.

Federal regulators – the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – OK'd the budding South Jersey nano-brewery last Friday.

That puts the enterprise started by Ryan Krill, his dad Robert, and Chris Henke in position to get the blessings of New Jersey regulators.

(In photo above, from left that's Chris and Ryan sharing a toast with Flying Fish sales director Andy Newell at the Atlantic City beer festival last Friday night.)

Barring any hitches, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control could grant a license by mid-April, enabling Cape May Brewing to fire up the one-third-barrel system Chris assembled and get the brewery up and running at their location in Lower Township, adjacent to the Cape May County Airport.

"We got the TTB license today. The only thing the ABC needs is our TTB license," Ryan said Friday night. "They've already given us comments, and we've responded."

Chris notes the brewing system was designed to achieve short-term goals. "We're calling it our pilot system," he says. "Hopefully that all it is, a one-third barrel system. We built it to get our license. We're going to use it to get our license, we're going to brew on it. But as soon as possible, we're going to upgrade to something bigger."

So close, yet still so far away.

Ryan and Chris say they'll be tending to details big and small before they're striking a mash, meaning there's a lot to do before trying to stand up beers in front of the bar crowds that are part of the state's southern shore population surge in summertime. Cape May Brewing is a business, they say, not a race, so rushing to market is something to be avoided.

"We're a local brewery, serving Cape May and the South Jersey crowd," Ryan says. "The peak is in the summer and we would like to be able to hit that. It would be good for us. But if we're unable to do that, then we're going to have to pass because we're not going to get in over our heads."