Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A chat with Bitting brewer Chris Sheehan

Newark's only craft beer-maker, Port 44 Brew Pub, folded shop just three months past its first anniversary in Brick City. On July 22, the hottest day of 2011 in Newark – a record 108 degrees Fahrenheit – the financially struggling restaurant-brewery's air-conditioning conked out. The doors closed. (The For Sale sign had already gone up, sometime around the start of July; asking price, $2.1 million.)

Tossed out of work by the closing, brewer Chris Sheehan, who came to Newark fresh from Chelsea Brewing in Manhattan (he also put in time at at Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse in Berkeley, California, and San Francisco's 20 Tank Brewery), needed a gig, a beer-maker in search of a mash to strike.

Opportunity knocked in late August, after J.J. Bitting brewer James Moss decided to relocate to New England.

Two brews (a brown ale and a hop harvest ale) into his tenure as keeper of the brewhouse in Woodbridge, Chris took some time last week from washing kegs and other duties to talk about brewing and the beers he wants to make at Bitting. He also fielded some questions about Port 44.

BSL: How long have you been with Bitting?
CS: I've been here for just over three weeks now. After Port 44 laid me off, I was unemployed for about two weeks and then picked up one week of work over at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, just one week of work there. While I was working there, I had already been in communication with Mike (owner Mike Cerami). Mike was looking for someone to step in here, so I ended up coming over here. In these economic times, been unemployed for only two weeks is not all that bad.

BSL: Bitting has its lineup of beers that are always expected to be on a share of its six taps, but you're going to bring some things to that mix, right?
CS: Mike told me the only three beers he wants to keep on at all times are the golden (Victoria's Golden Ale), the raspberry (wheat) and the amber (Avenel Amber). After that, I have room to work within my styles. I'll still bounce things off of him ... I do want to make sure the customers here are happy. I personally can't stand pumpkin beers, but I'm going to be doing a pumpkin beer. From what I gather it's been pretty popular here; I don't want to disappoint the customers.

BSL: One of your preferred styles of beer is stout, right?
CS: Well, I have a reputation for stouts. Six of my eight Great American Beer Festival medals were for stouts. By the same token, I consider myself more of California-style brewer, or a West Coast brewer.

BSL: You worked in San Francisco for a while.
CS: Yeah, my career began in California. My whole philosophy and approach is, if I'm doing a wheat beer, I'll do an American-style wheat beer. When I think of East Coast brewers, I think of brewing much more in traditional European beer styles. When I think of West Coast, I think American styles.

BSL: Lots of resiny hops ...
CS: Lots of hops, yes, in the appropriate styles. There are other styles that are not so hoppy, but are American styles, like wheat beer for example, like an American-style wheat beer versus a German hefeweizen. This place in the past has been pretty much a classic East Coast-style brewery. That's where I'm going to be bringing a little more of a different approach, as far as my philosophy being more West Coast. Not necessarily hops all over the place, but yes hops come up a little bit more in some of the beers. But at the same time, as far as the styles I brew, I'm gonna steer away from German-style hefeweizen. I'm probably gonna do an American-style wheat beer instead, come next summer. Maybe I'll do a wheat wine in the wintertime. I don't have a specific plan at this point, I'm just kinda feeling my way at this point. I have respect for the regular customers, and I don't want to come in here and just start throwing all sorts of stuff at them they're not into. It's important the customers want to drink the beer you're brewing.

BSL: But perhaps they will be able to, at some point, have a signature Chris Sheehan stout?
CS: Right. Definitely. The brown ale, we have it on cask right now, it's waiting to come on when we run out of dunkelweizen. That is basically what Mike wanted to be our dark beer for now. He didn't want to go totally into stouts at this point. But when that brown ale runs out, we'll follow it with a stout.

BSL: Bitting has traditionally done a barleywine ...
CS: Yeah, and that's where I touched on wheat wine instead of barleywine. I doubt that it's ever been done here. I'm all for a barleywine, too. I have no problem with a barleywine.

BSL: Have you done them a lot?
CS: Yeah, I've done barleywines in the past. I had a whimsically named beer over at Chelsea – it was a barleywine – just for a joke, we called it Imperial Mild. That was when everyone was doing imperial versions of everything, imperial brown ale, imperial pilsner. So OK, here's an imperial mild.

BSL: Three months from now, what would somebody coming here expect to find on tap?
CS: They always do winter warmer. I will do a winter warmer, but it will not be spiced.

BSL: Should people get the impression you want beer to taste like beer?
CS: I am a purist ... My mentality is beer should only be made with the four necessary ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water. Maybe I can broaden that with: a grain, hops, yeast and water.

BSL: Let's talk about Port 44 for a minute. Newark is home to a Budweiser brewery, so Port 44 was the only craft brewery in New Jersey's largest city. It's a shame it closed back in July.
CS: I still believe it could be a successful business, with the right management and the right money. It has tremendous potential to be a very successful business ... You look at the (nearby) Prudential Center; it's the third-largest grossing arena in the country. Any start-up business, they say you should have financing to cover your two first years of operation, all of your expenses for your two first years of operation ...

BSL: So while you were serving up Port 44's brews, who were the regulars who came in?
CS: We had railroad guys – NJ Transit engineers. A whole group of them were mug club members. Other local business, small businesses. We had all sorts of regulars from Public Service (PSEG) and from Prudential.

BSL: So the business model it had laid out for itself was actually functioning, playing out?
CS: Yeah. The concept was good and the location was good. When I signed on, I really felt in my heart this would be a success. Whoever does buy or invest in that brewery, as long as they have restaurant or bar experience ... it could be a total success.

BSL: What were some of the brighter moments in Newark?
CS: I loved the brewery. Greg (Gilhooly, one of the founders) stumbled upon that brewhouse; we got that thing on eBay. I loved the system; I felt I was making some of the best beer of my career. It was an ITT system. From what I understand, there's only two of its kind in the whole country. I don't know where the other one is. I believe this one used to be in Michigan. It's a really unique system. I was very proud at the way I got the whole system set up.

BSL: Port 44 opened in April 2010 with guest tap beers, and its closing was well beyond that date, but just shy of the first anniversary of the Chris Sheehan-brewed beers going on tap. That has to be a great sense of frustration.
CS: It was really, really disappointing for me personally. Heartbreaking. That whole (brewing) system was my baby. I'd never done a start-up, and that's part of the reason I went there and did it, because I always wanted to be involved in a start-up. And to see it just go down the tubes like that so quickly was just very discouraging. But it was still a learning experience. I learned a tremendous amount going through the ordeal. I hope somebody will come along and be interested in buying the place.

EVENT NOTE: J.J. Bitting hosts the fifth annual Central Jersey Charity Beer Fest, 1-5 p.m. Saturday at Parker Press Park, Woodbridge, a five minute walk from the brewpub. Tickets are 25 bucks. Weather: High temp 75, 40 percent chance of rain. Rate date is Saturday, Oct. 1.

ADDENDUM: A note from a Port 44 denizen, Dave ...

I am one of the guys that was a regular at Port 44, and all my buddies were just as disappointed as I was when it suddenly closed. We happened to walk up there that day, and the doors were locked - but Chris was there and let us in. The place was hot thanks to the AC problems, and we shared our -last- beers there with Chris as he was cleaning the lines for the last time.


Then, a few weeks back, I happened to be finishing up work in the Woodbridge area and stopped by Bittings for a late lunch and sure enough, there was Chris! I was happy he landed somewhere ...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New dimension at High Point – more space

Regulars who make it to High Point Brewing's open houses probably noticed over the past couple of months the knocked down wall at the far end of the brewery.

It is what you think: underway expansion by the makers of the Ramstein craft beer lineup. In July, High Point took over the next-door space in the Butler industrial complex that the 15-year-old brewery has long called home. The space previously had been used to warehouse DVDs produced by an indy filmmaker and distributor, EI Independent Cinema (makers of the B-movie Spiderbabe).

Like a lot of the longtime Garden State production craft brewers, High Point is running at capacity, making the business of brewing the year-round core brands and squeezing in the seasonal brews a tougher balancing act. (High Point also does contract brewing.) Hence, the need to expand.

High Point owner Greg Zaccardi (that's Greg above pouring samples from the September open house) says the back wall came down in late July, and the extra 2,000 square feet of space was immediately used for storing empty kegs. It will also be used for grain storage, and sometime next month the brewery's cold box will be moved into there.

Relocating the cold box will open up 400 square feet for the installation of more 30-barrel fermenters, an undertaking that had been on the brewery's 2011 to-do list. That project is now slated for just after the start of 2012.

Greg says the brewery needs to get past the Oktoberfest season, an über-busy time of year for High Point, which specializes in German-style beers. On the heels of that is another big-selling seasonal, Ramstein Winter Wheat Doppelbock.

(Look for more of the weizenbock to make it into 12-ounces bottles this season than last year. Most of it was draft only last time, and a larger-than-normal portion of the production run was set aside for turning into Icestorm eisbock.)

Speaking of Oktoberfest, High Point brewed 10 15-barrel batches of its popular märzen this year. Demand for the seasonal was up 25 percent, and the brewery had to make a decision about whether to temporarily cut back on brewing Blonde wheat beer, a year-round Ramstein brew, when it began its production run of Oktoberfest back in July.

EVENT NOTE: High Point will tap an Austrian oak barrel of the märzen as part of an Oktoberfest event at the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in Hoboken on Friday.

Where the sun chills the beer

A spotlight on going green ...

If you've had the chance, say on a brewery tour in Cherry Hill or a beer event somewhere, to talk to the folks at Flying Fish Brewing about their plans to take up new digs in Somerdale, then perhaps you know they want to put solar panels on the building to supplement their electric power demands.

Word is that FF's hopes to partner with the sun have run into an environmental glitch concerning the building, leaving their plans for the solar panels up in the air. That's just a minor status update, not the final word, so stand by.

However, there is a place just outside Atlantic City where the sun does play a role in beer.

For more 2 1/2 months now, the Joe Canal's packaged goods store in Egg Harbor Township has been chilling the beer in the cold box, running the lights and everything else that needs juice, using a 255 kW solar panel system – 1,245 of the obsidian-looking panels distributed over a parking lot carport, the building's roof and an area behind the building.

Owner Stuart Stromfeld says the panels went into service at the beginning of July and can provide nearly 85 percent of the store's electrical power needs. (Stuart graciously took for a phone interview a couple days after Labor Day, as he was heading to Philadelphia airport to catch a flight to Tuscany, Italy.)

The cost advantages for the long run are obvious. It's not cheap – 65-grand a year – to power cold box space that measures 60 feet by 20 feet by 20 feet and sits in the center of the store. It always needs to always be on, of course, to keep shelves of beer and wine refrigerated.

Stromfeld says the solar panels will pare the electric bill sharply. But they're also an environmentally conscious move, and that was a factor in the decision to have them installed. Plans down the road include fitting Stromfeld's second Joe Canal's location across town with the solar panels.

Brite Idea Energy of Egg Harbor Township installed the panels. The longer days of summer provide more power production, but "actually in winter time we do very good with production because the panels stay cooler," says Christopher Brown, sales manager for Brite Idea.

Brown says Stromfeld's store was a two-year project, from design and engineering work, getting regulatory agency approvals, and then installation.

"It's been a showpiece project for us," he says.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fresh-hopped ales & a hop farm to watch

Jersey-grown hops in two Garden State pub-brewed beers, and a small Burlington County hop farm to watch ...

For as long as he's been in charge of the kettle at the Tun Tavern, brewer Tim Kelly has used hops grown by his friends, Ray Gourley and Kathy Haney of Haddon Heights, to do a fall dry-hopping of the Tun's All-American IPA, a popular beer at the Atlantic City brewpub.

This year is the fourth for the IP-Ray version of the brew that's part of the Tun's regular tap lineup.

Tim (pictured at left with a load of hops on the bine) added to the serving tank just over 3 pounds of the Camden County hops – Cascade, Nugget, Chinook and Zeus cones picked Sept. 3.

(The beer was brewed with pellets of Chinook and Centennial for bittering and flavor. It finishes out at just over 6 percent ABV.)

One hundred miles north, in Woodbridge, Chris Sheehan, brewer at J.J. Bitting brewpub, has his annual hop harvest ale bubbling away in a fermenter.

Mostly Cascades, but with some Mount Hood, Cluster and Fuggle, Chris says he used the 6 pounds of hops grown (pictured below) at his mom's property in Delhi, N.Y., in the Catskills, and the 3 pounds from friends' hop gardens, adding them throughout the boil, supplementing them with some commercially grown whole leaf hops.

Chris has made the beer six years running, last year at Port 44 brewpub in Newark, and prior to that at Chelsea Brewing in Manhattan. (He has typically called it Catskill Hop Harvest Ale, but thinks the name will get shortened this year.)

The harvest ale is the second brew Chris has made for Bitting since taking over the brewhouse there this month, fresh off his year-plus stint at the now-closed Port 44.

Meanwhile, down in Burlington County, Sarah Puleo and Mike Visgil are looking to double the size of the hop yard they started at the 166-acre farm Sarah grew up on in Buddtown in Southampton Township.

The farm is an area where the open space and country roads seem to take you out of New Jersey. But it's also a ground zero for New Jersey farmstand staples like blueberries, asparagus and raspberries. You'll also find Chinese growers on neighboring farms, raising cabbage and snowpeas for restaurants in Philadelphia and New York.

Against that backdrop, hops are a non-traditional commodity. But then again, with the bines' inclination for a towering reach, and the high ceiling of blue skies, a hop yard seems like an easy fit at Isaac Budd Farm. (Sarah and Mike share the place with her parents and brother, and some chickens, peacocks, dogs and a lake.)

After trial plots over the past three years, the two went bigger, planting an eighth of an acre last spring, setting out rhizomes of Cascades, Centennial, Nugget and Fuggles, among other varieties.

"Cascades and Centennials showed well, yielding a few pounds of wet weight. Nugget and Fuggles flowered, but there was not a whole heck of a lot in terms of harvest," Mike said last week via email.

The two have networked with the Northeast Hop Alliance and Rutgers agriculture extension folks (Rutgers raised trial plots of several hop varieties back in the late 1990s, and also provided technical advice to Weyerbacher Brewing in 2008, the first year of a now-annual crop grown by the brewery that ends up in a Weyerbacher harvest ale.) Sarah and Mike also tracked this summer's progress on their Isaac Budd Farm Facebook page.

"Our main goal here is to establish community," Mike says. "For our first few years, we anticipate it being more of a homebrewer/homebrew shop presence. If we get a couple nanobreweries, a couple microbreweries in the area, that's great."

Some of this year's crop, dehydrated and vacuum-packed after picking, was passed along to the Barley Legal Homebrewers, the South Jersey-Philadelphia homebrew club Mike and Sarah are members of.

(Last spring, the two scored a second-place finish in the annual pro-am contest Iron Hill brewpub sponsors for homebrewers who brew with wort drawn from the second runnings of The Situation, a super-high gravity beer that IH brews during the winter. Mike also did an internship in 2010 with Cricket Hill in Fairfield, a gig that helped him with enrolling in the American Brewers Guild.)

"Sarah and I also will be toying with the therapeutics of hops by making some homemade sleep pillows, as well as some hop teas," Mike says.

Make no mistake, a hop yard, even a small plot, can be a lot of work. But the two dived into the task with a dedication that speaks a lot to their belief in and commitment to producing a local farm commodity.

"It's our evening job, our second shift," Sarah said during an interview back in May, on a picture-perfect Saturday that found her and Mike cutting and laying planters paper around the hop mounds to control weeds. "As soon as we get home from work, we're out there – if it's not raining – pruning, digging, planting, putting up (irrigation) hose."

The two started the hop yard on a shoestring budget. The hose purchased for drip irrigation is probably their biggest expense. For other project needs they improvised. Their trellising was fashioned from bamboo cut from the 1- to 2-acre cluster of the stuff that grows wild and skyward on the farm.

"We figured that if we can do it with what we have right now, put all the work in," Sarah says, pausing, "the second year if it goes well, then maybe we'll put more money into it."