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."

Charity begins at foam

A beer and food pairing to put on your calendar, but leave your appetite and bring your sense of good will.

Barley Legal Homebrewers, the 200-member strong South Jersey/Philadelphia-area homebrew club, will hold a Thanksgiving food drive this Saturday (11/19) at the Pour House bar in Westmont, trading 4-ounce samples of their brew creations for food donations.

The three-hour event runs (2-5 p.m.) was organized by club officers Evan Fritz and Devin Garlit, who say the soured economy is putting the squeeze on more and more people these days.

That has left area food pantries struggling to keep up with the greater demand for the help they provide.

Club members themselves have been buying turkeys and other foods for side dishes and collecting contributions of the same from the public, storing the food at Brew Your Own Bottle homebrew supply shop in Westmont.

"We're collecting full Thanksgiving dinners, from the turkey down to the stuffing, vegetables and rolls," Evan says. "There are a couple of families people in the club know are struggling, so we'll help them first. The rest will go to food pantries. Some of the food pantries say they're in bad shape this year."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A taste of serendipity for Carton Brewing

Carton Brewing, the Garden State's newest craft brewery, plans to turn out another batch of the session-strength golden ale that the draft-only production brewery teamed with a double IPA when it entered New Jersey's craft beer market back in August.

Launch (4.6% ABV) was a brew Carton made to break the seal their 15-barrel brewhouse in Atlantic Highlands in mid-July, a 30-barrel batch produced over a two-day trial run to put the newly installed Newlands Systems brewing set-up through the paces and ensure everything functioned properly.

The ale was intended to be a one-off brew and a placeholder beer on taps until Carton's flagship brew Boat, a hoppy session beer, was ready. Serendipitously, Launch found favor among craft beer bars that are inclined to steer patrons more accustomed to drinking pedestrian macro light brews toward better beer.

"The first beer we ever made is winning over the Miller Lite crowd. We haven't been able to stop making that beer," founder/co-owner Augie Carton (pictured above) said Saturday during an open house/brewery tour. "It's definitely become its own thing, and we will make it again, even though we thought we'd only ever make it that one time.

"There are those bars in New Jersey that are craft and want to cure people of Miller Lite, and they find they are having enormous success with Launch, where I thought they would have an enormous amount of success with Boat."

Boat was the catalyst for Augie and his cousin, Chris Carton, to start the brewery with their homebrewer friend Jesse Ferguson, (who is now the brewer for Carton Brewing). They wanted a beer that was as full-flavored as a double IPA from start to finish, yet session strength to be enjoyed over a few pints without ending up incoherent and on the floor.

"Boat is playing more to the craft beer crowd as a quaffable IPA," Augie says. "We thought it would play better to the wings community. What we've found is, it's killing in places of IPA drinkers who were having the same troubles we were having ... places like Cloverleaf (in Caldwell), which is a robust beer drinkers bar. They've got a collection of IPA-drinking regulars. Those guys wanted a beer they could have multiples of."

Three months in the New Jersey beer scene, Carton's lineup also features the double IPA 077XX, which with Launch, kicked off the brand, and a table beer BDG, a riff on biere de garde (the beer is actually more of a brown ale), or you can think of it this way: brunch, dinner, grub.

"It's doing well, better than expected, and for people who don't like hops – the rest of our beers tend toward hops so much – that's working for the brown ale/malt crowd," Augie says. "And now we're working on our milk stout because we're Carton, and you can't not have a carton of milk."

The stout, dosed with a mid-kettle addition of Bullion hops, is now in a second generation of pilot brewing, with another test batch or two to be done before a final version will be brewed in time to hit the market in late December or the start of next year. The goal now is to dial back some of the customary sweetness found in milk stouts.

"We don't really like sweet beers. The problem is, milk stout is inherently a sweet beer. I think the guys like Keegan (Mother's Milk) really nail it. It's just not too sweet," Augie says. "We're big into the session beer idea, and I don't find any beer as sessionable as a good low-alcohol stout. So that's what we want our milk stout to be.

"It's going to come in around 4 (percent ABV), and what we're doing is taking a super-roasty, just a ridiculously acrid over-roasted, malt bill and mashing it up against the sweetness of milk, and try to find the complexity to get you through a fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th pint."

Meanwhile, Augie says the fledgling brewery is already discovering the byproduct of their beers being well-received in the marketplace: the matter of keeping pace with demand. Carton Brewing is already talking about adding more capacity, unless their production schedule can be tweaked without compromising quality of the beer.

"We're in 40 places in New Jersey. We hit that right around eight weeks; we've been open 10 or eleven," he says. "We kind of had to stop. If people come to us and ask for our beer, we'll sell it to them, but we're not really pushing to get into new places because the last thing we want to do is let down those (initial) places."

To keep pace, though, new tank space could come online by next year's boating season.

"I think we're going to order it at the beginning of 2012. I think we're going to need it come summer," Augie says. "We've got an account right down the street that's selling six sixtels a week of Boat. By our business plan, they were only supposed to be selling one sixtel a week of Boat. They're selling six sixtels a week of Boat in November; it's going to be a dozen in June, so by June, we have to be able to make more Boat.

"Part of that is figuring out the true capacity of this brewery," he says.