Friday, November 9, 2012

Marines turn 237 & do it with beer

Event notice
Most craft beer enthusiasts know food and beer these days are a much-talked-about ticket.

Thanks to that, beer enjoys a vaunted status like wine (set aside for now the argument that beer has always deserved that place in culinary discussion).

Food takes high-brow beer even higher. So this dish may make for a head-scratcher hearing it mentioned beside craft beer.

But since the lowly creamed chip beef on toast is on the buffet menu for the Tun Tavern brewpub's 15th observance of the founding of the US Marines this Saturday, it deserves some attention, as far as beer pairings go. (Iwo Jima Chili is also on the buffet, by the way.)

The emblematic comestible of dogfaces and jarheads (the dish has a 100-plus year association with the US military), cream chipped beef goes by a few handles in GI slang, like Stew on a Shingle, Something on a Shingle, or the more memorable Shit on a Shingle.

Yeah, it's a borrowed phrase
But what beer goes with it?

Tun Tavern brewer Tim Kelly recommends dialing back the hops. Malt flavor, too.

"Maybe Tun Light, or Irish Red because of the cream," says Tim, who did a hitch in the Army.

We're going to suggest giving a pint of Leatherneck Stout a try next to that plate of SOS. The hops aren't upfront, and the roastiness just might balance with the cream.

But whatever.

For the Marine Corps birthday bash, you'll find the Leatherneck Stout and the Tun's house-made light beer on the tap lineup beside regulars Devil Dog Pale Ale and All American IPA, plus pair of seasonal pumpkin beers  – Tim's traditional pumpkin lager and a 9 percent imperial pumpkin ale.

Semper Fi and the birthplace of the Marines
Craft beer fans in New Jersey know the Tun Tavern as Atlantic City's only brewery, located across from the Convention Center, which itself sits at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway. (Tun owner Monty Dahm is a former Marine, and his establishment is outfitted in Marine Corps trappings. This video will give you a taste for what the event is like.)

On Nov. 10th, 1775, at the original but now long-gone Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, the Marines were founded. It was a marshaling of troops for the cause of, well, revolution, for getting the king of England out of everyone's face, an endeavor that had begun with a can't-turn-back-now moment over the previous April.

By that November, things had grown into a call for a few good men.

The rest is history. And beer.

237th birthday of US Marines
Where: Tun Tavern, Atlantic City
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10th
Cost: $12.95 for buffet, $2 pints of beer

The Tun Tavern deserves some applause for pitching in during Hurricane Sandy. The brewpub is located on the west side of the city, where the elevation is a little higher, so it was spared flooding by storm surge (the high water did come up the veranda, though). The Tun lost power for about three days, but pressed some gas grills into service to feed emergency responders.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Medal works

Call it the Bronze Age, Iron Fish edition.

Flying Fish, now officially calling Somerdale, NJ, its home, took a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival, while Iron Hill Brewery notched a silver, plus a pair of bronze medals. (Here's the complete winners list.)

Bronze finisher Exit 8, a chestnut Belgian Brown ale, debuted just before spring 2012 as the last new Exit Series brew to come out of Flying Fish's founding location of Cherry Hill.

You may recall FF's Exit 4 won gold in 2009, while its Abbey Dubbel won a silver the year before.

Speaking of Exits, Exit 16 is now a year-round beer in 12-ounce bottles and draft, giving Flying Fish shelf and tap representation in the double IPA heading.

That tidbit has been out in the beer headlines for a little while now, but it's worth repeating. Double IPAs have been immensely popular for sometime now, and this wild rice take on the style is worth your glass.

Meanwhile, Iron Hill kept its winning streak alive with a silver medal for its Rauchtoberfest (Lancaster, Pa., location), and bronze medals for its Roggenbier (Phoenixville, Pa.), Black IPA (Wilmington, Del.) and Russian Imperial Stout (Media, Pa.).

This year's medals extend Iron Hill's impressive winning streak to 16 years. That's how long the nine-location brewpub chain has been in business and more than half the existence of the GABF. 

About the pictures:
Flying Fish held an open house back on Sept. 29, an event that coincided with a town festival in Somerdale. It was a one-off open house, since the brewery is putting some finishing touches on the new digs before it begins brewery tours on a regular basis. Check the brewery's multiple feeds (Facebook, Twitter and website) if you have any questions about tours.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Photo dispatch from GABF

Mid-Atlantic Brewing News' correspondent for New Jersey, Mark Haynie, is in Denver at the Great American Beer Festival.

He fired off these pics of J.J. Bitting brewer Chris Sheehan and Harvest Moon brewer Kyle McDonald.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

River Horse: 5 years under new owners

River Horse Brewing wrapped up its Oktoberfest last weekend, featuring its fall seasonal Hipp-O-Lantern Imperial Pumpkin Ale (among other brews), plus a cask version of its Special Ale, dressed up with bourbon-soaked oak chips, cinnamon and vanilla bean.

The crowd that packed into the brewery and its back loading area made quick work of that cask Special Ale and jammed once again to brewer Chris Rakow's band, Ludlow Station.

If you're keeping score with the Lambertville brewery, then you'll know River Horse crossed a milestone at the end of this summer, something that the annual Oktoberfest was symbolic of.

Five years ago in August, River Horse gained new owners, a changing of the guard that not only rescued a troubled brewery but set it on a steady course that has delivered Garden State craft beer enthusiasts not only a more diverse and quality beer lineup but some really creative beers in the mix as well.

Oh, and the hippos on the six-pack packaging got a makeover, too.

But it was at the 2007 Oktoberfest, then a two-day affair at the brewery (it's now a more manageable single afternoon), that Glenn Bernabeo and Chris Walsh got to really mix with those beer drinkers who remained faithful to the brand and let them know that the new owners were a couple of guys who really appreciate beer and were dedicated to rebuilding the brand.

Back in 2007, River Horse, the about 10 years in business, had fallen into inconsistency with its product quaslity, and among package store beer managers, the name was one that many were beginning to skip.

"A lot of folks thought we were out of business when we had that one and were a little surprised when they heard that things were not good," Glenn says, recalling that 2007 Oktoberfest. "That wasn't the case, obviously."

The turnaround, for a lack of a better term, involved restoring quality, shaking up River Horse's lineup that included a clutch of Belgian styles, some 1990s craft beer standards like amber and hoppy ales, and a lager. It also meant refocusing the River Horse market, ditching some distribution areas that one could easily argue had overextended the brewery.

"What we've done since we've taken over is pull the footprint in to be way more local," Glenn says. "When we started we were in Virginia; we were in D.C.; we were in Delaware; we were in Maryland; we were in Rhode Island; we were in Boston; we were in upstate New York ... We've pulled those territories in, and right now, though production-wise we're much higher volume (but), it's concentrated in a much smaller area.

"We've become focused on being a local brewery. We're predominantly in New Jersey; we're in Philadelphia/five county; we're in Lehigh Valley, out to Lancaster a little bit, Manhattan, Brooklyn, southern Connecticut ... and that's it. That's been working for us."

Something else that has worked is sharpening the brewery's business approach. It didn't hurt the brewery added tank capacity, but Glenn says production efficiencies paid off as well.

"We have added physical capacity with respect to tank space. We've also done a lot of work around our yields; we've done a lot of work around our production timing and the production flow," he says. "At the time we weren't even getting the most out of the capacity we had. So we've grown volume even more than we've actually added tanks because we've gotten a little bit sharper at how we operate the business.

"Now we're very, very regimented in terms of what our brew schedule is, how our product is launched, our packaging schedule ... We have scheduled down days just for maintenance (and) quality control. We always had the mentality that if we get the product right first, then all of the other things are going to fall in line. So far, that's been true."

So what's next for River Horse?

"We're always experimenting. We've got a Scotch ale on the horizon, some smoked beers on the horizon," Glenn says. "We're going to continue to expand our product line and try to keep things interesting and fresh."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Talking to Trap Rock brewer Charlie Schroeder

The recently enacted law that gives a boost to New Jersey's 25 craft brewers probably helps the dozen-plus brewpubs across the state the most, allowing those breweries to get their names out before the public like never before.

Unlike production brewers that could put their beers in bars and on store shelves, brewpubs in New Jersey had been relegated to selling beer from the place they made it. That restriction limited exposure for the pub breweries' beers and left a drinking public somewhat bewildered at the idea of being unable to get those beers at packaged goods stores. After all, Sly Fox, for example, had a couple of restaurant-breweries in Pennsylvania, yet it's beers were on store shelves.

The new law changes that in New Jersey. Brewpubs, like their production brewer colleagues, can now sign up with beer wholesalers for distribution, giving the pubs a much wider reach than the foot-traffic into their establishments ever allowed.

But imagining that happening is easier to do than making it happen, given the expense of taking on expansion to serve not only the pubs' patrons, but carving out a niche in the crowded and competitive craft beer markets. (Brewpub owners can also own up to 10 locations.)

Still, that idea of a wider reach was fast on the minds of the folks at Harvest Restaurants, which operates nine establishments in upscale areas of Union, Somerset and Morris counties and counts Trap Rock brewpub in that mix.

Harvest is uniquely situated to quickly take advantage of the new regulatory changes and has envisioned putting the beers made at Trap Rock in Berkeley Heights on tap at its other restaurants. It's Hathor Red and Ghost Pony lagers are have been contract-brewed at High Point (Ramstein) for the other Harvest establishments for a while now.

But with a major change in the rules – a change that, in effect, hits the reset button for the state's craft beer industry – it makes sense for a restaurant company that has a brewpub under its ownership to bring things in house.

From that vantage point, Trap Rock brewer Charlie Schroeder took time out from a busy end of the week brew day to discuss such growth and what it would entail.

BSL: Talk about how busy Trap Rock has become. Craft beer has been in New Jersey since 1995, but has really grown hot with the national trend for about four years now.
CS: I'm selling more beer this year than I did last year, and last year was a very big year for me. I finally did over 500 barrels, and I'm beating that this year. Keeping up with demand, even with the new fermenter, isn't easy. I could probably use another fermenter. I'm trying to sell more kegs, but I don't have enough room to store kegs, and I run into the issue of running out of beer, especially the Oktoberfest. This is the first year I'll make three batches of that.

I don't sell a lot of kegs, but it's an important part of the business because people will drink it at their house. (Their guests) will want to know what it is, then they'll be interested and then they'll want to come here and purchase a growler or have a pint here. So it's really about getting the name out there. That's really the only way we can get the beer out there to market, is for customers to buy it and take it home.

BSL: The recently signed craft brewing legislation liberates brewpubs, lets them sell through wholesalers. Because Harvest Restaurants has a number of establishments, the bill signing could conceivably make Trap Rock the supplier of house brands. What's the process of moving forward?
CS: It may mean we find a bigger location or keep the current location and expand possibly next door, or find a bigger building ... I'm not sure yet. We haven't sat down and talked about it because it (the bill signing) just happened a couple weeks ago.

BSL: But this is definitely something that's out there?
CS: There have been conversations (in the past). It's just a matter of sitting down and strategizing, figuring out what's going to work. This legislation is something I have been waiting for for the last five years. The owner has always wanted to do something. Back in 2000, 2001, that's when we first started contract-brewing the Ghost Pony and the Hathor Red at Ramstein.

What we want to be able to do is have my India pale ale on draft, a wheat beer, a dark beer, Belgian beers, and put them in bottles, too. That is something they want to do, and this gives us that opportunity now to do that.

BSL: With some necessary changes.
CS: Now there's a need to expand. Before, when you're just selling within your own walls here, there's no way can expand because you're just selling to who comes in through the door. And you're hoping that you're getting more and more people each year, then you run out of room in the brewery to make more beer.

BSL: In terms of branding, it's important to be able to bring all of the beers here to the other Harvest restaurant locations?
CS: Absolutely. (Patrons) ask all the time 'Why can't I get the beers you make here at those locations?'

BSL: So in effect, the law change and letting you work with a wholesaler could make Trap Rock a focal point of Harvest Restaurants identity.
CS: Oh yeah. It ties it all together.

BSL: So what kind of timeframe are we looking at, in the best-case scenario, of being able to site something and everything comes in at reasonable expense for brewing equipment?
CS: I think it's going to take six months to a year to really get it where it needs to be. I don't think it's going to happen any sooner than that. There are other restaurant projects (the owners) are working on; I don't know where I fit into that. They could decide they want to do it now, and it could be three months, or they need to wait to get certain locations lined up, and then we would do it.

BSL: Have you talked to any distributors yet? They were watching the legislation's progress.
CS: I've been approached ... I have one that wants to talk to us, and another one I can talk to ... There's three, three of them. But I don't negotiate that. That's up to the ownership.

BSL: When the craft brewing bill was working its way through the Legislature, one of the talking points focused on job creation. What's a conservative forecast for jobs that could come from a bigger Trap Rock operation?
CS: I have two people now that are working with me. There's a strong possibility of a third depending on how big of an operation I get into next year ... So I have two guys right now that would come on, and a third person with experience, depending on what size brewery or how busy we're going to be. And that I can't predict yet.

BSL: As far as brewery size goes, the objective is to get Trap Rock beers into the other Harvest restaurants?
CS: Yeah. I would say for me it's knowing what size brewery I can get, what space am I going to be able to get. And from there, I'll know how far I can expand out, beyond the restaurants. But the restaurants aren't going to pay the bills. They're going to help. But it's going to take more than that to pay the bills to make the amount of barrels we need to. It's not going to be 1,000 barrels ... I'm looking at 3,000 barrels within the first two years. I don't see why not.

BSL: What about bottling?
CS: My customers want bottles. There are still diehard growler fans that will always buy growlers. But I have customers that want bottles. It moves in that direction. If you're a brewery opening up, you do draft and then people want to take it home – it's the same thing here – and drink it when they feel like it. They don't want to have to feel that they have to drink a whole growler in a day or two.

BSL: So the smaller size becomes important ...
CS: They want a smaller size; they want a 12-ounce bottle.

BSL: But you're not looking at a bottling line?
CS: That depends on the size of the brewery. We can bottle here. So there's strong possibility of me bottling here for the other restaurants, certain beers.

BSL: The higher-gravity beers?
CS: I'm not sure yet. We're working on different labels. We haven't really talked about exactly what's going to the different restaurants. But we have the flexibility here to bottle anything we want. For me, this is a good place to start from. You can bottle 10 cases and send it out and see how it does.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Putting his stamp on things

Catching up with Chris Sheehan, brewer at J.J. Bitting brewpub ...

In a few days' time Chris will be heading west to the Great American Beer Festival, catching up to the five beers the Woodbridge restaurant-brewery sent to this year's gathering in Denver.

Bitting is one at least four Garden State breweries sending beer to the Oct. 11-13 festival (according to the GABF website, the other three are Flying Fish in Somerdale; Harvest Moon in New Brunswick; and Iron Hill Maple Shade, a bronze medalist last year for Vienna lager).

Bitting selections that Chris sent are Victoria's Golden Ale; Knockout Bock; a dunkelweizen; the hoppy foreign export Onyx Stout; and Bad Boy Oktoberfest, a GABF bronze medalist a dozen years ago. (They're all entered into competition.)

With just over a year under his belt at Bitting, having arrived shortly after Newark's Port 44 Brew Pub closed over the summer of 2011, Chris has spent his time in Woodbridge bringing to tap beers from his own recipe catalogue.

For instance, this year is the second go-round at Bitting for his wet hop Harvest Ale made with home-grown hops. Onyx Stout is a Jersey remake of the well-received Black Hole XXX Stout he turned out at Chelsea Brewing in New York.

The Harvest Ale went on tap a couple of weeks ago, the same day as the Central Jersey Beer Fest, the event Bitting has sponsored at a park near the pub for the past six years.

The 10 pounds of wet hops (of differing – some unknown – varieties) were used mostly for finishing, though some did get a 30-minute kettle addition. They came from upstate New York and Chris' home in Bergenfield, where one of his bines was a big-time producer, providing a fifth of the fresh hops he used.

Chris has also been tweaking some of the Bitting flagships, but he has been rather conservative in that regard with the Oktoberfest.

"I reworked all the recipes, except the Oktoberfest because it's an award winner from years ago. I did have to take sack of grain out of it. I was getting better (mash) extraction from a change in the crush of the grain and just better brewhouse techniques."

Good luck in Denver to Bitting, Iron Hill, Harvest Moon and Flying Fish.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

One more from the pumpkin patch

Staying with the topic of pumpkin beers for a little bit ...

A very big thread that runs through craft beer finds brewers surveying the landscape and looking for ideas they can use to create a beer. (OK, yeah, that's how a lot of life works – drawing upon influences to produce something you call yours.)

Pro brewers do it; so do homebrewers. Call it homage ... call it borrowing. Call it knowing a good idea when you see it.

Sal Emma and Terry Leary, a homebrewing duo from Cape May County, fit all three.

Making a pumpkin beer and adding the usual pie spices to the rim of the glass, like salt on a margarita glass, sounded like a worthwhile technique to Sal, who encountered it when he was served a pint of pumpkin beer at Sweetwater Tavern, a Northern Virginia brewpub, a few years ago.

The idea sounded pretty good to Terry, too, and thus, their fall pumpkin ale was born last year. A couple of weeks ago, the pair went about the business of reprising it for this autumn, brewing it in their 2-barrel setup, using sweet South Jersey pumpkins in their mash and some honey in the boil.

(This past spring, the two won a homebrewer contest sponsored by the Tun Tavern and At The Shore weekly entertainment tabloid published by The Press of Atlantic City newspaper. See the accompanying video below. Terry and Sal followed up their contest-winning robust porter with a killer IPA that could give Tröegs Perpetual IPA a run for its money.)

Some background ...
Sweetwater, a restaurant-brewery in Sterling, Va. (with a couple other restaurant locations), began making the pumpkin ale a year after opening its doors in the mid-1990s.

Brewer Nick Funnell, the guy who's been in charge of Sweetwater's beers since the beginning, mashes with pumpkin and adds a blend of traditional pumpkin pie spices in the brew (the spices come from a merchant local to the brewery).

And for a garnish – the part that stuck in Sal's mind – Nick says the serving glasses are rimmed with roasted pumpkin seeds and more pie spices to, well, spice up the drinking experience.

The glass trick, as you can imagine, lets the drinker control the spice experience, either by constantly rotating the glass for more, or drinking from the same spot for less.

Because everyone's palate is different and personal preferences matter.

That's the part fresh in Terry's mind. His preference is for less spice, as in just pumpkin in the mash. The spices go on the glass.

"We grind up (salted) pumpkin seeds," Terry says, "mix the ground seeds with nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon – create a dry mixture of that – then reduce apple cider to a semi-thick roux, dip the glass to about quarter inch in, then dip it in the seeds and spice."

Notes Sal: "We grind 'em real coarse because you want to be able to chew the pumpkin seeds."

For their 2-barrel batch, they started with about 160 pounds of grain – Briess 2 Row, some biscuit malt (you want that pie crust notion), some caramel malt and special roast. To that mash, they added 30 pounds of pumpkins bought from a Cumberland County farmstand. (Last year, they used Libby's canned pumpkin.)

"The pumpkin variety is Long Island Cheese, also know as Cheese Wheel, an heirloom known for its sweetness," Sal says. "They were grown by the Bertuzzi family in Vineland. The seeds from those pumpkins will be in the glass-rimming treatment. Even the seeds are sweet."

The pumpkin adds a some color to the beer, Sal says, "a little bit of essence of pumpkin. It's not a real pumpkiny beer. Terry thinks it's more an aroma kind of thing."

In the boil, they added 15 pounds of honey (hops included Chinook, Willamette and Centennial, with a dash of homegrown Cascade at the very end for aroma) for a beer (around 6% ABV) that is shaping up fine, with that pumpkin essence in the nose.

"(The) beer smelled and tasted great at racking," Sal says, "very malty, not over the top
in hop bitterness but a nice, long hop finish."

Halloween's not far off; neither is their beer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gourd in beers: who's drinkin' 'em?

Iron Hill's Chris LaPierre with bourbon pumpkin ale
Talk pumpkin ales and you can quickly divide craft beer enthusiasts into two camps: those who annually look forward to the brews that have become the dominant fall seasonal these days, and the one-and-done folks who are happy to move on after drinking a single pint.

But there's a third group that falls into the mix: the cocktail and chardonnay crowd who look forward to pumpkin ales as their moment for crossing over in to the beer world.

"I definitely think there are people out there that the only beer they'll drink this year is pumpkin beer," says Iron Hill's brewer Chris LaPierre. "This is a kind of beer that wine drinkers, martini drinkers, people that say they don't drink beer ... you know, don't like beer ... (they) will drink pumpkin beer."

Iron Hill taps its flight of pumpkin ales this Saturday, and that third group drinkers are very much represented in the crowd that has made IH's Welcome, Great Pumpkin event the chart-topper as far as the brewpub's lineup of events through the year goes. In fact, in terms of sales, the Great Pumpkin event has eclipsed IH's  Belgium Comes to West Chester Belgian beer fest held at the nine-pub chain's West Chester, Pa., location each January. (Featured beers include The Great Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Pumpkin Ale and Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin Ale. For the record, IH's West Chester location does a Gathering of the Gourds pumpkin beer salute.)

It helps that South Jersey's reception of IH in 2009 turned the company's Maple Shade location its busiest. But for all of the factions that surround pumpkin beer, there is definitely something about the style that people find alluring.

"Just look at how crazy people are about it," Chris says. "Look at the coffee shops, everyone's got a pumpkin latte. I'm sure all the fast-food places probably have a pumpkin milkshake, or whatever. People just go nuts for it.

"Outside of brewpubs, look at how much earlier pumpkin beers are coming out. Every year they're out two or three weeks earlier. Everybody's trying to get theirs out early, trying to get it out before the competition. There's just something about that style."

Pumpkin beer is a balancing act for IH Maple Shade. It's appearance on the taps collides with Oktoberfest. The märzen is still a hot ticket, because Oktoberfest hews to tradition, as far as style goes. It's almost always a copper-colored strong lager, with its sweetness held in check by a dose of noble hops.

Pumpkin beers, on the other hand, get to spread out.

"I used to say that Oktoberfest is our fastest-selling seasonal. In a way, it still is because it's not cannibalized the way pumpkin is – imperial pumpkin, Belgian pumpkin," Chris says. "They're all going to steal from each other a little bit, whereas Oktoberfest is just one style. It makes my life pretty difficult for the fact that those are by far our two fastest-selling seasonals, and they both happen to be out at the same time."

That said, Chris does try to ensure Maple Shade's pumpkin ale makes a reprise deep into the fall, after Halloween. Call it pumpkin management.

"We used to have our pumpkin beer on just before Halloween, to just after Thanksgiving. It's popularity has made that difficult to do. I have trouble keeping up with it," he says. "So what I do now is put one on just before Halloween. Then there's usually a little bit of a gap, then we try to get another batch in and bring it back for Thanksgiving time."

Spice vs. pumpkin flavor
A debate that involves pumpkin beer is whether the beer flavors are enhanced by the pumpkin, the spices (i.e. clove, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon) or both. Chris' take is: If a brewer indeed uses pumpkin in the mash (not all do, some go the spices alone), that flavor will come through. (However, he concedes he's never put it to a blind taste test. And for the record, Chris uses about 300 pounds of pie pumpkins, that after processing for brewing purposes end up as about 80 pounds in the mash for a 12-barrel batch.)

"Certainly if you get a pumpkin latte or burn a pumpkin candle, there's not going to be any pumpkin in it. It is all about the spices" he says. "A lot of people don't bother putting pumpkin in their pumpkin beers, because they say all people are looking for is the spice anyway.

"My argument is, if you smell what this restaurant smelled like at 8 o'clock in the morning when they're roasting the pumpkins up in the convection ovens, there's no way that flavor's not carrying over into the beer. I do think there's more substance to it."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Christie signs NJ brewery bill

Gov. Chris Christie on Friday handed New Jersey's 25 craft brewers something they have long sought: a lifting of regulatory burdens that have hemmed in the state's growing craft beer industry since the small-batch brewing took off in the Garden State in the mid-1990s.

And with that, Christie also gave Garden State brewers a reason to celebrate, as they can now begin to look more like their brethren in Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, where making beer has flourished as the craft beer industry overall has grown.

"This law will have as great an impact on the small-brewing industry in New Jersey as the original law that legalized craft brewers," says Flying Fish founder Gene Muller, who, as an officer of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, helped push the bill Christie signed though the Legislature. "It will give us the opportunity to compete – and collaborate – with small brewers in our surrounding states.

"For example, I've been kicking around an idea with (Dogfish Head's) Sam Calgione and other Delaware brewers to host concurrent beer fests on each side of the Delaware Bay. Now we might be able to do that. Now we'll be able to host out-of-state brewers at our guild fest."

Here's what the new law does:

  • Allows New Jersey's 13 brewpubs to distribute their beers to liquor stores and restaurants through the wholesale distribution system. Previously, brewpubs could only sell their product in the restaurant immediately adjoining the brewery.
  • Increases the current cap on the number of brewpubs a company may open in New Jersey, by raising the limit on plenary retail consumption licenses for brewpubs from two to 10.
  • Permits brewpubs to increase their annual production to 10,000 barrels a year, up from 3,000.
  • Permits brewpubs to offer samples of their product on site as well as off site with a permit from the Alcohol Beverage Control director, at places such as fairs or charity events.
  • Permits the state's 12 production breweries to sell beer brewed at the licensed location for consumption on premises as part of a brewery tour. Also allows those breweries to sell a limited amount of beer for off-site consumption.
  • Allows production breweries to offer samples of their beers both on and off the premises, as currently permitted for the state's wineries.

The new law, which takes effect immediately, also holds some added importance for the state's crop of new breweries, as well as any breweries in the planning stages.

"The other great thing about the bill is that startups will be able to do a little bit more retail, giving them the cash flow to get their business up to speed faster," Gene says.

Says Michael Kane, whose eponymous brewery in Ocean Township has built a wide following and celebrated its first year in business this summer: "We want to wait for more clarity (on what's allowed), but obviously we're excited. It's good for everybody."

It's a great day especially for the consumer, says Ryan Krill, one of the founders of Cape May Brewing. Breweries now will be able to accommodate beer enthusiasts who often have been surprised to discover state law limited how much beer could sampled or made available for retail purchase, Ryan says.

"That's all behind us now," he adds.

Now a 6-barrel brewery, Cape May started at a sixth of that size last year and early last month saluted its first anniversary.

Christie put his name to the legislation just days shy of a Monday deadline for signing it, and three months after the bill cleared the state Senate and Assembly with bipartisan support. But more importantly, he signed the bill amid a growth phase for the industry.

Since 2010, seven new breweries have been licensed since; two – Great Blue in Middlesex County and Port 44 Brew Pub in Newark – have gone out of business. Meanwhile, Blackthorn Brewing is in development of a 25-barrel brewery in Toms River. Also, the guild's festival held annually in June saw the most home-state breweries – 19 – pouring in the event's 16-year history this summer.

Until Iron Hill brewpub opened its Maple Shade location in 2009, New Jersey endured a 10-year drought on new breweries opening. Now, Iron Hill is in the process of adding a location in Voorhees. (It's worth noting that, had the measure not been signed, Iron Hill would have maxed out its allowed locations in the home state of the owners of the nine-pub chain.)

"When we were contemplating first building in South Jersey, everyone said we were crazy because South Jersey was a craft beer wasteland. When we opened our Maple Shade location and it quickly rose to become our No. 1 store, we realized that New Jersey was a great and underappreciated craft beer market," says Mark Edelson of Iron Hill, who like Gene Muller, logged a lot of hours and trips to Trenton to shepherd the legislation along.

"As we became more involved in New Jersey, we realized that it was the laws that were holding back craft beer in this state, not the beer drinkers. Today is a great day, where legislators in both parties have really come together to create legislation that will allow New Jersey to have the success in craft beer seen in all of the border states and give New Jersey beer lovers many more New Jersey-produced options. Cheers New Jersey!"

Reaction from other brewers across the state Friday to the bill's signing was one of relief and gratitude.

"That's fantastic. We actually changed something for the positive," says Greg Zaccardi, owner of High Point Brewing in Butler. "That is awesome. Finally. Let's all raise a glass to this one."

Charlie Schroeder, brewer at Trap Rock brewpub in Berkeley Heights, was a little more ebullient: "It's a hell of a good day. It's time to party with Gov. Christie. We should all get in our cars and drive down (to Trenton) and have some beers with him."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Oktoberfest is alive and well

This time a year ago, you could find some Internet chatter using Oktoberfest as a punching bag. (Find it here and here.)

The gist of those two observations is: The US craft beer market is awash in crappy takes  – poorly executed or just plain wrong – on a hallowed German style that the Germans themselves have essentially forsaken by putting profit over quality and tradition. In that regard, American brewers should heed the call to rescue it, like they've done with some Belgian styles.

Meanwhile, Oktoberfest as an event has become this tourist-trap-hijacked drunkfest of a calendar date, that most of Germany, save Bavaria, ignores. To be a good student of beer you should be savvier and explore what else Deutschland has to offer.

There's some truth to these observations. Oktoberfest beers dispatched from the homeland to this market are disappointing, and a Web search for Oktoberfest will overrun your browser with hits for booking a trip to Munich. (That's been the case for a while, a well-worn lament by now.)

But, in terms of signal to noise, there's plenty of noise in these observations. For one thing, märzen beer is still alive and well – in the US. There may be plenty of dreck out there, but there's also plenty of cream (that's been the case with craft beer for a while now), as American brewers spot an opening and re-create, even re-imagine, a beer.

As for Oktoberfest the event, it is what it is: a seasonal money-maker for it host city. That's the tilt of the Earth these days. No sense in crying over tipped beer.

And, as far as the subset point goes, that Germans make other brews besides fest beers, well duh. In the craft beer world, hardly anyone thinks (or thought) fest beer is all Germany ever brings to the table.

Even in New Jersey and its environs, where down-the-nose looks our way think us a bit behind the curve, brews like rauchbier, gose and snappy Berliners have been in the mugs for some time, either by our brewers or found on packaged goods stores' import shelves. Germany is not in its rookie season in here in the states, and thanks to the Web, beer drinkers here get around without having stray too far from home (read that as exposure, access to styles, style information).

No matter what the Germans brew these days – and to be sure, they have been dumbing down the fest beer for years now – Americans aren't, nor can they be expected, to be keepers of beer flames. American brewers hate rules as much as they respect them.

For US brewers, styles are as much a blueprint or suggestion as they are, well, the actual style. American craft brewers are too inclined to rewrite the rules, deconstruct them and rebuild them in a hybrid, a mash-up, or cover the style by doing a stellar job at it. That's what American craft brewers do well. It's not so much being the keeper of a flame, but rather, picking up where someone else left off and putting your own stamp on it.

"Is it true that the spectrum of Oktoberfests that were available last year really wasn't that exciting? Absolutely. But that's how craft beers have flourished: They've been better than the competition," says Greg Zaccardi, whose High Point Brewing last week released its 2012 incarnation of Ramstein Oktoberfest Lager Beer, the first of 180 barrels of the seasonal planned for this year. "When the competition becomes lame, you have a great opportunity. If what was arriving here was knocking it out of the park, it would be harder for everybody."

High Point Brewing (located in Butler) was founded as a wheat beer brewery in the German tradition and has produced the decoction-mashed fall märzen for 14 of its 16 years in business, the very first batches being made at the request of a now-closed German restaurant in Atlantic Highlands. Ramstein Oktoberfest enjoys high marks from the critics and continues to draw big crowds to the brewery on the second Saturday of September, its annual release date.

"For our concept, for who we are, we've always taken a lead from the traditional style guidelines and put our own thumbprint (and) signature on that by tweaking it in the direction we find to be exciting," Greg says. "That means we have to start with being as good as the benchmark for that style and doing something that makes it a little better."

At Climax Brewing, doppelbocks, märzens, helles and Oktoberfests are genuinely a matter of heritage. Dave Hoffmann, owner of the Roselle Park brewery, is a New Jerseyan, but a German, too, via both parents. Screwing up the style is a sacrilege, and something that flies in face of his beer-drinking experience. Märzens and bocks are among his favorites.

Elsewhere around the state and country, there are able interpretations of the fall style (Left Hand in Colorado and Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland come to mind), but things get more elaborate than just capitalizing on a seasonal.

For a while now, Tom Stevenson at Triumph Brewing in Princeton has made those goses, rauchbiers, among other Old World styles (including gruit, a style Tim Kelly at Atlantic City's Tun Tavern has made as well). Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands) makes a quite-worthy Berliner. At some point, these brews become more than an introduction to beer: They develop a wide following and generate expectations.

But back to an earlier point ... There are some things that Internet chatter got right. Namely, there is bad märzen out there (try a Leinenkugel's if you don't think so; at venerated Boston Beer Company, the Octoberfest – that's their spelling – grades a B+ at most. But that speaks to their craft-beer bandwidth – above-average, serviceable beers that are accessible to a very wide audience.)

Honestly, though, the observation about bad beers in the marketplace is one that really knows no exclusive style, nor season, meaning it's hardly exclusive to Oktoberfest beers. You can say it about virtually every beer style out there, every seasonal. Alongside the good and the great, there are bad IPAs, bad APAs, bad wits, bad summer seasonals, dubious pumpkin ales, out-of-balance winter warmers, crappy stouts and lame porters. The craft beer market is crowded and getting more crowded. Not everyone hits the mark, and sadly, sometimes it shows.

On the other point, Slob-toberfest ... well, Oktoberfest in the US is very much Cinco de Mayo in lederhosen. But then, Cinco de Mayo is St. Patrick's Day dancing to a mariachi band. And Halloween is a tavern party in a witch's hat, meaning all of those calendar events have devolved into bar promotions of some sort. It's been that way for too long to think about. And the atmosphere surrounding that says, So what? It's business. If you're a brewer, and a bar wants to feature your beer, seasonal or not, you want the tap handle.

Meanwhile, Oktoberfest in Munich is indeed one of the city's paydays, something it can rely on to generate revenues, fill hotels, plow money into the local economy, never mind how it started or what it used to be in the eyes of anyone. It is what it is, and for Munich, it's not unlike New York counting on a lot of people showing up in Times Square on New Year's Eve, or Louisville depending on a Kentucky Derby bounce the first Saturday of every May.

Again, so what? It's commerce.

Just like brewers producing a seasonal, i.e. Oktoberfest ... it's commerce, a business decision. If it plays, it pays. Ask any brewer if having a reliable revenue stream is worth the trouble, the answer is likely to be "yes."

"For us, it's really important to look at celebrating what we strive to do well," Greg says.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Pa. beer rules force Iron Hill to retool Mug Club

A popular brewpub customer rewards program is being forced to end, thanks to beer industry regulators in the Keystone State.

The 11,000 members of Iron Hill's Mug Club got an email on Monday informing them that decisions by alcoholic beverage regulators meant the brewery-restaurant chain would have to end the 10-year-old customer loyalty program at its nine locations.

At issue, among other things, is the awarding of points to club members upon purchases of beer.

That practice is being stopped immediately for beer, but will continue for food. Under the program, those points would accrue, and credits (i.e. 25 bucks off your next Iron Hill tab) were awarded at certain thresholds.

Monday's email, signed by co-owner Kevin Finn, says the mug club is being revised to meet regulators' concerns. Iron Hill is exploring its options and expects to offer a replacement program this fall.

"Whether we agree with these decisions or not, or why after 10 years the Mug Club has become an issue, is not up to us to decide," Kevin says in the email. "What is important is finding a solution quickly and doing what’s best for our most loyal customers. We want to comply with all the laws and regulations in the states we operate, but our primary focus is providing guests handcrafted beer, creative food and attentive service."

Kevin also outlined other key changes being put in place while Iron Hill recasts the program:

    •    We will no longer accept new members during this transition.
    •    Current members due for renewal will have their memberships extended until the new club is active.
    •    Current members will receive 500 points immediately. This is our gift for past loyalty and patience during this transition.
    •    Members can continue to drink from the Mug Club mug, but must pay the same price as non-club members, an additional 50 cents over the current price of a pint. The free 8 ounces of beer that Mug Club members received was another major issue for the regulators.

Customers who signed up for the club paid a fee and were given a dated souvenir 24-ounce ceramic mug to take home and were served their beer orders in the same types of mugs during visits to Iron Hill.

Thankfully, it wasn't a heavy hand from New Jersey regulators that forced the changes. But since Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board threw the cold water on the party, Iron Hill is checking rules for the Garden State and Delaware, the state where it was founded and has its home office.

"Officially, it is currently the PA LCB, where we received a letter," co-owner Mark Edelson says by email, responding to some questions about the club changes. "Since all states have liquor laws that prohibit some types of 'enticements,' we are verifying what the other states say. But regardless, 70 percent of our Mug Club is in Pennsylvania, and the logistics of running different deals in different states would lead to a nightmare trying to keep things straight, especially as it pertains to awarding points and checking points online."

Mark continues: "Specifically in Pennsylvania, the regs clearly state that you cannot serve a larger portion of beer without a proportional increase in price. Thus, filling the mug at the pint price is specifically illegal.

"Awarding redeemable points for the purchase of alcohol is considered an 'enticement' to purchase alcohol and is therefore illegal. Although redemption of an earned award on alcohol is NOT illegal.

"Charging a fee for joining the club in which you can get discounts not afforded the general public is also considered and "enticement" and is therefore illegal."

Iron Hill has six locations in Pennsylvania, two in Delaware and one here in New Jersey, in Maple Shade. A 10th location is projected to open in Voorhees in Camden County around the end of this year or the start of 2013.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Between a laugh and a beer

A funny thing happened along the way to this Saturday's Brew Ha Ha beer festival and comedy show at Six Flags Great Adventure: What it takes for a brewfest to grab your attention changed.

Or at least, is continuing to change. Evolving.

Stay tuned to see if it's a trend with legs. But in a year that has seen the calendar undeniably crowded with more festivals (some well attended, others not so), it does seem like some of the winds steering consumer traits are actually shifting.

Simply having a lineup of brews and breweries for a given Saturday (backed up with some basic musical entertainment and stadium food), then doing some carnival-barking online, in print and on radio to call the masses, in the long run, isn't going to cut it. Competition is tight and growing tighter for the 45 or 50 bucks that festival-goers pony up for three-plus hours of unlimited sampling.

You gotta offer folks who are the craft-beer drinking public more for their money (especially in a sluggish economy), whether it's a distinct theme (Iron Hill's annual Belgium Comes to West Chester springs to mind) or some attractions to complement the beer.

Which is what's going on with the Brew Ha Ha event at Great Adventure: roller coasters, a food buffet, a comedy show, and of course, beers (50) from top names (30, including Stone ) in craft brewing. It's a mix of recreational fun and summertime foods that embrace beer.

And speaking of the beer, the lineup includes Garden State breweries whose labels are synonymous with the first wave of Jersey craft beer (as in the mid-1990s, i.e. Flying Fish), and the newest members of the brewed-in-Jersey family (Carton, Kane and Tuckahoe).

Festival-goers will get to vote on their favorite Jersey-made beer. Also, the comedy show bill features Floyd Vivino, aka Uncle Floyd, a guy who's no stranger to Jersey craft beer – Uncle Floyd once paid a visit to High Point Brewing in Butler.

Organized by TotalBru's/'s, Brew Ha Ha is the company's biggest festival yet to be held in New Jersey and the third, large-scale event it has staged in the region this year.

Chris DePeppe, the guy behind TotalBru, is a seasoned hand when it comes to putting on festivals. He co-promotes the annual Philly Craft Beer Fest with Starfish Junction, and two years ago Chris launched Beer on the Pier in Belmar.

Last March, he helped stage the Beers on the Boards food-and-brew event at Martell's Tiki Bar in Point Pleasant Beach, a festival distinguished by featuring foods prepared with some of the beers served. Aside from the beer, of course, you can take that as one of the dividing lines between an average festival and one worth your time.

"As we move forward, events have to have something else," Chris says. "Having a cool venue is huge, (plus) good music and a buffet."

Chris' latter comment refers to the Brew Ha Ha event. But, as more promoters pack festivals aimed at the masses onto the calendar, it's a point that applies across the board.

Beer festivals have been around for decades. The Great American Beer Festival in Denver was started 30 years ago. (The Great British Beer Festival is even older.) The Garden State Craft Brewers Guild has been holding its annual festival for 16 years now; the Atlantic City beer fest, perhaps the state's largest, has been around for seven. Furthermore, upscale food and beer pairings have been around a while, too (think SAVOR in Washington, D.C., for one.)

In the mid-Atlantic region, back in the 1990s, festivals helped craft brewers, whose industry was new to the region, reach beer drinkers and helped build brands. Fests were much more novel then vs. now, and the formula of a lot of beers (U.S. craft and import), plus live music and food (usually concession fare of some sort) appealed to a wide cross-section of palates.

With the GABF being the big exception, that's not so much the case anymore.

Craft beer is popular on its own these days, and craft brewing, as an industry, has outgrown the need to use festivals for branding. Brewers years ago became choosier about which festivals to attend and send staff (who are on the clock, by the way).

And broadly speaking, these days, festivals (again, the GABF being an exception) are more attractive to newcomers than seasoned beer drinkers. Again, that's a generality, not a hard rule. But Chris says the fresh faces interested in craft beer are indeed the market. But there is, he notes, a need for some balance, to also appeal to seasoned veterans.

"New consumers is what industry needs, but what drives things is beer ambassadors," Chris says, referring to to those veterans, people who know and talk about good and interesting beers and steer others to it.

And that makes having some themes or attractions (beyond just music, multiple bands, by the way) to complement the beer lineup more important these days.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Next stop, governor's desk

Vote tally, 39-0
Greater freedoms for New Jersey craft brewers, and the subsequent benefits for their followers – beer drinkers, now come down to a tough-talking, über Springsteen fan who has in the past shown support for homebrewing and craft beer.

Just exactly how Governor Chris Christie will act on the legislation handed off to him on Monday remains, of course, to be seen.

But the Garden State Craft Brewers Association, the industry organization that backed the bills, is optimistic that the governor will sign the bill, endorsing changes to the rules that brewers say have hemmed them in since 1995, the headwaters of the beer renaissance that has seen New Jersey brewery ranks since swell to two dozen.

Still, as the legislation enters this final phase, the opposition that has trailed it upon its introduction earlier this year isn't going away. The powerful New Jersey Restaurant Association is likely to seek the governor's ear and appeal to him to veto the bill, renewing its complaints that the proposed regulatory changes fly in the face of the three-tier system governing alcoholic beverages.

The association contends the changes would diminish the value – think six and seven figures – of licenses that bars and restaurants hold to serve beer, wine and liquor.

So, supporters of craft beers brewed in the Garden State will just have to stay tuned. But there are some significant things to consider.

Coming on the heels of Saturday's 16th annual guild beer festival aboard the USS New Jersey, Monday's Senate action sent the craft brewing bill to Governor Christie with a 39-0 vote; last Thursday (June 21), the Assembly gave its stamp of approval, 64-13.

Those wide vote margins should play to the guild's favor with the governor's office. And the economics of giving the state's craft brewers a freer hand command attention as well.

For instance, as with the opening of its Maple Shade location three years ago, Iron Hill brewpub projects it will create 100 jobs when it opens its second New Jersey pub in Voorhees around the end of this year. (Iron Hill has nine locations spread among Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)

Under the current craft brewing regulations, brewpubs are cut off after two establishments (and thus Voorhees would theoretically cap the number of jobs Iron Hill could create in the state). But the measure (A1277/S641) passed last week and Monday would allow brewpubs to operate up to 10 establishments and sell their beers through distributors.

Outside Senate chamber, after the vote
(The legislation also would allow production breweries to retail beer to tour patrons for consumption on and off-site. Right now, the most you can buy upon touring a New Jersey craft brewery is two six packs or two growlers. If the governor signs the bill, that would retail limit would become a 15-gallon keg.)

Additionally, and this is perhaps a reflection of the continued vibrant national market for craft beer, some of the Garden State's newest breweries, specifically ones launched last (Cape May Brewing, Carton and Kane Brewing), have added assistant brewers, sales staff or tasting room employees on their payrolls, all before crossing the threshold of being in business a full year.

Meanwhile, Flying Fish Brewing is on the verge of launching its new $7 million automated brewery in its new home of Somerdale. (Last October, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno paid a visit to Flying Fish.)

So with that those circumstances as a backdrop, all eyes turn to the governor, an outgoing guy known for batting down critics, tough talk at town hall forums he's held across the state, and his preference for taking in a Bruce Springsteen concert over prepping for a campaign debate.

To his credit, the governor signed legislation in January to dump a 20-year-old state regulation that obligated homebrewers to obtain a permit to make beer in their backyards and garages. In May 2011, he also signed a proclamation declaring the second week of that month Craft Beer Week in New Jersey, to coincide with a national observance.

Again, stay tuned. A new era of craft brewing in the Garden State is closer to reality than it has ever been.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guild bill passes Assembly, 64-13

Tote board from Assembly vote
With a favorable Assembly vote in their pockets, New Jersey's craft brewers are now turning their attention to a Monday state Senate session and scheduled vote on companion legislation that would give those brewers more leeway in marketing their ales and lagers to Garden State beer enthusiasts.

Lawmakers in the Assembly on Thursday voted 64-13, with one abstention, to pass legislation to modernize New Jersey's craft brewing regulations, a long-sought change to the rules under which the state's combined two dozen production breweries and brewpubs do business.

Members of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, which developed the legislation with the help of lobbyists from the Kaufman Zita Group, are optimistic for passage in the upper chamber. (As many Jersey beer drinkers know, the guild is umbrella group that represents most, but not all, of the state's craft breweries.)

The Senate version of the bill has key bipartisan sponsorship from Republican Sen. Tom Kean Jr. of Union County (home to Trap Rock brewpub and Climax Brewing) and Democrat Sen. Donald Norcross of Camden County (home to Flying Fish Brewing and the planned Iron Hill Voorhees location). If passed by the Senate, the legislation would go to Governor Chris Christie for his consideration.

However, even with the tailwind that the legislation is now enjoying, the guild is renewing an action alert, again asking beer enthusiasts across the state to call or email their senators and urge them to vote yes on the bill. (The guild has posted a link to the state League of Municipalities so beer drinkers to find their legislators.) The state's restaurant association has been a staunch opponent to changing the brewery rules, complaining the proposed rewrite would erode the three-tier system under which alcoholic beverages are produced and sold.

Heading into Thursday's session, the guild had expected votes in both the Senate and Assembly. However, the legislation did not make it onto the Senate's list of bills to be considered for a vote.

And, when the bill came up for a vote in the Assembly, it wasn't without some surprises: Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, an early sponsor of the bill, was among a bloc of Republicans voting no that also included Assemblymen Alex DeCroce and Jay Webber, whose legislative district includes Butler, the host town of High Point Brewing.

(If you've ever been to a Ramstein beer open house, then you know that High Point Brewing enjoys a lot of support from local elected officials, including some who have swung the mallet during the ceremonial oak barrel tappings.)

Bucco and DeCroce were joined in dissent by  Republicans from the Shore area: Monmouth County Assembly members Sean Kean, David Rible, Amy Handlin, Caroline Casagrande, and Mary Pat Angelini; and Ocean County Assembly members Brian Rumpf and Diane Gove.

In fact, Republicans accounted for all of Thursday's 13 no votes and the lone abstention, from Assemblyman Ronald Dancer. (Despite opposition from that particular group of Republicans, the bill did pass the Assembly with bipartisan backing.)

And like DeCroce, Assemblywomen Angelini and Casagrande voted against craft breweries in their districts: Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands) and Kane Brewing (Ocean Township) and Basil T's in Red Bank; while Assemblywoman Donna Simon's dissent was a vote against newly licensed Flounder Brewing in Hillsborough.

Metaphorically speaking, the Assembly's vote, and recent affirmative Senate committee votes on the bill, represent a tectonic shift in Trenton's attitudes toward craft brewing, a small, but now-growing, industry the Legislature had largely ignored and even rebuffed when it came to the industry's prior pleas for a rule rewrite that would make the Garden State competitive with its neighbors Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania.

Until lately, the most craft brewing ever got from Trenton, after lawmakers authorized small-batch brewing back in the mid-1990s, was a millstone of a rule hung around the industry's neck: a regulatory change a few years ago that made it difficult for production brewers to cut loose distributors they had entered into agreements with.

But as craft beer and the craft brewing industry raised its profile nationally over the past few years, the legislative climate in New Jersey has grew more favorable. The measure just approved by the Assembly, and to be taken up by the Senate on Monday, would allow brewpub owners to operate up to 10 establishments and to sell their beers through wholesalers – essentially enabling beer drinkers to get those brews at places other than the pubs.

Right now, the only place you can get an Avenel Amber is at J.J. Bitting in Woodbridge; the same thing goes for Ironbound Ale (Iron Hill in Maple Shade) and Leatherneck Stout (Tun Tavern in Atlantic City). As many beer drinkers know, if you enjoy those brews, you must go to those brewpubs to get them.

For production brewers, meanwhile, the legislation would allow retail beer sales to tour patrons for consumption on and off premise, a change that means going beyond the sip-size samples and two-six pack/two growler limit that have been the customary practice in the Garden State for practically all of the 17 years that craft brewing has been going in New Jersey. (For instance, the legislation would allow people to buy a keg – 15.5 gallons – from the brewery.)

The legislation's sponsor, Assemblyman Craig J. Coughlin, a Middlesex County Democrat, sized up the proposed regulatory changes as some key help to small businesses, and as a way to bring New Jersey in line with the national craft beer trend – a $7 billion industry that finds craft beers enjoying unprecedented popularity. (For whatever it's worth, Middlesex County is home to three brewpubs – Harvest Moon in New Brunswick, J.J. Bitting, and Uno Chicago Grill in Metuchen.)

"Like much of the rest of the country, New Jersey is experiencing a craft beer brewing renaissance," Assemblyman Coughlin says. "The appeal of these regional beers is making microbreweries and brewpubs tourist destinations. To help these small businesses capitalize on their newfound popularity, we need to update the state's antiquated laws regarding microbrewing."

Said co-sponsor Patrick J. Diegnan, another Middlesex County Democrat: "By making these changes to our brewing laws, we can help better promote New Jersey's existing breweries and attract new brewers looking to make their mark on the world of craft beer. This is good for economic development, job creation and our state's tourist industry."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Guild legislation gets 2 more OKs in Trenton

Legislation that would give New Jersey craft brewers a freer hand when doing business on Monday cleared two more committees, passing the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee without comment, but again encountering opposition from the state's restaurant association before a corresponding Assembly panel.

Though less vociferously than during Senate and Assembly committee hearings held in March and earlier this month, the restaurant association cited the three-tier system in renewing its complaints against the legislation.

The three-tier system was put in place after the repeal of Prohibition, requiring producers to sell through wholesalers, who sell to retailers, who in turn sell to consumers. The system was set up to prevent abuses and ensure competition, but critics say it has had a countereffect in the era of craft brewing, with small producers being denied access to markets.

(Washington State is the only state in the country where producers can sell directly to retailers. The three-tier system also gets blamed by critics for adding to the cost of beverages bought by consumers.)

The bills (S642 and A1277) put forth by the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, the umbrella organization that represents most of New Jersey's small-batch brewers, would allow brewpubs to own up to 10 establishments (the current limit is two) and sell beer through wholesalers, and allow production breweries to sell beer to tour patrons for on- and off-site consumption.

The restaurant association maintains the legislation turns production breweries into bars and package goods stores. The organization has complained that allowing brewpubs to exceed two establishments is also an erosion of the tier system.

Nonetheless, the bills were advanced by both appropriations committees with a dozen votes from each panel, clearing the way for votes by the full Assembly and Senate. When those votes could take place isn't immediately known.

Monday's vote was largely housekeeping on the part of the Legislature since the bills would also raise the ceiling for the amount of beer that brewpubs and production brewers can make, and that has a bearing on the state budgeting process and potential revenues (i.e. fees and taxes).

The vote was also the second time this month that the legislation got a thumbs-up from lawmakers. Ten days ago, members of the Assembly's Law and Public Safety panel gave the bill the green light. A similar committee in the Senate approved the bill in March.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A talk with Iron Hill's Mark Edelson

"Where we'd like to be long term," says Mark Eldeson, one of the founders of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, "is opening one a year for the next couple of years. We'd like to double our size in 10 years. That's what it's going to take."

The subject is Iron Hill's plans for another restaurant/brewery, it's 10th, this time in Voorhees, 10 miles south of the brewpub company's first New Jersey location in Maple Shade.

It's a Monday night in early June, and Mark's ensconced at the corner of the bar. A pair crutches propped up behind him lead your eyes to the left foot he injured during a recent soccer-coaching mishap. A healthy-size crowd swarms the bar area around him, turning out for the brewpub's release of Spéciale Belge, a smoky amber ale brewed in Belgium last March by Brasserie DuPont's Olivier Dedeycker, with Iron Hill's Maple Shade brewer, Chris LaPierre, and Marlton homebrewer Vince Masciandaro, lending a hand to the makers of the storied Saison DuPont for the one-off Belge brew.

The beer christened Philly Beer Week 2012, on the preceding Friday, at the 10-day event's Opening Tap ceremonies. But having it on tap at Chris' home base still makes for a marquee night among local beer enthusiasts.

After sampling a pint of Spéciale Belge at the bar and greeting some well-wishers, Mark retreats to a quieter back dining area to talk about that 10th brewery-restaurant, to open toward the end of this year (or early 2013) in the Voorhees Town Center, the former Echelon Mall partially razed and reborn as a cityscape – a wide thoroughfare lined with trees, street lamps and retail shops topped with townhouses.

Mark and partners Kevin Finn and Kevin Davies, all three New Jersey guys, founded Iron Hill in Delaware the mid-1990s. The three have turned the brand into a vibrant tri-state enterprise, a standout name in the beer worlds of Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Announced in late May, the Voorhees location will be the third to open since Maple Shade started pouring beer in 2009. Iron Hill's ninth location opened in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia back in January. (Some folks will remember the continued efforts by Iron Hill open in New Jersey and that the Maple Shade location came about when prospects dimmed for a site in Barrington in Camden County.)

Followers of Iron Hill, Mark says, will find the Voorhees brewpub familiar: the signature murals by artist Jeff Schaller; the menu of appetizers, bar pies, sandwiches and dinners; the flight of house beers – pale ale, porter, and Vienna lager – backed up with Belgian ales and other creative and seasonal brews that have earned the company national recognition.

On those topics and more, Mark fielded a half-hour's worth of questions, offering some insight to what drives Iron Hill and how the über-hot craft beer market these days poses some special challenges for brewpubs.

Beer-Stained Letter: Talk a little bit about how you arrived at Voorhees for your 10th location.
Mark Edelson: Most of the stuff we've looked at in New Jersey has been South Jersey, obviously in that Philadelphia sphere. We dabbled in Monmouth County and northern counties ... I think we want to get a foothold in one area of New Jersey first, so South Jersey is (pauses) ... We have such name recognition within the Philadelphia area. Before we opened here in Maple Shade, we had a ton of name recognition, which I think we wouldn't have had in northern New Jersey. We want to continue to bolster that ...

We actually had the Barrington deal going before we even set foot in Maple Shade. That just slogged on forever, and this deal came up. We're always looking for stuff and just waiting for deals to break loose that make sense. We were looking at the Voorhees deal for a while – same thing it started to break loose and made sense.

BSL: What were some of the considerations for it and the proximity to Maple Shade?
ME: We look at it in terms of Is it too close to existing locations? We do a lot of ZIP code survey, so we pretty much know statistically where our customers are coming from. Although New Jersey has been fantastic for us, the radius of this location, Maple Shade, is very tight. Voorhees being not that far away, we don't think we're going to rob any of the business from Maple Shade.

When we first were considering South Jersey, all the naysayers were talking about how, both South Jersey and this particular site (Maple Shade), being off the (main track) ... It wasn't on (Route) 73; it was in flex space ... It was Who would ever find this? and How could we do well here? because there was a restaurant that did so-so here for a couple of years.

And you know what, we stuck with the numbers and the demographics, and they came right through for us. People didn't blink at finding us here. I think we'll find a similar experience in Voorhees as well.

The building you're going into in Voorhees, a little background about that.
ME: It used to be called the Echelon Mall ... It's now called the Voorhees Town Center. It was completely renovated. They renovated the old Echelon Mall. They razed about half of it, and built was its now called kind of a town center concept, where you have kind of a main street of retail. This one is mixed use, so there's condos ...  It's nice; it's new space. The demographics there are terrific. We've got Haddonfield, Voorhees itself ... We are right off the PATCO line. It makes it a lot easier for people to come in and out of Philadelphia to visit us, at least Center City people, which could be great.

BSL: With craft beer, the market continues to be really hot. Which model, brewpub or production brewery, appears to be more to the forefront of the growth trend?
ME: We're in the restaurant business, and we really wax and wane with how restaurants are doing. Of course, having craft beer as something other restaurants can't deliver right on site, that's our niche; that's the differentiator for us, having an onsite brewery and all the great beers we have.

Other great restaurants near us won't necessarily have a great restaurant and great brewery in it as well. Craft (beer) doing well helps us. But I can't say we track exactly with craft beer, we track more with the restaurant industry. But having craft doing so well right now is really helping us on the brewery side. 

BSL: In terms of bringing a brewery online, to give people a general idea of what it costs, what are we talking about in terms of expense?
ME: These days it takes us – with all the costs involved – $350,000-$400,000 to install, to get it all in there, and then the cost of operating. Some of the fights that we have politically here in New Jersey, that brewpubs have an edge over everybody because they make their beer so cheaply. That's such a myth. Anybody that's in the business will tell you, you plunk down 400 grand, that depreciation is rather expensive, and then when you really look at the costs, if you're really paying a (brewer) well and using the right ingredients and stuff like that, and then at the end of the day, it's costing you as much as it would to bring it in in keg, the craft beer.

Our belief is, it's not a cost issue, again it's a component that we can deliver. It's great beer that we control. It's a part of what we do, the onsite, the fresh, all of that, because we sell way more beer than a standard restaurant will sell; 22 to 25 percent of our sales are beer. We do 75 percent food, so there's no doubt we sell a lot of food. We're like most restaurants, but the beer component of other restaurants is much smaller, at least half, and then you've got liquor and wine in there as well. And we sell a fair amount of liquor and wine.

BSL: So then what's Iron Hill known more for, the beer or the food?
ME: Depends on who you ask. There are customers who join our mug club who never drink beer. Our mug club is our loyalty club; the moniker mug club is because we give out a mug. It's really a loyalty club ... I would say we've been wildly successful with our beer, especially in national awards, and whatnot. I think you can make the case that in a lot of circles, certainly, we're very famous for our beer. But certainly with our customers who live close by, it's the food. They love the beer, but they're not going to go out and drink beer every night. But they are going to go out and eat every night. Our business is driven by the kitchen. There's no doubt about it, and the beer thrives because of a thriving kitchen. I don't know that if we didn't have a great kitchen that the beer would drag the kitchen along.

I think that's where you run into issues in the industry that people aren't focused enough on the food. People in the beer business shouldn't get into the restaurant business. You need to be focused on both aspects. And people in the restaurant business shouldn't get into the beer business ... They think it's this moneymaker, and they lose heart and they pay a guy bare minimum and don't give him the money to order the ingredients he wants. And then you're not making great beer, you know. You're making adequate beer ... At the end of the day, people are going to come to us because we're a really good restaurant, and then they're going to realize how good the beer is, and they're going to drink a lot of the beer.

BSL: In the three years the Maple Shade location has been open, there have been some really unique beers to come out of here, and they've been driven by the customer base. It's safe to say you'll be looking for the same out of Voorhees?
ME: It's interesting, because when the brewer goes in, he's got to weigh what he likes personally vs. what the customers like, or what he thinks the customers want. That's always a debate we have. There's always a personal bias – even I have a personal bias. The advantage of being in a brewpub situation is that your customers, you can look 'em right in the eye. They'll tell you want they want.

Chris LaPierre with Vince Masciandaro
Right now, everyone wants hoppy beers. Everybody does, no matter where you go; that's all they want to hear is about hoppy beers. I swear, if you put IPA behind half our brands, they'd double the sales, without blinking. That's just how crazy it is. And the new varieties of hops coming out, it's an interesting dynamic. And admittedly, we've been slow to that punch. We want to brew a great variety of beers, and we want to be balanced with that. We have a hard time keeping up with keeping so many hoppy beers on tap. You just don't want to come in and have six hoppy beers on ... we want to introduce people to our whole palette of flavors. So that's what the brewer has to balance.

BSL: Being an Iron Hill location, people can expect the flagship beers like Ironbound Ale, Pig Iron Porter ...
ME: Sure ...
BSL: ... and that component of Belgian styles.
ME: And there's five of those, and tonight we've got 17 beers on tap. Generally, Chris carries 14 to 15 beers on tap. For a brewpub, that's difficult ... We used to be the eight-beer brewpub. We realized that that is not the future, that with all the beer bars popping up that can put 30 beers on that are outstanding and world-class by picking up the phone and ordering it, then we better do something new. We made some changes in our philosophies and our approach to it and some equipment changes that allow the brewer to sustain a bigger variety ... We've gotten some comments from some customers here in New Jersey that they love, as a brewpub, how many beers we have on tap, because of the variety they walked in to ...

BSL: So reading that scenario correctly ...
ME: It's hard for us to compete. They (beer bars) could kick our ass.
BSL:  So breweries at the pub level should all be taking notice, should be thinking along that line?
ME: Absolutely. You walk into a brewpub and there's six beers on, people are going to walk out these days. Gordon Biersch, their big thing is five great German beers. And they're digging their heels in on that. I gotta tell you, I disagree with that. That is not what people want. They respect the quality of those beers, but people (say) I've had this one. It's great beer and all, but give me something more. They've got one new seasonal; the brewer's allowed one seasonal. We're the opposite – we've got five and the brewer is allowed seven or nine more. But you know, it drives (our brewers') energy and creative juices, too.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Guild bill clears NJ Assembly panel

Iron Hill's Mark (on crutches) after hearing
Garden State craft brewers won another round in Trenton when a bill to modernize the rules under which they operate cleared a second key legislative panel on Thursday.

The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee advanced the bill, A-1277, by an 8-2 vote, handing the state's craft brewing industry the prospect of the measure landing on Gov. Chris Christie's desk before the end of year, or possibly even before the Legislature takes a summer break at the start of next month.

A Senate version of the measure cleared a corresponding committee in that chamber in March by a unanimous vote.

Despite that, it's not a straight shot toward getting the bill posted for votes by the full Senate and Assembly. The legislation must now go through an appropriations committee (a circumstance tied to the fact the bill would increase production ceilings for craft brewers). However, based on the current momentum – and despite dissent by two lawmakers – the bill is unlikely to get held up, supporters say.

The two Assembly committee members who voted against the bill on Thursday, Republicans Sean Kean and David Rible of Monmouth County predicated their reservations on fears that new freedoms the bill would grant brewers would come at the expense of taverns and restaurants with bars. (Incidentally, Monmouth County is home to three craft breweries, though not in the Kean and Rible's 30th district. But East Coast Beer is, and the folks behind the Beach Haus brand are planning a brewery in New Jersey. Still, there is this: Distributor Ritchie & Page, which acquired Bud purveyor Crown Beer a while back, operates out of the 30th district.)

The lawmakers' dissent drew from arguments laid out to the committee by lobbyists for the tavern and restaurant groups, who complained the bill would undercut the value of bar owners' licenses at a time when some owners are struggling in the economic downturn. Additionally, the lobbyists said, the bill attempts to side-step long-established rules and practices for the state's alcoholic beverage industry.

That aside, Thursday's committee action indeed represents sea change for craft brewing in New Jersey.

Since the mid-1990s, when craft brewing was first sanctioned by the Legislature, the state's small-batch brewers have been hemmed in by regulations that left them at a disadvantage compared with brewers in neighboring states.

That's a reason Iron Hill brewpub, founded by a trio of New Jerseyans, got its start in Delaware and likely why Triumph Brewing in Princeton, an early pioneer of craft brewing in the Garden State, opted to expand in Pennsylvania rather than in New Jersey.

Other long-time craft brewers in the state could be counted on to utter the refrain that if they had known New Jersey would prove to be so difficult for doing business, they would have looked across the Delaware River to start their breweries.

Over the years, attempts to make the rules more business-friendly often had trouble finding a sympathetic ear in Trenton.

But this time, efforts to level the playing field – spearheaded and shaped by the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, the trade group that represents most but not all of the state's microbrewers and brewpubs – have gained traction as craft brewing's profile and fortunes have risen across the country. (Nationally, craft brewing is a $7 billion a year industry.)

Essentially the legislation would put New Jersey on par with Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Production brewers would be allowed to retail kegs (half barrels, quarters and sixtels) directly to the public and serve more than just small samples during tours, for which the breweries could charge. Currently, production brewers are limited to selling only two six-packs or two growlers to tour guests and often provide the beer samples for free. However, under the bill – and unlike in Pennsylvania – production breweries would not be allowed to serve food, a concession made for the sake of bars and restaurants.

For brewpubs, the bill would boost the number of locations that can be held by a single owner from two to 10, and allow brewpubs to distribute their beer through wholesalers. That means beer drinkers would be able to get their favorite Gaslight or Trap Rock beers at a packaged goods stores, instead of exclusively at those brewpubs, as is the case now.

Until last month, New Jersey only had one brewpub owner that ever maxed out the licensing, Basil T's in Red Bank, which owned a second location in Toms River before spinning it off several years ago. (The Toms River location kept the Basil's name until changing it to Artisan's a couple years ago.)

In May, Iron Hill brewpub, which owns a location in Maple Shade in Burlington County, announced it had signed a lease for a second store in Voorhees in Camden County, with a projected opening around the end of the year.

Before the Assembly committee, Mark Edelson, one of Iron Hill's founders, pointed out that unless the law is changed, the Voorhees location means Iron Hill, which owns eight other locations spread among Delaware and Pennsylvania, would be legally finished investing in New Jersey.