Wednesday, March 7, 2012

NJ green-lights Flounder Brewing

A Flounder founder: Jeremy Lees
One of the first things you notice when you settle into Flounder Brewing is the glassware on a trio of shelves behind the tasting room bar and the pictures on another shelf along the side wall.

The photos are special moments frozen in time; the pint glasses and mugs come from up and down the Northeast, across the country and even around the world: the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference in Boston; the SAVOR beer and food event in Washington, D.C.; a visit to Prague, Czech Republic; even a Pabst glass from a business trip to China, just to name a few.

From the looks of it, this could be almost any craft beer enthusiast's den, with a kegerator centerpiece to keep up the cheer among friends. After all, beer is a shared experience and speaks to good company.

Jeremy Lees, and his family partners in Flounder Brewing, wouldn't have it any other way. Their mantra is "Experience Your Beer. "Everything tells a story," says Jeremy, whose posterized image is the face of the company's logo. "That's what everything in here is trying to show, just remembering those events. I know a lot of what I was drinking when I was doing something cool."

Now the folks at Flounder Brewing will get a chance to extend Garden State beer drinkers an invitation to experience Flounder beer and create their own cool moments.

State regulators on Wednesday gave the official blessing to the tiny, 1-barrel brewery, following a 20-minute inspection of Flounder Brewing's facility located in a Hillsborough (Somerset County) business park. The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control's approval raised the tally of licensed craft breweries in New Jersey to just shy of two dozen. (Flounder is the first licensee of 2012; more brewery projects are pending before ABC.)

The approval, long in coming  – over 18 months, and aided by a micro-loan through a program backed by Boston Beer Company – seemed a bit anti-climactic, but it was celebratory nonetheless.

After the inspection, Jeremy says he phoned his wife, Melissa, and a brothers, Mike and Dan (the brewery partnership also includes brother-in-law Greg Banacki Jr. and cousin William Jordan V). He planned to toast the end to the long and winding regulatory road with a beer later in the evening. (And as great as that news is, he says, there was more on tap: on Thursday, he and Melissa will learn the sex of the twins she's carrying.)

Despite the fresh licensing, don't look for beer from Flounder too soon. Give them a couple of months. There's some electrical work that remains to be done before they can heat up the brew kettle to turn out a planned honey amber ale and other brews they'll target for local markets.

Full Circle
For the Flounder crew, craft beer reaches beyond beverage. It's something metaphorically circular: It's living; it's conviviality and good times that create memories, and those memories create new reasons to get together and share beers in good company.

When he was living in Morristown, Jeremy would gather with his brothers to homebrew on Friday nights and play Brew-Opoly.

"As well as boiling (wort), we're sitting there playing Brew-Opoly – it's all microbreweries instead of the real estate," Jeremy says. "And then we moved to Lyndhurst, where my brother lives, which was also my grandma's house, so it was her garage, and we'd brew and barbecue, and after we finished brewing, we'd drink around the fire pit at night. It was just about us getting together."

Conviviality. Good times. Memories.

Beer is even an aha moment, about seeing the light.

Jeremy, with now-replaced brew setup
"Fat Tire is actually one of the first craft beers I ever had," Jeremy says, recalling his own epiphany. "I was about 19 years old, and I was (managing) this band in college. We were out in Boulder and we played at this little restaurant where the manager told us if he saw us drinking any beer he'd break our hands, but we could have a gig here. But meanwhile, we were drinking Fat Tire in the back room, and I'm like 'This stuff is great.' I'd just gone a year into college, where all you were drinking was Natty Light, and suddenly for the first time, I had Fat Tire."

(Speaking of "this is great," the memorable line by Stephen Furst, gleefully uttered during the chaotic parade scene in Animal House, the brewery borrows its name form Furst's hapless Delta House pledge character, Kent "Flounder" Dorfman.)

Beer also exists in defining moments.

Jeremy says he proposed to Melissa in the brewhouse of Dogfish Head's brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, after coming up with a romantic scheme (via the Dogfish Head 360ยบ Experience) that reached all the way up to owner Sam Calagione, who gifted the couple beers from his private stash (Worldwide Stout from 2002 and 2006, 120 Minute IPA from '06, Burton Baton from '05, and a 750 milliliter bottle-conditioned 90 Minute IPA)

"Shelter Pale Ale will always be one of my favorite beers, because I was drinking that waiting to propose to my wife," Jeremy says. "I want to make good beer, but I also want people to enjoy that beer and what they're doing. That's what you're trying to portray. You don't want people to just slam it back and get hammered. It's about enjoying your beer."

And experiences that create memories.

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