Friday, March 9, 2012

Brewery takes name from Jersey shore town

A  Pennsylvania craft brewery in development pays homage to a New Jersey beach town.

Robert Zarko and his brother, Tom, are longtime summer vacationers on Long Beach Island.

Robert, who has taken the title head brewer, says their Ship Bottom Brewery will produce some big stouts, well-hopped pale ales and a hefeweizen.

Like so many before him, Robert, 43, a computer consultant, took the homebrewer arc to commercial craft brewing. He traces his start to 1995 and a homebrew kit given a tryout at his in-laws' oceanside home in Ship Bottom, Long Beach Island's gateway town (the Route 72 causeway over Barnegat Bay ends at Ship Bottom) and home to the world-renowned Ron Jon Surf Shop's founding location.

The Zarko brothers still spend summers on the island – Robert in Ship Bottom, Tom in Surf City, the next town north.

"I've been homebrewing for 15 years, and in the last two years, I decided to go with a business," Robert says. "I got a real push from family and friends, did some local events; people said they really loved the beers."

Some of the brews, like the sessional Shoobie Pale Ale and Beach Patrol Hefe (5.4% and 4.8% ABV, respectively), take their moniker from the familiar Jersey Shore lexicon; others, Barnacle Bottom Stout (8.7% ABV) for instance, are straight-up nautical in name. An imperial IPA, at 11.8% ABV, is the biggest beer in Ship Bottom's lineup, while a seasonal pumpkin ale (9.7% ABV) and a black IPA (9.2% ABV) aren't far behind.

"We do pretty much anything," Robert says. "We have 10 flagship beers, from double IPAs, pumpkin ales and hefeweizens."

Their brewery, based in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, was founded in May 2011, and is in the process of obtaining licensing from federal and state regulators. Robert says he hopes to have that settled sometime this spring, barring any hitches. The Zarkos hope to enter the New Jersey and Delaware markets sometime after they're up and running in Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, like many a budding brewing enterprise, Robert and his brother have been working to create a buzz about their brand, doing meet-the-brewer events around their local bar scene.

Dilapidated house near Ship Bottom
Earlier this month, the two poured a brewer's reserve version (bacon and maple syrup) of Barnacle Bottom Stout  at the Philly Craft Beer Festival, plus a quadruple dry-hopped pale ale.

"I actually want to do a beer that pays tribute to the little house on Cedar Bonnet Island, the one that's falling down on the side of (Route 72). I just have to figure out a good name for that," Robert says. "I'm a big surfer, so I want to do some of the surf spots."

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.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Guild bill clears Senate panel, gains sponsor

New Jersey's craft beer brewers on Monday move closer to gaining some long-sought regulatory relief they contend is vital to growing the state's 17-year-old craft brewing industry.

After hearing an hour's worth of testimony, a state Senate panel voted to advance legislation championed by the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild that would ease restrictions on the industry, such as allowing brewpub owners to have more than two locations.

"Every beer made in New Jersey that's sold in New Jersey, those dollars stay here," Flying Fish owner and guild member Gene Muller told the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

The full Senate could act on the legislation as soon as March 15th. The Assembly version of the bill is still pending in committee. (On Monday afternoon, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, a Camden County Democrat and Assembly majority leader, signed on as a sponsor. The Assembly version of the legislation was introduced by Craig Coughlin, a Middlesex County Democrat.)

"This is an important bill. It creates jobs. It creates investment opportunities. It signals that New Jersey is again the innovation capital of the region. It's the right thing to do to maintain our leadership position and outcompete our neighbors," said Senate sponsor Tom Kean Jr., a Union County Republican, whose district includes Trap Rock brewpub and Climax Brewing, a production brewery.

The guild issued a statement later in the day on its Web site, noting the legislative process is far from over and renewed an appeal for support from beer drinkers.

"After a lot of give and take between the guild and representatives of the beer wholesalers, liquor stores, restaurant association and liquor distributors, an amended version of our legislation cleared the committee 5-0. One of the big reasons for the vote was that each committee member's office received more than 200 phone calls/emails from NJ consumers promoting the bill. We thank you for all your help," the message said.

The wholesaler and retailer groups used the committee hearing to rail against the legislation, and senators ultimately tossed a provision that would have allowed production breweries to sell beer through 10 off-premise retail salesrooms, a controversial freedom state wineries enjoy.

"The salesrooms came out. We heard from folks in the industry about their negative experience on the wine side. We decided to take those provisions out ... There's still enough in the bill that helps the industry expand and gives some of the privileges that neighboring states currently have that New Jersey doesn't have," the guild's lobbyist, Eric Orlando, said following the hearing.

Opponents also pushed for extending tax and monitoring rules that govern wine and liquor sold in New Jersey – namely a 24-hour warehouse hold on products – to apply to the proposed brewery regulation changes. Senators took that proposed amendment under advisement but did not act on it.

The wholesaler association likened the proposed salesrooms to so-called "tied houses" in which producers owned, or had a financial stake in, outlets where, by and large, only their beers were sold and served, thereby crowding out competition. They noted the three-tier system, the mercantile arrangement setup for alcoholic beverages after Prohibition, was designed to put a buffer between producers and retailers to prevent abuses that resulted from tied houses. 

The tied house argument was also leveled at brewpubs, with the beer wholesaler association contending that the pubs' very existence resulted from a weakening of the three-tier system.

Allowing brewpubs' owners to have more that two licensed establishments – the bill calls for 10 – would further erode the system, opponents said.

"We have one brewpub that's a Pizzeria Uno in this state. Well, what's to prevent every Applebee's from deciding they want to become brewpubs?" Bob Pinard, executive director of the Beer Wholesalers Association of New Jersey, asked the Senate panel. "So I think we ought to walk before we run with the numbers on this thing ... Go to three, do it like some other legislation that has been proposed, have it (graduated). See what happens. In five years, maybe you can go up to some other number."

Other objections apparently insinuated that economic development was being used as a way to outflank the three-tier system.

"The federal government created an exception that said, 'You can, supplier of beer, you can retail only if, and only if, your retail establishment is immediately contiguous to your brewery.' So they made an exception, and we in New Jersey went along with that exception, and we allowed them to have two," Jeff Warsh, a lobbyist for alcoholic beverage wholesalers, told the senators. "Now we're saying they can have 10 under the umbrella of expanding businesses, allowing small businesses to expand. That's a fair policy determination on your part, but you should know at that time that this itty-bitty little exception that was supposed to create a couple of brewpubs is now going to create 10 brewpubs, times as many owners as there are. So that tied house tiny little exception is becoming a very big exception."

Committee member Sen. James Holzapfel, an Ocean County Republican whose district includes Artisan brewpub in Toms River, batted down the notion of brewpubs proliferating if the legislation were approved. Each brewpub would be expected to obtain a consumption license from its host town, an expensive proposition given the six- to seven-figure prices for the licenses.

While the brewers guild had no objections to dumping the retail salesroom request, it stood firm on brewpub expansion. Guild members noted the irony that Triumph Brewing, the Princeton brewpub that worked to bring craft brewing to New Jersey in the 1990s, has not expanded in New Jersey since then, but went on to open two new locations in Pennsylvania, where the regulatory climate is friendlier.

Guild members also defended the three-tier system, saying they cannot grow their businesses without partnering with distributors to reach markets. But they also pointed out flaws in the three-tiered system: Though it was instituted as a consumer protection aimed at curbing abuses by big brewers, guild members said, over the years it has created unintended problems with access to markets for small-batch brewers. Most states have allowed exceptions, so-called "carve-outs," to the system to promote industry growth.

"Once you take the (salesrooms) out of it, every single item in this bill is currently legalized in all of the border states of New Jersey. That's New York, that's Pennsylvania, that's Delaware," testified Iron Hill owner Mark Edelson.

Iron Hill, which has nine locations spread among Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is planning a second South Jersey location. Under current law, that would max out the company's investment in the Garden State. 

 "We're not cutting new ground here," he continued. "What were trying to do is be competitive in this market and make New Jersey more competitive ... None of the carve-outs proposed here are new and not currently – actively – being used to great effect in states, not only in the mid-Atlantic region, but across this country."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The master brewer's bowler

Unibroue's Jerry Vietz at Iron Hill
Let's take it from the top ...

Unibroue's master brewer Jerry Vietz is, of course, best known for great beers that articulate the brewing traditions of Europe's (particularly Belgium's) Trappist monks.

But Jerry also has another signature that distinguishes him on the craft beer scene. His trademark bowler hat makes him easy to spy among the throngs of beer enthusiasts who crowd around him at meet-and-greets, angling for the chance to sample some of Unibroue's unique beers and hear him talk about what sets the Quebec brewery's ales apart.

Fresh off last Tuesday's (Feb. 28) beer dinner and tapping of Jerry Chris Mas, a Belgian-style spiced Christmas ale he teamed with Iron Hill's brewer Chris LaPierre to brew at the Maple Shade restaurant-brewery, Jerry wrapped up his visit in the New Jersey-Philadelphia market with an appearance at the Philly Craft Beer Festival on Saturday. (At Iron Hill and in Philly, Jerry also poured some Grand Reserve 17, among other beers .)

Catching up with him before the festival's start, Jerry shared a moment of his time to talk about his bowler (or bowlers, actually, since he has four of them) that he got from Montreal's famed hat shop Henri Henri.

"I don't always wear the bowler hat, but when I come in this market, since I've had pictures taken and on the Web site with the bowler hat, people are always asking for it," he says.

"I've been wearing hats for years. I have a wide collection at home. I have the classic hat, more like the Al Capone (fedora) style. I have many of them, different colors, different kinds, some have the ribbon, others not. I also have the beret ... "

Jerry at Philadelphia Craft beer fest
Of the 80-year-old hat shop, Jerry notes Henri Henri is credited with helping to popularize the term hat-trick among hockey fans (the term's origins are traced to the 1850s and the game cricket).

"When they were sponsoring games at the Montreal Forum, if any player a scored three (goals) they were given a hat," Jerry says.