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."