Saturday, March 9, 2013

Blackthorn Brewing buildout under way

Blackthorn Brewing is: Jason, Jacqui and Chip
New Jersey's recent streak of adding at least one craft brewery a year appears safe for 2013.

The run started with the opening of Iron Hill's Maple Shade brewpub in 2009, at the time the first new brewery in the Garden State in 10 years. Amid continued craft beer industry growth, nationally and regionally, New Jersey's chain has gone unbroken since.

Now, Irish-themed newcomer Blackthorn Brewing is poised extend the streak to a fifth year, as the  production brewery in development forecasts opening in Toms River some time in 2013. 

"Originally, we were hoping to be up and running by Memorial Day weekend. That might be a little tight at this point," says Jackson resident Chip Town, who founded Blackthorn with his daughter, Jacqui.  

Tight is a realistic assessment. 

Blackthorn is well into a brewery buildout at its 6,500-square-foot unit in a business park along Route 37, the main commercial artery that takes Toms River from the Atlantic Ocean west toward the Lakehurst Navy base, immortalized by the 1937 Hindenburg explosion.

The brewery's floor drains are in, and a work crew has been framing out the tour taproom, positioned forward from the brewhouse area, where other interior work is taking place. The front office is being furnished, and U.K. brewery-trained Jason Goldstein, hired last month as Blackthorn's brewer, has begun piloting recipes (so far a session blonde ale) on a Tippy brew setup delivered a week ago. 

It's progress, but there's still plenty to do, especially with the big, shiny stuff that makes a brewery a brewery.

Blackthorn's 25-barrel brewhouse and 50-barrel fermenters are expected to arrive in mid-April. They're on order from Florida-based Brew-Bev, the company founded by retired Anheuser-Busch engineer Neal Knapp that has been affordably equipping U.S. and Canadian craft brewers with Chinese-made brewhouses and tanks. 

"It's coming out of China; that's the reason it's being delayed," Chip says. "But it's incredible prices; nobody could touch it. There are (some) problems with Chinese steel, but (Neal) tripled the industry warranty. To make everybody happy, he put a three-year warranty on all the steel and all the welds."

Taproom framing in progress
Chip, 56, who handles Blackthorn's business matters, says the obligatory licensing and tax paperwork is being finalized for filing with federal and state regulators. 

A bottling line is also part of the brewery start-up plan, to backstop Blackthorn's draft business in the target craft beer market of Monmouth and Ocean counties. (A red ale and stout will be among a quartet of Irish- and English-style beers that Blackthorn plans to brew.)

"We didn't want to limit ourselves to just the kegs. For bars that don't have the tap space, we wanted to have an alternative, and then also the opportunity of going to the liquor stores," says Jacqui, 27, whose duties include Blackthorn's marketing and sales. "If we can start with a few different options and go slowly, with the kegs and the bottles in the bars and the bottles in the stores, we're hoping that'll give us greater exposure within the market in general."

Tailoring the beer offerings to work with supportive bars also figures into Blackthorn's model. The same thinking goes for the brewery's taproom – treat the tour patrons to one-off, reserve brews.

"Around here, I can find beers that are from anywhere, like the West Coast," Jason says. "However, what you see is their mainstream beers. You don't see their local beers, the things you'd only find if you were maybe within 25 miles of that brewery – the small batches, the 5-barrel batches. Things like that.

"That's what we can pride ourselves on. You can come down here, you can come into the taproom, and this beer you will only see here, and maybe at a few bars in the local area that really are excited about our products. Why not give back something to them for being excited about our products, something to separate themselves from every other bar?"

Taproom work 
There's room in that scenario for cask ale, too. 

"Eventually, when we're settled, I'd like to have cask in our taproom and have cask any place that's willing to undertake that," Jason says. "That's a very large venture for a bar to go into: a shorter shelf life and a lot more knowledge for the cellarman."

Once licensed, Blackthorn stands to become the 13th production craft brewery in New Jersey, and the ninth Garden State craft brewery to be licensed since 2009, including two that went out of business (Great Blue in Somerset County and Port 44 Brew Pub in Newark).

Blackthorn could also become the first brewery  licensed since the state relaxed regulations for craft brewers last fall. (Among other things, the regulatory change did away with the limit of two six-packs on brewery sales to the public. It's a change that could prove critical to fledgling breweries, giving them a vital source of income outside wholesale distribution.)

If you're keeping score, New Jersey now has 25 craft breweries (a dozen production breweries and 13 brewpubs), plus a trio of brands whose beers are contract-brewed. (The newest contract brand is Bolero Snort, launched in January-February; the company's beer is brewed at High Point Brewing in Butler, but plans call for Bolero Snort to have its own brewery sooner rather than later.) Besides Blackthorn, there are two other breweries in development: Tuscany Brewhouse in Oak Ridge and Pinelands Brewing in Little Egg Harbor. Additionally, Iron Hill expects to open a second location in Voorhees in July.

Chip, a 17-year homebrewer with a couple years removed from a banking industry career, and Jacqui, a College of New Jersey alum who also worked in sales, took Blackthorn from idle homebrewer conversation to an on-paper idea in 2010-11, to finding space last year for a brewery. 

Located four miles west of the Garden State Parkway, their brewery space once housed part of the Bacchus School of Wine School and a gymnastics studio. Blackthorn leased the space last summer and started the renovation work last month. Jacqui and Chip have also used the brewery development time to build a rapport with Tipperary Pub in Lakehurst, a likely first draft account.

Says Jacqui: "I started homebrewing with Dad once I moved back home from college. He always did it, and I said, 'Yeah, whatever, he's making beer.' Once I came home from college – I had a chemistry background – I started kind of taking an interest in the chemistry and the biology of the beer. So when I came home I said 'I'm going to start brewing with him, see what it's all about.'"

It wasn't quite grad school, but certainly a new frontier of study for Jacqui. She then stocked up on books about yeast biology and brewing chemistry.

"I got really into the geeky side of it. In 2010, in the summer, we were just making a bunch of batches of beer and said it would be kind of cool to have a brewery," she says. "It was just a fleeting thought. We started thinking about it more seriously, started doing a little bit more research. I was doing marketing-type research, market analysis; Dad was checking out the numbers, seeing if it would be feasible.

"Little by little, we started doing more work on it and more work on it. Summer of 2011, we were both let go from our jobs within two weeks of each other and sat home unemployed, and said this is a door that just opened for us. Our full-time job became finishing our business plan."

Originally from Queens, N.Y., Jason, 23, comes to Blackthorn with a Campaign for Real Ale background. A passionate homebrewer, he studied food science at Ohio State University and worked part-time at Elevator Brewery and Draught Haus in Columbus. He studied brewing at Brewlab in the UK, and worked at Mordue, Double Maxim and Darwin, all CAMRA/cask ale-style breweries. 

Ohio State's food science program, and its dairy industry emphasis, offered clear advantages for Jason, who applied them to hobby brewing. 

"I had a little bit better homebrewing equipment than most people would, because I was working in multimillion-dollar labs using steam-pressure boilers and things like that," he says. "I could have even pasteurized my beer if I wanted to just because that equipment happened to be there."

Hobby brewing, for Jason, went from small step to giant leap.  

"It was a baby-step thing," he says. "I was homebrewing and going the food-science path. My homebrewing kept expanding. It's definitely an addicting hobby, to the point I was doing 5-gallon batches; it grew to 10-gallon batches, all of a sudden going from 10-gallon batches to building a $5,000 home brewery ..."

Now, as Jason works out the recipes, Chip orchestrates the brewery buildout, and Jacqui pores over a list of bars across the state to plot marketing strategy.

"We're putting dots on a map of where everybody is," Jacqui says, "taking out the summer bars where everybody wants just whatever's on special – Bud Light, Miller Lite, so excluding those for now – and going to the pubs and the inns in Seagirt and Spring Lake where there's a lot of Irish Heritage, and the Irish pub, just looking at those. We're looking at places that are going to have the demographic that's going to be asking for the type of beer we have."

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