Saturday, January 19, 2013

River Horse's countdown to Lambertville exit

The brewery seen from across the canal
Say you own a craft brewery that turns out some quite popular beers. 

And for every batch of beer you make, part of the cleanup chore involves some aerial maneuvering: raising the forks on your forklift all the way up their mast so you can fetch a bin of spent grain raked from the mash tun at your second-floor brewhouse.

Try dealing with that about six times per brew day. Doable, but a little tricky, certainly logistically cumbersome, and a huge mess if one of the bins should accidentally fall.

Graining out the hard way
Here's another scenario ...

Your distributors are due to pick up pallets of beer. So you need to know if they're bringing the 40-foot truck or one about half that size. Uh, it's the long one? Please get here early. 

The cramped local road your brewery sits along is the only access, and it's dotted with some homes, offices and galleries ... it's not exactly ideal, having big commercial trucks navigating that narrow lane.

So what would you do under those circumstances? Probably move. 

River Horse Brewing is. 

For those reasons and more, River Horse is exiting its 17-year home of Lambertville, heading about 15 miles south to Ewing, outside of Trenton, to a single-floor, stand-alone building in a business park along Graphics Drive. 

The new location on Graphics Drive
The new location in Mercer County promises to cure a lot of River Horse's current headaches, big and small, as it serves both immediate and future growth needs. 

"It's been a cautious path, this move," says Chris Walsh, who bought the brewery with co-owner Glenn Bernabeo in 2007, a time when River Horse was pretty much a withering brewery, a label in some serious trouble. 

"We wanted to do it for a long time, but in the beginning we had to fix the business. A move then, it would have been too much. We had to get the brand stable."

They did. And then some. 

The brewhouse on the 2nd floor
River Horse is New Jersey's second-largest craft brewery, coming in behind Flying Fish Brewing, which itself moved just last year from its original home of Cherry Hill to nearby Somerdale. 

These days, River Horse cranks out almost 10,000 barrels of beer a year, a tide of draft and bottled ales, both big and sessionable, in five year-round brews, plus five seasonals (brewer's reserve beers, too). 

Packaging River Horse Special Ale
The lineup includes a trifecta of Belgian styles (Double Wit, Belgian Freeze dark ale, and Tripel Horse), and once boasted a popular lager that had to be retired for the sake of freeing up tank space for production. 

(Dunkelfester, a dark lager made for Oktoberfest 2008, though a hit with the brewery's following, met a similar fate for similar reasons, having never seen its planned seasonal reprise.)

At 25,000 square feet and with four high loading docks to accommodate delivery trucks, the new location is expected to goose production by 30 to 40 percent over time and enable the return of that idled brew, River Horse Lager. 

"That's the short-term thing we'd like to do. It  had a big following," Chris says. "But the whole lager family is now open." Like a pilsner, a perfect warm weather style to slip into the seasonal lineup beside the brewery's ├╝ber-popular Summer Blonde Ale.

Seek and find
Situated in the shadow of Ewing's town hall and police department, the new location was most recently used as warehouse space by The Mega Group, a public relations and marketing company that counts AAA Mid-Atlantic and Verizon among its clients. 

Siting the new location proved to be an arduous task. Chris says the brewery enlisted the help of Mercer County to find suitable space. After 30 to 40 prospective sites, the Graphics Drive property got the nod, pretty much to the delight of Ewing officials, who were happy to be drawing an industry with a rising profile.

Taps in the tasting room
Right now, floor drains are being installed, along with a mill room and a mechanical room. The brewery looks to leave Lambertville behind sometime in early spring, with its 25-barrel brewhouse and accompanying fermenters and bright beer tanks up and in use in Ewing around the start of April, a time when the brewery gets pushing out that Summer Blonde. 

Over time, as production needs demand, the brewery plans to replace its current brewhouse with a 50-barrel system and swap out its 40-barrel fermenters for 150-barrel tanks.

As bright as the horizon looks, and as sorely needed as the extra space is, saying so long to Lambertville is still bittersweet. The old Original Trenton Cracker factory, a 10,000-square-foot building that sits along the Delaware Canal, has been River Horse's only home since launching in 1996. 

Sure, the brewhouse is on the second floor, an arrangement that doesn't lend itself well to brewery tours. Yeah, there have been times the forklift has been driven beyond the loading bay, out to delivery trucks waiting on the street. Sure, the ceiling buckled under heavy, wet snow a few winters back, and the building flooded about 10 years ago when torrential rains swelled the canal beyond its banks. 

Oktoberfest 2008 crowd
But those are less complaints than realities, conditions on-the-ground, so to speak. For all that, the building and Lambertville have been a big part of the brewery's identity. Lambertville's an artsy Hunterdon County town you get around in mostly by walking, taking in the specialty shops, art galleries and restaurants.

That kind of foot traffic invariably makes its way to the brewery, whether during the annual ShadFest in the spring, Oktoberfests each fall, or just whenever. Both of those events, by the way, have always pulled in large crowds, making the brewery a point of interest in the town. 

"It's been home, part of the community since '96," Chris says. "We're certainly giving up some stuff, no doubt about it."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Drink up, and fix the shore

Here's how you can put your beer dollar to a good cause:

Flying Fish plans to release a wheat-pale ale next month to raise money for hurricane relief efforts.

The beer, F.U. Sandy (the FU stands for forever unloved, and perhaps what else you're thinking), will be the first new brew coming out of Flying Fish since it moved to Somerdale from its founding location of Cherry Hill last year.

The brewery describes the beer as a 50-50 balance of two-row pale malt and American white wheat, hopped with ADHA 483, an experimental hop donated by the American Dwarf Hop Association. F.U. Sandy is an inaugural use for the hop in a beer, the brewery says.

The 100-keg production run will be draft only, but Flying Fish left the door open for something further, saying on its website "we'll see what happens."

OK, that said, here's the really important part: The brewery forecasts raising $50,000 to be steered to a New Jersey-based, grassroots charity dedicated to storm relief. The brewery is taking nominations on which charity and you can send yours via email:

Now, $50,000 may not sound like a lot of money (it is for a comparatively small company) when the damage from the Oct. 29th superstorm – a hurricane that swallowed a nor'easter and went on a major tear – rivals the entire state budget and that Long Beach Island alone got shredded to the tune of $1 billion.

But it is this: It's private industry contributing, and it's an example for other businesses that can to follow. Furthermore, at a time when holdouts in the U.S. House of Representatives suggest the private sector play a role (which it has – $400 million raised from relief drives/events, including the 12-12-12 concert) and prefer to play politics, stalling votes on aid, trying to blow up the aid package, and just generally and needlessly screwing things up, every little bit helps. (See The Daily Show's Jon Stewart size things up here.  And here. The rants are the both second segments in the show.)

Also, there is a serious problem at play here: The House finally approved $50 billion in aid; the Senate approved $60 billion by a far more bipartisan vote; the two versions have to be reconciled before they can get anywhere near a presidential pen for signing. And last week saw evidence of further skirmishes over the aid package, so this could get drawn out even more. Meanwhile, the Star Jet roller coaster sits in the drink.

So, by all means, fill your growlers, raise a pint and raise some money. Because it really matters.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cape May Brewing ain't so little now

Chris Henke, Ryan Krill, Mark McPherson
 There's a constant thread in craft brewing: A lot of the folks who get into the business gravitated to it from other careers.

In most cases, those people take a lot of the knowledge of their previous occupations and vocations into their new beer careers.

And so it goes for the new faces at Cape May Brewing, New Jersey's southern-most brewery. Take Mark McPherson, who jumped into brewing from a family-owned concrete business, joining the brewery 14 months ago part-time – he's been full-time for 10 – as it ramped up for a big growth spurt. 

"I'm local down here and heard about the brewery opening up. I met these guys and saw them brewing on a small scale," Mark says, standing just off the brewhouse, pausing from an early afternoon task of tending a mash.

Taproom bar
Mark checking the kettle
Cape May launched in July 2011 in Lower Township. At that time, it was just the owners – Ryan Krill and his dad, Robert, running things from the margins of their day jobs (finance and pharmaceutical consulting), while Ryan's college friend, Chris Henke, broke clean from his engineering job to be full-time at the then-half barrel brewery and to make the beer.

The brewery and its lineup of 10 draft-only ales has been growing rather exponentially since, taking over two more units of the small business park building it calls home beside Cape May County Airport. 

The extra space houses a 4-barrel brewhouse picked up last year from a Maryland brewpub; some repurposed rectangular wine fermenters; a 30-barrel conical tank used as a bright tank; a cold box for kegged beer; and a new tasting room that features a 40-foot polished concrete bar with 12 taps hovering behind it. (The tasting/taproom is open five days a week, by the way.)

"My dad is going to be full-time here in the spring," says Ryan. "He's checking out of consulting. He's part-time now, comes down during the week and on the weekends when we need help in the taproom."

Those weekends have been big, with brewery tours drawing enviable crowds; they've been positively booming during the summer, a peak season for any business at the Jersey shore. But that summer success has spilled over into other parts of the calendar.

Count 'em: a dozen taps 
All roads lead to beer
"It's just been busier and busier," says Ryan.

Ryan had planned to make the full-time jump this spring but did so last August and handles the distribution end of the brewery. "Every month our gross number has been increasing. Even though the summer has tapered off, it's just accelerating here for us."

Their list of draft accounts in Cape May County numbers 25 now and includes the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal. Their top-selling beer remains their Cascade-hopped IPA, but their seasonal honey porter sees high demand as well (a just-brewed barleywine will further their lineup; bomber bottles of special brews, like that barleywine, are also planned). Weekly production has surged, topping 20 barrels.

"It's not a consistent number for us, because we're still feeling things out," Ryan says. "We're gaining a number of new accounts. Even though that's a few accounts every week, as a percentage of the total, it's a lot for us. So we're still trying to feel out where we need to land for the winter."

Yet, that growth has meant the fledgling brewery needed more hands. 

Taproom manager Danny Otero
Thus, Mark was among a clutch of full- and part-time hires the brewery made to help it keep up. So was Danny Otero, a former corporate chef for Nordstrom's, who now manages the brewery's taproom in addition to handling some cellar duties.

For Mark, 38, signing on at the brewery meant making a decision to leave the family business, McPherson Masonry, in Erma (a section of Lower Township where the brewery is located). 

Peeling away from a family business where he was fourth-generation was a little stunning to his uncles, father and brother. But they were also impressed by the brewery and the realization of suddenly having a brewer in the family.

"It was a shocker," Mark says. "It was a shocker just to have a brewery in our area. The second big shocker was for me to be able to work in a brewery."

Cape May Brewing half barrels
But it's been very advantageous for Cape May Brewing, picking up a skilled construction worker at a time when it was shedding the skin of a very tiny operation. 

In fact, the most popular place in the operation is where you'll find some of Mark's handiwork: He built the tasting room bar.

"I did this section, too," he says, smiling and motioning to another part of brewhouse room. "I jackhammered out the concrete and put in the floor drains and repoured the concrete. I was a valuable asset. They needed a lot of concrete work."

There were advantages for McPherson Masonry, too.

"It alleviated a lot of the pressures, I believe, on the company, my coming here, one less mouth that my dad had to worry about," Mark says. "The housing industry has been very, very tough the past five years in Cape May County, because we're largely a tourist (area), a seaside resort. When the economy is bad, people don't vacation as much. They're not up to buying second homes or fixing up the second homes that they do have."