Saturday, February 9, 2013

Seriously, Cape May ain't so little anymore

New brewhouse. Next up wiring and plumbing
The previous brewhouse is now in Michigan, its stay in New Jersey quite brief.

The original brewing set-up is in pieces, its frame and other bits converted into a keg washer, while another more recent component sits on an overhead ledge, looking like a giant, unlabeled soup can on a shelf.

Cape May Brewing Company is growing – again.

Cape May's 2nd kettle
New Jersey's southern-most brewery has begun yet another expansion, taking delivery of a 15-barrel brewhouse from G.W. Kent of Michigan, on Friday morning, promptly proceeding with an initial installation that saw the mash tun, kettle, heat exchanger and brewhouse scaffold freed from their packing and, by early afternoon, standing in place along a freshly cut drain trench.

Now, the spanking-new brewhouse is just days away from striking a mash for Cape May IPA, followed by a honey porter, both in the biggest batch sizes ever for the 19-month-old brewery. 

Righting the kettle
On Thursday, a crew from Rare Bird Brewery and Taproom in Traverse City, Mich., came for the 4-barrel brewhouse Cape May had used since late last summer, a brewing system the folks at Cape May had hoped would help them keep pace.

That it didn't is a success story framed in a problem many breweries wouldn't mind having, meaning steady demand for the beers.

The new brewhouse is a familiar brewpub-style arrangement of a mash/lautern tun atop a hot liquor tank, with the kettle situated to the right of the scaffold. The brewery will add a pair each of 15- and 30-barrel fermenters, expected to arrive in a month. Rectangular wine fermenters the brewery has been using, in what became an intermezzo basis (to borrow a music term), are being sold. The wine tanks were being used in addition to some conicals, by the way.

Danny Otero clears some rough edges
Cape May decided to triple its brewing capacity when it became clear that the demands of their draft accounts and tasting-room retail sales after tours would seriously stress their output by this summer, if not by spring. 

The order for the new system was placed in December. Delivery in early February represents a fast turnaround, given the number of brewery start-ups in the U.S. these days has translated into a seven-month waits for new equipment orders. (Meanwhile, prices on the used market make new equipment, minus the wait time, attractive for start-ups and capacity upgrades.)

Mash tun and kettle after delivery
Original brew stand now keg washer
"It was perfect timing," says co-founder Ryan Krill. "They (Kent) already had one in the process, and it was one that we wanted. In this small space, this combi system works really well for us."

The new equipment marks the second major – but by far the biggest – step-up in size for the brewery in Lower Township, beside Cape May County Airport.

Besides keeping up with a growing demand, the upgrade likely will enable Cape May to make a move toward widening its distribution reach farther north and west. (The brewery self-distributes.)

"This is going really to take us to a whole new level," Ryan says. "This is probably what we should have started with."

That Cape May Brewing didn't brew 30-barrel batches when it started putting its beers into the market on Independence Day 2011 probably spoke more to the business need for caution while becoming a beer producer at the Jersey shore.

Compared to the west side of the state, and the northern end for that matter, the shore region, especially in South Jersey, has embraced craft beer at a much slower pace in the near 20 years since better beers have been available in the Garden State. 

Mark McPherson at the 4-barrel system
Shore-area brewpubs Basil T's (Red Bank), Artisans (Toms River) and the Tun Tavern (Atlantic City), plus a few beer bars, were oases in a region where Coors Light long held sway (and still does in some stubborn pockets) until two or three years ago.  

But Cape May, like Monmouth County beer-makers Kane Brewing (Ocean Township) and Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands), have been marketplace reinforcement for the established home-grown craft brands that knocked on the shore's door a decade before. (It wasn't until last year – its seventh – that the Atlantic City beer festival did a Jersey-themed beers section. Incidentally, Carton, Cape May and Kane all launched around the same time in 2011.)

So in deepest South Jersey, the otherwise traditionally seasonal market that is Cape May, it's no surprise that Cape May Brewing would start with batches the size of a 15-gallon keg – what a dedicated homebrewer would likely brew. 

Righting the mash tun
What followed was some baby-stepping up to a barrel and a half more than a year ago, and 4-barrels in late summer 2012, after acquiring a brewhouse from a Maryland brewpub.

What also followed has been the fortunate surprise of a market that met having a local brewery like a gold rush. Weekend tour crowds have continued to be heavy. In fact, as the new brewhouse was being moved into place in early afternoon, people braved a nasty cold rain outside to show up for tours and samples in the tasting room.

Setting the scaffold
"We were shocked," Ryan says. "Even this time of year, it's been so busy – the taproom and the accounts. We needed this just to be able to keep up with what we (expect) from this coming summer. Cape May County has been so supportive of us. All the folks around just really seem to embrace having us, having us in their backyard."