Friday, March 1, 2013

Flounder Brewing's upcoming first batch

Just two days past their first anniversary of becoming an official craft brewery in New Jersey, Flounder Brewing will fire up the kettle for the Somerset County brewery's first commercial batch of beer, a brew day that's been a long time coming, and one that has traveled a somewhat circuitous path.

Making the batch of Hill Street Honey Ale (5% ABV, 25 IBUs) is on the calendar for March 9 at the 1-barrel brewery in Hillsborough. The ale's a time-tested recipe from the Flounder guys' days as homebrewers in Lyndhurst, one they hope to follow up with Murky Brown Ale and a pumpkin ale in the fall. The Hill Street ale is made with orange blossom honey and fermented with East Coast Yeast's Old Newark Ale strain, a progeny of the strain used to make Ballantine ale. Flounder Brewing is a partnership of Jeremy Lees, his brothers, Mike and Dan; brother-in-law Greg Banacki Jr.; and cousin William Jordan V.

A pallet of 2,000 bottles is due to arrive late next week at the brewery located in a business park (yes, even at its small size, the brewery plans to bottle using a counter-pressure filler more likely to be found filling growlers in some brewpubs like Iron Hill); there's some big warehouse racking inside the brewery, stocked with T-shirts and pint glasses; growlers are on order, and a soft opening is planned for around mid-spring. 

The Fox & Hound Tavern in Lebanon (Hunterdon County) is a likely candidate for a first bar draft account. Morris Tap and Grill in Randolph (Morris County) is also on the draft-account target list. But it's tasting room sales that will play a substantial role in the brewery's business plans, especially now that a change in state law last fall eased restrictions on retailing both packaged beer and beer by the pint to people who stop by for tours. 

"We're going to be careful that we're not a taproom," says Jeremy, the Flounder in the brewery's name (yes, that's Jeremy's nickname, à la Animal House). "We will be serving pints to people who want to buy a pint. There are going to be limits, because we're small.

Jeremy 'Flounder' Lees in tasting room
"If you get 20 people to come in for a 2 o'clock tour, in my brewery that tour is done at 2:10. If all of those people want to drink a couple pints, and you have another 20 people coming at 3 o'clock, next thing you know you've got 40 people in your tasting room – I can only have 15 to 20 people ..."

Unofficially, the March 9 brew will be the third by Flounder Brewing. The brewery did two pilot batches at half volume last fall and early winter to work out mechanical bugs in the brewing system – it turns out the kettle had a leak – and to gauge how the honey ale recipe fared on a new brewing setup. 

After a year as a licensed entity, to say that Flounder is finally making beer commercially may be accurate. But it's also a little too predicated on the idea that time is money. 

State regulators indeed licensed Flounder Brewing on March 7, 2012. But the Flounder guys never considered their licensing to be a starter-pistol shot. Back then, there were still some odds and ends to deal with to finish out the brewery before striking an mash. There was no race to have beer for sale before the ink was dry and the license was framed and hung on a wall. 

As a business, Flounder Brewing was founded with a mindset that homebrewer enthusiasm could spill over into a commercial enterprise in an individualized fashion, writing your own script, holding onto the day jobs that pay the bills and not disrupting family lives. 

"The brewery was never set out to be, at the get-go, drop everything and it's your job now" says Jeremy. "It was always turning our hobby into the brewery. Without a doubt, one day I would love to be running a brewery and brewing beer, and that's my day job. But our business plan wasn't, 'All right, in the first two years we can all quit our jobs because we're pulling in this income.' 

"We have flexibility, because really our only overhead is the rent we pay and our yearly licensing."

Nonetheless, Flounder Brewing experienced a delay, and it had some very specific reasons, for which the go-slow approach proved beneficial: Jeremy and his wife Melissa's twins, Lyla and Ethan, decided to show up a little early, as in premature. As such, the twins' extended hospital stay and subsequent getting settled at home meant the brewery business would have to slip to a lower priority.

"It was a life-changing event. There was a lot of shifting around, but that was also the intention of starting the way we were starting, at the size we were starting, to give us the flexibility without having our houses on the line, or whatnot, for when things do come up or get twisted or turned around," Jeremy says. "We'd planned to have children, but didn't expect it to be two, and the complications that were there, too, kind of just pushed it. 

"That's when we found ourselves all of a sudden we're heading into another winter ... here we are again, it's another season, and here we are coming up to the license (anniversary)."

And now the upcoming brew day. 

Of course, getting to that point – getting back on track – involved finishing out the brewhouse area. The pace was again slow, tethered to a pay-as-you-go imperative for piping the brewery. Brewing fittings aren't cheap. When your personal wallet's involved, there's no rushing. 

"When I was doing the hardware on the system, I did it all on the stainless tri clover piping everywhere. It's a pretty penny for that kind of stuff," Jeremy says. "I had to do it in two phases, because I had to do it with money from paychecks. It had to be done over phases. We did it. Even though it's just 1 barrel, it's a homebrewer's dream of a system now."

And now a group dream unfolding to a reality: selling the public beer that has its roots in a homebrew kettle in Lyndhurst eight years ago, with the Flounder folks celebrating their home-made beer as an experience around the barbecue pit and camaraderie.

"We got into this game to just have a good time and enjoy what we're doing. That's what we've been doing," Jeremy says.

They hope New Jersey's craft beer enthusiasts will soon get to experience the beer, too.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cash for Sandy, an IPA & a Beach Haus brewery

A new beer, a shot of cash for Superstorm Sandy relief and efforts toward a new brewery ... East Coast Beer Company has been busy lately.

OK, the Point Pleasant Beach contract-brew enterprise, like all of the state's beer purveyors, is always busy. 

But if a beer release targeted for next month isn't enough, the guys behind Beach Haus pilsner, Winter Rental schwarzbier and Kick Back amber ale are also hoping that by the end of 12 months they will have their own brewery in New Jersey.

Here are the latest details:

Kicking Sandy
If you live at the Jersey shore or its environs, then by now you're used to seeing the green-orange-and-white Servpro vehicles buzzing around (or, happily, you are seeing fewer of the flood-cleanup company's vans and trucks at this point). You've probably likewise grown accustomed to the buzz of saws and rapping of hammers. 

The shore is bouncing back from the Oct. 29th hybrid storm (a $30 billion hurricane cum nor'easter) that rewrote New Jersey's coastline, and displaced a lot of people. 

Getting back to normal has taken time and money. East Coast Beer's founders are shore denizens, from northern Ocean County, an area that saw extensive damage  from Sandy. As such, the guys felt compelled to help.

In short order after the storm, John "Merk" Merklin and Brian Ciriaco committed themselves to raise money through sales of their beers and channel it to storm relief. Three of their distributors – Kohler, Ritchie & Page, and Harrison Beverage – backed them up on the endeavor.

Last week, East Coast announced $4,068 had been raised for the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, the organization founded just days after the storm by first lady Mary Pat Christie. 

"We went to the distributors simply with a print request, saying 'Hey, we're going to look to donate 50 cents for every case we sell to this fund, can you just print up the flyers and make sure to get the information out?" Merk says. "Our distributors said, 'You know what? This is a great idea. How about we match you?' So it wound up becoming a dollar for every case."

A dollar for every case, plus what others may have been inspired to donate after seeing the flyer. Merk says there were some instances of that kind of giving.

Beer No. 4
Beach Haus Cruiser IPA, East Coast's fourth beer to come to market in bottle and draft, is due out in mid- to late March. It's the company's hoppiest beer to date, a combination of Centennial and Horizon hops that clock in at 60 to 65 IBUs on top of about 6.5% ABV maltiness. (For comparison purposes, that's the flavor-profile neighborhood of Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale.) 

For hops fans, the beer will be familiar (think West Coast inspired) and assertive, but not over the top. "It's what you would expect from an IPA; you get all of that hop flavor. But we're not out for the moon on this one in terms of IBUs. For us, that was not the objective," Merk says.

Cruiser's about embracing the IPA style, a beer that is "something you can put a couple back, and do it having fun with the experience," Merk notes.

The beer has been on East Coast's drawing boards for quite a while. It would have seen introduction in late 2011, on the heels of the company's flagship pilsner, were it not for a reshuffling of the lineup plan. The reordering put it behind Winter Rental, which debuted as a fall season in 2011, and Kick Back, which came out in spring 2012.

Drafting new approaches
For any beer company or brewery, fine-tuning production is an ongoing matter. For East Coast, that has translated into some tweaks in managing their draft beer production, generally now treating it as seasonal while bottles are year-round. (The company distributes to six states now: New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Carolina and South Carolina.)

"We've had some success with the draft market, with obviously local accounts, and even national chains like Applebee's," Merk says. "But we noticed no matter who the account is – and there's a few exceptions which we're absolutely thankful for – we're never going to grab two (draft) lines. It's very difficult for anybody, let alone us, to say, 'Hey, we're going to have Winter Rental on one line and Kick Back on another.'  

"So what we've done is, we've kind of said, unofficially but just operationally, that our draft is somewhat seasonal. For instance, Kick Back is available for three months of the year; it's going to fall into late summer, early fall this year. The bottle (version) is available year-round. The pilsner ... again, draft is going to be available late spring throughout the summer, but the bottles are obviously available … Same thing with Cruiser. It's going to be early spring, mid-summer availability in draft, but you're always going to be able to get packaged."

Further tweaks to that are likely. 

"We don't see how producing draft year-round – it doesn't work out to our favor right now," Merk says. "The good part is, we're holding onto lines more and more. There are a number of accounts – it's starting to grow where we have 12-month presence with at lease one of our beers. But it's probably less than a dozen where we've got folks pouring two of our beers."

With the help of Tom Przyborowski, East Coast's R&D-brewer, Merk and Brian entered New Jersey's craft beer market in 2010 with Beach Haus Classic American Pilsener, brewed under contract by Genesee in Rochester, N.Y. Amid that, having a brewery in their home state was always on their minds. 

But back then, logic dictated that a brewery take a back seat to building the core brand in what has become a rapidly expanding craft beer market in New Jersey. Almost a year ago, though, East Coast began to give the brewery part of their business model more attention. Now it's front and center, with the company scouting locations and working through the options for equipping a brewery (i.e. new versus used equipment). 

"We're looking to be in a decent-size space, be a decent-size brewery, something that people want to come visit. We're pursuing it, operationally committing resources to it," Merk says. "It's going to help our business evolve. It's going to give us greater flexibility in terms of putting out styles and such. We've talked to a number of new equipment manufacturers; we've kept our eyes on the industry classifieds."

But, of course, settling the matter of a location must come first. 

"You have to get the location, and the location's got to get the approvals, so when you put equipment on order, it's not going to just sit in a warehouse after it's done," Merk says.

Just exactly where East Coast is looking to put a brewery is being held close to the vest. But some options look promising.

"There's a particularly interesting location, again without naming it, where it's fairly drop-and-go for us," Merk says. "Structurally, there's not much to do with the building. We'd like to get this done in 12 months. But this is a business where people say, 'twice as long and three times as expensive.' I certainly hope it's not twice as long. But there's a couple of properties we're looking at that, if it were to go through, we could be in and up and running in as soon as 12 months. It's exciting. It's driving us right now to make this happen."

East Coast's timing is appropriate, too.

Governor Chris Christie signed into law last September new rules that grant some freedoms that had long been kept out Garden State craft brewers' reach, namely lifting restrictions on how brewers could retail directly to the public during brewery tours. The result is, production craft brewers can now mine an additional revenue source to supplement the traditional channel of beer sales through distributors.

"Between tasting rooms and little retail rooms, it's amazing how much that can pick up the slack where you don't make money or where you lose money, between the licensing and being in compliance in various states, things like that," Merk says. "It's a good opportunity from a business-model perspective; it makes a ton of financial sense to do it. That wasn't always the case."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

It's time to Snort, Bolero style

Via their website:

Bolero Snort beers hit your glass beginning tonight through Saturday with a quintet of launch parties across North Jersey, which for now is a ground zero for the newest brand on the state's craft beer landscape, but one founders Bob Olson and Andrew Maiorana will certainly look to break out of as their company grows.

Here's the launch rundown:

Tonight: Jersey City, Barcade, 7-9 o'clock, Ragin' Bull from the tap, a firkin of Blackhorn Double Dry Hopped (whole leaf Amarillo)

Wednesday: Taphouse Grille, Wayne, 7-9 p.m., Ragin' Bull and Blackhorn draft, firkin of Jittery Blackhorn (vanilla and coffee bean aged)

Thursday: Cloverleaf Tavern, Caldwell, 7-9 p.m., Ragin' Bull and Blackhorn from the taps

Friday: The Shepherd & The Knucklehead, Haledon, 7-9 p.m., Ragin' Bull and Blackhorn drafts

Saturday: Copper Mine Pub, North Arlington, 3 p.m. start time, Ragin' Bull and Blackhorn from the taps, specialty lineup of Ragin' Bull aged on hazelnuts (firkin) and Blackhorn aged with rum-soaked oak and a dash of coconut (pin, plus another pin).

FOOTNOTE: Here's our chat with Bob from January.