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."

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Funds Unleashed, Sandy; take that

On a day when another coastal storm is buffeting the Jersey shore with 40 mph winds and 60 mph gusts, there's this comforting news: The beneficiaries of the Flying Fish FU Sandy beer have been announced:

Sales of FU Sandy, a wheat-pale ale mashup beer brewed with experimental hops, generated $45,000; the cut for each relief organization is $15,000 (Habitat will divvy its share amongst the three chapters.)

In the case of the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey fund, the relief organization chaired by New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie, Flying Fish's contribution is the second shot of cash raised by the state's craft beer industry to aid the state's rebound from the Oct. 29 storm. 

Last month, East Coast Beer Company announced it made a $4,000 contribution to the fund. That donation was raised from case sales of the Point Pleasant Beach company's Beach Haus beers.

As for Flying Fish, FU Sandy was the first new brew to come out of the brewery's new home in Somerdale. It's pretty much gone from the bars now (most of the tappings of the stores and bars' single kegs happened Feb. 16), but there are a few places yet to put it on: High Street Grill in Mount Holly (March 14), The Shepherd & The Knucklehead in Haledon (March 21), and the Atlantic City beer festival (April 4-5).

Flying Fish continues to raise money for Superstorm Sandy relief via sales of glassware and T-shirts.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Believe it or not, a Climax double IPA

For a brewery that embodies feet-on-the-ground English and German styles and approaches, this may seem a little like entering the forbidden zone: making big beers in double-digital alcohol content fused to a wall of hops.

For Climax Brewing, actually, it's just a Second Coming.

For the first time since launching his Roselle Park brewery in the mid-1990s, Dave Hoffmann will come out with a double IPA, a beer that reflects Garden State beer enthusiasts' continued lust for towering ales that happily swarm the palate with hops. (No craft beer drinker these days is out of the loop on double IPAs. The style dates to 1994 and started getting traction six years later. A lot American craft beer trends are like the weather – they go west to east. This style is one of the biggest in that vein.) 

The beer was brewed last week as Climax's inaugural offering in a rebranding effort, a new series called The Second Coming (yes, there's some wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo to that name). It's targeted for a late-March/early-April release at Barcade in Philadelphia. (Dave's is the process of organizing that event; he expects to have it available at Barcade in Brooklyn and Jersey City afterward.)

Dave's no stranger to high-gravity beers. But in his time as a brewer, such beers have been a style he was been inclined to hold at arm's length, unless it was doppelbock time, or another special occasion.

Or a business decision like now.

At 80 IBUs, the new double IPA's alcohol content will be second only to the barleywines Dave made to mark his brewery's 10th anniversary in 2006 and 15th in 2011. Those brews clocked in at 11.5% ABV. (A Russian imperial stout made last year was 8.7%, in the same ballpark as his doppelbock.)

"We just checked the gravity – it's only been fermenting for maybe five days," he says. "So far it's like 8.2 percent alcohol now. I'd like to get it to ferment out a little bit more, so it's going to probably be between 9 and 10 percent. 

"It's a lot lighter in color than my regular IPA. It's straw leading into an amber color. It's going to have a decent malt backbone to it. It's not going to be one of those super hop bombs that everybody makes lately.

"It's going to be real hoppy, but there will be enough malt backing it up. It'll be a little dry, but it's still going to be balanced and easy to drink for how strong it is. The first taste you get is like orange marmalade, then it leads into tangerine notes. There are no double IPAs out there that taste remotely close to what this tastes like."

Dave at a 2008 Oktoberfest in Toms River
The tangerine notes come from the use of Newport hops, a recent American cultivar that's a high-alpha bittering hop. "It's been around maybe five years, but not a lot of people use it," Dave says.

The other four hop varieties are: First Gold, Galena, Cluster and Centennial.

Dave intentionally steered away from hops that would impart a resiny signature in the beer. "Everybody and their brother makes one of them," he says.

Climax Brewing launched as a production brewery in the winter of 1996, after being stalled from a 1995 opening, on the heels of the Ship Inn (Milford) and Triumph (Princeton) brewpubs. The holdup resulted from the government shutdown amid the duel between the Clinton White House and the Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives.

Climax's signature has been ales and lagers that speak to English and German leanings – traditional IPAs, brown ales, ESBs under the Climax label, and helles, hefes, doppelbocks and maibocks under labels that bear Dave's surname, Hoffmann Lager Beer. (Dave is German by heritage: both of his parents are German.)

Those styles not only reflect Dave's preference in beer, but also speak to how his business developed from a homebrew supply shop in the Cranbury-Roselle Park area to a 4-barrel brewery in his dad's machine shop in Roselle Park. (Dave's a machinist by trade.)

The new double IPA, Dave says, comes at the urging of distributors, bar owners and the desire to reach fans of big beers. The latter group cuts a large swath across the craft beer spectrum and overlaps younger and older craft beer demographics. Dave's Russian imperial stout, called Tuxedo and named in tribute to the brewery's jet-black cat, followed a similar course. 

"Everybody wants these big, strong weird beers, so that's what I'm making," he says. "I don't know what the next one's going to be. It might be a big, hoppy, West Coast red ale or something. I like Red Seal Ale; it's real hoppy, but it's nice and good and easy to drink. So, I might do an imperial red ale, a West Coast imperial red ale."

The double IPA isn't all that's new at Climax.

Reacting to the recent change in New Jersey craft beer regulations, Dave has opened the brewery to tours and tastings on Friday evenings and retail sales during all brewery hours. His first open house was Feb. 22; he also plans to trick-out the brewery to better accommodate tour guests. 

Tours are practically de rigueur at production craft breweries, but they've always been something Dave skipped: too little bang for the buck from selling two six-packs or filling two growlers per person, the former New Jersey limit, he says. Last fall's law change cleared the way for production breweries to retail kegs and cases directly to people and pints of beer to tour guests.

"From now on, I'm going to be open on every Friday from 6 'til 9 for tours and tastings. I usually have four beers on tap when I do open houses," he says.

•It's getting to be maibock time. Dave's 2013 incarnation comes out in April. He also brews at Artisan's brewpub in Toms River and will tap a batch of hybrid oatmeal/foreign stout at the end of this week or early next for St. Patrick's Day.

•The video was shot in summer 2011, when Climax added 12-ounce bottles to its packaging.