New Jersey Beer Company is a micro-brewery in North Bergen, a little way north of Jersey City and about 3.6 miles from my Manhattan apartment as the crow flies.
When I first moved to New York City I was amazed that New Jersey is just across the Hudson River. But what a great cultural divide that broad waterway is.
From Manhattan you can stand and stare at the state in which Jon Bon Jovi formed his band, where Sinatra started singing, where George R. R. Martin learned to write and where baseball was invented. The third state to join the Union, and now its most densely populated. The state that makes people think of mafia boss Tony Soprano or The Boss Bruce Springsteen. And, thankfully less and less, the state that evokes Snooki and The Situation.
But not, generally, a state that makes people think of craft beer. Though sandwiched between beer powerhouses Philly and NYC, a mix of tight three-tier regulations and an under-developed bar and gastronomic landscape means Jersey is relatively late to the craft revolution.
As in several other late blooming brewing states, that is rapidly changing. I was recently invited to visit New Jersey Beer Company’s brewery in Hudson County, and I was interested to see how much of the esprit de Jersey drives the company’s culture.
“We have pictures of Bruce Springsteen in the restroom,” I was told by my host, General Manager Kevin Napoli, “And a ton of Devils paraphernalia around the place. But no posters of Jon Bon Jovi. Though some people do chastise us for putting The Boss in the bathroom!”
Instead of dressing up like a Jersey theme park, NJBC is, like any good brewery should be, focused on its beer and its business.
Now five years old, the brewery is taking full advantage of growing local demand for local beer. Kevin and his colleagues Head Brewer Brendan O’Neil, Brewer Dave Manka and Head of Sales Mike Miles are working seven days a week to keep up with the demands made by their distributor, Allied Beverage, while ensuring the quality of their output is top notch.
“Allied is a great distributor for us to partner with, because they know how much to order so we can keep growing without getting overloaded. We have seen several other breweries of our scale [NJBC sold approximately 1,500 barrels in 2014] try to sprint before they can run, and we don’t want to make that mistake.”
With a solid growth trajectory, recent wins like 30 handles in the Prudential Center in Jersey City (the arena that the New Jersey Devils call home) and a potential move to Manhattan on the horizon, the future seems rosy for the blossoming brewery. But it wasn’t always thus.
Back in 2011, the team were close to calling it quits only a year after opening their doors. Just as the brewer was getting traction in the Hudson County area disaster struck when their bottling line went down, taking plenty of stock and a good chunk of the team’s confidence with it. Despite enthusiasm and local goodwill to get back up and running, the company was running out of cash and running out of hope.
Cue a partnership with local angel investor and successful property developer, Paul Silverman, who is now NJBC’s very passionate Chairman. A lifelong beer fan, Paul was contemplating starting his own brewery when a mutual acquaintance introduced him to the NJBC crew and suggested he get involved in the fledgling brewery. Paul was unsure whether the opportunity was right for him when serendipity swayed his mind.
In the run-up to St Patrick’s Day 2011 Paul happened to be watching the Today show when Jersey City’s most celebrated beer citizen, All About Beer editor John Holl, appeared to discuss American craft stouts. A friend and supporter of NJBC (you can bump into him in the tap room most Friday afternoons), John featured the brewery’s excellent Garden State Stout and sung its praises. Seeing the brewery on national television, Paul’s mind was made up.
As well as much needed finance Paul also brought considerable business savvy to the table, and set about building the foundations for long-term growth with the team.
When I toured the facility I found a lean, efficient beer-making machine manned by a confident, driven team. They make use of every inch of their 5,000 square foot space, including a cosy but comfortable tap room from which they sell bottles and host brewery tours.
Kevin explained to me that they currently keg about half their beer and bottle the other half. “Getting our beer on tap at local bars is how we can build an identity as a local craft brewery, then getting our packaged beers into stores builds us reach and volume.” Which is a good thing, as Allied has recently got them into a good number of Jersey’s CostCo, Wegmans and Shop Rite outlets.
“We’re just about managing to keep up with demand!” Kevin gladly tells me. “We’re looking at how we can expand our capacity without over-reaching ourselves. We have a new 40 BBL brite tank on the way which will pretty much max out our space.”
Here Paul Silverman’s experience in property tells. “Paul helps us filter our investment decisions and plan sustainable expansion. It would be easy for us to think “We need to brew more immediately – let’s expand!” without planning for a few years down the line. Paul is a great resource in this respect.”
The other pleasant brewing conundrum NJBC is dealing with – like almost every craft brewer – is managing the run away success of their IPA, LBIPA (Long Beach India Pale Ale).
“I’d say about 60% of what we’re brewing these days is LBIPA” Head Brewer Brendan O’Neil told me. “The other day we were brewing a batch of our Pale Ale, Hudson Pale Ale. Dave [Manka, Brewer] and I got half way through measuring out the malt and hops for IPA before we realized we were on autopilot.”
Kevin expands, “We love our IPA and we’re very proud of it. But we don’t want to be an IPA only brewery – we’re all about our portfolio. It just happens that we’re in the midst of an IPA storm right now.”
Of course, Kevin was kind enough to walk me through their portfolio of beers on tap. An excellent and balanced selection it is too.
“Our recipes have been around for a while. We have a pretty traditional mindset, and we want to brew beers with flavor and distinction that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people. We’re definitely not an extreme brewer [Kevin points at my Dogfish Head T Shirt] – we’ll leave that to those guys for now!”
All New Jersey Beer Company’s beers take their inspiration from their home state – and of course their tap handles are in the shape of the state itself – but they run the gamut of styles.
The “session beer” is the 1787 Abbey Single Ale, named after the year New Jersey joined the Union. At 4.8% ABV and bearing the signature bright, grassy, citrusy aromas of the Mount Hood hops it’s brewed with, it is highly drinkable. Given it was 90 degrees and humid when I visited the brewery, this light ale was very welcome.
Next up was the Hudson Pale Ale, the brewery’s original “flagship” beer (before IPAs took over the world) and a tribute to Henry Hudson after whom the nearby river and the county the brewery is in were named. I found it to be balanced, notably hoppy (it’s made with Centennial and Columbus) and tight. The nose had some pleasant phenolic aromas, and engaging herbaceous notes to balance the classic citrus and pine. It’s 5.8% ABV.
We followed that up with the increasingly popular LBIPA. I asked Kevin why he thought this beer is in such high demand.
“The secret ingredient is Falconer’s Flight, a pellet that is a blend of specialty hops from the Pac North West that we use for dry hopping.” he explained. “And a portion of the profits from every keg and case we sell goes to the Alliance For A Living Ocean, to help keep the Jersey Shore healthy.”
It’s not the kind of beer I would imagine Pauly D or The Situation would sip and savor, but I loved it. In addition to the dry hopping, Mosaic and Columbus are added in the boil. The result is a delightfully floral nose. At 6.6% ABV and 60 IBUs it’s not the world’s most aggressive IPA, instead employing a typically East Coast charm on the nose and the palate. Very enjoyable beer.
My favorite, however, was the next beer I tried – the beer that “saved” NJBC – Garden State Stout. I am a complete stout fanatic: it’s a style I’ll go out of my way to try, even in 90 degree heat. And my verdict on this one is that it’s a complete winner. “We love how dry and crisp this beer is,” notes Kevin, “but to give it a bit more oomph we add Belgian chocolate and fresh raisins right at the end of the boil.” And boy can you tell. The vibrant malty and roasty aroma is perfectly complemented by a rich sweetness. It’s dark, dry and surprisingly light in the mouth, but with bags of flavor and a gentle finish. I’d drink this every day if I could. 6.6% ABV.
Finally we moved on to the slightly oddball entry on the tap list, the Weehawken Wee Heavy, named after the nearby township in Hudson County. As Kevin served me a taste he wryly instructed, “Let me know if you’ve ever had a maltier beer…”. He wasn’t off the mark: this is a real malt bomb.
At 9% ABV it’s NJBC’s heaviest hitter, with a nose bursting with caramel, rye and dried fruits. I even got notes of port. “It’s really not a beer for this kind of weather, although we do have some die-hard year round drinkers. But come winter we can barely make enough of this.” Kevin told me. “We also release a dry-hopped version every now and again as a limited offer. That’s also very popular.”
With a name that couldn’t be better designed for Google, a slick logo and a range of beers inspired by Jersey’s heritage (and let’s not forget The Boss In The Bathroom), New Jersey Beer Company could not be better placed to surf the rising tide of craft beer demand in this state. That they make excellent beers and have a rock solid team managing their operations makes me think they’ll be Jersey legends before long.
I finished my visit with a very selfish discussion with Kevin and Brendan, asking how quickly they can get into Manhattan. In my view these brews could light up Broadway like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Kevin Napoli, General Manager at New Jersey Beer Co.
- Can you describe what your company does in one sentence?
We make good times better!
- How long have you worked here?
Five years. I started as an investor, and when the bottling line broke I got more involved on a day-to-day basis. Now it’s all day every day, but I have no complaints about that.
- How and why did you come to be here?
My family has a background in brewing: my grandfather was a brewer and though I never met him everyone has always told me how alike we are and how well we would get on. So my passion for beer is a bit of a nod to his memory I guess.
I had a career on Wall Street and while I wasn’t unhappy I think I had an itch to do something that I’m truly, genuinely, endlessly passionate about.
One day I was talking to my neighbor, shooting the breeze, and he tells me about this friend of his who’s starting up a brewery. I told him I was interested, we met up, one thing led to another and I’m investing in his business idea.
From an investor standpoint the name and the logo – being THE New Jersey Beer Company – looked great, and when I started hanging around with the crew we all got on really well. Eventually I was helping out, and then when things got tough and I felt the business really needed me I decided to give up the steady paycheck and the health insurance and follow this crazy path.
- What is your daily routine?
A typical day is two thirds office stuff and one third being an extra set of hands for whatever is going on, whether it’s brewing or packaging or preparing for an event.
We’ll all usually get in here between 8 and 8.30 and by 9 the guys are cranking. I’ll usually spend the morning managing communications, scheduling events, working with suppliers, and then some portion of the afternoon helping out with operations.
One day or so a week I’ll be out with the distributor visiting accounts, and then I’ll usually spend two nights a week at events.
Most days are pretty reasonable, say 8.30 to 6 or so, but pretty frequently they’ll be more like 7am to midnight, especially if it’s a heavy brew day.
One thing I will say is that it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. After five years we know what we’re doing, but in the earlier days the hours would be much longer just because we hadn’t figured out how to be efficient yet.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
That’s a really good question. I think it’s probably managing expectations. Including my own!
When you put so much into a project that you believe in so powerfully you want everything at once, and so does everyone around you. I’d love to see New Jersey Beer Company beers being exported, or being sold in grocery stores in California. We’d all be psyched if we could make every beer we dream of, and have it all sell out. But deep down you know you have to pace yourself, because you can bring a lot of problems on yourself if you try to run too far too fast.
It’s especially hard with customers. One of the hardest things is having to say no to a potential order because you know that you can’t commit to something you’re not physically able to produce. I think it’s far better in the long run to say no to an opportunity than to promise more than you’re able to deliver. If you mess up there’s another guy with a great IPA right behind you in line, and you never want a reputation for being unreliable.
Luckily we have a distributor who knows how to manage both sides of the equation, and they don’t overload us with demand. Which is critical for a small company. In return, we keep our distributor very firmly in the loop with our planning and our capacity.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
It’s the obvious answer, but it’s passion. If you come into beer because you heard people are drinking IPAs and it’s a growth industry you’re really not going to get where you want to get to.
Starting a brewery, or working at a small brewery – well, even a big one – is hard. There’s a lot going on all the time, the hours are long, and it can be very repetitive.
For example, if you have to spend a weekend working a stand at a beer festival, unless you’re psyched simply to be there, and to be surrounded by all these great brewers you can learn from and amazing beers you can taste, that’s going to be a long weekend!
I personally can spend all day long working a stand at an event, because I will never get tired of seeing people enjoying our beer. When you put your heart and soul into a product and you get to see it bring enjoyment to another human being – that’s a very special feeling.
- What is success for you?
It changes all the time. At first we had targets like staying viable for a year, or selling a certain volume in a month, but as you pass those you keep looking toward the horizon and dreaming bigger. Right now I can’t tell you what I would consider a tipping point for New Jersey Beer Company: we still have a long way to go. At this size you tend to be caught up in the day-to-day, and right now we just want to keep this going until we have an idea of what we’re really capable of in the long term.
But that’s not to say we don’t savor the milestones. Last season we got 30 handles in the Prudential Center, the home of the New Jersey Devils. That was a real high five moment, let me tell you.
Everyone who works here is a huge hockey fan, and we’re all Devils fans. The moment we all stood raising a glass of our own beer at a Devils home game was outstanding. That’s a memory that won’t go away in a hurry.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
I would love to streamline the process of getting beer out the door. One of the greatest challenges in a brewing operation this size is the sheer amount of paperwork and red tape involved in getting your product to market. It would be nice to cut back on that a little. Well, a lot actually!
One of the few negative consequences of the growth in beer is the dramatic increase in work required at government level, to regulate all the new breweries and all the new beers coming out. That means government approvals and licenses take longer to get than they used to, and you have to walk a bit of a tightrope in getting your timing right to cope with it.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
1. Firestone Walker is one of my favorite breweries, by far. Everything they do is amazing. But their rye IPA Wookey Jack is not far off brewing perfection to me.
2. I’ve long been a fan of New Belgium, and everything they’re about. Unfortunately they don’t distribute in Jersey yet, so they can be hard to get hold of. I had a vacation in California in April and spent an afternoon by the pool with a cooler of Slow Ride. I would repeat that afternoon in a heartbeat.
3. Not technically a craft beer, but Guinness will always have a place in my heart. My college roommate was Irish and he drank nothing else, and through him I developed a taste for it early on. And hey, you’re not always going to find good craft beer on tap, but any bar worth its salt has Guinness, and I’m not shy about ordering it.
- Apart from this tap room, where’s the best place to get a beer in Jersey City?
Ha! There are a lot of great places, so I’ll be diplomatic. But I’ll call out two that I spend a lot of time in. One is Pint, a craft bar with 50 seats, eight taps and an amazing bottle selection. Whether you’re a casual drinker or a hardcore beer nerd, the owner and the staff just want you to get the best beer for you. And then Barcade, which has great beers that they rotate constantly, so one evening there is never like another. Plus I’m of an age where craft beer, 80s rock music and vintage arcade games is very appealing to me!