Backwoods brouhaha

November 12, 1999

By Kurt Epps

While exploring the pale ale section of my local liquor locker, my eye was arrested by a label I hadn't seen before. New labels and names always attract beer nuts, and I was surprised to see that this brew was home grown in New Jersey.

To look at the distinctive logo of this upstart brewing company, you'd think beer precipitates brawls. The scene, which captures the essence of barroom mayhem, sits atop a slogan that says "Join the Beer Revolution." And though the craft beer world can get downright unruly at times, Paul Giovine, genteel president of the Backwoods Brewing Company has jumped into the fray.

Giovine and partner Jesse McCrea, both former homebrewers and former accounting majors at NJ's Rutgers University, saw more lustre in lauter tuns than in ledgers. TV pictures of an outdoorsy-looking Pete Coors against a backdrop of the snow covered Rockies made the pair envious of what they thought was the best job in the world. Their friends had begun to ask them for special batches of their homebrew for parties, and they joked about doing brewing for a living.

One day, on a train ride back from their day gigs in the Big Apple, the joking stopped. They decided to jump the corporate ship and work the wort full time. But the startup costs of a brewpub or microbrewery were fiscally intimidating, even -- maybe especially -- to accountants. And Paul, who looks every bit the part, did not necessarily believe that you had to get wet to produce good beer on a large scale.

So he started hitting the books in the law library, and he hit upon a more fiscally conservative option: he'd have his special recipe contract-brewed. But he was savvy enough to know that just producing a great-tasting brew was only half the battle. Marketing was the other half.

Disenchanted when he discovered that his first choice for a name--Bigfoot--had already been taken by some California brewery (named Sierra Nevada), he set about looking for another. Being from High Point, NJ used to bring taunts from his citified buddies. They claimed he hailed from Jersey's backwoods where the highest compliment you could pay a girl was, "Nice tooth." So the name was born: Backwoods Brewing Company. And he wanted a logo that would attract attention. He nixed a label of a buxom, single-toothed lass as being too demeaning to women -- and to his beer. Hence, the backwoods brawl scene (still one of Giovine's trade secrets), where everybody fights for their share of the market. And he wanted that logo on a full covered box that kept the light out.

Finding a brewer who could do what he wanted -- especially in the marketing area, was a major problem. He began with Ipswich Brewing, and while he was satisfied with the product, his sales weren't what he expected, especially in his home state of New Jersey. "Jersey People would pick up the beer and read where it was made (Massachusetts) and put the beer back," he opined. And Giovine wanted his beer to have a Jersey identity.

After doing some homework about various Jersey brewers, he and McCrea settled on River Horse, a Lambertville, New Jersey brewery that produces some pretty solid brews of their own.

The rest is history -- or will be shortly.

Because his Backwoods Brewing Pale Ale is turning lots of heads these days, including those at River Horse who brew his beer. RH had a nice line of beers (their Roebling Bock is a knockout), but nothing that was really targeted to hopheads. They have one now called Hop Hazard, introduced about a month before this interview. And while it's not an exact clone of the complex and superbly-balanced Backwoods Pale Ale, River Horse clearly recognizes that Giovine is on to something.

Less than a year into the contract, Giovine has sold 600 barrels of his stuff, and next year projects that to rise to 1500. Two year projections point to three thousand and he's already been contacted by distributors in Japan for the right to produce his brew there. For now, he's happy with the River Horse deal, calling them "honest guys who make my beer right."

Though he's loosening his security about the beer's ingredients a bit ("Hey," he says, "those guys in Denver could taste it and probably tell you every ingredient and the amounts"), Giovine allows that there are Cascades, Goldings and Hallertau hops in the mix with an American two-row malt. But that's as far as he'll go, and don't expect the brewers at River Horse to help you. Their contract calls for strictest secrecy. While the recipe may be secret, the beer is fast becoming recognized throughout the Garden State. Hunterdon Brewing (908-454-7445) is now distributing it, and if you ask for Backwoods at your liquor store, they'll have it in a week. Giovine is aiming to make it available up and down the East Coast within five years.

The Pubscout hopes that's true. It's already one of Jersey's best beers, maybe the best in its style. Allowing the rest of the nation to taste it seems only fair.

This one should go to Denver.

The scramble for samples might resemble the brawl scene on the logo.

®Kurt E. Epps 1999 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps