Jersey's Brewers: Can't we all get along?

May 6, 2000

By Kurt Epps

Of the fifty-eight US beers mentioned in Michael Jackson's defining work about world class beer, The Ultimate Beer Book, one is from New Jersey. And its brewer refuses to belong to the state's only craft beer organization, the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild.

Dave Hoffman, head of Climax Brewery in Roselle Park, and the brewer whose beer made the Jackson Bible, is definitely not alone in eschewing the company of his peers in Jersey's brew scene. Last June's highly successful Craft Brewer's festival held at scenic Waterloo Village, other breweries were conspicuous no-shows. High Point Brewery, makers of Ramstein and a host of brewpubs --including the state's most recent (and maybe closest) at event time -- Krogh's, were nowhere to be found.

Jersey breweries and brewpubs produce some outstanding beers, and it has been the mission of this writer to make them known to the rest of the nation. I harbor no fantasies about the Garden State supplanting California, Colorado or Oregon as meccas of craft beer, but there are certainly some wonderful local beers being made here.

One would assume that if New Jersey is ever to establish a national beer presence in the craft beer categories (don't forget that Anheuser-Busch's Newark operation is still the world champion in terms of volume), its craft brewers would want to present a united front. With only 15 of 20 beermakers in the guild, and rumors of others about to drop out, unity may be a pipe dream. I decided to discover why.

To describe Climax's Dave Hoffman as an iconoclast is an understatement. Highly opinionated and often loud about it, he disdains the genteel approach in everything he does. Though he will win no Dale Carnegie awards for tact, he doesn't care a whit. You know right away where you stand with Dave Hoffman, and where he stands on every issue. He pulls no punches -- sometimes to his detriment. He can be brutally honest -- even to the point of being offensive to some. If you're looking for a finishing school delivery, don't come looking for Dave.

But the guy knows beer in and out, up and down, over and under, and he makes nothing but top-notch brew. His beers are so good that other brewpubs in the tri-state area buy his and pass it off as theirs, though we'll not reveal that sensitive information here.

His complaints about the guild are many, most of which have to do with return for money spent. At Jersey's Brewfest, he opines, brewers are expected to provide about $800 worth of product to be given away with their reward being a $100 reduction in annual dues. That, he says, makes no business sense at all.

"You gotta provide the product. You gotta do all your labor for free. You gotta give your beer away and you get $100 off your dues? Plus you could be back at the brewery making beer for sale! That's crazy!" he says. Hoffman claims that any event that costs you money, should pay off in increased revenue somewhere down the line. The Annual brewfest does not do that, he says. "Everybody who comes to that festival already knows my beers. What's the sense?"

Tom Stevenson, head brewer at Princeton's Triumph brewpub, was just elected president of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, which was founded in 1996. Stevenson, genteel, educated and very aware, is a superb brewer himself. He informed me the Guild Meetings are held every six weeks at member breweries. Various issues considered important to the Jersey beer scene are discussed, like how to promote the industry: more festivals, more advertising, better on-line presence and enhanced member benefits. The $250 Members' dues, he says, are used for "Seed money for festivals, brochures, marketing, etc."

He acknowledges that the guild could be doing more "If our will were stronger and we were more unified. We could be doing a lot more," said Stevenson.

Regarding the four-year old Brewfest, Stevenson allows that participants are required to provide at least six kegs of beer for sampling, draft equipment, and staff. They may also sell food and beer if they wish.

The gate receipts, except for a flat fee paid to the Guild, are kept by Waterloo Village. Stevenson says it costs the guild $4,000 to run the Festival.

The Guild occasionally sponsors other events. It will sponsor a breweriana show in Somerville this July, and hopes to organize a second festival in the Fall, preferably in central or south Jersey.

But will that be enough to attract full membership into the Guild? Currently, there are 15 brewers who belong, and five who do not.

One of those in the latter category is Greg Zaccardi, owner and president of High Point Wheat Beer Brewing Company in High Point, NJ. Zaccardi's operation is a microbrewery, which has different needs than a brewpub and must follow very different legal guidelines to sell its product due to New Jersey's somewhat convoluted beer laws.

"We belonged to the Guild in 1997," said Zaccardi. "However, due to the non-relevant issues (i.e. brewpub matters only) discussed at meetings, the guild was not worthwhile for us. In addition, the dues and heavy monetary penalties for missing meetings far outweighed anything we got from the organization. Therefore, we did not renew our membership since 1997."

Additionally, the brewer of authentic German-style wheat beers recounted a less than pleasant experience at the first Waterloo Craft Beer festival, the now-annual showpiece of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild:

"[In 1997]....we had the longest line and best response of anyone there. We ran out of beer early because the response was so great. Unfortunately, a partial riot ensued. To add insult to injury, we found out that people with food vending permits (i.e. brewpubs) were able to sell pints of their beer and make a profit while we had to give it all away."

To its credit, the Guild has sought to bring Zaccardi back into the fold. He claims he has been contacted on at least four occasions by the guild in an attempt to get him to re-join.

"I was informed that all my aforementioned problems with the guild have been remedied. I believe we will rejoin because it is necessary to have a unified brewers organization in the politically super-charged industry of beer. Our hope for the guild is that it can act as a political action group to promote the benefits of great beer, assist the hard-working brewers, and fight the ever increasing political forces against brewers and responsible beer consumption," Zaccardi said.

The guild changed the quantity requirement and the layout from its original plan of having all the beermakers under one tent, which may have contributed to the aforementioned "partial riot," and Zaccardi allows that it was the first festival the guild ever ran. "I have been assured that the event format, design and behavior has changed for the better. In addition, they have had two events since our attendance. I heard that those events were much better for everyone. Therefore, we are willing to give it another chance."

Indeed, this writer has attended the last two festivals and found both to be well run and satisfying to attendees and members breweries alike.

It is clear that Zaccardi and Tom Stevenson both recognize the need for a united beer front to help Jersey's Brewers take their rightful place in the "politically supercharged" beer arena.

If all of Jersey's brewers could come to that realization, the Guild would be well on its way to achieving something for its members.

Bob Hettmansperger, head brewer at Basil T's, presides over operations at new Jersey's first brewpub with two locations -- Red Bank and Toms River. Hettmansperger, a guild member for three years, sees much to recommend membership in the organization, like "get[ting] to use the proceeds from events like the festival for joint marketing ideas like the website and fliers to get more feet in the door."

"It's a coalition of small brewers all facing similar business challenges. I think we should be able to get together and lobby for some changes to New Jersey's relatively restrictive laws," he offered. As to brewers who don't join, he asserts, "Renegade brewers will always benefit a little from our work, but we should try to make the value-added as specific to the member breweries as possible as encouragement to join. The more breweries the more effective the organization will be." Hettmansperger points out that members should be craft brewers. "The big one [Anheuser-Busch] doesn't need our help."

Heavyweight Brewing Company of Ocean, NJ, a brewery which concentrates on making BIG beers, has been operational for about a year, and its owner, president, and Head Brewer all agree that membership in the guild is a positive thing. Considering that all three posts are occupied by the same guy, Tom Baker, the consensus was easy to achieve. Tom believes in "strength in numbers, [and that] the guild provides a stronger voice for NJ beer than we can achieve on our own." Baker, who sees the need to bolster the image of New Jersey's Craft Beer, recognizes that "we need to do more to encourage non-members to join. Although I was not a member in the beginning, I understand that some personality conflicts chased members away. The guild deserves another chance."

Ever the artisan, Baker responded with a poetic metaphor when asked if the guild could be an effective voice for NJ beer without total participation"The guild will sing the praises of NJ beer. It would obviously carry a better tune if we had more voices," Baker reasoned.

Gene Muller, Head Everything at Cherry Hill's Flying Fish Brewery (the first Brewery to be created entirely on the Internet) sees the bond of unity as a major draw, but feels little sympathy for those who opt not to join.

"[The guild is a] network of people pulling together to promote NJ beers and the NJ brewing industry, instead of just each individual brewery.... [It's] a good core of committed people.....a network of people looking out for each other and talking each other up in a positive way."

Muller also believes that the guild is effective -- even at less than full strength. "The Guild's always been effective with 80% membership. The Guild has been making significant headway in benefits for members and publicizing the industry throughout the state."

Still, the man whose beer is the only craft beer from Jersey in Disney World (The Flying Fish Cafe) knows the value of solidarity. "The higher percentage of membership the more strength the Guild would have within the state as well as with promotional efforts."

Using the pragmatists's approach Muller declares, " If you don't like something, it's better to work from within than stand outside and bitch. It's been said that in life, some folks only seem to hear channel WIIFM -- what's in it for me -- which is the antithesis of a Guild. I would see the fact that some breweries choose not to join as their loss."

Not that he sees no room for improvement. Muller would like to see more festivals in other parts of the state to promote more Jersey beer to more people. As nice a location as Waterloo Village is, its northwest corner of Jersey locale is a hike for someone from, say, Cherry Hill and points south.

Muller may be onto something, and his active participation in the guild may bring the multifestival idea to fruition, though his WIIFM comment might rankle some. However, if Jersey ever hopes to run with the big dogs, those with sensitive egos may have to toughen up. Another member, JJ Bitting's owner Mike Cerami, seemed both satisfied with and critical of what the guild does -- as opposed to what it could do. He advocates strongly, however, for a unified Guild.

"All microbreweries and brewpubs in NJ should belong to a body which unites them and whose aim is to move the craft brewing industry into the new millennium," said Cerami, a guild member since 1997. "The guild still manages to bring the members together to discuss prevalent topics on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, the guild has no specific focus other than the Waterloo Festival which we participate in every year." Cerami advises that, "The guild needs to have a more focused agenda with strong leadership."

One might assume that competition, among brewpub members especially, would fuel disagreements within the Guild. Competition in Jersey, however, does not seem to be a major issue with the member brewpubs and microbreweries spread throughout the state pretty evenly. No one brewhouse can claim that another is snatching its customers away, because few are in close enough proximity to substantiate the charge. Even if they were, the competition argument does not hold up. Most restaurateurs will tell you that while competition is indeed keen, the presence of quality restaurants in close proximity to one another often helps business by offering customers more quality choices in a more compact area.

The brewers do need a strong voice at the state level to streamline some of NJ's laws that affect -- deleteriously, in some views-- the way the industry operates.

Brewpubs, for example, can sell their beer both for takeout and from tap directly to the consumer. Microbreweries are severely restricted in their commerce with the buying public, and the bulk of their sales must go to distributors or bars. President Stevenson wants to get both beer engines on the same track--one that would work for legislation to benefit both types of beer producers.

Currently, Stevenson is contemplating having the Guild push for an Official New Jersey Beer Month, similar to those sponsored by other states. We also discussed pursuing the possibility of a Brule & Brew Contest that would feature the finest desserts of Jersey's brewpubs paired with the beers that could best complement them. Microbreweries however, which offer no food services, might be at a disadvantage.

To remedy that, event organizers might invite New Jersey's finest restaurants to submit a dessert, which the microbreweries would complement with a dessert-type beer. While details still have to be worked out, it is certainly an idea worth considering.

Stevenson is actively seeking to emphasize the education side of responsible beer consumption and allows that most of his fellow brewers feel the same.

Why not take a bold step, then, by donating all the proceeds of the event to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)?

Such an initiative might be the first in the nation that would attempt to link two groups which, on the surface, would seem to be at odds.

This is an idea that looks better and better as Jersey beer begins to flex its mass appeal muscle. In reality, both MADD and the Craft Brewers Guild share at least one common goal: elimination of alcohol abuse that has the potential to take lives on the road. "We want to stress responsible beer enjoyment, because our beers are made to be enjoyed--not guzzled," said Stevenson. "And when you promote the consumption of beer for enjoyment with food rather than "funneling" for a high, you make a powerful statement to youth about alcohol consumption."

Just thinking about the potential of a marriage between MADD and any organization linked to alcohol to promote responsible consumption is a mind-boggling--yet totally logical--concept. And maybe such an engagement is long overdue. The "Just say no" approach does not seem to be working.

If the nation's youth are ever to turn away from the destructive behaviors induced by binge-drinking and the "party-hearty" scene, it is clear that organizations of good will like the two above will need to marshal their forces to make an impact.

There is no doubt that the Princeton brewer wants to make his organization "get up and dance." But whether or not Tom Stevenson can make a difference during his tenure as President of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild depends on many variables.

Can he attract into the group those Jersey beermakers who do not now belong? Can he retain the members he has? Will his organization respond to his unity-based initiatives? Do they see profit from their membership?

And maybe most importantly, are Jersey's Brewers ready to step up to the big leagues?

Stevenson's considerable people skills, coupled with his "Let's-look-at-the-big-picture" approach might be just the thing Jersey's brewers need to galvanize them into a unified force. Should he succeed, especially in the areas of beer education and responsible drinking, Jersey Beer will not only have arrived on the national beer scene.

It will have stolen the show.

®Kurt E. Epps 2000 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps