The Fourth Estate takes to brewing

July 2001

By Gary Monterosso

I am an inexperienced homebrewer, to say the least. Transforming me into a professional is comparable to allowing my teenage daughter to compete in the Daytona 500. That's not to say I don't enjoy brewing, however. Last year, for example, I made a spicy holiday ale which was flavorful and enjoyed by many.

Thus, armed with this confidence and an admiration for the many fine brewers who pilot the craft beer industry, I approached Tom Baker, owner of Heavyweight Brewing in Ocean Township, NJ, about the possibility of creating a beer with him.

Heavyweight is relatively new; opening its doors in 1999. And, as with all startups, the most critical aspect any new business faces is that of positioning. Ten companies making the same product get lost in the mix; the eleventh, shaping something unique and different, gets the attention and, if the commodity is perceived to be of value, also gets the spoils.

Heavyweight falls into the latter category because, as owner and brewer Tom Baker said, "We wanted to do something interesting and different."

The company's initial offerings were the critically acclaimed Lunacy, a Belgian-style Golden ale which tips the scales at 7.7%ABV, and Baltus O.V.S. (Our Very Special), a top-fermented beer made with English floor malts, malted wheat, turbinado sugar, Noble hops and finishing with an ABV of 8.2%.

So what made me feel as though Baker might accept my offer? History was on my side. As with most breweries, regular press releases were sent to area writers. One such mailing went to Lew Bryson, author of the book, "Pennsylvania Breweries." Baker explained, "I sent him some information about Heavyweight and Lew responded by saying that if I do high gravity beers, I have to make a Baltic Porter."

Some time went by, then Baker attended an event at which a Baltic Porter was served. "I then remembered Lew's email. I answered him and he offered to collaborate," Baker said.

The finished product, called Perkuno's Hammer (Perkuno was the Baltic thunder god), is a style seldom found outside the region. It features plenty of Munich malt, specialty malts, a bit of chocolate and an ABV of 8.3%.

Lew and I have become close friends over the past couple of years as we co-founded the New Jersey Association of Beerwriters (NJAB). From him and other writers who have worked with Tom, I gained some background into what was done, including their involvement.

My association with Heavyweight started in January 2000, when I brought Baker to the Atlantic City area to spotlight one of his beers at a dinner which I hosted. After a couple of weeks of preliminary discussion and because of my desire in getting NJAB established, Tom and I jointly decided to bring in the remainder of our writer's guild, which included Kevin Trayner, Kurt Epps, Mark Haynie and Jim Carlucci. Trayner and Carlucci brought the most experience to the table; the former is an officer with a homebrew club in Princeton, NJ, the latter has brewed professionally for years.

Because we live quite a distance from one another, assembling this group of guys is not the simplest feat to accomplish. From the inception, Tom Baker gave me (and now, my partners) free rein to agree upon a style of beer to produce. There was one rule, though: the beer must be "big," true to what has become the Heavyweight signature. We settled upon a "stickebier," coming from the German slang for "secret beer." I placed a call to Blue Collar Brewing guys in Vineland, NJ, from whom a starter batch of Wyeast 1007 was obtained (many thanks to them!).

After continued deliberation, we agreed upon a brew date and set up what turned out to be a shift of workers who went to the brewery to do as Tom Baker required. Because of prior commitments, only Trayner, Epps and myself were able to take part in the actual brewing process which took place over two hot, humid days (aren't they all in NJ?) in June. We got involved in all aspects of the brewing process of this Alt, made with Belgian Pilsner, German Munich and crystal/caramel malts. The hop profile consisted of Northern Brewer and a generous application of German Hersbruckers.

The beer came in at 16 Plato, light by Heavyweight's standards, but, as Baker said, "after all, it's summer." The final outcome will render a hoppy, amber-colored 7% ABV seasonal refresher.

One topic which generated the most discussion was the name for this new beer. Though many variations were proposed and forwarded to Baker for his approval (after all, it ultimately is his beer) we collectively agreed upon "Stickenjab," an epithet which integrates the style with our writer's fraternity. Besides, Baker liked it because "it sounds like a foreign word."

By the middle of July, Stickenjab will have its coming out party, first at the Grey Lodge Pub in Philadelphia (July 13), then at the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Festival in Trenton, NJ on July 15. Needless to say, fellow NJABers are eager to sample the finished product and hope Heavyweight has another fine beer to add to its lineup. Baker feels Stickenjab will complement Heavyweight's lineup successfully.

As was previously mentioned, Lew Bryson and now NJAB are not the only group of writers who have worked with Heavyweight. Ale Street News' Tony Forder banded with Tom Baker to develop a beer which Tony fondly remembers from his past. "I'd first homebrewed in England in '75. My interest in getting involved with Tom was to make a beer not available on the market: a medieval ale, a Gruit ale," said Forder. Baker added, "It seemed like a cool thing to do. I found it interesting to talk with different people. It was a way for me to learn a lot more, too. Tom Stevenson (brewer at Triumph in Princeton, NJ) helped me tremendously, also."

Called Two Druids' Solstice Ale, the recipe included the addition of various herbs and spices.

Forder is proud of the result: "I developed the idea but Tom developed the recipe. It's not really my beer, it's made by Heavyweight Brewing."

Comparing the differences between publishing a newspaper about beer and brewing, Tony said, "There is sweat that goes into making beer and sweat goes into the production of a newspaper. I do know that grain is heavy, especially since the auger broke."

Bill Coleman, homebrewer and creator of the Salty Dog comic strip, also has worked with Heavyweight. Bill's blueprints were the footing for Old Salty Barleywine, made with Maris Otter pale malts, some Belgian specialties and a liberal dose of Challenger hops. ABV approaches double digits.

In this instance, Baker took the initiative and approached Coleman about the possibility of working together. Coleman concurs by noting, "It was Tom's idea. When he contacted me, I was very excited and happy to work with him. I think he has one of the best breweries around. But I never would have had the nerve to contact him and suggest it myself!"

One of the greatest delights a writer can experience is having a reader remark positively about a column. Are the favorable responses received from those who have tried the beer as satisfying as the favorable responses gained from readers? "Absolutely!" said Coleman. "The biggest thrill I've had making this batch is to sit in a bar that has the beer on tap and see someone whom I have not spoken to, and who was not prompted by me, to order a glass of the beer I worked on... and even better, sometimes even order another one!"

Does Tom Baker foresee a continued brewing relationship with those from the fourth estate? "No question about it," he said. "I'm gonna keep this going."

Although Tom may or may not have an idea about who will be next to brew or what his next beer might be, I can guarantee it will be a Heavyweight beer, in the truest sense of the word.

®Gary Monterosso. All Rights Reserved

Gary Monterosso