The history of beer in New Jersey has at least six distinct stages:
- Birth of an industry. Mid 19th century breweries pop up in New Jersey cities created for the most part by the influx of German immigrants.
- The Heyday. Late 19th century and early 20th. 51 breweries are active in the state at the turn of the century.
- Prohibition. 1920-1933, it becomes a crime to brew beer, so beer brewing gets turned over to the criminals.
- The Big Brewer era. Mid 20th century the big breweries, Pabst, Rheingold, Ballantine, Krueger, are thriving.
- The Dark Ages. 1965-1995, corporate consolidation and the domination of a few national brands results in closure of all but one of New Jersey’s breweries, the Anheuser Busch facility in Newark.
- The Renaissance. 1995 to present.
Despite its history as a hub for beer brewing, New Jersey was late to the party as the rest of the country began to take an interest in locally brewed craft beers. Laws that prohibited the sale of beer where it was made and restrictions on who microbreweries could sell to, what they could sell and how they could sell it slowed the growth of the craft beer movement. (See Beer in New Jersey: All the Laws We Never Followed)
The state didn’t have a brew pub until 1995 and it didn’t have a microbrewery until the following year. At the end of the 20th century, there were still only five: Climax, Flying Fish, High Point (Ramstein), Cricket Hill and River Horse.
Changes in the laws passed in 2012 finally opened up the state to an influx of new microbreweries. Today there are 38, and, according to New Jersey Craft Beer, there are an equal number of start-ups that are planned but not yet operational. According to the Brewers Association there were 0.5 microbreweries for every 100,000 adults 21 or over in the state in 2014. This compares to 1.3 and 1.5 in neighboring states New York and Pennsylvania, respectively. 67,000 barrels of craft beer were produced in 2014, ranking New Jersey as 34th among U.S. states.
Here are a few of New Jersey’s Renaissance breweries:
Climax Brewing Company, Rochelle Park
New Jersey’s first microbrewery was founded by the father and son team of Kurt and Dave Hoffmann. Dave got his start as a home brewer and is responsible for the design of the custom made equipment at the Roselle Park location. The first beer brewed by Climax in 1996 was an ESB (extra special bitter). They still brew the ESB along with a Nut Brown Ale, IPA and Cream Ale. They also produce seasonal and limited edition brews.
Flying Fish Brewing Co., Somerdale
One of my favorites and probably now the largest and most successful of New Jersey microbreweries. Flying Fish started online as a virtual brewery in 1995 then opened its doors in its original location in Cherry Hill the following year. True to its New Jersey roots, some Flying Fish beers are named after exit numbers on the New Jersey Turnpike. Exit 4, which is the exit you would take to go to Somerdale, is brilliant, but it’s a triple so if you have a few of these you probably aren’t going to do much else. After Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, Flying Fish issued a limited edition brew FU Sandy which was used as a fundraiser for hurricane relief efforts. The brewery donated about $75,000. Flying Fish also prides itself on its commitment to sustainability, describing its operation as a “showcase for recycling, reuse and conservation.”
High Point Brewing Company, Butler
Brewers of Ramstein beers, another of my favorites. In fact this is where I go when I want to fill my growlers with fresh beer. That is partly because it’s not too far away (although not the closest microbrewery). But it is also because they make wheats and lagers, which are my preferred brews. These are German style beers using ingredients imported from Bavaria. The name Ramstein comes from a town in Germany. They’ve been around since 1996. They recently renovated and expanded their tasting room in the old rubber factory where the brewery is housed.. The plant was closed by Amerace in 1974. That closing eliminated the biggest employer in Butler, N.J., and heralded hard times for this gritty, blue-collar town. The fact that Ramstein, and other tenants, have taken space in the old Amerace plant is a sign of revival for Butler, just as the existence of microbreweries like Ramstein are a sign of revival of the beer industry in New Jersey.
Magnify Brewing Company, Fairfield
Magnify is an example of the recent explosion in microbreweries throughout the state. It opened earlier this year. Magnify was founded by Eric Ruta, a New Jerseyan who headed off to Bates College in Maine. There he was introduced to the craft brewing scene in Portland and upon graduation came home to start this brewery in Fairfield. Some of Magnify’s beers are a bit hoppy for my taste but I am a fan of their Black Wheat. They also have a great tasting room. Like many of new microbrewers, Magnify is an environmentally conscious operation. That includes donating used grain to farmers.