EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is from the May issue of Flavor, the Press of Atlantic City’s magazine showcasing the food and drink scene in South Jersey. To get Flavor delivered to your home click here.
It’s canning day at Garden State Beer Company in Galloway Township. The music is blasting, the beer is flowing — including out of the canning machines and onto the floor — and spirits are high.
The sound of singing, laughter and joking can be heard as owners Jason and Carisa Stairs lead their staff in canning and stacking the brewery’s beer for distribution. As they finish packaging the last batch, a cheer goes out to celebrate.
“We’re about as small as they come, but very hands-on,” Jason Stairs says, adding all their grain is touched by hand. The location employs just nine individuals, mostly part-time.
The number of craft beer breweries has grown in the United States, jumping from just 1,000 in 1996 to more than 7,000 in 2018 according to CraftBeer.com, managed by the Brewers Association.
The explosion in popularity has some wondering what the draw is for an industry that, at least in the state of New Jersey, isn’t allowed to sell food, is limited in the number of events it can hold, and are often housed in warehouse-type structures.
Before Cape May County was scattered with breweries, Cape May Brewing Company paved the way for the industry when they began distributing in 2011, according to Tasting Room General Manager Chris Costello.
“Since then, not just the beer industry but the craft beverage industry has boomed in the area,” he says.
The reason for the boom is owed greatly to a change in New Jersey legislation in 2012 that allowed for breweries to conduct indoor tastings. Prior to 2012, commercial breweries were only permitted to distribute its beer.
Billy Topley, owner of Ludlum Island Brewery in Ocean View, took advantage of that change in legislation to start his own location.
Topley works as a pizza maker in Sea Isle City in his off time. While he says his original dream was to use his business degree to open his own pizza shop, he realized he needed something to pursue that he could be “passionate about and not burn out.”
“I was a home brewer and very passionate about beer,” he says. “It was really just timing I guess, because I was looking to do something for myself, and they had just changed the law to allow breweries (to have indoor tastings).”
“You need that kind of consumer interaction to build your brand,” Topley adds. He officially opened Ludlum in 2016.
For Stairs, opening Garden State was the perfect opportunity for him to combine the two things he loves — chemistry and beer.
The Galloway Township resident met his wife Carisa while the two were attending St. Joseph’s University. They share a love for chemistry — he has a PhD in the field, she a BS — which Stairs says allows them to be “somewhat unique.”
“I think that’s one advantage we bring, is the quality control and lab technique,” he says.
The brewery — featuring a larger-than-average tasting room due to previously operating as Delorato’s Restaurant — officially opened on March 5, 2016.
The site began canning in 2020. A mobile canning company visits the brewery to assist the staff in canning their beer for distribution and on-site sales. The process of canning takes a few hours, with family friends even joining in on the fun.
The staff blast music and crack jokes, true to the culture the couple tries to promote.
“I feel like there are people out here who feel that they can’t walk into that (brewery) scene, like it’s a closed club,” Stairs says, “but once they do, they find it’s very open.”
Costello was drawn to Cape May Brewing Company when he tasted his first beer from the brewery, now in its tenth year.
“For me it was a combination of Cape May (the town) and the brewing business,” he explains. “I grew up in Philadelphia but I also had a family house in Wildwood. I grew up with a love for this area...A friend introduced me to the Cape May product and I really enjoyed it.”
“I had always been in the hospitality field, (but) gravitated toward the beverage side,” he adds.
Contrary to Topley and Stairs, Costello does not have the gift of brewing.
“I did one homebrew,” he recalls. “I’ll say it was drinkable, but it wasn’t good. I quickly learned that on the science side, I’m not the one to brew the beer, I’m much better at selling the beer.”
Brewers have a camaraderie among themselves as well, something Topley says is very different from the pizza industry.
“It’s very cooperative,” he says, regarding the relationship between separate companies. “Really feels like a ‘180’ compared to the pizza industry.”
“I think that’s one thing that everyone can agree with — from your small brewery to your Budweiser — is it’s a fun industry to be in,” Costello adds. “Most of the people you meet in the industry, everyone enjoys what they’re doing. At the end of the day, you’re making beer.”
Both Ludlam and Garden State have a small team of brewers who work two to three days per week doing the often laborious work of “making beer” — mashing grain, adding hops and stirring over hot kettles.
“People joke that brewers don’t really make beer, they create the conditions for beer to develop,” Topely says with a laugh.
The owners are experts at breaking down the steps during their brewery tours, so even the most elementary of brew novices can understand the process.
According to Topley, brewers take malted grains, such as barley and wheat, and “basically just steep it in hot water, like you’re making tea, and try to extract all the sugar out of the grain.”
The resulting sugar-water, called wort, is then boiled in a giant “kettle.” Hops — the pellet form of the flowers of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus — are added to create various beer flavors.
After the mixture has cooled, it is then transferred to a fermentation vessel, where yeast is added. The process of fermentation, taking up to a week, involves the yeast eating away the remaining sugars to create alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Stairs says Garden State brews about three times per week for eight to 12 hours per day, just to get the mixtures to the point of fermentation, before letting them sit for a week.
After sitting for a week, the mixture is transferred to a conditioning tank, where it cools and carbonates for a couple more days before being kegged.
Stairs says he and his wife have focused on an area of brewing that typically gets less attention — the water.
“The one thing we do bring with our water, that maybe the non-chemists don’t get as much, is how the water is,” Stairs says. “It comes down to electrolytes.”
Costello also emphasizes the quality of the microbrewery product, versus the “ginormous” corporations that are more well-known.
“I would say overall, I think that people as a whole have decided that we want more, we want better,” Costello says. “I think it’s not just beer but across the board, what you’re putting into your body. People are now, more than ever, willing to pay a little bit more for good quality.”
All three professionals agree the hyper-local feel draws customers to the industry.
“I think it’s a few different things,” Topley explains. “Again, small microbreweries have been having their ups and down since the late 70s and 80s, so why is now the golden age? I think it has to do with the local movement. Everyone wants to know where their food is coming from, the things that they’re consuming. Before, a lot of beer and alcohol was faceless, (but) back in prohibition days, neighbors all had breweries. I think it’s ‘I know this guy.’”
Topley said they have families visit the location with kids and dogs, things you can’t normally do when visiting a bar.
“It’s a different vibe,” he says. “No one’s there getting hammered. I think all those things create a very unique atmosphere.”
Visitors to Ludlam will find it’s a small brewery, tucked back down a long road in a warehouse-structure connected to a small coffee shop. But what would look sketchy to some is enticing to a micro-brew connoisseur.
“It’s also a sense of adventure,” Topley adds. “You get a unique flavor and unique touch. It’s almost like you’re learning and trying something different. I think that’s a cool aspect of it too.”
“It’s become a hobby for people,” Costello says, recalling statements from visitors to Cape May’s tasting room. “People come in (to our tasting room) and talk about the breweries they’ve been to.”
At Garden State, there’s a “members wall,” featuring custom glasses for regulars who pay to be a part of their membership program.
Stairs says the regulars start coming in around 3 p.m. daily, “almost by clockwork.”
“Talking about the community feel,” Stairs says, “I think the difference in bars and restaurants is they usually get something to eat, and then they expect you to go. But at the brewery, we’re not allowed to have food, but you can bring your own. So people will bring their picnic lunches and hang out because there’s no pressure to leave.”
Costello believes breweries leave a lasting impact on their patrons, becoming a part of their lives.
“For me, it’s rewarding that something as simple as we do brewing beer, can potentially have a positive impact on people,” he says.
“There’s a saying that ‘Beer people are good people,’” Stair says.