Craft Brewing: On the Rise in NJ

Guest writer Scott Borchert got the inside story on Departed Soles, a NJ-based brewery that specializes in gluten-free craft beer. The brewing company has a touching history and a story we thought was worth sharing. He also provides a look inside the new location of River Horse Brewing Company.

Brian Kulbacki and Chris Ward were best friends, and, like all friends, they talked about the future. They talked about how cool it would be to start a brewpub and sell their own beer. The idea wasn’t so far-fetched—Brian was an avid home brewer who always had a keg or two fermenting in his parents’ basement. He even brewed gluten-free beer in honor of Chris, who, because of his celiac disease, didn’t have a lot of beer options.

But Brian was planning on joining the family business, the Brunswick Memorial Home in East Brunswick. If there was brewing in his future, it was likely to stay in the basement, a hobby to mess around with on weekends. Chris teased him and said that he’d never make the leap from the funeral home to the brewpub—and Brian wondered if he was right.

Chris, meanwhile, was juggling two jobs, teaching physical education at Bridgewater Raritan High School and working at the Salt Creek Grille in Princeton. One late October afternoon in 2010, he jumped in his car and headed off for another shift at the restaurant. He never made it. The wake was held at Brunswick Memorial Home. Brian was left to cope with the loss of his friend and somewhere, maybe, in the back of his mind, he knew he’d lost the brewpub they had always talked about, too.

Two years passed. Brian was handling the business operations of the funeral home and he was still making gluten-free beer. But something didn’t feel right. “I had been in a long funk since Chris passed away, and I was trying to finally put my life back in order a little bit,” he said. “I realized that I had to do something that would make me happier on a day to day basis.” He knew what that meant—probably knew it all along. He applied to an Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program offered by the American Brewers Guild, and that was it. He would make the brewpub happen—or better yet, make it a brewery, focusing on solely the beer. He already had the perfect name, one that would stand as a tribute to his friend Chris and also to his family’s business. The Departed Soles Brewing Company was born.

Now’s a good time to launch a craft brewery in New Jersey, too. Last September, the state legislature voted to loosen regulations on breweries and brewpubs. If you were to visit a brewery before last year, you could sample the beer but you couldn’t buy a pint—and if you wanted to take some home, you were limited to two six-packs. Now, breweries can sell pints directly to visitors, and you can leave with multiple six-packs, cases, or even a keg. The new law also allows brewpubs to produce more beer, open more locations, and sell beyond their own premises, to distributors, liquor stores, and bars.

Today there are nearly 30 breweries and brewpubs in the state and, thanks to the changed regulations, that number is sure to grow. Mike Kivowitz noticed this enthusiasm for craft beer and, in 2010, he founded the New Jersey Craft Beer website and membership club. The site is a popular clearinghouse for information on the NJ beer scene, with event listings, a brewery guide, beer reviews, and news. The NJCB club has around 2,000 members and, as of mid-December, 347 participating businesses—mainly bars, restaurants, and some stores. Members flash their NJCB card for a discount on craft beer, merchandise, and admission to events.

Since he started NJCB, Kivowitz has seen a surge of interest in craft beer. “We have added so many new places starting to offer craft in our last three years,” he said, “and I think that in two more years, we’ll be getting to be known in the rest of the country for producing amazing NJ beers!”

The rise of craft beer in New Jersey is part of a national trend: go to any decent liquor store, take a look in the cooler, and chances are it’ll be stocked with multi-colored six-packs made by tiny breweries from all over the United States. According to the Brewers Association, sales of craft beer were up 15 percent by volume and 17 percent by dollars last year, slightly better than the figures from 2011. By way of comparison, domestic beer sales in general—a market dominated by huge industrial firms like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors—grew by less than 1 percent. Demand for craft beer, no longer confined to hotspots like Colorado, Oregon, and Vermont, is spreading from coast to coast. And, because of the newly loosened restrictions on breweries, craft beer is taking off in New Jersey like never before.

The change in the law, in fact, is why Brian decided to open his own brewery instead of finding a job in someone else’s. “I was adamantly following it. I wrote letters during every go round to every person involved, the senators and assemblymen,” he told me over a beer in Northern Soul, a small bar with a big beer selection near his Hoboken apartment. When the new law passed, Brian was elated. But he knew that if he was going to open his own brewery, he would have to act fast. “If I waited four or five years, all the towns that I’d like to open a brewery in would have a brewery already.” He’s been scouting locations and believes he’s narrowed it down to two. If everything goes according to plan, Departed Soles will begin production sometime in 2014—the nation’s first all gluten-free brewery.

Brian seems like the kind of guy who can pull it off, too. As we talk he moves easily from business statistics to brewing science to the personalities of local brewers, many of whom he’s friendly with. He explains the vagaries of a recent FDA ruling against a gluten-free beer from Oregon and then describes how his program at the Brewers Guild taught him to see—and taste—beer differently. “Instead of going, this beer smells funky, you can say, oh this smells like sour apple which means it has diacetyl which means they probably should have had more venting when they were brewing it.” The dude knows beer.

He also knows that sticking to a gluten-free product will be a challenge, but it’s a challenge he welcomes. After all, he started brewing gluten-free beer for Chris and continues to brew it as a sort of tribute. “When we’d go watch a football game in a bar, I’d be drinking a pitcher of beer while he had to drink vodka and cranberry,” Brian remembered. “People shouldn’t have to do that, you shouldn’t have to drink vodka and cranberry while you’re watching football. That’s not American!” Brian’s not a celiac, and he has high standards—the beer he creates doesn’t get a free pass just for being gluten free. He wants everyone to enjoy it. But at the same time, he also feels that he’s providing a kind of service to all the celiacs out there who thirst for an excellent brew. “It’s a quality of life thing. You shouldn’t be worried about going to a barbeque and not being able to play beer pong with your friends.”

People who’ve tried it seem to like his beer, too. Earlier this year, Brian had a date interrupted by the news that he’d won something at New York’s Homebrew Alley competition. He and his date took their pizza to go and made it to Brooklyn, the site of the competition, just in time to learn that his IPA won third place overall and first in the specialty category.

The week I met with Brian, he was riding high from another dose of encouragement. He had just attended an event with Jim Koch, the famed owner of Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams. Brian waited in line and then told Koch about his plans for Departed Soles. Koch was skeptical that an entirely gluten-free brewery could be sustainable. Brian made his case but could tell the guy waiting in line behind him was getting antsy.

“I said, alright here’s my business card Jim, if you ever want to try a beer I always have some with me, I’m up in Boston a lot—and he’s like, wait, you have some with you?” Koch produced two glasses and said, “Let’s do it.” They stepped away from the line and Brian cracked open his award-winning IPA. Koch was won over. “My impression was that he loved it, he was really surprised by the flavor. It was the biggest wind behind my sails.” Encounters like these have only bolstered Brian’s confidence, as has the newly hospitable law regulating breweries. He’s eager to nail down a location and get Departed Soles up and running. “I can’t wait,” he said with a grin.

riverhorse, craft beer
Photo by Addie Ursitti

Chris Walsh, co-owner of River Horse Brewing Company, understands how lucky Brian is to be launching a brewery under the new regulations. “When we bought River Horse we could have really used this, it could have really helped us,” he said. Walsh and his partner Glenn Bernabeo bought the struggling brewery in 2007 and basically rebuilt it from scratch. Their plan worked, and, this year, Riverhorse’s success forced them to move from their old facility in Lambertville—a former cracker factory—to a much larger space in Ewing. Today they produce around 12,000 barrels a year, but the new facility has the capacity to produce 80,000 barrels. Walsh is confident they’ll get there—it’s just a matter of time.

The new River Horse brewery sits in a low, unassuming building surrounded by office parks, grassy open space, and highways. It was their second weekend open to the public, and as I walked through the front door I immediately felt myself caught in the gaze of countless hippopotami, staring out from the sides of six-packs and cases, from shirts and from stickers. There was a shirt for Hipp-O-Lantern Imperial Pumpkin Ale depicting the headless horseman in full charge, holding aloft a flaming jack-o-lantern—and riding a hippo. A group waited for the 3:15 tour, sipping from small plastic sample cups and checking out the merchandise.

riverhorse, craft beer
Mural by Green Villain creative studio, Jersey City
Photo by Addie Ursitti

With full-size beer cup in hand, our guide, Justin Burrell, led us into the brewing facility, a cavernous space dominated by gleaming metal tanks and pallets of bottles. We wandered through, tasting beer at stations along the way. A few guys worked in the background and listened to Clutch on a stereo at what you could tell was an atypically low volume. Burrell’s enthusiasm for the place was palpable. “I love it, I can hardly consider it a job,” he said. “You get to hang out, talk about beer, sell beer, show people the brewery. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.” Justin agreed that the changed law was a boon for local brewers. I decided to test it out by getting a pint of Hipp-O-Lantern and hanging around in the tasting room—just the sort of thing that, along with in-house events and increased direct sales, owner Walsh believes will bring greater success to Riverhorse and breweries across the state.

riverhorse, craft beer
Photo by Addie Ursitti

“Just to sell your beer on your own premises, you shouldn’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops,” he said. “The law sounded like, wow, such a revolutionary thing, but why wouldn’t you be able to do that? Why shouldn’t you be able to do that?”

Brian Kulbacki admires River Horse for their beer and for their success—it’s easy to see Departed Soles following their path in a few years. He’s proud of what he’s accomplished so far, and why not—he did the work and now things are falling into place. Back in Hoboken, he handed me a sticker and explained the thought that went into the logo, a skyline composed of New Jersey icons. “I designed it so that it can be changed over time, so if someday we expand to all of America, that skyline can become an American skyline.”

I had to ask, though, why Departed Soles? I pictured a bunch of flounder-like fish boarding an outbound train in some undersea railway station.

“I’ve gotten lot of weird comments about it,” he said, explaining that “soles” referred to shoes—or specifically, the skateboarding sneakers for which he and Chris shared a quirky enthusiasm. “Often times when we were drinking, we would end up buying ridiculous sneakers, like on the walk home to the PATH train or whatever.” He looked up and gestured out the window. “The NJ Skate Shop, over on Hudson Street—that was the frequent beneficiary of our drinking hobby.” Brian lifted his pint glass and took a sip. “The last pair of sneakers that we bought together, we bought there. He was buried in them.”

“My dream once the brewery itself is successful is to open up a sneaker shop right in the tasting room,” he said. “I think it would be pretty sick.”

Departed Soles Brewing Company

River Horse Brewing Company
2 Graphics Drive