Central Jerseyans flock to local craft breweries

As many craft beer lovers may remember, in 2012, there were only eight breweries in New Jersey for people to try, taste and tour. Today, just about three years later, that number has multiplied to 28.

This is because of legislation signed by Gov. Chris Christie in September 2012 that eased sales restrictions on craft brewers, allowing them to sell beer by the glass and up to a keg at one time. Before, craft brewers could give away only four-ounce free samples on-site following a tour and sell up to two carry-out six packs to a walk-in customer.

David Hoffman, owner of Climax Brewing Company in Roselle Park, said, “For 20 years, we were all strictly wholesale. Ever since they changed the laws, tons of other breweries have popped up.”

Whether it’s the law that brought about beer tourism popularity or the other way around, no one can say for sure, but one thing is certain — New Jerseyans are loving their craft breweries.

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“People wanted more variety and no two breweries are exactly the same,” said Hoffman. “For 50 years, they got handed all this crap and then other companies started putting out products that tasted different and they said, ‘That’s what beer is supposed to taste like,’ and that spurred their interest.”

Climax Brewing Company’s beers were impelled from this thought as well, as Hoffman was a home brewer for 10 years, owned a home-brew supply store and was a consultant for Gold Coast Brewing Company before he started Climax Brewing Company almost 20 years ago. With 20 years under his belt, Hoffman has seen a lot change in the craft beer industry.

“A lot of breweries now are making all of this crazy stuff,” he said. “We make regular, good drinking beers.”

The brewery offers an extra special bitter, a porter, an India pale ale, a nut brown ale and an Oktoberfest, as well as other seasonal varieties.

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Many breweries, including Climax Brewing Company, offer tours of their premises, giving a brief synopsis of the beer-making process, lasting from about 10 minutes to an hour depending on the facility and costing $5 to $10, which includes a beer tasting.

“If you go to a brewery, you get a better experience and the beer is as fresh as it’s going to get. When you buy beer from a liquor store, it could have been sitting there for a month,” said Hoffman.

Climax Brewing offers open house tours of their facilities on Fridays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. accompanied by a beer garden atmosphere. Visitors can do a tour and tasting for $10, which lasts about 20 minutes and includes six four-ounce samples. They can also be sold pints from the bar.

Home brewers tend to flock to these types of brewery tours, interested in the beer-making process as well as the opportunity to try new beers from local breweries.

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Mike Cerami, owner of J.J. Bitting Brewing Company in Woodbridge, has noticed.

“Some people are very interested in the actual brewing,” he said.  “You would be surprised about how many home brewers there are out there.”

J.J. Bitting Brewing Company conducts a free 10-minute tour on-demand of their beer-making facilities. Cerami said that the company gives about a dozen per week. They also offer a program called Brewer for a Day, which costs $145 and allows participates to join in on the beer-making process.

Cerami, who opened J.J. Bitting Brewing in 1997, began his career in the craft beer industry after 11 years working with restaurants after his wife’s friend showed him his new brewery in Lincoln, Nebraska, and he found it to be an interesting concept. When he noticed that the J.J. Coal and Feed Depot, a 1916 building that had been abandoned since 1962, was scheduled for demolition, Cerami thought he could make better use of it as a brewery.

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“I was one of the first to put an application in and I thought, ‘What a great concept that would be for Woodbridge,’” he said. “I always liked craft beers even though New Jersey didn’t have its own.”

Thus, J.J. Bitting Brewing Company became the first brewery to operate in Woodbridge since the repeal of prohibition in 1933 in a spacious, three-story restaurant inside the restored building.

It keeps seven beers on tap at all times, with three that are constant staples: the Avenel Amber, Victoria’s Golden Ale and the Raspberry Wheat Ale.

“We have a good customer base who come in on a regular basis,” said Cerami. “For a restaurant to be in business for so long, we have to be doing something right.”

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Neil Glass, co-owner of Harvest Moon Brewery in New Brunswick, is another restaurateur who found himself in the budding craft beer industry when he was looking to open a restaurant and came across a partner who was looking to open a brewery.

“It was never my thing beforehand, but I find it very interesting now. We get a lot of the beer crowd as well as the foodie crowd. This brings another aspect to it,” he said.

Although Harvest Moon Brewery does not offer tours of the facilities, it does specialize in pairing food items with their beer, which, as Glass pointed out, is difficult for someone to do themselves. Glass can also see how the industry has taken off since he opened the brewery, as the restaurant/brewery brings in 3,000 people every week. Harvest Moon Brewery creates a little bit of everything, including ales, coffee porters, double IPAs and seasonal items, like their current Pumpkin Ale.

“We have a great brewer, Kyle McDonald, who likes to try different stuff,” said Glass. “We are just much smaller so we can experiment.”

Although local Central Jersey craft breweries may not have the size that some other craft breweries enjoy, Glass has a point — they do have the ability to experiment. The unique tastes of these local beers accompanied by historic atmospheres are keeping Central Jerseyans coming back for another pint.

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Central Jersey breweries

Climax Brewing Company: 112 Valley Road in Roselle Park. Get more information by visiting climaxbrewing.com or calling 908-620-9585.

J.J. Bitting Brewing Company: 33 Main St. in Woodbridge. Find more information by visiting njbrewpubs.com or calling 732-634-2929.

Harvest Moon Brewery: 392 George St. in New Brunswick. Get more information by visiting harvestmoonbrewery.com or calling 732-249-6666.

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