Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 8/2/16
Just seven years ago, East Brunswick native Brian Kulbacki was working at his family business, Brunswick Memorial Home.
Today, as the owner of Departed Soles Brewing that opened in the summer of 2015 in downtown Jersey City, he is known as one of the first brewers of gluten-free beer in the state.
Many would assume that Kulbacki must be gluten-free to have started the first New Jersey craft brewery to offer gluten-free beers, alongside traditional ales. He’s not — but his late best friend, Chris Ward of South Brunswick, was.
“Chris got diagnosed with Celiac disease and I saw the amount of options for him,” said Kulbacki. “So many of our college memories involved beer, and he was kind of robbed of them. It dawned on me that he wasn’t the only one.”
As a result, Kulbacki started his brewery with the intention to produce a gluten-free beer that wasn’t only good by gluten-free standards but was a great beer by all standards. It’s clear that he has — his gluten-free IPA, GoodbIPA: Four My Homie, won the popular Specialty category at New York City’s Homebrew Alley and placed third overall out of 777 entries when it was created in 2012.
So why the name GoodbIPA? It was named for Ward, who died in a car crash in 2010. However, it was Ward’s death that spurred Kulbacki to take control of his life, leave his family business and follow his dreams of starting his own brewery.
Ward always antagonized Kulbacki that he wouldn’t take the risk to follow his dream, so in an effort to follow Ward’s personal motto, “Don’t talk about it, be about it,” Kulbacki finally decided to apply to the American Brewers Guild school for Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering in 2012. One month later, he was in school.
This certainly wasn’t the beginning of Kulbacki’s interest in beer, however. During his days working as a bartender at MaryAnn’s from 2005 to 2008 in Boston while he was a student at Boston College, he found that he had his fill of Bud Lite.
“My college friends and I took a tour of Sam Adams and it blew our minds of what beer could be,” Kulbacki said. “I never took it more than something to order until I moved to Miami and there was no craft beer there. So, I started reading about home brewing. When I moved home to New Jersey in 2009, it became a hobby.”
Kulbacki said that he never expected his brewery to take off like it has — when he rented the space at 150 Bay St., he actually gave up part of it to his neighbor because he thought it would be too much. Now, he is moving from eight to 11 draft lines, brings in 200 to 300 customers every weekend and is trying to attain more space.
“A lot of people laughed at me before when I said that I wanted to open a brewery that offered gluten-free beer,” he said. “Now, when I see that even if it’s just one person out of a group of friends who needs the gluten-free beer, I’m happy that they can enjoy it.”
About 10 to 15 percent of Departed Soles’ customers are gluten-free and Kulbacki said that he is always trying to combat the stigma of gluten-free beer. At the brewery, they do a program called a Flight and a Pint, and Kulbacki always urges people to get the gluten-free beer on their flight. However, he won’t tell them which one it is. When they come back up to the bar to get a pint of their top pick from their flight, they often choose the gluten-free beer, not knowing originally that it was gluten-free.
“When you look us up on Yelp, we’re known for three things — our Belgian draft, my dog and ‘the best gluten-free beer,’” he said.
Currently, Departed Soles offers nine craft beer options, two of which are gluten-free.
So why the name Departed Soles? Kulbacki named the brewery as a tribute to Ward, a reference to an inside joke in which Kulbacki teased that he would sell his family’s business — the funeral home — to fund his start-up and the duo’s obsession with “ridiculous-looking sneakers.”
Today, Kulbacki has between 35 and 50 pairs of sneakers. At the time of his passing, Ward had a dozen to two dozen pairs. He was cremated wearing a pair that he had purchased only a week before his death while he had been hanging out with Kulbacki.
Kulbacki and Ward met during their freshman year of high school, and he said that almost from the minute they met, they were inseparable. Kulbacki said that Ward was very outgoing and had an infectious smile, and his friend’s charismatic personality brought him out of his shell.
“I set out to brew a beer that Chris would like and be able to drink so we could go watch football again or play beer pong at a barbecue,” said Kulbacki. “I don’t know if he would like anything that I have made, but I think he would’ve been proud that I didn’t take the easy way out by working for my parents and instead I chased a dream — our dream.”