Friday, November 20, 2009

Barristers, beer and a new book

Add one more title to the bookshelf on New Jersey beer.

Mike Pellegrino, a lawyer in Denville and appreciator of better beer, is the author of Jersey Brew, The Story of Beer in New Jersey. Don't think of the 160-page book as an examination of current beer trends and the state's craft beer scene.

Besides beer, Mike is a fan of history, and his book is an intersection of the two. The Garden State craft beer scene is but a coda to the remembrance of all the labels once brewed in New Jersey, like Krueger (the nation's first canned beer), Ballantine Burton Ale (imagine some bar talk on Burton ale at a Garden State watering hole in 1985, and not in a historical context ... no way; it was unheard of again until the mid-1990s) and Camden Bock Beer. (There's 110 images of old labels in the book.)

The part of the book likely to prove most appealing to readers is the Garden State's colorful defiance of Prohibition (January 1920-December 1933), which New Jersey was dragged into kicking and screaming. The state rejected the temperance movement as it was visited upon state legislature after legislature, and only bowed after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution poured it down the state's throat like a bitter cocktail.

Mike says beer was openly sold in New Jersey during the Terrible 13, and federal agents who prevailed upon the illegal taps to enforce the law were hard-pressed to pressure those caught to rat out where the beer came from. Under Prohibition and a corresponding gangster era, there were even some innovative and sneaky ways to move beer around, such using fire hoses. (Sounds sort of like beer baron Homer Simpson and the booze-filled bowling balls sent to Moe's Tavern when Springfield went dry.)

Besides being a chronicler of New Jersey beer history, Mike's also an independent defender of the state's modern craft brewers. A recent op-ed piece he wrote for the New Jersey Law Journal examines the disparities between how the Garden State treats its vintners and brewers.

The Nov. 9 article in the journal, for which Mike is an occasional contributor, picks up on an oft-made point about post-Prohibition beer and wine, namely the greater freedoms wineries enjoy compared to brewers. That would include the sharp differences in the costs of brewing licenses vs. vintner licenses, and the state's almost inexplicable unbalanced approach to on-premise sales of beer and wine. The state blesses generous sales at the winery, while, as we know, craft brewers get handcuffed with the per diem limit of two sixpacks per person at the brewery tour gift shop.

Roll into that regulatory chasm the fact that wine can be sampled at packaged goods stores, but if you want to know what a beer tastes like before you buy, go to another state (or to the brewery on a tour day). It's not going to happen at the point of purchase here, much to the ire of brewers, who rather strongly believe that consumers who get to try will buy, not just their brands but any brand that can be sampled. (It's a rather sad irony, too, that part of the expressed mission for New Jersey's Alcoholic Beverage Control agency is to foster competition. Yet, something so simple as an in-store tasting of beer remains illogically and archaically verboten.)

To make such a widely observed point may seem like treading old ground. But for the craft brewing industry, the advantage of what Mike's article offers is the targeted audience of a professional journal that intersects with the people who make the rules. Understand that as: Some folks in Trenton may see it, read it and decide to correct the course and change the rules to be fairer, more business-friendly.

"If you didn't have ties to New Jersey, why would you open a microbrewery in New Jersey?" Mike says. It's easier, he notes, to set up shop in neighboring Pennsylvania or New York, where the rules aren't designed to stifle entering the game, while the New Jersey beer markets remain within reach.

"We set ground rules that make it clear, don't try it here," he says.

You must subscribe to the Law Journal to read it online, so here's Mike's article in jpeg form (click to enlarge).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

If there's winter wheat doppelbock ...

Then that High Point Icestorm eisbock is only a string of winter days away.

OK, maybe that's oversimplifying, since it's only mid-November, and the requisite below-30 degree temperatures to convert the doppelbock to eis have yet to pay visit to New Jersey. But have faith that it will happen, and Ramstein Winter Wheat will find its rich, velvety alter ego.

High Point turned loose the 2009 version of its Winter Wheat on Saturday with a signature, ceremonial barrel tapping before a capacity crowd at the brewery. (The turnout in Butler was exceptional, given that the weather was drizzling a rain that didn't clear up.)

The doppelbock's scheduled to be bottled this week, says owner Greg Zaccardi, who's fresh off a trip last month to the Mondial de la Biere festival held in Strasbourg, France. (High Point shipped over its Blonde and Classic wheat beers for the fest.)

Speaking of that trip to the Alsace region of France, High Point was approached with offers to export the Ramstein brand to Sweden, France and Germany. It's a high compliment, but one that's a bridge too far right now.

"Our production capacity really doesn't lend itself to being able to support that in a good way," Greg says. "We're keeping the lines of communication open. As we grow, we want to include them as well, because consumers in Europe, for centuries, have appreciated the style of beer we brew. It would be foolish for us not to bring beer to an area that really enjoys that type of beer."

Greg says there's every reason to be patient and re-examine the idea after a year's time. But it's more important to grow within High Point's local markets, those places where brewery has immediate interests. "We could just export and pat ourselves on the back, but you need to go beyond the one-night stand," Greg says.

At these beer releases, you run into a lot of familiar faces, and get to meet a lot of new people.

For Amanda and Bryan Stuht from Landing in Roxbury Township (Morris County), the wheat doppelbock release was their third Ramstein open house, putting them solidly on track to becoming regulars at the events.

Beginning homebrewers, they're avid beer enthusiasts with an appreciation for all styles (although Amanda will profess to a preference for hefeweizen). In addition, they enjoying a beer excursion whenever possible, like to Rattle N Hum Bar in Manhattan ... and High Point on a gray November day.