LOWER TOWNSHIP — It seemed odd to Ryan Krill that there were so few breweries in southern New Jersey when he, his father, Robert, and his friend Chris Henke decided to start one in an unused warehouse by the Cape May County Airport.
If and when they open Cape May Brewing Co. this summer, they will add to what are currently only three beer-making operations in the state’s lower half.
In fact, a ferry ride to the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., would be less distant than traveling to the nearest other local beer producer, The Tun Tavern in Atlantic City.
But after going through the thick stacks of paperwork to get the necessary licenses, buying or making the needed equipment and finding a location to set up their system, “It makes sense,” Krill said.
“It’s a mountain of stuff to do,” the 29-year-old with a family home in Avalon explained. “The three of us, we’re just home brewers who wanted to take it to the next level. It’s a passion for us, and South Jersey is just ripe for a brewery. It’s just time.”
Tun Tavern and Iron Hill Brewery in Maple Shade, Burlington County, are currently southern New Jersey’s only two brewpubs — restaurants that sell their brews on-site and allow limited takeout.
Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, the largest craft beer brewer in the state, has a license similar to what the Krills and Henke seek, in which it principally sells beer to distributors but can give tours of its brewery and have tastings for visitors.
The 19 other breweries now operating in New Jersey are concentrated in the northern half, according to the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Besides Cape May Brewing Co., several other brewing companies are looking to fill their first glasses this year, including Turtle Stone Brewery in Vineland and the Monmouth County businesses Kane Brewing Company in Ocean Township and Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands.
“It’s a tough market to begin with,” said Mark Haynie, a craft beer writer who covers New Jersey for Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, “but I think people are looking to do different things.”
Meanwhile, there are an unknown number of home brewers in the state. Last year, the state ABC issued 420 of the required $15 home brewing licenses, but there are certainly many more people who either neglect to get the permit or don’t even know they need it.
Home brewing is typically the first step toward starting a brewery, and some of the country’s best known brands of craft beer had humble beginnings as tiny operations in basements and back porches.
Today, more home brewers are taking the next step and opening “nano-breweries,” which are tiny operations that produce batches of less than 100 gallons at a time.
“You go back 15 years and nobody would have thought to enter the market on a shoestring budget kind of thing,” said Jeff Linkous, the Little Egg Harbor Township writer behind “Beer-Stained Letter,” a blog about the New Jersey craft beer industry.
“These are people who are serious home brewers,” said Linkous, a former home brewer himself. “They’re making beer not just to keep themselves stocked with beer, but because they like to make beer, and those are the type of people that at a certain point are like, ‘I can do this professionally.’”
Shawn Grigus, of Hamilton Township, opened a home brew supply shop on Philadelphia Avenue in Egg Harbor City last year. He said that while the thought of starting a company is common, the will and means to do it are somewhat less so.
“Every home brewer dreams of going commercial,” he said. “You start brewing beer and you’re like, ‘Hmm, what if I sell this?’ But there are only a couple people who want to take it further.”
A hobby and a dream
One of those people is Jason Chapman, who has been making his own beer since about 2000 and today brews in the basement of his Hammonton home.
Metal barrels of various sizes sit in the corner of his personal beer factory, brown bottles line the wall, kegs of finished brews rest on the floor, and all of it is across the room from a surfboard, a model airplane, drums and DJ equipment.
“I have a lot of messy hobbies,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, he poured a pint of his Pitch Pine Ale, a strong, hoppy, American amber, with 6.2 percent alcohol and a bitterness comparable to a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — a quintessential American microbrew that also began as a home brew operation.
Chapman, a full-time HVAC technician, informally calls his work the Pinelands Brewing Company. He has a vision to eventually open a nano-brewery of his own and put his wooded corner of southern New Jersey on the craft beer map.
“I always had the long view that I wanted to brew publicly,” he said, and has even approached restaurants in the area about converting into brewpubs or eventually selling his varieties.
Initially, Krill and Henke said, they plan to sell to a few of the Cape May restaurants nearby.
The two Villanova graduates found the location for their brewery while cycling past the airport on Breakwater Road, having agreed last summer to start seriously pursuing the project.
Henke, a mechanical engineer, built the approximately 10-gallon system they have in the leased warehouse on Hornet Road using dented keg shells he found in a scrapyard.
Their goal after opening is to install a 7-barrel system — equivalent to 217 gallons — with each batch taking anywhere from about two to six weeks, depending on the variety.
“We’re not going to be able to keep up with demand,” said Henke, 28, of Philadelphia, who stopped contract engineering work last fall to focus on the company full-time.
“It’s a good problem to have,” added Krill, who has a residence in New York City as well and maintains a full-time position as a real estate portfolio manager for Sovereign Bank.
On Sunday afternoon, the two were finishing the assembly of their walk-in refrigerator, which they purchased in an auction from a Quizno’s that went out of business.
In it they eventually plan to store their varieties that so far include Jump the Jetty IPA and another style they’re informally calling “Bob’s Never Failing Barley Pop (An Elixir of Oats and Stout).”
Just as they plan to sell these beers locally, they hope to source as many ingredients locally as they can.
Keeping it local
In fact, some farmers in Atlantic and Cumberland counties have expressed interest in growing hops and barley for beer production, and one of Cape May Brewing Company’s first new varieties will feature locally grown cranberries.
Pending legislation would aim to make it easier for farmers to accommodate this market, as well as for brewers to sell more of their products.
Bills sponsored by Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, make it easier for farmers to also acquire brewery licenses and modifies the language regulating tastings and sales at breweries in the state.
“Farm wineries are very successful in our region,” Riley said, and she is aiming to make it easier for breweries to be successful as well.
Krill and Henke still have a lot of work ahead of them, including getting the required federal and state licenses, the applications for which they estimated were inches thick.
They said the federal one is free; the state one they need, permitting brewing up to 50,000 barrels a year, costs $1,250.
Also, because their warehouse is on property that the Delaware River Port Authority leases from the U.S. Navy, they will have to undergo some extra government scrutiny.
But what is encouraging is that they said the interest already has been strong.
And that isn’t mentioning that they don’t exactly consider it work to be brewing beer in their summer vacation destination.
“Down here, there is very little beer that we want to drink,” said Henke, “so it definitely seems like a need.”
Contact Lee Procida: