LOWER TOWNSHIP - It started here at the Cape May Airport with a 12-gallon brewing system made of recycled materials, just one client, and a single brand aptly named Cape May India Pale Ale.
It’s kind of hard for co-founders Ryan Krill and Chris Henke of the Cape May Brewing Company to believe that was only four years ago.
The brewery has been wildly successful. They now have about 150 accounts in New Jersey and 50 in Pennsylvania with some 20 different beers on tap at any one time. They sell it in kegs, bottles and 64-ounce growlers. Their taproom here on Hornet Road is open to the public seven days a week from noon to 8 p.m., except Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas days.
The beer maker is so successful they are in the midst of a major expansion project that will cost more than $500,000 and add a new brew-house, bottling plant and second tap room at an empty 15,000-square-foot warehouse within sight of their original operation.
A business started by the two college buddies now has 25 employees. The only problem seems to be brewing enough beer.
“This whole expansion is playing catch-up. We’re catching up to the demand. New Jersey is thirsty for local beer,” said Henke.
The operation that began making just 12 gallons at a time sold 3,000 barrels (each barrel is 31 gallons) in 2014 and expects to double that this year. The expansion heading toward a March completion will have the capacity to brew 15,000 barrels a year or 472,500 gallons.
Of course, it all doesn’t happen if people don’t love the beer, and they do. The brewery just won three medals at a beer competition in Oregon including: a silver for Coastal Evacuation, a heavy IPA that helps locals get though hurricane season; a silver for Tower 23, a German wheat beer; and a bronze for Devil’s Reach, the brewery's most popular pint, which competed in the Belgium Golden Strong Ale class.
One reason for the success could be that the brewery doesn’t only reek of hops and malted barley. It also smells heavily of southern New Jersey. Whether sipping, quaffing or chugging these suds, the region comes through.
A local beekeeper supplies the honey, 90 pounds per batch, for the Honey Porter. Some brews also use locally grown malt and hops, though most of it still comes from Germany. Grape skins from nearby Hawk Haven Vineyard are used in another brew.
“We use as much local as we can get our hands on,” said Henke.
The names also reflect the region. Who at the shore can’t relate to Coastal Evacuation? Tower 23 is named for a World War II artillery tower at Sunset Beach. King Porter honors the Cape May Jazz Festival. Avalon Coffee Stout is named for a local coffee house. Turtle Gut American Sour is named after an inlet at present-day Wildwood Crest where a Revolutionary War naval battle was fought in 1776. These are just a few of the almost 100 different brews that have been invented here.
“It’s an authentic experience and people recognize that,” said Krill.
It always helps a company when workers buy in. Paul Nease of Cape May is a good example.
“We’re making beer, very drinkable beer. In the end, you have to love craft beer,” said Nease.
He drank beer here for a couple years often asking for a job. He finally offered to work for free before hitting pay dirt with a paid job doing what he longed to do.
Krill may be the ultimate beer fan, a college rugby player whose main experience with beer was drinking it before opening the brewery, though he did experiment in graduate school with a home-brew experiment that cracked a bathtub.
Krill left a job in finance and real estate in Manhattan before linking up with Villanova University buddy Henke, who had a job testing commercial satellites. Krill’s father Robert Krill, a retired pharmaceutical executive, also got involved.
The partnership has never been afraid to experiment and recently got into producing what is known as sour beer.
“We hope with our expansion to diversify our offerings. One up and coming style is sour beer. It’s a tart flavor. We use bacteria and wild yeast for fermentation,” said Henke.
The expansion also helps because it is greatly increasing cooling capacity; key because the company does not pasteurize its beer.
“It’s unfiltered and unpasteurized, which keeps the most flavor since we’re not stripping anything out with heat,” said Henke.
The brewery also has the full support of the township, which lent the fledging company economic development seed money in 2012, and the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which operates the airport.
“They’re great. It’s what the area needs, economic development and new employees,” said Thomas Barry, an airport operations manager for the DRBA.
Krill almost can’t believe how far they’ve come, and where they could go.
“To make it to this is totally shocking. To see where it goes in five years, who knows?”