Draught Diversions is the catchall label for mini-rants, think-pieces, and posts that don’t just focus on one beer here at The Tap Takeover. We hope you don’t grow too weary of the alcohol alliterative names we use…
Is the bubble bursting or is the NJ Craft Beer landscape simply maturing? Read on for my take on the subject…
That’s been a “hot topic” of discussion in beer circles, and NJ Beer circles specifically. The third NJ brewery over the last 12 months has closed its doors, in one definition of the phrase. More specifically, these are the first three breweries to open after the 2012 laws passed to have closed. Earlier in the year (April 2019), Rinn Duin brewing became Toms River Brewing. Demented Brewing in Middlesex closed at the end of April 2019 after about a month of very public drama on social media. This past week/early June 2019, Common Sense Brewing in Bordentown closed and is in the process of being purchased/taken over by Tindall Road Brewery out of Robbinsville. Tindall Road didn’t have a location but their website claims the brewery to be active “since 2017” which is probably when they established the name.
Three brewery changes in a few short months is worth noting. One is a blip, two is a little more thought provoking, but could three be a pattern? Or could it just be a coincidence. I’ll provide my perspective of these three brewery changes below.
Demented Brewing Publicly Implodes, Closes
Demented’s closure was the most visible closure in NJ Beer (Beer Advocate forum discussion), it was also one of the first to open and close since the 2012 law passed that enabled breweries to have taprooms and serve beer on premise. Demented Brewing established themselves in 2015 in Middlesex, NJ where the closest brewery was Harvest Moon Brewpub in New Brunswick. In other words, an area without a nearby brewery. They made some good beer, with some beers that were well-above average (by my ratings, over a 4-bottle cap rating on untappd). Cypress Brewing in Edison, NJ opened around the same time and were the closest brewery, but not exactly convenient for folks looking to make a visit to both breweries. Put it this way, you’d have to get on a congested highway and drive over 10 miles to get between breweries, they weren’t close to each other like the three breweries in Hackettstown, some of the NJ Shore breweries, the breweries in Hammonton, or even the Mount Holly breweries. In short, Demented was largely successful because they were relatively uniquely located and produced better than average product. Kegs were in bars in Central New Jersey and cans and 22oz bottles could be found in bottle shops since they had a distribution deal. In other words, it seemed like they were growing naturally at a nice rate.
Personally, I liked Demented quite a bit and had a quite a few of their beers, visited Demented probably as much or more than any of the NJ breweries since they were a mile or two from where I worked, close to where a few friends live, and close to my brother-in-law’s house. My first review here on the Tap Takeover also happened to be of one of their beers. In participating a few NJ beer online circles (NJ Craft Beer, reddit/njbeer, and Beer Advocate’s “Mid-Atlantic” forums), the consensus about the beer seems to be that it was good enough that Demented could have had a relatively lengthy lifespan. NJ Food writer Pete Genovese anointed Demented the best brewery in NJ when he did his Best Brewery tour in NJ. While that selection was rather controversial, at the very least, the “win” gave Demented some attention.
Demented Brewing’s problems were financial in nature in that they had difficulty paying taxes and didn’t always pay their employees. No matter how good the product is, the government won’t let you continue if you don’t pay your taxes. The employees won’t want to keep working if they don’t get paid. Just watch Bar Rescue. Sadly, some good people were working at Demented. Demented also had two annual Bottle Clubs – one for sours, one for stouts – almost like a subscription. Many who paid up front will not see the beer they paid for and will likely not see that money again. All told, a sad end to what was a pretty good thing.
Rinn Dúin becomes Toms River Brewing
I knew very little about Rinn Dúin brewing aside from knowing they opened in 2014 at the early stages of the NJ Craft Beer boon. This was just 2 years after the big 2012 law passed. Their focus was on English and Irish styles as the name Rinn Dúin might imply and the brewery even temporarily closed in mid-2018 at one point. Having started in 2014, their reach in the State didn’t quite expand the way some other breweries who started at the time did, or even to the extent that Demented did who started a year later. In other words, much of what I say here relative to Rinn Dúin is from a bit of a remove.
From what I was able to surmise from some online posts, it seems they went bankrupt, but made good beer, just not styles that were lighting the world on fire.
I don’t know how embedded in the local bar scene Rinn Dúin was, whether they were able to get the kegs into bars in Toms River and neighboring locals. I assume they were since they’d been in business for nearly 5 years before changing over to Toms River Brewing. They may have done some brewery-only or super-local bottle/can releases, but they didn’t seem to expand beyond Ocean County, NJ from what I was able to observe. Rinn Dúin did seem to have a nice partnership/business relationship with local minor league baseball team Lakewood Blue Claws, which is the kind of thing you’d hope to see between “small” businesses.
Scrolling through Rinn Dúin’s facebook page, it appears they were fairly active in the community, had yoga nights and musicians; many things a lot of successful breweries do. On the other hand,, not many people were talking about the brewery outside of an occasional mention in a thread like “Unspoken NJ Breweries” in the Beer Advocate discussion forums (and the updated/2019 thread). As recently as February (two months prior to the name change/takeover), this brewery was still making and pouring beer as Rinn Dúin, whichh is when I had their tasty cream ale Sweet Nothing at the Meadowlands Beer Expo.
I think the name change is good and gives the brewery more of a local flavor. There was a press release earlier in the year about the buyout that reads a bit on the corporate/business side with talk of a “vertical integration plan.” The original name, Rinn Dúin, while not bad might work in a more mature beer landscape or even a beer landscape from the early 90s. Much as I enjoy a Guinness and a good Irish Red Ale like Great Lakes’ Conway’s Irish Ale, Irish/English styles aren’t the most popular/sought after styles. I realize Rinn Dúin had a more diverse output than that. Again, my observations are from quite a distance and relatively superficial.
What I can say about the name change / re-branding / relaunch is from a similar remove, but the observations are positive. Toms River Brewing is already canning their beer with canning giant Iron Heart Canning. They’ve been relatively active on social media and it looks like there’s potential for this brewery. With Icarus Brewing in somewhat nearby Lakewood (14 miles away), visiting one of these breweries might compel people to visit both breweries.
Common Sense Brewery Closes, Purchased by Tindall Road Brewery
This is the most recent brewery closure and marks the third over the last four months. I do have some more knowledge of Commons Sense Brewing than Rinn Dúin, at least. I visited Common Sense in November 2018 as part of my birthday brewery tour. In fact, Common Sense was the last of six breweries our group visited that day. The brewery looks great from the outside, is extremely well-placed in downtown Bordentown, NJ (a very underrated downtown), and has a very nice and inviting taproom.
But then you get the beer.
I had a flight and what I had was subpar, at best. A very thin Porter that tasted on the edge of being skunked, a decent Pumpkin Ale (helped by the spice rimmed glass) and what, in hindsight, seems strange – two brown ales. Brown ales are fine, in general, but not a style that you’ll typically see more than once on a daily taplist from a brewery. One of the brown ales I had was OK, but the other was outright undrinkable. Easily the worst beers I had that day out of the six breweries, but to be fair, three of the other breweries are relatively established award-winning breweries (Spellbound, Neshaminy Creek, and Village Idiot) and one a well-respected “elder statesman” of NJ brewery (Forgotten Boardwalk) so the comparison may be a little unfair. On the other hand, bad beer is just bad beer no matter how you cut it.
Common Sense was open for less than two years. If some of the comments on social media from locals and people who claim to have relatively intimate knowledge of the brewery are to be believed, than it seems like there was almost a Bar Rescue situation going on with at the brewery. People giving beer away, monetary issues, and a lack of knowledge about making good beer and running a business.
I only learned about Tindall Road Brewery a day after I learned of Common Sense’s closure, so hopefully there’s a positive outcome for whatever this brewery ends up being called. Third State Brewing who celebrated their fourth anniversary this month (June 2019), less than 10 miles away in nearby Burlington, helps to make this area a soft destination for beer fans. Tindall Road has been posting some of the progress of their takeover on their facebook page.
Side note – interesting naming for the two closed breweries – Demented and Common Sense. Almost a harbinger of things to come.
All is Not Dire, Quite the Opposite!
Despite these three brewery closures, I would argue that the bubble is not bursting at all as some might argue. I would even suggest that the “bubble” metaphor isn’t appropriate at this point and rather landscape is appropriate. A landscape implies a longer life span while a bubble implies something not very long-lasting. Quite simply, the New Jersey Craft Beer landscape is maturing. While there have been small independent breweries and brewpubs in the state for twenty or more years like High Point/Ramstein, Cricket Hill, Harvest Moon Brewery (where I had my wedding rehearsal dinner) and so forth – the landscape was really reborn, or reseeded to continue with a landscaping metaphor, with the aforementioned 2012 law change.
What happens when things mature? Things fall off, things change, things evolve – people lose their baby teeth, caterpillars weave a cocoon around themselves and emerge as a butterfly. The independent/craft beer scene is doing just that, I’d posit. Breweries not strong enough to survive and going by the wayside could even be seen as a healthy feature of something that is maturing and evolving. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if, before the year ends, another brewery or two goes through a closure/buyout/takeover like the three I highlighted in this post did..
You could also call this a “Brewing Darwinism” of sorts – the strong breweries are surviving, breweries like Kane Brewing, Carton Brewing, Icarus Brewing, Cape May Brewery, River Horse, and Flying Fish of the NJ beer scene. Hell, Cape May split into two companies, a brewery and a distributor. What further shows the strength of the NJ Beer Landscape is how some of the breweries that have opened are from people with experience at breweries like Kane, JJ Bittings (one of the oldest brewpubs in NJ), and Flying Fish. Additionally, breweries like Lone Eagle (Flemington), Bonesaw Brewing (Glassboro), and Mudhen Brewing (Wildwood) are attracting brewers with experience at leading, respected breweries like Dogfish Head, Founders Brewing, Victory Brewing, Funky Buddha, and New England Brewing Company to brew beer in New Jersey, brewers who have received awards. With just over 100 breweries in New Jersey, that is still a relatively small number of breweries compared to the population of the State.
Just two weeks after Demented closed in Middlesex, Jersey Cyclone opened about a mile or two away in Franklin Township/Somerset, NJ. Having visited Jersey Cyclone three times since they opened on May 4, 2019, I can say that I’m pretty impressed with their output, but more about one of their beers later in the week.
It isn’t just Jersey Cyclone having recently opened. Breweries continue to open in New Jersey on an almost weekly basis. Equally as important to a maturing landscape is that existing/established breweries are expanding – Flounder Brewing in Hillsborough is moving to a barn (or group of barns) not far from the current location that will provide them far more space. Angry Erik in northwestern New Jersey just moved into a facility they built after about five years in an office park. Lone Eagle in Flemington is expanding, by constructing and another building for manufacturing on their lot. There’s been word for at least a year that Conclave Brewing in Raritan/Flemington increasing capacity. Perhaps the most exciting thing for many NJ beer fans, longtime mainstay Bolero Snort is in the middle of building their facility in Carlstadt, NJ after years of gypsy brewing.
So yeah, the New Jersey Beer landscape is maturing, evolving, and still growing and healthy DESPITE the most recent legislative roadblock thrown in front of the breweries. But that problematic legislature is another topic.
At this point in the NJ Beer/Brewery landscape’s maturation; however, breweries more than ever need to produce better than average beer, not just passable beer. They need to brew beer that makes people come back for more. This is, of course, in addition to being smart about owning a business. Because the NJ Beer Consumers palates are maturing alongside the brewery and beer landscape.