Draught Diversions: Ashton Brewing (Middlesex,NJ)

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…

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“Let’s launch our brewery when our State shuts down thanks to a pandemic,” said nobody ever. Well, that’s the situation Steve and Donna Ashton found themselves in March 2020 when they wanted to open Ashton Brewing Company. Considering the planning for the brewery was going back as early as summer 2019, Steve and Donna could not foresee what they’d be up against in March 2020. But persist, they did.

Steve and Donna have been making beer for over 25 years, Steve is a BJCP Master Judge and a member of the highly respected MASH (Morris Area Society of Homebrewers), and Steve has won awards for his homebrewing skills. In other words, when it comes to making beer, they really know what they are doing. When Steve retired from his finance career, it made sense for him to look to beer, which helped bring him and Donna together nearly 30 years ago.

Steve and Donna initially set their sights on an old roller rink in Roxbury, NJ, but that didn’t pan out. However, one door closing isn’t the end especially when another door opens. The location they settled on turned out to be a great spot, since it once housed a brewery, Demented Brewing Company in Middlesex, NJ. The demise of Demented is fairly well document in NJ beer circles, including my post from April 2019. The location is already a known brewery destination and was set up as a brewery, which made the build out a little bit easier. That doesn’t necessarily mean there was no work to be done, because the new tenants understandably wanted to ensure the location is completely branded with Ashton Brewing and remnants of the former tenants no longer present. Personally speaking, that location is about a mile from where I work and not too far from home, so I was very happy to learn of a new brewery taking over the location.

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Speaking of that branding, Donna Ashton was and is a freelance graphic designer. Those skills come in quite handy when it comes to giving a business a visual identity, and she’s done a really nice job with the branding. The company’s logo incorporates an Ash tree and many of the beers have an Ash tree in the background or worked into the label in some fashion. For example, their Barleywine, Fraxinus takes its name from the genus name of the Ash family of trees. Throughout the post, I’ve included some of the cans Ashton has produced over the last year, which shows the potent brand identity Donna helped to establish for Ashton Brewing Company.

Shortly after Ashton officially opened for business, I was hoping to try their beer. That first weekend in April 2020, my wife and I were doing some errands (i.e. food shopping) and she got me in the car and surprised me when we arrived Ashton to pick up a couple of crowlers, their English Mild (Billy Two Hats) and their stout (Velvet Elvis). I was pretty impressed with the beers and had a good feeling that Ashton Brewing was off to as good a start as possible, given the state of the world. Steve and Donna had to pivot to a model that did not rely on taproom and on-site consumption sales even before they opened, and the crowlers proved to be a pretty good start for them.

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Another way Ashton Brewing was able to pivot successfully was in their canned beers. The majority of canned beer for the past couple of years has been in the pint/16oz cans popularized by the growth of Hazy/New England IPAs. When Steve and Donna brought in a canning line, they went with 12oz cans. That alone sort of sets them apart from the crowd of NJ canned beer. I’d guess Carton, Bolero Snort, and Spellbound are part of the minority of the post 2012 breweries regularly canning their beer at the 12oz size. What they couldn’t have foreseen was that a can shortage was going to hit. A combination of tariffs and resources was making it difficult for breweries to keep crowlers and 16oz cans in stock, but in speaking with Steve when I visited the brewery for their First Anniversary recently (more on that later), he said because Ashton decided to go with 12oz cans as their can of choice, they were not as affected by that shortage.

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Images courtesy of Ashton Brewing’s Facebook

Because of the pandemic and social distancing requirements, getting a peek proved a challenge. During the annual birthday brewery tour my wife takes me on, we were able to partake in outdoor seating. Although it was the first weekend in November, it was unseasonably warm and made for a lovely outdoor, socially distanced experience. However, my most recent trip to Ashton was during their 1 year anniversary and with social distancing somewhat relaxed, a limited number of occupants were permitted indoors for consumption. And what struck me most, compared to how the previous tenants had the interior laid out, is that Steve and Donna opted for a much brighter look. More well-lit, not as much dark imagery (not that I’m against dark imagery, I’m a horror junkie after all), but the overall feel and tone of the taproom is very, very welcoming. Of course during my visit for that First Anniversary, we felt very welcomed because we were sitting on one of the most comfortable leather couches upon which I’ve ever sat…which was wiped down with disinfectant before we took our seats.

Another element that sets Ashton Brewing apart from many of their peers is the breadth of styles which they brew and make available. Of course IPAs and Pale Ales are part of their portfolio, but the second beer the canned was the fantastic Pilsner, Jersey Dreamin (a top new beer to me in 2020). Two of the first styles Ashton brewed were an English Mild (Billy Two Hats) and an Altbier (Red Baron), both very traditional styles, but styles you don’t see very often. I’ve had both and enjoyed both. Other early brews included a Dutch, a Patersbier (the Belgian Trappist style with lowest ABV); ’Aina, a Farmouse/Saison; and Aura a Witbier, among other beers/styles. Ashton set out to brew beers of a drinkable ABV (around the 6% mark) and with a draught capacity of 18 beers, they certainly have a wide variety of styles available most of the time, maybe one of the more diverse tap lists in the State.

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March 2021 Taplist, courtesy of Ashton Brewing’s Facebook page

What I especially appreciate is how well-crafted Ashton Brewing’s lagers are. I mentioned Jersey Dreamin’ and I will again because it is that damned good. Recently, I had their Czech Dark Lager (Beach Badges), which was a wonderful beer. Their Schwarzbier, Black Orpheus is a delicious collaboration with Sunken Silo Brew Works in nearby Lebanon, NJ; during my November visit, I thoroughly enjoyed their Festbier (Festus Haggen) and their Maibock/Helles Bock, Cellar Hellar.

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L to R: Cellar Hellar (Maibock/Helles Bock); Stella Blue (Saison); Mashed Up (Porter); Festus Haggen (Festbier)

Back to their Anniversary celebration on March 27. Ashton was pouring quite a few barrel-aged beers, in addition to their standard taplist. In briefly speaking with owner Steve, he said he was able to procure used barrels from Jersey Spirits in Fairfield, NJ (which is in the same complex as Magnify Brewing Company). I started my day out with the aforementioned Schwarzbier before diving into the bigger beers. My second beer was the Rye Barrel Aged Barleywine, Fraxinus. Fraxinus is an English style Barleywine, which leans more on malt than hops, compared to the American version. With the Rye Barrel aging, the beer is extremely balanced. There was a nice spice from the rye, but the toffee-caramel-malt elements from the base Barleywine were still present. The third beer that day, and perhaps one of the most interesting barrel-aged beers I ever had was the Grappa-barrel aged Farmhouse ale Aina. I remarked to Steve that I’d never think to age anything in Grappa, but he said when he was getting the barrels from Jersey Spirits, a small Grappa barrel was available, so he figured he’d give it a shot. I had Grappa once many years ago, and found it to be very unpleasant and what I expected kerosene to taste like. However, the elements of the Grappa played nicely with the Farmhouse Ale, for a somewhat crisp, but pleasant and effervescent beer. The last barrel-aged beer was perhaps the most straight-forward in its premise, a Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, Midnight Moonlight. Although this was probably the barrel aged beer I liked the least of the three, it was still a good beer with huge chocolate notes.

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Clockwise from top left: Black Orpheus Schwarzbier; Fraxinus Barleywine (Rye Barrel); Aina Farmhouse (Grappa Barrel); Midnight Moonlight (Bourbon Barrel)

Between the straight-forward styles (IPA, Pilsner), somewhat less prevalent styles (Altbier, Schwarzbier, Czech Dark Lager), and barrel-aged beers, Ashton Brewing has demonstrated a very high level of expertise in craft brewing. They started strongly with a delicious IPA and what is turning out to be one of my favorite Pilsners. Over the past year, the beers they’ve been churning out have each been extremely flavorful and very well-crafted. The majority of the beers are the recipes Steve has been refining over the past couple of decades as a homebrewer, that refinement and elegance is really easy to taste.

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Images courtesy of Ashton Brewing’s Facebook

Ashton Brewing has already established themselves as a significant presence in the NJ Craft Beer community. Steve has been a member of MASH (Morris Area Society of Homebrewers) and because of that, Ashton collaborated on a beer with brewers who have connections to MASH. All Mashed Up is a collaboration between Ashton, Seven Tribesmen (Wayne, NJ), and Untied Brewing in New Providence. Each brewery tweaked the base recipe slightly, Ashton added marshmallows and Cacao Nibs to their version. Ashton was a fairly early contributor to the Brewery Strong Philanthropy as well.

Given their ability to successfully pivot during the most challenging of times, and the quality of the liquid they produce, I expect that Ashton Brewing will be a staple of the NJ Craft Brewery scene for a very long time. I know I’ll be keeping their beer in my regular rotation

Some other links of interest and sources of information for this post:

Ashton Brewing Company’s Web site | Instagram | Facebook | Ashton Brewing on NewJerseyCraftBeer.com | Ashton Brewing entry @ Beer Advocate | untappd

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