Draught Diversions: Interview with Mike Kivowitz of NJ Craft Beer

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…

Welcome to Jersey Beer Week at the Tap Takeover! A week long celebration of all things Beer in New Jersey. This is the second (or third?) year New Jersey Craft Beer is spear-heading the initiative, a week of events at NJ Breweries, bars featuring NJ Beer nights, and a week to #DrinkLocal and enjoy New Jersey beer rather beer from out of state.

To help kick off the week here at the Tap Takeover I figured I’d interview Mike Kivowitz, the main man in the New Jersey beer community who created New Jersey Craft Beer almost 10 years ago. I’ve met and chatted with Mike at a few events and breweries over the years and you won’t meet a nicer guy who has great taste in beer. Talking to him,  you get a sense of just how much he enjoys the community…and how much he enjoys seeing others take part in the New Jersey Beer Community.

Mike is one of the major reasons why the New Jersey beer community is the great place it has become over the last decade. New Jersey Craft Beer is a great resource for all things NJ Beer, whether it is information about Breweries in the state, stores that feature NJ beer, or a calendar of beer events in NJ.

The best part, for me and many members, is the Loyalty Program in the form of the NJCB Discount Card. For just $25 per year, you get an New Jersey Craft Beer card (all of mine are pictured below) which gets you discounts at liquor stores (the majority of the stores in my area offer 10% off all craft beer purchases), a range of discounts at breweries (money off flights or merchandise, for example), discounts at restaurants (anywhere between $1 off each beer you purchase to 10% off the entire bill!), and discounts at various beer events (Beer Festivals, Beer/Brewery Sponsored 5K races, etc). In short, it is the absolute best $25 I spend every year and often pays for itself by March. If you are visiting a brewery in New Jersey, there’s a decent chance you’ll run into Mike or one of his many co-conspirators.

Without further adieu, here’s a 12 pack worth of questions for our interview.

1. I’m sure most of the visitors to this blog have a passing knowledge of NJCB, but what is your TV Guide description of NJCB?

The source for beer in NJ with a loyalty program designed to explore beer all over the state.

2. What is this whole New Jersey Craft Beer Week all about, then?

Drinking in Jersey. Drinking Jersey beer.

3. New Jersey Craft Beer was founded in 2010, almost a decade later and the beer landscape has evolved. What is the biggest change to Craft Beer in NJ since you started NJCB?

The growth of local offerings. I launched NJCB with like 14 breweries on the list, now it’s 115+. Local breweries lead to bars and stores carrying more local.

Editor’s Note: The About page on New Jersey Craft Beer shows the large growth of the organization since its inception in 2010.

4. What is the most challenging and frustrating element of running NJCB?

Getting people to go to events. Everyone has events all the time. Getting support for some of them is hard. Especially when I spend like 70 hours of work on a 3 hour event and 10 people come. It’s souring but I learn and try harder next time.

5. What is the most rewarding element of being the go to guy for all things beer in New Jersey?

Meeting people and seeing how NJCB has changed their lives.

6. It might show some bias if I asked you your favorite NJ beer and brewery so I’ll ask you what your favorite style is and favorite non-NJ brewery.

West Coast IPAs will always be my favorite style. Firestone Walker is a good example of a non-NJ brewery I love.

7. What would you say is the one thing you would like people in NJ to get out of New Jersey Craft Beer?

Have fun. It’s beer. Just get moving and see what’s going on outside the keyboard you are reading this on. Ohhh, be nice too.

8. What 2 or 3 breweries in NJ deserve more attention? Everybody knows Kane, Carton, Magnify, etc. But with over 100 breweries, some are likely to fall through the cracks or not be as widely known.

Kelly Green Brewing, Vinyl Brewing, Bonesaw Brewing, Czig Meister Brewing, Hackensack Brewing and I can go on.

Editor’s Note: I wholeheartedly agree with Mike’s suggestions of Czig Meister Brewing and Hackensack Brewing Company.

9. What beer do you want to have again for the first time?

Spellbound’s Vices Porter on nitro I want everyday.

10. Do you have any correspondences or work in conjunction with similar organizations in neighboring states? Like Breweries in PA or NY Craft Beer?

I mean, yes and no. Most of the people I know that run other sites, I knew back in in and before I launched NJCB. Like Brew York New York for example. Some of the new guys like Breweries in PA started because of NJCB and reached out for input. I’ll talk to anyone, just don’t try to rip me off and steal my baby like that Instagram guy that’s now out of business. I don’t want to mention their name though.

11. Despite some of the obstacles, the number of breweries in New Jersey has grown consistently since 2012. Aside from the quality of the beer itself, what do you think are the key factors that will help a brewery succeed in New Jersey?

Quality is #1. Everything else is sort of hard to explain. See, some breweries just want to remain downtown/main street and not promote their beer on shelves but then they don’t want to do events, then when they do events, it’s like ohhh, I can only get this at one or two places around the brewery and not anywhere else. Then there’s the opposite where places only package the standard stuff and no one can get it anywhere else but the brewery but they sell kegs at every bar. Those people don’t want to leave their house. Sooo distro, labels/artwork, sales people, educated retailers. I can probably lump more into #2.

12. This question will likely generate a lengthy response, but here goes. With the evolving laws around beer in NJ, specifically the limits being placed on small, independent breweries, what can individuals do to prevent the rules from halting the great progressive growth of breweries and goodwill in the NJ Beer Community?

Editor’s Note: Visit SaveNJBeer.com for more information on the laws that could significantly impact many of the independent breweries in NJ.

Speak up. Write to your local officials and explain how you spend money and where and why. Also, get informed on the actual laws and wording. There’s 1 thing we need to do and that’s work together.

Draught Diversions: August 2019 Six Pack

Draught Diversions is the catchall label for mini-rants, think-pieces, and non-review posts here at The Tap Takeover. We hope you don’t grow too weary of the alcohol alliterative names we use…

August is like the Sunday of summers. You know the cooler weather is coming, but there are still some warm days and good time to lounge by the pool with some good beers. A variety of styles, but back to a split of 3 NJ beers and 3 non-NJ beers this month.

The Tiller – Blackberry Saison (Czig Meister Brewing Company) | Farmhouse Ale – Saison | 4.25 bottle Caps on untappd

Czig Meister continues to rise in my personal ranks of New Jersey Breweries. Great straightforward styles, and really interesting out of the box takes on traditional styles. Saison is one of the most traditional of styles, but as the color of the beer above suggests, purple is not exactly a traditional beer color. The flavor; however, is traditional in that it hits the palate with bold flavors. The sweetness from the blackberry works extremely well with the earthy base of the saison. Great for summer, great for an anytime refreshment.

Hoponius Union (Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers) | Lager – IPL (India Pale Lager) | 4.50 bottle Caps on untappd

India Pale Lagers are far from a standard, available-everywhere style and I’ve only had a couple before trying this delicious, hoppy beer. It is the top checked in beer of Jack’s Abby, a brewery that has not disappointed in their entry to New Jersey. The hops are *perfect* in this beer, you get a burst of flavor from the hops, without overtaking everything else about the beer or knocking you over the head with hops. There’s a reason this beer is the top rated (as of this writing) Lager on Beer Advocate – it is simply outstanding.

Irish Queen (Bonesaw Brewing Co) | Cream Ale | 4 Bottle Caps on untappd

Bonesaw is one of the NJ breweries I’ve been hearing and seeing great things about since they opened. Unfortunately, they are on the far end of the state from me, so I was happy to see one of their beers available when my wife and I went to a Trenton Thunder (AA Affiliate of the New York Yankees) for Pork Roll Fridays. On those days, they team becomes the Trenton Pork Rolls. Anyway, the beer – a Cream Ale infused with Coffee – was a perfect way to start the night, clean, extremely flavorful, and light. The best parts of an iced coffee and beer in one. Think Carton’s Regular Coffee but about a third of the ABV.

Kalon (Trustworthy Brewing Co) | Schwarzbier | 3.75 bottle Caps on untappd

Las Vegas…not exactly a great beer city, but the hotel I was staying at for a work conference just opened an onsite brewbpub – Trustworthy Brewing. I knew I had to visit for at least a beer and when I saw this Schwarzbier, I latched onto it. A Schwarzbier is one of the more obscure, yet traditional German lagers. Smoky and roasty the same way a porter is, but it has a nice lager-y finish. The roast is just shy of being burnt so Trustworthy crafted this beer really well. This is basically a porter by way of a lager and really nice.

Saewart’s Oatmeal Stout (Highrail Brewing Company) | Stout – Oatmeal | 4 bottle Caps on untappd

I’m always happy to see a new brewery open in New Jersey, it seems to happen on a monthly basis. Highrail is less than a half hour from me, which is really nice so a few weeks after their opening I stopped in and had two beers, both of which were quite good, but this edged out the other just a little bit. Like the Schwarzbier on this post, this oatmeal stout is perfectly balanced with all the flavors dialed in for harmony. A little creaminess from the oatmeal, good malted roast that evoke some coffee. Head Brewer Brian said this beer was a surprisingly great seller considering the summer release but considering the quality of the beer, I’m *not* surprised at how well it is doing for Highrail.

Underground Mountain Brown (Founders Brewing Co.) | Brown Ale – Imperial / Double | 4.25 bottle Caps on untappd

It has been a while since I featured a beer from Founders in a six pack and this is a really good beer. I like the base beer even before it sits in barrels – Sumatra Brown – quite a bit, so letting it sit in bourbon barrels for a year adds even more complexity to the beer. There’s a ton of coffee in this beer and aside from the flavor profile of a brown being present, the coffee is the star of the beer for me. I’m glad the bourbon was rather subtle because I think my palate has changed to the point that most barrel aged beers just aren’t doing it for me. This beer; however, is delicious and one of the better Barrel Aged Series offerings from Founders over the last couple of years.

Not necessarily new to me, but for the first time in nearly four years I had a pint of Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweis, probably my favorite American Hefeweizen. It was on draught at Gordon Ramsay’s Burger in Las Vegas. For reasons beyond my understanding, I haven’t seen this beer anywhere near me in New Jersey in about four years.

I was able to visit three new-to-me breweries in August:

  • Trustworthy Brewing Company in the Venetian in Las Vegas
  • Highrail Brewing in High Bridge, NJ (Opened late July 2019)
  • Icarus Brewing in Lakewood, NJ – I’ve had a few of their beers, but finally visited the brewery. A great brewery for sure. Also was lucky enough to run into Mike K. of NJ Craft Beer during my visit.

Draught Diversions: NJ Brewery & Beer Check In

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.