The Dutch started the party back in 1663, when Peter Stuyvesant granted a patent to Nicholas Varlett for the first brewery in America—located at Castle Point, right here in Hoboken.
Fast-forward a few centuries—our city’s “spirited” nightlife scene certainly withstood the noble experiment of Prohibition, but the brewing scene is only just now beginning to recover. Draconian ordinances and the brewing industry’s three-tier distribution system really tightened the screws on the craft movement here in the Garden State. Thankfully, the pressure has eased.
“Everything changed for [New Jersey] in 2013, when breweries were allowed to pour pints, sell kegs, send people home with growlers and the like,” says Jason Notte, brewing industry analyst for MarketWatch. “That was a huge step in the right direction for New Jersey beer and probably feels like a sea change for Jersey beer drinkers.”
Dan DeKemper, owner of Cork City Pub (239 Bloomfield Street), would echo that sentiment. Arguably Hoboken’s premier craft beer venue, Cork City has a strong following of devoted patrons spanning a variety of demographics.
“The craft-beer-drinkers cult transcends the age gap,” says DeKemper. “The Milennials thru the Boomers want something with taste in their beer. As one customer said, ‘I want something good for my calories.’”
Hoboken resident Brian Kulbacki took the craft beer craze even further with of Departed Soles Brewing Company. Located in neighboring Jersey City, Kulbacki says, “We’re the first brewery in town since Prohibition, and by not being a contract brewery, we are allowed to have a Tasting Room, which is open to the public every week to come and try our beer and learn about our processes.”
As MarketWatch’s Notte points out, “It’s still not an ideal situation for a brewer right now. Brewers still have to choose between being a brewpub and serving food (and only being able to brew 10,000 barrels, which is still better than the 3,000 they could brew before 2013) or being a brewery and having no limit on how much you can brew, but having nothing more to offer visitors than a taproom and the occasional food trucks.” But he notes, “Jersey’s weird infatuation with denying beer drinkers food ties right into its liquor licensing issues. When you clamp down on the number of beer and wine and full bar licenses as New Jersey does, it breeds problems.”
HOBOKEN ON TAP
While the stigma of bars and taverns shows no sign of letting up here in Hoboken, the idea of having a brewery in town has now evolved into sort of status symbol.
“Breweries and brewpubs have long served as tentpole businesses and development tools across the country,” says Notte.
And while craft beer had a flash in the pan back in the 1990’s, this current phase seems like more of a trend than a fad—with more of a focus on drinking locally brewed, hometown beers. Wisely, a number of brands have opted to pick up the banner of Hoboken brewing.
“From the days of the dockworkers and River Street being lined with pubs to today, with all the new bars opening to cater towards new tastes, we believe craft beer is the perfect compliment to the town,” says Joe Mindak, of fledgling Castle Point Brewery. “It’s also a very entrepreneurial town, so it’s great to see a few breweries popping up.”
From a marketing standpoint, the most active would likely be 902 Brewing, who have managed to wriggle their way onto taplines not just here in Hoboken but throughout the region. Founded by a group of roommates living at 902 Washington Street, their kitchen brew has evolved into a winning formula.
“One night we were sitting around at the apartment,” says 902’s Andrew Brown, “when [partners] Tucker [Littleton] and Colby [Janisch] asked me if I wanted to join them and transition from home brewers to a licensed brewery. It’s been a crazy journey ever since.”
902 Brewing not only pushed through the door, but they’ve held it open for fellow brewers looking to bring their craft to market.
Says Castle Point’s Mindak, “We are working with 902 Brewing to finalize our recipes and handle all the brewing for us. These guys are experienced brewers and have been doing well with their beers so we are confident in them producing a great product for us.”
It’s the mentality that a rising tide lifts all ships, which makes sense in a Waterfront town like Hoboken.
“Renowned beer writer Michael Jackson used to say that a town had the ability to support four or five good breweries,” says 902’s Brown. “We love the fact that the craft is taking off here in Hoboken, and we’re happy to support it any way we can.”
Brendan Drury, of Hoboken Brewing Co., is excited by the growth as well. “Even though it’s one square mile, we feel like the town gets bigger every year. Population continues to rise and Hoboken continues to refine itself,” says Drury. “The average resident is becoming more sophisticated with their decisions—this includes craft beer.”
Says Mindak, “We are hoping Hoboken becomes the next hot spot for craft brewing. After Brooklyn’s success and other areas following suit such as Bronx Brewery, Yonkers Brewing, etc. we think Hoboken has a little more cache and the right demographic for others to join in on the trend. All the breweries are making some great beer and honing their craft so once the industry catches on we believe the town will really make a name for itself in the craft beer industry.”
Right now, most of the craft beers are brewed by “contract brewers”—the beer industry equivalent of a recording studio, where the equipment is all housed in one location, allowing others to come in and exercise their talents and craftsmanship.
“The biggest obstacle is finding an actual place to brew the beer right in Hoboken,” says Mindak. “The rents are high and you need a big space for all the equipment so it’s quite cost prohibitive. We are still hoping to find the right spot to open Castle Point Brewery.”
Though it’s difficult, it’s not impossible. “Departed Soles proudly brews all of its beer right here at 150 Bay Street in Jersey City, just three blocks from the Grove St. PATH Station,” says Kulbacki, “making us one of only two functioning brewhouses in all of Hudson County.”
Hoboken Brewing Co. is hoping to set up its own shop in the very near future. “We’ve recently secured a 5,000 sq/ft facility in Hudson County with a courtyard that we can turn into a biergarten,” says Drury. “We plan on building a barrel room for barrel aged ales and sours. Separately, we are having our beers kegged and canned through a larger brewery to help us get off the ground.”
All these logistical concerns are moot, unless the product itself is a winner.
“Our clientele are beer sophisticates,” says Cork City’s DeKemper. “They are a challenge to keep up with. ‘What are you drinking?’ Is a common conversation starter in the bar—in fact, we should put that on a t-shirt.”
“Having a Tasting Room, it is my obligation to Craft Beer fans and our neighborhood to make something for everyone,” says Departed Soles’ Kulbacki. “I think that the diversity of our offerings is what stands out the most. We make crazier beers—like our 8% Belgian Ale or our Coffee Beer collaboration with ModCup—and very traditional beers, like our Red or Pale Ales, which won’t impress Craft drinkers as much as it will satisfy the palates of their friends that aren’t as much a connoisseur of the Craft. We are also the only brewery in the Tri-State Area to make a few options with 100% Gluten Free Ingredients, and all of our beers are Vegan.”
902 Brewing is also a proponent of beer diversity. “Folks may not enjoy every style we brew and that’s fine—but they should at least try a couple since we’ll eventually have something for everyone,” says Brown. “We have three beers, which are our mainstays—‘Heaven, Hell or Hoboken IPA’, our ‘Black DYNOmite’ and our ‘Pale Ale True Hoboken.’ We’ll always have a rotating seasonal beer and we’re currently deciding which style to brew in large batches so we’d love to get some feedback from your readers as to what they’d like to drink!”
According to Hoboken Brewing Co.’s Drury, “It’s hard to go into a pub and consistently find a local NJ beer that you rely on. Our beers aren’t ordinary. We’ve come out with a Coconut Blonde Ale and soon, a Vermont Style Session IPA. All of our cans have been designed by amazing local artists.”
Says Castle Point’s Mindak, “Having the name Hoboken is definitely a plus. We believe Hoboken holds some clout as one of the better-known names in the country, as well as it being a big bar town. Having Castle Point Brewery as our brewery name brings some history into it, as it was the first brewery in America.”
“You see a lot of the newer establishments like Jack & Co. bringing in more and more self-distributed craft beer, which is great, and local mainstays like Cork City, Northern Soul, The Madison, City Bistro, and Maxwell’s holding steady if not increasing,” says Departed Soles’ Kulbacki. “If we can get more people to support local craft beer, more bars will put us on tap over mass distributed products, and then everyone wins!”