Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jersey Rising?--a guest column by Chris DePeppe

Chris DePeppe runs

New Jersey’s craft beer revolution is underway and a quick glance at some statistics suggest that this could be just the first ripple of a wave of new breweries and brewpubs in the Garden State. 


Vermont had a total of 24 breweries in 2011 and was the top-ranked state in terms of breweries per capita, with just over 26,000 residents per brewery. But half of them are bearded homebrewers so those numbers could be skewed. 

Incidentally, Mississippi was at the bottom of that list with only 2 breweries and nearly 1.5 million people per brewery. (They must have to get in line on Tuesday in Oxford to get a decent beer in Tupelo on Friday night.) 

As for New Jersey, well it sits at #42 on that list, just ahead of Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana, states that pull up the rear on quite a few national rankings that I won’t bother to detail here…but that are worth consideration. 

Texas, interestingly, is #45 on that list. But unlike those other red states, Texas was recently named the third-fastest growing state for craft breweries in 2012 by the Brewers Association, with 25 new breweries opening since 2011 for a total of 59 craft breweries now making better beer in the Lone Star State. That puts their per capita number at 425,000 people per brewery, so one might well expect continued craft beer growth in Texas. How that will jibe with their thriving gun ownership and capital punishment remains to be seen. 

It is interesting to note by the way that some of the other states ranked in the top 5 in terms of the number of brewery openings are far from newcomers to the craft beer game. California, Colorado and Oregon, states with established craft beer cultures that each support well over 120 breweries (California has 268), are still seeing more and more new breweries every year. So the growth of craft beer does not seem to stop once it takes root in a state, a trend that no doubt leaves the Big 3 mega-breweries more than a little nervous. 

So what does all this have to do with little old New Jersey? Well, at present, the Garden State currently has 26 breweries (as of 2011) with a few new ones slated to open soon. And that number is up from ?? in 2008, when NJ was the unofficial world capital of light lager. Trust me, I lived there. 

So let’s compare: Even if NJ had Connecticut’s per capita numbers (338,000 people per brewery), NJ would need 37 breweries - and Connecticut is way down at #33 on that list. 

Now, if you tried to match Pennsylvania’s numbers, NJ would need 64 breweries (150% more than the current total) just to keep pace with the increasing demand for craft beer being met just across a skinny river. 

But to be fair it should be noted that PA is unique for some historical reasons and legislative oddities. 

So let’s look elsewhere for comparisons. 

What if NJ aimed to meet Virginia’s totals? VA, being notoriously backward-assed in terms of their beverage laws, is certainly no easy place to open and operate a brewery. AND, in terms of population density and demographics (education and income for starters), the Old Dominion is a close cousin to the Garden State. 

Virginia has 42 breweries and 190,000 people per brewery. NJ would need 46 breweries to compare, so 20 more
breweries/brewpubs than now would put us in their class, which is below 30th and solidly in the bottom half of the national ranks. Maybe we can aim higher. 

How about Massachusetts? Mass is close in size to NJ (45th and 47th respectively) and just a few spots behind NJ in terms of population (NJ is 11th most populous state). Mass has 42 breweries and a capita/brewery figure of 156,000. For NJ to compare in terms of # of people to #s of breweries, to a state of comparable size and median income such as Mass, there would have to be 56 breweries in the Garden State, more than double the current total. 

Oh, and did I mention that NJ has the highest median income and the 6th highest % of college graduates of all 50 states? Considering that the typical craft beer consumer makes $50K or more (75% is the estimate) and has a college degree (about half), New Jersey would seem like a logical craft beer hotbed. 

And just for kicks let’s factor in the fact that NJ is ranked #15 nationally in terms of restaurants per capita. Were Jersey to reach that level with our craft breweries, we’d need 74 breweries currently brewing in the Garden State, putting us in the top 20 per capita. Now that’s respectable. 

So here is a state with the highest population density in the country, with the highest median income; a state that supports as many restaurants per capita as Colorado or Oregon and more than Pennsylvania; but still a state that is lagging far behind when it comes to its quantity of craft breweries (and is last on that list among the top 10 median income states). 

AND while I may be biased, I’d submit that NJ is also a uniquely diverse state with dozens of attractive and well-heeled boroughs, scores of historically significant townships, plenty of beach resort towns and famous destination spots…in short, a bunch of great locales for brewpubs and breweries. 

And yes, as you can probably guess, my bet is that NJ will be one of the fastest-growing craft beer states in the US over the next few years (if the bureaucrats don’t screw it up) and I have no doubt that there will be 50+ breweries licensed in NJ within the next decade…and maybe much sooner with a little encouragement. 

The questions I have are why did it take this long and what is holding us back? 

Perhaps it is the intensity of the mega brewery marketing in Shore bars and the flood of light lager propaganda that dominated the beer scene for 50 years. 

It may also be the result, partly, of a hard-to-quantify geographic link to our ancestral beer-as-commodity roots. My granddad delivered Knickerbocker, your uncle drove a Ballantine truck, etc. In PA that lineage of beer loyalty within families was powerful but it played a very different role since some of those iconic PA breweries like Yuengling and Rolling Rock (whose pony bottles you’d find in your uncle’s fridge in the basement in Altoona) were still operating in PA in the 1990s. So it was less likely that a typical beer consumer was already a Bud or Miller man. (Yuengling is still going strong and their Lager still acts as a key crossover beer that keeps mega-brewers from applying their marketing submission-hold on towns like Philly). 

And maybe our loveable ABC could be a bit more supportive? Just a thought. 

But now that craft beer has started to take hold in the Garden State, New Jersey would be the rarest example if the growth seen in places like PA and Texas were not replicated here. 

While we may never convert those swill-drinking masses who pack the beach bars for cheap Bud/Miller/Coors, it is worth noting that more and more of those bars are seeing the value of adding Flying Fish, Cricket Hill, Carton, Kane, East Coast and other Jersey beers to their beer list. 

Because there is one valuable marketing advantage that New Jersey breweries have going for them that perhaps no other state’s breweries can as confidently claim: Jersey people like Jersey stuff. Maybe it’s the result of being the butt of so many jokes from outsiders, but we tend to rally together to support all things Jersey. 

Let’s all raise a glass of Jersey beer and toast the continued health of craft brewing in this great state. 
See you at the bar. 

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