How Beer Tourism is Changing the Jersey Shore Experience
It’s hard to be an independent brewer at the Jersey Shore.
“I can open five taprooms in Pennsylvania without a liquor license. That would be unthinkable in New Jersey,” a craft brewer once said to me about the restrictive laws in the Garden State.
New Jersey is ranked 45th in craft breweries per capita and according to Forbes’ “Best States to do Business” ranking, New Jersey was, again, 45th overall in regulatory environment. That, along with restrictions on breweries, explains why the craft beer revolution was slow to arrive.
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Despite the confining climate, scores of craft breweries have emerged along the Garden State coastline and boosted tourism.
First on the Jersey Shore
Near the southern tip of the state, Cape May Brewing was the first to open at the Jersey Shore in July 2011, one month before Carton and Kane. Cape May Brewing’s bar can house up to 23 taps at once and also includes handcrafted sodas. “The big thing was the law change back in November of 2012, that allowed tasting rooms … Before that, you couldn’t buy a pint to consume on the premises. You could get free samples, but that was it,” says Brian Hink, the head brewer at Cape May.
The brewery, slated to produce more than 17,000 barrels this year, is on the Cape May County Airport campus. Since it opened, over a handful of other tenants have popped up in the industrial complex, all with Cape May Brewing as the anchor, making the airport a growing destination and fertile ground for craft brewing in the county.
“Within the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of new breweries come up online in Cape May County alone. In general, we believe that all ships rise with the tide, so it’s a really good thing for local tourism,” says Alicia Grasso, Marketing Communications Manager at Cape May Brewing, which now employs 80 people year round.
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Tourist Season Expanding
Diane Weiland, director of tourism for the county, says that agritourism has helped extend the tourist season. “Beverage tourism is the newest thing we’ve had to market since Victoriana (Cape May Victorian architecture) … We’re not looking at the breweries as impacting food and beverage parts of our tourism, but we see as impacting our inventory of overall attraction.”
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East of Cape May Brewing, is a new brew pub on the main entry road to the “Doo Wop Capital of the World,” Wildwood, New Jersey. MudHen Brewing, which opened in April, is named for an old West Jersey train that sometimes had to traverse a low bridge at high tide. It is an impressive newly renovated two-story former Harley Davidson property. It has four different dining areas — one of them outside — with a small cornhole and leisure area.
Brisk Summer Business
MudHen is one of the state’s few coastal brew pubs, joining the long established Tun Tavern in Atlantic City. Business was so brisk this summer, MudHen has had to alter how it serves beer flights. To survive the lunch and dinner rushes in the summer, MudHen limited flights to just three on a seasonal basis. So far it has introduced hoppy, flagship and summer-themed flights, with the “brewer’s choice” flight planning to last year round.
“When we first opened, it was a local crowd; we went through pilsners, the light beers. Then came Memorial Day weekend and the hoppy beers sold; it was crazy how crowded it’s become,” says Mudhen brewmaster, Tony Cunha. He tries to always have nine to 12 beers on tap while predicting tastes during the pub’s inaugural summer.
MudHen had the red carpet rolled out for its grand opening. It included The Wild Half Marathon being renamed the “Mudhen Half Marathon.” The main thoroughfare into the city was blocked off, and the start of race included MudHen’s ribbon cutting.
Big on Beach Atmosphere
Going north into Ocean County, on Long Beach Island, is Ship Bottom Brewing, which opened in August 2016. Owner Robert Zarko secured prime real estate in Beach Haven. He was solicited by the owner of Bay Village, a downtown-like area of shops across from the island’s largest amusement park, Fantasy Island.
Ship Bottom is a seven ½ barrel brewhouse, with 15 barrel fermenters. It has 10 beers on tap at all times. And it’s growing in the distribution department, canning 18 brands altogether for short runs.
The beach atmosphere is everywhere in the tasting room. Sunsets can be seen on the bay from the windows. And Ship Bottom even has its own surrey, which can fit up to six people. It can go about a mile and a half in each direction and is an emission-free option for vacationers.
The brewery has now become a focal point for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. The chamber initiated a “Surf and Sip Trail” this year, the state’s first beer-themed trail.
Lori Pepenella, CEO of Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, says that the chamber now encourages visitors to check in at each business on the trail, which includes three breweries and five beach-themed businesses.
Legislature May Promote Trails
The trail is a microcosm of where the state might be headed. At the time of this writing, twin bills were making their way through the New Jersey legislature to finance the promotion of designed beer trails and other nearby businesses. The promotion includes branding and adding distinctive signage.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Assistant Majority Leader Sen. James Beach, could not yet indicate where the trails might exist, but a dense concentration of breweries in Monmouth County looks like a strong candidate. Two of the county’s breweries are in Asbury Park, an oft-mentioned city for its music scene and revitalization. Nearby is stalwart Kane Brewing, as well as the imposing Beach Haus Brewing in Belmar, the southernmost brewery in the county.
The founder of Beach Haus, John “Merk” Merklin, grew up in the nearby township of Brick. And he started brewing with a team in Rochester, New York. He found his way back home after Freedman’s Bakery announced it was closing after 64 years. The retiring baker liked the craft-beer concept. So Merk and his partners purchased and refurbished the building, while retaining some of its old charms, like the grain elevator. Beach Haus always has seven to eight distinct styles on tap at the brewery, including its test department beers, which are experimental brews that have short can releases.
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Beach Haus is something very unique at the Jersey Shore. It’s both a distribution and main street brewery. The 22,000 square foot brewery contains two floors of tasting rooms. There’s also a second-floor deck where visitors can gaze out over downtown Belmar. It is open every day starting at noon even in the off-season. The hours sets it apart from fellow northern shore breweries, which tend to have very limited tasting room hours.
Tide Rising for Jersey Shore Breweries
Merk has even noticed beer tourism blurring old dividing lines at the Jersey Shore. Beach Haus distributes in New Jersey, as well as Bucks and Berks counties in Pennsylvania. That eastern Keystone State foothold has brought many greater Philadelphia-based tourists to Belmar, which has historically been a beach destination for North Jerseyans, plus Central Jersey daytrippers.
Judging by stories and amounts of beer flights he sells, Merk notes, “the Philly fans are figuring out they can come and drink with the Giant fans. In fact we’re seeing different sets from people from that area on a weekly basis and many are telling me it’s an easier trip, usually a straight shot on (Interstate) 195.”
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The Garden State has grown from about two dozen breweries at the beginning of the decade to more than 100 now. Because of the regulatory climate, the state still lags behind neighboring states on a per capita basis as well as amenities offered. However, the state’s tourism industry is driven by the Jersey Shore. And the coastal breweries there are extending seasons, branding races, carving out trails and diversifying travelers.
“It’s not only if there are beaches, boardwalk and amusements. A deciding factor now for people is finding places where they can go to a brewery or two,” Merk says.