Monday, November 4, 2013

In The Brewhouse: New Jersey Beer Co.'s Brendan O'Neil

Nothing beats chatting with a brewer with his brewhouse looming as the backdrop.  Over the weekend, Kerry and I drove east to visit New Jersey Beer Company in North Bergen, NJ.  I spoke with Brendan O'Neil, the head brewer, while Kerry took photographs throughout the brewery.

Overview of the brewery at New Jersey Beer Company

Mould's Beer Blog:  Can you give me a little background on New Jersey Beer Co.?

Brendan:  Yea!  We're three years old, and had our third anniversary this past May.  We were started and founded by Matt Steinberg, and then wound up taking a round of investors in a few months after we got our equipment and really started making beer.  So now we're owned by a group of around 10 investors, depending on how you want to differentiate among married couples.  The biggest investor is a realtor developer from Jersey City named Paul Silverman, he's our chairperson.  He's pretty much driving this ship, momentarily.  I've been here from the start of the company, since this room was empty.  I helped install all this equipment, and have been here for every single batch of beer.  It's been cool, and also nerve-wracking.

Mould's Beer Blog: Yea I bet!

Brendan:  Yea, I started homebrewing as a kid, with my dad when I was young.  Before starting at New Jersey Beer Co., I did training throughout New England at breweries there, just like whoever would let me come in and work. I was just wrapping my head around different systems.  We got this stuff (NJBC equipment) in from China, and just went from there.  We had some other brewers come and go in the meantime.  I've been constant, Kevin's been pretty constant as our manager.  We just hired a new sales guy, and we hired Dave Manka who had worked at Cricket Hill for around 6 years as a brewer.

Mould's Beer Blog:  Sounds like you have a pretty extensive background in brewing.  Did you attend Siebel or any other brewing schools?

Brendan:  I didn't go to any schools, I just went from homebrewing a kit, to helping out at breweries, such as New England Brewing Company, and a couple in Vermont because I went to school up there.  And it really helped, every brewery is different, and every brewery has different protocols for doing things.  For me, it was like, well, this is how this guy does it, and this is how so and so does it, but we don't have that piece of equipment, so I'm going to have to do it differently.  You go to brewing school, and they tell you you're going to have all this equipment, but no, not really, you don't have that here!  We have a small, 10 barrel pub brewery system here that we brew decent beer on. 

Mould's Beer Blog:  With that 10 barrel system, what's your maximum annual output?

Brendan:  It's under 1,500 barrels/year right now.  We're trying to get it up there, we need some more fermenters.

New Jersey Beer Company, Fermentation Tanks, Craft Beer
View from the aisle of fermentation tanks

Mould's Beer Blog:  Which beer is your top seller?

Brendan:  (Hudson) Pale Ale.  By a long shot.  But I think the IPA is going to take that over, as soon as it hits bottles.  We're only on the 3rd batch of IPA now, it's been selling as fast as we can make it.  That one, that's my baby, my recipe.  The other beers weren't mine, the other recipes were actually purchased from Matt Westfall from New England Brewing by our founder.  We tweaked them all, for a number of reasons.  First, our efficiency was higher than Matt assumed it would be here, and also to make some of our ordering easier.  Odd fractions of bags, we don't want to have stuff just lying around.  In this warehouse, we're fighting a number of different things at all times.

Mould's Beer Blog:  How far is your distribution?

Brendan:  We just do New Jersey.  We are distributed by Allied Beverage Group statewide.  I think our furthest reaching accounts are Atlantic City and a couple places just south of Atlantic City.  We have a decent presence down there.  We found we haven't had to go too far to sustain ourselves though, because we have Hoboken and Jersey City right here in our backyard.  We would like to spread out a little bit better, though.  And there is still tons of people that don't know we exist, which is frustrating, but also nice because there's always a new market we can hit.  We've only been bottling for a year, so for 2 years of our existence, unless you went to one of the bars that served us on draft, you weren't going to find us. 

Bottling Line, New Jersey Beer Company, Craft Beer
The New(ish) Bottling Line

Mould's Beer Blog:  I remember you initially bottled, but then something happened to your bottling line.

Brendan: Oh it was terrible, yea.  That bottler made 700 cases of beer and then it retired forever.

Mould's Beer Blog:  So now that bottling is back online, do you see an increase in sales?

Brendan:  Oh yea, bigtime.  I think at this point, I can safely say we've been in or are in at least 300 places statewide, which is pretty nice, it's solid.  It's always kind of fun to me when I walk in some random liquor store where I don't expect to see our bottles and they're there, that's kind of a weird and nice feeling.  And even my family members, they're like we saw your beer while we were out!

Mould's Beer Blog:  Are you guys doing a seasonal now?

Brendan:  We made our Scottish ale, Weehawken Wee Heavy, just this week.  It's actively fermenting right now.  There's so much malt in it, it finishes up at around 9.5% ABV.  On such a small system, we can't do it in two batches, it's too much, so we do it in three batches.  It's a double brew day and then a single brew day. Our brews take around 6 hours if nothing breaks, but stuff breaks!  So everything with the Wee Heavy was ok, it lautered a little slow, it wasn't too bad.  It's going to be a little bit different than last year, because one of the specialty malts was harder for us to get, but it still should be pretty much in line.

Mould's Beer Blog:  Other than Weehawken Wee Heavy, are there any other new beers that people can look forward to?

Brendan:  Right now what we're going to do is really focus on getting the IPA out the door more.  I'm pretty convinced, if the Pale Ale was 50% of our sales now, and we're not even bottling the IPA yet, I think the IPA is going to take that over easily, once we get it in bottles.  And the pale will take over the rest.  I held out for 3 years on making an IPA, but now we made one.  I hope we make people happy with it.  I was aiming to make it more of a floral, and less bitter forward IPA.  I really wanted the nose to hit people and for it to be not so much to be an overly hopped, bitter ale. 

Mould's Beer Blog:  Do you have bottles of the IPA for sale yet?

Brendan:  No, not yet. 

Taproom at New Jersey Beer Company

Mould's Beer Blog:  How has it effected New Jersey Beer Co. now that customers can buy pints of beers in your taproom, when previously they could only have small samples?

Brendan:  It's helping a lot.  I think what you'll find if you go around the state, and I've talked to some of the other breweries, what's starting to happen is that one of the brewery's biggest customer is becoming the brewery.  We're selling more beer here in a couple days a week than we do to some of our accounts.  Which isn't a bad thing, we make the most money off of it here.  I just move it from the brewery into the cooler, and then we sell it.  It doesn't go through the distributor or retailer.  I speak for some of us though, that at the brewery we're not trying to be a bar.  We close at 9pm (on Fridays).  We want it done early, and we want to push people off to our customers.  We're all (NJ breweries) treading lightly, because we don't want to piss anybody off, especially our retail customers.  You don't want to step on a bar down the road's toes, because what's their incentive to carry your beer or support you?  It's got to be a little give and take.

Mould's Beer Blog:  What do you see as New Jersey Beer Co.'s longterm goals?

Brendan:  It's a fact of life that IPAs outsell everything, as much as I would love to make imperial stouts all day, we have to pay for everything here.  This is a business.  We did not really want to jump on the IPA bandwagon, so we took our time doing it and I'm happy with it.  But yea, I don't know what our next beer will be.  Dave and I, as brewers, we lean toward more the low ABV session beers.  I love crazy stuff, but not all the time.  I think we'll lean towards a hoppy golden ale or something like that, but we're not sure yet, we'll see.  We don't lager at all, so it will be an ale, I guarantee you that!

Brendan (left) and myself (right)

Mould's Beer Blog:  There's no denying that social media has a big impact on craft beer.

Brendan:  It helps us a lot.  It's the interaction.  You can get instant feedback and it also helps you with customer service.  We got an email from a guy who was like, "I bought a six pack of your beer, 5 of them were great, 1 of them was sour!", so we were like "Dude, we're sorry, we'll get you another beer!" It's that instant, hey, we understand mistakes happen, and we are understanding.  Personality wise, Kevin runs all the social media, and that sort of shapes the basis of the company.  You know, we're trying to be nice people, do our work, and supply people with great beer.

Mould's Beer Blog:  Is that Kevin over at the bar?

Brendan:  Yea, that's Kevin.

Mould's Beer Blog:  He's a character!  Great guy.

Brendan: Yea, exactly!  You have to have some character to your company, it won't float otherwise.  You try and bullshit too much, people smell it.  And hopefully the product speaks for itself too.  I like to think our beers are pretty solid.  They're not mind blowing, we're not going to make a crazy sour yet, one that makes the sour people happy but everyone else wonders what it is.  It is a business first.  When things are moving along nicely, and we're moving enough of our other products to sell, then we can experiment more.  We need more fermenters too, we're kind of maxed out.

Mould's Beer Blog:  What's your fermenter situation like?

Brendan:  We only have six.  4 x 20 barrel fermenters, 2 x 40 barrel fermenters, and that's it.  And we only have 1 brite tank also, which is a real pain.  Double brews into the 20 barrels, quadrupel brews into the 40 barrels. 

Mould's Beer Blog:  Other than NJBC beers, what do you drink and brew at home?  Do you still brew?

Brendan:  I don't brew at home anymore, I'm not gonna lie about that!  I drink all kinds of stuff.  I tend to lean more toward session beers.  I do drink a lot of IPAs though.  What I drink sort of depends on what day it is.  I like stout, I like porters, I like saison.  I don't like to limit myself to one style or one specific thing, I sort of just depends what I feel like. My favorite beer recently, still in love with Pliny the Elder, I'll stick with that one. 

Thanks Brendan for taking the time out to talk with us! 

New Jersey Beer Company, Craft Beer
New Jersey Beer Co.

New Jersey Beer Company, Case, Address, Craft Beer
Address and Phone # of New Jersey Beer Co.

New Jersey Beer Company is located at 4201 Tonnelle Avenue, North Bergen, NJ. 


  1. Awesome interview! Can't wait to see more in the series! I'll remember this place if I ever make a visit!

    1. Thanks Allen, I appreciate it! More will definitely be coming!