Cape May Brewing Co.’s fourth anniversary this summer will find the brewery a veritable Goliath compared to the manikin beer-maker that once used air conditioners to climate-control a fermentation room and corny kegs to supply the lone local bar that wanted its debut pale ale on tap for the Independence Day holiday.
That was 2011, and a lot has changed from those days, several times over, in fact. But then New Jersey’s Cape May has always been a changeling. It’s never been one to stand still — some of that out of necessity — even right after opening up in 1,500 square feet of garage-like space at the sprawling Cape May airport grounds.
But Cape May Brewing continues to evolve.
The most recent growth ring is the most dramatic and puts Cape May on course to hit 6,000-barrel (bbl) production mark — double its past peak — and claim the No. 3 spot on the state’s craft beer volume leader board. Flying Fish Brewing Co. and River Horse Brewing Co. are ahead of it.
A new 30-bbl Premier Stainless Systems brewhouse, installed in a neighboring 15,000-square-foot building this spring, is leading that charge. It will step up the production pace with Cape May’s flagship and signature brews, including a pair of IPAs and a honey porter that New Jersey’s ag department blessed with its “Jersey Fresh” imprimatur for the brewery’s use of a nearby apiary’s honey.
Cape May’s starter brewery — plastic fermenters, air-conditioned coldbox and that brew sculpture, which has since been turned into a keg washer — was a passport to bigger things. Business baby steps (50-gallon batches) became more confident strides to bigger volume (4 bbl, would you believe?), and a sweet spot with the jump to the 15-bbl brewhouse. That helped nurture the widening demand for Cape May’s beers.The bigger operation, co-founder Ryan Krill said, means extending the brewery’s distribution reach farther out in the state and growing the brand more efficiently with brews that resonate with the craft beer drinking public. The brewery self-distributes in New Jersey, where its market is now concentrated in Cape May and Atlantic counties. Origlio Beverage distributes the brewery’s beers in the recently-entered Philadelphia market.
A 15-bbl brewhouse in service since 2013 at the startup location will stay put, Krill said. It gets the brewer’s playground job of making sour and wild ales, among other specialty brews. And, importantly, it offers the bulletproof cross-contamination safeguard of separate locations for Cape May’s “dirty” brews and its main production.
The 24-tap tasting room, with its 40-foot bar and gift shop space, is likewise staying at the smaller brewery and hanging on to the brewhouse tours; some tours will still be conducted at the larger brewery. However, the eventual plan is to move the taproom and tours to the new building.
The new 30-bbl brewhouse was put into service in mid-May, busting out core labels Cape May IPA and Coastal Evacuation, an imperial IPA, in batch sizes double what they used to be just weeks ago.
Packaging side, the new facility is also home to a Meheen bottler (backed up with depalletizer, twist rinse and other add-ons) and a cold box that could house the Cape May Brewing Co. from those four summers ago.
Back then, the brewery’s output wasn’t anything even the smallest of frat parties couldn’t handle. But then, the brewing rig made from three repurposed beer kegs — batch size, 12 gallons — was really about just getting licensed and getting the door open. It also said “hobby business,” especially to skeptics, whose numbers were matched by inspired homebrewers looking for an economical and manageable way to turn pro.
Cape May has been their touchstone, a case study for a number of breweries that have opened in New Jersey over the past couple of years.
But Cape May’s starter brewery — plastic fermenters, air-conditioned coldbox and that brew sculpture, which has since been turned into a keg washer — was a passport to bigger things. Business baby steps (50-gallon batches) became more confident strides to bigger volume (4 bbl, would you believe?), and a sweet spot with the jump to the 15-bbl brewhouse. That helped nurture the widening demand for Cape May’s beers.
And it validated the idea of answering the brewery’s second anniversary by taking over a stinky, dilapidated, decades-empty building a couple of football fields away from home base, then spending a year-plus to construct yet another brewery, this time one way bigger than the last, but with a blueprint for tricking it out some more in the future.
Which, for Cape May, begins now.
Jeff Linkous, a longtime Garden State journalist, follows New Jersey’s craft brewing industry at his website, Beer-Stained Letter. He has one of the best craft beer blogs on the internet, in our humble opinion, so go visit it now!