"It's true," said Gene Muller, founder of Flying Fish and an advocate of Jersey's beer scene. "We sell more in Philly than South Jersey."
(Aboard the Battleship New Jersey was the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild 12th Annual Beer Festival on Saturday - a showcase for beer made in Jersey. I know it'll be packed with beer drinkers, and not just because sucking down the likes of Lambertville's River Horse Double White beneath the ship's huge guns is about as cool as it gets.
The fact is, Jersey beer drinkers are thirsty for an opportunity to bend their elbows in their home state.
"The demand is definitely there for good beer, just based on the number of New Jersey people you see in Philly bars," Muller said.
But Muller and others believe South Jersey is hamstrung by incredibly expensive liquor licenses. Paying $500,000 for a license is not unusual: Last summer, one in Cherry Hill went for an astounding $1.6 million. (By comparison, you can get a license in Philadelphia for about $65,000.)
Licensing experts point to the real-estate market, speculation and the scarcity of licenses, which are doled out by municipalities, based on population. More than a dozen South Jersey towns (including Moorestown and Haddonfield) are dry, which further inflates the prices in neighboring communities.
Whatever the reason, those high costs are affordable mainly to big restaurant chains - Olive Garden, Applebee's, Hooters and their ilk. Their managers, who answer to the suits at corporate, rarely take chances with their beer selection and stick with the usual macros.
Even a small chain like Iron Hill, which has brewpubs in Pennsylvania and Delaware, has been unable to crack the Jersey nut. A deal in Marlton fell through last year, partly over licensing costs, said Mark Edelson, a partner at Iron Hill and head of its brewing operations.
"We've been dying to get into New Jersey for years. We're always getting e-mails, 'When are you coming to Jersey?' " said Edelson, who added that Iron Hill is currently in negotiations on a deal in New Jersey. "The demographic is outstanding there, but the cost of a liquor license and an affordable lease are always the issues."
It takes a sense of independence and self-confidence to run a distinctive tavern. But faced with six-figure fees, you just won't see the type of young entrepreneurs behind the likes of Memphis Taproom or Southwark opening a cozy gastropub in Deptford.
There are plenty of nonchain restaurants throughout South Jersey, however, that serve nothing more imaginative than the wholly pedestrian (and overpriced) Stella Artois. What's their excuse?
John McDevitt, who owns the superb High Street Grille in Mount Holly (truly worth the trip over the bridge, Philly), says the other guys are missing the boat.
He packs them in with frequent tastings and beer cuisine, noting, "Really, draft beer is one of the most profitable things you can do with your liquor license. Craft beer drinkers don't mind paying a little more for great beer, plus people who drink craft beer eat good food."
So here's some advice for South Jersey restaurant owners: Don't take McDevitt's word or even mine. Get yourself a ticket to tomorrow's Garden State Craft Brewers Guild festival. They're just $40, and they're available online at www.njbeer.org. The fest runs noon to 4 p.m. on the Battleship New Jersey, 62 Battleship Place, along the Camden waterfront (856-966-1652, battleshipnewjersey.org).
Take a sip and check out the crowd. They're all your potential customers. But you'll never see them walk through your door till you get with the game and start serving good beer.
Good suds in Jersey
It's not a complete Beer Wasteland on the other side of the Delaware. These joints feature more than just BudMillerCoors.
_ Cork, 90 Haddon Ave., Westmont. Known for wine, but the beer taps are primo. (Look for: Founder's Devil Dancer.)
_ Harper's Pub, 1 Gibbsboro Road, Clementon. Eighteen taps (Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA).
_ High Street Grille, 64 High St., Mount Holly. The best beer bar in South Jersey, with 10 very good taps, plus another 10 promised by summer's end (Heavy Seas Hang Ten).
_ P.J. Whelihan's Pub, locations in Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Maple Shade, Medford Lakes, Sewell. Sports bars with huge tap lists (P.J.W. Copper Lager from Victory).
_ Max's Seafood, Burlington and Hudson streets, Gloucester City. Very good bottle selection (Schneider Aventinus). *
"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to email@example.com.