Craft beer makes a beachhead in Cape May County

Tuckahoe Brewing's partners (from left): Jim McAfee, Matt McDevitt, Tim Hanna and Chris Konicki.
Tuckahoe Brewing's partners (from left): Jim McAfee, Matt McDevitt, Tim Hanna and Chris Konicki.
Posted: June 21, 2012

A 3 1/2-barrel handmade batch of pale ale is simmering just over his shoulder, filling the garage-size brewery with the sweetest aroma known to man, when Tim Hanna, one of four partners in the brand-new Tuckahoe Brewing Co., mentions the unfortunate gorilla in the room:

"We're never going to totally get past C oors Light and M iller Lite down here."

"Down here" is the Jersey Shore, land of Snooki and Smirnoff Ice. Down here, "good beer" means it's cold, wet and half-price during happy hour.

A small brewery cropping up in the Pine Barrens of Cape May County? That's about as likely as the casinos giving back the money you just lost on the slots. And yet here we are, barely six months into the life of this tiny business, and already Tuckahoe Brewing has a wholesale distribution agreement with one of the largest beer suppliers at the Shore and its tap handles are in the lineup at 30 area bars.

"A half-dozen bars signed up for kegs before we were even brewing!" Hanna exclaimed. "They just liked the idea of getting in on a local product at the very beginning.

“You know the Deauville Inn?" he continued, referring to the iconic tavern/restaurant in Strathmere. In the winter, it's quiet and locals only. "On Jan. 20, we had our first-ever event. Four hundred people showed up …

“It's unbelievable, but we're definitely beginning to see a whole lot more craft-beer drinkers at the Shore."

Indeed, it's getting easier to find a beer oasis sprouting in the sand. Last year, Cape May Brewing opened in Rio Grande and began distribution through the south end of the peninsula. This summer, the Whitebrier in Avalon and the Vagabond Kitchen & Tap House in Atlantic City will greet shoobies with big-time beer menus. And in nearby Vineland, Turtle Stone Brewing is up and running.

Tuckahoe Brewing is tucked into a tiny industrial park in Ocean View, next to a coffee roaster and a wholesale seafood supplier. It's open to the public during limited hours for growler fills and tours.

Three of the partners — Hanna, Matt McDevitt and Chris Konicki — are teachers at Mainland Regional High in Atlantic County. The fourth, Jim McAfee, is an architect at a firm that builds fancy shore houses.

For the past six years, they brewed as part of a local club, occasionally fantasizing about going pro.

"We always figured we'd open a commercial brewery when we retired from teaching," Hanna said. "But at some point it hit us: Wait a minute, if we wait, we'll be in our 50s or 60s. That's a pretty serious undertaking at that age."

It's a pretty serious undertaking for anyone — especially if you're still holding down a full-time job.

On the afternoon I visited, all four were on hand after a full day of work. Hanna fitted plastic piping for wastewater disposal. Konicki stacked kegs. McAfee loaded equipment.

McDevitt is the brewmaster, a title that means that he's the one who gets to scoop out the steaming spent barley grain from the mash tun and into a plastic barrel.

Though none of the partners have any formal beer education, they seem completely confident in their business plan.

And, more important, their beer is terrific.

Marshallville Wit is a cloudy, spicy Belgian-style witbier. Steelmantown Porter is a perfectly smooth, lightly smoked dark ale with a hint of vanilla. New Brighton Coffee Stout is made with beans from their neighbor, Harry and Beans Coffee Co., with profits donated to Brigantine's Marine Mammal Stranding Center.

For me, though, it's the flagship DC Pale Ale that totally rocks.

This is a baseline style for many breweries, an entry-point brand that is frequently and unnecessarily dumbed down for novice beer drinkers. Tuckahoe went the other way and hopped the hell out of it.

"The first feedback was that it was way too hoppy," said Hanna.

They shared it with a brewer from Sierra Nevada, which makes America's best-selling pale ale, and he made one simple suggestion: Change the variety of hops.

They switched from resinous Columbus hops to German perle, a variety known for its clean, minty flavor. The result is a solid, satisfying ale with easy-drinking malt body and long-lasting hops flavor. Its bitterness is not a kick in the groin, but rather a sassy slap on the cheek. I hope it's bottled or canned soon so I can take it to the beach.

I left the brewery with one bit of advice for the four: Quit your day jobs!

Get a taste of Tuckahoe and New Jersey's other fine breweries on Saturday at the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Annual Beer Festival aboard the Battleship New Jersey on the Camden waterfront. There will be 19 breweries pouring this year, including newbies from North Jersey (Kane, Carton) that are not yet distributed to the Philadelphia area.

Tix are $45 ($55 VIP) and are available online at www.njbeer.org.

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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