You wouldn’t know there’s a brewery down Forked Neck Road in Shamong, N.J.
Nestled against the pines of Wharton State Forest and hidden behind a private home, the small, unheralded facility is dwarfed by its big brother, the Valenzano Winery, nearby on busy Rt. 206. There is no tasting room or tours or visiting hours. There is no place to fill up a growler.
If you want to taste its beer, you’ll have drop in at one of the dozen or so tap houses and restaurants in Burlington and Camden counties that take its keg deliveries.
Like I did one November afternoon, when I was stopped by the Blue Monkey Tavern in Merchantville, N.J., and got my first taste of Brotherton Brewery’s Imperial Oatmeal Porter.
By the end of my visit, I knew this would be my 2016 Beer of the Year.
Dark and smooth and creamy, it is a perfectly rounded mouthful of sweet and roasted barley malt whose mild flavor of black cherries and currants and chocolate hint at the complexity that lays, deceptively, beneath this simple and basic brew.
This is not another one of those trendy cult beers that attract lines of whale-hunting geeks. It is not a palate-numbing hop monster or mouth-puckering sour ale or barrel-aged this or that. There are no gimmicks. Instead, it is the product of superb ingredients and expert brewing skills, a beer that demands to be quaffed in long pulls that leave foam on your upper lip and a deep, satisfying ahhhhh in your throat.
Yes, it is brewed in Joisey. You got a problem with that?
The Garden State – especially South Jersey – has lagged far behind the American craft beer renaissance. Though Flying Fish and River Horse have ably held down the fort over the past 20 years, substantial growth was thwarted by costly liquor licenses, incomprehensible licensing regulations and short-sighted Bud-centric tavern owners.
It was only in 2012 when the state allowed breweries to sell beer by the glass in on-site tasting rooms (a visitor attraction that generates much-needed capital) that startups finally began opening their doors in sizable numbers. In 2016, more than 20 breweries opened in New Jersey, mainly in small towns like Medford and Pitman and Woodbury.
And in this case, Shamong.
Oddly, Brotherton Brewery is holding off on the tasting room until it gets a foothold in bars. Owned by family members of the neighboring Valenzano winery, it’s a tidy operation operating out of the same rustic garage warehouse where the family once bottled its varietals. Today, it is equipped with a compact 15-barrel brewhouse with just four fermentation vessels. Brewing twice a week, it’s capable of producing fewer than 3,000 half-kegs (about 375,000 pints) a year.
The man at the helm is Steve D’Eva (above), a 31-year-old who is not exactly a familiar name among local brewing circles. He started his career as a cook (Tinto, Amada) and was the original executive chef at Tired Hands Cafe in Ardmore.
“I wanted to brew the whole time I was at Tired Hands, but that just wasn’t going to happen,” D’Eva said. “I really wanted to brew in the Philadelphia area, but there were not many jobs open where you didn’t have to start at the very bottom, scrubbing out kegs for two years before they let you touch the brew kettle.”
D’Eva told me his story while we sampled beers in the 44-degree chill of Brotherton’s cold box. Swapping out sixtel kegs and pouring fresh ales into plastic cups, he told me that he wrangled his first brewing job at Grand Canyon Brewing in Arizona in a long-distance phone call without even a single visit. He learned the ropes, but quickly discovered that “brewing mainly pilsner and amber ale six days a week was soul-crushing.”
Seeking more creativity, he moved onto Urban Family Brewing in Seattle, a well-established beer town where competition is fierce. He earned a few medals for his saison before being lured back East. At Brotherton, D’Eva expects to have the freedom to brew a wide variety of ever-changing styles with no real flagship brands.
“Hopefully, if we can produce beer of high quality, that will help shepherd along a top-quality beer scene in the area,” D’Eva said.
That’s a worthy ambition; given the South Jersey beer-making scene has been stagnant for so long, any new brewery seems like progress. Just open the taps and the people will belly-up to the bar, right? Wrong. The locals are not noobs; they know a bad beer when they taste it, and they’ve already begun calling out some of the lamer local efforts. (A porter from one Burlington County newcomer, for example, was not-inaccurately described in an online review as tasting “like it was filtered through a new shower curtain.”)
I’m inclined to give startups a chance to hit their stride. But there’s no reason to wait for Brotherton. Its Imperial Oatmeal Porter is the real deal.