HEAVYWEIGHT BREWING, the tiny craft-brewery in Ocean Township, N.J., is biting the dust. Owner/brewer Tom Baker acknowledged the bad news this week, saying he’ll shut down his mash tun sometime next month.
I couldn’t help but notice that the announcement came as Anheuser-Busch disclosed it would be scooping up the crumbling Rolling Rock brand for a cool $82 million.
That’s $82 million for just the brand, not the actual brewery in Latrobe, Pa. Rolling Rock will be brewed in Newark, N.J., which has neither glass-lined tanks nor, ahem, mountain springs.
Eighty-two million dollars. See, here’s where Baker went wrong:
Instead of brewing “big beers in small batches,” as his company motto proclaimed, he shoulda been brewing small beers in big batches.
I mean, the amount of malt that Heavyweight went through in just one of its bathtub-sized batches of Perkuno’s Hammer would have been enough to keep the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe filled for six or seven months.
If Baker had any business sense, instead of spending his hard-earned dough on all those expensive ingredients, he would’ve given it to advertising agencies and image consultants. Instead of brewing beer, he should’ve been building a brand.
Now look where he is: Out of work… and happy as a clam.
“I tell people not to be sad,” said Baker, 49, after word spread quickly among beer freaks that his idiosyncratic brewery was going bottom-up. “I’m still doing my own thing.”
Indeed, as with so many other small craft-brewers, that was always the secret of Heavyweight’s powerfully flavorful beers. This was a one-man brewery (except for all those uncounted hours put in by his wife, Peggy Zwerver, and a handful of faithful volunteers). Baker wrote every recipe and personally brewed every unique batch.
Lunacy was a full-bodied, Belgian-style golden ale. Perkuno’s Hammer was a Baltic-style porter that was concocted with local beer scribe Lew Bryson. Stickenjab was a hybrid alt that was made in collaboration with the New Jersey Association of Beerwriters.
And then there were Heavyweight’s “One Time, One Place” beers – a series of single-batch brews that produced just 14 kegs worth each, to be divvied up among a handful of taverns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. People still talk about the time they were lucky enough to be on hand when their corner taproom poured Heavyweight’s Bizzaro, “a big-ass Belgian dark.”
Baker’s beers found a small but devoted fan base, enough to keep the company going. “The truth is, interest in our beers, and in good craft-beer in general, has gone crazy,” Baker said. “It’s never been more popular. There are 20 states out there that have been asking for our beer…
“But to make my company more successful, I would have had to get some more help, some more people, some more equipment. And that would’ve made Heavyweight a different brewery.
“From the start, this was always a one-man brewery. Seven years all by myself – I was unwilling to compromise on that.”
Funny thing, it was beer-drinkers – not just Baker – who benefited from the brewer’s principle. We got to drink some great beer while it lasted. (By the way, if you’re smart, you’ll run out right now and buy whatever Heavyweight’s left on the shelf. Don’t worry, it’ll cellar just fine for the next year or two.)
Baker, meanwhile, is left with good memories, a lot of friends and some used brewing equipment that he hopes to reuse someday. His plan right now is to open a specialty-beer bar with a small brewing operation – a joint where he can make a batch or two a month while kibitzing with the reg’lars.
And the Heavyweight label? No one, not even the label-hungry Borgs from St. Louis, offered anything. Just the same, it’s not for sale.
“I’m pretty much Heavyweight, and people know that,” Baker said. “I’m really not giving up on the brand.”