New state regs let craft breweries tap into dry N.J. towns like Pitman

fjoe05z-a_1200
Justin Fleming draws a cold one in his soon-to-open Kelly Green Brewery in Pitman.

THERE ARE NO saloons in Pitman, N.J. No bottle shops or restaurants with liquor licenses, either. This is a dry town, a vestige of its founding as a Methodist retreat.

Yet on Saturday afternoon, with a ceremonial tapping of the first keg, a brewery will open on Broadway, the Gloucester County town's main drag. A brewery with a tasting room and eight taps and plenty of suds.

And that's not all, for by the end of summer, a second brewery is expected to open a mere two doors down the street - a veritable brewery row in a borough where, for 100 years, the closest thing to a stiff drink was a bottle of hair tonic at the barbershop.

No, the Methodists did not suddenly fold up their pews in Pitman. But demon alcohol is moving in, nonetheless.

"We couldn't be more excited," Pitman Mayor Russell Johnson said of this weekend's planned opening of Kelly Green Brewery. "It's going to be a big shot in the arm for this town."

The arrival of a brewery in an otherwise dry town is both a quirk of state liquor laws and a sign of the remarkable evolution of beer in America.

Though liquor licenses still are banned in Pitman, Kelly Green is opening under a new state law that allows so-called limited breweries to produce beer and sell it by the glass in a tasting room. Meanwhile, several wineries have broken the dry spell by exploiting another recent provision that allows them to lease space in restaurants to sell wine to diners.

"Technically, we're not dry," Johnson said. "We're damp."

Increasingly, small-town mayors like Johnson are seizing on the new law to lure new breweries to their downtowns. Rather than the community scourge, a small brewery is often viewed as a proud civic asset - one that generates jobs and taxes and, most important, attracts young visitors.

Indeed, Pitman isn't the only historically dry town in New Jersey to welcome a brewery. Devil's Creek Brewery is expected to open sometime in the next month in Collingswood, Camden County, where liquor had been banned since the 1800s.

Town officials saw the brewery as a boon to their already thriving downtown along Haddon Avenue. Local BYO restaurants, fearing that beer would draw away their patrons, initially balked at the plan, then backed down when the borough enacted new zoning rules prohibiting the brewery from serving food.

(Full disclosure: As executive director of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, I advocate on behalf of small breweries before state and local officials.)

The change of attitude surprised even Justin Fleming, the 35-year-old former nuclear plant worker who is opening Kelly Green with his wife, Jeannette, and home-brewing pal, Dave Domanski.

"My wife and I grew up in Pitman, so we're very familiar with the history of this town," Fleming told me last month as he put the finishing touches on his tasting room.

"This town is deeply rooted in religion," he said. "For a while, the feeling was that if you open it to alcohol, there'd be drunk people laying on the sidewalk."

Just behind the brewery stands Pitman Grove, now a national historic place that was founded in the 1870s as a camp for Methodist revival meetings. Small cottages still line the grove's 12 original "avenues" representing Christ's disciples.

But if the local Methodist church has any issues with a brewery in its town, it hasn't made any noise. Phone calls and emails to the pastor went unanswered.

"Without a doubt, I assumed some old-school mentality would come our way," Fleming said. "But it didn't. I was extremely surprised."

Equally surprising are the plans for a second brewery just two doors down from Kelly Green. There, in the former Bus Stop Music Cafe, brewing partners Megan Myers and Emily Barnes plan to open Human Village Brewing Co. as early as next month.

"We really love Pitman," Myers said, when I asked her how they chose their brewery's home. "A lot of things are going on in this town . . . a brick-oven pizza restaurant, a burger cafe, and the Broadway Theatre, which is just beautifully refurbished from the vaudeville era.

"It's a beautiful, walkable town. The population is shifting; we're starting to see a new generation of people coming in. I think a small brewery - two small breweries - is really good for the town."

Here are some details about Pitman's new breweries:

Kelly Green, 154 S. Broadway: The brewhouse one-barrel system is capable of producing the equivalent of just 31 gallons per batch. Look for classic American styles, including brown ale, a very "dank, citrusy" IPA and a coffee-flavored porter made with beans from local Endgrain Coffee Bar. Hours: 3-10 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; noon-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Human Village, 148 S. Broadway: Also using a one-barrel system; the two women brewers plan to specialize in traditional European ales and lagers, as well as "lost" historical styles. The business awaits licensing.

"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell, executive director of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild. Follow him on Twitter @beer_radar or sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. E-mail: joe@joesixpack.net.