IF THERE IS a local amateur breeding ground for the professional brewers of tomorrow, it could be the six-year-old South Jersey home-brew club with a catchy name.
Barley Legal Homebrewers can lay claim to producing no fewer than a dozen full-time brewers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including several who have opened their own breweries.
Think of it as the Silicon Valley of brewing, with malt instead of microchips.
Surely other home-brew clubs have their success stories, but I can't name another that has had such a vital, immediate impact on a region's beer scene.
The trio of partners behind Third State Brewing in Burlington City met at Barley Legal. Same goes for Vince Masciandaro and the late Rich Palmay, who opened Village Idiot in Mount Holly, N.J.
John Companick and Scott Reading won one of the club's biggest contests before joining with a third member, Mike Oliver, to open Spellbound Brewing in Mount Holly.
Together, they've helped transform South Jersey's brewery scene overnight.
And they're not the only pros.
Evan Fritz, who runs the brewhouse at Manayunk Brewing, got his start at Barley Legal. So did Dan Neuner of Neshaminy Creek, Chris Vaughn of Flying Fish, and Mark Graves at Cape May Brewing.
How is just one club sending so many brewers to the pros?
To get to the answer, you have to go back to one year before the club's founding in 2010.
At the time, South Jersey didn't have much of a craft-beer scene. Liquor licenses were too costly for small, craft-oriented bars; the state's brewery regs were so onerous, it was nearly impossible for a small brewery to open without going deeply into debt. If you wanted a good, small-batch beer in Camden or Gloucester Counties, you probably drove over one of the bridges to Philly.
That started to change in 2009, when Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant opened its first New Jersey brewpub, in Maple Shade. Its head brewer was Chris LaPierre, who quickly noticed that homebrewers were flocking to his bar, a veritable oasis in the middle of a craft-beer desert.
"Lappy really got the ball rolling," said club president Ryan Cochrane.
He introduced Masciandaro and Fritz and others, hosting them in a back room, just to talk about brewing. At first, there were just a half-dozen, but attendance grew quickly. South Jersey was starved for good beer, and these members were eager to brew it.
"Most of them had stuck to themselves or learned from the internet," Cochrane said. "But when you had a guy like Lappy talking to you, or you started sharing information as a group . . . well, it wasn't long where we had 60 people together in one room.
"When you get that many people together, you're bound to have some knowledge exchange."
Frequently, the club's members pair up and meet at each other's homes to brew together.
"Imagine how much you can learn when someone comes over and coaches you or teaches new techniques," said Fritz, one of the founders. "Before long, everybody was brewing together. On Friday nights, I could have 15, 20 guys showing up at my place."
The sharing continued, and as the state loosened brewery laws in 2012, several members started talking outloud about opening their own places. Masciandaro and Palmay were the first, and as Fritz said: "People saw Village Idiot and said, 'Why not me?' "
Now, just six years after the club was founded, there is a craft beer scene in South Jersey.
Jay Mahoney of Third State Brewing, who met his two partners, John O'Brien and Bill Pozniak, while brewing with Barley Legal, said he never would have opened a brewery without the club.
"The thing about most home-brew clubs, I think, is that they're just a bunch of guys getting together once a month and drinking and socializing," said Mahoney. "But Barley Legal focuses on brewing skills by sharing ideas and knowledge."
Spellbound's Companick agreed: "It's just a positive environment, so people learn things. You're not there to just drink beer."
Barley Legal meets the first Tuesday of each month at Spellbound Brewing, 10 Lippincott Lane, Mount Holly. Membership dues are $20 a year. More at barleylegal.homebrewers.com.
"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: firstname.lastname@example.org.