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Cape May Brewing Has No Secret Sauce

With careful planning and carefree beers, the New Jersey brewery took itself from a Shore town taproom to a three-state powerhouse.

Kate Bernot Sep 23, 2021 - 11 min read

Cape May Brewing Has No Secret Sauce  Primary Image

Photos: Courtesy Cape May Brewing

Cape May Brewing’s recent trajectory makes it look like the brewery has attached itself to a rocketship, increasing from 6,300 barrels of production five years ago to an estimated 50,000 barrels this year. That’s with sales in just three markets: New Jersey, the Philadelphia area, and Delaware. Yet CEO Ryan Krill doesn’t see the brewery’s growth as an explosion, but rather a slow climb. He quotes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: “Overnight success takes about 10 years.”

The brewery has reached that decade mark, and it’s enjoying a growth rate its three cofounders didn’t anticipate when they opened a small, taproom-focused brewery in the Cape May airport. Not having brewing-industry experience, the three grew their company as they learned the ropes. Krill says it feels like the company’s been “chipping away” for a decade, not riding some kind of huge wave.

There’s no secret sauce that’s propelled Cape May—just steady, smart expansion, one step at a time. What does feel singular, though, is how contemplative and thoughtful the company’s leadership has been at each transition point. The goal, Krill says, was never growth for growth’s sake but to get to what he calls an “inflection point” where profits could be invested back into the company in a way that improves infrastructure, quality, and efficiency.

“We had to think really hard about who we are, who we are not, where we’re going, and what we’re trying to achieve, and why that’s important,” he says. “We focus a lot of our energy around culture and systems and accountability. We focus on working on the business instead of just, like, being God’s gift to brewing.”

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That meant developing a company purpose, sharing that philosophy with employees, enacting open-book management, and striving to practice servant leadership.

“It’s a lot of really hard work, and it requires you to be really vulnerable and ask hard questions of yourself,” Krill says. “I’m not sounding too philosophical about all this? It’s not intentional.”

Krill says he’s leery of sounding like an airport book about management, but it’s clear that company leadership takes its role as an employer of more than 130 people seriously. A strong business culture and strategy had tangible results—this year, the brewery is likely on the cusp of making the Brewers Association’s annual list of the top 50 craft breweries by volume.

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Built with Purpose

Events of the past year have put the spotlight on company culture in the brewing industry and on the potentially dire consequences of not building one with intention. Cape May began to formally articulate its culture more than six years ago, but in a roundabout way. About 2014, the brewery hired a designer to retool its website. That designer began asking the brewery questions the cofounders hadn’t considered: “Who are you? Where is the company going? Why do you do what you do? What do you represent?”

What began as a website refresh turned into a multiyear process of rethinking the brewery’s logo, cans, and human-resources practices to explicitly align them with core, stated values. Subsequently, the brewery developed a written purpose and professional standards. Today, every Cape May employee carries a “credo card” that lists these, beginning with the company’s purpose: “Enjoy the moment.” Its seven values emphasize professionalism and accountability, ideals the brewery takes quite seriously.

“It’s the expectation that we set even as early as orientations. Like, ‘Hey, if somebody is not within those values, it’s your obligation to raise your hand and either bring it to their attention or somebody else’s attention to address it because it’s not okay,’” Krill says.

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Again, this thoughtful approach has yielded demonstrable results. Professionals in New Jersey’s beer industry say Cape May is known for employee retention and for the quality of its staff.

“Cape May has always done a really solid job of innovating, marketing, and advancing their brand. Every beer fest I’ve ever attended or worked, the [Cape May] reps were always engaging, friendly, and knowledgeable,” says Jon Miller, vice president of New Jersey Craft Beer, a website for Garden State beer enthusiasts that also organizes events and collaborations. “They make a welcoming space for all consumers.”

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Selling a Lifestyle

To stand out among roughly 130 breweries in New Jersey and hundreds more in its region, Cape May Brewing leans on the uniqueness of its hometown. Cape May is a Shore town, but in the vein of saltwater taffy, carefully manicured gardens, and bed & breakfasts—not fist-pumping “Jersey Shore” nightclubs. It’s a vacation town that families have visited for generations, touring its beaches, lighthouse, and historic Victorian homes.

“We sell the experience of Cape May,” Krill says, adding that he was impressed and inspired by the way New Glarus Brewing has cemented itself as synonymous with Wisconsin. He wants drinkers to associate his beer with nostalgia, fond memories, and friendly people, as Midwest drinkers do with New Glarus beer. “They are of the fabric of Wisconsin. There’s something to be said for that simplicity.”

In addition to naming its beers with beach associations—such as Coastal Evacuation Double IPA or Tan Limes Mexican-Style Lager—the brewery evokes its location in recipe formulation, too. Orange Crushin’ It IPA is an homage to Orange Crush, a cocktail made with orange juice, vodka, orange liqueur, and lemon-lime soda—a drink that is said to have originated in nearby Ocean City, Maryland, but is popular in many East Coast beach towns.

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The taproom has been core to developing the association between Cape May (the town) and Cape May (the brewery). Under New Jersey law, taproom customers must take some form of brewery tour (even if it’s self-guided) before purchasing beer. While some breweries merely turn on a stale video for customers to endure, Cape May is known for its quality, insightful tour, and for being one of the state’s first destination breweries.

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“Being located at the Shore, the taproom was packed every time I went, especially on rainy days, and the Cape May team knew how to leverage and maximize this, meaning they worked within the law to make themselves a fun, spacious place to spend time,” says Tara Nurin, a freelance writer on beer and spirits who lives in the region. “They’ve done a great job of speaking to the non-beer-geek crowd this way.”

Even as most of its sales come through distribution now, the brewery’s taproom remains the place that turns fans of the brand into ambassadors. Given that residents of Delaware and Philadelphia regularly visit Cape May on vacation—and associate the brewery and town with relaxation and fun—those were obvious territories for expanding distribution.

The goal is to go deep in nearby markets rather than wide geographically, Krill says, because the Cape May brand is less meaningful with each mile traveled from its home base. (This again calls to mind New Glarus and its decades-long insistence on selling beer only in Wisconsin.) When there is more competition than ever, a beer brand needs to be simple, meaningful, and emotionally evocative to succeed on the shelf.

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When Control Pays Off

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Cape May’s ascendancy, it’s that being deliberate about choices when a brewery is small sets it up for success as it grows. No practice should be too large for leadership to consider changing, Krill says, and no detail should be too small to be analyzed.

As far as large decisions, the brewery chose early on to self-distribute. It eventually formed its own distribution company, Cape Beverage, in 2019, to facilitate sales outside of New Jersey. Now, Cape Beverage carries five other breweries and cidermakers in addition to Cape May’s own beer. Managing distribution to 1,700 points of delivery in New Jersey alone is a huge task, which is why Cape Beverage operates as a separate team within the Cape May company.

In managing those teams, Krill says that even small changes can have profound effects. For example, an annual engagement survey sent to employees consistently showed that the brewery’s employees valued communication. Krill already was sending out a weekly internal email—but he realized that employees weren’t craving more communication, just better communication. He shifted from sending those emails on Friday afternoons to Fridays at 5 a.m., ensuring that distribution specialists and sales reps could read them before they got caught up in field visits and deliveries.

Streamlined communication paid dividends during the pandemic, when keeping a remote team on the same page was critical. Last year, the brewery grew sales by double digits, despite on-premise closures. That was a confidence boost, Krill says, and a sign that the company was doing something right. However, expanding production is not the goal in and of itself—it’s only useful if it can help the brewery invest back into itself.

“We feel like volume is just vanity, so it’s not like we’re trying to do a zillion barrels,” Krill says. “We’re not trying to be big or giant. We’re just trying to be good at what we do.”

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