As part of the second wave of current New Jersey breweries, Michael Kane has seen and experienced a lot of good and bad and climbed many hills that brewers in other states would take for granted.
CBB // What was your plan in the beginning?
MK // When we opened, the plan was to be a bit more focused, probably. But because of my homebrewing background, we’re all over the place. We easily get distracted. We’re probably not good at planning and making calendars and saying when something is going to come out and then letting everyone know about it. It’s more like, “Hey, this sounds cool. Let’s do that.”
CBB // You’re known for IPAs and barrel-aged stouts, but occasionally you put out a lager. Why?
MK // We had some brewers who really wanted to brew lagers, and we thought it was an interesting challenge. So, a year and a half ago, we started playing around with 20-barrel batches.
CBB // But people won’t line up for a beer like that. I find that fascinating because these are the beers you, as brewers, drink and like making, but there isn’t a lot of beer-geek interest.
MK // We do a lot of different beers, and there are a lot of different beers for different times. Sometimes it’s a nice “hang on the beach with my friends and drink a beer” beer, and then there are other times when I want to drink a 10 percent ABV coconut barrel-aged porter. We brew different beer for different times.
I believe that we leave it to the customers to decide what they want to drink. When we do the lagers, we sell a lot of it to a different group. It’s not the crowd that lines up for a barrel-aged stout, and that’s fine. Not every beer we make needs the attention and the crowds here. Not everything needs to be a line-up beer.
We look at it internally that we sell different beers to different people, and that works for us.
CBB // What is your hope for craft beer?
MK // I hope the market can sustain all this. Craft beer has grown a lot in New Jersey and throughout the country. I think there were probably 1,200 to 1,500 breweries in the country when we opened, and now there are 6,000 to 7,000 breweries. You don’t want the industry to turn and go through the same bubble it went through in the mid-to-late 1990s. I hope everyone is able to survive and find their niche and do what they need to do.
CBB // What’s that path?
MK // I think the quality of beer is most important. People always ask me where the market is going, and I think it comes down to quality. If you make quality beer, you’ll be fine. You can be a small entity—you might not grow into a Lagunitas—but you’ll be fine and can support a good business.
We have a lot of brewers who have left to open their own breweries. That’s been the largest source of turnover for us. When they leave, I tell them, “If you’re happy running a small family business and being part of an interesting industry, that’s great. If you have higher ambitions, maybe that’s not going to happen.”
So, my hope is that everyone can get out of the market what they want and that it doesn’t collapse on itself. That’s where we are. It’s been an interesting seven years for us.
CBB // I think quality is paramount. We talk a lot about what this industry needs, but quality isn’t top of mind the way it should be because we are in an age where there are brewers putting out cans of IPA that explode, or things spoil, or infections get in, and God knows what else is happening inside the packaging. What do you see as your responsibility as a brewery owner and a brewer to talk to consumers about quality? Where does that conversation start?
MK // I think it starts right here. I think we need to be the gatekeepers of quality, internally. I think we can try to hold ourselves to a really high standard of quality. If we’re not happy with something, we don’t want to release it. Whether it’s beer quality, packaging quality, release quality, even customer-service quality, we’ve had our challenges. I think brewery owners have to decide what is quality for them. Obviously, there are some brewery owners who are okay with releasing a can that will explode. That’s not okay for me. So, I think it’s the perspective of the brewery owner and the people working in the brewery to say what the quality standards are. Some things you can get away with now, but our quality measures are more of a long-term perspective. I think there are some things we do that you could get away with, but I think they will build on themselves over time, and we’ll lose that perception of quality. That, to me, is important.
CBB // You recently had to dump a batch.
MK // We had a chiller go down. We had an accident in the industrial park we’re in, and our chiller was down for a day, and we had a beer that we had brewed the day before get up to 88°F, and it wasn’t a saison. So, you move on. You dump it. It’s an accident that happens. We probably could have kept that beer and blended it into other batches, and no one would have noticed. But at the end of the day, if the beer is bad, you dump it and move on.
If internally, people think that quality isn’t that important—so they can shortcut on the tank cleaning or shortcut the measurements of the canning line—I know no one really cares.
CBB // It’s like a game of follow the leader.
MK // That’s sort of how you have to look at quality. You need to look at how every brewery determines what is important from a quality perspective and then go from there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.