You have beer brewed with hibiscus, pine needles and peanut butter and flavor notes of fresh-cut grass, stone fruits and afternoon sunshine. Then you have cutesy, punny names like As Hoppy As They Wanna Be, The Big Brewbowski or I Wanna Bock With You. But sometimes, you just want beer to taste like beer. That’s where Climax Brewing Co., New Jersey’s oldest continuously operating craft brewery, comes in.
Started 21 years ago, it’s old school beer before “old school” was called “old school.”
You have an extra special bitter, IPA, Oktoberfest, oatmeal stout, a helles lager, hefeweizen, golden ale, bock and a brown ale — all straightforward, approachable and consistently damn good with no fancy names. The ESB has the distinction of being the only New Jersey beer listed in famed British beer connoisseur Michael Jackson’s bibles of beer, Ultimate Beer and The Great Beer Guide (“I don’t sing, I drink beer.”) More on him later.
Owner and founder Dave Hoffman is a legend among brewers and longtime NJ beer drinkers for his gregarious personality and extensive knowledge of all things beer. Ask him anything and he’ll talk your ear off about the process and his philosophy. Catching up with him on a Friday before his weekly open house, Hoffman spoke proudly and passionately about being the oldest craft brewery in the state in a voice that’s somewhere between McGruff the Crime Dog and famed WNEW DJ Scott Muni.
The path to Climax started four decades ago in an old liquor store in Clark, where Hoffman and his friends would go every Friday to spend $25 on hard-to-find beer from out of state. “It was probably illegal, but it was awesome,” he recalled. Their tradition piqued his interest in exploring the beer world. He decided to home brew after reading E.C. Kraus homebrewing ads in Popular Mechanics magazine. “I was bored drinking other people’s beer. I said to myself, ‘I’m German. I can do this.'”
It seemed natural that Hoffman’s knowledge of brewing equipment, background in mechanical engineering, expertise in brewing, and passion for German and British styles would lead to him opening up his own brewery. He convinced his father to let him set up the tanks at the back of his machine shop, which made parts for canning equipment and labeling, in Roselle Park. The Climax name was knocked around as an option, and Hoffman went with it because it was defined in the dictionary as “the point of greatest excitement.”
By the timed Climax open its doors in 1996, microbrews were becoming a thing. The only other craft brewery in the state was Clemens in Vernon Valley, which has since closed. “It was starting to pop like it has now. There were new breweries opening up all the time. It was all about the beer,” he explained. “Then ‘Boom!’ it all stopped and people weren’t interested in homebrewing, so it was a blessing in disguise that I closed my shop to start brewing full-time.”
It took almost 15 years for craft beer to become hot again in the state, when laws changed to allow for more independently owned breweries. “Seventy breweries in New Jersey, that’s an astronomical number. That doesn’t register in my head.” In that time, Hoffman was turning out his signature extra special bitter. It’s the type of beer you want welcoming you after a long day’s work. It’s meant to resemble the beer served in British pubs like Fuller’s or Young’s.
This is where we return to Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter. As Hoffman stated, “he’s like a god to me.” The British journalist, who passed away in 2007, was the foremost expert in beer and whisky in the 1970s and single-handedly made beer a legitimate pursuit worthy of study. Many of the styles, categorization and history of beer is attributed to his writing. “I went to an event he was at. He looked up at me and said ‘I knew it was you’.” Jackson visited Climax several times and raved about the ESB for its unique honey taste.
Hoffman has resisted introducing experimental beers or trendy styles (“I don’t brew that weird [stuff]!”), but did submit to customer demand by creating a seasonal pumpkin beer. His thinking is that, along with American lagers and Anchor Steam/California Common, pumpkin ale is one of the few true American beers. “There’s a 120 lbs. of pumpkin in that bad boy,” he proclaims. “When the colonists came here, they weren’t stupid. They grew pumpkin here to use with their harvested grains to help ferment the beer that would keep for the long winters.”
Also bucking tradition is creating a tap room with regular business hours. Thus, your only chance to sample their wares on-site are on Fridays in the late afternoon. Don’t expect bar stools, electronic tap lists, fancy beer-drinking vessels — or even a bar. You’ll be greeted by folding chairs, folding tables, outdoor patio furniture and plastic cups. Do expect people coming from all over the state and New York to sample some suds and talk beer. “I like when people come in and try our beer. Take some to go, but you have to leave,” he joked.
Being the elder statesman for New Jersey beer, Hoffman has a unique perspective on the latest craft beer boom. Often times, he advises upstart breweries and gives them hard lessons and tough love advice. “It’s not about the beer anymore. It’s about the money,” he said while laughing hard. “This ain’t no picnic. If you lived two weeks of my life you’d kill yourself.” He does acknowledge that 21 years has taken a toll and he can’t imbibe his beer like he use to, but running the brewery makes him young at heart.
All of his success was due to his father taking a chance on letting him pursue his brewery dreams. The elder Hoffman passed away last year just before Climax’s 20th anniversary. There’s a little shrine to him in the building and the Helles is a tribute to him. “He grew up during World War II in Germany so he had plenty of stories from that time, so he loved having a brewery in his shop.” Hoffman concluded.
Name: Climax Brewing Co.
Location: Roselle Park, Union County
Standout Beer: Extra Special Bitter
Know Before You Go: Open to public on Fridays only from 5:30-8:30pm for pints, flights, growler fills, merchandise and tour. Check Facebook for upcoming bottle releases and events. Food is allowed in the production house. Pets allowed outside, not in building. Parking available on street along Valley Road. Entrance to open house in the back of the building.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?