One thing that legal-aged college students should realize is how good they have it when it comes to the quality of beer today. Back in the 90s, you just accepted the watered down, cheap swill that the bars around Rutgers University in New Brunswick were serving. For Jeremy Lees, it took a trip to Colorado to discover the path that would lead to owning and operating Flounder Brewing Co.
Nestled in an business park in Hillsborough Township, the four-year-old nanobrewery has a small, but devoted following due to a constantly rotating tap list and their flagship beer, Hill Street Honey Ale.
Being a full-time brewery owner wasn’t part of his plan when he graduated from Rutgers University in 1999. Back then, the Clifton-born Lees spent his time away from his studies touring and managing local bands around New Brunswick when jam bands were the rage (think Spin Doctors and 311).
He took a band out to Colorado and that’s when he discovered Fat Tire beer from New Belgium Brewing. “I was like, ‘Whoa! Where has this been all my life?’,” he explained on a balmy Friday afternoon in his office.
After graduation, Lees became a regular at the infamous local biker bar, the Great Notch Inn in Little Falls. It’s the place where he received his nickname, Flounder, due to his resemblance to the character from Animal House (played by late actor, Stephen Furst).
“For ten years, I carved my butt into a stool there,” he recalled. “I would always get the Great Notch Harley Barley, which is actually Cricket Hill’s East Coast Lager.” From there, he befriended the Cricket Hill crew and got into homebrewing.
Homebrewing became a family activity every weekend with his brothers, Daniel and Michael, so much so that when they wanted to make bigger quantities they moved their larger equipment to their grandmother’s garage.
His ambitions led him to tweak recipes to his own liking. Inspired by his grandfather’s beekeeping hobby, he made a blonde ale with honey and named it after the street where he lived in Morristown, Hill Street.
Week after week, Lees and his brothers would consistently make beer and then have a hard time drinking it all. As the movie Scarface eloquently pointed out, “Don’t get high on your own supply.”
The brothers found a reasonably priced space in Hillsborough to further their brewing ambitions. In 2011, they became a operational brewery around the same time Cape May, Kane and Carton were beginning. “When we first started, it was just a full-time hobby that was getting a little out of hand,” he said.
Then, when the laws changed the following year to allow for a tap room, they improvised a small bar in their office. On opening day, the Lees brothers were thinking that friends and family would show up when they posted about the opening on Facebook. That day, 250 people showed up. It wouldn’t be the last day that many people would line up around the building for beer.
“We had to create a reservation system because I only had six barrels of beer to sell at a time,” Lees explained. “It would be a little awkward when new customers would come in and saw that the brewery is just my pimped out homebrewing system.”
For their first few years, Flounder would be open once a month for tours, tastings and growler fills. All the while, Lees kept his day job working at an importer/exporter business. It would be common for the thirsty beer fans to line up for an hour to get their hands on Hill Street Blonde or Genevieve’s IPA, a five-hop blend ale with a refreshing balance of citrus fruits and a piney bite.
With three brothers making beers together, you’ll find a variety of styles that suits each one’s tastes. Jeremy likes low-alcohol beers with robust flavors, so he enjoys brewing the Espresso Brown Ale that has a light roasty taste and coffee aromas, or the Iced Coffee Stout using beans from Fieldstone Coffee Roasters in Milford. Coffee beans also creep into their Java Gen IPA.
Farmhouse saisons are also represented with Saison du Flounder, a collaboration with their building neighbor, East Coast Yeast, and Just Blanc, an easy-drinking beer with a slight dryness normally associated with white wines. In the future, pumpkin beer will fall back into the rotation along with a slew of barrel-aged beers that are sitting in the tap room just waiting for people to drink when they are ready.
When customers walk in for their talk and tour, they can expect a detailed description as well as the thought process behind every beer. This is how Lees cultivated a following by showing the connection between beer and the story it tells.
“Our motto is ‘Experience Your Beer,'” he said. “We all truly believe beer is a positive experience and it connects to various aspects of our culture, history and personality. It makes the tasting experience unique when you learn about the thinking behind the beer.”
In the past year, it became apparent that Flounder needed Lees’ full-time attention. With his 40th birthday looming and a family to support, he felt that it was time to follow his dream 100 percent.
“I saw the tangibility of what I really wanted to do was within reach,” he said. “You walk this fine line into thinking that it’s a selfish decision in leaving a good career for a dream, but my wife was incredible in supporting me.”
More encouragement, support and advice came from a popular figure in the craft beer world, Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Co. (makers of Samuel Adams). When Flounder was starting out, they received a business loan for small brewers started by the Boston Beer Co.
Every year, the second largest craft brewery in America chooses one brewery to do a collaboration beer. When Flounder was chosen, they went up to the headquarters in Boston to work on what eventually became Devil’s Nectah Helles Lager using Jersey Fresh cranberry honey blended with Massachusetts cranberries.
It was there that Lees asked Koch and his people everything he wanted to know about the nuts and bolts (and hops) of the brewery business.
Now that Lees operates Flounder full-time, the tap room is open every weekend for tastings and growler fills. Flounder is leasing the space next door to expand their brewing capacity within the next few months, which will allow them to get more table space and drink ledges for guests to rest their tasty, funky beverages.
In the meantime, what started out as a hobby in his apartment, then moved to his grandma’s garage and is now a burgeoning brewery, still feels like he and his brothers homebrewing just with bigger equipment and more variety of people enjoying their wares.
“I just love beer. I love making it, I love talking about it and obviously love drinking it. It’s just not work for me,” he concluded. “What’s also nice is that everybody in the business is extremely nice, and that translates to the people who come here.”
Name: Flounder Brewing Co.
Location: Hillsborough Township, Somerset County
Standout Beer: Hill Street Honey American Ale
Know Before You Go: Taproom open for pints, flights, growler fills and merchandise. Check Facebook or Untappd for tap lists, updated hours, bottle releases and upcoming events. Food is allowed. Pets are allowed, but not recommended because of the small space.
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?
- Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © Chris Castellani