We are living in a gilded age when it comes to craft beer in New Jersey, with 60+ breweries and more than a dozen brewpubs in the state. Go back a decade, and independent brewing wasn’t even on the radar. But it was for businessmen Chris Walsh and Glenn Bernabeo, who took over River Horse Brewing Company in 2007. Back then, they were one of five craft brewers in the state.
Now, they are the second-largest craft brewery in NJ, boasting a diverse, but focused, line-up of ales, sours, stouts, blondes and wittes. The story of River Horse is unlike any other brewery. Walsh and Bernabeo were not home brewers and they didn’t set out to run a brewery.
The Delaware-born, Buffalo-raised Walsh had a lucrative career in investment banking when he and Bernabeo had enough of bouncing around from job to job and project to project. “We had grown wary of the tasks,” Walsh said in his office at the brewery. “We didn’t set out to buy a brewery. We wanted to find a manufacturer with growth potential where we understood the product. We’re not techie guys, but we liked beer a lot.”
When they came across River Horse Brewing Company in Lambertville, the business was 90 days away from closing up shop. But Walsh and Bernabeo liked how the beer industry was starving for attention in the state.
From there, it was off to the races, albeit on hippopotamuses and not horses. (Hold on, we’ll explain the hippo reference.) When they bought the brewery in 2007, they revamped the packing and logo, and had the head brewer tweak the recipe for their popular brews like Tripel Horse, Special Ale and Summer Blonde. And the hippo logo? Well, that’s a reference to Egyptian hieroglyphics, where you’d see a hippo among Egyptians in depictions where they’re believed to be brewing beer.
Walsh admits that he’ll never know as much about brewing than his head brewer Chris Rakow, who’s been with the company nine years. “I can’t even brew tea,” Walsh joked. With Rakow’s know-how, they added Roly Poly, a refreshing, 5.3% Czech-style pilsner. For the hop heads, they added Hippotizing IPA to the year-long lineup. This 7.5% beer is a cross between West Coast- and New England-inspired IPAs with a plethora of hops styles, which is then dry-hopped with Mosaic hops.
While many of the NJ-based craft breweries are producing 80-100 different beers a year, River Horse sticks to what they do best with 20-30 titles. For the Fall, their popular pumpkin beer, Hipp-o-Lantern is on store shelves. It’s a strong imperial pumpkin beer (8.5% ABV) brewed with molasses and spices. To the complete your adult trick-or-treating and sexy vampire costume, their Chocolate Porter packs in a pound of chocolate per barrel with some vanilla beans.
Competition for shelf space is the reason for the quality-over-quantity, mentality. “I like to call it SKU-mageddon,” Walsh explained. SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) are the barcodes you see on store products. “For the consumer, it’s just too much information when you see so many varieties in front of you. It makes deciding harder.”
That’s not say you can’t find one-off releases at the tap room in Ewing Twp., with 750ml bottles of barrel-aged beers and brewer’s reserve sours. Look out for their first-time ever Oktoberfest Märzen, which will be only available at the tap room. “It feels like you can never win at times. You want people to come and find something unique, but somebody five hours away doesn’t want to come here and wants it at their local store.”
In order to become the second largest in the state (behind Flying Fish), they moved from a 2,000 barrel-a-year facility in Lambertville to the current Ewing Township home in 2013. It allowed them to increase capacity to 12,000 barrels. Getting there wasn’t easy. “It was nothing but road blocks along the way,” Walsh recalled. “We had to build back up the reputation of the brand and make sure that the four beers you get in a variety pack had to be something you want.”
With a crowded beer field in the state, being a large craft brewery means competition among the New Belgium (Colorado), Lagunitas (California) and Founders (Michigan) breweries of the world. Nationally, New Jersey ranks low for craft brew production and sales.
That means it’s time to drink local, Jersey, and put that Bud Light down. Now you can at River Horse’s bar at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, so you can have a Belgian Freeze with your Trenton Thunder hockey.
Nevertheless, River Horse not only produces great beer, but love as well. Recently married head brewer Rakow produced a fruity sour beer at their facility to serve at his wedding. Then, a tour guide met a gentleman on a guided tour that she was giving — and they’re now married with a kid!
Beer and love goes hand and hand, but for Walsh, it’s all about bringing new beer into the world. “It’s pretty amazing that we can sit in conference room with a blank white board and come up with an idea. Then, you see how that idea gets produced, taste it, it goes to market and you can see your fully-realized idea on store shelves where people geek out over it. It’s not my show, so I love that it’s a group effort.”
Name: River Horse Brewing Company
Location: Ewing Township
Standout Beer: Tripel Horse, a 10% ABV Trappist-style Belgian tripel brewed with spices
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides pints, growler fills, six-packs, limited-edition bottle releases, cases and merchandise. Guides tours are available Saturday and Sunday and require reservation. Tours are $5 and come with a tasting flight. Check Facebook for up-to-date times and tap list.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He’s not ashamed to admit that he enjoys pumpkin beer. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?
Hero (Top) Feature Image: Chris Castellani
- All images courtesy Chris Castellani