Here’s a fall Saturday afternoon excursion that will make you rethink NJ and its craft beer scene: First, get off on Rt. 195, Exit 11. Then, follow your GPS through backroads of farmland and horse pastures, past small colonial homes alongside a picturesque lake. Your final destination? A hidden gem of an area. While it’s only a seven-minute drive from the highways, it seems like a world away from the nearby outlet malls, convenience stores and amusement parks.
Inside this idyllic landscape is Bullock Farms, a 100-acre plot of land with a modest sign welcoming you to Screamin’ Hill Brewery. As of now, New Jersey’s lone farm brewery stands out against the state’s other breweries that are primarily located in business parks, warehouses or strip malls.
Founded in 1860, the farm has remained in the Bullock family for six generations. At one point, the farm had cranberry bogs that is now land owned by Six Flags Great Adventure. If fact, you can see some of their tall rides in the distance behind the farm.
While the land has been used to grow corn, pumpkins, Christmas trees, hay, potatoes and soy beans, the idea to use the land to grow hops and grains came from farmer Brett Bullock and his two homebrewing buddies, Ryan Cole and Patrick Jones. “We had been homebrewing for 12 years going from five-gallon to ten-gallon batches. Starting a side-business brewery has always been on our minds,” said Cole. “Then we found out that the New Jersey legislation was passing a farm brewery bill. We wanted to be the first farm brewery in the state, so we started to get our ducks in a row.”
As it turned out, the bill never passed. Instead, a limited brewing licensed was passed, which the three men decided to work towards anyway. Being the first farm brewery out of the gates meant studying farming techniques for hops, barley and wheat and using well water.
Rutgers University and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture helped in understanding the complex infrastructure needed for harvesting and irrigation — things the typical homebrewer doesn’t generally know. “We knew it was going to be hard work, but it was really hard work,” laughed Cole. “Ninety percent of ingredients we use are grown right here.”
“People think that you’re saving money by growing your own ingredients. You’re not,” said Bullock, the head farmer in the operation. “It’s much easier to buy from somebody else, but we didn’t want to do that.”
The Screamin’ Hill name comes with a story. “At the turn of the century, the Coward family had boys who tore up the town — drinking, gambling and carousing with women. One of them found God and became a preacher. He started a church at the top of hill nearby here and created the loudest congregation in the state of New Jersey. The locals started referring to that hill as Screaming Hill because you could hear the sermons for miles,” said Cole.
While it was a massive amount of work to get up and running, the result is a line of beers that’s fresher than anything else you can get in New Jersey. Their flagship brew is their American Wheat, and it tastes like a sunny day on the farm. That is, it has a strong wheat taste with hints of hay and lemon, with a straw-colored body and a white foamy head.
As you can imagine, their Desperado IPA tastes like walking through a hop field. If you want something more bold, their Habanero Pale Ale uses peppers grown on the farm. If you’re looking for something slightly sweet and different, try the American Strong, which has a malty finish. For a taste that matches the changing colors of fall, the Barn Burnin’ Ale is a smoked beer that uses applewood-smoked rye.
This being a farm, their year-round farmhouse brett saison utilities everything that’s grown on the farm. This goes with the tradition of the Belgian style, where farms used everything that they had on the farm to make a beer that they could then enjoy at the end of a long day. “We wanted to make an easy-drinking beer as an introduction to the saison style,” said Bullock. “We want to do more of them because it represents what we do here, which is we grow everything we can right here. Technically, everything here is a farmhouse beer.”
During the spring and summer months, hop heads can wander over to the hops plots to smell the aroma that makes their IPA so crave-worthy. Those with a studious nose can figure out that the Bullocks grow Columbus, Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, Mt. Hood, Nugget and Willamette hops, the last which is used in their Rusty Farmer beer.
Granted, pumpkin beer saturates the market in the fall, but a visit to Screamin’ Hill goes beyond what you can get at your local beer store. Most pumpkin beer use an extract or canned pumpkin. Well, that’s not the case at Screamin’ Hill. Just a look out the window in the tap room and you’ll see a field of pumpkins used to make the beer. It takes about 150 lbs. of pumpkin, which is processed by hollowing out the seeds, roasting the gourds and seasoning with cinnamon.
After a lot trial and error, the tasting room opened to public in early 2015. Before they knew it, cars were filling up their driveway and road, and crowds of people (families included) spilled out from the barn into the picnic area. In the wintertime, expect to be elbow-to-elbow with other beer drinkers enjoying a vanilla stout. “It was overwhelming. We didn’t expect the support from the local community,” said Cole. “The downside is that we run out of beer more often than not. But we’re happy that people enjoy the beer that much.”
The outpouring of love from the locals isn’t unique in the New Jersey beer scene — but having a farm and brewery in New Jersey sure is. And for now, the guys have fun making beer. “That fact that we stop what we’re doing twice a week to drink beer with visitors is pretty great. It’s a hell of a lot of work, but in the end, you’re making beer for other people to enjoy. People come here and they make it a part of their lives. That’s just awesome,” said Bullock.
Name: Screamin’ Hill Brewery
Location: Cream Ridge
Standout Beer: American Wheat
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides pints, flights, growler fills and merchandise. Open Friday 3-8 p.m. and Saturday 12-5 p.m. Check Facebook for up-to-date hours, special events and tap list.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He doesn’t recommend visiting Screamin’ Hill and riding The Joker roller coaster at Six Flags on the same day. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?
- Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © Chris Castellani