The craft movement takes many shapes and forms. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, you might just have started an indie rock band or worked on the next great American novel. Today, starting your own business is a much more viable option. The craft beer movement is no different than starting your own artistic Instagram account, creating a single-origin coffee roaster or designing your own line of speciality stationary. It’s all about being your own boss and having ownership.
While those in New York City or Philadelphia may dismiss New Jersey as being devoid of artistic expression or worthwhile culinary endeavors, you need only look at Twin Elephant Brewing Company to see the “craft movement” in full effect. It’s not located in the warehouses of Bushwick, Brooklyn or the row homes of Northern Liberties, Philadelphia — it’s in Chatham, nestled between the upscale suburb of Summit and the high-end shopping of Short Hills Mall.
Founded by the husband and wife team of Tim Besecker and Cindy Derama and their friend Scott McLuskey, the New Jersey natives discovered the world of craft beer on a 2001 college road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in California. “We stopped at a rest stop and I saw a Lagunitas IPA on the shelf,” Besecker recalled. “I tried it and I became full-on into finding craft beer.”
That finding turned into a decade-long homebrewing project. Eventually, the three got tired of thinking about starting a brewing company and decided to take the plunge. They didn’t realize that what would eventually become Twin Elephant was already being hashed out. “We were always experimenting with recipes. In that decade, we probably made 300 different beers that we now get to create on a larger scale,” said Besecker. “Our model is based on variety and freshness. You can come in every weekend throughout the year and see a completely new tap list every time.”
After two years of looking throughout New Jersey for a reasonably priced location, they happened upon a re-zoned space in Chatham, ten miles from their homes in Murray Hill and Berkeley Heights, that allowed them to operate a brewery with a great water supply in a retail area while having a large tap room.
While other craft brewers in the state have 30-to-200 barrel systems in their production facility, Twin Elephant gets by with a two barrel system that creates a minimum of four kegs per week. “With our small scale, it does allow us to continue that home brewing experimentation,” said Derama, who runs the brewery full-time. The high turnaround and high demand limits their growler fill-up and tap room hours. “We have to do some tricky maneuvering to keep six taps going. We go through a week’s batch in a weekend.”
Derama’s background in engineering and automation came in handy in upscaling their homebrewing operation. In fact, homebrewing clubs visit to see how it can be done simply without buying $100,000 worth of equipment.
Since opening in May, the group does bring back popular beers based on customer feedback. They started with the Belgian-inspired Wit Whale and Mr. Pinkerton, a hibiscus wheat ale made with Belgian yeast that gives it an unusual pink hue.
Even though there is not a flagship beer, Diamonds and Pearls (named after the Prince song) proved to be a highly sought after milk stout that uses coffee from Summit’s Boxwood Coffee’s Sweater Weather Blend. Another dark and sweet drinking beer is their Tula Bear, which tastes like a Tootsie Roll in a glass. In keeping with the craft beer tradition of creating puns out of beer names, Kettle Down Now is a kettle sour that’s bright and refreshing with grassy undertones. For those who just want to drink a beer, their Chuck’s Garage is a simple, approachable light American ale.
What makes Twin Elephant stand out from the other breweries in New Jersey is the tap room, by far the most impressive in the state. Designed by Brooklyn architect Jim Dreitlein, the hand-built room is made out of reclaimed wood from a collapsed 1950s barn. Carpenters and woodworkers can marvel at the benches, booths, stools, bar, fixtures and flight trays that were painstakingly constructed over an eight-month period. “The design of this tap room was very important to us because we knew the majority of beer will be sold from here,” Besecker said. “We wanted an atmosphere that made people feel comfortable and allowed different groups of people to interact.”
As Besecker explained the philosophy, new friendships were being made in the communal center high bar and extra-large booths. With the lack of a traditional stool and bar set-up, it forces people to step away from the service area to relax and enjoy their pints and flights with other craft beer enthusiasts.
The set-up is reminiscent of the beer gardens of Germany and Belgium, which encourages interactivity and a family-friendly environment. “It’s amazing how locals come here that lived here all-their lives and they meet other locals that they never would have interacted with,” said Derama. “The literal blood, sweat and tears that we put into this space was totally worth it.” Besecker points to the Belgium model, where every town and village has a local brewery that acts as a meeting place that sustains the community.
With the beautiful taproom in place, opening day saw an at-capacity crowd and line outside waiting to get in to try a Tag Your Wit and Shimmy Shimmy Ye IPA. “We knew it would be crazy from talking to other New Jersey breweries. We were mentally and physically prepared,” Derama remembered. “As it turns out, we were NOT mentally and physically prepared. At least the cops didn’t come.”
When new and regulars come in, they all have the same question — what’s with the name? Naming beers is fun (they have a list of a hundred punny beer names ready to go), but naming a brewery? Not so easy. Besecker’s twin brother thought of the name because elephants are rarely born as twins. It spoke to the group’s ambition to be rare and unique.
With that in mind, they receive immense satisfaction in creating beer that speaks to their need to be creators. “There’s no feeling like formulating an idea for a beer, watch it develop over time and then seeing somebody enjoy something you created from start to finish,” said Besecker. “It’s very similar to an artist creating a painting and seeing people enjoying their work.”
For Derama, it’s all about owning a small business. “We’re passionate about what we do. Working for yourself is fulfilling. We’ve all had experiences in the corporate world, but creating beer and being able to do our own thing feels natural. On top of that, we get to see people from all walks of life come together in a space we created.”
Can’t get enough Brew Jersey? Don’t forget to check out the entire series here.
Name: Twin Elephant Brewing Company
Standout Beer: Diamonds and Pearls — a milk stout with notes of coffee, cinnamon and chocolate
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides pints, flights, limited growler fills and merchandise. Open Friday (4-10pm) and Saturday (12-10pm). Check Facebook for up-to-date hours, upcoming can releases, schedule of food trucks and tap list. First time visitors must take tour before entering tap room. Food is allowed in the tap room.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He thinks a craft beer is an excellent way to deal with holiday shopping. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?