It’s arguably considered the must-visit destination for regional hop heads and craft beer aficionados looking for a unique experience. But it takes some planning to get there: Cape May Brewing Company is located approximately a two-and-half-hour drive from Jersey City, an hour and half from Philadelphia, an hour from Atlantic City…and 15 minutes from the Cape May beach.
Those who make the pilgrimage to the five-year-old brewery are greeted with a newly expanded tap room, outdoor picnic area, retail space for merchandise and growler fills and an artful brewing display. Oh yeah, and there’s beer as well.
The mastermind behind this is Ryan Krill, the president of the brewery who co-founded it with his father, Bob, and college friend, Chris Henke. Since its humble beginnings in the summer of 2011, the operation has expanded to a nearby production warehouse that’s producing 8,000 barrels of beer a year.
The story of CMBC starts in Orange County, California, where the Southern Californian-born Krill found his interest in home brewing. While SoCal has amazing beaches and an epic craft beer scene with Stone, The Bruery and Ballast Point, Krill would vacation in Cape May. “When I was coming here, there was just no beer scene at all. I wanted to bring my experience from California to this area,” Krill said on a Friday afternoon in the brewery’s picnic area.
After graduating from college, he moved to New York to start a career in financing and real estate development while Henke became an engineer. Both saw an opportunity to start a brewery in Cape May. “The idea was to start really small, and with very little capital, so that it wouldn’t be too much of a financial or time risk,” he said. “We just wanted to enjoy beer and not feel the need to swing for the stars right from the start.”
They settled on a space next to the Cape May Airport and Aviation Museum that allowed for them to expand when the time came. The cheap rent, plenty of parking and distance from any residential area helped as well. Then came the big decision for Krill and Henke — quitting their day jobs, “There was a s—t or get off the pot moment,” he recalled. “Either I follow my dream or somebody else’s.”
When the brewing started, all they made for the first year was their pleasantly bitter, West Coast-inspired Cape May IPA, which is still being brewed today. Even when their market research showed that shore visitors and residents would rather drink Budweiser, Coors and Miller Lite, Krill insisted on going against the grain, or in this case, the hops and grain.
Unlike Carton’s Boat Beer, Kane’s Head High or Forgotten Boardwalk’s Funnel Cake, CMBC doesn’t rely on a single beer for a big chunk of their sales. Instead, they rely on constantly rotating styles to keep drinkers and loyal customers interested in what they will think of next. This past March, they hired a head brewer who came from Brooklyn Brewery to keep the variety fresh.
Speaking of fresh, you can expect Jersey Fresh produce to find its way onto the tap list. They are the only certified Jersey Fresh brewery in the Garden State. This year, they introduced Beets by May (a play on Beats by Dre), a reddish-hued American Pale Ale brewed with locally grown beets. If you prefer fruits instead of veggies, they found success and high-praise for their semi-sweet Cranberry Bog Shandy and slightly tart Apple Bomb fruit beer.
Don’t worry, if you like your beer the old-fashioned way (you know, without produce!), Krill and Co.’s flagship favorites include their Coastal Evacuation Double IPA that utilizes Centennial hops for a 8% APV and 80 IBU. For the Jersey strong, there’s the award-winning Devil’s Reach Belgian Strong Golden Ale that has a light-colored body but packs in strong flavor and a 8.6% APV. In the Fall, look for a King Porter Stomp, named after the Jelly Roll Morton old-timey tune.
In all, CMBC produces 100 types of beers a year. “We started with one employee, myself, Chris and my dad. Today we have 55 employees and we distribute throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania,” he said. At any given time, you can expect 16-20 different beers on tap in their tap room along with house-made soda. On football Sundays, you can expect long lines for growler fills, so one can now say that there is a market for craft beer in the Jersey Shore. Even the chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Red Robin serve up Cape May Brewing Company’s beers.
Along with the expanded need for craft beer comes a need for larger spaces in tap rooms. When Krill and his partners started building the brewery, there were strict state regulations in terms of onsite sales and tasting. Today, Krill is the president of the New Jersey Craft Brewers Guild and has overseen the loosening of the laws to allow for larger tap rooms, training employees on serving beer and safety, merchandise sales and bringing in outside food to the picnic area.
Their new tap room and educational tour is the only one like it in the state. When you enter, you’re greeted with a step-by-step process of the brewing operation via colorful drawings and chalk-like wall installations. There’s even an Internet-connected photo booth so you can take (and post) selfies with your saisons.
The equipment you see when you enter is referred to as their Research and Development area since their expansion to a larger warehouse. The new space is impressive and puts it alongside Flying Fish and River Horse as one of the largest craft breweries in the state. (Fun fact: Their bottling line was constructed piecemeal from parts found from other brewers and eBay.)
During a tour of the new space, the newly married Krill put things into perspective. “When we started, I thought I knew how to brew, then I realized I didn’t know anything. Now, I’m responsible for the safety and well-being of 55 employees who depend on me for their livelihoods,” he said. “I thought being able to drink beer would be the best thing, because that end of shift, beer is never far away. Really, it’s getting to work with my staff.”
Name: Cape May Brewing Company
Location: Cape May
Standout Beer: Cape May IPA, a dry-hopped West Coast IPA
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides flights and pints. The gift store provides growler fills, bottles to-go and branded merchandise. Outside food is allowed in the picnic area. Check Facebook for up-to-date times and tap list.
Can’t get enough Brew Jersey? Don’t forget to check out the entire series here.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He drove five hours total for this story, so he really likes beer. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?
Photos courtesy Chris Castellani