At the beginning of this decade, New Jersey’s craft beer scene was almost non-existent with a handful of breweries scattered throughout the state. The major players came from popular out-of-state names like Delaware’s Dogfish Head, Pennsylvania’s Victory or Brooklyn Brewery.
That’s when Augie Carton saw a void and need for locally brewed beer that he and his friends could enjoy. Today, Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands is one of the most respected craft breweries in the state for its flagship beer, Boat, and its ever growing list of experimental pale ales, IPAs, sours and porters.
The business started around the idea of a low-alcohol session beer with great flavor that can be enjoyed over and over. Augie and his cousin Chris built a kegerator (a refrigerator that keeps kegs cold) so they could enjoy fresh beer from companies other than the dominating brand names like Budweiser, Coors or Miller. Eight years ago, it became exceedingly difficult to find obscure labels, let alone something that was produced in state. “I said to my cousin, who’s a lawyer, ‘Why aren’t there more breweries in New Jersey? Go find out why and what it takes to start one.’ He did his homework and we found that it’s not that difficult,” Augie recalled.
Meanwhile, a family friend started homebrewing, which peaked Augie’s interest. After reading everything he could on the brewing process and combining it with his passion for cooking, the concept for Boat Beer started. “All these great craft beers like Ithaca’s Flower Power and Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA are so aromatic and enjoyable, but they are 8% alcohol. After two, you need help standing up and your night is over.”
The goal was to create a 4%ABV beer that didn’t sacrifice taste complexity or the hops aroma. After many experiments and flavor deconstructing, Boat Beer was the end result. “Once we had that done, it was time to open a business. I felt like a proud father. Many companies are doing session beers now, but they are not Boat.”
Augie set up shop in a historic 1890s brick warehouse that stored tents for area Methodists in the winter as well as storage facilities for the Masons. Carton Brewing opened to the public in the summer of 2011, when only a dozen craft breweries were in the state. Today, there are more than 60 licensed facilities in New Jersey with new ones popping up each season. “Six months in, we knew this was working. It didn’t take long to outgrow the space.”
The experimentation mindset continues five years later with different ingredients well-beyond the malt, yeast, hops and water concept that makes a beer. If you are lucky enough to be at the brewery during a beer launch, you can sample one of their experimental creations. There’s the Russian imperial stout Cosmonaut, brewed with freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. Feeling the need for a beer and trail mix? There’s the porter GORP, brewed with good ol’ raisins and peanuts. Recently, they debuted Sakura, a sour gose brewed with Japanese Cherry Blossoms.
For their fifth anniversary, Carton released RUB, a smokey porter recreating flavors that you’d find in BBQ brisket. It uses Ethiopian Sidamo coffee, cocoa powder, brown sugar, ground cinnamon, cayenne and cumin, “We don’t make en vogue beers. We made little weird, aggressively bitter beers that we want to drink and find interesting. So far, we’ve sold out everything that we’ve made,” Augie said.
During a recent visit, Augie and brewer Brendan O’Neil were trying to replicate the taste of a pastrami sandwich on rye using pickling spices and dill for a Flanders Red-style beer. It typically takes 5-7 batches using different brewing techniques and months of waiting for fermentation to get the recipe to their liking. “We like to think in terms of flavors and extracting umami rather than creating a style of beer. First and foremost, we want our beer to taste like beer. Then when you break it down, you can taste aspects that will remind you of a pastrami sandwich,” Augie explained.
Since the opening, New Jersey brewing laws have changed to encourage state growth, growlers fills, the purchase of kegs and the building of tap rooms. Although, there is still “Tour to taste” where you have to take a tour of the facilities before tasting.
With a great reputation in not only the NJ beer scene but in the U.S. craft beer community, Carton plans to expand their Atlantic Highlands facility to the building next door. It will allow for a larger tap room and higher output beyond their current 15-barrel system. In the meantime, Augie keeps his day job as a finance broker, but his head will always be in beer and Jersey pride. “This is our hometown. Our bet was that Monmouth County would drink the same beer that we do. This town made us who were are and we take pride in that.”
Name: Carton Brewing
Location: Atlantic Highlands
Standout Beer: Boat, a low alcohol session ale with notes of grapefruit, white and yellow fruit, pine and moss.
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides flights, growler fills and cans to go, must take a tour before tasting
Missed the first installment of Brew Jersey? Read all about Jersey City’s Departed Soles here.
Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com, so he drinks a lot of beer. He also writes the travel blog Why Amy I Not There?
Hero (Top) Feature Image: ©Chris Castellani
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