It’s not every day that you hear unsolicited praise for your product. But that happened for Brian Kulbacki, the 30-year old founder, brewmaster and all-around everything guy of the award-winning Departed Soles Brewing Company in Jersey City, when he stopped into Hoboken’s Cork City. “It was a quiet night, I’d say there were about five people at the bar and four of the five were drinking Modern Cup of Sole,” he says of the brewery’s stout, made with Cold Brew from local coffee shop ModCup.
But there’s one thing that really sets Departed Soles apart: It’s the the only New Jersey craft brewer creating gluten-free beer. And from what Kulbacki heard, the customers all loved the barely year-old brewery’s product.
“It was really cool being in an atmosphere where you’re actually hearing people, unsolicited, not worried about looking cool online, not rating it 3 out of 5 stars, 4 out of 5 stars, dissecting it,” Kulbacki said. “They were just sitting back and enjoying the beer. That was fun to be a part of. It made me feel good.” Kulbacki finished his beer and left the bar without saying a word, but just with a smile and reflecting on what he’d just witnessed after so much hard work.
Kulbacki’s love of beer and sneakers, reflective nature, and sense of humor are very much the keys to the uniqueness of Departed Soles. He founded the company in honor of his late best friend Chris Ward. Ward had been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder where ingesting gluten in any form – bread, pasta, or beer — causes its sufferers pain and damage to the small intestine.
“I saw, back in 2009-2010, what he was forced to drink, and I wouldn’t call that stuff beer,” Kulbacki said. “You couldn’t pay me to drink it, so I would have to bring my own beer to my friend’s place and that’s not right. Or, we go tailgate something, or we’d go out to a bar or restaurant and he wouldn’t be able to drink.
“That always just struck me as really weird,” he continued. “Some of the best memories that he and I had, alcohol was involved. That’s college. That’s just how college works and after college works, you know? That’s not to say we were alcoholics, it’s just to say we’re Americans. So, what I wanted to do with this was to create a beer that [Chris] would have enjoyed, first and foremost, but that anybody [with] an allergy, a disease, a sensitivity, or even is just on a diet [could enjoy]. Or, a couple where one of them has a dietary restriction and the other doesn’t could buy a 12-pack of our beer, instead of a six pack of our beer and a six pack of something else – something everyone could enjoy.”
As kids, Kulbacki and Ward dreamed and joked about opening a bar. Instead Ward went on to become a teacher, working with children here in New Jersey, while Kulbacki studied marketing and finance and went to work as a business manager. After Ward was killed in a tragic car accident in 2010, Kulbacki served as co-President of the Chris Ward Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to continuing Ward’s work by providing scholarships and opportunities for youth sports and recreation. Kulbacki ultimately left his job as a business manager to study brewing science and engineering at the prestigious American Brewer’s Guild, and opened Departed Soles Brewing Company in 2015.
So how does one make gluten-free beer anyway? According to Kulbacki, it starts with the grains. Gluten is a protein that is present in wheat, barley, rye, and even some types of rice. Kulbacki works primarily with sorghum, a naturally gluten-free grain.
Next, there’s the equipment.
“We have a fermentation tank that’s completely dedicated to gluten-free, all of our equipment goes through a proprietary, OCD, crazy-insane cleaning process in between a traditional batch and a gluten-free batch, so the risk of contamination is minimal at best,” Kulbacki said. “Even our canning line — we bought two separate lines, so that the gluten-free beer goes through one line and the non gluten-free beer goes through a different line.”
Finally, there are the recipes themselves.
“I spent basically three years crafting our two gluten-free recipes to get them to the point where they’re at now,” Kulbacki said. “Then, it’s just getting a little creative and going to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and the corner store and seeing what sort of gluten-free things they have, and what might work in our beer.”
Today, Departed Soles has more than a dozen different beers on draft, including seasonals and special editions. In addition to a tap room at the Jersey City brewery — just steps from the Path and light rail, which Kubacki hopes will discourage drinking and driving — the brewery’s suds are available in bars and liquor stores across the Garden State. These include:
Markers Bar & American Grill, Jersey City
Batello’s, Jersey City
Salt Creek Grille, Princeton: “That was where Chris worked,” Kulbacki said. “They’re account number one, they’ve always had us on draft.”
Jack’s Cabin, Hoboken
Gusto’s, East Brunswick
Harvest Moon Brewery & Café, New Brunswick
“I’m all about being in the neighborhood bar with half a dozen draft lines,” Kulbacki said. “I believe those guys are just as important as the craft beer bar with 100 lines.”
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About the author: Michele Thomas is professionally curious; she likes to learn stuff. A certified sommelier with 15 years of experience writing about food, wine, education and the arts, she chronicles her wine escapades as the Bed–Stuy Sommelier (@BedStuySomm) on Instagram and Twitter.