If you sit in a tiny cubicle or drab office for the majority of your waking hours, chances are that you daydream about a more colorful life. For Carl Alfaro, his mind wandered towards beer. The New Jersey native spent a decade and then some as a project engineer before he delved into the world of craft brewing full-time. By trading staring at a computer all day for the smell of wort and hops, he created Conclave Brewing, one of the most highly rated breweries in the state.
Was there a “Take This Job, And Shove It!” moment for Alfaro? He responds with a huge, bent over laugh. “Not exactly. It was a series of things, but it could have been many days where I could have just walked out,” he said. “It was actually my wife who encouraged me to quit my job and brew. I was the hesitant one!”
Located in an industrial park in Raritan Twp., Conclave is a small operation, but with big-flavored beers and a reputation to back it up. Last year, they were the top-rated brewery in New Jersey by Untappd users, the social-media mobile app used by millions of beer enthusiasts worldwide.
What brings in beer fans from different states is their Gravitational Waves, an aromatic American IPA that’s dry-hopped with Citra, Galaxy and Mosaic hops and leaves you with a juicy orange taste. It’s a 6.8% ABV, but the more important number is that it’s a 4.3 out of 5 stars on Untappd.
The journey to cult status begins where the brewery is now in Hunterdon County. Alfaro has spent his whole life in Jersey, but a skiing trip to Colorado during his college years in the mid-90s changed his view on beer. He discovered the craft beer scene in the state — most notably Breckenridge Brewing — and decided to pursue home brewing when he couldn’t find anything like the beer he had in Colorado. “There’s a whole different world of beer out there that I didn’t even know about,” said Alfaro on a Saturday before he opened the doors to the tap room.
After graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken with a degree in Civil Engineering, he toiled away in the 9-to-5 corporate world. The whole time, he honed his brewing skills at home.
After he turned 40 and spent two decades in engineering, he felt the timing was right to reverse course. “I didn’t want to look back at my life and say that I never tried to do something that I truly loved,” he said. “It was a perfect storm of things coming together.”
As it turns out, Tim Bouton, an old high school friend, moved back to White House Station, a mile away from where Alfaro was living. Bouton was also into the craft beer scene and was interested in partnering up to create their own unique brews.
After a few years of talking, thinking and, eventually, looking into starting their own operation, they settled on collaborating on what would become Conclave. “The name comes from a secret society of brewers. The myth we created is that they merged old world techniques with new world craft beer styles,” Alfaro said about creating their brand.
Their vision of what they want to make depends on their mood and what they haven’t tried before. “Every week, we sit down with everybody who works here and we ask ourselves, ‘If we could make any beer we want, what would we make?’,” he explained. “We then try to source ingredients locally to make what we write down on paper. It’s a truly collaborative process. Before we know it, we’re brewing it.”
Even though the hop heads are jonesing for Gravitational Waves, those looking for something dark and richer will fall over themselves for Conclave’s Espresso Milk Stout, using beans from nearby Benfatto Coffee. It’s like a creamy light cappuccino without the long lines and the barista misspelling your name. And at 5.9% ABV, you can have a full pint and still take on the day.
If you loved that, then their small batch Mexican Morning Stout (only available in 4 oz. pours) is the stuff that puts flavored coffee and complicated espresso concoctions to shame. They take the milk stout and add dried red chile de arbol peppers, vanilla beans, cinnamon and cocoa nibs during the process. The result is a heavenly flavor with just enough heat to make you notice while finishing with a silky smooth sweetness.
To acknowledge their popularity and rising stock in the New Jersey craft beer scene, they’ve introduced their Bigger Space Double IPA, their first DIPA offering. Conclave will hit the two-year mark this July, and is hoping to expand output. They would like to add more space when something opens up in their current business park, but in the meantime, the Bigger Space beer will have to do.
“I’m pleasantly surprised by the local support. [That] people come from out-of-state to make the trip is pretty overwhelming.” When Alfaro opened the doors to the taproom at 1 pm, a group of guys from Connecticut came with growlers in hand to sample all that they had to offer. After them, an older local couple hailing from England came in to see what they’ve been missing. By 1:30, the tables in the brew house were filled with new fans.
It’s the new fans that makes quitting Alfaro’s day job to brew full-time all the worthwhile. “Every weekend, I get to meet new people,” he said. “It’s something I wouldn’t be able to do at my old job. Plus, I just love the process of creating something from scratch and seeing it through to the end.”
Missed the last installment of Brew Jersey? Read all about Climax Brewing. Don’t forget to check out the entire Brew Jersey series here.
Name: Conclave Brewing
Location: Raritan Township, Hunterdon County
Standout Beer: Shamaniac IPA
Know Before You Go: Taproom open Fridays 5-7 pm and Saturdays 1-5 pm for pints, 4 oz. pours, growler fills and merchandise. First-time visitors must see the brewing facility before ordering. Check Facebook for upcoming can releases and events. Food is allowed. Pets allowed in tap room, but not recommended since it’s small. Suite 202 is the middle building in the back of 15 Minneakoning Road.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?