Collingswood is one of a handful of “dry” towns in NJ. That means liquor is not sold within the city limits, an old law courtesy of the founding Quakers and Methodists. So when Anthony and Kathy Abate were able to bypass the laws that date back to prohibition, and tap the kegs at Devil’s Creek Brewery, people were a little excited for opening day in May 2016.
“We didn’t know whether we’d get to 12 people or 1,200 people. The line outside was completely ridiculous,” said Anthony as he walked outside to show that the line stretched to a far-off parking deck. “People were waiting in the pouring rain for three hours. It became four people out, four people in. Then it happened again the next weekend.”
Don’t Call it a Revolution
Since that opening day, Devil’s Creek has ushered in a new era of craft breweries opening in traditionally dry towns in New Jersey. You can expect a few more to pop up this year.
Originally, the husband and wife team didn’t have their eyes set on porters, pale ales and pilsners. They wanted to open a neighborhood bar because, hey, who doesn’t want to own their own bar? Appropriately, they met in a bar — the South Jersey mainstay P.J. Whelihan in Cherry Hill.
Anthony, a South Philadelphia native, discovered homebrewing via his college friends at the University of Pennsylvania. As he became ensconced in his career as an electrical engineer while Kathy worked in graphic design, thoughts of owning a business involving beer became more resonant.
While bars come with a myriad of hassles, the laws opened up in New Jersey to allow more craft breweries to develop. The local brew pub chain Iron Hill as well as nearby Village Idiot and Spellbound served as a templates and inspiration for what they envisioned. “We liked how those places were always a little different and used a lot of different styles and flavors,” he said. “We didn’t want to have eight beers and six of them be IPAs.”
Dare to Be Different
In going along with being different, it was important to find a location in a town center when a majority of New Jersey breweries are hidden away in industrial parks. The Abates came across a new mixed-use development project on the main street of Collingswood called The Lumberyard that featured storefronts below residences.
They went to the town’s mayor to see how they could set up shop and to help navigate local zoning laws which would allow them to operate in a dry town. As it turns out, local restaurants were itching to have a brewery within walking distance where customers could fill up growlers to bring into their eateries.
Being Jersey folks, they took the brewery’s name from nearby Newton Creek, which is known for its Jersey Devil sightings.
When it came time to brew, Anthony wanted to try everything. “I really wanted to put the ‘craft’ into craft beer, but not be [so] different that people won’t drink it,” he explained. “I want everything to be accessible, but allow the beers to be cool and fun. For example, we made a Belgian Wit beer but with dark malts that people loved.”
Blending Old and New
Hence, on any given weekend, you can find traditional styles of beers brewed with flavors of black cherry, pecans, brown sugar, yams and berries. That not to mean that Devil’s Creek eschews the tried-and-true. In fact, their flagship beer is their 1888 Old Ale — and it’s unusual that an old English-style ale is a brewery’s best seller.
By definition, an old ale style is brown in color, heavy on the malt characteristics and has a dark flavor. Devil’s Creek’s old ale weighs in at 6.3% ABV with a light hop profile and pays tribute to the town’s founding in 1888. A lighter, cleaner version of this is their EZPZ English Mild Ale that is only 3.8% ABV and tastes like a pint of bitter beer you’d order from 80-year old bartender in rural England.
If you’re looking for a beer that drinks like a dessert, there’s the Caramel Apple Brown Ale that looks like a heavy beer but is easily drinkable and hits you with sweet flavors and a dark finish. For people who like their beer as part of a balanced breakfast, the Chocolate Milk and Oatmeal stouts can complement your boozy Sunday brunch.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
After that first weekend success, Anthony continues to work as an electrical engineer while Kathy runs the day-to-day operation. So when he’s not working, he’s brewing. “As somebody told me, being a brewer is 20-percent brewing and 80-percent being a motorcycle mechanic,” he said, referring to the fact that most of the time making beer is spent maintaining equipment.
While the equipment is behind the bar, the tap room is filled with Kathy’s designs placed among refurbished wood tables and countertops to give it the feeling of a colonial rustic cabin in the woods. It’s in the tap room where the Abates feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. “I look around I see regulars come in every weekend to try our new stuff and I then I meet people who drive hours to get here,” Anthony summarized. “People have fun and sometimes they pull the chairs out and dance. It’s not a bad feeling at all.”
Name: Devil’s Creek Brewery
Location: Collingswood, Camden County
Standout Beer: 1888 Old Ale
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides pints, flights, growler fills and merchandise. Check Facebook for up-to-date hours, upcoming releases, events and tap list. Food and pets are allowed in the tap room. Street, metered and garage parking available nearby.
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?