Germany has given the world BMW cars, bratwurst, lederhosen, dirndls, and Werner Herzog; but let’s face it, none of that is as important as beer. While Belgium, England, Czechoslovakia and Ireland should be mentioned in the same breath, Germany is the birthplace of modern brewing and many of the styles we drink today.
And in one of the oldest craft breweries in New Jersey, it’s always Oktoberfest.
Following the Laws of Tradition
It’s that tradition that has kept High Point Brewing Co. in Butler going strong after two decades of making all your favorite German styles of beer. The maker of the Ramstein beer brand is one of the five O.G. New Jersey craft breweries along with Climax, River Horse, Cricket Hill and Flying Fish.
Ramstein beer is brewed with the Reinheitsgebot law in mind. For the non-beer geek, it’s the German purity law that dictates that beer only be made with water, hops, yeast and barley. Owner and founder Greg Zaccardi likes to add a fifth ingredient: “Marketing!”
The journey from America to Germany and back again begins at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where Zaccardi went to college for chemistry. The lifelong Montclair native went to the West Coast to experience life outside the Garden State (and the Northeast in general). “Schools in New England were pretty preppy, similar to Montclair,” he recalled on a rainy afternoon in the tap room. “Santa Cruz is just a gorgeous area and as an 18-year-old, I felt I needed to see something new.”
Years in the Making
In the mid-80s, Sierra Nevada and Anchor were laying the foundation for the craft beer revolution. That inspired Zaccardi to get into home brewing to go along with his chemistry studies.
He planned on staying in the Bay Area after graduation — until the 1989 San Francisco earthquake shook up his plans and stunted the job market afterwards. He returned to New Jersey with his diploma and beer-making equipment to start a series of jobs in the corporate world working with dangerous chemicals.
When he got a job in New York City working for the Environmental Protection Agency, Zaccardi joined the NYC Craft Brewer’s Guild. He became close friends with then-president, legendary Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver. After seeing first-hand how the craft beer scene was steadily growing in the early ’90s, Zaccardi decided to trade volatile chemicals and hazardous materials for the much safer beer-making substances of wort and mash.
It’s in Their DNA
It so happened that his German-born wife comes from a family of brewmasters going back three generations. So, learning the brewing arts in Germany made perfect sense. At Edelweiss Brewery, even though he spoke German and has a German family, the cultural differences were the challenge. “It was a very structured environment and the older brewers were suspicious of an American trying the learn their methods,” he remembered. “More than anything, they take their craft very seriously since it’s been around almost a thousand years. I already knew about the process, but for them, the work ethic and attention to detail is what they take pride in.”
When he returned, he set out to introduce German-style wheat beers to New Jersey since there barely any to start. With that German-brewing mindset, he went through batch upon batch of beers until he absolutely had the right recipe that he could produce consistently. Zaccardi’s mentors in Germany eventually flew in to help perfect the beers that you drink today.
Older. Wiser. Tastier.
You can taste that German perfection in their flagship beer, the Blonde hefeweizen, the most traditional of all Bavarian beers. It’s the beer that’s ubiquitous in any biergarten and meant to be drunk in huge drinking vessels that can hold a small puppy. Although intimidating, the traditional banana aroma and clean taste makes it the go-to for any occasion. The Ramstein Double Blonde is a stronger, richer and more complex version for those looking to put a little horn and clarinet in their oompah band.
The rest of their year-round line-up is a who’s who of German styles. A dark dunkel? Ja. A pilsner? Ja. Lagers, bocks, Oktoberfests, dortmunders? Ja! Ja! and Ja! If it’s German, they make it.
He decided to call his operation High Point based on the nearby area of Rt. 23 that is the highest point in the state, but named the beers Ramstein after the German city that houses a U.S. Air Force base. The connection to Jersey is that Ft. Dix and McGuire fly non-stop every day to Ramstein. “We might have been a little naive naming ourselves High Point but calling the beer Ramstein because it confuses people,” he admitted. “Although, it never hurt the Boston Beer Company who make Sam Adams beer.”
Even the Building is Old
The production facilities, offices and tap room in Butler are located in a warehouse that dates back to the Civil War and was built by the man the town is named after, Richard Butler. Zaccardi especially liked that the building already looked like an old German brewery. The water that makes the beer comes from a mile away from a spring reservoir, another major aspect of German beer.
Zaccardi slightly broke with tradition to introduce an IPA. It’s unfiltered, hence the name Spin IPA, because it’s their spin on the popular style that was often requested in the tap room. “I realized long ago that the locals keep me in business. If they are not happy, I’m not happy,” he said. “One of my mentors taught me to be consistent. ‘If you’re going to make a great beer, make a great beer consistently. If you’re going to make a bad beer, make a bad beer consistently.’ It’s when a beer quality goes down that people will lose interest.”
Still Going Strong
It’s that consistency that’s made Ramstein a 20 year mainstay in the New Jersey beer scene. In that time for Zaccardi, the consistent theme is that every day offers new challenges, surprises and opportunities. With a devoted fanbase (including chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich) and untold amounts of Ramstein beer poured at bars statewide, Zaccardi still finds something new to enjoy and discover.
“I learned that this beer connects everything in my life — my heritage, my family, my skills,” he summarized. “On another level, this beer connects to the community. People come in from all walks of life and they the only thing that have in common is that they breathe the same oxygen and they drink beer. You see a lot of neat stuff.”
Name: High Point Brewing Company
Location: Butler, Hunterdon County
Standout Beer: Ramstein Blonde Hefeweizen
Know Before You Go: Taproom open for pints, half pints, flights, growler fills, bottles and kegs to-go and merchandise. Check Facebook for tap lists and upcoming events. Food is allowed. Pets allowed in tap room. Search for 14 Kiel Avenue. in Butler on your GPS for directions to parking lot.
All Photos: © Chris Castellani / Best of NJ