The woman behind Little Dog Brewing Co. in Neptune City has been brewing artisan ales for longer than you’ve probably been drinking beer. With two decades of professional experience on her resume, as well as authoring a homebrewing book (Making Craft Beer at Home), Gretchen Schmidhausler is one of the key figures in the NJ craft beer revolution.
The journey to beer bottles with the cute puppy logo started not far from the Little Dog tap room. In fact, Schmidhausler traces the origin to South Belmar (now Lake Como).
“Me and my friends were drinking beer at the Jersey Shore, when the age limit was 18,” Schmidhausler recalled.
“That means we were at bars in high school. Back then, there wasn’t much to choose from so we would get Schlitz Dark and Löwenbräu.”
Schmidhausler ultimately graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts with a degree in English literature. Her original intention was to be a writer.
Following graduation, she spent 10 years writing features and lifestyle articles. She began at the Asbury Park Press and then worked for the Star Ledger and the Ocean County Observer.
“All the time, I was still drinking beer,” she laughed. “I never stopped! I remember when Coors was introduced into New Jersey in the 80s, that was a big deal.”
Home Brewing Leads to Something More
When Schmidhausler received a home brew kit as a gift, she discovered that it’s just as much fun making beer as it is drinking it.
“I love the physical aspect of it. I love the social aspect,” she said. Adding, “I loved interacting with other home brewers and there’s a scientific aspect of it. ”
In 1996, after state laws passed to allow for microbreweries to open, a handful of breweries quickly started to pop up.
Schmidhausler frequented a Red Bank home brew shop so much that the owners offered her a job in their new brewery. At the time she was only doing freelance writing, so she became the assistant brewer.
Three years later, the brewery closed. However, that didn’t deter Schmidhausler from pursuing brewing as a full-time profession.
She studied at the American Brewers Guild in California to advance her skill set. In her small class, she was the only woman. Now, the amount of female brewery owners and head brewers in NJ is much more prevalent.
After floating around a few breweries and brewpubs, Schmidhausler landed the full-time head brewer gig at Basil T’s Brewery and Italian Grill in Red Bank and Toms River, which is now called Birravino.
The stout that Schmidhausler developed went on to win at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver (where she now judges).
“I really enjoyed my time there. I had the freedom to brew what I wanted. The customers were great,” she explained.
Little Dog Gets Its Start
“I knew that if I started on my own brewery, it would be a grind. After 12 years, I needed to step back, so I worked in the community, wrote my home-brewing book and planned out Little Dog.”
As far as what she wanted to make, she knew that she had to make a dry Irish stout, which was her father’s favorite style. Thus, the Seafarer’s Stout was created. A tribute to her merchant marine dad, this dark brew boasts the perfect balance of sweetness and roastiness.
Adding to her arsenal was Gesundheit!, which became the flagship. It’s a German-style amber ale, or altbier, that’s like drinking freshly-made bread. It’s earthy, smooth and easy-drinking with a delicate hop bite. Rounding out her year-round selection is the Duck Boy Pale Ale, a slightly citrusy brew that uses Cascade hops.
She knew she wanted a small, comfortable space that wouldn’t be overwhelming to operate and where people could walk or bike in.
“I’m social, so I want to interact with customers and make them feel welcome,” she said. “I couldn’t do that in a nameless, far off industrial park.”
Luckily, she found a storefront in Neptune City. She quickly snatched up the Little Dog name and made her departed, beloved Basenji, Quincy, the mascot.
New Jersey’s Beer Scene Grows
Schmidhausler was part of NJ’s Brewers Guild, which lobbied for the laws to change in 2012 to allow for tasting rooms.
When Little Dog opened in 2014, Kane was the only other brewery in the area. Now, Little Dog is a couple minutes south of Dark City and Asbury Park Brewery and a couple minutes north of Beach Haus in Belmar. All four are within easy biking distance, making Monmouth County the crown jewel of the NJ craft beer scene.
“When we were successful in getting the laws changed to allow for tasting rooms, I didn’t expect so many to open,” she said. “The culture around beer has changed. It’s a different experience visiting a brewery than hanging out at a bar. Groups of people make a day of it. Families can do it together. It’s a great couples activity.”
For the spring, expect the Local Girl Blonde Ale to be re-introduced, which is spiced with fresh ginger. In the summer, look for the return of the Steiner-Weisse (named after their street location), a traditional Hefeweizen.
After three and half years of brewing excellence with Little Dog and decades of professional experience, Schmidhausler admits that she’s still learning.
“It’s a business, but in the end, it combines something I think I’m very good at with a product that people want. The best part is that you get instant feedback on something you’ve made.”
Name: Little Dog Brewing Co.
Location: Neptune City, Monmouth County
Standout Beer: Gesundheit! Altbier
Know Before You Go: Taproom is open for pints, flights, growler fills, bottles to-go and merchandise. Street parking available. No pets or outside food allowed. Check Facebook for updated tap lists and events.
Don’t forget to check out the entire Brew Jersey series here.
All Photos: © Chris Castellani / Best of NJ