Right at the inception of New Jersey’s historic craft beer movement in 1996, just as brewpubs were popping up everywhere, two local beer enthusiasts boldly attempted to change the buying habits of mainstream Garden State consumers. Like most eager entrepreneurs, the daring duo struggled to make ends meet while trying to manipulate a restrictive bottled beer market ruled by stale macrobreweries and bland regional distributorships. Completely modifying the business model for restaurateurs, bar owners and liquor store purchasing agents, Phillipsburg-based Hunterdon Distributors slowly but surely gained an ever-expanding foothold in what was once an exclusionist corporate-minded industry, creating a previously untapped marketplace full of constantly evolving craft beer disciples.
Engaging in one of the most ambitious undertakings in Jersey history, Mike Short and Dave Masterson gradually forged a cultural revolution, becoming arguably the greatest beer distributors in America as self-described “purveyors of enjoyable fermented beverages.” At first, the intrigued amateur zymurgists produced the now-defunct Jersey Shore Gold, described as ‘elegantly smooth’ with a ‘sourdough mouthfeel’ and ‘docile nature’ by yours truly (at beermelodies.com).
The nascent partners would drive around Jersey looking to increase sales for their subtle golden ale, realizing there were no representatives available for craft brew dispersal. Soon, they dropped the small brewing operation and initiated a distribution company.
Some of Hunterdon’s first intrastate clients included Maine’s Allagash Brewery, Delaware’s Dogfish Head, Louisiana’s Abita, New Hampshire’s Smuttynose and Pennsylvania’s Troegs and Weyerbacher. Also, valuable imports from B. United International were disbursed by this formidable startup venture, beginning with Germany’s Schneider Weiss, Reissdorf Kolsch and Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier as well as Japan’s Hitachino Nest product and Scotland’s barrel-aged Harviestoun series and an extensive line of mead wines and sake.
The only exclusive craft beer distributors in the state, Hunterdon concentrates more on American output, but Belgium’s impressive Chimay lineup still remains a best seller. Currently, over 50 American brands and 2,500 individual beers get circulated by this radical enterprise. Its unmatched portfolio is the envy of all competitors and a new ‘craft spirits’ division will bring further trend-setting diversification. Other popular imports include D’Achouffe and Saison Dupont (Belgium), Belhaven (Scotland), plus Fullers and Wells & Youngs (England).
Though receiving tremendous accolades from its flourishing business sector, Hunterdon Distributors’ inconspicuous origins almost defy logic. At the outset, Short and Masterson hustled to acquire accounts. They’d spend Monday and Tuesday getting customers to buy beer, then one went north and the other south during the rest of the week, delivering truckloads of beer to unsuspecting retailers not quite readied for the craft beer revolution. Taking a difficult path to independence, the visionary trailblazers preliminarily had a hard time convincing long-time macrobrew merchants that the paradigm had shifted. However, the tide eventually turned and Hunterdon now employs 17 sales reps and a dedicated warehouse staff.
“For the first decade, it was tough getting customers onboard. There’s still some resistance, but the amount of passionate beer people has grown substantially. Being a New Jersey craft beer rep requires a lot of persistence. You may have to stop into an account once a week for a year before you land one bottle placement. Before you know it, five draft lines and 10 bottle placements get procured. Then, a bar down the street will hear about the success and gradually develop a line. We’ve opened 200 new restaurant accounts in 2011,” informs Nancy Maddaloni, Hunterdon’s Director of Communications.
A Jersey girl, educated about craft beers in the foothills of Boulder at the University of Colorado, Maddaloni used to scrounge up enough money to purchase local brews by Avery, Breckenridge and New Belgium at 15th Street Liquor Mart. When she moved back home, she had an advantage over friends who’d not yet discovered or been exposed to craft beers. After going back to Colorado to attend culinary school, she traveled to Italy and France, got hired for Whole Foods cheese and specialty food department, became a private family cook, then worked for a boutique wine shop that bought beer from Hunterdon. Preliminarily, she handled the large Jersey City and Hoboken urban area. After three years in the market, she moved into her current position, focusing on building brand excitement through Facebook, Twitter and traditional media.
“Usually, people want to know our best sellers—Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, Lagunitas, River Horse, Stone and Yards,” she says. “We also try to pair beers with restaurant menus. Wheat beers and India Pale Ales are regularly recommended. As for stores, they may start with five or 10, then it grows to 100-plus.”
Because the craft beer industry has grown at such an alarming pace, there are many fine breweries whose product cannot reach Jersey’s shoreline due to heavy provincial volume. Simply put, microbreweries are doing so damn well, it’s difficult for these establishments to keep up with the heightened demand. California’s excellent Russian River, makers of the quintessential Pliny The Elder, and Wisconsin’s New Glarus, designers of highly respected fruit ale, Raspberry Tart, are constantly requested by enlightened Jerseyites.
“Some brewers just aren’t ready to open new markets yet. And that might be the situation for awhile, especially after seeing so many breweries pull out of markets this past year,” Maddaloni insists. “We are always looking for new brands to expand our portfolio.”
Recently, Hunterdon acquired a deal with Salt Lake City’s upstart Epic Brewing, the first company in Utah to make high-alcohol beers since prohibition. Release parties and special events took place in June to support the one-year-old brewery (which has produced an astounding 26 styles). In this case, Epic conversely contacted Hunterdon for expansion eastward.
“They heard about us from Oskar Blues [a uniquely positioned canned beer operation from Colorado]. Epic is already in Virginia and Washington D.C. People come to us due to the fact we have a craft-focused portfolio and an extremely knowledgeable sales staff that will therefore give the best representation for their beer,” Maddaloni concludes.
To give Oskar Blues a run for their money, another cannery, Oregon’s Caldera Brewing, recently signed on to get Jersey distribution for a pale ale, amber ale and IPA. Although bottling became the norm over the past few decades, canned beers chill easier, stay cold longer, weigh less and eliminate problems stemming from sunlight and oxidation. Once again, Hunterdon has stayed one step ahead of the craft beer curve.
With that in mind, is it any surprise Hunterdon’s business has expanded beyond its current walls?
The prospering fermented beverage purveyors will promptly move forward to secure bigger warehouse and office space. They began in a 1,000 square foot warehouse, now occupy a 20,000 square foot site, but plan to triple or quadruple size in the coming months.
Undoubtedly, the entire state of New Jersey owes a debt of gratitude to this spirited company for opening the minds and widening the taste buds of true beer lovers looking to expand their horizons.
POST-SCRIPT: On Aug. 8, Hunterdon’s staff convened at Sparta’s upscale Mohawk House to celebrate seven stylishly redefined Lagunitas brews on tap. Tucked into the picturesque mountainside, the spacious restaurant features 20-plus craft beers to coincide with its elegant dining experience. The beautiful ski-lodge-like manor has provincial dark-stained wood furnishings, Moroccan red walls, banquet dancehalls, a stone fireplace and vintage moonshine emblems. Its high ceiling right side bar area served well-regarded tapped selections from various U.S. microbreweries.
Alongside the bocce court at the back patio, I quaffed Lagunitas’ India Pale Ale, Lucky 13 Alt, Sonoma Farmhouse Hop Stoopid and Pils while chatting up a storm with Hunterdon’s Nancy Maddaloni, West Orange’s Franklin Tavern proprietor Leslie D’Aries and several invited beer retailers. Ale Street News publisher, Tony Forder, allowed me to sip from his goblet the brettanomyces-soured, raspberry-rasped, green grape-puckered Ommegang Aphrodite, a complex tap-only malt beverage previously untried. Hunterdon sales rep, James Vilade and long-time musical partner Brian Wilson (of local favorites, The Hollow), provided snazzy Zeppelin/ Dead/ Stones covers for the packed crowd. The party lasted deep into the night and served to showcase not only Lagunitas’ fine fare but also the tight bond Hunterdon Distributor has with its tuned-in craft beer merchants. Cheeeers!