German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s timeless adage, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,’ seems appropriate describing High Point Wheat Beer Company’s steady rise in the face of a thankfully bygone era when generic lagers ruled the roost, crowded store shelves and saturated indiscriminant guzzlers. Creating its inaugural Bavarian-styled beers under the Ramstein banner a few years before the majority of impressive brewpubs started penetrating America’s rank and file, owner Greg Zaccardi’s small Butler brewery became the first all-exclusive German wheat beer enterprise in America during 1996.
In hindsight, the founding investors took a mighty risk marketing European flavored brews to a homogeneous public filled to the gill with Bud and Miller. Though Ramstein has grown beyond its German-styled hybridization into Americanized ales and lagers, Zaccardi’s award-winning lineup still utilizes preferred German ingredients.
Before Blue Moon Brewery gained a foothold in the burgeoning wheat beer trade, Ramstein had already shown the way with more distinct, flavorful and robust offerings at a time when the ever popular, less savory, weaker-bodied Hoegaarden Witbier commanded mainstream attention. Though High Point’s distribution may currently be limited to New Jersey, its maibock, amber and blonde brews have won prestigious medals in Hudson Valley competitions, while its Winter Wheat took a local Suzie Q People’s Choice Award.
Yet Zaccardi admits the humbling educational experience initially took on a ‘make or break’ dilemma that could’ve sunk the brewery prior to its opening. Learning different bar’s dynamics and indoctrinating the unenlightened proletariat was extremely important to bringing cloudy banana clove-flavored suds such as Ramstein Blonde to a previously prohibited populace confined to cheaply macro-brewed pilsner lagers.
A spunky University of California-Santa Cruz chemistry major, the Montclair native learned his post-collegiate craft while brewing in Germany. He may have stayed out West in ‘89, but San Francisco was shook by an enormous earthquake that affected the regions job market (pre-Silicon Valley computer boom).
Zaccardi recalls, “There were two Santa Cruz brewpubs back then. So I was used to great-tasting beer. When I returned to the East Coast, it was a barren wasteland for beer. Brooklyn Brewery was just a small brand. If you went to any decent place like Passaic’s Loop Lounge, the best you’d get was Sam Adams, which was rather unknown. Molson was considered exceptional, unique beer at that time.”
The eager zymurgist soon began home brewing, joining New York City’s Homebrewers Guild thereafter. He watched as the microbrew industry advanced eastward through Colorado, then Chicago and finally, the Big Apple.
“I thought this might be something I wanted to pursue, since I had the chemistry degree,” he says. “My wife’s family, at the time, were from Germany. She came from five generations of Leibinger brewers in the town of Ravensburg. German brewers are very regional. They did 100,000 barrels a year, a larger production output then that of Ommegang. So I went to Germany and got an apprenticeship brewing at Edelweiss specializing in wheat beer. They were the sister brewery of an Austrian company and don’t import to America.”
Pulling out a souvenir bottle of Farny, the Edelweiss family’s namesake hefeweizen, Zaccardi then explains the difficulties of prepping a neoteric Jersey brewery.
“In ‘93/‘94, we put together a comprehensive brew plan for America, working with Rutgers Business School, where one of my co-founders went. We had a hip focus group comparing five different beers to select the best. Our Blonde Wheat was consistently chosen near the top. The feedback we got was it tasted like a beer some had tried at Germany’s American-run Ramstein Air Force base.”
Opening in 1996, Zaccardi initially favored property in High Point at the top of Route 23, a gorgeous landscape reminiscent of Germany’s hilly vistas. But converting cornfields to a production brewery wouldn’t be cost effective. So he chose nearby Butler as its locale, picking an industrial-bound red brick building with firm structure, existing utilities, and superior water source. He continues to use authentic Bavarian ingredients since the grain quality is supposedly better and America’s malting houses aren’t as good.
“Sources of richer grains are concentrated in Europe. German hops are more delicate and floral whereas West Coast hops have a resinous, piney intensity that’s not conducive to keeping the balance and flow of wheat beers and lagers. The yeast we use, especially for the Weiss beer and blondes, is unique and authentic. You have to use the proper yeast to get that taste. Butler’s soft water matches up well against German Rhine water. Soft water’s a blank canvass. You could adjust water to make a stout via sodium bicarbonates or calcium carbonate that mimic the style. But when you use hard water, it’s nearly impossible to economically rid the harsh mineral flavoring. We have an exclusive spring-fed reservoir and could pretty much do any style we want,” he proudly exclaims.
But Zaccardi admits High Point’s 5,000 square foot warehouse is too modest to drift into broad-ranging small batch beers. Though all Ramstein beers are available on tap, only two regular (Blonde/ Classic Wheat) and one seasonal (Winter Wheat) are currently bottled.
As we converse about Ramstein’s excellent tap-only Eisbock, Zaccardi’s former brewer, Paul Scarmazzo, a whimsically charming maibock-loving septuagenarian, joins in.
“Women love the Eisbock,” he claims. “They drink it like it’s soda. They don’t realize it’s 12 percent alcohol.”
Scarmazzo had gotten laid off an engineering job and just came back from a German vacation when he initially discovered Ramstein’s brews. Now retired, he spent nine years manning Zaccardi’s tanks. He began as a keg cleaner, tank sterilizer and bottler, becoming the brewer when the position opened up. Within two months, he’d learned the art of brewing, resigning after nine years, so a “younger, healthier full-timer came aboard.”
Ramstein’s newest brewer, Brian Baxter, a local musician with a superb low-key acoustic 9-song, Simple Is Beauitful, CD to his credit, subsequently took the reigns. The bearded, bespectacled brewmeister claims the first beer he ever tried was Genesee Cream Ale on an ice-fishing trip with his father at age 16. Thereafter, he home-brewed then begged Zaccardi for a job, cleaning tanks until Scarmazzo had a stroke. Now in charge of brewing operations for six-plus years, Baxter completed a two-week brewing school program at Chicago’s respected Siebel Institute of Technology and will get further schooling in Germany later this year.
But several recent economic concerns pose a modest threat to High Point’s profitability. Prices of imported grains and raw materials have increased due to the weakened dollar versus the Euro, a wavering factor that pales next to temporarily high fuel costs and empty bottle surcharges. Plus, quality distribution is terribly important for getting fresh beer to the consumer, especially since 80 percent of High Point’s beer is on draft.
However, Scarmazzo envisions an unexpected benefit to higher import costs.
“There’s an upside,” he reckons. “The more expensive it gets to send ingredients from Germany, the less imported beers will be able to compete, helping local American brewers grow. Beer drinkers never had it so good. Besides, every single German beer’s been weakened over the years. It’s lighter beers in smaller bottles.”
Though High Point doesn’t make its own stout right now, they do contract brew increasingly popular new-sprung indulgence, Boaks Imperial Stout, for native Jersey home brewer Brian Boak. Zaccardi acknowledges getting requests to brew a smoky German rauchbier and occasionally, he co-sponsors India Pale Ales for home brew competitions at Ridgewood’s The Office.
“We like to have a diversified portfolio going from light to dark and soft to heavy beers. I don’t see us making 18 percent alcohol headbangers since most are overwhelming and time consuming to create. As for local brewpubs, I’ve been supportive of South Orange’s Gaslight and Berkeley Heights-based Trap Rock. I’d like to journey to Newark’s Port 44,” Zaccardi divulges as I quaff a seven-ounce glass of amiable crystal-malted, citric-peeled, dry-hopped Northern Hills Amber Lager.
While Zaccardi’s “aspired benchmarks” include Ayinger, Weihenstephan, and Augustiner brews, he also enjoys Oregon’s Deschutes output and Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale—though this years’ model he found “harshly fresh-hopped.” He’s not the slightest bit tempted to make fruit beers or lambics any time soon. But he’s grateful for the converted dumptruck outside the brewery that boasts Ramstein’s insignia.
“We were running out of room in our dumpster, over-producing spent grain for West Milford farmers. So we went on Craigslist and sold spent grain,” he says while pouring me a sample. “A Verona man with an upstate farm in Monticello, who picks up manure from Lyndhurst’s Medieval Times and used to get grain from Newarks’s Anheuser-Busch plant, was looking for grain and needed a spot to keep his truck. Now we have a place to dump spent grain.”
On tap, robust Dortmunder-styled Revelation Golden Lager, a billowy white-headed, yellow-bellied dry body revealed an earthen peat fungi soiling not unlike a proper English Extra Special Bitter. Its wheat-cracked, barley-corned graining comforts moderate wood-dried, grassy-hopped bittering and teasing citric twang to toasted bread base.
As I prepare to leave on this brisk winter day in early March, Zaccardi pours me a newly brewed Maibock, straight from the serving tank. An earthen leafy-hopped, gourd-like autumnal crispness spreads across abundant red-fruited, apple-spiced sweetness and tempered caramel malts countering a peppery rye-dried lip smack. Less malt-sweetened than a typical Octoberfest, this superb maibock already receives first-rate consideration amongst provincial connoisseurs.
Things look up for High Point’s Ramstein line of brews right now. At least four customers have come and gone to fill up growlers and sixtels during my brief stay. So let’s have a toast for this admirable 3,500 barrel-a-year 5,000 square foot microbrewery stationed in a former rubber company space. Go to ramsteinbeer.com for more pertinent info.