John "Merk" Merklin, one of East Coast Beer's owners, says the meeting went very well. The company is excited at the opportunity to become part of and work with Belmar's business community, he says.
"On the way out, I probably got five or six people stopping me, telling me how awesome it's going to be," Merk says. "We'll still have to sit in front of some zoning boards and stuff, but the town has basically given us their blessing.
"It's dynamite to be so-well received by both the town and the people. The tavern owners are behind it; (other) local businesses are behind it. There's a guy with a bed and breakfast nearby who thinks it's going to be great for business. We've been contacted by cigar shops, coffee shops … Everyone in the area is really feeling it."
Freedman's is still operating as a bakery but is expected to wind down its business soon. The 30,000-square-foot Main Street building is under purchase with the intent to dedicate about half of its floor space for the brewery as an anchor tenant. The objective, Merk says, is to get the brewery up and running by next summer.
"We've got to move quickly on a lot of fronts," Merk says.
East Coast would become Monmouth County's third production brewery (behind Kane and Carton) and its fourth brewery overall (Basil T's brewpub is in Red Bank). Tom Przyborowski, point man for developing East Coast's Beach Haus beers produced under contract by Genesee Brewing, will continue on as East Coast's head brewer.
In business for 50 years or so, Freedman's is a well-known fixture on the Jersey shore landscape in Monmouth County. "Everyone knows the bread, the rye bread," Merk says. "They had a big wholesale business at one time, and the property itself is iconic. You don't go through Belmar without seeing the Freedman's sign."
Based in Point Pleasant Beach, East Coast entered the New Jersey craft beer market three years ago with Beach Haus Classic American Pilsner, brewed at Genesee in Rochester, N.Y. The pilsner was soon followed by production at Genesee of a schwarzbier, amber ale, and just this past spring Cruiser IPA.
Production of those beers, plus a lineup of seasonals and other brews – "Porters, stouts, Scotch ale, oh my!" Merk says – would shift to Belmar, ending the arrangement under which East Coast began building its brand.
When Merk and co-founder Brian Ciriaco formed East Coast as a company in 2009, the business plan included evolving it into a New Jersey-based brewery of some sort, but with production of the core brands staying at Genesee.
Regulatory changes signed into law just a year ago this Saturday (Sept. 21) – notably rules that give craft brewers greater flexibility to retail beer to the drinking public – put East Coast's plans for a New Jersey brewery on the fast track and brought logic to bringing home its core brands for bottle and draft markets. (East Coast also plans to do some canning.)
There's substantial savings, Merk says, to be realized by brewing the beers in New Jersey: East Coast spent $60,000 last year just to ship its beer, brewed in lots of 500 barrels (7,500 cases), from Rochester to New Jersey.
"That's something we could put back into the business," he says. "With the recent changes by the Legislature, and actually with a couple years in with experience, we realized it's more advantageous from a business level to do everything on site, let alone all the natural flexibility we're going to gain from that to do other beers, more styles more rapidly, and to do some specialties and one-offs.
"We've got stuff in the works that we've really held back on, based on the nature of the contract (brewing) business. The misnomer is that it's the easy way to do things. It's complicated and expensive to do contract brewing. I'm glad we got started that way. It helped us to establish the brand. The advantages that help you get started, some of those very same things can become disadvantages to keep building off the brand."
A brewery in Belmar also means relocating the company's business headquarters from the founding location of Point Pleasant Beach.
But Merk calls Belmar an ideal fit for a company whose beers are thematically tied to the shore lifestyle. Conversely, a craft brewing company, he says, is a good industry match for the Monmouth County beach town known for a summertime population boom, charter boat fishing and a vibrant nightclub life.
Belmar is also home to an annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, a sandcastle contest, and a seafood festival. For the past three years, it has hosted a September craft beer festival.
"Belmar itself is going through – I don't know if renaissance is the right word – a bit of maturing," Merk says. "It's kind of evolving. It's certainly a place with a lot of activity, a lot of fun happening, a lot of people, especially depending on the time of year. But it's also creating this year-round identity. It's not just a party town anymore.
"Not every town can have a car manufacturer or computer manufacturer. But every town can have a brewery."