Interview: John Merklin Co-Founder – Beach Haus Brewery

As the July heat notched over 100 degrees, I reached for an ice cold Beach Haus Classic American Pilsner. With a cold beer to keep me company, I spoke with John “Merk” Merklin Co-Founder of the Beach Haus Brewery in Belmar, New Jersey. John’s love of the shore and tradition is imprinted into the fabric of his brewery, literally. John and I discussed paying homage to a landmark, the pitfalls of terminating a contract, and of course what happens to a shore town in the winter.

The Brewery: What beer prompted your decision to work in the beer world?

John Merklin: Well it certainly wasn’t one beer. I couldn’t nail it down to one beer. It was a series of experiences I had throughout my life around beer. Even when I was milk drinking age, just watching my father and my uncles who owned a tavern at one point, I just really had a lifelong fascination with beer and everything about it. I love the tribalism that’s often associated with it. I particularly love the innovation that’s gone on with it in the last twenty years in this country.

It’s an exciting time to be a beer lover.

Absolutely!

This is your first summer in Belmar, one of NJ’s pinnacle beach towns, are you insanely busy these past two months since opening?

Yeah, we’ve been very busy, lots of visitors. Clearly we’ve picked up some folks who are coming to the shore, mainly for the shore. We’ve realized, at least a number of cases that we know people have identified that they actually made their locale decision based on the fact that there was a brewery nearby. We’re also seeing a lot of folks who heard about the brewery project that was almost two years in the works and it’s finally open. They’re actually visiting us anywhere from Maryland to upstate New York to come check out the brewery. So yeah, we’re seeing good crowds, which is nice.

Are “Benny’s” welcome?

(laughs) Of course man. I’ve never been a part of the anti-Benny’s establishment. I’m more of the “if you’re cool, you’re cool” approach.

I’m happy to hear that, as a Northern New Jersey native, I believe I’m considered a “Benny”.

Well what we see with craft beer, it’s like the universal translator. It doesn’t matter where your background is, what your mindset is, or who your favorite sports team is, when people start talking about beer and enjoying beer, it brings a calmness to everything.

That’s so true. Where did the inspiration for the name “Beach Haus” come from?

Well, it was kind of twofold. We’re from the shore, my high school buddy Brian Ciriaco and I co-founded the company together. Back in those early days we felt very strongly about identifying with the region. Our first style we wanted to release was a classic American pilsner. That was based on an old European, or German recipe basically using American ingredients. So we were kind of paying homage to both the early German-American brewers and the beach houses that grace our landscapes around the area. The name was established before we took on a third partner who was a Day 1 investor with Beach Haus, Chris McCallion.

What’s your go to Beach Haus beer?

I could drink the classic American pilsner everyday of the week and be happy. But in all fairness it seems like every time we release something new that becomes my go-to beer, at least for that period.

Beach Haus has a couple of set styles always available. In the new brewery, are there any one-offs or experimental beers on tap?

That’s definitely part of the future. Our main priority when we first opened up was just to make sure that we have the equipment dialed in and we’re able to make those beers that are already out in distribution, and there’s already demand for. We made that out first priority. I can tell you just in the last month, let alone the last four months, we’re getting so much more comfortable with the equipment. We’re understanding it better, all of the utilization factors. We’re comfortable to talk about a one off, let’s do a 10 barrel batch of something, or even smaller. So the answer is, it’s definitely part of our future. It hasn’t been part of our present to date. But it’s something we’ve always talked about and it looks like we’ll be able to do that a whole lot sooner than I initially thought.

That’s exciting. At this point, are you brewing all of Beach Haus’ beer in your brewery?

Yep, every drop is now brewed here in Belmar, packaged here in Belmar.

Was the transition from contract brewing to operational brewery difficult at all?

Well yeah, mainly it was timing. You have an existing relationship and contract with the contract brewer. Nobody is looking to be the bad guy in this, and you want to honor everything that you can. But at the same time once you prep them, “hey we’re going to build a brewery of our own”, there’s a little bit of jeopardy there. They’re a larger brewer, they can make your life super difficult. They may decide to suspend helping you out and brewing your beers because obviously the long term potential’s no longer there for them. But I’m really happy about it. Our partners North American Breweries up in Rochester, they were absolute professionals, super supportive of our ambition, super supportive along the way. We were literally calling them while we were building this brewhouse asking questions. Even our first brews and they were providing us support. Helping us get through the first couple of brews.

When did you start running on your own?

We were anticipating opening in the summer of 2014, and we got delayed quite a bit. We didn’t actually start brewing until December. So we went a few months without being able to brew beer which could have been really devastating to the company. But we planned carefully enough to make sure we still had beer. So we had beer to sell. It was a little bit nerve-racking. Everything else as far as the transition, you know for a little while you’re kind of running not only a beer company, but a construction company at the same time. So it gets a bit anxious, but we made it through.

You constructed the brewery in what used to be a historic bakery in Belmar, correct?

Yep, Freedman’s Bakery.

What’s the plan when you’re building over something with such tradition?

Well first of all, my mother had worked for Freedman’s. I don’t think there’s a single dinner table in Ocean or Monmouth County that at some point didn’t have Freedman’s Rye Bread on it. It was kind of one of those things you grew up with. It was a name you were familiar with. It was a product you were familiar with. But you know, things change and markets evolve. We were very set on making sure that we didn’t destroy the landmark. We had to reface it. We had do some work to it, there’s no doubt about it. The building needs some TLC. We weren’t about coming in and just building completely anew. We wanted to keep as much of the building as we could, which in a way hurt us, because it did delay some of the construction. You have to be a little more careful when you’re not just bulldozing something to the base.

I would imagine. So in what way have you paid homage to Freedman’s?

In two ways, what we did, we took a lot of the wood and we repurposed a ton of the wood off of the rafters. We kept a lot of the floors. Including in our taproom there is this beautiful 70 year old maple wood floor. You couldn’t even buy a floor like this today. We left that. We also made all of our biergarten tables in the taproom, it’s all repurposed wood from the rafters. Our bar is made from repurposed wood. All of our retail furniture is repurposed wood. We even have a Beach Haus Brewery logo sign in the back of the bar in our taproom. We had a local artist named Corey Hudson come in and he took wood from throughout the bakery and repurposed it and recreated our Beach Haus logo that way. And then finally what we did was we created a beer. Herb Freedman was the patriarch of the family of Freedman’s Bakery. They were known for their rye bread, at least on my table growing up. So what we did was, we actually made a wheat beer using rye malt. It was kind of a little playful tribute beer, we called it Herb’s Rye. It went from one of those beers we were just going to brew one batch of, kind of like a one off, just for the taproom and kind of celebrate the opening with it. It turned out to be our most popular beer this summer in the taproom. We’ve brewed it several times since. It’s quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Beach Haus is currently in bottles and on draft, are there any plans to can your beers?

It’s something we’re looking at. As quickly as we’ve, and I say “quickly” because in truth we were able to get this facility up and running and brewing, and all of the equipment in and operational, and it really was an effort on our part. It’s still impossible to do it all, or at least to do it all right, right from the go. But it is something we’re looking at. Whether we do it completely in house, or if we have one of those mobile canning solutions swing by is kind of undecided. That’s something that we’ll revisit when we’re in 2016.

Okay, I have to ask, so you’re in Belmar NJ, would you be disturbed to know there was a brewery in the phonetically similar Bellmawr, NJ called Beach Haws?

(laughs) No, although I’ll tell you right now we’ve had at least two shipments of ours go to that Bellmawr with a “w” and not to Belmar, here. And the confusion is pretty confusing as is. It might provide some initial confusion to the suppliers, but that will probably only get better with time.

What can we expect to see in the future for Beach Haus?

Yeah, so as I said we’re continuing to dial in our equipment and grow our staff. We’re catching up in production terms. We were pretty behind when we launched, at least for the distribution network. We were only selling beer in state. We now opened it up and we’re beginning to ship it Pennsylvania, ship it to Delaware, and soon after will be Connecticut and New York. They’re markets we were already previously in, but just not able to ship beer from Belmar because we didn’t have enough. We were behind in production. That’s a big part of it. We’re going to continue to produce beers. There are more styles we’d like to produce. We’re also looking at some of our own little creations we’ve discussed. We have a little pilot lab that we’re building. And we should do a lot of cool pilot batches with that system, which could lead to beers out in the market.

That’s exciting. One final question, will you close down and winterize the brewery during the winter months, or is Beach Haus open year round?

(laughs) Well you know we have the Winter Rental beer, so we have to keep things rolling if for no other reason than our Winter Rental, our Black Lager. We’ll definitely have some special deals during the winter. It’s still a place people will want to come visit. We will definitely have some wintertime reasons for people to come see us. We do have a beer release just around Thanksgiving and all the way through Christmas. We have a real special beer I’m not going to name just yet. But it’s definitely going to be a reason folks will want to come see us in the winter.

I’d like to thank John for his time. Make sure you head down to Beach Haus soon. If you don’t get a chance to make it their before the end of summer, luckily they are open year round. And remember, that’s Belmar New Jersey, not Bellmawr. Cheers!