All Exits Lead to Great Beer - Flying Fish Brewing Company
By Jake Tulsky
New Jersey. The home of Bruce Springsteen, a giant elephant shaped hotel, The Taylor Pork Roll, and now...a wealth of excellent craft beer. Of the more than 73 craft breweries in the state (in addition to its 15 brew pubs), one brewer, the O.G. of New Jersey craft beer, has been perfecting his trade for over 20 years. Started originally as a “virtual microbrewery”, Gene Muller founded Flying Fish Brewery Co. in 1995, and still serves today as the company’s proprietor and statesman.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Gene was kind enough to invite us to the Flying Fish headquarters to knock a few back at the tasting room, tour the brewery, and talk some shop. It didn’t take much convincing.
We started our conversation by discussing Flying Fish’s history, beginning with its early days as a virtual microbrewery (which, by the way, still lives, hasn’t been updated in 20 years, and still gets regular hits). In a pre-blogging, pre-Google world, Muller’s describes his site's function as “the World Wide Web meets This Old House -- but for beer”. The site focused on the common trials and tribulations that one encounters when starting a brewery. It provided advice on looking for financing, shopping for equipment, what kind of bottles use, marketing strategies, and the like.
Soon enough the site generated a host of media coverage and Gene was getting calls from banks and private investors to finance a prospective operation. It was a dream come true for Muller who, with a background in marketing, was able to apply his professional skills to his newfound passion, brewing beer.
So in September, 1996, Flying Fish officially opened the doors to its original brew house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Over the next 17 years, Muller and Flying Fish went from a brewery concept in Cherry Hill to the largest commercial brewer in the state of New Jersey. In 2013, after it had run out of space and was looking to expand, Flying Fish moved to its current facility in Sommerdale, NJ. And as we saw during our visit, the new 45,000 square foot, environmentally-friendly brewery is a wonderful place to visit (and drink).
One of the first things you’ll notice at Flying Fish is the 470 solar panels that cover the exterior of the main warehouse. Muller estimates that the panels generate around 10% of the electric used to power the building. Moreover, the facility is equipped with tacit solar light tubes in the ceiling, rain water collection vessels, and energy-efficient boilers. Flying Fish’s dedication to making a minimal environmental impact is clear beyond just the facts and stats.
While I was walking and talking with Muller, our conversation was paused for a brief moment when he spotted a recyclable bottle in a garbage can. Giving me the wordless “one moment” sign with his index finger, Muller walked over to the garbage, recovered the bottle, placed it in the adjacent recycling bin, and continued to look in the trash for any other recyclables in need of resorting.
Environmental consciousness aside, Flying Fish makes some great beer. In addition to their year-round stalwarts Red Fish, Extra Pale Ale, and Abbey Double, and seasonal favorites like The Farmhouse Summer Ale, Oktoberfish, and Grand Cru; Flying Fish is perhaps best known for their Exit Series. Muller introduced the first of the series, Exit 4, An American Triple, in 2009. After 13 years of success producing their year-rounds and seasonals, Muller wanted to do something special in a big bottle format. Enter the Exit Series.
The idea was to create one beer for each exit on the New Jersey turnpike, otherwise best known as the route to New York (or the departure spot for John Malkovich's portal). “We don’t think like this in South Jersey, of course”, says Muller. “But the rest of the country seems to look at Jersey based on which turnpike exit is closest. I thought it would fun to do a beer series based on these exits, the goal being to source as many ingredients for each beer to the exit it corresponds to.”
For example, Exit 13, a Chocolate Stout, was made with Belgian chocolate, all of which was imported at the Elizabeth Seaport, which is most easily accessed by taking turnpike Exit 13.
Exit 1 takes you to the Delaware Bay, so for their Exit 1 beer, Flying Fish worked with local oysterman to make an Oyster Stout brewed with actual Delaware Bay oysters. The goal of the Exit Series, says Muller, “is to have fun, to show New Jersey in a better light, and to wake people up to how many great brews are from the state.” Thus far, they’ve hit 10 Exits, with the 11th to come in the fall – Exit 15, Hoboken. As the former home of the Maxwell House Coffee factory, which moved to Jacksonville in 1992, Exit 15 will be made with locally sourced coffee Hoboken coffee.
Over the course of our conversation I asked Muller to reflect on his time as one of the old dogs of Jersey craft brewing. “When we started, if a bar had Sam Adam’s and Flying Fish, that was a beer bar.” Rightfully so, Muller feels that Flying Fish helped pave the way for other NJ brewers to come. “It’s funny to think in 2015, but originally, people didn’t get the point of a local brewery. We had to do a lot of educating.” An education they gave.
Over the last two years, the New Jersey craft beer scene has exploded, largely due to the implementation of the state’s new tasting room laws, which allow brewers to actually sell their product on premises. Throughout this surge, most startup breweries still look to Flying Fish for advice, some of whom send inquires through that same virtual microbrewery that helped jumpstart the whole operation back in ’95.
The future looks good for Muller and Flying Fish. Currently, the brewery only distributes within a 100 mile radius, but the goal over the next five to ten years is to expand, gradually and responsibly. As we talked about before with Shmaltz Brewing Company, growth isn’t always the most prudent financial decision, and being the sound businessman he is, Muller understands the importance of economic responsibility. “When we grow, it needs to be at a managed rate. It’s easy to open new markets. You make your beer, fill a truckload, and get a big check. But if your beer stays out there and is undersold, then nobody is happy.”
Of course, I couldn’t leave Flying Fish without getting to some fun questions. Muller’s response to my obligatory query about his preferred beer style is one of the best I’ve ever heard. “It’s a toss-up between the one in this hand, and the one in the my other hand”, he said with a chuckle. Touché, grandmaster. touché.
2016 will be the 20th anniversary of Flying Fish Brewing Co. I plan to get myself invited to the party and report back.
Published November 2015