Beer Nuts

Happy Birthday to Manafirkin

By JEFF LINKOUS | May 23, 2018
Photo by: Jeff Linkous


What’s an apt gift for a paper anniversary? Ask the folks at Manafirkin Brewing, and they’ll doubtlessly say, “beer.” And that’s not just because beer is their stock-in-trade. The Stafford Township brewery just celebrated one year of making and selling beer to the drinking public with an all-day open house in its Bay Avenue brewery and tasting room last Saturday.

Outside, the skies poured biblically, but that wasn’t enough to water down the turnout: Dozens of craft beer fans trimmed the two sides of the bar and shared flights and pints at the tables. Craft breweries are still a draw, even in heavy weather.

That’s worth mentioning because brewing industry analysts lately have muttered about some less than sunny skies ahead for craft beer. More on that thread in a moment. But first, back to Manafirkin.

Saturday’s tap lineup featured a number of Manafirkin’s flagship brews – Cobra Kai PA (an IPA), Wake the Firk Up oatmeal coffee stout – and some other gems, notably a Czech-style pilsner (Czech Czech Raise) that’s a great take-home brew (think crowler). Also featured for sale were quart cans (crowlers again) of Midnight Barrels, a stout aged for five months in Laird’s Applejack brandy barrels.

So a toast to Manafirkin Brewing. Happy first anniversary, and many more. (FYI: The brewery takes its name from the 11-gallon casks often used by craft brewers to give their brews the real ale treatment, a la British-style conditioning – low carbonation and served at “cellar” temperature of 50 degrees or so.)

Now for that less than sunny forecast: Manafirkin’s observance comes at a time when craft brewing headlines include talk about the industry losing some of its fizz. There’s certainly more competition than ever before, and nationally about 50 more breweries closed last year (165, The Washington Post reports) than the year before.

In New Jersey, there was consolidation and closure, according to Contract beer company Boaks halted production, while 902 Brewing and New Jersey Beer Co., makers of LBIPA, merged.

The spike in casualties is enough to rattle an industry long used to its trade groups’ cheerleading: effusive talk of surging growth practically year after year and hailing milestones, such as the number of breweries these days surpassing the pre-Prohibition tally.

While last year’s closings are sobering enough, they shouldn’t be readily captioned as an industry shakeout. Over 30-odd years of craft brewing in America, the industry has seen contractions and closures before. (What business sector hasn’t?)

Twenty-three years of steady craft brewing in New Jersey has been no different. Closings dot the state’s time line, and they’ve happened for a lot of reasons, including shutting down to reopen in another state, and business partner breakups that had more to do with personalities than producing beer. Closures happen for individualized reasons.

So on the cusp of summer 2018, the best way to describe the craft brewing industry is as maturing. Amid that climate, however, are some narrower straits to navigate. The enthusiastic hobby brewer looking to go pro may now have a tougher time making that happen. Contract beer companies, ones that hire a brewery to produce for them, also may find things more difficult in the competition for tavern tap handles and the drinking public’s stomach space. The contract companies’ Achilles’ heel: no taproom to capitalize on a lucrative alternative cash stream beyond distributing beer to bars, stores and restaurants.

But there’s even a silver lining in all this. More competition also means more selection (and there is vast selection now), with more styles than ever.

The beer landscape is very different now. Millennials, whose first beers weren’t necessarily Bud, Miller or Coors, continue to drive a market with their interest in variety and flavor experimentation. Some of the big guys are now having to follow the little guys, as far as the beer styles produced go, while lagers, often eschewed over ales because of their longer conditioning times, are making a rebound, even among the small producers who don’t necessarily have the tank space to tie up for a month.

So what’s the takeaway? In a maturing craft beer market, you’ll still find wide selection and unique beers, old favorites and brews that become new favorites, and plenty of reasons to support your local brewery.

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