Local Brew – Demented Brewing Sees Bright Future Despite Conglomerate Pressure

It seems to be a matter of consensus among craft beer brewers and aficionados that we are living through the greatest time in history to be a beer drinker in America, a sort of “golden age of beer.”  In 35 years the number of craft breweries in America has risen from around 80 to over 5000 making a huge variety of flavorful lagers, porters and my favorite, IPA’s.  While providing U.S. drinkers, be they beer snobs or guzzlers with an almost endless variety of unique tastes, the craft beer industry has become a viable part of the local economies. However, a recent opinion piece in The New York Times by Jim Koch, the founder of The Boston Beer Company, told a cautionary tale. It seems lax government antitrust laws and the business practices of a few mega global brewers like Miller Coors may be bringing about, “…the beginning of the end of the American craft beer revolution.”  To get a local perspective, and to taste some great beer were ample reasons to visit Demented Brewing in Middlesex, NJ.  After the field was winnowed down to the final four, Demented was named the best craft brewery in New Jersey by the judges of NJ.com.

The word BREWERY marks the spot.

Siri got me to 600 Lincoln Blvd in Middlesex easily enough, but the brewery was a little disconcerting.  Set back from the street, partially obscured by another building, Demented looks to be a former auto repair shop.  Large letters in red on black spelling, “Brewery,” fill what were once windows, and you can see people through an open garage door working amid oak kegs and stainless steel equipment reminiscent of the AMC series, Breaking Bad.    The Head Brewer later confided that much like the operation producing the illicit product depicted in the popular series, the quality of the beer largely depends of the cleanliness of the equipment.  A large part of a brewing run is cleaning.

Where does one get a beer?  On the left side the building is a nondescript, black door with a small sign cautioning you to watch your step.  At the risk of barging into a private work area, I opened the door to find a small, cozy brick walled taproom where four or five people were sipping and discussing the product.  The walls were murals depicting various demonic creatures, well, brewing beer.

Choices of the day are marked by asterisks

The obligatory blackboard behind the bar above the taps listed about 15 titles with asterisks indicating which ones were available.  The inspiration for the brewery’s theme, The Jersey Devil, is the centerpiece of the board.

Before I could sit down, the man behind the bar asked me if I’d been there before.  It seemed a rhetorical question, he seems to know his clientele, but after answering no, he said, “Do me a favor and go through that door to take a tour of the brewery.” Since this appeared to be a prerequisite, I complied.  A stack of one sheets illustrating the brewing process were in a compartment on another black door. I went through and found myself amid brewing equipment, oak casks and bags of malt from Germany.  The workers paid me little mind on this self-guided tour, but one young man with a beard asked me why I took a picture of the malt bags.  I asked if he purchased any ingredients locally, and he replied that save for the occasional local hops, New Jersey doesn’t really produce the ingredients necessary for the brewing process. He purchases far and wide.  He apologized for the “mess” saying that they had just finished brewing.  The brewery was considerably less messy than my own living room.

We can’t brew enough beer… Doug Phillips, Head Brewer

As it turns out, I was speaking with Doug Phillips, the Head Brewer of Demented Brewing. He modestly downplayed the NJ.com award, and though he was familiar with the Times article, was not pessimistic in the least.  “We can’t brew enough beer,” he stated simply.  The brewery has over 600 clients in the State of New Jersey with hopes of expanding to Pennsylvania and New York.  In order to keep the supply flowing, Demented brews at least six times a week, sometimes twice a day.

Double Dementia IPA – You be the judge.

Back in the bar, I ordered the Double Dementia IPA. It’s the kind of brew that makes me take a picture with my phone to remember in case I see it on a menu again.  It has the hoppiness of an IPA balanced by the malt. It is not bitter, has citrus hint with perhaps a touch of caramel.  Names of craft beers are half the fun, and Demented is no exception when it comes to the inventive titles.  Beowulf, Scarlet Night, Orcus, Wrath and Envy were listed.  Dave Rawlins, the bar man and associate brewer assured me that all seven deadly sins are represented on a seasonal basis with one exception: Lust is available all year long.  The beer can be very strong with alcohol contents up to 10%.  I followed the DD with a Voodoo IPA, a relatively new offering made with fresh Lemondrop hops.  I’m no expert, but I found the Voodoo to have a lighter texture with almost a hint of shandy in the taste.  While I generally drink a Cote de Rhone when I am defying doctor’s orders with a rack of lamb or a porcetta, either of the IPA’s I tasted could accompany a hearty meat dish.  It may become my go- to drink with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

The atmosphere in the tap room is convivial.  The complexities and attributes of the beers are freely discussed.  “Growlers” and “grunts” are available to go, as well as tee shirts and hats.  I bought my wife a tee shirt that simply read, “Demented.”  That ought to put me in Dutch.

It’s an American and New Jersey success story.  Doug comes from Tinton Falls by way of Vermont.  He says he learned brewing in his mother’s kitchen, a parenting story that I envy.  The owner of the brewery who was not there that day, is Tom Zuber, a software engineer who, according to a framed article on the wall of the bar,  apparently lost his job, opening up the doorway of opportunity to begin brewing beer.  He found the premises on Craig’s List, began brewing in May of 2015 and serving in the tap room in August of that year.  I have to say that aside from the delicious beer, the assembled staff of Demented Brewing combined with the demonic décor and welcoming atmosphere make this local Jersey business a pleasant visit.  I know they want to keep it simple, but I hope that they incorporate some kind of limited menu in the future.  After just two strong IPA’s, I felt the need of a hero which I purchased down Lincoln Blvd. at L and D’s Sapore Ravioli & Cheese. That’s a whole other story.  Do yourself a favor and check them out as well. Since departing New York City 37 years ago for New Jersey, I have found that you can get any food or drink available in The Big Apple somewhere in New Jersey cheaper, just as good and often better.  With places like Demented Brewing, it should be easy to support your local business.

The “Reaper’s” Scythe

On a final note, above the bar hangs a scythe, a handheld farming tool still used to harvest crops, cutting them close to the ground.  But it is also the tool carried by someone we will all eventually make the acquaintance of, the grim reaper.  Life is short, so for crying out loud, do yourself a favor and stop by Demented Brewing for a couple of great glasses of beer.

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