When Dave Hoffman needs a piece of equipment at Climax Brewing Co. in Roselle Park, N.J., he doesn’t call a fabricator hundreds of miles away and wait for the UPS truck. He just gives his dad a yell.
Climax is in the same building where Dave’s father and partner, Kurt, operates a machine shop. Together, they modified much of the equipment used to brew Climax beers, and they also make the distinctive tap handles for the 20 to 30 bars that carry their beer.
While Dave Hoffman was studying chemical engineering in college, he also became a journeyman machinist. “When you are a machinist, you are a perfectionist,” he says.
He is as meticulous about beer and brewing, keeping the brewery immaculate and disassembling and cleaning all the equipment after every brew. Although he makes only ales, he follows the Bavarian purity laws — only water, yeast, malt, and hops go into Climax beers, with none of the sugar or finings that British brewers use. British beer writer Roger Protz gave a glowing review to the Climax India Pale Ale served at the Real Ale Festival in Chicago, but British drinkers would call it too cloudy to be served as cask ale in England. “I’d rather brew hazy beer than put fish guts (isinglass finings) in my beer,” Hoffman says.
He is just as adamant about following style. “When I make a beer I want it to fit exactly into style. Who the hell are you to try to create your own style?” he says. “Those styles have been defined over 200 years.”
Hoffman developed a love of flavorful beer in part through his father, Kurt, who came to the United States from Germany in 1958. “Over there, beer is considered food,” Kurt Hoffman says. For years he has made apple wine at his weekend retreat in Pennsylvania.
Dave Hoffman started as a homebrewer more than a decade ago. He brewed his first batch of beer from a kit ordered from Popular Science. It included corn sugar. “It didn’t really taste like beer, more like cider,” he says. After making three kit beers, he decided to learn more about the brewing process, and because liquid yeasts weren’t available, he started culturing his own yeast. Soon his extract beers were scoring 38 to 42 in American Homebrewers Association competitions, and he was ready to move on to partial mashes. Not one to do things halfheartedly, Hoffman founded a homebrew club and, in 1992, opened the Brewmeister homebrew store in nearby Cranford.
The store made decent money when New Jersey had only three homebrew shops, but a dozen more opened within two years. “There were weeks I’d sit there and make $15 to $20,” he says. While working at the Brewmeister, he also acted as brewer for a now-defunct contract brewery called Gold Coast Brewing Co. in Westfield. Hoffman reformulated and developed the brewery’s recipes and traveled to a Pennsylvania microbrewery to oversee the beer’s production.
Meanwhile, he made plans to open a brewery. He recruited drinking buddy and homebrewer Karl Mende as a partner, along with Kurt Hoffman, and they qualified for a small-business loan. Mende helped with much of the preliminary labor, including acid-washing the floors to remove paint. Mende works for Jaydor Corp., a beer wholesaler, and Jaydor originally distributed Climax’s beers. Mende is no longer a partner in the brewery, and Climax now self-distributes. “I don’t care what I’m doing — if they need beer, they get it,” Hoffman says.
The four-barrel brewhouse has a mash tun and kettle made from Grundy tanks that Hoffman modified. He also built a platform and grain feeder to facilitate mashing and designed the fermenting tanks and keg washer, among other things. Kurt Hoffman made various gadgets for the brewery in the machine shop. The brewery went on line in February 1996.
Climax has an annual capacity of 1,000 barrels and currently produces 32 barrels a month. Each batch is 16 barrels and takes four days to make, so Hoffman brews two weeks out of the month.
His brewing schedule reflects his desire for consistency. On Monday he’ll brew the first four-barrel batch and run it into an eight-barrel fermenter, pitching half his yeast. Hoffman uses only whole hops and follows a German hopping schedule, hopping each batch three times. A six- to eight-inch layer of hops builds up on a screen at the bottom of the brewing kettle, acting as a built-in hopback, and the kettle is drained through the hops. Hoffman figures his hop utilization rate is 32 percent. Although all the brewing is “fired” by electricity, and he does infusion mashes exclusively, he gets a good boil and a very good extraction rate. Ten pounds of grain in five gallons of wort give him an average original gravity of 1.060. Climax brews with local city water, which Hoffman says has “a perfect mineral content.”
On Tuesday he brews another four-barrel batch, which goes into another eight-barrel fermenter with the other half of the yeast. He uses the same British ale yeast for all his beers, taking four days to build it from a packet to a 25-gallon batch of yeast. The yeast is highly flocculent, so it has to be roused after a couple of days. He does this by dumping Wednesday’s four-barrel brew into the fermenter with Monday’s batch, then Thursday’s batch with Tuesday’s.
Primary fermentation lasts about six days, then he chills the tank to get the yeast to settle further and transfers it to conditioning tanks. He harvests the yeast and will use the same yeast for about 10 cycles. The beer is chilled in 10-barrel tanks for about four days, then filtered at about 0.8 microns into the 16-barrel-plus finishing tank. Thus, each 16-barrel batch is a blend of four brews.
Beer spends about three days in the big tank, during which time it is force carbonated. Then it is bottled or put into kegs. Climax just began bottling last August and uses only brown-glass half-gallon growlers, but by December bottles accounted for 60 percent of sales. “Each of these is a walking advertisement,” Hoffman says. “They are so big, and they stand out like a sore thumb in a liquor store.”
Selling the growlers took some work. He had to explain to retailers that they can make more selling a half-gallon growler for $6.99 to $7.99 than they can on a case of domestic beer, and he had to teach the beer-drinking public that, unlike brewpub growlers filled from a tap, Climax beers will hold their carbonation. Hoffman designed the counter-pressure growler filler — he has a patent pending — and can bottle 100 six-jug cases in 10 hours. He figures a growler will be good for two to three months at room temperature and up to 10 months in a refrigerator.
Climax produces four year-round beers. Climax Cream Ale is actually an American pale ale made with five malts and three hops, including a little homegrown Chinook. It is 5 percent alcohol by volume and 28 IBUs. It has a creamy mouthfeel, a pleasantly grainy flavor, and a crisp hoppiness.
Climax ESB is 5.5 percent alcohol and 36 IBUs. It is hopped with Willamette and Phoenix hops. Hoffman has to buy the Phoenix from Great Britain at the beginning of the hop season, because it is in short supply. The ESB is a traditional, well-balanced bitter, not highly carbonated, with a sweet caramel nose and sweet, hoppy flavor.
Climax Nut Brown Ale has 11 malts and is 5.2 percent ABV and 26 IBUs. Hoffman uses Willamettes in the boil and finishes the beer with Kent Goldings. A cross between an English and an American nut brown, it’s sweet and tastes like something you could drink for breakfast, finishing dry. Hoffman describes it as “kind of deep — three-dimensional.”
Climax IPA has 38 IBUs and an ABV of just under 6 percent (thus avoiding being labeled as a “malt liquor”). Michael Jackson described the IPA as “smooth with a layered malt background; very long, late, soft development of hop character. A hoppier beer but remarkably well balanced.”
Hoffman is the first one to downplay any mystique concerning brewing. He has enough 16-hour days under his belt to last a lifetime. “People ask you what you do and you say, ‘I brew beer,’ and they go ‘cha-ching,’” Hoffman says, making a sound like a cash register. “It’s very hard; it’s a very hard living” — both mentally and physically.
“We don’t have big heads. We want to brew good beer. We came from homebrewing.”
Climax Brewing Co. is at 112 Valley Road, Roselle Park, N.J. Call (908) 620-9585. Tours are by appointment only.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.