Greg Zaccardi began homebrewing and drinking craft beer as a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1980s. If you had asked him then what the most important ingredient in beer is, he would have answered “hops.” Ask him that question today and he’ll tell you “yeast.”
“I don’t need a Cascades fix anymore,” he says.
Zaccardi is founder, president, and just about any other title you want to give him at High Point Wheat Beer Co. in Butler, N.J. It is the first post-Prohibition brewery in the United States to produce only wheat beers.
Zaccardi was introduced to weiss beers while touring Bavaria with his wife, Simone, whose family directs brewing at the Liebinger Brewery in Ravensburg, Germany. “I tasted the hefe and I said, ‘Wow, there’s nothing like this in the United States.’”
After graduating from college in 1989 and returning home to New Jersey to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, Zaccardi became a gonzo homebrewer. He was a certified beer judge, ran the New York City Homebrewers Guild, and started to make plans to start his own microbrewery.
“It seemed (in the early ’90s) that micros were starting to duplicate themselves,” he says. “You saw everybody making the same kind of beer, only using different labels.” When he tasted his first Bavarian hefe-weizen, he knew he had found a completely different style. He even worked briefly at the Edelweissbrauerei, a wheat-beer brewery in Durren, Germany, to learn more about brewing wheat beers.
Zaccardi knew a two-part challenge was ahead — learning to brew the beer properly and then finding a market. “The response at first was, ‘What?’” says brewer Jeff Levine, the other half of what is essentially a two-man brewery operation. “We’re at the point (in consumer education) where (other) microbreweries here were five years ago.”
Weisse-beer breweries are still common in Germany and were scattered throughout the United States before Prohibition, but the concept of a single-style brewery is new to the modern U.S. craft-brewing industry. Although some brewpubs and micros brew true-to-style hefe-weizens, and Tabernash Brewing Co. in Denver has begun to distribute its much-acclaimed Tabernash Weiss east of the Mississippi River, look no further than America’s dominant brewery to see what a challenge it is to sell a Bavarian weisse. In 1995 Anheuser-Busch test-marketed Crossroads, which Goose Island Brewing Co. brewer Greg Hall aptly described as a “hefe-lightzen” with some traditional characteristics. The beer flunked the test.
Now A-B is distributing its Michelob Hefe-weizen nationally. That beer is patterned after the Northwest-style hefe-weizens made so popular by Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. Northwest hefe-weizens exhibit none of the clove, banana, or citric qualities of a Bavarian hefe and are far hoppier. The Michelob hefe checks in at 30 IBUs; High Point’s beers are 13 to 15 IBUs.
Zaccardi and Levine, who sold their first beer last November, haven’t backed away from the challenge.
“I don’t look at this as how many stainless steel (kegs) we send out the door,” Zaccardi says. “I look at it as how many light bulbs we can make go off in people’s heads.”
Little more than six months after the brewery opened, Zaccardi was out shopping for a bottling line, and he and Levine were brewing 15-barrel batches two times a week. “The beer’s been accepted incredibly well in Manhattan,” Levine says. The distributor there “came and picked up his quota for a month, and four days later told us he needed more beer.” After self-distributing in New Jersey, High Point turned over that territory to a distributor as well. “That was distracting us from focusing all our attention on the beer,” Zaccardi says. “Just as our brewery is growing, I think we are growing as brewers...we are still changing the way we do things.”
The brewers have had to overcome problems they’ve encountered trying to make wheat beers in a 15-barrel Criveller system designed for English-style ales. They now use the mash-lauter tun strictly for lautering and use the brewing kettle for the decoction mash, which they do to break down the starch in the wheat malt, and then for brewing. Initially they mashed in the mash-lauter tun and pumped 30 percent of the mash over to the brewing kettle through tubing built to accommodate the decoction process. However, the composition of the grist wasn’t thick enough.
“You can’t pull the temperature up in the mash-lauter tun for rests,” Levine says. “You can pull the temperature up three degrees a minute in the kettle, as opposed to one degree every three minutes in (the mash-lauter tun).”
Now, after mashing they move 70 percent of the mash from the brewing kettle to the lauter tun, leaving behind the thickest 30 percent of the mash, which is boiled and then reunited with the rest of the mash in the lauter tun. The downside to this method is that when the mash is pumped, husks are destroyed, making lautering more difficult.
In mid-summer High Point was using open fermenters but was considering switching to closed vertical fermenters. The converted dairy tanks used for open fermentation aren’t as efficient, because about 11/2 barrels of each batch are left behind. Plus they take up more room and are harder to clean.
The brewery’s two year-round beers, blonde and dark, primary ferment for five days — “long enough to top-harvest the yeast,” Levine says — then are aged another week. They are then kraeusened — mixed with a small amount of fermenting beer — so they naturally carbonate in the kegs. They sit in the kegs at brewery temperature for 11/2 to two weeks.
The beers are marketed under the name Ramstein, after the German city that’s home to the largest U.S. Air Force base in Europe. All the beers are made with a German yeast strain that Zaccardi got from a small Bavarian brewery, which he declines to reveal. (Levine called the yeast “the secret ingredient.”) Most of the malt used is German, and the mashes are about 50 percent wheat. The beers are hopped with Tettnanger hops.
Ramstein Blonde, a traditional German hefe-weizen with prominent yeast characteristics, accounts for about 75 percent of the brewery’s output. It’s on tap under a different name in several New Jersey brewpubs, including Joshua Huddy’s in Toms River.
Ramstein Dark is a medium-brown dunkelweizen made with chocolate malt, which comes through in the flavor but doesn’t dominate the yeast. Both beers start at about 12.75 Plato (1.051 specific gravity) and are about 5.2 percent alcohol by volume.
The lone seasonal, Winter Wheat, is described as a cross between Paulaner Salvator and Aventinus Weizen Bock. It’s made with chocolate, carapils, and Munich malt on top of the wheat base.
“We use 25 percent more malt than in the dark to make two-thirds the size batch,” Levine says. One reviewer described Winter Wheat as “a trend-setter for weizenbocks.” The alcohol by volume is about 9.25 percent.
The first time Zaccardi and Levine made the Winter Wheat, it was a triple decoction brew that took about 24 hours (so now they’re doing a double decoction). Clearly, Zaccardi found a head brewer who shares his zest for brewing. Levine, a longtime homebrewer and Siebel Institute of Technology graduate, builds homebrewing systems just for fun. “I tend to be able to fix anything, which is why I love working in a brewery — because you get to fix anything,” Levine says. The brewhouse, which was installed before he was hired, “allows me to put my engineering skills to work.”
Kristall, the brewery’s attempt to attract light-lager drinkers, was a filtered version of Ramstein Blonde that never found an audience. “We couldn’t brew it right,” Zaccardi says. “It wasn’t on a par with our other beers.”
Zaccardi founded the brewery with Norm Rost, who handles the business side. “He convinced me it was in our best interest not to take on a lot of debt,” Zaccardi says. They established High Point as a public company with 20 shareholders. They originally intended to open the brewery in the town of High Point, named for the highest point in New Jersey, which is marked by a monument that appears on the brewery’s logo. High Point sits in rolling, wooded hills that few associate with Zaccardi’s home state. “We wanted to have a positive image of New Jersey,” he says.
However, High Point didn’t have the suitable infrastructure (water, sanitation, and building) for a brewery, so they ended up in Butler. The city was built around the American Hard Rubber Mill, a sprawling historic building where the brewery shares space with a dozen different businesses. There’s room to expand should production grow past 3,500 barrels a year.
“I want to be as big as we can and maintain quality control,” Zaccardi says. He purchased a German bottling line and labeler, and bottled product should be available in New York and New Jersey by Christmas. “The draft package is the way to sell beer in Manhattan, but out here you really have to make the bottles,” Levine says.
In addition the brewers will keep educating their draft accounts on how to pour the beer properly — at the proper temperature and carbonation level and with a big, fluffy head. They hope this task will be easier with the distribution of authentic wheat beer glasses bearing Ramstein labels.
The development of High Point can be seen as a sign that the microbrewing industry has reached a level of maturity. A brewery that specializes exclusively in wheat beers is like having a bakery that makes only cookies.
Mrs. Field’s, anyone?
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.