Cape May Brewing Co. has certainly made a name for itself in the Philadelphia market. Beers like Cape May IPA and its big brother Coastal Evacuation DIPA, Honey Porter (made with NJ honey) and Devil’s Reach Belgian-style ale have become part of the Cape May story.
Now our vacations, spent on the beaches and in the Victorian streets of this unique shore town, are all the better for having a great local beer… that we can also get back home!
The brewery grew out of hanging out at the Krill family’s beach house in Avalon. Bob Krill (known as “Mop Man” for his constant cleanup work at the brewery), his son Ryan and Chris “Hank” Henke (Ryan’s friend from their Villanova days) found, as many vacationing beer lovers did in those days, that the craft beer they loved wasn’t easy to find down the shore. Unlike many vacationing beer lovers, they decided to do something about it.
First, they started homebrewing – pretty ambitious for a shore stay! – and then they got serious, and thought about actually opening a brewery in the area.
Willing to do something about the lack of beer variety at the shore, Krill and company solved that problem for thousands of craft beer drinkers. Even better, they make enough that we can get some, even when we’re at home, and there’s more coming this year. It might – just might – even be enough.
Lew Bryson went down to Cape May on the day of the Eagles parade (anything to get the story!) and even on that cold windy weekday, there was a good crowd in the taproom, enjoying Cape May’s finest. He walked around the brewery with Ryan. Here’s what they talked about.
Draught Lines (D.L.) First things first: Your company has something called a Credo Card that everyone carries. What’s that about?
Ryan Krill (R.K.) It’s our values. Everyone carries them; we put them on a card to make it easy to keep them close at hand. It’s important to us. Here’s our purpose: “To build a brewery that makes us proud.” Then there are seven values to get us there: Be a Pro, Make it Better, Have Fun, Good Neighbor and so on. But the most important ones, maybe, are these: Be Direct, Honest and Respectful.
We’re pursuing what we think is interesting, and the goal really is to build a brewery that makes us proud. We’re building something together. It’s fun, and it’s for the occasion. But it’s not something whimsical.
D.L. Building a brewery isn’t easy. You need to get the money, you need to know where you’re going and you need to make course corrections as you go. How’s that all work out for Cape May?
R.K. I was in the commercial real estate business before this, developing properties. I worked for a commercial bank. That part actually came in really handy. I knew exactly what the loan officers wanted to hear. But we had no beer experience. We had to earn that, learn it and develop it. And when Beer Connoisseur magazine named The Topsail, our all-brett golden sour, best beer of the year for 2017, well… that was validating!
D.L. Tell us more about your barrel program.
R.K. Well, we’re able to experiment with sours. We’re lucky enough to have two buildings to brew in, and we can reserve one for sours so the yeasts and bacteria don’t get into our other beers. But the program… there’s so much you can do with it. We want to do things right. It’s a popular kind of beer for our in-house homebrewing competitions. The winner gets to do a batch on our system, and brand it, name it and create a label for it.
D.L. Why don’t we see these great beers in Philadelphia?
R.K. Those are our “Research & Development” beers that we only serve in the taproom.
D.L. You’ve tied your identity to a pretty small town, even if it is a shore town. How’s that working out, and how will it work in the future?
R.K. Cape May is our brand, and South Jersey is our biggest market. We’re proud of that. A lot of it is seasonal, and yes, a lot of it is tourists. But the majority of the people at the shore are from the Five County Area, and those vacationers go back home. There’s a strong story there. It’s maybe not local, but it’s “local-ish”.
D.L. “Local-ish” is a great word. How do you know that people think Cape May is local?
R.K. We look at social media – Twitter, Untappd, Instagram –Philly people love tagging Cape May beers because of the memory associations the area has for them. People who come here tend to come back, year after year, they often rent the same place, or they wind up buying a place. So when they see the name associations on the individual beers, it means something to them: Tower 23, Devil’s Reach, Concrete Ship, Follow The Gull.
D.L. So Cape May is your inspiration?
R.K. Yep. We brewed a beer to honor Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, the Coast Guard’s only training center. It’s a juicy Northeast pale ale called Always Ready, to honor the Coast Guard motto: Semper Paratus. There’s an addition of wheat and oats to fill out the body, and tropical aromas from the hop additions. We love our Coasties, so we also offer a dollar discount on pints in our taproom for active-duty and retired USCG members, year-round. Between Philly, South Jersey and the Coast Guard, that’s plenty of people to drink our beer. We can barely keep them supplied.
D.L. It seems like almost everyone is doing cans now, and yours are particularly attractive, with a very distinctive look. Will you be cans only one day?
R.K. We’re probably going to be dropping the big bottles. As they go away, we’ll be going into 16 oz. cans. But we’ll still be doing 12 oz. bottles as long as people keep buying them. It’s traditional, it means beer to some people. Like a lot of other craft brewers, our majority package is draught. We’re still selling 60% of our beer on draught. People like it, especially in the Philly area and down here in the bars.
D.L. You mentioned social media earlier. Is that something craft brewers have to do, or is there an authenticity problem with company accounts?
R.K. We don’t have a problem. We have a full-time social media person who covers up-to-date content, with pictures and text. People must find it useful – or amusing – because we have over 100,000 followers across the platforms.
D.L. Would you agree that Cape May IPA and Coastal Evacuation are your marquee beers?
R.K. Sure, but we’re not an IPA brewery, and we’re not a sour brewery. We’re an innovative, independent brewery. We’re not chasing styles, we’re making new beers of our own. We didn’t want to make a pumpkin beer, but Bob likes them. So for Mop Man, we made Mop Water 5-Spiced Ale. It’s not pumpkin; it’s ours.
D.L. Things are getting a little dicey in the craft beer business. There are still plenty of new places opening, but there are more places closing than there have been in quite a while; some big places, too. Is that how you see it?
R.K. Well, one thing is for sure: all those breweries that are open, or opening, they can’t all win. Not anymore. There’s so much competition, it’s getting harder to get a new place rolling. And there are new obstacles, like Untappd: if you make a crappy beer, or even a mediocre one, well, everyone knows, and they know right away. It’s making brewers step up their game, and that’s good for everyone in the long run.
D.L. How is Cape May going to weather the storm?
R.K. The thing is, brewing isn’t easy. It’s an expensive, complicated business, with big capital costs and big ongoing costs. You’ve got to stay on top of it. We’re doing that by following our values; being a good neighbor, working smarter, making it better.
D.L. Sounds like you have a plan.
R.K. We do. There are no outside investors, just us, so we can make decisions without concern about short-term returns. We did hire a CFO and a marketer. But profit’s not a bad word! It drives sustainability, too. If we get a more efficient truck that uses less diesel, if we figure out a way to brew with less electricity, that’s just good for everyone in general. That’s how we’re going to build a brewery that makes us proud.