As head of New Jersey Brewers Association, craft beer is her business
Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Alexis Degan spent some significant time in Colorado after college.
Her time there felt somewhat like a dream when she moved back home and discovered a dearth of craft beer breweries – or even craft beer.
Degan, who grew up in Haddon Heights and lives in Barrington, is now executive director of the New Jersey Brewers Association, which represents 65 of the more than 100 breweries in the state, promoting member breweries, sharing resources and lobbying the state regarding legislation that impacts the industry.
A graduate of Haddon Heights High School and Ithaca College, Degan didn’t always like beer. But if it wasn’t love at first sip, she says, while enjoying a local beer at Keg & Kitchen in Westmont (along what has informally become South Jersey’s “craft beer row’’), Degan came around to appreciating the nuances and pleasures of the beverage.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in writing, Degan worked in her uncle’s deli for nine months. She then moved to Colorado “to live in a cabin in the woods outside of Boulder. There were two paved roads, and I lived on one of the not paved roads in a cabin built on top of a miner’s tent. It was a very loose time and I did a lot of odd jobs,’’ she recalls.
“My friends are like, ‘You’ve have lived 10 lives,’ ” she says with a laugh. “I worked at a puzzles and games store, back in like 2006. … I didn’t drink beer at all back then, I drank whiskey and red wine.’’
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A boyfriend who loved craft beer began to convince her it was worth a try.
“I’m in Colorado in the early ‘00s and at this time Avery (Brewing Company in Boulder) didn’t even have its own tasting room, Boulder Beer was not even known outside of Colorado. So, I was doing a lot of really funky things and I was learning to drink beer. I was drinking fruity wheat beers at the time, but I loved the conversations around craft beer, I loved the nerdiness of it and all the different flavors. You weren’t getting that with Coors Light or Rolling Rock, you were getting it out of Two Hands or Twisted Tail.’’
The puzzles and games job led to a greeting card factory job and several other adventures, she says. “When you don’t know what you want to do with your life, you have adventures. I actually had a dream last night about being back on the line and running the machines. You look back on everything in your life with such nostalgia and joy.”
Crafting a new life
As the recession took hold, home beckoned. Degan returned to New Jersey in 2009 and got a job with the Camden County Democratic Club helping to get the word out about voting by mail.
Her mom, Annette Castiglione, an educator and former Camden County freeholder, guided her onto her career path. “I needed help getting a real job,’’ Degan says, “and my mom said, ‘Work on this campaign, it will expose you to a lot of people in politics and government.’ ”
Degan found a home in that world. She went on to work for Camden County’s Office of Constituent Services, then as director of communications for the Fifth Legislative District under Donald Norcross, Gilbert “Whip’’ Wilson and Angel Fuentes; and finally as chief of staff or Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez.
During her time working with Norcross, Degan says craft beer legislation was being drafted. “When I moved back here, I said, ‘Where is all the craft beer? I had been in this heyday in Boulder, and then here there was none to speak of. I went to a liquor store and found one six-pack of Averys covered in dust.
“I was working for (Norcross, then a state senator) and he’s working on this bill (that allowed for the expansion of the state’s craft breweries), as well as craft distillery laws, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! Here it is!’ ’’
In 2012, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law allowing smaller breweries to increase production from 3,000 barrels to 10,000 barrels per year and permitting beer drinkers to consume the products onsite as long as they took a brewery tour. That year, the state had 25 breweries; right now, it hovers around 114.
In 2018, the craft brewery industry made big headlines as the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control issued new restrictions on breweries, limiting the number of events and private parties they could host each year. Following a public outcry, they modified the ruling in May 2019.
Under the most recent guidelines, which are expected to be enforced more strictly by this summer, breweries will be limited to hosting 25 advertised events a year, cannot offer discounts through membership programs and cannot serve food — other than packaged snacks — to customers or collaborate with restaurants or food trucks. (Guests can have food delivered to tasting rooms, bring take-out or food from home.)
Degan stepped into her role at the New Jersey Brewers Association in the middle of the two actions.
Not all of the state’s breweries opt to join the association; some of the state’s larger breweries split off into their own trade association, Brewers Guild of New Jersey, which represents some large breweries such as River Horse, Kane and Flying Fish, breweries who have focused on large-scale distribution.
“We do have some members that are in both, and that’s fine with me,’’ Degan says. “Anything I do impacts all the breweries, even if you’re not a member. We try to look at the whole picture and do what’s best for the industry as a whole. Regulations that we think are bad for the industry, I fight against. Of course, not everyone will always agree with me.
“I try to do the best thing I can do in the best way possible for the most people and sometimes that means yelling — or getting yelled at!’’
Birthing an industry
One thing is for sure: Degan has her hands full. After getting off to a slow start compared to other states, the craft beer industry in the Garden State is showing few signs of slowing down.
Degan says about 24 breweries are set to come on board in 2020, many of them in North Jersey, which took longer to establish a craft beer scene than other parts of the state, which Degan attributes in part to higher costs of real estate and rent.
“In some towns, there is no box to check off because they are the first coming in,’’ she says of approval processes. “In the whole state, it’s a re-birthing of how you think about an industry, so a lot of my job is educational — for the members, the legislators, the public. My mom always wanted me to be a teacher and here I am. This industry has only existed since 2012 in any real way.’’
Those who can count a half-dozen breweries within 10 miles of their home may think the state is reaching a saturation point, but Degan begs to differ.
“We are 45th in the country for breweries per capita, and 36th by number,’’ she says. “We are not near our capacity if you compare us to the rest of the country. There are a lot of places that want a brewery … and they’ve seen the financial benefits of having one.’’
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As an example, she points to Hackettstown, in Warren County, which has three craft breweries –The Alementary, Czig Meister and Jersey Girl — and “two that can throw snowballs at each other!’’
Degan says New Jersey’s craft breweries bring in tourists: “Towns want to catch that wave, especially dry towns, but not just dry towns,’’ she says.
Asked what else she sees on the horizon for Jersey’s breweries, Degan says she expects to see an increase in the number of brewers introducing more lagers. “I surmise that a lot of people have stayed away from the lager because you think of it more as macro (brewery). And you can’t hide anything with that, and it takes longer to make but lately I’m hearing more about the concept of a craft lager being a thing.”
But the IPA craze isn’t going away any time soon, and Degan applauds bars and restaurants, and increasingly diners, that help support the industry by tapping Jersey craft beer.
“Lots of our breweries are utilizing locally sourced ingredients, and have a strong connection with the agriculture in the state, from grain to glass to garbage, as almost all of our breweries are giving spent grain to the farms to feed their livestock. I really want to talk more about that. Brewing is a manufacturing but also an agricultural business,’’ Degan says.
She is also promoting New Jersey’s second annual Women’s Brew Day.
At least 100 women from breweries across the state will gather Monday, Feb. 3 at Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing Co., in Cherry Hill, to collaborate on one beer. Brewers and other team members from at least 34 of the state’s craft breweries will craft a 60-barrel Belgian Tripel, The Strongest Woman on Earth, in what organizers say is the state’s largest beer collaboration ever.
Members of the state’s expanding craft beer community include owners, tasting room managers, sales representatives and other brewery team members, according to Degan, who is organizing the day-long event with Forgotten Boardwalk.
Women’s Brew Day is taking place a month before Women’s History Month, a time when Pink Boots chapters of women brewers throughout the country join in beer collaborations to highlight the role of women in the craft beer industry. New Jersey does not have its own chapter of Pink Boots, but women in the industry wanted to create a way to celebrate their “strength in beer.’’
“We’re trying to carve out something special for New Jersey,’’ Degan said.
In addition to brewing beer, women gathering at Forgotten Boardwalk will “share their experiences and network,’’ Degan added. (The industry event is not open to the public.)
Last year, the first time the Association marked Women’s Brew Day, 13 breweries and 30 breweries collaborated to brew two barrels of a blood orange and lavender pale ale.
“It is going to be a fun project to have this many people working on one brew together,” said Jamie Queli, owner of Forgotten Boardwalk and Association president. “Last year gave us the unique opportunity to chat and share our industry experience, and we’re tripling down this year. It’s gratifying to see so many different women at different stages of their career, and in different walks of life coming together for this shared goal.’’
Beer lovers will be able to try The Strongest Woman on Earth in March at the Cherry Hill tasting room, as well as at retail locations throughout the state where Forgotten Boardwalk is sold. Release parties will also be held throughout New Jersey and the beer will be tapped at the Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival on April 3 and 4.
“I love the relationships I saw form last year,’’ said Degan. “I am really excited to see what comes out of it, what ideas and what energy. We’ve tripled in size in terms of participation, and it’s going to be really cool.’’
The recipe for The Strongest Woman on Earth will be shared with breweries throughout the state who are welcome to brew their own versions, putting their own twist on it, Degan said. In addition, Hidden Sands has donated two white wine barrels to the project, so some Strongest Woman on Earth will be aged in them and released later at Forgotten Boardwalk.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,’’ Degan said.
In addition to Forgotten Boardwalk, participating breweries include: Alementary Brewing (Hackensack), Alternate Ending Brewing (Aberdeen), Angry Erik Brewing (Newton), Axe and Arrow Brewing (Glassboro), Bonesaw Brewing (Glassboro), Bradley Brew Project (Bradley Beach), Cold Spring Brewery (Lower Township), Czig Meister Brewing (Hackettstown), Devil’s Creek Brewery (Collingswood), Double Nickel (Pennsauken), Eclipse Brewing (Merchantville), Eight & Sand Beer Co. (Woodbury), Four City Brewing (Orange), Ghosthawk Brewing (Clifton), Gusto Brewing (North Cape May), Hidden Sands Brewing (Egg Harbor Township), Highrail Brewing (High Bridge), Jersey Cyclone Brewing (Somerset), Jersey Girl Brewing (Hackettstown), Kings Road Brewing (Haddonfield), Krogh’s Restaurant and Brewpub (Sparta), Ludlam Island Brewery (Ocean View), Man Skirt Brewing (Hackettstown), Montclair Brewery (Montclair), Screamin’ Hill Brewery (Cream Ridge), Third State Brewing (Burlington), Toms River Brewing (Toms River), Twin Elephant Brewing (Chatham), Two Ton Brewing (Kenilworth), Untied Brewing (New Providence), Vinyl Brewing (Hammonton), Westville Brewing (Westville) and Zed’s Beer (Marlton).
For updates on releases, visit njbeer.org/ and forgottenboardwalk.com/
Tammy Paolino covers restaurants, breweries, food trucks and arts events for the USA TODAY New Jersey Network. She’s an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered the Garden State for more than 30 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856-486-2477 or on Twitter @CP_TammyPaolino. Help support local journalism with a Courier-Post subscription.
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