[A similar version of the following was published in the Waterbury Republican-American on July 27, 2018.]
Family visits to Long Beach Island on the Jersey shore in the 70s and 80s imprinted memories I’ll always cherish. Along with the sunsets over the bay and waves on a scratchy float, there were the tastes, like pancakes at Uncle Will’s and sweet scoops at the Skipper Dipper.
Over the decades, my preferences have evolved from funnel cakes to pale ales, and LBI has evolved with me. In 2016, the island’s first brewery started pouring: Ship Bottom Brewery.
The brewery is named for a town on LBI, where in 1995 owner Robert Zarko homebrewed his first batches. After building his passion into a small professional brewery out of his Pennsylvania garage, Zarko decided to make LBI the brewery’s home.
This year my Aunt Christine and Uncle John organized a weeklong return to LBI for a new generation to have their Jersey shore experience. While my nieces and nephews headed to Fantasy Island Amusement Park, I climbed the welcoming stairs to Ship Bottom.
During my first trip, the brewery was beset by strollers: I counted six infants enjoying a day out while their folks enjoyed it more in the airy tasting room, with four-seater table tops, picnic tables and a small bar. Ship Bottom doesn’t serve food, so I brought along a panini and salad from Spice It Up, a store next door.
I sipped my way through a “wave”: a flight of four beers placed in a hard-carved, wooden surfboard. From left to right, there was the gentle Barnegat Lager, named for the lighthouse at LBI’s northern tip; a biting low-alcohol IPA named Stupid Paddle Boat; a pungent coconut porter; and a stout on nitro that made the world spin a little more slowly at 8.4-percent alcohol by volume.
I decided to give myself an excuse to sail back to Ship Bottom by arranging an interview with the head brewer, Jake Stablein.
Stablein met me on a sweltering Friday afternoon; the 31-year-old had just finished up an impromptu tour of the brewhouse, which along with the tasting room and gift shop is housed on the second floor of a busy shopping district called Bay Village.
The upbeat brewer had near shoulder-length wavy dark hair, black tortoise-shell glasses and something between stubble and beard. He emitted a beach vibe that was more genuine bliss than laid back guise.
Despite being from Denver, Stablein’s future in beer was far from being pre-ordained. In fact, wanderlust inspired him to go abroad instead of sticking around for college. Early dreams of becoming a chef were doused after negative experiences in kitchens where he worked the summer jobs that got him enough cash to head to Prague. There, he landed some jobs teaching English.
The beer Stablein had drunk up to this point was forgettable, and it wasn’t until he turned 21 and convinced his Czech friends to join him in Belgium that he grew to appreciate beer. “Over there it was no big deal to turn 21, but I told them it was important to me,” he said. Dubbels, tripels and saisons sparked something the culinary world could not.
Upon returning to Denver, Stablein made his own Belgian-style beers, and landed a gig at one of the city’s many homebrew stores. When a plan to create another such business in Delaware fell through, Stablein started working as an assistant brewer at Twin Lakes Brewing in Newport, Delaware.
That’s where he first crossed paths with Zarko, whose Ship Bottom Brewery was a small venture in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Stablein used Twin Lakes’ equipment to wash Zarko’s kegs, and joined Zarko for some brew days. A few years later, after Stablein had left the state to work at Duck Rabbit Brewing in North Carolina, Zarko asked him to be his head brewer in Beach Haven.
“He was pretty smart and knew more about beer than I did,” Zarko, 50, said in a phone interview. “I talked to him about moving to the beach… With Duck Rabbit, I knew he was strong in stouts and IPAs. He had a lot to bring to the table and we talked about making interesting beers and making them the best we could. We’re striving to get better and better.”
Lure of the beach
Brewing in seasonal paradise has its obvious advantages, but some come in unexpected places. For example, the brewery’s soft water lends itself particularly well to lagers, which Stablein and an assistant brewer make. “Lagers are near and dear to my heart,” Stablein said.
Stablein doesn’t believe in playing with water’s mineral content, so he creates recipes to work around it for IPAs as well, including a New England IPA that emphasizes hops that produce a tropical fruit flavor. “Right now the soft and juicy thing is in, but I’ve always liked it,” he said.
Being central to foot traffic and thirsty tourists puts a spotlight on Stablein’s work. “We get blasted in the summer,” he said. “We get a lot of people who don’t normally drink beer, so we’re on the education part of it too. … People just end up walking in that would normally never come to a brewery.”
Stablein enjoys giving tours of the 15-barrel brewhouse; these tours used to be mandatory by state law, until lawmakers changed their minds this year, finding that it unfairly hamstrung the breweries.
Not wanting to be seagull-holed into one category of beers, Stablein makes sure to create a wide variety: 18 different brands in cans so far, and another four in bottles. Two of his best beers are dissimilar: Peach Cobbler is made with extract and is light and refreshing. The Shorty’s Copo Coconut Porter benefits from Stablein’s trial and error; the latest version incorporates coconut puree and extract to perfect the aroma and taste.
He makes use of sea salt from Barnegat Bay harvested by local restaurant Black Eyed Susan’s for his Mexican Cerveza with lime zest, and a Mango Gose, a collaboration with a Pennsylvania brewery.
For a spicy twist on IPA, Stablein uses a honey-habanero hot sauce from The Chicken or the Egg, another local restaurant. “It’s hard to explain,” Stablein said, then did what every beer writer dreams of: got us some samples. The “Chegg IPA” starts with a wave of honey sweetness that recedes and leaves behind a slight tongue burn.
Pairing beer with food is part of Stablein’s passion, working with local chefs and arranging for meaningful mixes. His top recommendation: Shack IPA and clam pot.
Ship Bottom is available on tap at local restaurants, in four-packs, by to-go crowler (beer poured from a tap into a can), and sometimes by bottle. One bottle was the Wooden Jetty Whiskey Barrel Stout; it’s intense, even for experienced drinkers, but for lovers of spirits, this 11.4 percent alcohol-by-volume might be exactly what you crave.
Brewery for all seasons
After Labor Day and Chowderfest in late September, it gets very quiet on the 18-mile-long, narrow barrier island, which has only about 20,000 winter residents, as opposed to the tourist season, when more than 150,000 inhabit LBI. Unlike many local businesses, Ship Bottom stays open all year, even the quietest months of January and February.
“In the winter it’s easier to get here, but no one wants to have a few beers, then run the gauntlet of bored cops,” Stablein noted.
While there are more than 100 breweries in New Jersey, Ship Bottom remains the only one on LBI. “I’d like to see another brewery open on the island, actually,” he said. “Business attracts business.”
In general, Stablein wants the good folks of Connecticut to know that Ship Bottom is no tourist trap, and that as a year-round resident himself, he pours a bit of himself into every beer.
“I work hard to make great beer, and I work really hard to make sure that it’s an experience in a glass, whether you’re on vacation or drinking it at home,” he said. “And you gotta come for the sunset. It’s amazing. Even after living here for two years, I still stop and watch the sun go down. You look over and it wows you every time.”
Until next time, sip well.
You can contact Beer Snob at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @beersnobwrites.com.
IF YOU GO
Ship Bottom Brewing
830 North Bay Avenue, Store 23
Beach Haven, NJ 08008