It’s a little-known secret that some of the best beers in the world are coming out of New Jersey right now. This should come as no surprise to those of us from the Garden State, since it’s a well-known fact that we’re the best at everything. Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands has been garnering a lot of buzz in the craft beer world recently and for good reason. Carton’s 0077XX and Boat beers are two of the greatest I’ve ever had in my life.
Founder Augie Carton invited me over for an afternoon of drinking and generously shared his unique philosophy and approach to beer making. Whether you’re an intense beer nerd or just a casual sipper, this interview will certainly change the way you think about beer.
Nick Santora: What is your approach to making beer?
Augie Carton: I make beer the wrong way. I don’t make any beers the right way. All I have in terms of knowledge is the flavor I want. I approach the brewers and I say this is what I want and this is how I think we can do it, and they present me with the issues. Then I read a dozen books until I figure out how to push it along. We keep brewing and brewing. There is no tried and true practice of putting wasabi root in sour beer, but we did that last year. We figure it out.
If you go to my house you’ll see my other collection aside from shoes is cookbooks. I have 400 – 500 cookbooks, 200 – 300 beer books and 200 wine books. I read them until either I know how the author’s going to talk or until I finish. When a home brewer comes in here and asks how to do it, the book I tell them to read is Tom Colicchio’s Think Like A Chef. It’s not a brewing book, but the introduction really puts you into the frame of mind of experimenting, which is your job if you’re looking to create flavors. Tom just nailed it. I tell home brewers to start there, and it makes them nuts. The book doesn’t tell you anything about brewing, but it tells you everything about thinking about your job. When people ask me how we make our beers, I talk to them like I would any skilled chef.
Augie pours the first beer: Panzanella
I’m going start you on Panzanella because it’s definitely our lightest flavored beer at the moment. The quick line is that it’s a summer beer. It’s kind of a reaction to pumpkin beer showing up in the middle of the summer. It is cucumber and tomato beer. Very simple. It’s 3.8% and do you know the Tuscan bread salad called panzanella? It’s made with yesterday’s bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. What we did was take this very popular hop called Summit, which we don’t use because we think it tastes like onions and garlic. This time we wanted onions and garlic, so what we did was make a pretty straight forward cracker-y, bready malt build. Then we threw a bunch of tomatoes and cucumbers in at the end. It’s just like dry-hopping. We poured it right in the top of the fermenter when it was done fermenting and let it settle in.
It’s funny because there are a lot of people confused by it. We make a peanut beer that we put peanuts in, so it tastes like peanuts, but then half the world gets mad because it doesn’t taste like peanut butter. We’re not in the business of making beers that taste like things. That’s the Alcopop business. We’re in the business of making beers and we like to take inspirations from food. If you ever sat at a picnic and ate panzanella salad and drank a couple beers, that’s what we’re hoping this reminds you of. There are people in the world mad that it doesn’t taste like ketchup, and then there’s people in the world mad that it tastes a little less like beer. It’s meant to drink four or five outside at a picnic any time it’s eighty-five degrees and one hundred percent humidity. Then you’re going to get it, that’s the idea.
It’s meant to be evocative of the flavors. If you stop thinking, your mouth should be a little salty with a little tomato and a little cucumber, but it’s still a beer. You’re drinking a beer. It doesn’t taste like tomato, it tastes like a beer with this tomato-y finish. That’s what we want to do. It’s inspired by those flavors. Those flavors are great flavors. You always have that salad with a beer, why not bring them together? If you put too much tomato flavor in there, it’s going to run over the beer and taste like ketchup, but if you find a balance, then it finds it’s place and you can drink them all day. It’s 3.8% so you can drink it all day.
Augie takes me downstairs to show me around the brewery.
When did you open Carton Brewery?
We moved in here summer 2011. It’s a pretty simple brewhouse. We opened with the three thirty barrel fermenters. Brew twice, fill once. At about six months in we couldn’t keep up with the demand so we added three forty-five’s, which was our five year plan. Our plan was to get to here in five years. We’re now three years in and we need to expand again. We’re working on that right now. It’s very important to us to try to stay in Atlantic Highlands, so it’s harder than it should be. Most breweries just contract out of a warehouse, but we like being in the middle of our town.
We canned this past Friday. We have a gypsy canner who shows up, all the empty cans go here, his canning line starts right over there and it runs right down the middle here. We run cans out, they run right down here, and then they come off this end and we load them right in the refrigerator. We do that one day a month.
Do you need to keep the cans cold at all times?
These beers are unfiltered and unpasteurized so it’s much better for them. We started canning Boat beer in August 2013. We’re doing an experiment where if you walk around the brewery you’ll see that we have cans hidden all over the place from that first canning run, to see how they age in different heats. We’re going to drink them when they’re officially a year old to see how they went. There’s a bunch that are literally sitting next to the furnace.
It’s expensive, but it’s a great learning process. We’ve canned around a dozen times so we know how the cans are, we know how people like them, and we know how stores sell them. We only have them here at the brewery and in thirty New Jersey stores. The New Jersey stores can only get more if they’ve sold out in a month; we don’t want the cans getting old. I think they can go six months, but we’ll do the test and decide. We have cans from every canning. We just started brewing ‘O-Dub,’ that’s 0077XX, in June (2014). Boat is our beer. The rest is just fun.
Are you going to continue canning O-Dub?
The only real beer Carton makes, the only style of beer, is 077. It’s a legitimate American double IPA. Everything else we make we’re fooling around with in some way. O-Dub is the kind of beer we love drinking.
I drank two O-Dubs last weekend and I was definitely feeling them.
Now you get it! That’s why we make Boat beer. To be fair, when we started a few years ago with Boat, there was no such thing as a session IPA. We opened three years ago with just that beer and nobody understood it. It really pissed people off. They were saying ‘It doesn’t taste like a double IPA.’ It’s not an IPA. It’s a really hoppy 4.2% beer.
Our argument for why ours is pretty great is that you want to drink six of them in a row because it evolves and it changes. It’s not just an over-hopped small beer. We used this yeast called Kolsch. We use some of it in suspension because it gives it a layer of bitterness. Some of the dead yeast doesn’t flock out of that beer. It stays in and adds a dead yeast kind of bitterness to add to the bitterness of the hops. There’s a complexity there that you don’t get if you make a small IPA with Chico yeast and flip it out as over-dry-hopped session IPA. We carefully don’t call it ‘Session IPA.’ We call it a very hoppy session beer for double IPA drinkers, because it’s way more bitter than it should be and it’s way more yellow and crisp than it should be.
Augie pours some glasses of Boat.
This is Boat. This is our session beer. It’s wicked hoppy and I honestly think I drink more Boat than coffee.
Once you nail down the recipe, how easy is it to duplicate over and over on a large scale?
That’s the skill of the brewer! I don’t think it’s their job to nail it every time. People love to get into that discussion. I like to think of us much more as chefs than cooks. I will give all due respect to both McDonald’s and Budweiser for making the exact same burger and same beer every time they do it, but in my mind there’s nothing sexy about doing that. I get it. It needs to exist. People want to have this religiously dependable exact flavor, but that’s not where we want to be. Nailing it exactly versus keeping it a moving, evolving, living process, is a much more sexy thing to do.
It has to be the beer though, right? O-Dub has to be O-Dub, but it can have moments where it’s a little cleaner in the summer and a little dirtier in the winter and that’s fine because that’s what O-Dub does.
If you want to make a cucumber beer it’s not hard. Leave the skins on. Cucumber skins taste like cucumbers and everybody gets it, but to me they also bring a lot of this kind of dirty mouth-drying flavor that I don’t like. It’s tannic almost. For us, it’s figuring out how to get the cucumber in there enough so you knew it was there without steamrolling the skin. It took us around eight brews to get Panzanella where we wanted it. There’s a theory that with salad beer there should be red wine vinegar and we thought about it, but we didn’t like what it did to the overall package.
If you’re drinking this beer between three double IPA’s at some craft bar, you’re not getting this beer. If you’re hanging out picnicking with your family and friends and having a good time in the summer, all those other flavors that need to be there will be there. Somebody will have something that’s a little sour, a little salty and a little sweet and the beer will be in the middle of all that doing its job.
We move on to tasting O-Dub.
See. This is why O-Dub gets me in trouble. I like it drinking it. Dammit!
This is how I felt the first time I tasted Abner. I drank a whole growler trying to figure it out.
That’s what Shaun does so well. There’s something amazing about a big bomb double IPA. There’s nothing wrong with a crazy-ass monster double IPA. They’re wonderful, but for me what I want to drink are things like (Hill Farmstead) Abner where it tastes different every time you taste it. If every time you taste it, the lemons have turned to tangerines, or back into mangoes, you know what I mean…? It’s been a million different things.
To use a wine metaphor. I don’t tend to drink Cabernet. I get why people love it. It’s big and slutty and wants to make you happy and is easy to understand, but a lot of double IPA’s are like that. They’re big and they’re sweet and warm from the alcohol. There’s a ton of hops and they’re identifiable and that’s fun. Those beers are great to have two or three, but I have to live with O-Dub. Shaun has to live with Abner. It has to stay interesting.
This is my philosophy, but I can be wrong. When you can find where everything walks together hand-in-hand; the richness of the alcohol, the aromas of the hops, the sweetness of the malt, and at different temperatures while you drink it, all of a sudden those parts make it complex and you keep going back to it. The problem with coming up with a brewery and making beers exactly how we want them to taste, is you end up at the bar talking to a guy like you and the next thing you know you’ve had nine beers and you’re very happy!
There’s a lot of ways to go about making an impressive beer, but I’m much more impressed by the beer that I still haven’t figured out after twenty. Not the beers that shock and awe. That’s why we focus heavily on our neighbors. They are the guys that drink our beer every week. If they still love it then we’re doing a good job.
How big do you want to be? What’s your goal with Carton Brewing?
We don’t need it to get any bigger, but we run out. I didn’t have any cans of Boat for the last three weeks. Me, the owner of the brewery. Now that we canned again on Friday, I put five cases in my fridge and I’ll be fine now.
We’re not so interested in growing that we’re going to contract or do any of that. We want to make our beer in our kitchen, however it makes sense to us. The problem is that we’re so far ahead of where we thought we’d be right now. There’s more beers I want to make that I don’t have the tanks for, so we’ll grow that far. I want to be here making this beer with this water.
I think we have a good plan to double capacity by the end of 2015, but who knows? We may decide it’s a horrible plan and scrap it. Right now it’s doing exactly what it needs to do. I have this awesome cucumber tomato beer in my hand and you’ve got it in your hand and we’re talking about it. That’s the fun of Carton Brewing. Doing things that aren’t done is what we like to do.
We needed to make more beer for two years but weren’t comfortable yet because we still hadn’t figured everything out. As long as it lets us be creative and have fun and make the beers that we want to drink, that’s an awesome situation to be in. You don’t need it to make you rich. You need it to let you keep doing it, because that’s rewarding. We want to make these beers. Luckily, people want to buy them, so we get to keep making them. We literally just turned a salad into a beer! You’re not supposed to be able to do that. We get away with it because people trust us and they think it’s interesting.
Do you get a ton of emails asking when you’ll distribute your cans outside of New Jersey?
‘Can I sell it?,’ is actually the big thing. We put the cans in about thirty places because we’re kind of trying to get it all over New Jersey. Obviously a tight group around here because it’s our town, but once you spread out of Monmouth County, there’s about fifteen places that should all be about a half hour from each other. Ideally, you’re not going farther than twenty minutes to get some.
Let’s have another beer.
Augie opens up a bottle of 2004 Marriage Parfait.
This is Gueze. This beer is made by letting different beers get different amounts of funky for different amounts of years and then blending them back together. We make some sour beers. One day I hope to make a beer a lot like this.
Augie and Pete (The Brewer) smell the beer and discuss it.
Can you tell what the beer is going to taste like just by smelling it?
Yes. We drink a ton. People are always shocked by that. We drink so much that Pete brews for a living and I asked him to brew for a living. You don’t just wake up one day and say ‘screw making jets.’ Pete is an engineer. You don’t wake up one day with an engineering degree and say ‘Fuck jets. I’d rather make liquid that’s temperamental and a pain in the ass.’
This Marriage Parfait we’re drinking is ten years old? How long should you hold onto these sours before drinking them?
These tenacious little bacteria; Brett, Pedio, Lacto will work until there is no sugar left. As they decay, they will create more and more flavors, so there’s a sense to aging these. In most cases, when you’re aging a beer, no matter what anyone tells you, you’re looking for deterioration. You’re looking for oxidation and for things to get softer. If you’ve got a big bourbon barrel stout that’s too alcoholic and too hot, the thought is that if you leave it in the cellar, it will soften a little bit. Sweet doesn’t tend to go away, but sometimes other things step up. With these, you’re hoping that with the bacteria that’s in there, the longer it sits, the more it will change. What’s dying will die and leave a different flavor. That’s why it’s fun to age these beers.
You want to drink IPA as fresh as possible though, right?
I disagree with that. The thing about IPA is that the style was born as a beer that was good at aging. It took this two-year trip around the Cape Of Good Hope to India so that it would age well. So when people say that now, what they are referring to is the current American super dry-hoppy beers. The first thing to fade is the dry-hopping. So if your beer is all about its dry-hop, that does go away and it can leave you with nothing. The dry hop goes away, but the bittering hop and the palette additions lasts and the malts can step up or step down.
You guys just kick it and drink beers around here every Sunday?
This goes on here from noon to five. That’s when the tasting room is open and most of our friends know that I’m here. At noon the brewers and I brew, so people who know me know when to come say hi.
How many visitors do you get on the weekends?
We’re open Thursday and Friday from 5:00 to 7:30 and Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00 to 5:00. Over those fifteen hours we see between 350 and 500 people a weekend. Sometimes Thursday night is the big night and sometimes it’s Friday. Saturday around 3:30 is always jammed. People just know what to do. It’s good. Right now the mix of people is about fifty percent local, twenty percent Jersey and thirty percent out-of-state coming to check it out. That’s kind of how we want it. We want the people who care about the flavors to find us and play along with us. What we really want is our neighbors to know and love us and enjoy the beer.
Note: From NYC you can get to Carton Brewing by ferry in 40 minutes. Check their site or call for easy directions.