What’s the difference between Hopewell, Princeton, and Pennington?”
It was 1984 and the recent Manhattan refugee required reassurance that his choice to reside in Hopewell Borough had been correct, so he took this weighty question to the unimpeachable source: the town barber.
“Princeton is where business owners and presidents live; Pennington is where the vice presidents live; and Hopewell is for the rest of us,” the barber replied sagely. This arguably modest assessment seemed to satisfy the son of a contractor and from that day Ray Disch has reveled in, befriended, and contributed to his adopted hometown of Hopewell.
Now, if all goes well, within one short year Disch and his partners will be pouring their first drinks from the latest flowering of what appears to be a Hopewell renaissance. At the junction of Route 518 and Hopewell-Amwell road, just a bit east of the central borough, the ambitious transformation is well underway. On the 11-acre Double Brook Farm where sheep do gently graze will rise Disch’s Sourland Mountain Spirits craft distillery, Alex Helms’ Brew Pub, and property-owner Jon McConaughy’s Brick Farm Tavern.
And what’s so sweet is that this whole adult destination comprises a renovation of existing structures, reconstructed by area artisans. Disch excitedly walks a visitor through the broad and stately brick home fronting the road that will serve as the 125-seat tavern. “Look at that bar. Feel it,” says Disch, running his hand along the 22-foot slab of exquisitely grained oak.
As I savor the intoxicating feel, carpenter Andy Dejenka explains the process of how he found this oak felled by hurricane Sandy, sliced it up, and seasoned it especially for this room. Other parts of that tree form the recessed paneling that gives the restaurant’s tap room its warmth.
Out back, the old white barn will soon experience its own highly detailed makeover including a 12-foot extension on either end. When complete, visitors may tour through, witness the copper still as it transforms grain into nectar, sample at the tasting bar, and purchase a few bottles for a little quiet sippin’ at home.
Over to the side of the field, the open and immense corn crib will house the heavy oaken barrels in which the whiskey will silently mellow and take on its dark, honey-hued color.
A stone’s throw away, Alex Helms’ brewery will be created within a second barn. “The entire compound will be interactive and interdependent,” Disch says. In addition to crafting beers, Helms will also supply the Sourland Mountain’s still with its wort — the initial liquid extracted from mashing the grain for the spirits’ distillation process.
Sourlands Mountain Spirits and brewmaster Helms’ beer will grace the tables and bar across the yard in McConaughy’s Brick Farm Tavern. A small carriage house currently under renovation will serve as a cozy liquor store for fruits of the brewery, distillery, and perhaps local, select wineries. It is a finely wrought mesh of mash. Each enterprise will complement the other. The collaborative marketing will serve to present a sophisticated destination for those seeking a gentrified elegance. While the three business entities are not a legal partnership, Disch refers to his relation with farm owner Jon McConaughy as “a landlord with benefits.”
The dreams gain momentum and flourish. A small square garage-style building is envisioned as an outdoor open bar, in front of which McConaughy is planning bocce courts. Behind the Tavern, piles of bluestone are stacked for the alfresco patio, which will afford town-weary travelers a green and distant vista of the Sourland Mountains rising toward the horizon. (The sheep, Disch insists, will continue to graze.)
It all sounds so lovely, so Hopewell, so refined a dovetailing of nature, local artistry, and urbane recreation, but the hurdles have been many. Ever since the Whisky Rebellion of 1791, America’s state, local, and federal governments have danced around the issue of alcohol manufacture and sale, leaving entrepreneurs a Byzantine set of regulations to shoulder through.
For the 94 years following Prohibition, New Jersey completely forbade the manufacture of distilled liquors. Then in December, 2013, the state passed a law allowing “craft distilleries” (up to 20,000 gallons per year.) Disch seized the moment and finagled one of the first five craft distillery licenses granted by the state. This allows Sourland Mountain Spirits to not only make, serve, and sell on the premises, the firm may also distribute to bars, liquor stores, and restaurants around the state — an opportunity very much in SMS’s business plan.
Of course, being allowed to make this profitable liquid is one thing. Satisfying the ceaseless inspections, forms, and compliance regimen of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) remains quite another. But Disch tosses off their strictures and mandates with an almost careless aplomb. He is no stranger to swimming through the mazes of alcoholic legalism.
In 1988 Disch was listening to an NPR broadcast on his way home from his human resources job with Merck Pharmaceuticals. By the time he arrived in his living room he announced to his bewildered spouse, “Honey, we are going to go into the beer brewing business.”
Thus Triumph Brewery, a 21-year fixture on Nassau Street in the heart of Princeton, was conceived. The major flaw in Disch’s enterprise plan was that brew pubs were illegal in New Jersey.
Undaunted, Disch joined a small but determined lobbying crew and by the early 1990s helped push through reform legislation that would allow his triumph. Thus in 1994, the doors swung wide to an eager crowd filling the 275-seat Triumph Brewery, and they never empty until closing bell every night. Disch has since divested himself of his Triumph Brewing interests, but his knowledge and experience carry over into his newest venture.
In his pilgrimage from beer to distilled spirits, Disch is following a burgeoning national trend. The rise of craft distilleries in the U.S. has catapulted from 50 small distilleries a decade ago to 425 today. Meanwhile, from the glasses of Americans, consumption of distilled liquors has risen from to an average of .6 gallons per capita in 2001 to 1.5 gallons in 2014, with the Northeast leading the party, according to the World Health Organization.
But perhaps the most hopeful news for Sourland Mountain Spirits comes from the 2014 Liquor Handbook of the Beverage Information Group, which cites a strong trend toward what it terms premiumization. America’s imbibers “are definitely drinking better.” More bottles than ever are coming off the top shelf. Folks are being guided more by discrimination than price.
Hopewell Goes Top Shelf. Though barbers remain a seldom-equaled source of wisdom, the 1984 categorizing of Hopwellians as merely “the rest of us,” may lack contemporary accuracy. The recent influx of successful professionals and high-achievement immigrants has notably altered the residential demographics. The 2,000-person Borough of Hopewell boasts a nearly $95,000 median household income (just $10,000 below its Princeton neighbor). The new tone of the town seems to say that Hopewell residents are ready and anxious for the Brick Farm Tavern as an alternative watering hole to the Hillbilly Hall up on Hopewell Wertsville Road. Moreover, the whole town has already become a destination for central New Jerseyans for a “touch of Vermont” — see pages 24 through 26 of this issue.
But there is a lot more occurring within Hopewell Borough and the surrounding township than mere cash inflow. Hopewell is undergoing a renaissance in the most literal sense. Those many talents, skills, and passions that have lain within local residents for generations are being reborn and given a chance to flourish. The township abounds in exceptional abilities artistically, agriculturally, and in the oft-uncredited realm of artisan construction.
The Brick Farm Market, launched by Jon and Robin McConaughy in 2012 and thriving on East Broad Street close to the center of town, has brought old family recipes and surrounding organic horticulture products into the local marketplace, not to mention unleashing the wood crafting talents of Andy Dejenka and others. The Brick Farm Tavern will be next to open — possibly late this year.
The renovation and expansion of the beloved Off-Broadstreet Theater, now underway with a target of reopening in January, 2016, will maintain the continued flow of local talent nurtured by Julie and Bob Thick these past three decades, and open some new opportunities for other theatrical presentations (see sidebar, above).
The triumvirate of Sourland Mountain Distillery, Brick Farm Tavern, and Helms’ brew pub will continue the cultivation of this town’s fertile artistry. When Disch was helping launch the Hopewell Valley Arts Council, he insisted that artisans — those artistically skilled trades folk — be included under its umbrella of aid and celebration.
And as Disch walks the job site of the Brick Farm Tavern compound, that kinship and appreciation of finely fashioned work is evident. He greets each worker by name, quickly assesses, and praises each new creation.
“Look at that fieldstone masonry. Those beams are hand-hewn with an adz. Fabulous detail on the oak racks in the wine cellar, Andy.” No good deed goes unremarked.
By the end of August, Disch plans to come live on the site. He is serving as general contractor for the entire project, including distillery, tavern, brewpub, liquor store, and other out buildings.
This will place Ray Disch truly in his element.
You can take the boy out of construction, but construction has never left Mr. Disch’s son Ray. Young Disch may have set off to work for the Secretary of Labor immediately after his graduation from Cornell in 1980. He can go corporate for six years, running the apprentice program for Merck Pharmaceuticals’ HR department. He can launch Triumph Brew Pub in Princeton and become involved in the real estate brokering businesses. Yet through it all, Disch always returns to the world of building things.
One of Disch’s several current ventures, Total Home Management, gathers up the other artisans and contractors around the area into a complete home maintenance and makeover team. His crew performs everything to do with homes, from pointing up old bricks to sprucing up a whole house for sale. Now as Double Brook Farm transforms into a sophisticated entertainment center, Disch has a project worthy of his eclectic talents.
Starting With Gin
Get ye a copper kettle
Get ye a copper coil
Buy ye some new made corn mash
And never again will you toil…
Though the difference between a moonshiner in the old folksong and Sourland Mountain Spirits is who’s running from the excise man, the distilling process remains markedly similar. In order to quickly put forth sippable and salable product, SMS will begin with the most easily made white liquor — gin. “Using a small still and some initially purchased neutral grain spirit, we can apply our own recipe and distill a high quality product,” says Disch. As the gin revenue sweetens SMS’s financial pot, they then plan to purchase a large, 500-liter still for longer-term brandy and whiskey production.
Meanwhile, across the yard, brewmaster Helms will be drying and mashing the grain (perhaps local corn, if all goes well,) into the wort — the initial liquor liquid — which will be taken to the SMS still for distillation of whisky. (Helms has jokingly suggested that perhaps a zip-line might make a rather spectacular method of transfer over to the Sourland still — ideas abound in this bunch.)
Some of the distilled whisky may be sold as “silver” (clear and unaged) liquor bottled immediately after dripping from the still. The rest gets transferred into hefty oak barrels from which the nectar slowly, over the next three years, soaks up color and flavor. Brandy made from yields of local apple growers will follow. “Our goal is to have 4,000 gallons of gin by the end of our first year,” says Disch. “After that, heck, we might as well shoot for our legal 20,000-gallon craft distillery limit.”
No less ambitious, the Helms brew pub is laying out very specific plans for its initial offerings. For the last three years Helms has studied the art of brewing beer at the Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas, best known for its “wild ales and spontaneously fermented beers.”
“I’m going to be striving for a distinctive, Belgian-farmhouse-style ale,” says Helms. Brewing, for Helms, is a delicate sensitive art. He prefers a yeast-driven process that allows the brewer more play, rather than the currently popular method of inserting heavy hops and other spice flavoring. While Helms’ company name and logo remain, like his building, still under construction, his vision on the top-shelf product stands fixed and clear.
Far more than a field of dreams, Double Brook Farm is transforming according to a finely wrought business plan laid out by experienced, successful, serial entrepreneurs. The operating costs are precisely figured and the expected cash flow has been cautiously figured. Yet all the while, the triumvirate keeps their heads raised toward a vision that would bring Hopewell great opportunities, and an awful lot of fun. Keep your eye on the corner of Route 518 and Amwell road for further developments.
In the end, as renaissance cities have shown through the years, ’tis not enough to have artists, artisans, and crafty experts of special abilities clustered within the town walls. A rebirth demands also those individuals of vision who appreciate these unique aspects of their town and who are willing to put both shoulders and wallets behind programs to share them with the world. Hopewell seems to have hit upon this happy, profitable combination.
Double Brook Farm, Box 96 Hopewell; 609-466-3594. Robin and Jon McConaughy, owners. www.doublebrookfarm.com.
Brick Farm Market, 65 East Broad Street, Hopewell; 609-466-6500. www.brickfarmmarket.com.