The origins of beer
The common belief is that beer was not invented, but rather discovered. Accidental fermentation occurred during the gathering of wild grains by Egyptians as early as 10,000 BC. $121 billion industry which spans the globe. It is also interesting to note that the enjoyment of beer seems to parallel the movement of our ancient ancestors from the more solitary hunter-gatherer society to the communal agrarian society model.
It all started with a beer
Old Hights Brewery at 123 West Ward Street in Hightstown is a community-focused craft brewery; because here the community is really the key word. Opened in June 2020, the brewery began as a backyard dream among neighbors over glasses of homemade beer lovingly crafted by music teachers Alex Costantino and Brian Woodward. Costantino and Woodward enjoyed making home brew and sharing with friends. Lee Stults, local architect then member of the Borough of Hightstown Council, enthusiastically participated in neighborhood beer tastings. As the beer and the conversations continued, the friends decided to take their conversation to the next level by bringing in their friend Dave Puskar to help with financial and business development. They drafted a business plan, found a suitable location in central Hightstown and presented themselves to the Planning Board, receiving final approval in 2019.
beer with my friends
The concept of the brewery has always been more than just a place to buy craft beer. From the start, the vision was to be a central gathering place for the small, close-knit surrounding communities of Hightstown and East Windsor. The location was to serve as a social center for the area, which had always been lacking in this suburban community. Having an owner as an architect was an obvious blessing. Everywhere there are small observable details that testify to the care taken in constructing a place that is meant to feel like home. There is reclaimed wood used from the original structure throughout the dining area. The lounge area has been designed to be warm and friendly. From the reclaimed woodwork and donated wooden shelves, to the faucets and dim lighting, everything has been carefully designed to make you feel comfortable here. And it works.
pyramid of cans
Like many good ideas, the opening of the brewery didn’t go exactly as originally planned. The state license to operate – which was granted in June 2020 – coincided quite closely with the shutdown of the world due to Covid. This newly opened brewery had the ability to make beer, of course – what they didn’t have were the cans. They had to scramble to get the beer they produced and planned to convert taps to cans. They quickly mobilized to set up a curbside pickup to launch their new beer to the thirsty homebound community. It’s no surprise that they sold out their first five batches of beer in three days. They started slowly and as the Covid restrictions were lifted they started to evolve from cans to drums. Now they even have their own machine to keep.
The craft beer market is approximately $7.3 billion and there are over 130 breweries in New Jersey alone. Brewers are a tight-knit community and when Old Hights needed to can their first beers, a mobile canning business came to the rescue. When brewers travel, they like to visit other craft breweries to sample products and swap stickers. There is cooperation and community in this industry and that kind of camaraderie is needed now more than ever.
There’s a tear in my beer
The the laws that govern craft breweries are detailed, excessive and in my opinion, a little strange. The special mandates were suspended during the Covid, but on July 1, 2022 they were reinstated. These are just a few of the rules your local craft brewery must follow:
- All patrons of the brewery must take a tour before purchasing alcohol to consume on site.
- A brewery cannot sell or serve food beyond insignificant amounts of individual snacks.
- A brewery cannot brew or serve coffee.
- A brewery cannot organize more than 25 special events.
- A brasserie cannot offer free drinks as a sign of goodwill or drinks at a reduced price.
The laws were put in place to protect establishments paying large sums of money for full liquor licenses. We understand that. However, it seems like it’s time for our legislators to take a look at these archaic restrictions and write laws that make more sense for all small businesses within the community. Currently, legislation is being crafted primarily by State Senators Linda Greenstein, Vin Gopal, and Michael Testa in the NJ Legislative Assembly to correct the ABC’s overbreadth on this topic. Municipalities across the state are also passing resolutions that support the ABC rule changes. Since Governor Murphy signed a bill in 2021 authorizing the Travel and Tourism Division to specifically promote craft breweries, it does not seem too optimistic to believe that the Governor will put an end to the restrictions which are so severely hampering the growth of this industry. We can only plead and hope now.
Good enough to drink beer
While waiting for change, Old Hights continues to thrive. Trivia Night is their most popular regular event, but they’ve also hosted many musical artists on site and donated proceeds to the local food bank, several dog rescues and other community charities. In addition to cooperation and teamwork with other breweries, they also collaborate with Moonshot Farm— a local farm that provides organic ingredients for the beer-making process. There is a healthy cross-promotion with their neighbor, Randy Now’s Man Cavewhich also hosts special live entertainment events.
Additionally, Old Hights has an eye on the environment. The spent grain from the brewing process is sent to Abe’s Acres Farm in Hightstown, where it is used for compost; and at the Hightstown Wastewater Treatment Plant, which uses it to aid in waste water treatment.
Another focus outside the brewery walls includes attending various beer festivals like the next Central Jersey Oktoberfest on October 8, 2022 at Mercer County Park. In his 10e year, the festival will welcome a crowd of approximately 3,000 people to taste more than 150 craft beers and 10 food trucks.
Beer and sunshine at Old Hights Brewing Company
Old Hights has truly become the “front door” for much of the community. There is a clear division of labor between the four founding families. Costantino and Woodward continue to be the brewers. Puskar continues to focus on financial management and business development. Stults maintains relations with the owner and the borough, as well as the maintenance of the facilities. Lisa, Costantino’s wife, designs labels, merchandise and manages social media. Stults’ wife, Hilary, is the taproom manager and hosts fundraising parties and private events. Amy, Woodward’s wife, is responsible for scheduling the musical acts and keeping track of an ever-changing inventory of drums and cans. The staff has grown to thirteen people, many of whom are extensions of the family, allowing the original founders to step back occasionally and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Four families that started as business partners have become something of a tribe. They fit together like the puzzles many loved to do in the backyard during the uncertain early days of Covid. To sit in the beer garden on a hot summer night, listen to the music and watch the sunset is to understand that they really did manage to capture lightning in a bottle here… or is it a can?