The Origins of Beer
The common belief is that beer was not invented, but rather discovered. Accidental fermentation occurred while gathering wild grains by Egyptians as early as 10,000 B.C. and has led to a $121 billion industry that spans the globe. It’s 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 communally based agrarian society model.
It All Started with a Beer
Old Hights Brewing Company at 123 West Ward Street in Hightstown is a community-centered craft brewery; because here community really is the operative word. Opened in June 2020, the brewery began as a backyard dream between neighbors over glasses of homemade beer lovingly crafted by music teachers Alex Costantino and Brian Woodward. Costantino and Woodward liked making home brew and sharing with friends. Lee Stults, local architect and then member of the Hightstown Borough Council, was an eager participant in the neighborhood beer samplings. As the beer drinking and talking continued, the friends decided to take their talk to the next level by bringing in their friend Dave Puskar to assist with the financial and business development. They drafted a business plan, found a suitable location in the center of Hightstown and went before the Planning Board, receiving final approval in 2019.
Beer With My Friends
The concept for the brewery was always more than just a place to buy craft beer. From inception, the vision was to be a central gathering place for the small tight knit surrounding communities of Hightstown and East Windsor. The location was to serve as a social hub for the area— something that had always been lacking in this suburban community. Having an owner as the architect has been an obvious blessing.There are small observable details everywhere that speak to the care in constructing a place that was meant to feel like home. There’s reclaimed wood used from the original structure throughout the taproom. The seating area was designed to be warm and friendly. From the reclaimed woodwork and donated wood bookshelves, to the taps and soft lighting— everything was carefully crafted to make you feel comfortable here. And it works.
Pyramid of Cans
Like many great ideas, opening the brewery didn’t go exactly as they had originally planned. The state license to operate— which was granted in June 2020— coincided pretty closely to the shutting down of the world due to Covid. This newly opened brewery had the ability to make beer, sure— what they didn’t have were the cans. They had to scramble to get the beer they had produced and planned to convert from taps to cans. They quickly mobilized to set up for curbside pick-up to launch their new beer into the thirsty home-bound community. It’s not surprising that they sold out their first five batches of beer within three days. They started slowly, and as Covid restrictions lifted they began evolving from cans to kegs. Now, they even have their own canning machine.
The craft beer market is about $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 company came to the rescue. When brewers travel, they like to visit other craft breweries to taste the goods and exchange stickers. There is cooperation and community in this industry and that type of camaraderie is needed now more than ever.
There’s a Tear in My Beer
The laws that govern craft breweries are detailed, excessive and in my opinion, a little strange. The special mandates were suspended during Covid, but on July 1, 2022 they were put back in place. These are just some of the rules your local craft brewery must abide by:
- All patrons of the brewery must take a tour before purchasing any alcohol for consumption on-site.
- A brewery may not sell or serve food beyond trivial quantities of single-serve snacks.
- A brewery may not brew or serve coffee.
- A brewery may not host more than 25 special events.
- A brewery may not offer free drinks as a gesture of good will or discounted drinks.
The laws were put in place to protect those establishments paying large sums of money for full liquor licenses. We get 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 the entirety of small businesses within the community. Currently legislation is primarily being crafted by State Senators Linda Greenstein, Vin Gopal and Michael Testa in the NJ Legislature to correct the overreach of the ABC on this topic. Municipalities across the state are also approving resolutions that support changes to the ABC rules. Since Governor Murphy signed a bill in 2021 authorizing the Division of Travel and Tourism to specifically promote craft breweries, it seems not overly optimistic to believe the Governor will put a halt to restrictions stunting this industry’s growth so badly. We can only advocate and hope now.
Pretty Good at Drinking Beer
While we wait for change, Old Hights continues to thrive. Trivia Night is their most popular regular event, but they have also hosted numerous musical artists at the venue and have donated proceeds to the local food bank, multiple dog rescues and other community-based charities. In addition to the cooperation and teamwork with other breweries, they also collaborate with Moonshot Farm— a local farm which provides some organic ingredients for the beer-making process. There is healthy cross promotion with their neighbor, Randy Now’s Man Cave, as well, which also hosts live entertainment special events.
Additionally, Old Hights has an eye towards the environment. The spent grain from the brewing process is sent over to Abe’s Acres Farm in Hightstown, where it is used for compost and to the Hightstown Wastewater Treatment Plant, who uses it to aid in the processing of sewage.
Further focus outside the brewery walls includes attendance at various beer festivals like the upcoming Central Jersey Beerfest on Oct. 8, 2022 at Mercer County Park. In its 10th year, the festival will host a crowd of around 3,000 people to enjoy over 150 craft beers and 10 food trucks.
Beer and Sunshine at Old Hights Brewing Company
Old Hights really has become the “front porch” for a large section of the community. There’s 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 relationships with the landlord and the borough, as well as facility maintenance. Lisa, Costantino’s wife, designs the labels, merchandise and maintains social media. Stults’ wife, Hilary, is the tap room manager and organizes the fundraiser nights and private events. Amy, Woodward’s wife, is in charge of programming the musical acts and tracking an ever-changing inventory of kegs and cans. The staff has grown to thirteen people, many of which are extensions of the family, which allows the original founders to take an occasional step back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Four families that started out as business partners have become somewhat of a tribe.They fit together like the jigsaw puzzles many enjoyed doing in the backyard during the early, uncertain days of Covid. To sit in the outdoor beer garden on a warm summer night, listening to the music and watching the sunset is to understand that they really did manage to capture lightning in a bottle here— or is it a can?
About the Author/s
Sue graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English back when you could still get a degree for reading great literature. She spent nearly 40 years working in the Sales & Marketing field with companies ranging from non-profits to small businesses to Fortune 100 Corporations. Most recently retired after nearly 20 years with S & P Global, she is now free to pursue her true passions for hiking, writing and photography. Sue was born and raised in New York State. As a New Jersey transplant, her passion for the special blend of culture and nature that is uniquely Jersey is what Sue loves to share with the world. She has one grown son that she is insanely proud of. Her husband of many decades is an amazing partner both in life and hiking. When not out exploring, Sue is most likely at home reading a novel with her dog.