By Lawrence Krayn
Brewer Stephen Hughes is opening a new chapter in Newark’s storied beer history through community, art, and entrepreneurship.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I stumbled hastily across Harriet Tubman Square (formerly, Washington Park). There was snow caked to my shoes, and a blustery breeze whipped my face as I glanced across Broad Street. I studied the Art Deco relic before me. In a time since passed, it had been the headquarters of New Jersey Bell. Now it was a refurbished residential masterpiece , renamed Walker House.
Shuffling through the crosswalk and past the entrance to the main lobby, I peered inside several glass doors into what resembled a sort of cozy factory on the first floor. There were huge steel kettles and stacks of metal barrels set beside warm lights, inviting wooden counter-tops, and people sipping from glasses of amber. Just as I approached an open stool, the man behind the counter asked if I was a local. When I responded “Yes,” he jestfully asked, “What the hell had taken you so long to come in?” Within the next few minutes, I came to learn that this inviting, casually dressed, comedically tactful bartender, was actually one of the owners, Stephen Hughes.
A brewery, a bar, and a community space, there is no mystery to its name: Newark Local Beer. Hughes and his wife, Miller, opened the business in late 2021 after having weathered the pandemic and various construction setbacks to finally realize their dream.
Steve, as we all call him, proceeded to pour me an eclectic flight. Laid out before me in various shades, I admit I was a bit apprehensive. The craft beer craze had been raging for a decade, and it seemed that in an endless effort to find one’s niche, breweries had been cranking up hop ratios, exaggerating flavor palettes, and increasing alcohol volume to the point of offense. One needed to sip at small amounts the way they might nibble at a strong cheese in order to appreciate them. Needless to say I was not only pleasantly surprised, but even a bit taken aback upon my first and every subsequent sip of the brews Steve had laid before me. These were different. There were distinct and recognizable flavors permeating through each one, yet each of them was comfortingly subtle. The experience was more akin to the sampling of a varied French plate than the stabbing blast of a sour candy. What I was most struck by was a noticeable and crisp freshness permeating through every gulp. Almost every time I’ve been back there’s been a new beer on tap, and each of them have followed through with the same level of subtle flavorful freshness.
The story of Local Beer is intertwined with both the personal history of the Hugheses, and the long and varied history of the city of Newark. Stephen Hughes grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town along the Connecticut river. He jokes that around the time he was “stealing my Dad’s Rolling Rock out of his basement” around 1992, his grandmother Eleanor, then in her 60s, would come to family gatherings with six-packs of assorted craft beer from Vermont’s Catamount Brewery. After drinking about two, she would leave the rest of the pack for Steve and his friends, who were amazed at the uniqueness, quality, and varied types. Back then, craft beer was not as wide spread, and without a source other than Catamount, Steve started to experiment with brewing himself.
He describes himself as someone who was always “a bit of a loner when it came to brewing” and explains his first forays into home-brewing as “God awful. Terrible.” Back then, a home-brewer really had to rely on pre-fabricated kits, and Steve has always viewed brewing as an art unique to its creator. He notes that his creations did not get their own identity until smaller ingredient components were more widely available and information on brewing techniques more widespread. “I kind of went from 0 to 100 when I learned how to start off by crushing the grain and extracting the sugar, rather than buying a pre-made syrup”, he explained. Even then, he treated home-brewing as a hobby, finding time for his chosen art between work days and children’s activities.
Like most artists, Steve had to put his passion aside early in adulthood and find a way to pay the bills. He and Miller—who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio—met at Connecticut College, where she studied organic chemistry and he studied economics and government. They both found themselves starting careers in New York City. Remaining in contact, the two eventually got married. In search of more space and both serendipitously having numerous family connections to the Newark area going back generations, the couple decided on Montclair. Miller worked in education, and Steve spent years as a consultant in the financial industry. Despite their success and a happy life which included a son and daughter, Steve found his career to be unfulfilling.
“It sounds a little wonky, but I have a spiritual advisor, a shaman. I just happened to be talking to him about my career, and how I wasn’t happy. Him, not knowing about my home brewing endeavors, told me that my spiritual career path involved working with my hands, and somehow also connected with distilling or the alcohol industry.” This was around 2015, and it was near the same time Hughes had gotten additional encouragement from a friend, George Oliphant. For those who don’t know, Oliphant is the host of NBC’s “George to the Rescue”, an uplifting TV series where George and top interior designers and contractors help deserving families and communities to complete needed home renovations.
“Our kids actually went to school together. He was over for a barbecue, and he asked ‘What do you use that shed for?’” George had an idea for a show called “Better off Shed”, where he would “pimp-up” people’s sheds for whatever purpose they wanted. He came up with the idea of renovating the eye-sore in Steve’s back yard into a home-brewing shed. George’s executive producers said that for a pilot, they’d pay for materials, but that Steve and George would have to do the renovations themselves. “So like 4 nights a week during that summer, we were just out there. Doing tile, or doing the floor. The materials were leftover from job sites that he had.” “We put heated floors, hot and cold water. I bought this extravagant electric home-brewing system with timers and electric heating elements. I went from, like, brewing in a bucket, to basically a mini-system, which is still my pilot system. It cranked up my brewing game.” He says it wasn’t until people other than his closest friends started to have consistently positive reactions to his shed concoctions that he realized how good his beer was, and what the potential for it could be.
Hughes has extrapolated upon the system in the shed, constructing a much more large-scale version of the same system at the Walker House in Newark. “When we finished it, and it had all that great equipment in there and then my beers started to get better, then I was like wow. This is more than a hobby for me.” “The company I was working for in 2016 actually went out of business. I told my wife that I was hesitant to get another job in this industry, and I asked if she was open to going back to work so that we could have this.” Miller shared the ambition, and agreed. The vision was set, but what about the execution?
Starting a brewery is not as easy as flipping a light switch or building a shed. Hughes began traveling to Maryland where his friends Brian and Carly had opened their own brewery, Attaboy Beer in Fredrick. He wanted to learn the tricks of the trade and the everyday business. “I would sleep in the back of the brewery. They had a little office back there with a bed. That was like four years where I was back and forth.” The whole time, he had his eyes and his heart set on Newark.
Newark Local Beer sits directly across from the iconic Ballentine House. Under renovation at the moment, the well-preserved icon is now a part of the Newark Museum of Art. One might drive around Newark, perhaps through quiet upscale Forest Hill on Ballentine Parkway, and have no recollection or knowledge of how vital the Ballentine name is to the city’s history. But the P. Ballentine and Sons Brewing Company, founded in 1840, actually introduced America to its first widely distributed IPA in the 1870s. The iconic hoppy brew endured for more than a century, becoming the third most popular beer and one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States by the 1950s. Ballentine was the first official television sponsor of the New York Yankees, and the Jersey famous Frelinghuysen family also shared in the brewery’s ownership for a time. Despite its acquisition by Pabst and later being phased out, the famed brew lives on in the collective consciousness of beer lovers nationwide, and every time I play Wu Tang’s “36 Chambers” album, I get to hear The GZA say: “Here comes the drunk monk, with a quart of Ballentine.”
Ballentine is not alone in being such an iconic part of Newark’s history. The city was home to 242 brewers as early as 1880, some simply serving their immediate neighborhoods, and others distributing nationally. There was Krueger Brewing, the Joseph Hensler Brewing Company, and the M Winter brewing company. Newark’s proud immigrant tradition centered quite a bit around German-Americans in the mid 19th century, and brewing was a large part of their identity and industriousness as well. Newark was the brewing capital of New Jersey for most of its history, and sat as one of the top beer cities in the United States for decades. Crisp, clean water pumped in from the New Jersey’s northwestern “skylands” has made brewing in Newark advantageous, and Anheuser-Busch continues to operate its second oldest major brewery in the city. Investment, community, and civic contributions integral to, and apparent across the Newark region are derived of the proceeds from its rich history in brewing.
None of that history is lost on Stephen and Miller Hughes. Steve cites “the rich beer history that was.” as one of his primary reasons for choosing Newark. “Its a very rich history that’s been gone for some time. There were all of these issues and these naysayers, but we brushed them aside. It had to be Newark. The rich beer history was a big thing for us, and we wanted to jump-start that back up.” “Its such a great responsibility to be the first one to dip your toe back in there. I want the local community to enjoy it, the way I think they’re starting to now.”
But history doesn’t just exist as nostalgia for Hughes. It also actively lives on as philosophy and business model. I can’t help but to contemplate the “old world” nature of his tap room. This man is an artisan. He spends his days engaged in the physical labor and science of brewing, and as his patrons file in every evening, they are quite literally filling their glasses directly from the source. There is no mass production, no assembly line. This is a unique experience that seems a rarity in the modern era. “Newark has a bunch of artists. I see myself as an artist.” He remarked. “This business is no different than painting a picture. You have your own style, and a painter may use a different set of color . . . or like a chef [and his ingredients]. I never saw myself opening this business and not working it, actually making the beer. And this is a working person’s town. Everything here is kind of analog. There isn’t just some switch that I can flip and then sit down.”
As any artist well knows, the exhibition phase is but the very end of a long and intensive creative process, often laborious. “Its a lot of cleaning. We brew once every five to seven days. That’s a brew day. I’ll usually spend one day cleaning kegs. Then there’s another day to clean the tank. Then we fill up the cold water tank the night before, we have to order grains. It depends if the yeast shows up on time.” The entire process is dubbed “grain to glass”, and takes 25–30 days total, most of it fermentation time. Hughes takes copious notes throughout the process to keep track of what worked and what didn’t, and what ingredients and methods resulted in which flavors and tweaks. “I try to re-brew the ones that are popular. Kind of just, the staple, feel-good beers that should always be on the menu.”
Once a yeast is changed or a process tweaked, the result is a completely different beer. Naming the beers is a fun part of the creative process and he often asks patrons for input. Asked whether there was any signature technical or stylistic trait shared amongst all of his brews, Hughes could only agree that each one was equally as unique as the other. “Some breweries you can go in, and you can drink a pale ale, and then a New England IPA, and they kind of taste the same. It could be different hops, but they taste the same. You can re-pitch beers off of the same yeast, and it saves money and it’s smart. I just can’t get myself to do it.” He revealed. “We have 11 beers on tap, and we’ve used 10 different yeasts.”
Newark Local Beer’s guiding principals are: that the beers are clean (both in terms of sanitary considerations and crisp flavor); that there is a wide selection of different types of beer on tap at all times; and that the beer is approachable for everyone from hop connoisseurs to those who don’t often indulge at all. These philosophies have elicited a positive response from the community. “There are six beers on the menu, which are all within 20 pints of being the top seller”, Hughes told me. “We’re trying to speak to as many people as we can. We can step back and really figure out: This is what Newark’s drinking.”
His costumers’ tastes are as varied a collection as the patrons themselves. Each time I’ve walked in, I’ve greeted familiar faces from all walks of life and from various parts of the city. The crowd is as diverse and as local as the locale specified in the name would imply, and that is of paramount importance to Steve. “We looked in other places in New Jersey, but they aren’t Newark. Those places don’t have major colleges and major businesses. We are so lucky to be in Newark.” Ironically, the pandemic tempering business and other transient crowds has benefitted the brewery in establishing a genuine connection with the neighborhood. “The blessing in disguise for my wife and I, is that we opened during Covid. There has been no transient community here, so we’ve gotten to know this local population, and our locals come back and support us. They are about 85% of our business. I can pop in in the middle of a shift, and I know who my regulars are, where they work, and what their favorite brew is. And, this is a really eclectic crowd. You can look down the bar and there are people form all walks of life. I would not choose any other customers. Maybe its luck, but we are so thankful that people are choosing to come through the door.”
More than just an admirer, Hughes and his partners work to actively cultivate those relationships. He works several shifts himself, and will find the time to ask your name and get to know you no matter how long you’re sitting at the counter. George Oliphant, despite having a successful TV show and career, still finds the time to bartend every Thursday night, and is one of the most pleasant people you will come across. There are local cover bands who take requests from patrons, and a 90’s hip hop event is scheduled for mid April. Spending time in one of a few vintage chairs or stools strewn about the tap room and holding a conversation with a friendly face, one quickly realizes how quickly the brewery is becoming a genuine community space.
That community encompasses aspiring brewers too. Hughes says that fellow brewers and bar-owners have stopped in with four-packs for him to sample, and he looks forward to returning the favor when the next brewery opens. “For me, its not about competition. Its just getting the awareness out there that craft beer is here to stay. The best thing in the world would be for two more to come to town, and for people to come to Newark for the beer, and to bounce around between breweries. If we’re all succeeding, that’s probably the best thing. Everyone has a different style. The beer scene is growing, but New Jersey has plenty of room to grow.”
I tend to stop in at least twice a week. Nothing beats the first crisp, citrus-infused gulp of fresh hops after a long afternoon at work. Taking that drink with the artist who crafted it, and catching up with people from your neighborhood only adds to the authenticity of the experience. Re-emerging from the pandemic and approaching spring and cherry blossoms, its nice to have another community watering hole, especially one so closely intertwined with the vibe and the history of the city of Newark.
Newark Local Beer is located downtown, in the Walker House, with its own entrance from the sidewalk: 538 Broad Street. Walk in, grab a stool, order any type of cold brew you so desire, and tell Steve that Larry sent you.
Lawrence Krayn Jr. is a Newark resident and lifelong New Jerseyian. He graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a B.A. degree in Political Science, and received his J.D. at Rutgers Law School-Newark. A practicing attorney by day, Larry spends much of his spare time engaging in creative projects. He sees Newark as a vibrant hub for the arts, and is an avid fan of various local creators. He has been a musician for many years under the moniker “IL Lusciato”, and hosts a weekly live podcast on current events, entitled “The Logic and Larry Podcast”. Whether fiction or non-fiction, his writing is heavily influenced by his immediate surroundings and his own life experiences.
Featured image by Gary Sprengel