High Point Brewing Company
offers a sip of Southern Germany
By Ben Keene
Photography By Bethany Bandera
Long before it ends up in a keg or a bottle, your favorite beer spends time in the mind of a brewer. For Montclair native Greg Zaccardi, his signature recipe is well-traveled: It began to ferment in California wine country, matured among the foothills of the Alps, and is finally on tap in a North Jersey brewery.
Zaccardi’s passion for brewing began in the late 1980s, when he was a chemistry student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It was here that he joined a very useful extracurricular—the school’s Good Beer Club. Soon Zaccardi was homebrewing, and this led to a summer apprenticeship at Seabright Brewery, a stone’s throw from the city’s boardwalk. After graduation he moved back to New Jersey and continued to homebrew—but shelved any immediate plans to go pro after he took a job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s when love intervened. When Zaccardi fell for and later married a woman with family ties to the German brewing industry, he decided he couldn’t turn his back on serendipity. He left his job, moved to Germany and, with help from his new father-in-law, found work at Edelweissbrauerei Farny in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. There he developed a deep appreciation for and understanding of traditional German weizenbier (wheat beer), often referred to in southern Bavaria as weissbier (white beer.)
When the time came to return home, Zaccardi boarded his flight with a mission: recreate a little piece of Bavaria somewhere in the Garden State.
“Craft beer was relatively unknown in the mid-1990s in New Jersey,” Zaccardi explains. “Wheat beer looked, smelled and tasted much different than anything else on the market. Sometimes it felt like I had to personally sell every first glass to the consumer.”
But whether he knew it or not, Zaccardi ended up choosing an opportune time to launch his High Point Brewing Company, based in Butler. In 1996, when he made his first keg sale to George Gray, the owner of Andy’s Corner Bar in Bogota, the United States had 1,087 breweries. Today there are nearly three times as many, thanks largely to a rising interest among consumers in craft and locally produced beer. High Point Brewing sells its beer under the brand “Ramstein,” a name adopted from the German town that surrounds the U.S. Ramstein Air Base. As for the company name, Zaccardi says the area of New Jersey around High Point reminded him of where he had worked as a brewer’s apprentice in the foothills of the Alps. The only problem was that, unlike in southern Germany, almost no one in Sussex, Passaic or Morris counties drank cloudy, complex, full-bodied weizenbier.
The area of New Jersey around High Point
reminded Zaccardi of where he had
worked as a brewer’s apprentice
in the foothills of the Alps.
The only problem was that,
unlike in southern Germany,
almost no one in Sussex, Passaic
or Morris counties drank cloudy,
complex, full-bodied weizenbier.
Compared to much of the western United States, New Jersey has been very slow to embrace craft beer, Zaccardi says. “I remember our first year, we distributed our own beer,” he recalls. “We had a list of liquor license holders and I literally went door to door. It was a very educational and somewhat humbling experience. Bars would say, ‘We only carry major domestic beers.’ ”
Zaccardi persevered, however, and roughly three years after sitting down to write a business plan, he was brewing his first batch of Ramstein Blonde, an award-winning beer that remains his best seller in bottles. A glass of this pale-golden liquid wouldn’t be out of place in a Bavarian beer garden. Its flavor relies on malted wheat, three types of malted barley, two varieties of mildly spicy German hops, and a proprietary yeast strain.
“The German styles are underrated,” Zaccardi says, with the passion of a disciple. “It is very hard to be consistent with these beers, especially since they are not masked by overpowering hops or roasted malt.” Those are the intense flavors often favored by American-style brewers. In the beginning, High Point was the only brewery in the country that produced only wheat beers: Ramstein Blonde, Ramstein Dark (a dunkelweizen now known as Ramstein Classic) and the stronger Ramstein Winter Wheat, brewed in the style of a doppelbock. To keep up with changing tastes, Zaccardi has added several lagers to his range, along with a draft-only pale ale. But beers rooted in German history continue to serve as the foundation of High Point Brewing.
Today Zaccardi employs four people. And these days, he no longer has to make deliveries. Distribution is outsourced to wholesale companies in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. “We stick to a niche and I feel that we do a great job filling that void,” says Tom Maroulakos, one of Zaccardi’s two brewers. “While other breweries are trying to ‘push the envelope,’ we try to create a balance between German brewing tradition and American innovation. I think our customers enjoy getting fresh, local German-style lagers and wheat beers that aren’t from Germany.”
Twenty years later, Zaccardi’s beers stand out like the obelisk in High Point State Park. Generally speaking, the other notable breweries in New Jersey have found success with English, American and Belgian styles: roasty stouts, citrusy IPAs and fruity dark ales. His hefeweizen and dunkelweizen still have no rival within state lines. And while it may have taken longer than he would’ve liked to convert local barflies into loyal customers, Zaccardi did have his admirers from an early date. Charlie Papazian, founder and president of the Brewers Association, a trade group concerned with promoting craft beer, found himself “astounded” after trying Ramstein Blonde. And the late Michael Jackson, a renowned author and beer journalist, declared Winter Wheat “powerfully enveloping, deep, and complex.” Alexis Bacon, High Point’s current head brewer, agrees.
“The first beer I had and could never forget was Winter Wheat,” he says. “It just blew me away. Overflowing chocolate banana covering your palate, with hints of clove, and coming in at 9.5% with no signs of alcohol. Just a nice warming sensation; it’s a perfect winter brew.”
Over the years, in spite of cash flow challenges, equipment headaches and difficulties with distribution, Zaccardi has never compromised on ingredients, and he believes firmly in the importance of consistency. In the American world of extreme beers, exotic adjuncts and limited releases, his attitude is decidedly German. And that’s just fine with him.
“I still have a lot of work to do and many more people to meet and share my beer with,” Zaccari says. “We have generated strong momentum and reliable, consistent production. I really believe the best times for our brand are ahead of us.”
High Point Brewing Company
22 Park Pl., Butler
Tasting room is open most Saturdays from 1 to 4pm for sampling and sales. Please call to confirm.