Some things about the history of 61 Bridge St. in Milford are well known. Since World War II, it housed just two businesses until about three years ago. The Ship Inn, which served up cold brews and British fare for 30-plus years from 1985, became New Jersey’s first craft brewery, and former owners Ann and David Hall pulled the first craft brew handle in the state in January 1995. The building was built in 1879, this confirmed by the mason and builder’s dated signatures on a recently uncovered stone wall inside.
Some things, though, are a mystery, or maybe rumor. During Prohibition, did the resident tavern shirk the rules just sometimes, or all the time? Was it really a brothel? If so, for how long?
“We’ve had many locals who love to talk about the brothel, but no one’s willing to give any details. They just admit it was there,” owner Joe David said. “I don’t know how fancy the ladies were, but we love the twinkle in the eyes of the old timers who mention the story.”
David purchased the building with his wife Ana in 2018. The pair is rebranding The Ship Inn as Descendants Brewing Co., full of nods to its history as a British pub with stories of their own history knitted tightly in. “Ancestry and genealogy always inspired me. The way it became our concept, when we were really digging into our history and researching our family trees, [we realized] our ancestry lines up with the core historic beer countries – Germany, Belgium and the U.K.,” he said.
He’d long been a fan of the Ship Inn, making a few trips a year to Milford from his home in Montclair. Somewhere along the way, he started conceptualizing a brewery, not in the river town but in Raritan Township in collaboration with Duke Farms. When his handshake agreement with the group didn’t line up, he and his business partners started looking for a restaurant they could turn into a brewery. The Ship Inn was up for sale.
“The thinking at the time was, if we came back in a year and someone ripped the brewery out or turned the place into offices, I’d never forgive myself,” he said.
He jumped at it, so he didn’t have to.
That was three years ago. The Davids and their partners the Dew and Forste families spent two years building their transition plan while running the Ship Inn as it was. New executive chef Brian Rosco and sous chef Ryan Benner would whittle the British fare down to a few of the classics—fish and chips, shepherd’s pie—and create menus with nods to Joe’s Belgian roots (dubbed The Fatherland), Ana’s German roots (dubbed The Motherland), and classic American fare (dubbed Home Sweet Home).
The brewpub is one of few in New Jersey with a full liquor license, and the team expanded the whiskey program to 160 options, including some rare and hard-to-get pours; and while Descendants is departing from the ale-heavy beer menu of the Ship Inn to incorporate the German and Belgian styles and American favorites, the Davids have kept two original recipe British beers on tap.
Among the relics of 61 Bridge St.’s past—an ice cream scooper from when it was an ice cream parlor in the 1910s, knickknacks from when it was Town Tavern in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a rotary phone with a pencil inside—was a box of recipes for every batch The Ship Inn ever brewed. They’ll keep those on rotation, too.
The launch they’d worked so hard for was slated for last spring. But the pandemic pushed the pause button, as it did for most things, and the wind from the sails of the launch instead gusted into an effort to save the restaurant from a fate that would befall nearly 1 in 5 nationwide. Their takeout business was forced to grow—a challenge, as David estimates the pizza shop, the Chinese food spot and Mexican joint in town had 95% of the takeout market—and their customers rallied around them.
In March, the restaurant took in what it had pre-COVID, which bodes well for the future. The revenue recovery happened with indoor dining limits still in place.
“We definitely looked at a silver lining [on the launch’s postponement] from day one. We were able to completely redo our entire bar and completely revamp our draft system. It gave our kitchen incredible freedom [to try new things]. We’re actually happy that everything happened before the launch, because it gave us a chance to build that momentum,” David said. “I think if we were building that momentum completely and then it all got shut down, it would have been a lot to swallow, more than it already was.”
Descendants is in “a better place now,” and is launching “as more of a complete project and product,” he said.
The restaurant’s What’s Your Story? theme applies to customers as well. Every August, the brewery plans to host a competition around the theme, inviting guests to share their favorite family story. The winner gets to create a beer based on their tale, brewing alongside the Descendants team, coming up a logo, and having a launch celebration.
“At the end of the day, we’re all descendants. We’re sharing that journey together in some way, shape, or form,” David said.
The building’s place as a descendent is weaved in, too. The speakeasy door has been uncovered and is obscured only by the restaurant’s beefy bourbon collection. The bar and tables are made out of wood from an old bowling alley that was set up in the back room during the building’s days as the Town Tavern. More than 140 years of history is a lot to honor and live up to.
“When COVID started someone said, ‘you know, if this doesn’t work out, you’re young. You can move on.’ I think if I were 20 and I had a vape shop in a strip mall, that might be a more appropriate statement. When we got here, we committed to the long haul,” David said. “It was a responsibility to our family and partners, but also a heavy responsibility to the history of this building. Given it had only two businesses since World War II, there was a bit of historic pressure…to make sure we dug our heels in a little extra.”
May 1 is Descendants’ official launch date.