A shortage of available grains and malt due to a number of supply chain issues has thrown a wrench in production for New Jersey’s brewery industry. Tim Roberts, regional territory manager for craft beverage supplier Country Malt Group, attributes the problems to several factors, including Suez Canal closure in March, a Port of Montreal strike in April, an international shortage of shipping containers due to a not-so-post-COVID “explosion in commerce,” and labor shortages plaguing the trucking industry.
A “feeding frenzy” in warehousing and logistics jobs has also contributed, Roberts said, as employers are in serious competition to reel in workers with heavy sign on and retention bonuses, making it hard for CMG’s warehouses to retain staff needed to move goods.
Jamie Queli, the owner of Forgotten Boardwalk Brewery in Cherry Hill, said the issue has caused her lead time on grain and other ingredients to multiply. “You used to be able to get grain on demand, so the turnaround was basically how long it took to ship. We now are seeing [three to five] week lead times,” she said. “A lot of the specialty malts are back ordered as well … Yeast that we ordered in July is still yet to arrive. Everything is pretty much back ordered.”
Cindy DeRama, owner of Twin Elephant Brewing Co. in Chatham, said the shortage is making it difficult for her production team to schedule what beers they’re going to be making, something that typically happens at least a month in advance.
“When we go to try to order the grain, they say half of it’s not available. [Our brewers] end up having to go back to square one redesigning recipes to figure out what we can make with what they have. The stuff that’s available might not be available in a few days,” DeRama said. “It’s a race for base grains and German grains. I don’t know what the issue is with the supply chain but it’s definitely affecting all the way down to the smallest breweries.”
DeRama said that one of the grains Twin Elephant uses in 70% of its beers was out when she tried to order it from a supplier last week. Her brewer is “pretty particular” about the brands of grain they use, she said, but right now, “it’s kind of a crap shoot.”
Without grains, there is no beer. As breweries change around their recipes and scheduled beers based on what grains can be found, though, another shortage plagues them: glassware.
Joe Fisher, owner of Man Skirt Brewing in Hackettstown, has a glassware order that’s been delayed for months. Fisher usually plans for a lead time of three to four weeks, but the current order he’s been waiting on was placed in early June.
Denise Ford Sawadogo, co-owner of Montclair Brewery, surmised that the issue with glassware could be the collective recovery of business around the state and across the country. “It could be with the on-premise re-opening and everyone’s rush to order glasses, but there are some suppliers that we can’t get glasses from right now, and we were warned about two months earlier than normal to order Oktoberfest glasses if we needed them due to the supply chain constraints. Our last order arrived almost a month late,” she said.
Sawadogo said she had to pay a rush fee on 15 dozen Oktoberfest glasses, which she’s “definitely not happy about, because glass is always expensive when you factor in the freight.” She didn’t have a choice—either she paid the rush fee to get everything before the final weekend in September, or she risked putting the event on with no glasses, which are take-home novelties factored into the Oktoberfest ticket price.
Glass shortages have been reported by distilleries in South Carolina, a soft drink maker in Texas, and window repair shops in Montana in recent months. Libbey Inc., one of the largest manufacturers of glassware in the United States and the brand multiple brewers told NJBIZ they use for glassware in their taprooms and shops, did not return a request for comment on the alleged shortage by press time.
Under the worst-case scenario, Sawadogo said she could serve people in plastic cups at Oktoberfest, but they’re in short supply, too: clear plastic 16-ounce cups haven’t been available from her supplier for weeks. Even at members-only wholesaler Restaurant Depot, all she’s been able to get are 12-ounce cups. Montclair Brewery automatically reorders two cases of clear plastic 16-ounce cups every two or three weeks to serve folks drinking outdoors on the patio, but recently had to switch to opaque colored cups because that was what was available.
“The downfall is you can’t see the beer. Even pouring the beer in that cup is harder. You don’t know how much is foam and how much is beer. You can go by how heavy the cup feels but it’s not as beneficial as when we have clear cups, which you can easily see the foam-to-beer ratio,” Sawadogo said.
“From an economic standpoint, in the beer garden, when it’s all clear cups we can see how much beer is left in a customer’s cup easily. So we know when to ask, ‘would you like another one right now?’ But now with the opaque color ups, we have no idea how much beer they have left. It definitely impacts business. We train the staff, if you see their cup’s low, go ask them if they’d like another one or if they want to try something new this time around. Now they can’t do that. They’d have to stand on top of the customer to see,” Sawadogo said.
At Man Skirt, growlers are affected too, and Fisher said, “we’ve been riding on the hairy fringe of it being a problem.” He was out of 64-ounce growlers for a week but had a stock of smaller growlers he was able to use. Substituting two 32-ounce growlers for one 64-ounce growler is a cost because he pays roughly the same for both vessels, “but the customer, it’s not their fault, so I’m not going to make them pay for it.”
A bright spot
The tightknit nature of New Jersey’s small-but-mighty brewing sector keeps anyone struggling with supplies afloat. “Us and other breweries call each other for ingredients, to be like ‘I just need two bags of this, do you have it?’ A lot of breweries have been helping each other out,” DeRama said.
Recently, another brewery needed four bags of grain for beer it was contracted to brew by a specific date. The shipment had been delayed by nearly a week, but Twin Elephant happened to have extra stock of that grain in house. The other brewery picked it up, brewed their beer, and returned the same amount of grain to Twin Elephant when their shipment arrived.
“It’s like a nonstop flowing inventory between a bunch of breweries right now,” DeRama said.
Same goes for hand soap, bleach, paper towels, toilet paper. Anything shops have a hard time getting, they lean on their friends—other brewery owners—for.
“This industry is really good like that in New Jersey. Everyone is a competitor, but everyone isn’t really competing head-to-head. The stronger our industry is, the better it is for all of us,” DeRama said. “At the end of the day, we all want to make beer you drink with your buddies, and it starts with the creators. If we can’t make beer that each of us will sit around and drink with each other, why would our customers?”