There’s no tour. When cans are available, the allotment is posted on Instagram, and that’s usually followed a few hours later by a post that the brewery is sold out. Of course, the beers are hazy IPAs, and more and more, they are being traded, checked-in, and closely examined. It’s brought a lot of attention to Troon Brewing, a small brewery that sits in an old barn on 800 acres in New Jersey’s rolling farmland.
(For those who think Jersey is only cities and the Turnpike, it’s this western part of the state, toward Pennsylvania, that has earned the state the nickname the Garden State.)
Alex Helms was living in Miami when his mother sent him a newspaper clipping about a new restaurant that was being planned for Hopewell Township, about 12 miles from the Delaware River. He grew up there but had spent his college years and thereafter bouncing around the country working as a chef. His time in Vermont and Maine introduced him to fresh, quality local beer, and a move to Austin showed him much the same, along with a cutting-edge and continuously evolving dining scene.
His beer education was also helped along by a stint at Austin’s Jester King Brewery where he served as a volunteer on the packaging line and then later worked in the tasting room.
By the time he was in Miami, Helms was looking for a change, and that newspaper article—about Brick Farm Tavern, a fine-dining restaurant founded by Jon and Robin McConaughy, who also own a celebrated farm down the road—was the inspiration he needed to come back home.
“I think that I still harbor the delusion that one day I’ll have my own restaurant, but it’s a lot more feasible to own a brewery than a restaurant,” Helms says. “I’m working the same hours here at the brewery as I would at a restaurant, but I feel less drained and like I have a future.”
The site is protected land, meaning that anything that was going to be built had to be in existing structures. The McConaughy’s opened Brick Farm Tavern in one structure, Helms took another, an “ancient” barn, for Troon. There is also a distillery, Sourland Mountain Spirits, on the property.
Given its location and his earlier experience, Helms wanted to go the mixed- fermentation route for his brewery—Jester King in Jersey, if you will. During construction and brewhouse installation in 2015 and 2016, he lived with a cousin in Pennsylvania and worked on perfecting his homebrew recipes that would be scaled up for his 4-barrel electric system fabricated by Portland Kettle Works (Portland, Oregon). By the time Troon opened in December 2016, Helms had a realization.
“Something that I’ve learned as a business owner—and this is my first time—is that no one is brewing for [himself/herself],” he says. “It’s not about what I prefer to brew, but what the people who patronize the brewery [prefer to drink]. You make what they would like to drink.”
With a small system, it wasn’t tenable to focus on mixed fermentation. “At the end of the day, if people want hazy IPAs and adjunct stouts, why not brew them?” he asks.
“I’m passionate about beer making in general, and I like these beers. If I resented them, it’d show in the final product.”
Still, he isn’t abandoning his passion beers. He’s taken on a new space on the property—an old garage—that will soon house his barrel program, giving his wild beers a chance to ferment and mature until they are ready for packaging.
For now, Troon beers are available in 32-ounce cans that are packaged on site. When a canning run is completed, they post on the brewery’s Instagram. This usually happens weekly, and Helms says that they see 80 percent of the same people each week. They generally allot for 200 people, limiting folks—who can drive upward of an hour for the beer—to three cans.
“That’s the biggest source of contention, and we haven’t found a solution that makes everyone happy. I don’t think it exists with how much beer we have available,” he says. And while he’s well aware that some of these beers are getting traded and sent far afield, he regularly reminds folks about shelf stability.
“Two weeks. That’s about what you get, and after that you’re taking your own risk,” he says.
Troon has just two employees, Helms and Tom Stevenson, who was the brewmaster at Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton for eighteen years. Everything is shared, and they do what they can with what they have.
“We don’t even have a bathroom,” Helms says.
Still, the space they have is immaculately kept and, indeed, has that “farmhouse” feel that one might expect—with high exposed wooden beams in … well, a barn with two large doors that open to the spacious grounds around it. Anything you might want to see on a tour is readily visible with a quick turn of the head, so they don’t offer anything formal. Helms says no one has asked for a tour in quite some time, anyway. There is no tasting room, so most folks get their beer and bounce.
Any draft beer they produce (including all of Troon’s lagers) are distributed just a few feet to the restaurant, which serves as the de facto taproom (although, remember it really is a high-end white-tablecloth restaurant where a seven-course chef’s tasting menu will set you back $98 per person). Helms says that only two sixtels have left the brewery to other accounts, each for specific tap takeovers, and he doesn’t plan to do that very often.
That’s not to say you can’t get a Troon-inspired beer elsewhere. The brewery recently collaborated with Kane Brewing Company in Ocean, New Jersey, one of the state’s better-known craft breweries. Cans of The Sea Stares Back, an 8.1 percent ABV imperial wheat IPA with more than 6 pounds of hops per barrel, sold out within hours.
And the promise of more beer is on the horizon. Helms is waiting for the installation of a 7-barrel system manufactured by Smart Machine Technologies in Ridgeway, Virginia. Because of space constraints, Troon can’t have a traditional steam boiler, so this system will run on super-heated recirculated mineral oil. It may be unconventional, but the whole site is on septic, so traditional systems just won’t work.
When that new system comes on line later this year, it will mean more “oak-aged stuff, different from what people expect from us; more fruit stuff coming out; more local-grain beers; and a lot of stuff that we envisioned when we opened.”