If we had to sum up Ross Brewing Co. in one word right now, it would probably be…”busy.” The young brewery is about to open up a New Jersey space that sounds like a dream weekend hang, and the team is consistently dedicated to sustainability and clean water projects, all while brewing up a rich array of stellar beers that promise to delight every kind of beer fan with every kind of style. We caught up with Ross Brewing’s president John Ross Cocozza to get the details on everything this brewery is up to.
So, let’s set the scene a bit here. Before Ross Brewing Co. was even an idea, what was your career journey as well as your journey to craft beer as an interest, hobby, and career?
That’s a few different threads coming together. Throughout my normal career, my day job, I always kept a few shifts bartending--it’s always good to have some cash in your pocket. I was always pushing the managers where I worked to carry craft beer, and I was getting resistance from them. This was the mid-aughts; craft beer had existed for a couple of decades at that point but there weren’t necessarily many places looking to do that. So, I said, “I’m going to do my own thing.”
In 2008, I built, owned, and operated my first craft beer pub, out here in Monmouth County, New Jersey. We had 32 taps, which sounds modest now, but it was the biggest craft beer bar in the state. It was going so well that I opened a second one in Staten Island with 48 taps...Eventually, I sold the New Jersey location to focus on growing the Staten Island one. It was 2010 and we were tapping into the nascent craft beer scene growing on the north shore of Staten Island.
In the meantime, I was homebrewing in my garage in New Jersey. I grew up in New York City...but we’d moved to New Jersey, and so then I was homebrewing, running pubs, and still had my day job as a plant controller at a cosmetics company. I was working in the factory learning mechanics filling bottles with liquid--it wasn’t brewing, but I was crafting shampoos, creams, makeup. So, in 2015, it was like a synthesis of the three. I was homebrewing and liking the recipes I was coming up with, I had the craft beer pubs, and I’m working that day job, and I thought, “You’re a 40-year-old guy who hasn’t opened a brewery, what’s wrong with you?” [Laughs.]
And then so how did Ross Brewing come about--what was the initial vision, and how did you go about putting that into action?
Prior to 2012, there were very restrictive liquor laws in New Jersey, and there were only five breweries in the state. Now the laws are still mostly restrictive, but they allow two things they didn’t previously: sampling on-site like flights and such plus sampling at bars and restaurants to entice them to buy your beer, and advertising. So, we started showing our idea to investors, and in 2017 we found a spot. We were delayed...and never got an all clear to start construction. So, last year, we bought a building in Middletown. Middletown is made up of little towns that self-identify, like neighborhoods in boroughs, and we’re in a little town called Port Monmouth.
Your portfolio demonstrates such range and versatility; there are so many different styles at once demonstrating different skill sets and channels of creativity. Can you talk a bit about what drives the concepting and creation at Ross, like what inspires you on what to brew? Do trends factor in at all, or is it more your own kind of personal passions, or a mix of both?
To distill it down, in the simplest sense, we want to make beers that we want to drink, that we’re going to enjoy. Hopefully every person you ask in beer has some semblance of that answer. There are beer styles we like and don’t see as much of, they’re giving way to more “hype” styles. So we make sure we’re not only making beers we enjoy, but that our family and friends do, too.
Homebrewers can be insufferable making friends and family try stuff we like. [Laughs.] At homebrewing backyard parties, at our pubs, we would try to convert people and grow the craft beer market. Now, Ross Brewing is a continuation of that. We make beers that are at once accessible to non-craft beer drinkers but that can challenge the palates of craft beer drinkers and also push style definitions. Our slogan is, “Eschew the ordinary, choose the bold.” Even if it’s a style that’s already been done--like, our second biggest seller is our Shrewsbury Lager. It’s an amber Vienna lager and there are already great ones out there like the Sam Adams Boston Lager, the Brooklyn Lager...but we really feel like we have something to add to that. We studied all the different hops everyone was using for that style: why are they using those hops, is there something we can add to be different? So, we added a hop profile that makes the Shrewsbury Lager a little different from everything else in that category.
We push ourselves, we challenge ourselves, and like our motto, we choose bold. We push our brewers--I can’t brew every recipe now, and we’ve brought on more and more brewers. They pitch bold ingredients and find bold ideas, and that’s working out.
Do you have any absolute favorite Ross beers, if you could even pick?
My stock answer is: “Come on, beers are like your kids, meaning you definitely have a favorite.” [Laughs.] The first homebrew beer for me that wound up being a success is the Navesink IPA. And that’s become our flagship. The river that runs through here is the Navesink. This IPA is a throwback to the West Coast IPAs that got us hooked on craft beer 15 years ago, like Stone, Ballast Point, Lagunitas, and Green Flash. To launch a beer like that when New England IPAs are the pinnacle of popularity may not seem like the most savvy of business decisions. But it’s proven to be the opposite: places have plenty of hazies, so they’re like, “Do you have a West Coast IPA?” And we do. It’s like one of my babies, and it’s risen up to become a best seller in New Jersey and New York, and hopefully soon other places, as well.
We also have a seasonal beer that’s a mash-up of two fall styles. We had done Oktoberfest styles, we had done pumpkin beers, and we wanted to mash the two together. So we did an Oktoberfest, a proper marzen, with pumpkin: Jacktoberfest. At every festival we’ve done in the last month, it’s the first beer we kick every time. So, I’m not alone in saying it’s my favorite. It has pumpkin, pumpkin pie spices, and it’s a true marzen, lagered for six weeks--so it’s expensive to make but we really love it and were so excited to put it out. Plus, I love the can art. Brooklyn artist Tommy Lombardozzi created the mascot for us, “Jack.”
On top of brewing and opening a taproom, you also work on both cleaning up shorelines and on helping people gain access to clean drinking water. Can you explain a bit about on those initiatives?
Charitable initiatives are very important to us. We work with many, but the ones that are super important to us are charities and organizations that have to do with clean water and clean environment. We work with the American Littoral Society, who work with cleaning up the rivers and shorelines of this country. We also worked with them on their oyster project, to restore oyster beds not only to put back what man has taken away but also because oysters clean water like nobody’s business; they clean about 50 gallons of water per day.
When we’re talking about clean water, there are two kinds of water here on the planet. The first is salt water. For a very long time, humanity treated earth like a trash bin and oceans have certainly been no exception. Our brewery is on both the ocean--the bay side--and a river. We’ve seen over time the impact of pollution in water and what it does to sea life. We’re privileged to get bottlenose dolphins and whales coming through. But dolphins will have ropes and things attached to them, like sea trash, and it’s heartbreaking. So, anything we can do to help make people aware of the issue and actively assist on the issue, we want to do. We’re in a part of New Jersey that thrives on having ocean access, and we work on beach clean-ups. And that’s also why we partner with the American Littoral Society. We’ve made outright contributions, we’ve had events...and to tie in with the oyster project, too, this all led ot the genesis of two beers we do for them, the Oy Stout, an oyster stout, and an oyster gose, as well. Portions of proceeds for both go to the ALS.
The other kind of water we’re talking about is fresh drinking water. It’s estimated by the UN that one out of three people on the planet do not have access to clean drinking water. That’s mind-boggling, that’s like 2.5 billion people. So, we look for opportunities to help there, too. The most fundamental ingredient of any beer is water. Clean water is important not just to beer-making but to human beings. So, we found an organization, Aqua for Life, which is what Giorgio Armani started working with the UN to bring clean drinking water to parts of Africa and Asia. We did a promotional campaign with them and are hopefully working toward a collaboration.
Can you talk a little bit about the two oyster beers, especially for those of us who have never had a beer brewed with oysters?
Most people wonder when they hear “oyster stout,” is it slimy and gross? Nope, it’s most like sea salt chocolate candy. It’s amazing. The oysters bring a sense of salinity and minerality. We use oatmeal stout as a base. The roasted malts we use evoke a robust chocolate flavor without adding actual chocolate. Combined with the salinity from the oysters, you get that salted chocolate candy effect.
And then in the spring, we have our oyster gose. A gose is a German-style sour, traditionally low in alcohol and high in sea salt already, so we thought it was perfect to double down on that concept. It’s a different experience, a lighter beer that’s a bit salty. It’s an awesome summer beer, and the saltiness makes people want to go grab another one.
What can people look forward to when it comes to the Ross Brewing taproom?
We’re right on the water, so boats can come up and do dock-and-drink. In New Jersey we can’t serve food...but we’ll have food trucks on site. It’s a beautiful dock, and the tasting room is two stories, with skyline views of Staten Island, Manhattan, Coney Island, and the Rockaways. It’s really great views, all overlooking the harbor. And there’s plenty of room for us and even for future expansion. There are two great outdoor beer gardens, one out back on the water and one in the front. And, we’re located inside a working seafood co-op that’s been there for 100 years. We can buy our oysters for our oyster stout right there. We’re working around the clock to get everything ready and we’re on the path to open before this year is over.
What are you most excited about in the coming months and even years for the brewery?
This is easy for me to say and it’s true. This has been a multiple year journey starting in my kitchen and then my garage, even further back to my pubs. Finding a place, having to find another place, our construction getting delayed, the pandemic, team members getting Covid, supply scarcity, natural disasters, hurricanes--it would be crazy to say I’m most excited about anything else than opening the brewery. I’m so excited to share this with more people...We’ve got a large capacity to welcome a lot of people who want to share our vision of what a brewery can be.
And then after the brewery has opened, I’m excited to continue our mission for sustainability. We have amazing ideas for rainwater-gathering cisterns, for covering surfaces with solar panels, for a living garden on the building that can help keep the temperatures down, which means less air conditioning, which means less burning fossil fuels. Not every idea can be implemented on opening day, it’s going to be a journey. But I’m excited about it. We have such a great team, I pitch these ideas and I think they’ll tell me I’m nuts, but no, they rally around it and contribute even bigger ideas.
And finally, I’m excited to share our latest round of beers coming out. In the winter, we always do our Passaic Porter, a honey vanilla chocolate porter at 6%, and our Iceboat Winter Warmer, a 10% spiced winter warmer.