By Mike Frassinelli
The Star-Ledger
October 6, 2011

CHERRY HILL — Along with the hops and barley, a controversy was brewing.

Two years ago, Flying Fish Brewing Co. of Camden County received a cease-and-desist email from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Seems the authority was none-too-pleased about the brewery’s “Exit Series” — beers in the name of highway exits.

Flying Fish, off Exit 4 in Cherry Hill, has the cheeky motto: “Proudly brewed in New Jersey. You got a problem with that?”

The Turnpike Authority had a problem with the perceived link between alcohol and the Turnpike.

Former Turnpike spokesman Joe Orlando, allergic to giving pat quotes, threw diesel fuel on the fire when he told Toll Roads News in June 2009: “One, we’re not thrilled with the tie-in. Two, the beer tastes like (unprintable).”

Known for a sense of humor drier than an Arizona afternoon, Orlando later said he was joking and that he had never tried the beer. But the ensuing media tempest and resulting publicity ended up being a marketer’s dream for the Exit Series.

To that point, Flying Fish had only created two beers in homage to Turnpike exits — Exit 4, a Belgian-style pale ale, and Exit 11, a wheat ale.

It has since released five more.

The brew brouhaha was resolved after Flying Fish, while contending the Turnpike didn’t have a trademark on exits, emphasized it didn’t condone drinking and driving on any road. The brewery also printed a disclaimer noting the Turnpike Authority was not responsible for the beers and “we’re not responsible for any toll hikes or potholes.”

The idea for the Exit Series was born in much the same manner that former Gov. Christie Whitman declared in 1999: “We love our exits.”

Instead of running away from the “What exit?” joke that has irked generations of New Jerseyans, Whitman owned it.

So did the brewery.

“Traveling around the country, everybody’s kind of got a New Jersey story and people always say, ‘You’re from Jersey? What exit?’” Flying Fish founder and president Gene Muller said during a tour of the brewery. “So it was kind of like, well, that’s a fun thing and it’s kind of taking some pride in the state. Because you hear ‘beer from Colorado’ or ‘beer from Oregon’ and you have an image in your mind. And then you hear ‘beer from New Jersey’ and maybe it’s not the same image. So we wanted to kind of change that.”

Muller, who grew up in Pine Hill, Camden County, and went to Rutgers, said the Exit Series is “our way of celebrating things about the state that people may not be aware of.”

Each exit has a tie-in to a different region off the Turnpike.

For example, the Turnpike’s Exit 1 leads to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. So for its Exit 1 beer, Flying Fish used oysters from the Delaware Bay.

The Turnpike’s Exit 13 leads to New Jersey’s bustling ports. So for its Exit 13 beer, the brewery tied-in the Belgian chocolate that arrives to the ports by creating a stout brewed with chocolate.

For Exit 16 — the Meadowlands — Flying Fish brewers struggled to think of a hook.

“Everybody’s like, ‘You should do the Jimmy Hoffa Beer’” said Muller, referring to the famed labor union leader who was thought to be buried under the end zone of the old Giants Stadium off Exit 16W in East Rutherford.

The brewers researched the Meadowlands and got in touch with Hackensack River keepers, who explained how Native Americans used to harvest wild rice there. So the Exit 16 brew became a wild rice pale ale.

All of the beers are served in 750 ml wine-bottle sizes and retail for around $9 or $10. All were done in limited quantities except Exit 4, the 2009 gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival and champion of the Washington Post’s “Beer Madness” 64-team tournament of domestic craft beers earlier this year. Exit 4 is now served in served in standard 12-ounce bottles.

Muller doesn’t recommend people saving the beers until they collect the entire set, saying brews with hops lose character as they age. He has a standard answer for the common question of: Where is the best place to store a beer? “In your stomach.”

Another common concern is whether leaving a beer outside the refrigerator will “skunk” it. Muller’s reply is that it won’t, but heat will accelerate the aging process and a beer will age twice as quickly at 80 degrees as it will at 50.

Initially, Flying Fish, which releases two or three new exit beers a year, planned to do all exits in numerical order and have the alcohol percentage match the exit number.

But exits 15 or higher would have been too great of an alcohol content and exits 3 or lower would have been much less than the standard 5-percent Budweiser or Michelob beer. So the brewery decided to bounce around exits, starting with Exit 4 in March 2009 and following with exits 11, 1, 16, 6, 13 and 9 (a “scarlet hoppy ale” that pays homage to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights off Exit 9).

Then came the next big realization.

“Holy crap, there’s 29 exits!” Muller said of the Turnpike.

“People are like, ‘Why don’t you do the Parkway?’ And I’m like, there’s a hundred freaking exits!”

So, Exit 15X — home of the Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Junction Station and the least used Turnpike exit — it will probably be a long time before Flying Fish gets around to you.

The brewery set up, allowing visitors to click onto their exit and learn fun facts about surrounding towns (for Exit 1, Carneys Point was bought by Quaker John Fenwick from the Lenni Lenape tribe for “2 ankers of rum, 8 knives and 3 pairs of scissors”).

For Muller, 56, who started Flying Fish 15 years ago, the path to brewer was anything but a straightaway on an interstate. He had a corporate job as a marketing writer in Philadelphia, working 40 hours a week with four weeks vacation. A home brewer, he decided to trade in the corporate life for one that has him working nearly twice as many hours for half the vacation time.

Muller went to school to learn more about brewing and said Flying Fish, which employs 13 people, is the biggest of the 20 local brewers in the state.

“To put that in perspective, we did 12,000 barrels last year and the Budweiser plant in Newark did probably close to 12 million,” he said.

Still, Muller sees more and more places in New Jersey offering a range of local beers and had one of his most rewarding moments at the 2008 World Series, when the lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan was able to find his beer at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

“I’m like, my God — a World Series and I’m drinking my beer,” he said. “This is the best.”