Situated on the Delaware River in Lambertville, NJ, there once was a brewery called River Horse. Making its home in the 10,000 square foot building since 1996, the hippopotamus-themed microbrewery is now making its move to a 25,000 square foot space in Ewing, NJ. One of the men at the center of this move is Head Brewer Chris Rakow.
“To say the least, it’s been a busy year,” Rakow said about the move to the new facility. “Over the past year, we have designed, built (not the actual building but pretty much everything inside),and moved all of our existing equipment, and ourselves, into our new facility.” The Ewing facility has been up and running since July and with the increased capacity, Rakow says River Horse has even more projects coming down the line to increase their efficiency. “Although not currently there, our new facility has about eight times the capacity of what the old facility in Lambertville was capable of producing.”
So with these major changes in the world of River Horse Brewing, it seemed like a good time to ask this former electrical engineer to reflect on just what brought him into the craft beer world. “For me, it was the realization that you could make beer at home. Once I found out that you could, I ran out and bought a bunch of equipment and started brewing in my kitchen that weekend. I was actually a little afraid to try my first batch so I wound up iving most of it away to friends of mine. They came back and said it was pretty tasty, so from there on out, I started brewing at home all of the time.” Rakow said homebrewing is where most of the guys at River Horse actually got their start. While it’s not something Chris is really able to do much anymore, the test batches of newer River Horse styles give them all a chance to make those smaller batches. But given that most of Rakow’s day is spent brewing for a living, he says, “I’d have to say that when the weekend comes around I would rather focus on drinking beer, not making it!”
Although he is currently head brewer, this isn’t Chris’ first dip in the craft beer pond. With a degree in brewing sciences in his pocket, Rakow came to New Jersey by way of Harpoon Brewery’s Vermont facility where he worked as a brewer and cellarman.
“The summer I graduated from college, I went to the American Brewers Guild and received my degree in brewing science. It was kind of a pre-work vacation for me!” That pre-engineering vacation was the start of Chris’ plan to save money and one day open up his own place but, “After about 9 months, I couldn’t wait any longer. I wanted to get into the industry early and learn about how beer was made first-hand. I didn’t want to just read a bunch of books, have a few homebrew batches under my belt and then jump into the industry with a pocket full of start-up money. I wanted first-hand knowledge about what to do and more importantly, what not to do.
”Originally from New Jersey, it was a drive to be closer to his friends and family that brought Chris Rakow back to the area. A few resumes, applications, and interviews later, Chris found himself picking the banks of the Delaware River as his new brewing home. “What made River Horse stand out was their attitude and the beer’s balance. We are not trying to be flashy or appear to be rock stars just because we brew beer. Don’t get me wrong, we take making beer very seriously and absolutely love what we do, but we are not going to use ingredients just for shock value. We like to spend our time and energy where it belongs—in the brewery and on the beer.”
It took six months time, and a great deal of hard work, but eventually, the head brewer position opened up and with Chris’ previous experience in the industry, plus his engineering background, he was a perfect fit for the position. Reflecting back on the road he traveled to get into the position, Chris had some words of advice for all those looking to find their way into the industry,“Get used to work! Brewing beer isn’t like the commercials or the shows currently on television. It isn’t all gypsy brewers and wild ales. It’s long hours and hard work, most of which is spent cleaning.”
Chris stressed that while homebrewing is a great start, it is not the same as what happens when you’re on the brewing floor. He suggests that brewing schools, some basic chemistry and engineering classes, even classes on plumbing, HVAC (“Boilers and glycol chillers are in every brewery…”), and electrical work can be extremely helpful because those are essential aspects of every brewery, yet are often overlooked.
Despite those “negatives,” Chris says he wouldn’t have it any other way, “I love making beer. It is the only thing I see myself doing for the rest of my life but it is factory work.” He also said that an up-and-coming hopefuls need to “find ways to set themselves apart from other people getting into the industry. Craft beer is super popular now and as a result, there are a ton of people wanting to work in a craft brewery. Make yourself desirable to a brewery, make yourself stand out.
”As for his thoughts as the head brewer and how it plays into the product River Horse produces, “I think there should be multiple subtle flavors in beer that makes you keep going back for another sip. Anyone can overload a beer with hops or spices and more isn’t always better. Less is more. Quality, not quantity. Pick one because the art and craft in making a recipe is balance.”
That notion plays into Chris’ favorite parts of the brewing process as well, the balance between the technical/mechanical side of brewing and the artful recipe formulation side. Rakow’s background also still carries weight in his head brewer position as he says, “The engineer in me also loves keeping the brewery as efficient as possible.”
That same background, that desire for efficiency, it must then drive Chris crazy when the worst part of the job rears its ugly head, “Machinery breakdowns! And they always seem to happen when you have plans, at the very end of the day, on Fridays, or right before a holiday!
” With the increased capacity in the new Ewing facility, the River Horse product is certainly going to get a slight facelift. New year-round beers are coming down the pike and it will also herald the return of some old favorites like the Brewer’s Reserve series. “Some of the styles coming down the road are a dunkel, an oatmeal milk stout aged on coffee beans, a Berliner Weisse, and we are bringing back our lager after a few years off.”
Chris added that River Horse will be getting their barrel program started off with a version of their Oatmeal Milk Stout aged in Maker’s Mark barrels! “We will then blend it with our Oatmeal Milk Stout that we age on coffee beans. Plus, we have a few port barrels and chardonnay barrels too! It’s going to be a fun year.”
As for Chris’ personal tastes? “Seasonals are my favorite, dark styles in the cold and lighter styles in the warmth. You look forward to them coming up and then kind of miss them while they are gone. [River Horse’s beers] kind of feel like they are my children. Is it wrong to pick favorites? I like them all in different ways for different reasons. But Oatmeal Milk Stout and Hop-A-Lot-Amus are pretty damn tasty… don’t tell the others.”
With the future of River Horse looking bright as they get settled into their new facility, Chris has his own optimistic outlook on the explosive growth of the industry, “More great beer will always be a good thing. I think for this part of the country, it is our time to grow the craft beer industry. The more close breweries means fresher beer, which is the best type of beer and it keeps local, local.”