By: Neil A. Sheehan
As the crow flies, the distance between Ship Bottom, NJ, and Wallingford, PA, is only about 65 miles. In terms of environment and lifestyle, the gap between the two is significantly greater.
Ship Bottom is a gateway to Long Beach Island, the resort that springs to life each summer but lies largely dormant for much of the rest of the year. Like many other stretches of the 18-mile-long barrier island, the borough is continuing the hard work of bouncing back from the ravages of “Superstorm Sandy,” which unleashed its wrath in October 2012 and left behind billions in damage.
Wallingford, meanwhile, is a suburban Philadelphia enclave with no downtown to speak of, but a highly respected school district and easy access to the city via highways and a SEPTA Regional Rail line. The closest residents come to enjoying the waterfront is a hike along the meandering Crum Creek.
Despite the differences, the two communities do have something in common—namely an upstart brewer who liked Ship Bottom so much, he named his company and brand after the town, but who appreciates the virtues of Wallingford enough to call it home. Think of it as surf and turf with a hearty helping of hops and yeast.
Rob Zarko is a nano-brewer (nano usually indicates an output capacity of less than 15 barrels a year), carving out his own unique niche at a time when the number of craft brewers seemingly grows by the week.
In fact, anyone driving by the Zarko residence in Wallingford would in all likelihood have no idea that their standard-issue garage is home to Ship Bottom Brewery. But a look inside would reveal a compact setup that efficiently cranks out tasty stouts, IPAs and hefeweizens that are eagerly snatched up by area bars and craft beer retailers.
If Steve Jobs was able to get his start hand-assembling computers in his parents’ California garage, who’s to say Zarko can’t plant the seeds of his own success mere steps from his living room?
“It was a hobby gone wild. And something behind it always drove me,” Zarko said during an interview amid his brewing operation. “I mean, to do this, it wasn’t spur of the moment. It was very calculated thinking how I could do it.”
Zarko’s interest in the business was sparked by a homebrewing kit he and his brother picked up and gave a try while staying at a family vacation home in Ship Bottom in the mid-1990s. That led to further tries and positive feedback from friends and relatives.
The father of four would later upgrade his equipment and techniques—reading and viewing everything he could on the subject—before eventually deciding to take the plunge with a one-barrel system in his Wallingford garage.
Prior to proceeding, Zarko had to obtain approval from the township zoning board. During the June 2012 meeting at which his request was discussed, one neighbor expressed concern that it would be a “mini-factory” and that there could be an explosion at the property.
Fortunately, he was able to assuage those fears and has had no negative feedback from his neighbors. He’s also had a crash course in navigating state and federal requirements for brewers.
“I try to be spotless with what I’m doing. It was more problematic when I was doing it unregulated. I switched to electric instead of propane as I was doing originally. I’m very aware of my neighborhood,” said Zarko, who donates his used grains to Linvilla Orchards for feeding to their animals.
Among the Philadelphia-area outlets that have offered Ship Bottom Brewery beers on tap are Pinocchio’s in Media, the 320 Market in Springfield (Delaware County), Capone’s in East Norriton and the Broad Axe Tavern in Ambler.
His top-seller thus far has been his Barnacle Bottom Stout, though his Double Overhead IPA is catching up. Other offerings include his Stupid Paddle Boat IPA, Beach Patrol Hefeweizen and Shoobie Pale Ale.
Because of his capacity limitations, Zarko has, to date, been unable to sell his nautically themed product in the seaside locale bearing his company’s moniker. However, he is hoping that will be remedied this summer thanks to a partnership with another (larger) Pennsylvania brewer whose identity he wanted to keep a secret until the offering—likely a hefeweizen—is on the shelves.
Visits to Long Beach Island watering holes this spring found owners were keen on getting the beer, he said.
Ship Bottom Brewery is also getting into the LBI market by a different, sweeter route. Zarko announced in March that he was teaming up with Shore Good Donuts, which is located on Long Beach Boulevard in Ship Bottom, to create cake donuts flavored with his beers.
“We made a few batches of donuts together this winter and can’t wait to see what the public thinks about some of our ideas. Donuts and beer—Homer Simpson would blush,” Zarko quipped in a press release on the joint venture.
Zarko concedes there remains confusion about his tiny outfit’s identity.
“When I meet people, they’ll say they don’t understand or people will e-mail me or go on my Facebook page to ask. I just try to explain,” he said.
“My wife’s family had a house down there (in Ship Bottom) for 67 years and I started brewing down there. It was kind of like a tribute to the island. I love the island, I love the town. And I just figured I could do something fun with it, where I have the beers and I name them after different things down there.”
Zarko also tried to help out Ship Bottom by providing his beers, at no cost, at a festival to raise funds for the volunteer fire company there in the wake of Sandy. He hopes to take part in another such festival this summer.
While Zarko has several ideas for growing his company, including such possibilities as a brewpub or a microbrewery with a tasting room, he intends to proceed cautiously and, at least for now, is keeping his day job as an IT professional.
“I guess I’m a year and a half in production. What I’ve tried to do was … do it inside the garage in the home and see if it works out. It seems like it’s working well,” he said, adding that fellow brewers, including some much larger ones, have been incredibly supportive.
“My issue now is just the size. It seems like everyone who is reaching out to me wants the beer. What I decided to do originally was to have a reduced market footprint, just service two or three or four bars at a time, just to make sure I always have product in those bars and I don’t have people saying, ‘I really want your beer. Can you get it to me?’ And they’re mad when I can’t get it to them.
Zarko’s brewing work often starts before the sun comes up so that he will have time to accomplish work and still have time to spend with his kids. His hand-crafted version of the American dream is, in relative terms, just getting going.
For more information on Ship Bottom Brewery, visit the company’s website: http://shipbottombrewery.com/.