The rumors of Conclave Brewing’s greatness traveled far. Living out-of-state, nary could I get through a conversation with friends back in Central Jersey without a mention of the Flemington brewery and its IPAs.
Eventually, I made it to Conclave—to its massive, sharp 8,000-square-foot brewhouse and tap room—and tried some IPAs, then some more, and then some more. Turns out the rumors were true.
Take Gravitational Waves, its flagship IPA, and one of several hazy offerings typically available. Made with Galaxy, Citra and Mosaic hops, it bursts with fresh summer stone fruit and a hint of citrus. Or Steam Hammer, a crisp, clear double IPA with pine and melon from the addition of Simcoe hops and a classic West Coast-style crunch from locally grown Cascade hops. Then there’s the creamy Hop Fix, banana in Fifth Element, and tropical fruit in Portara.
If you need an education in IPAs, Conclave is the place to do it. From Azacca to Strisslespalt, Conclave extracts the full essence of a wide variety of hops (and malts, and yeast strains, and grains) to produce true-to-style, flavor-forward, approachable beer.
It’s the result, in part, of nearly three decades of brewing experience. Co-owner/brewer Carl Alfaro began homebrewing after a revelatory trip to a craft brewery in the beer mecca that is Colorado.
“I went out west on a ski trip in college with a bunch of my frat brothers and we went to Breckenridge Brewing Company,” he says. “That was the first time I was exposed to craft beer and different types of beer. I was Coors Light guy in college, but I went out there and tasted different types of IPAs and went back home and there was nothing like it here.”
Alfaro came back and hit a homebrew supply store in Morristown and began a long-running hobby of homebrewing. It remained just a hobby for 20-plus years while Alfaro worked as a civil engineer, but eventually, life circumstances would have it that he had the chance to start doing it professionally—and Conclave was born in 2015.
“We started small in a 1,000-square-foot facility,” Alfaro says. “It was a large investment but it was an investment that we felt comfortable with. Then when you move to the new facility, that’s a whole different ball game. … You know, you have to try; if you don’t try you’re gonna sit there and wonder if you should’ve.”
Now (celebrating its six-year anniversary this weekend (in part, with a canned double IPA that sold out in five hours—there’s that thirsty, dedicated fan base again) Alfaro and Conclave have the space to continue to push craft beer forward in New Jersey. It’s currently running a 10-barrel brew system (with capacity for twice that), with space for barrel-aging and a pilot system to test some of the many ingredients Conclave brings in. But even though the brewery is helping expand drinkers’ palates with its various beer, Alfaro says they’re not reinventing any brewing wheels.
“A lot of the recipes are either derived from old home-brewing books or older recipes,” Alfaro says. “They’ll give you pointers also. We try to stay in the traditional realm of the style.”
Trends in the market have dictated some of what Alfaro and co. brew—IPAs, specifically hazy IPAs, have been having a moment for several years now—but in the rapidly changing landscape of craft beer, Conclave is wise to keep a rotating collection of other beer varieties in production.
“We find ourselves almost going full circle to where we’ve begun where people are really now starting to enjoy pilsners or English milds. We try to be balanced as far as that,” he says.
For instance: Blackpool, an English dark mild, is an “homage to the finest British brews,” and its flavors stand in stark contrast to the bright, floral, juicy and citric notes of the IPA roster: caramel, dark chocolate, fresh-ground coffee and a hint of licorice.
Conclave is also using that barrel-aging capability to produce unique, mixed fermentation beers. Take Hearthland, a farmhouse ale fermented in oak barrels and aged for six months, before bottle conditioning. In addition to pilsner malt, Hearthland is made with three grains—spelt, white wheat and a touch of oats—for a smooth, honey-tinged, wild brew that proves Conclave can move with ease between styles. Other beers of this ilk include one in the works that’s aged on cherries.
And so the future is bright for Conclave, which is quickly becoming recognized as one of the best craft breweries in the state. As more restaurants return to full service after the pandemic, more of Conclave’s brews will be seen on local beer lists; and as more people have been getting comfortable with being out in public, Alfaro says he’s noticed more people showing up at the brewery. Count me in as one of them.