Obsessively good beer at Chimney Rustic Ales in the Pine Barrens

Dan Borrelli is a Beer Guy. He spends about 80 hours a week in his Hammonton brewery, Chimney Rustic Ales, brewing, tasting, blending, canning, pouring, talking about beer. His beer. Other’s beer. Doesn’t matter. Beer matters. Chatting with Borrelli one late weekday morning, his passion is obvious, perceptible even through his easy, humble demeanor. It’s in the pints of Chimney’s Praguematic—an expertly brewed Czech dark lager, with a rich, malty spine and a heartbeat of fresh Saaz hops—we’re sipping. Evident in the fine-tuned textures and refined flavors of the farmhouse ales, IPAs, Berliner weisses, blends, brown ales, saison and lagers on tap. Evident in the well-appointed, cozy brewery and taproom—a restored 130-year-old building in downtown Hammonton—inspired, partly, by Borrelli’s trips to the beer mecca that is Boulder, Colorado.

Yeah. Borrelli is a Beer Guy. He always has been.

“I started homebrewing when I was underage because I couldn’t get my friends to go buy me craft beer. I was like I wanna try that and that sounds cool, but I can’t. They’d be like, ‘Well, here’s your fucking Keystone,” Borrelli says. 

(Not that there’s anything wrong with commercial American lagers. Borrelli (and other Beer Guys at breweries across the country) are quick to point out that the Coors/Miller/Bud Light set that beer snobs like to scoff at, but which are, obviously, very popular, are the most difficult beers to pull off. (Borrelli says he’d “put money on there being a Natty or Busch light in the walk-in). Lagering requires time, energy and attention and the delicate end product has fewer corners in which off-flavors can hide. It’s why many craft breweries don’t try it; though, responding to consumer’s changing appetites, they’re starting to. And, it’s why Chimney’s Praguematic is such a feat. It’s fucking great.)  

Over a decade ago, a friend on Borrelli’s college hockey team who was a little older had started brewing in his apartment; a lightbulb went off: “Oh, I can just make this shit?” Borrelli recalls thinking.

At first, the results were, in Borrelli’s words, “shit in a bucket”—though, his humility belies the fact that he won the first homebrew competition he entered. As Borrelli came of legal drinking age, and had access to craft beer, he recalibrated his brewing methods and “got obsessed with the quality control standpoint of it to make the beer taste as good as it can.”

So obsessed, in fact, that he built a 12-by-20-foot shed in his parent’s backyard and set up a de-facto 1-barrel brewhouse. It was food necessary to feed the passion—to fix the fermentation problems, he needed a stainless fermenter, which would be more efficient if it were bigger, which meant a larger kettle, on and on.

Now, one would think that an ambitious young brewer like Borrelli would be plucked by a craft brewer to serve as an apprentice, at least. That wasn’t the case. New Jersey had only about a half-dozen breweries at the time—the laws had just changed to make it easier to run one—and the Philly scene was still sparse. Still, Borrelli persisted, working at a home-brew shop and then “weaseling” his way into an entry-level, part-time job at Tonewood, with whose owners he went to school.

Although Borrelli says everything he learned about commercial brewing, he learned at Tonewood, after a while, he had reached a decision point in his life. He had taken a job selling industrial supplies, where he was quickly promoted and raking in cash (which he could save, because he was living at home), but that full-time work pulled him away from beer. When his wife got pregnant, they bought a house, and amid all that change, it was beer that offered a path forward.

They said, “Let’s pull the trigger on the brewery thing. My intention was to go a lot bigger, but this is what we could afford. This is what we got, and we’re making it work. We’ve got a lot of tanks in here,” Borelli says. Indeed, they managed to fit a couple 30-barrel tanks, three smaller ones, and other equipment into an open quadrant of the space. The bar takes up a long wall, and an open seating area fills the middle. They spent months refurbishing the building—including sandblasting six layers of paint off of the brick walls, which are so stunning and warm, you wonder why people decided, on six separate occasions, to paint them. It all culminated in an opening… two months before the COVID shutdown.

“I spent a lot of time on this, the aesthetic; it feels comfortable,” Borrelli says. But after the shutdown, “for nine months we couldn’t open the facility I spent all my time making look nice.”

So, like many other breweries and businesses, Borrelli pivoted. “We ramped up production hard. Normal people would be like, let’s save money here, I was like, no fuck that. I bought those tanks, let’s keep cranking out beer.” A canning company came in regularly, and Borrelli started distributing throughout NJ and eastern Pennsylvania.

Borrelli is used to rolling with the punches—literally. Playing hockey in college, then at a semi-pro level and now in men’s league, some of the toughness required in that sport translates into running a business, pandemic or not—“If I throw my back out brewing, I’m still brewing,” he says.

Another crossover: “Getting your ass kicked all day and going home and just fucking forgetting about it. If I have a horrible 14-hour day doing something here, I’ll be exhausted and covered in water and sweat. But something about disconnecting in sports—OK that game sucked, well, next one let’s go back to work—it almost motivates you to work harder.”

That work, that toughness, that passion—all the things that have led Borrelli from a ‘shit bucket’ to Chimney Rustic Ales—is evidenced in the beers.

From the Colorful Elements: Pomegranate, a Berliner Weisse (a little sour, a little fruity, with a dry, crisp finish); to the Time Consumer DIPA, bursting with orange and grapefruit citrus; to the Flaner, an oaky, bright, cherry-full, pleasantly funky barrel-fermented saison; to the Flaner avec Dubz; a blend of the Flaner with a Belgian dubbel that is pure perfection; to the crispy 43% Burnt smoked vanilla porter; to the aforementioned Czech dark lager; Chimney’s beers are notable for their refinement. Everything works in harmony. The textures and flavors are balanced. It’s the work, clearly, of a brewer obsessed with beer. Of a Beer Guy.

The Flaner, for instance, was conceived using wild fermentation—which uses natural yeast from the air and sometimes additions like Brettanomyces and lactobacillus. Borrelli says, modestly, it’s “surprisingly easy, if you understand the science” to pull it off; but I’ve had a lot of farmhouse ales of this sort that have gone off the deep end, and I like funk. The strings pulled on this indicate a brewer who knows what he’s doing. Blending it with Chimney’s Belgian dubbel, meanwhile, amplifies the best qualities of both beers.

“The Belgian dubbel that we double fermented, had dubbel Belgian characteristics: the plum and dark stone fruit flavor but also this really sweet estery but also really dry flavor to it,” Borrelli says. “The [Flaner] had a lot more peach and bright citrusy flavors to it. We liked the brightness to it, but we wanted to give it a little more alcohol, estery background to it to round out the flavor profile. We mixed it and we’re like, ‘Oh fuck, that’s good.’”

Oh fuck, that’s good. If you take anything away from this, take that as a summarization of the beer at Chimney Rustic Ales. And make it a point this spring to make the trek there; Beer Guys (and Girls), or not, you’re going to enjoy it.

Chimney Rustic Ales. 15 Horton St., Hammonton.