Michael Jackson’s original 1977 World Guide to Beer understandably had little to say about American beer beyond the macro-producers such as Anheuser-Busch. There just weren’t that many breweries nor beer styles left in the U.S. to write about. The American section in a revised edition a decade later ran much longer.
Toward the middle of that section, Jackson—the late, great beer critic—had this to say about a certain brewery in particular: “The most uncompromisingly traditional lagers in today’s America emerged from an unlikely place—a ski resort in Vernon, New Jersey—in the mid- to late 1980s.” Jackson was not done with the superlatives. “The Dark Lager is surely the finest produced in the United States in living memory. … It is hoped that these outstanding beers stay in production.”
Alas, within four years of the New World Guide to Beer’s 1988 North American release, Vernon Valley was no more—a brewery that many then and since noted was ahead of its time. Had it hung on further into a decade that saw double-digit annual sales growth among other microbreweries, there’s every indication that Vernon Valley would be less legend and more reality.
As it is three decades after its start, Vernon Valley Brewery is legend; and here’s what we know. The brewery launched in the old Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey, near the New York border, in 1985—its incorporation date with the state is Feb. 11 of that year. The amusement destination itself dated from only 1978, and was part of a larger resort that included skiing. (Action Park has its own interesting history, complete with cartoonishly risky rides and the deaths of at least six visitors.)
The brewery was the brainchild of Action Park’s developer and owner, Gene Mulvihill, whose fortune derived from fields as varied as cellular broadcasting, mutual funds, robotics and, yes, amusement rides. He had already been using the park for festivals when he paid a fateful visit to the world’s biggest beer celebration: Bavaria’s Oktoberfest.
Realizing he might be able to recreate such a party back home, Mulvihill began gathering material, including a tent big enough to shield 5,000.
Not content with importing German beer for the festival—and wanting the sorts of unfiltered lagers he had encountered overseas—Mulvihill went ahead and bought a brewhouse from Otto Binding, whose eponymous brewery in Frankfurt was at the time one of West Germany’s biggest. The labor to design and run it came from West Germany as well, including brewmaster Stefan Muhs. The barley, hops and yeast were also German.
“So the only thing American about the beer was the water,” Andy Mulvihill, a developer and Mulvihill’s son, told AAB. (Gene Mulvihill died in 2012.)
The roughly 25-barrel brewhouse that Muhs worked with came complete with wooden fermenters, wooden casks and an open-tower-style wort chiller. And Muhs, following Mulvihill’s desire for unfiltered lagers, based his brewing on the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer-purity tradition that abhorred anything beyond traditional ingredients.
“Everything was done the hard way, the Reinheitsgebot way,” the late Jay Misson, a brewer at Vernon Valley who trained under Muhs, told the critic Lew Bryson. “It was a great place to learn, because you had to be clean, especially with that open chiller. We grew up all our yeast from slants, we even made our own culture medium, and we cultured lactic acid to acidify the malt.”
The equipment and the high level of technicality aside, the simple fact that Vernon Valley specialized in lagers, traditionally made, unfiltered ones at that, was unusual for the era. Most micro-breweries hung their hats on ales. Lagers were seen as perhaps too difficult, too unwieldy and too much like the regnant macro-styles such as Budweiser, a version of pilsner.
There was Vernon Valley, though, one of the first and the few to brew mostly lagers. It serviced the massive festivals that Mulvihill occasionally threw at his resort and also slaked the thirsts of Action Park visitors. The New York Times would in December 1986 mention the operation as part of a handful of microbreweries that had opened in the previous few years on the East Coast.
Of the eight that the Times mentioned by name in that article, however, only two are still around: D.L. Geary of Portland and the Weeping Radish brewpub on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. All the others went out of business, including Vernon Valley.
To get around state regulations that then forbade breweries to sell their wares directly to consumers, Mulvihill turned the ownership of Vernon Valley over to others. That allowed the brewery to continue selling its lagers at the park. Eventually, though, according to Andy Mulvihill, mismanagement doomed Vernon Valley (the novelty of its techniques and wares could not have helped matters). It and its beloved lagers disappeared in 1992.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for pre-order. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.