3 N.J. musicians opened a brewery a year before the pandemic. Now, it’s still rocking.

Posted Mar 06, 2021

If you get a beer from Four City Brewing Company in Orange, you’ll immediately notice some unusual names.

There’s the “Miseducation of Loral Hops,” a not-so-subtle reference to South Orange native Lauryn Hill and her Grammy-winning project from the late 1990s. You can also order the “You Down With FCB?” wheat beer, a play on East Orange hip-hop trio Naughty By Nature’s famous line “you down with O.P.P.?” Other beers honor local landmarks.

It’s what happens when three musicians from the Oranges -- Roger Apollon Jr., Anthony Minervino and Jeff Gattens -- open a brewery. Music, art and history are baked into the place. Local musicians have played there, and there’s always a solid rotation of tunes on. And, Four City partners with a nonprofit community organization called the University of Orange to host an art installation each month.

“The Oranges have a lot of history and I feel a lot of people don’t know that,” said Apollon, who was raised in West Orange and attended high school in East Orange.

So, since opening in April of 2019, Four City has focused on incorporating the area’s history -- musical and otherwise -- and its diversity, into its offerings. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the owners said the mix was working, and attracting a broad customer base to the brewery.

“What we’re finding is that we are a place of meeting for African-American, Latino, and LGBTQ groups that are finding us in larger numbers,” said Apollon, who is Black. “There are some times you walk into the taproom and you’ll see three Black men, only. Which I don’t think I’ve ever seen on the East Coast.”

Of the more than 8,000 craft breweries in the U.S. only about 60 are Black-owned, according to a 2020 New York Times report. And there are only a handful in New Jersey.

Apollon, as well as other local African-American brewers, said some minority communities are not typically associated with craft breweries. When Four City opened, it was filling a local void -- it had been about 40 years since a similar brewery operated in Orange, the owners said.

Bringing the idea to the Oranges hasn’t been that easy, especially being a relatively new business when the pandemic hit last March. Four City was shut down completely for weeks, and it was forced to cut staff, the owners said.

“It was a serious gut check,” Apollon said. “We had no income but the bills kept on going. As a first-year business owner, you start to get momentum and then this happens. It was scary.”

“We went from running a brewery, to owning a brewery,” he joked.

But the owners were able to pivot, especially as the pandemic has proven that people still want beer (alcohol sales have risen dramatically since last March).

“We (flipped) our business plan from 80% taproom and 20% distribution, to 20% taproom and 80% distribution,” Rogers said about COVID-influenced changes. “For me that meant I had to step up my sales game.”

Four City offers online ordering, curbside pick-up, and local home delivery. And the taproom has reopened, with COVID protocols in place, from Thursday through Sunday every week.

Local community leaders have noticed the impact the brewery is having. Elliot Lee, the Executive Director of HANDS, Inc., a non-profit organization focusing on revitalization in the city and improving its neighborhoods, hosted an awards ceremony there in 2019. He’s been celebrating the business ever since.

“One of the features that we liked about them was the artwork that they were able to feature on their wall, and have a very conscious effort to try to engage local artists, also curators. It’s the kind of place that we appreciate,” Lee said.

“I’m really positive about Four City. I hope other like-minded entrepreneurs want to come here and help create a place.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-08 03:19:57 -0800