Beer and Loathing

Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.
Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.

I have a story at Atlas Obscura on how state licensing in New Jersey allows microbreweries to circumvent municipal liquor laws. The result: beer in my historically dry hometown of Pitman:

Drinking alcohol was never really illegal in Pitman–you just had to cross the town line to get it. While the state regulates alcohol in New Jersey, municipalities control the issuance of liquor licenses. Pitman has never issued licenses, resulting in an orbit of bars and package-good stores just outside the border. But in 2012, New Jersey amended its laws to allow microbreweries to sell their beer for consumption on the premises. Since these brewery licenses come from the state government, the microbreweries don’t require a local license to operate. In other words, they don’t actually need the town’s permission to make and serve beer.

Pitman is an odd place. Economically depressed, in my lifetime it’s never been able to capitalize on its main asset, which is its compact and navigable downtown. A big reason for this has been its pigheaded refusal to allow restaurants to serve alcohol. Pitman was commercially successful in the 1950s and 60s but when nearby malls began sucking shoppers away to Glassboro and Deptford, Pitman refused to adapt. It’s perfectly laid out to reinvent itself as a dining destination (something done by the Connecticut town I now live in) but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to entice quality restaurants when they can’t pair an IPA with a crab cake or a bottle of red with a steak, so instead Pitman’s downtown is a motley of pizza parlors and takeout joints which cater solely to locals, rounded out with thrift shops (I counted three) and other low-rent stores. If you’re from out of town, there’s no reason to visit Pitman — you’re better off going to Deptford mall-land and eating at a chain restaurant because at least you can have a drink on a Friday night. I mean, it’s not like a French restaurant is suddenly going to open in Pitman.

At least until Kelly Green arrived. The hesitancy that has hobbled Pitman for decades — one leg stuck in Glory Days, the other in economic reality — seems to be fading. One fourth-generation Pitmanite said to me, “I think Pitman owes its values to being dry.” Some values they are, too: few jobs (especially for teens), reduced assessments, diminishing property values. When Pitman began, temperance was rationalized for social reasons, as erroneous as those were; but now it has become a thing-in-itself, something justified because it’s always been. I’ve read enough newspapers and documents to recognize there was a problem with alcoholism and drunkenness in 19th-century America, although it was never the root of evil the Carrie Nation crowd believed it was — rather, it resulted from the grinding conditions of the time. Prohibition was a solution to an effect instead of a cause. Now we just keep it around for nostalgia’s sake.

Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.
Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.

Anyway, I love Atlas Obscura and I’m thrilled they pubbed this story. I had been a fan of AO’s encyclopedia for years before finally joining in 2013, pushed over the edge by inaccuracies and untruths in their entry for Pleasure Beach — somebody was wrong on the Internet and I had to fix it! Later I was surprised they had nothing on any of the ghost towns in the Pine Barrens (those could fill an encyclopedia all their own) so I added Batsto. Eventually I want to add a few more Nutmeg sites but in the meantime I check their encyclopedia before every trip. Since David Plotz came onboard, AO has been publishing news and features as well, and their wry editorial voice is an anodyne to most travel sites. You can find me over there as JDK.