How Descendants Now Steers the Ship as New Jersey’s Oldest Brewery

This is a continuing series highlighting the oldest craft brewery in each state with members of the organization that helped build the brand. Brewer Magazine will share business and personal insights each Monday to help learn how these veterans of the industry have grown.

In 1985, Ann and David Hall opened the Ship Inn. It was a quaint English pub in the little river town of Milford, New Jersey. By 1994 there was word that New Jersey was finally interested in allowing on-premise brewing and the Halls asked themselves, “Why import classic English ales when you can make them yourself?” 

They connected with Alan Pugsley — of Shipyard Brewing fame in Portland, Maine — and he introduced the Halls to the UK-based Peter Austin brewing system. They set to work relocating the Ship Inn kitchen and with the help of Kevin Stives, their bartender and contractor, they had the brewery built in time to be the first.  

David Hall spent time training on the Peter Austin System up at Federal Jacks in Kennebunkport, Maine and on January 3, 1995, Mayor Ron Rehl pulled the first ever craft tap handle in New Jersey history: an imperial pint of cask conditioned Best Bitter on the hand pump.

For a little while, the first brewery in the state of New Jersey was known as the Milford Brewing Company but that faded away to affectionately be known as The Ship Inn Restaurant & Brewery.

Sadly, Ann Hall passed in 2008 leaving the brewery to her three children and son Timothy operated the brewery in her honor until 2017. 

In 2017 the Davids (Ana and Joseph), Forstes (Aaron and Jaime) and Dews (Brett and Dena) began a new chapter for the company with Descendants Brewing Company at the Old Ship Inn — which officially opened on May 1, 2021.

“It’s a long name to be sure,” Joseph David said, “but we didn’t want to lose the history of New Jersey’s first craft brewery.”

The owners embarked on a mission to be stewards of New Jersey’s first craft brewery by continuing the tradition of brewing classic English Style Ales but also telling a new story. 

“Inspired by my own Belgian, German and British Isles ancestry we set out to brew ales of the historic brewing nations, along with some fun new styles as part of our Ancestry Ales and Hidden Nations Brewing lineups,” David wrote to Brewer for this series. “To continue the incredible tradition of the Ship Inn and get to tell their stories is such an honor and one we take seriously…not everyone gets to part of craft history in their state.”

BREWER: What beers were tapped on opening day? 
DAVID: On opening day, the Milford Brewing Company featured it’s Best Bitter, cask conditioned and served on the hand pump, as well as their Winter Ale, Brown Ale and Light Ale. 

BREWER: Why did the brewery open in the first place? What was your biggest “Year 1” struggle? 
DAVID: In 1994 Ann Hall learned of New Jersey’s allowance of on-premise brewed beer beginning in 1995. So the race was on to be first and brew their own English classics instead of bringing in imports. First year struggles for the Ship Inn: As per Tim Hall…”Learning to be consistent, learning to balance the day-to-day needs of a brewery and restaurant simultaneously. Not understanding the needs of yeast adequately and how to be super cautious about managing pH as well as hygiene and shelf life. Learning what the customers were interested in drinking.” For us as Descendants, we were two weeks away from our grand relaunch when we were shut down for COVID. Signs were installed, merchandise ready, and the brews ready to go for the big event. But we dug our heels in a little harder every day and made it to our May 1, 2021 relaunch.

BREWER: Go ahead, pat yourself on the back; what was one of the key “good ideas” that were had early on which help drive growth or sustainability to the brewery? 
DAVID: Being the first brewery in our state is such an incredible privilege and something we don’t take for granted. While it was the Hall family that paved the way for us, we take the privilege of being first very seriously and strive to be good stewards of our place in NJ Craft history. As for the pat on the back — for us as the next generation here at the brewery — our commitment to celebrate the history of the Hall family and their hard work to ensure the business was the first craft brewery and a great craft brewery goes a long way in sustaining a lasting footprint in the NJ/PA area. As a brewpub, NJ finally just changed the distribution laws for brewpubs and the relationships that we’ve been able to build over the years will allow us quick entry into the market throughout NJ. 

BREWER: OK, now admit a defeat; what was a decision or a circumstance that hurt the brewery? How did you solve that issue or find your way through it? 
DAVID: During COVID, we struggled with supply chain issues from time to time. In hindsight there were certainly times that we wish we had better prepared for equipment failure. We’ve worked hard over the past year to be ready for those hiccups.

BREWER: What excites you in your brand (be it liquid, equipment, strategies or something else) this year and how did you decide to pursue this avenue? 
DAVID: As per the legislation signed in NJ by the governor (on January 16) we’re incredibly excited to grow our brand beyond the walls of our brewpub. Now that we will be able to self distribute, we’re especially excited to get our beer into new markets and tell our story to a bigger audience. We operate in a quieter part of the state so it will be fun to broaden our scope and share our stories throughout New Jersey and hopefully in eastern Pennsylvania.  We’re also really excited to further develop our Hidden Nation brewing lineup highlighting lesser known brewing traditions throughout the world. This lineup finds inspiration from so many places and is our experimental lineup. 

BREWER: Being a veteran company in the craft beer industry, what “words of wisdom” do you like to share when a new brewery owner approaches?
DAVID: As a veteran brewer, I often encourage new breweries to listen to their guests. As a brewer I know which beers I love to brew but it’s always important to consider some outside ideas. After visiting countless breweries, I encourage new brewers to consider several ideas to help make their business more viable. Obviously great beer is the key, but a great space and atmosphere go a long way. And having great team members who are passionate about beer is so important and unfortunately overlooked more than you might expect.

Photos courtesy Descendants Brewing

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