Merchantville welcomes Park Place Cafe & Restaurant, which enjoys a soft launch on Thursday. Tammy Paolino/Courier-Post
A skiing accident, broken hip and chronic illness may send anyone off in search of a beer.
In Chris Mattern’s case, that avalanche of misfortunes sent him off in search of a dream.
A horticulturalist and a home brewer of nearly 30 years, Mattern made the leap into brewing craft beer full-time.
After a few attempts to open a small brewery near his Haddon Township home, Mattern and his fiancé, Beth Manning, settled on the tiny borough of Merchantville to set up shop.
Eclipse Brewing opened the doors of its micro-brewery and tasting room in October. Since then, the business has established itself as a place to go for unique flavors and tons of variety thanks to its 18 taps.
On a recent chilly Thursday evening, Eclipse was hopping.
As guests stomped in out of the cold, the surroundings had the air of a ski lodge, minus the fireplace and the skis.
It is not an exaggeration to say that as customer after customer arrived and called out to Mattern, and was greeted heartily in turn, it felt a bit like “Cheers.’’
The former rescue squad building is converted into a small tasting room, with maps on the walls for guests to indicate how far they’ve traveled to taste the beer, and board games that look like they came from Mattern’s family room.
Tin buckets of peanuts served as the centerpiece of each high-top table, where guests also can order food from the new Park Place Café and Restaurant just up the block.
On tap are more than a dozen options for beer lovers – IPAs, sessions, porters, lagers. The emphasis is on unique flavors – apricot, coconut, raspberry – and on fun.
Settled behind the bar the day before, Mattern and Manning looked at home.
“This is my job now,’’ said Mattern, whose son is a brewer with a large craft brewery in New York. He has left behind a career of managing teams of landscape workers. “I always got laid off for the winter, so last week I called them and said, ‘No days a week, thanks. They said, ‘Congratulations!’ ‘’
“He said, ‘I just want to brew beer all day, I just want to do that. Now he can,’’ said Manning, who will marry Mattern this summer in Pennsauken.
Mattern is learning quickly the realities of owning a New Jersey brewery, albeit a small one. With his 1.5 barrel system, Mattern somehow manages to keep 18 taps flowing, making him an attractive stop for beer lovers seeking variety and interesting flavor profiles.
“So far, it’s 20 percent brewing, 80 percent cleaning,’’ said Mattern with a laugh.
“A friend of mine talked me into brewing beer,’’ recalled Mattern of his early days experimenting in the garage. “I’m a process person. You do some work today for something you are going to get later.
“He said I should try to brew beer. We brewed an IPA, and I didn’t know what an IPA meant. I opened it in four days. I thought, I can’t drink this, this is too bitter. By the time I brewed two cases, I was a hop head. I also make some pretty decent wine, but I can’t sell that,’’ he added.
IPAs are now Mattern’s favorite, but he doesn’t stop there. A recent tap list offered Coconut Cream Ale, a Russian Imperial Stout, an Almond Joy Porter, a Wheat Oat IPA, an Apricot Pale Ale and many more.
Not surprisingly, IPAs are still a favorite, and Mattern typically has as many as three on tap at once.
While courting, Mattern and Manning, who met on Match.com, would frequent the first N.J. breweries to hit the scene, post-Prohibition.
“My family has a house in North Cape May, and we went to Cape May (Brewing Company) when it was just a small little place, two taps coming out of a refrigerator,’’ Manning, an elementary physical education and health teacher in Tabernacle, recalled. “I said to Chris, ‘We can do this when we retire.’ ’’
“I went back to work and forgot about it,’’ Mattern recalled, “but then I broke my hip skiing. I told Beth, ‘We need to talk!’ ’’
“I said, ‘Uh, oh!’ I know what ‘we need to talk means.’ But then, I said, ‘Ok, if that’s all, then fine. Let’s do it. I’m behind you all the way!’’
“I couldn’t have done it without her,’’ Mattern said, who also had been struggling to get a diagnosis for a chronic illness that is now under control. “My partner in crime!’’
The couple scouted sites in Haddon Township and at the shore three years ago, but the details didn’t work out.
When they heard Merchantville actively was seeking a brewery as part of its redevelopment goals, they found the perfect fit.
The town has embraced them.
“The people of Merchantville have been great,’’ Manning said. “They ask about us, they seem genuinely pleased that we are here. It’s something different for this town.’’
That “Cheers’’ feeling is an every night occurrence.
“I think a third of our customers are regulars and from Merchantville,’’ Mattern said, although he’s also starting to see guests travel from North Jersey and elsewhere to try his beer, often as one of several brewery tours in a day.
One particularly happy neighbor is Phil Manganaro, chef/owner of Park Place Café & Restaurant, which opened last month just up the block. He and his sous chef, Gardner Wilson, like to stop in for a beer, and surprise Mattern and Manning with treats from the restaurant.
Park Place has created a special Eclipse take-out menu of food that pairs best with the beer. Guests can order salads, clams, duck confit sandwiches, Jaeger Schnitzel, pasta and of course, a Park Place burger.
“The relationship with Eclipse has been great so far,’’ said Manganaro. “On my end, I know we are having guests arrive after coming from Eclipse to eat dinner or they come eat dinner and then say they are going to Eclipse.’’
Manganaro said he is grateful to have the brewery as a place his guests who are waiting for a table can go to pass the time, as his restaurant is small and lacks a lobby.
“We had a table in the kitchen last night, and … we sent them down to Eclipse for a growler and they were so happy about that, and had never heard of it. They loved the food and the beer!
“Chris brews his beers with the same passions and ideals that we cook and serve with,’’ Manganaro said.
Eventually, the businesses may partners together on tasting events, they said.
“Their first night, we had a fabulous meal,’’ recalled Manning. “We would highly recommend it.’’
I first met Mattern buying a juice at the new Juice Bar in town, and he points to this as evidence that all of the businesses in town are working to make the borough a more vibrant place to visit.
“A rising tide raises all boats,’’ he said.
For now, Mattern is enjoying experimenting with beer. There are hops growing in the back of the brewery. The brewing area is not much bigger than a laundry room, but Mattern enjoys working his magic among plastic barrels and several dozen kegs.
“We have some extreme beers here,’’ Mattern explained. “We had an 18 percent beer. Raspberry Drizzle. People loved it. (High ABV beers get a shorter pour). I make small batches of that stuff. We have an Almond Joy on right now. It’s a porter with honey and added chocolate, almond and coconut. And we have a Saison that’s made with Petite Sirah, grape juice and black pepper.’’
A flight of four is $5, which is the same cost as a full pour.
“We often have two or three beers made with coconut,’’ Mattern added. “It’s a favorite of the customers.’’
Mattern just ordered a bourbon barrel to experiment with barrel-aged beers such as sours.
“The menu is changing all the time. I have on four IPAs and a double IPA (DIPA) at all times. I almost always have a porter or a stout. And some lighter beers for those who do not like the heavier ones.
“A lot of people told me I was crazy,’’ Mattern said. “Some people said to get rid of some of those taps. But this is my vision, I don’t think I’m quite like anybody else I’ve seen around here.’’
“I read in an article in Pro Brewer Magazine, if your system is three barrels or less, you are still a home brewer. My system is a barrel and a half. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be insulted, but I embrace that.’’
If you go
Eclipse Brewing Company, 25 E. Park Ave., Merchantville. Call (856) 662-7453 or visit facebook.com/Eclipse-Brewing-726218560847250/.