Friday, November 2, 2007

Smashing pumpkins (and biases)

October’s done, now November reigns, but orange is still the color of the season.

As in pumpkin. In your beer. But only for a while.

Scanning the Garden State beer landscape, we found pumpkin beer flowing from at least four brewpub taps: Basil T’s of Toms River, Harvest Moon, Triumph and the Tun Tavern. We’ve downed pints at three of the four and have the lone holdout in our sights.

Three of ’em are ales, one’s a great pumpkin, and one – the Tun’s – went lager.

And with that said, we have a small confession at this point: Pumpkin beer isn’t our thing.

We'll drink it, and we appreciate it – even defend it when someone questions its credibility as a beer (read: Bud and Coors Light drinkers fussing over fruit in beer). But coming on the heels of Oktoberfest beers (an easy favorite), and looking ahead to big winter beers, pumpkin has always been a blink: a pint, a thank you and goodbye. (We also don’t go for pumpkin pie; it's just us …)

But this fall, we decided to tack a different course and take a new look at our orange-and-amber seasonal friend; it’s beer, and brewers go to some trouble to put this style on the bar (read: pumpkins in the mash and the accompanying spices require a good brewery cleaning afterward).

Pumpkin zest
We warmed up by going outside (figuratively) the Jersey pumpkin patch, taking home a six of Post Road, Brooklyn Brewery’s one from the vine. That was good enough to get rolling, but it’s bottled, not fresh from the tap.

Next stop Atlantic City, the Tun Tavern. Brewer Tim Kelly enlisted the pub’s kitchen help to cut and roast 20 basketball-size pumpkins for this 6.4% ABV lager, a scaled-up recipe from his homebrewer files that goes light-handed on the spices – no allspice, just nutmeg, clove and ginger, with the latter the most prominent of the three. (Hops are Nugget, Perle and Fuggle; yeast – Bohemian lager; the beer cooled its heels for three weeks; Tim confesses a little longer would have been preferred, but it wasn't in the cards.)

This is pumpkin beer. You could smell pints of pumpkin from the far end of the bar, or at least on the day after the shuttered Sands casino came tumbling down in a demolition lollapalooza (Oct. 18th) we could (maybe it's the power of suggestion). That’s pretty much how Tim planned it, pumpkin loud and clear, spice mixed into the background.

Roll on, pumpkin
Meanwhile, an hour north of AC, Basil T’s in Toms River pours a slightly muted pumpkin ale (80 pounds of pumpkin in the mash, Willamette hops, allspice, cinnamon and ginger). Brewer Dave Hoffmann’s session ale (5.5% ABV) starts beery and finishes with a pumpkin flavor. It’s an easy two-pinter. Or three.

Go west …
By the time we got to Triumph (in New Hope, Pa., but pumpkin’s on tap at their Princeton location, too) our old way of dealing with pumpkin was gnawing at the edges of our new commitment. In a word, we caved. We ordered something else first. But you would, too, at the sight of a real-ale ESB served at cellar temperature – unfiltered, low-carbonation, and beckoning with hops and malt flavor – on the menu. So the first few steps through Triumph’s pumpkin patch were a little off track. We came around eventually to the flavor and aroma in question – pumpkin and spice. But old biases and habits don’t easily disappear. The ESB was just irresistible.

Great pumpkin
Harvest Moon probably has the most interesting of the pumpkin ales. Brewer Matt McCord has already gone through a batch brewed to his primary pumpkin ale recipe and is now pouring an imperial version on George Street in New Brunswick.

This one’s a sipper (and the one next in our sights, the next one on our list to try), 9% ABV, and served in 12-ounce snifters. Matt mashed with 130 pounds of pumpkin (including 100 pounds of fresh pumpkin) and spiced things with nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. (Northern Brewer and UK Fuggle hops in the kettle.) But here’s an interesting twist: Matt tossed some whole vanilla beans into the serving tank to give things a graham cracker crust kind of finish.

So this month think pie. In your beer. We are. Finally.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Defiant brewing determination

Promptly going out and buying 55 pounds of pilsner malt ... Consider that the homebrewer equivalent of getting back on the horse that bucked you.

Fresh from his trip to the Samuel Adams LongShot homebrewer contest, “ESB” Dave Pobutkiewicz is saddling up again. He has a score to settle.

Dave’s maibock, or helles bock ( pick a label), took him from Pompton Lakes, NJ, to Denver and the final round of LongShot judging at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival. But that’s where things sort of stop. Notice we said "stop," not "end."

The judges opted to not include Dave’s brew in next year’s LongShot sixpack (which Boston Beer will brew and send to package stores near you beginning next February). That distinction goes to a double IPA by Mike McDole of California, a weizenbock from Rodney Kibzey from Illinois, and a grape ale from Boston Beer employee Lili Hess. (A Samuel Adams staff homebrew competition is part of the LongShot contest, if you recall. )

But back to Dave.

Ask him what he’ll enter in 2008, and he’ll say that he’d rather not say, revealing only that every beer style category is fair game.

He’s an experienced homebrewer with plenty of honed recipes that have won over an array of contest judges (in state and regional competitions) and colleagues in his club, the Defiant Homebrewers, whose members, by the way, have done well in past versions of the LongShot contest, but still find that top prize – the sixpack – elusive.

Dave thinks he can remedy that. He is, after all, a Defiant Homebrewer. And that 55 pounds of malt is a good start.

NOTE: Special thanks to Russ Pobutkiewicz for the photos of Dave with Boston Beer's Jim Koch (top) and Dave during an interview (above).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beer drinkers for Colbert

We heard the call last night, so we’re popping open a bottle of our best beer in the fridge and announcing our support for Stephen Colbert for president.

Why? It just makes sense.

Politics these days are filled with silly crap, i.e. Hillary’s manic laugh; Barack’s flag lapel pin; Mitt Romney’s name; Giuliani dragging his past (there’s a joke in there, think about it); Fred Thompson, period (honestly, this guy shouldn’t get elected to anything higher than school board or act in anything other than role playing in group encounter, he’s just that stiff and bad on camera and at the podium; who cares what he has to say? 99 percent of Washington doesn’t care what we say) …

Nation, if we can borrow Steve’s line for a minute, these people have nothing on Colbert. He stands for truthiness, just us and the American way.

But that’s not the reason we’re backing Colbert.

It’s because when he elected to announce on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" that he was considering to weigh the possibilities of whether or not to be in or out of the race vs. sitting on the sidelines or getting in the game, he did it with a beer in hand. (He subsequently announced he had "heard the call" on his show, The Colbert Report.)

OK, so it was a prop, along with the hay bale, to show how regular-guy he is. (Sorta like Lonesome Rhodes, but then that was a dark side of Andy Griffith 50 years ago and we're starting to veer off course; great Kazan film by the way, though). We don’t know what kind of beer it was (only a neck label was on the bottle, or stage light glare; we couldn't make it out), but that doesn’t matter. He chose to do his talking with a beer. (We think Samuel Adams should be his running mate.)

Plus Coldbeer, er uh, Colbert, last week lampooned the Miller-Coors announcement of combining brewing operations. Tastes great, less Rockies (that’s our joke, by the way).

So we endorse Stephen. You can’t turn your back on a guy with a beer and something entertaining to say.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Central time, Part 2 & No fest like O fest, Part 3


Overheard at the Central Jersey Beer Fest in Woodbridge last month: “Pretty good festival. Wish there was more brewers here.”

Not once, but a number of times we heard this. Full disclosure: We asked, so yeah, that’s why we heard about there being only four Jersey craft brewers – three brewpubs, one production brewery – pouring at Parker Press Park on Sept. 29.

But those words should be taken to heart by Jersey’s craft beer industry. The folks who went drink your beer and appreciate what you create. And that is – aside from the obvious, beer, – choice. Craft brewers create options for people who like beer. Porters, stouts, ESBs, IPAs, Oktoberfests, Vienna lagers, amber ales …

Some notes

This was the inaugural Central Jersey Beer Fest, the proceeds of which will help pay for a Veterans Day parade in Woodbridge.

So on a first try, getting only four brewers – three really when you consider that the hometown brewpub, J.J. Bitting Brewing Company, was the organizer – isn’t bad. If you checked the schedules of other craft brewers in the state, you would have seen they had other commitments for the same day. Others just opted not to go. Maybe it’s festival fatigue, or a desire to first see how the festival went and then sign on for next year.

And speaking of next year, we hope this festival does grow. It’s centrally located with great access to public transportation (train station); the town has embraced it and offered up a spacious park with plenty of shade trees; and it fills the fall calendar slot.

If we had our way, we’d turn it into a real Oktoberfest event with beer tents and the state’s craft brewers ceremoniously tapping actual wooden barrels of fest beers brewed for the occasion.

Sound like big production? Maybe, but High Point Brewing already does this, at least three times each fall. Barrel tappings, that is.

And while we’re making suggestions for a bigger event, we’d also suggest networking with the state’s German-American clubs. Feels kind of odd, to us anyway, to just co-op their cultural event and not genuinely have them represented.

Tech note:
The video is up (runtime is just over 7 minutes), but we're not happy with the resolution we're getting with YouTube. We're also a little frustrated with blip.tv at the moment, since the resolution is better on that site, but the only html that's available for embedding in the right dimensions ends up playing all the Beer-Stained Letter videos we've posted on blip, when we merely want the latest one to play.

This is an ongoing headache, the crapshoot of getting quality image resolution, and results from cross video formats (QuickTime to Flash). So we're checking some advice sites to find reliable settings for the source video that gets uploaded to YT, blip, et al. We hope to get our hands on the Flash software next year (costs about 700 bucks, and shouldn't be confused with the free download Flash player). By the by, the video was also submitted to Current.tv, but we don't know what's up with them. They haven't posted it, and looks like their site, after a redesign, morphed into something with a heavy emphasis on social networking.

In the meantime, our recommendation is watch the vid in iTunes (search for the blog title under podcasts) or at the blip.tv site.

Gemütlichkeit
And speaking of German-American clubs, we got to enjoy an evening at the Oktoberfest held by Deutscher Club of Clark on Saturday.

Two oak barrels of Paulaner Oktoberfest beer were flown in from Munich for this dinner. That’s a really big deal, since only five of these barrels get parceled out to the Northeast this time of year. Deutscher Club got a brace of them. Did we mention it tasted great? It was also unfiltered. Golden, too. (For more about Oktoberfest beer, check out Lew Bryson's piece in Condé Nast Portfolio.)

But Oktoberfest isn’t just about the beer. It’s about keeping good company, too, the conviviality. So a special note of thanks for the warm hospitality that we, as guests unfamiliar to the club’s regulars, received. Prosit!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Good luck, ESB Dave

This time tomorrow, Dave Pobutkiewicz will be at the biggest beer party the USA can throw.

And while he’s at the Great American Beer Festival, he just may sweeten his time in the Rockies with a victory in the Samuel Adams LongShot national homebrewers contest.

As one of four finalists, Dave's flying to Denver courtesy of Boston Beer Company. If you recall, we caught up with him back in June when he learned the maibock he brewed at his Pompton Lakes home made the cut from out of more than 1,700 entries.

That alone is enough to give you the confidence to become a professional brewer. But we think Dave’s got one more win in him with that golden beer. And we caught up with him again today to say so and wish him luck.

Some folks might be nervous being so close to glory. But Dave says he's pretty calm about things. His younger brother, Russ, who’s also a homebrewer, is tagging on with him and packing a digital camera to record the trip for posterity.

Let’s hope that Dave's picture winds up on the side panel of next year’s LongShot sixpack.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Central time

Skipping Long Beach Island’s Chowderfest this year? But your dance card still has an opening for this Saturday? Then here’s a cozy beer event you’ll probably want to be part of.

And since it’s the inaugural version of the Central Jersey Beer Fest, you’ll pick up bragging rights for getting in on the ground floor.

And who knows if it grows big, maybe one day you’ll be able to nostalgically reflect that you remember when the Central Jersey festival in Woodbridge drew just a handful of Garden State brewers.

The Ws
When: 1-5 p.m.
Where: Parker Press Park in Woodbridge.
Wallet: Admission is 20 bucks, or 10 if you’re a designated driving adult.
What you get: A souvenir taster glass (made from REAL glass, no plastic; cheers to that) and an opportunity to sample some great beer to a backdrop of live music while you browse the wares of local vendors. The event also benefits charity (veterans groups), so check with your accountant, you may be able to write off the admission charge.
Weather: As of this writing, the forecast for Saturday is a sunny 75 degrees. (The rain date is Oct. 6, just in case.)
Why: Because beer is culture, community and fun, and this festival could turn into the fall counterpart to the annual gathering held by the Garden State Craft Brewer’s Guild in June aboard the USS New Jersey battleship museum in Camden.

Unlike that summer festival, Saturday’s event comes not from the guild, but courtesy of the efforts Woodbridge’s own J.J. Bitting Brewing Company, which got a great assist from its hometown, and John McCormac.

If you’re still holding an old (and presumably losing) lottery ticket, say from a couple years back, you’ll notice John’s name on the reverse side as New Jersey state treasurer. He left that Trenton job and is now mayor of Woodbridge, and he made Parker Press Park available for the festival; Woodbridge has embraced the event as one of its Main Street happenings. John says the festival allows for an added theme to the Main Street events, which also include a farmers market. Plus, he points out, J.J. Bittings is a solid local business.

Note: The festival isn't exactly a municipally sponsored function. But the site help Woodbridge is providing merits mentioning, since finding a festival location – rented at a reasonable rate or used free of charge like the USS New Jersey – isn’t easy. So if you go on Saturday, take a moment to raise your taster glass to Woodbridge. (Trivia: John's a formidable contender when it comes to 1960s TV Batman trivia. He's also a bigtime Yankees fan, whose colors he flew in his ground-floor office in Trenton those years ago when we crossed paths.)

The lineup
J.J. Bitting: Beers the home team brewpub will be pouring include Avenel Amber, J.J.’s popular raspberry wheat, Victoria’s Golden Ale and an Oktoberfest dubbed Bad Boy.
Pizzeria Uno: Woodbridge’s neighbor from Metuchen plans to serve up its IPA, Gust ’n’ Gale Porter and hefeweizen.
Climax Brewing: Look for an Oktoberfest and possibly a cream ale that the Roselle Park brewery revived earlier this year.
Tun Tavern: Folks at the Tun in Atlantic City helped spread word about the Central Jersey festival and are looking into the prospects of organizing a similar event in the land of diving horses and tumbling dice. Until then, look for the Tun’s Leatherneck Stout and Vienna lager to be the brews it will take to Woodbridge.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Märzen invasion: No fest like O fest, Part 2



Tomorrow is a day when we wish we were in Munich. We’ve bent elbows at the Great British Beer Festival and had pints in the Liverpool pubs where John, Paul, George and Ringo tossed ’em back when they favored drainpipes, leather jackets and wowed the Cavern Club.

But Oktoberfest (runs Sept. 22-Oct. 7 this year) , the real deal, not the American interpretation, is something we’ve yet to experience. (It is, however, high on our international to-do list.)

With that being the case, we looked for a way to put a little Gemütlichkeit into our autumn equinox this year, not just the array of festbiers brewed in the Garden State in our stein. The result is “A Taste of Oktoberfest.” (Runtime: 8 min., 16 sec.; it's also on iTunes, check under podcasts and search for Beer-Stained Letter. Tech note: Frankly, iTunes is the best bet for image clarity, and with the iPod's ubiquitousness, tons of you Windows users have Apple's iTunes and its native QuickTime format. Hey, watch it on your iPhone, download it to your iPod; show it to a friend. Reach out and touch-screen someone.)

A barrel of thanks to Greg Zaccardi (left) at High Point Brewing, whose Oktoberfest beer was just named one of the top 10 Oktoberfest beers in North America by Draft magazine; and the charming Ernie Licht of Oley, Pa., whose really cool garment shop (Ernst Licht Embroidery and Imports) turns out lederhosen and dirndls so the waiters, waitresses, dancers, musicians – and yes even you – can have a fest-best look in the season’s traditional togs.

Also deserving mention are Ursula Weuste of the Deutscher Club in Clark, NJ, and Paul Ulrich of the Bayern Verein Newark, both of whom obliged us by allowing cameras at the Deutscher Club’s facility and the latter’s Oktoberfest event on Sept. 8; Pete and Marianne Ehmann and Rick Ernst, the Schuhplattlers with the Bayern Verein; and Bernie Bunger of Bernie’s Orchestra. By the way, Bernie, the strains of “Du du liegst mir im Herzen” remain stuck in our head.

And one more: Kevin MacLeod, whose www.incompetech.com music site we stumbled onto and made use of his “Four Beers Polka” to open the shots.

Said Kevin, after we sent him a link to the vid: “Wow. That was an incredibly appropriately titled piece of music!” Thanks again, Kevin, it had the right bounce to get things going.

Where to go for O-fest

If you’re looking for an Oktoberfest gig, consider these options:

Tun Tavern, Atlantic City, Saturday, Sept. 22nd
German buffet from noon to 6 p.m. on the Tun’s patio. The price is $24.95 for food and unlimited beer. (That’s almost 35 euros, based on recent exchange rates.) Brewer Tim Kelly took the trouble to brew the Tun’s Oktoberfest using a decoction mash, a process that really turns up the malt flavor and isn’t an easy task for a brewpub that normally would do an infusion mash. So, if you go, raise your glass to Tim’s effort; he was really thinking of you.

Triumph, New Hope, Pa., 2- 6 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 23rd
Schnitzel, sauerbraten, weißwurst to eat, festbier, kölsch, kellerbier and pilsner to drink. Triumph makes great beer, but their keller is killer.

Basil T’s, Toms River, 6:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 28th
Brewer Dave Hoffmann’s Oktoberfest beer gets paired with a main course of kassler rippchen, spatzel, potato pancakes and of course, red cabbage. Can you smell the smoked pork? Music by Erik and his Firehouse Polka Band. Price is $65, but includes appetizers, wurst sampler and dessert.

Ludwig’s Garten, Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 29th
Ludwig’s wedding to Therese started it all, and this way cool German eatery in Philly (check out the hop vine decorations over the tables) draws a huge crowd to Sansom Street. Begins at noon. Look for High Point to tap an oak barrel at the festival.

Long Valley Pub and Brewery, Sunday, noon-5 p.m., October 7th

Authentic German food to go with Long Valley’s great ales. And bear in mind, Long Valley – the scenic locale in Washington Township, Morris County, NJ, used to be called German Valley.

Oktoberfest at home this year?

Hey, don’t knack it, things could be wurst. Sorry, we couldn’t resist. Yes, New Jersey can be your bier Garden State and you can have a fest at home. If you grill it, they will come. Don’t forget to stock up on pretzels and beer: Flying Fish has again bottled (and kegged) its widely available Oktoberfish; High Point’s fest is draft only, but if you need a keg or have a growler, you’re probably in luck. (But hurry.) Climax Brewing in Roselle Park sees Dave Hoffmann offering an Oktoberfest that’s different than what he turns out for Basil’s. Dave bottles in the half-gallon size (that’s 1.8 Maß, and perfect for sharing), plus kegs. Check with the brewery on distribution.

Prosit!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Brush with greatness

We’re coming to this a little late, but nonetheless, it’s worth saying a few words here about Michael Jackson and the visit he made to Flying Fish Brewing a decade ago.

The news that cues this reminiscence is that Jackson, the fabled beer writer and critic from Britain, died last week (Aug. 30th). He was 65, and to craft beer fans and those with a taste for great Scotch whiskies, he was a legend.

For us, in our nascent days of becoming more informed beer drinkers and daring homebrewers (forget stringing words together about beer), he was an important reference source, with his books, columns in several publications and his “Beer Hunter” documentary series that we discovered on NJN (on Saturday evenings, probably after it had already been featured on the Discovery Channel) during the early ’90s.

The show depicted the bespectacled MJ, with his bushy goatee, mutton-chop sideburns and wiry mane, in his world pursuit of beers and beer styles to tell you about, to celebrate. But it wasn’t just about the beer, it was also a glimpse at the people who made it and the beer's relevance to homeland cultures.

His spotlight on Belgium was beyond cool. And after watching it, you could confidently discuss with your beer brethren what was up with Samuel Adam’s Cranberry Lambic, just what Boston Beer was trying to copy.

Memorable, too, was the installment that touched on German stone beer, and within a couple of years of that segment’s airing, thanks to the import craze taking off, you could find that smoky beer – in the green relief bottles with the swing tops – on the shelf at Canal’s (in our case, Canal’s on Route 70 in Marlton). But alas, it’s no longer among their imports. Pity that.

It was a great, fun beer to try. And for that we owe Michael Jackson. Ditto for Batemans Good Honest Ales, and a penchant for English ales, altogether.

Remember, this was the early/mid-90s, and around New Jersey the beer landscape was just starting to change. And if you were part of the new order, Jackson was certainly one of your guides. He turned you, too, into a beer hunter, and you could blame him for your zeal to try new (to you at least) beers (and styles), and the overstock in your fridge that always seemed to grow as you tried to pare it down.

Gone Fishing

Six months after Flying Fish released its two flagship beers – an ESB and extra pale ale – Jackson paid a call to the brewery on Olney Avenue in Cherry Hill. (We were lucky enough to be there, lending some picture-taking ability for the occasion.) We forget why Jackson was in the area and who coaxed him into coming by. Most likely, given that it was March, MJ was probably heading to Philadelphia for tastings at The Book & The Cook event.

Still, whatever the catalyst, there was a palpable sense of excitement on the part of the brewery crew during his visit.

At the time (1997), FF’s portfolio also included a Belgian dubbel, a porter that’s since been pulled out of the regular run of its beers, and an India pale ale that was brand spanking new to the lineup. There were only four fermenters in the brewery to complement the mash tun and kettle, and the bottling line that will be replaced early next year was just getting broken in.

So for a fledgling brewery, an MJ visit was, well, just geer! (Jackson would pay a subsequent visit to Flying Fish, around the beginning of this decade.)

Ten years on, a lot of the discourse of that March Friday morning is lost in the mists of time. But we do recall that MJ sampled the flagship ales and the IPA, commenting – politely, even as if wondering aloud – that the head had diminished too quickly on one of the brews. But he sized up Flying Fish’s ESB as worthy of seconds, and signed the brewery’s guest book, leaving a compliment that he "could sink quite a few of these."

And to American brewers in general, he likewise paid a compliment.

Brewers across Europe, he said, were somewhat set in their ways, as far as styles went. A German brewery, for example, would stick with the beers it’s noted for, staying that course and not undertaking, say, a best bitter or stout. But Americans, joining the widening beer renaissance, were boldly interpreting styles from all around the world – bocks, stouts, pale ales – under their breweries' banners, and with much success.

And those beers, MJ said that day, were among the pleasures he found in coming to America.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

No fest like O fest

OK, so what if those rolling hills, and yes even mountains, in northwest New Jersey can’t hold a candle to the Alps. There’s still a taste of Bavaria to be found where Passaic and Morris counties draw their border.

And August is when you’ll find the small crew at High Point Brewing toiling away to produce one of the brewery’s draft beer specialties: Oktoberfest. Come next month, the second Saturday in September (Sept. 8th, 2-4 p.m. to be exact), you’ll be able to catch the spirit of the deutscher party that defines the fall season.

And at High Point, that moment goes something like this: A big oak barrel from Austria spills forth a hearty, copper-hued, malty beer (6% ABV) that’s become a favorite across North Jersey and a distinguished guest on Samson Street in Philadelphia.

“We take a big brass spigot and wooden mallet and just bang away on it until, BOOM! we open the keg. And that’s how we debut Oktoberfest at High Point Brewing Company,” says Greg Zaccardi, the brewery’s founder.

The tapping is the high point, if you don’t mind the wordplay, of the brewery’s September tour and draws a faithful crowd each year. Right now, High Point is busy brewing, fermenting and lagering what will eventually be seven 16-barrel batches of the seasonal. That's about 3,500 gallons of a beer you don't want to miss.

Greg, like a lot of Jersey craft brewers, followed the arc of homebrewer to professional brewer – he also has an undergraduate degree in chemistry – opening his brewery about a dozen years ago in an old mill along a rail line in Butler.

Before he started turning out traditional German wheat beers with a touch of American styling under his Ramstein brand – which now boasts eight beers (including a new pale ale) – he put in some apprentice time at a brewery in southern Germany, in the foothills of the towering Alps.

And so, all things Ramstein, whether bottled or draft, enjoy a German lineage, from the imported barley malts, wheat and hops to even the yeast.

Worth noting: High Point’s Oktoberfest uses a monastery yeast that goes back to the 1400s – Johannes Gutenberg’s lifetime! (Sorry about the pixel typeface era, Johannes. But hey, movable type and printing presses had a good run.)

Greg says Ramstein Oktoberfest was born from a request by the Hofbrauhaus in Atlantic Highlands, six or seven years ago.

The now-closed Monmouth County restaurant (shuttered after 58 years, alas) did well with High Point’s blonde and dunkel wheats, and asked Greg and his crew to line it up with a fall fest beer.

So he obliged, and beer enthusiasts who popped in the brewery for tours were rewarded, too: A keg of the beer was kept on hand for those occasions.

The beer’s popularity grew. And grew.

Ludwig’s Garten
, in Center City Philadelphia, where the blue-and-white lozengy of Bavaria wafts in the breeze on Samson Street, also calls on High Point’s fest beer to join the lineup of brews it serves at its Oktoberfest street fair. Ditto for Andy’s Corner Bar in Bogata in Bergen County, one of New Jersey’s premier specialty beer bars.

So as you dab the August sweat from your brow, think of the folks who are laboring to quench your thirst. And toast them this fall.

Prost!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ship shape


The ship’s still there, but the hopheads have shipped out.

Until next year.

But we hope no one has to wait that long.

If you went to the Garden State Craft Brewers’ 11th take on their beer festival, you know it was a perfect day for a party: sunny, practically no humidity, plenty of food and – most import – a great cross-section of brews to sample.

And resample.

Like that rauch beer from Triumph. Or Cricket Hill’s maibock.

Those are just a couple of reasons the guild should have another festival this year, say in the fall. (Late September/October anyone? It’s been done, you know. And, say in a different location, like farther up north, for parity’s sake. Yeah, it’s the North Jersey/South Jersey thing. Bombard them with email, we say. Demand your fall festival.)

Save the credential check; we know a maibock isn’t such a reach. Pizzeria Uno, too, had a nice one in tow at the festival, and without trying too hard, we can think of other brewpubs in Jersey that served bock under the sign of the bull.

What we’re saying is that tying up fermenter and other tank space for lagering when you’re a small brewery speaks to some measure of faith in your beer and your public and that what you’re doing is worth the trouble.

And a festival is a great platform to underscore that spirit, that you cover the basics beyond the alphabet soup of ales (ESB & IPA), and can step off the beaten path, like with that rauch beer, or even get funky like that hefeweiss flavored with hibiscus that the Tun Tavern had in a growler.

And if the more cosmic-related arguments aren’t enough, then consider the practical.

Craft beer’s enjoying a bounce right now, says the Brewers Association. Sales growth, double digits, an industry segment to watch, yada et cetera yada …

So strike while the iron’s hot (or make hay while the sun shines, whatever cliché you’re into).

Plus, we’d swear that the crowd at the stern of the USS New Jersey last Saturday skewed toward the younger demographic. Not overwhelmingly, but enough that we took notice. Enough that if you mentioned Buffalo Springfield … well, you get the picture.

Now stir in this variable: We’re talking the gadget/instant message culture. Word of mouth seems to spread at light speed in that world. Word of ur kickin’ beer isn’t 2 B past ^.

But, giving credit where credit is due, that younger crowd plying the decks of battleship last weekend was really into beer.

Take the guy who told us that at home he’d probably be cracking open a Miller Lite. He rattled off a list of brews aboard ship he thought were worth his mug.

We’re thinking that after Saturday, he’s had his last pils-E-ner.


Footnote:


As you can see, the video is up. It's also viewable here at blip.tv, and here at YouTube. Blip has better image quality – we originally had the blip file posted on the blog, but subbed in YouTube, the more widely known site, and finally swapped in Current.tv, which became available much later. (By the by, HomerJDoh works for Beer-Stained Letter.)

If you're unfamiliar with Current.tv, it's the site and cable television channel that Joel Hyatt (of Hyatt Legal Services fame; you have our word on that) and Al Gore (yes, that Al 'Inconvenient Truth' guy) created in 2005. There's some fantastic, very credible and intellectually challenging – even moving – work on Current.tv. Check it out.

The video is also viewable on iTunes – just in time for iPhone!

Thanks to everyone who availed themselves of an interview. Thanks to Flying Fish for some key support; thanks to the brewers guild and the battleship folks.

And thanks to yeast for making beer.

PS: We usually don't do this, but since we got an email from a beer fan in Illinois recently ... DVD copies of the video are available at no charge; just send us an email and we'll oblige.

PPS: Contest! A prize (to be determined eventually; heads up, though, it won't be beer) to whoever can create the most words from these six letters: ESB and IPA. Entries by email throughout July.

Have fun.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Eleventh Hour



A beer festival is like a big potluck dinner … That kind of reminds us of Homer’s advice to Bart: “Son, a woman is like a beer. They smell good, they look good, you'd step over your own mother just to get one!” Anyway, we were saying festival, potluck etc … The point is, one thing you want to know about a festival is who’s bringing what.

Well, we’ve got some answers, albeit a partial list, but it can help you navigate Saturday’s 11th Annual Garden State Craft Beer Festival aboard the USS New Jersey.

We’re not going to go into the how-to’s of festival tasting, i.e. beer styles to start with before working your way to heavier styles. Or remind you to keep up your water intake. A lot of that’s been covered in the past by so many other beer writers. (Think back to Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell’s take last March before the Philly festival.)

Plus, so much about beer – flavors and favorites, ales vs. lagers – is as individual as an iPod, so we’ll just say what we know about the beers that'll be going into your logo’d commemorative tasting glass. (A barrel-sized thanks to the brewers – many of whom were up to their elbows in prep work for the festival – for fielding our emails and calls asking for their beer lineup.).

So here’s what we know:

The Brewpubs

• Tun Tavern (Atlantic City):
The Tun has a new brewmaster, Tim Kelly, who invites you to check out some Devil Dog Pale Ale and the Tun’s summer staple, hefeweiss. Tim also promises to have something else to wow the festival crowd with.

• Pizzeria Uno (Metuchen):
Make your bock maibock, says Uno’s brewer Mike Sella. His golden bock (7.2% ABV), fashioned with Hallertauer and Saaz hops, is among a flight of beers that includes the brewpub’s year-rounds Ike’s IPA, Gust N Gale Porter, plus a dark mild.

• JJ Bitting (Woodbridge):
Like lager? Like a dark lager? Still like a lager when it goes goth? We do. And we’ll be looking for this schwarzbier, Bitting’s Black Magic. (Totally tangential trivia: The USS New Jersey was launched in 1942, the same year that christened the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer tune “That Old Black Magic,” a song that would go on to chart for boatloads of singers, including Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Prima.) Other brews Bitting will have in tow: Bierstrasse Hefeweizen, Bitting’s Best Bitter and J.J.’s Raspberry Wheat.

• Long Valley Pub and Brewery (Long Valley):
If you, like the USS New Jersey, call South Jersey home, chances are you haven’t been to Long Valley. It’s worth the trip up, for both the brewpub and the scenic part of Morris County the pub draws its name from. In the meantime, brewer Joe Saia is sending a crew to Camden to share some Lazy Jake Porter, a gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival. Rounding out Long Valley’s N.J. festival lineup is Grist Mill Golden Ale and an IPA that cuts an English jib.

• Harvest Moon (New Brunswick):

It doesn’t take a Rutgers math major to figure out an IPA that has Hops2 (that's squared) in its moniker means you’re in for an exponentially hoppy drinking experience. The equation here is German hops + American hops + English varieties for dry hopping = Harvest Moon’s Hops2 Double IPA. Brewer Matt McCord plans to have enough of the IPA on hand so hopheads, and anyone else with an adventurous palate, won’t be denied. Ditto for the casual beer drinker.

The Production Breweries

• Cricket Hill (Fairfield):

Co-owner Rick Reed once told us he thinks a well done American lager is a style that's becoming a little bit forsaken. Perhaps that’s why the Cricket has one, aptly named East Coast Lager, a refreshing brew that has found a niche in our fridge. Look for it, plus their American Ale, Hopnotic IPA (another one of the Cricket’s that is usually in our fridge), and the Colonel, that is, Colonel Blide's Altbier.

High Point Wheat Beer Company, aka Ramstein (Butler):

What’s that old saying, that bit of advice for success, “Do what you do best …” Well, High Point’s name says it all: Wheat Beer. Greg Zaccardi used to work as a brewer in southern Germany, and took a lot of that Deutschland bier ethic and sensibility back home to create some great German style wheats and lagers. Look for Ramstein Blonde, High Point’s take on the traditional unfiltered weiss, and Ramstein Classic, a dark wheat that beer writers 10 years ago dubbed the future of dunkel wheats. See for yourself how that claim holds up.

• Flying Fish (Cherry Hill):

The Fish is the big fish when it comes to Garden State craft beers, and will probably crack the 10,000-barrel mark this year. We remember when they were just starting to swim and recall the Saturday open house in October ’96 when the mash was struck for their very first Abbey Dubbel. Fish folks say they’re bringing a bit of everything to the festival. We hope that means HopFish, their really creamy and tasty IPA, in addition to their ESB and quenching Farmhouse Summer Ale (which we turned our neighbors onto).

Festival Details

Admission: Tickets are $35 and still available online through ticketweb.com or at the ship's ticketing office, 856-966-1652 x107. Price includes keepsake tasting glass and self-tour of the battleship.
Entertainment: Music by the Cabin Dogs.
Food: Vendors will sate your appetite for the right price (seriously, there will be stands where you can buy food).
Parking: Garage is located at the Camden waterfront complex; shuttle buses will be available to the battleship.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A shot – not so long now – at beer fame

They call him ESB Dave.

Dave Pobutkiewicz (pronounced POE' • but • KEV • ich) picked up that nom de bière thanks to his two-year quest to clone Fuller’s marquee brew.

It helps, too, that the initials for extra special bitter distinguish him from several other Daves in his homebrewer club, the Defiant Homebrewers, who meet at Defiant Brewing Company just across the state line in Pearl River, N.Y.

But if you ask what his favorite beer style is, ESB Dave will tell you maibock, or helles bock, as beer aficionados also know it.

“There’s so much challenge to making a light-colored, full bodied beer,” says the 39-year-old from Pompton Lakes in Passaic County who has homebrewed for 11 years.

Now, Dave has another reason to enjoy a helles bock. His interpretation of the style scored him a berth in the finals of the 2007 Samuel Adams American Homebrew contest.

With that honor, Dave – who’s one of two finalist from the competition’s Boston regional judging – and finalists from the San Francisco and Chicago regionals get an invitation to the Great American Beer Festival (Oct. 11-13) in Denver.

That’s where Boston Beer Company will announce two winning homebrewers, whose beers will be brewed by Boston Beer for the next Samuel Adams LongShot variety pack.

A third homebrew, from the Samuel Adams employees contest, will be chosen to round out the nationally distributed sixpack through voting by attendees at the GABF.

(The variety pack is made up of two bottles of each beer. The current variety pack, featuring brews from the 2006 winners, includes an old ale, a Dortmunder style export and a boysenberry wheat ale.)

Boston Beer’s brewmasters, beer judges from the Beer Judge Certification Program, and other qualified judges put their palates and noses to good use to select the finalists. The company announced the final four from the more than 1,700 entries last Friday.

Dave found out a little earlier in the week in a phone call from his homebrewing compadre, Chris Baas of Midland Park in Bergen County, who entered an alt and kölsch in the contest. (Chris' alt finished in the top 10 of the Boston regional judging, by the way.)

“He said are you sitting down, Sam Adams just called me,” Dave says, describing what he thought was the introduction to a bittersweet moment: his losing and Chris setting his sights on Denver.

But it was the other way around. Chris was calling to inform and congratulate his friend.

Chris, a finalist in a separate Samuel Adams’ homebrew competition last year, shipped both of their entries to the Boston judging – just a day before the mid-May deadline. But he didn’t have Dave’s phone number handy, so he listed his own as the contact. When the Boston Beer folks called Chris, they were actually looking for Dave.

Chris describes his friend as a "meticulous brewer" whose toughest critic is perhaps himself. "He’s so critical of his own beers. He doesn’t make flawed beers. We all keep telling him his beer is good," says Chris.

Dave, a service technician who helped install the coolant lines at Defiant Brewing ("I'll work for beer," he jokes), says he almost didn’t have enough of the bock to enter. The 5-gallon batch – tweaked and refined from a previous take on the bock – was so good, he came close to finishing it in the month or so before the contest deadline. The Sam Adams folks would need seven bottles; Dave got down to eight, cutting it that close.

Dave and Chris, who’s also a beer judge, are no strangers to beer competition.

Chris has been in the winner’s circle in Best of Brooklyn and other contests. Dave has watched his own brews, such as an imperial stout and Belgian strong ale, finish in the top three. He also took a first place in New Jersey State Fair competition with a hefeweizen, just getting edged out of the best-in-show award.

But right now, Dave’s looking forward, busy compiling the details of his bock recipe and biographical information that Boston Beer has requested.

Not to mention setting his sights on 2008.

About Dave’s maibock

Grain bill: Pilsner malt, light munich malt and a half pound of wheat.
Hops: Spalt and Saaz with IBU in the mid-20s.
Original gravity: 1.070 (17.2° Plato)
ABV: Just under 6.5%
Water: Dave used bottled water in the brew. “My (tap) water is ridiculously hard; I didn’t want to harsh the bitterness with that,” he says.

About Defiant Homebrewers

The club has about 20 participating members and meets the first and third Wednesdays at Defiant Brewing Company (brewmaster Neill Acer) in Pearl River, N.Y., in Rockland County.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Figuratively speaking

Sluggish growth for the big domestic brewers, double digit growth in craft beer. That’s from the Brewers Association earlier this spring, which took a look at supermarket sales from 2005 to 2006 in a snapshot of the nation’s craft beer industry.

The breakdown, according to the trade group, goes like this: 2.4% growth for the big brewers (personified here as Bud C. Miller), while craft beer saw a nearly 18% percent surge in sales. Craft beer is the alcoholic beverage industry’s segment to watch, boasts the Brewers Association.

Given that news, and with Garden State craft beer’s showcase festival coming up June 23rd, we wanted to see where New Jersey’s microbrewers and brewpubs were situated in the industry nationwide, and what the landscape, numerically speaking, looks like for the state’s craft beer business.

The Brewers Association was kind enough to pull together some production stats for us (a million thanks to BA director Paul Gatza, who took the time during a busy spring schedule to whip up the Excel files).

If you’re into figures, then you’ll be well-armed in case there’s a pop quiz at the 11th Annual Garden State Craft Brewers Festival aboard the USS New Jersey. (These numbers probably aren’t going to help you charm the ladies, and spouting them could just get you sucked into a beer geek debate or two.)

So sit back, pour a cold one and crunch some pretzels or Planters, while we crunch the numbers, with visual aids, too! (Some quick points: The stats are drawn from figures reported to the BA by member breweries and brewpubs. New Jersey-specific figures are for the years 2001-06. Also, click on the charts to enlarge them.)

• Top state producer of craft beer: California. That's probably no surprise to anyone who really follows the industry. Golden State craft brewers brewed up 1.3 million barrels (bbls) last year. Rounding out the top five: Ohio, Colorado, Oregon and our foamy neighbor to the north, New York.

California reigns as production king with nearly a half-million barrel advantage over Ohio (859,098 bbls). North Dakota finished last at 550 bbls.

In case you’re wondering (as we were and hence pursued this project), New Jersey came in 29th with 26,384 bbls. (That’s a 2.3% increase from ’05, by the way.) Our neighbors west and south are running laps around us: Delaware (20th) cranks out nearly twice as much craft beer as New Jersey, while Pennsylvania (14th) brews almost 4 1/2 times as much.

• Most disappointing stat (for some reason, this bugged us): Alaska, which in terms of population density has less than one person per square kilometer, compared to our nearly 300 people per square kilometer, is apparently more into craft beer than we are. Alaskan craft brewers made nearly 121,000 bbls last year (for 12th place). Maybe we’re crying in our beer for nothing, but geez we’re on the East Coast, anchored by the metropolitan poles of New York and Philadelphia. Sigh, even Montana finished better than we did, at 64,306 bbls to rank 17th.

We’re not, by any stretch, laying blame on the good New Jersey brewing folks who put the better beer beside our jazzed up steaks, barbecue and hot-off-the-grill dogs and burgers. Jersey is a tough place for any business to be in business. Get into an enterprise that comes with some added regulatory pressure (à la the alcoholic beverage industry) and you can put an exponent on the degree of difficulty. More on this issue at some point soon.

Moving on … Jersey-specific stats

• The Garden State’s top craft brewer is again Flying Fish. The Cherry Hill brewer is closing in on the 10,000 bbl mark (9,785 bbls, a 3.4% percent increase) and dominated the state’s craft beer production for the period observed. River Horse Brewing in Lambertville continues as the place horse (4,750 bbls), while taking show is High Point and its wheat beers. (See the charts for the production trends and the 2005-06 year-to-year micro results.)

• In the subset category of brewpubs, Triumph (Princeton) is tops at 1,310 bbls, followed by Harvest Moon (New Brunswick), 850 bbls. (See the chart for the top six brewpubs.)

• Gone but not forgotten: Heavyweight Brewing. The purveyor of the ever-interesting Perkuno’s Hammer (imperial porter) opted to pack things in last August, with an eye toward popping up on the PA side of the Delaware River in some form. But as beer scribe Lew Bryson has recounted on his blog (with some reminiscing) the Hammer was taken in as a foster child by Victory Brewing in PA.

• Worth mentioning: High Point – aka Ramstein – in Butler and Climax Brewing in Roselle Park were rated among the top 50 craft beers based on user reviews on BeerAdvocate.com (see the June 2007 issue of their hard copy mag). Also, Philadelphia's the City Paper gave top accolades to Flying Fish's Farmhouse Summer Ale in its rating of summer brews.

The Brewers Association is upbeat for 2007’s industry prospects, forecasting the nation's 1,400 craft brewers and brewpubs will top the $500 million sales mark. All stats aside, we’re going to pour another brew in support and follow the BA's lead.

Cheers.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Dark side of the Moon

There’s just something seductive about black. Tell us that a lass decked out in elegant black and trimmed with some well-heeled boots wouldn’t grab your attention and we’d call you a liar. Or dead.

Well we love black and we’re not dead, and those are just a couple of reasons why a beer that dances in the dark caught our eye at New Brunswick’s Harvest Moon Brewery Café.

This is not just any obsidian brew. This raven has lager contours and an accent that’s refreshing, inviting you back for more.

And right now, she can be yours.

Paint it black

This is schwarzbier, that cool German cousin of ale-leaning stouts and porters. It’s a beer style whose most well known example is probably Köstritzer, but Samuel Adams and Saranac have been known to paint it black, too.

Schwarzbier (auf deustch, schwarz = black, bier = beer, duh) traces its roots to 17th century eastern Germany (Saxony). That’s all well and good if you’re fielding questions on “Millionaire” or “Jeopardy!” (Bonus trivia for a college town: Goethe supposedly favored Köstritzer in his stein.)

But we’re talking about a Jersey bar and your glass, so just know that Harvest Moon brewer Matt McCord has chalked up a fourth incarnation of schwarzbier on the pub’s lineup for this spring/cusp-of-summer time of year that usually finds folks returning to the pub at their Belgian wit’s end.

“It’s our summer option for people who want to enjoy a darker beer,” says Matt, whose own palate tends toward English ales, and whose labors have put plenty of stouts and porters of all inflections into the pint glasses of Moon patrons.

Brewed in early spring, Matt styled the schwarzbier with German malts – deriving that deep inky color with chocolate malt and roasted barley – and jazzed it just enough with Czech hops (Saaz), while turning in an ABV of just under 6%.

That’s a little more robust than the typical 4-and-change -to-5% ABV of a schwarzbier, Matt concedes, but his beers tend to run a notch or two higher than what the beer fetishists say is style. And honestly, to drink this beer you wouldn’t know it's elbowing that envelope. Nor would you care since it has an easy-drinking, thirst-quenching quality you’d expect from the lager it is.

So it’s no wonder that among the Moon’s specialty beers, the schwarzbier has earned a following at the establishment, located along a bustling block of George Street just off the center of town.

“Last year we didn’t do it and caught a lot of heat for it. People came in and asked for it, so we weren’t going to make that mistake again,” Matt says.

Doing that would be just plain ... lunacy.

About Harvest Moon:

With 30 specialty beers that can be stirred into the mix of six house beers (including an IPA, America pale ale and a red), plus a roster of seasonals, there’s a lot to like about Harvest Moon. Not to mention the fact that the pub’s within walking distance of the train station, and its growler prices are a comparative bargain at $15 and 10 bucks for refill. (Some brewpubs command $18 before the $10 refill, while others can hit you up initially for $24). On Fridays in the summer, the pub taps a keg of fruit-flavored Belgian wit to feature through the week. Later this summer look for Matt’s take on a saison.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Samuel Smith goes to Washington

We’re coloring outside the lines with that headline, using a British ale to personify America’s microbrewers. But thanks to Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, it’s a turn of phrase that’s too good not to use.

We’re referring to the news that U.S. craft beer now has a seat, or a voice at least, at that banquet of issue-oriented discourse known as Congress. (Yeah, we know, our lofty prose is giving Congress the benefit of the doubt, a huge one at that. But now’s not a time to be cynical.)

The new deal


Two weeks ago (May 15th), 34 members of the House of Representatives, from both sides of the political aisle, caucused on the subject of the craft brewing industry, gathering on Capitol Hill for a confabulation that went something like: “You like beer?” “Yeah, I like beer …” “Me, too …” “What kind?” “The tastier, the better …”

OK, we’re taking license again. But the like-minded reps of the lower chamber – the people’s chamber – did resolve that a prime objective of the House Small Brewers Caucus would be awareness of and education about the niche industry that has returned flavor and creativity to the art of brewing beer in America.

A statement put out last week by the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry’s trade group, describes the mission as providing an interactive opportunity for learning the ins and outs of small business (in this case, running a microbrewery is the small business), the brewing process, and the quality and value of brewing activities.

So what does all this mean? That craft brewers have won recognition for their economic and cultural contributions.

The big picture


The obvious benefits from the industry are some jobs created here, some federal and state taxes or fees paid there. But seriously, the contribution is much bigger, and less matter-of-fact.

For one thing, the craft beer industry is a cultural bridge, and its brewers ambassadors.

Take, for example, the beer styles served up by those small brewers. It’s their global imagination that sends you on a journey, figuratively and literally. Many an American beer enthusiast who has sipped a Belgian ale here has traveled there in search of the genuine article that inspired his local craft brewer. Ditto for the chap in the heartland who signed up with CAMRA and found himself filling a pint to the line as a volunteer at the Great British Beer Festival.

Consider, too, the symbiotic relationship between craft breweries and their communities: Locally grown or produced foods served at restaurants that feature locally made beers. It’s a similar kind of relationship that pairs the Garden State’s annual craft beer festival with the USS New Jersey, retired from decades of decorated battleship service now pulling duty as a floating naval museum. (This year's festival – for a third year – is being held on the New Jersey's decks.)

Politics and beer

It’s worth pointing out that the craft beer industry’s new buddy in Congress is a caucus, not a subcommittee or committee, both of which are much higher on the ladder that is congressional business. But from a practical standpoint, having an organized body to turn to is something to crow about, not to mention a bulwark to keep you from getting stomped on in a competition-crazy world.

Says Charlie Papazian, of the Brewers Association (in the organization’s statement): “There is a very real danger that the voice of the small members of the brewing community may not be heard over that of its larger brethren, so a group of legislators bound by a common interest in the history, tradition and excitement that are hallmarks of today’s small brewers, should help ensure our issues get fair consideration.”

For the smallest of the small, the ones whose involvement with the federal government may be limited to just getting a license and label approval, the caucus may not mean much, says Rick Reed of Cricket Hill Brewing Company. It’s a bigger deal for the brewers who conduct business across state lines. Rick cautions it’s state government that can be the heavier hand.

And in a not-too-business-friendly climate like New Jersey, that’s a whole other story.

FOOTNOTE: There are no representatives from the New Jersey House delegation on the small brewers caucus. (We're not surprised by that.) However, the Garden State's neighbors north and west – New York and Pennsylvania – each have three members.

If you're the lobbying kind, maybe a letter or email to Rep. Jim Saxton will spark an interest; Flying Fish, the state's largest craft brewer, is located in Cherry Hill, and that's a marquee town in Saxton's sprawling South Jersey district. You can probably skip putting pressure on North Jersey reps, since there's a Budweiser facility in Newark, and hence the distinct possibility your suggestions would fall on deaf ears.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Lights, camera, brew!



From the back lot of Beercrafters in Turnersville, NJ, comes an observance of National Homebrew Day 2007 (May 5th) and the Big Brew that took place across the U.S. and abroad.

Thanks to Phyllis Blessing and the rest of the cast at Beercrafters, not to mention all the fine folks who filled our beer glass that day and took the time to be interviewed. (And curses to that damned 8 horse, which broke up our exacta in the Kentucky Derby later on that day.)

QUICK ADDENDUM:

YouTube can make good-quality video look like fuzzy mush, so we're exploring viewer options, which may include linking to video posted on a dot-mac web page in addition to posting on YouTube.

If this ends up the case, you'll need QuickTime player, but it's a free download for both Mac and Windows. (Yeah, we know that sounds like Web 1.0 ...)

ADDENDUM No. 2 (some folks call it PPS):

Here's a viewing option we did find right away: Homebrew Day posted on blip.tv. (The image quality is better if you select the QuickTime format. Blip's conversion to Flash video also looked better than YouTube's reformat. Also, we tried embedding the Blip file, but for some reason it ends up wider than the space allotted.)

ADDENDUM No. 3
The Homebrew Day video is also viewable on Current.tv by clicking here. (FYI: The accompanying text you'll recognize as a repeat of a BSL post, albeit tweaked a little bit for Current.tv.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Moves at the Tun

A changing of the guard’s on tap at the Tun Tavern brewpub in Atlantic City.

Brewmaster Ted Briggs is heading to Lake Placid Pub & Brewery in the Adirondacks. (Flagship beer: Ubu Ale, an English style strong ale that found favor in the Clinton White House; Bubba liked the brew and had some sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Lake Placid was also crowned best craft beer in the Hudson Valley at the Tap New York festival last month, winning the FX Matt and Matthew Vassar Cups.)

Roots


Ted grew up in Michigan and is an outdoorsman. So hunting and fishing in the scenic mountains of upstate New York will be like returning to his roots. His last day is May 15th. Swing by the Tun, have a beer and toast his years of hard work as he hands the mash rake to Tim Kelly, the No. 2 brewer at Flying Fish in Cherry Hill, who’s getting a chance to captain a ship.

Tim takes over May 21st, with the Tun’s hefeweizen as his first beer. And yes, our recommendation is to pop in when the wheat’s neat and inaugurate Tim’s tenure at running the Tun’s 10-barrel, one-person operation, a system he’s familiar with after filling in last year when Ted was sidelined with a knee injury. (The Tun brews about 550 barrels a year.)

“I hope to hit the ground running," Tim says. He notes it's been a year since he's worked on the Tun's system and he'll filter beer his first day on duty.

Incidentally, like Tim, Ted is also an alumnus of Flying Fish (not to mention his stints at brewhouses in Manayunk, Pa., and Michigan), and both he and Tim sharpened their brewing skills first as homebrewers, then through the American Brewers Guild program.

On Thursday, Tun CEO Monty Dahm gave some props to Ted’s service, and looked ahead to Tim’s turn. The Tun’s a brand that has earned its place with “the quality of the beer and we complement that with our food,” he says.

The brewpub’s also evolving, Monty says, with local clientele, tourists, crowds from the nearby convention center and a new shopping district that gives Atlantic City another attraction besides the casinos.

Seven year itch


After 6 1/2 years at the Tun, Ted put his stamp on the brewpub with a great crop of specialty beers and seasonals, plus regularly featured beers like Sterling ESB, American IPA, Leatherneck Stout and Devil Dog Pale Ale (the Tun’s heritage is the U.S. Marine Corps; hence the Semper Fi styling in some of the beer names). To drink at the Tun is to browse Ted’s recipe book.

So he leaves behind a respected body of work. And his decision to move on is about the wider opportunity at Lake Placid, where he'll be one of two brewers.

It goes something like this: Lake Placid started as brewpub before branching out with a production brewery -- Lake Placid Craft Brewing Company in Plattsburgh, N.Y. -- that added bottled beer to its product lineup behind a healthy boost in brewing capacity.

Having both production and pub breweries under one banner is something you can’t do in New Jersey, since the law limits your brewing operation to one or the other. (That never-the-twain-shall-meet restriction is high on the list of dumb-ass beer industry regulations in the Garden State. Sigh.)

But there’s more.

Lake Placid has a reciprocal brewing agreement with Matt Brewing Company in Utica (widely known for its Saranac line of beers). Under the deal, Lake Placid provides pilot brewery services for Matt, which in turn offers some extra capacity for Lake Placid as a contract brewer. Observant drinkers of Flying Fish’s Farmhouse Summer Ale will recognize Matt Brewing as the contract brewer of the Fish’s April-through-August seasonal.

And speaking of Flying Fish, it’s been home to Tim Kelly for the past two years, a place where he worked his way up from the bottling line and cellarman to a spot as assistant brewer behind Casey Hughes.

“It’s quite a privilege to be mentored by Casey and Ted ...” Tim says.

That Tim will be leaving the comforts of the Fish comes unexpectedly and with some sadness, he says. But, proverbially, opportunity knocked with an offer that well serves Tim's ambition -- to have his own brewpub some day.

Arrivals and departures

Tim will pick up where Ted leaves off, initially relying on his predecessor’s recipes but tossing in some of his own beer interpretations soon. (In Tim’s file are his take on doppelbock, English mild, and he’s interested in trying out a tropical wheat beer jazzed up with passion fruit.) Tim also plans to take the Tun's beers on the road, hitting more of the festivals in the region.

(Note: The timing of the transition at the Tun could put a question mark on the brewpub’s appearance at the Garden State Craft Brewers Festival next month. Keep your fingers crossed that the Tun can hustle and make the June 23rd event.)

The Big 1-0

Tim also inherits a big (15% ABV) Belgian ale that Ted brewed to mark the Tun’s 10th anniversary next year. The outgoing and incoming brewers on Wednesday sampled the beer, which still needs some finishing. That process could include dosing it with some active Belgian ale yeast to get the job done. Early ideas for the beer call for it to be racked into 750ml bottles, then corked and capped.

So stay tuned.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

One for the brew-it-yourself crowd


This may be the beer version of harmonic convergence …

Come Saturday, thousands of homebrewers -- propane burners, grain sacks and array of gadgets in tow -- will gather at hundreds of sites worldwide to strike mashes and boil hopped worts together in metal kegs repurposed to create beer instead of dispense it.

Then the brewers will raise their glasses to toast the freedom and triumph of because you can

Welcome to the Big Brew, the spirit and face of National Homebrew Day, a first-Saturday-in-May tradition that collectively demonstrates that from the comforts or confines of your kitchen, garage or backyard you can craft a lager, stout or IPA that’s as tasty as anything Sierra Nevada Brewing makes in Chico, California.

This year is the 10th for the Big Brew celebration; 3,000 homebrewers, whether individually or in beer clubs, are forecast to participate throughout the day and join in a simultaneous toast at 1 p.m. EST.

Some brewers will concoct beers from their own recipes. Others will embrace the unity fostered by the American Homebrewers Association and mash in from the three recipes annually provided by the AHA. (This year’s styles: an IPA, a Belgian strong ale and a doppelbock. For more about the recipes, click here.)

For the uninitiated, the Colorado-based AHA is the umbrella group that champions the hobby that’s been legal in the U.S. since Jimmy Carter tried to outrun the public antics of his brother Billy. (But to be sure, homebrewing goes back much, much further. Pick a historical figure, a person from antiquity even, and you probably have a homebrewer, or homebrew drinker, at least.)

The AHA tracks Big Brew participation and the amount of beer made by urging brewers to register their sites and report the outcome of their efforts. Last year, more than 7,000 gallons were brewed by more than 2,500 participants at 229 sites worldwide, the AHA says.

Here in New Jersey, members of the homebrew club PALE ALES -- that’s a long acronym for lager and ale enthusiasts from the greater Princeton area -- plan to strike six or seven communal mashes (to produce 10 to 15 gallons each) amid the scenic environs of Suydam Farm in Somerset County. The farm is known for dabbling in Jersey-grown hops and has hosted PALE ALES’ Big Brew and accompanying cookout for a few years now.

Among brews planned by the club, says member Andrew Koontz, is one they’re calling Mondo Roja, a lager (or ale, depending on whatever yeast type folks ultimately elect to use) in the mold of Mexican beer Negra Modelo. The choice is a nod to the fact that Homebrew Day falls on Cinco de Mayo this year.

To that end, the PALE ALES gang will also sip on some margaritas and plans to whip up some mint juleps, since the Kentucky Derby -- the more renown first-Saturday-in-May event -- also takes place on Homebrew Day.

Farther south, in Gloucester County, you’ll find the back lot of homebrew supply shop Beercrafters a beehive of brewing activity.

Look for a monster mash of 200 pounds of pale malt to be struck about 8 a.m. From that will come 90 gallons of wort to be divvied up among brewers, who’ll customize it with specialty grains they’ve steeped separately. Yeast donated by Flying Fish, Iron Hill and Triumph Brewing will await the boiled-then-chilled worts to eventually transform it into the guest of honor, beer.

Big Brew has drawn as many as 500 homebrewers to Beercrafters, but folks there say the turnout is always hard to predict.

If you want to come, you’re welcome, but please remember it’s a demonstration not a festival. So bring an interest in brewing, not merely a thirst.

Save that for the toast to because you can.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Kilobrew update

Long Valley Pub and Brewery has put the word out: Batch 1,000 Brewmaster's Reserve makes its drinking debut in just 10 days.

Recap: This is the imperial stout the Morris County brewpub created to mark the kilobatch milestone (and had forecast putting on tap last month; but hey, you can't rush a good thing).

To that endeavor, Long Valley brewmaster Joe Saia really dressed this beer up before portioning three barrels into cold conditioning in steel tanks and another four into bourbon barrels for some white oak styling. And with the special handling comes a staggered, one-barrel-at-a-time release of the brew.

Quoth the pub about their 9% ABV raven beauty: "Batch 1000 is an Imperial Stout whose stark, jet black body is topped with a deep toffee colored layer of foam. Its robust flavor is made up of dark chocolate, dark fruits, and blackstrap molasses. The malty sweetness of this stout is balanced by an abundance of caramel, chocolate, and roasted barley that lend themselves to a lengthy burnt, bittersweet finish. "

Come the evening of Friday, May 11th, Joe will ceremoniously make the first pour of Batch 1,000. When this barrel is gone, you'll have to wait awhile for the next release.

The beer, after all, is named Brewmaster's Reserve.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Word to the weiss

Some notes from Atlantic City and the Tun Tavern

Look for the Tun to rotate its Summer Weiss into the line-up sometime in June.

This is an annual brew from the gambling mecca’s only brewpub, located at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, across the street from the city’s busy convention center.

Brewmaster Tedd Briggs says the beer will continue in the German style of hefeweizen, but will eschew the traditional clovey or fruity hallmarks of the style. The brew will be “well balanced,” Tedd says, charting at about 4.5% ABV.

It will also be a brew that takes well to some apricot or raspberry flavoring, an addition that helped it attract a wider following when the Tun poured the Summer Weiss at last year’s Garden State Craft Brewers Festival along the Camden waterfront.

Tedd plans to return to the decks of the USS New Jersey this year (June 23rd) with the wheat beer, and maybe some brewer’s reserve surprises up his sleeve for the 11th incarnation of the festival. (Stay tuned.)

The Tun’s weiss is expected to run the duration of the summer. But Tedd is also looking at turning in a Belgian wheat to take up a tap handle along side the Tun’s mainstays of Sterling ESB, All American IPA, Leatherneck Stout and Irish Red.

About the Tun

Military historians will recognize the name “Tun Tavern” as the birthplace of the U.S. Marine Corps. The 18th century Philadelphia watering hole was where troops were marshaled to suppress uprisings by indigenous tribes, and most famously where two battalions of Continental Marines were recruited in November 1775 as the American Revolution was taking shape.

If you want to find the original Tun Tavern, drive along Interstate 95 through Philadelphia and somewhere along the way look down because the location is multilane pavement now. There is a replica at the Marine Corps’ museum at the corps’ base in Quantico, Va.

And then there’s the Atlantic City brewpub, which salutes the corps with a Semper Fi and some iconic tributes throughout the bar and open-kitchen style restaurant.

You’ll find no less than seven beers on tap created with the Tun’s 10-barrel brewing system, as well as Bud and Coors Light on tap and Corona in the bottle to satisfy the more mainstream beer tastes. (Unlike a lot of brewpubs, which chiefly draw their base clientele from their surrounding areas, the Tun pours beer in a gambling resort that attracts millions of people annually. Translation: The brewpub has to serve a wide range of palates.)

Top-selling beer -- Tun Light (4.7% ABV); fan favorite -- All American IPA (6.5% ABV), a hoppy and assertive but not overwhelming session take on the India pale ale style.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Throwing your beer a curve, Part 2

The taste-test results are in.

That new, curvy Samuel Adams pint glass won’t make your favorite Jersey-brewed beer taste like champaign.

It will, however, help the beer taste more like what it was intended to, complementing the flavors and aromas of malt and hops. But a word of warning to you fans of big beers: The glass seems to wreck their flavor profile. More about that later.

A quick recap:

Boston Beer Company created this tulip-meets-shaker pint glass for its flagship Boston Lager after some R&D by some topnotch beer palates and technical minds. Folks at Samuels Adams stick to their proviso that the glass is intended for their lager’s malt profile and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh hops.

Fair enough -- their glass and their beer. (Their marketing, too.) But we suspected what’s good for their lager could be good for our bitters.

So we put the glass through the paces, pitting it against the sturdy and bar-ubiquitous shaker pint glass, enlisting the sensory help of Flying Fish head brewer Casey Hughes and two of his crew -- brewer Tim Kelly and cellarman Frank Winslow. The Fish’s brewing operations chief, John Berardino, also popped in with some observations.

(Note: Both John and Casey were skeptics. John: Looks too much like a vase and its undulations rob the beer of a uniform appearance when held up to light; also looks tough for bars to clean quickly and slip back in their rotation. Casey: Chatter about the glass sounded like a lot of hype; wonder how it stacks against a Chimay glass …)

For the test bench, the Jersey brews sampled were: Cricket Hill’s East Coast Lager, Climax Brewing’s Extra Special Bitter and Flying Fish’s HopFish India Pale Ale.

Carrying things out a few more decimal places, so to speak, we also tasted a great, 8% ABV whiskey barrel-aged version of the Fish’s Belgian Abbey Dubbel. (And we can't wait to leisurely sip this baby again.)

The findings

Generally speaking, the Sam Adams glass topped the shaker pint, providing:

Cleaner malt and hop aromas
Readily noticeable malt flavors (unlike an initial bitterness you got drinking from the shaker pint)
An overall support for the delicate flavors of the beers

Yes, these are the pretty much the same claims Boston Beer makes about the glass. But it’s what we tasted and what we found to be the case.

Another observation: Your palate won’t tire with the Sam Adams glass. For that, you can credit a laser-etched ring on the bottom. It triggers a constant stream of CO2 bubbles over the life of the pint to produce aromatics. (Chimay’s Belgian beer glasses have similar etching to create the same effect.)

Now, about those high-gravity beers ... The shaker glass and its wide V-shape proved friendlier to the Fish’s dubbel, holding the alcohol-warmed malt flavors and fruity aromatics in a tighter integration of pleasing sensations.

Not so with the Sam Adams glass.

It slammed the nose and palate with the booze, a jet stream of alcohol heat that shut out the vanilla notes that should have come from the oak barrel aging. The alcohol in that dubbel is a flavor that should do more weaving and less sensory cleaving. (For comparison sake, we also sipped an Old Ale from Sam Adams’ LongShot sixpack and got pretty much the same impression from that 10% ABV beer.)

Overall, says Casey: "For what the glass was made for, it does very well and complements a variety of beers ... styles that are hoppy and malty but don't have the extreme alcohol."

And, just for kicks …

On our own, we put the Sam Adams glass through a separate test, using River Horse Brewing’s ESB, Flying Fish’s Farmhouse Summer Ale and a black and tan made from Guinness and the Fish’s summer seasonal.

The results were largely the same as with the first round of sampling. But the black and tan was really interesting, a blend of Guinness tang swirling with Summer Ale tang and a tinge of its malt sweetness, all up front but nicely giving way to some slightly muted hop flavor in the Summer Ale. (The head was kind of cool, too, a tan-against-white froth. And by the by, the Summer Ale was excellent by itself in the Sam Adams glass.)

So why all the fuss over a pint glass?

Because beer has such a range of flavors that it deserves some an attention toward capturing and enriching those flavors. Plus, matching the proper glass to a beer is a common practice in Europe.

As it should be here, too.

NOTE: We're not going to offer a buying recommendation. But we will point out the glass is priced at $30 for a set of four, with shipping to New Jersey and tax boosting the grand total to nearly 41 bucks.