Friday, November 21, 2008

At last, Harvest Ale

This was worth the trip.

Almost three months ago, Weyerbacher Brewing, Easton, Pa., came out with a harvest ale that brewers there had dosed with Nugget and Cascade hops grown by owners Dan and Sue Weirback on their Lehigh Valley farm.

It’s the hops-growing project we video-chronicled back in August, an intrepid endeavor that now lets Dan and Sue add “agri-consultant/hops specialist" to their resum├ęs, should any other craft brewer tempted to sow the soil seek some how-did-you-do-it advice.

Fount of ideas
Weyerbacher is a brewery that doesn't stand in one place too long. And planting an acre of hops fits their explorer identity. They have a flight of brews you'll always find on the shelf, but they love to push new ideas and styles, dressing up their packaging with artwork that's reminscent of the LP record's early 1970s era, when album cover artwork was as expressive and expansive as the music.

Their harvest brew, as far as the label goes, doesn't exactly follow that arc, but then this was a brew that depended on Mother Nature to do her part, namely allow that acre of nurtured hop bines to produce enough cones in a first-year growing season. So early on, it was a gamble whether there would be a beer at all, and hence a simpler label, compared with, for instance, the drama and intrigue of Insanity, Prophecy or Heresy. But isn't harvest time an inherently simple moment anyway?

A 6.2% ABV India pale ale, the brew met those freshly picked, still wet, hops in the hopback, in the limited run brewed for release in the Pennsylvania-only market.

Happily, and thankfully, Dan saved us a case, which we picked up yesterday. Indeed, it was worth the wait. Tasty, citrusy hoppy, kind of resinous, almost chewy, but above all, a quaffable beer, two bottles downed upon arriving home.

Sometimes when you have a beer that’s all about hops, you’re temped to keep swirling the glass to kick up the aromas. This one is definitely that kind of swirler, but the pleasure is in churning up some foam, taking a bite of that, and following with a hearty swig.

The backbone is definitely IPA, with some maltiness on either side, and some bitterness in the finish that’s neither harsh nor overwhelming. But the beer’s more earthy-complex thanks to the fresh hops added for a signature flavor, straight from that hand-picked harvest on that August Saturday afternoon.

Next up
Dan says they're now working on Fireside, a 7% ABV brown ale with 10% smoked malt, just enough to rauch things up for the snows of January, but not too much that you won't reach for another. Where there's smoke, there's Fireside.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

State of beers, Part 2

Here’s an update on Hometown Beverages, from the phone conversation we had Monday afternoon with Chris Curylo, who formed the start-up company with Bob Selsky.

A couple of Brooklyn guys relocated to Little Silver (Monmouth County) and who happened to become friends during a softball game, Chris and Bob spent a couple of years exploring the Jersey beer landscape as the legwork to their forthcoming rollout of a trifecta of lagers aimed a folks shy toward EBS's, IPAs, power-hopped double IPAs and monastically ordinal (dubbel/tripel) Belgian ales.

They’ve done some localized marketing, but this weekend’s Poconos festival at Split Rock will be the true debut of Hometown Beverages' beer. Next month will see the session brews available in bottle, then draft in January. Eventually, Chris says, the company would like to borrow a page from Sly Fox and Oskar Blues and put the beer in cans.

Plans also call for the contract-brewed, state-named lagers – Jersey, an amber at 4.7% ABV; Pennsylvania, gold, 5.1%; and New York, reddish, 5.7%; to be soon followed by a lighter brew, Hometown, a 3.9% lager. Chris declined to specify the contract brewer until the beer is on the shelves (such information is usually fine print on the label anyway). When asked to ballpark a comparison flavor profile, for say New Jersey Lager, Chris says Yuengling may come to mind for some people.

(FYI: Hometown will only have Pennsylvania and New Jersey Lager at Split Rock; Chris also says the company has struck a deal to take New York Lager to Port St. Lucie, Fla., for the Mets’ spring training and fantasy camps.)

Bio info
At 43, Chris is lawyer with a penchant for riffing and power chording down the neck of a cherry red Gibson SG, the classic double-cutaway axe that Eric Clapton slow-handed on Cream’s Disraeli Gears and Pete Townshend windmilled with the Who. (Forget Angus Young, we’re rooted in the ’60s). Also in his 40s, Bob enters the beer business from a marketing background.

Unlike a lot of beer venturists, Chris and Bob aren’t coming to market by way of their kitchens, homebrewers dreaming of taking successful recipes beyond family and friends. They're two guys who enjoy the pleasures of craft brew and other beers; Chris notes he even enjoys the strong beers. But he says that when he and Bob surveyed the landscape, they felt a beer you can start the night and finish with wasn’t to be found.

Hence, their foray into easy-drinking lagers – bigger than Bud but still less strident than Sam Adams for instance – produced under the banner Hometown Beverages, a nod to traditional values of neighborhood and community. A pushback against extreme beers? Not at all, says Chris, simply an alternative to big beers and the sometimes challenging yeast-inflected flavors of some craft styles.

Undaunted where others failed
When craft beer really got rolling in New Jersey in the mid- and late-1990s, other folks had similar ideas: Long Beach Island Wheat Ale, brewed by Hoboken Brewing for the short-lived Shore Brewing out of Harvey Cedars on the north end of LBI; Jersey Premium Lager Beer, a brew contract-produced at the Lion in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., aimed solely at the New Jersey market, nowhere else. (That beer, as Chris stresses, is not related to Hometown's lagers.)

Those enterprises went down in the subsequent industry shakeout that also saw the vanishing of Mile Square (Hoboken production brewer), Cedar Creek (a tiny Egg Harbor City brewpub), Red Bank Brewing (lager production brewer), Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon (tiny Trenton brewpub; the bar remains in business) and Joshua Huddy (a Toms River brewpub named for the Revolutionary War militia captain hanged by a mob of British loyalists near Sandy Hook). And there were others.

But Chris and Bob are confident their two-year preparation and some grass-roots marketing will better position them in the region’s very competitive beer scene, one that longtime Jersey brewers can tell you is unfriendly to the point where a California beer can get Garden State shelf space faster than locally produced brews.

Next month, they're letting you decide.

Hometown Beverages Company facts
Employees: 10.
Offices: Route 71 in Manasquan, with mail drop in Oceanport.
Portfolio: Four lagers, including a light brew.
Eventual plans call for opening a brewery in New Jersey.
Web site: www.hometownbeverages.com

Monday, November 17, 2008

State of beers

The ranks of New Jersey beer producers is growing.

Add to your list Hometown Beverages, based in Oceanport (home of Monmouth Park racetrack, which hosted the Breeders Cup last year).

We have a call in to Chris Curylo, one of the founders, who was in meetings today in New York with partner Bob Selsky. We hope to talk to Chris later in the afternoon.

Chris and Bob hail from Little Silver – a small Monmouth County train stop town along NJ Transit's North Jersey Coast Line. Here's the backstory on their foray into Jersey beer.

According to an email from Chris, their plan is to launch their contract-brewed tri-state lagers – named New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – in December. And on the Nov. 12th post at MyBeerBuzz blog, we saw Hometown Beverages was among the breweries listed to be at the Split Rock festival in the Poconos this weekend. (NOTE: Split Rock's brochure doesn't list Hometown Beverages, but there's no telling when it was produced or if updated.)