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.