Saturday, August 16, 2008

Piece of the Rock

One of the things about craft beer and New Jersey – more specifically South Jersey – is that if you want to try all of what the Garden State brews, you must travel.

What’s brewed in North Jersey – Climax, Cricket Hill and Ramstein (High Point) – isn’t widely (or readily) available to South Jersey. It’s a distributor/liquor store thing, certainly not something the breweries are doing wrong. (Yes, we know Climax self-distributes; South Jersey's a long haul from Roselle Park.)

Meanwhile, NJ’s brewpubs, stationed at all points of the compass, are locked into selling only on premise: filling pint glasses, growlers and offering kegs, unlike their counterparts in, for example, Pennsylvania, where beer makers (like Sly Fox, Stoudt's and Victory) enjoy the best of both worlds – production brewing and serving retail on premise. (Conversely, as most of us know, production brewers in Jersey can’t serve/sell you a pint on premise. More on this a bit.)

So if you want what the Garden State’s pubs brew, yes you must go to the mountain. In our case, Berkeley Heights, home of tree-lined streets and Trap Rock Restaurant & Brewery.

We hit TR last week on a return trip from a High Point open house, capitalizing on the fact it’s only about a half hour south of Butler, High Point’s home base.

Our only gripe about Trap Rock: we wish it were closer. There’s good beer all around at the pub; ditto for the food.

Ample sample
If you are doing the beer traveler thing and fear you may not get back soon, make your first round the sampler – six 5-ounce servings of three lagers, a raspberry-cherry wheat (that’s quite good, not overdone with the fruits), an IPA and an oatmeal stout. We usually pass on samplers and just order a pint from the beer board (so we can enjoy the range of that beer’s flavors, from the first sip to the bottom of the glass). But in this case we made an exception before settling into a couple of pints of TR’s William Tell, a session ale (4.7% ABV) on the hand pump; it’s hard to pass on real ale hopped with Kent Goldings. It’s hard to pass on the serene pleasures of real ale, period.

Our top picks: Raptor Trust IPA (7% ABV and brimming with hops); the Czech-German hybrid JP Pilsner (and it’s worth pointing out, as Tom E from the blog Destination Beer does, TR always has a lager on tap).

Our take-home beer: a roasty, chocolatey Capt. Carl’s Oatmeal Stout that was a silky, solid companion to some home-made pumped-up, shredded chicken nachos (plenty of jalapeños, diced tomatoes, pinto beans and chicken simmered in Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, topped with some organic pepper jack, gruyère and mahon reserva cheeses; more about our culinary prowess and beer soon).


But there’s no sense in taking up any more space on what we had. Here’s what you can look forward to at Trap Rock. Brewer Charlie Schroeder has a smoky, caramelly Scotch ale (8% ABV) coming up toward the end of September. But don’t forget, Oktoberfest is the fast-approaching season, and TR has one (5-plus percent on the ABV, with Hallertau hops) due around the first week of September. Look for that same beer to lead a beer dinner around the end of next month; there’s another beer dinner to take place before Thanksgiving time.

Now about those Jersey-brewing restrictions …

Charlie says Trap Rock’s beers are enjoying a good run, so much so, it’s all he can do to keep up. What does that mean for beer drinkers? Well, the up side is fresh beer’s always on tap; the down side is, it’s hard for Charlie to slip in a different style without coming at the expense of his mainstays. It also means TR’s keg availability is pretty tight right now.

But if New Jersey allowed brewpubs to also hold production licenses (or production brewers to have pubs) – bottle their beers and sell them retail – it opens the door to more styles and boosts the brand, not to mention creating another revenue stream for the brewpubs/restaurants, which have fairly high overhead and could use the financial backstop.

Charlie, who did a six-month stint at Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania, would love for Jersey’s restrictions to be relaxed, and says Trap Rock would look for the brewing space if things were changed.

The idea – one that’s not lost on others in the industry, nor beer enthusiasts – makes a world of sense. And after a decade-plus of craft brewing in New Jersey, it’s way past time to modernize the state’s brewing regulations.

What’s more, for a state that’s hopelessly in debt, can’t put together a budget without scrounging for cash and choking off money to schools and towns, and has resorted to talk about raising tolls or hocking its toll roads, you’d think that revenue-needy Trenton lawmakers would find ways to improve the business climate for those industries it collects excise and other taxes from. Like brewers.

A rising tide floats all boats. Whaddya say Jon, Dick and Joe?

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