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?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Horse of a different color

A quick post off what tumbled into the mailbox today.

Look for River Horse's draft-only Oktoberfest beer next month. The brew's in the tanks now, says co-owner Glenn Bernabeo.

RH is skewing more toward dunkel with the style, and who can't help but high-five the name: Dunkel Fester (the moniker is the brainchild of Chris Walsh, the other co-owner). The liner notes point to toffee and chocolate.

We're all about Oktoberfest – some of our favorite beers – so we're naturally looking forward to this. RH's two-day O-fest event is Oct. 11-12 at the brewery in Lambertville. We went last year: plenty of occasion-themed food and lots of beer, of course. Plus, the bands RH lines up are really good.

Cherries jubilee
We have a sixpack of Batch #002, the Imperial Cherry Amber, the second of RH Brewer’s Reserve limited edition series. It goes into the pint glass lineup this weekend.

We've been trying to concentrate on the brewpubs lately – we've hit J.J. Bittings, The Ship Inn, Trap Rock and Pizzeria Uno in the past two weeks, with Harvest Moon up next – and have some of Trap Rock's oatmeal stout ready for the glass. Hence, the RH cherries have been on deck for a while.

We did speak to Chris and Glenn about the second installment of the Brewer's Reserve around the end of July. With this brew, don't look for a bowl of cherries. It's an aroma thing that subtly emerges as a flavor. As Chris said, they didn't want it to end up a Jolly Rancher.

As we noted, we've been hitting the brewpubs, and we've got a post coming on Trap Rock, which is certainly a place that has us wishing it were closer to home base. But for now, we'll say TR has a kickin' IPA (which we'll be back for), and some fine ale on the handpump.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Winter on their minds

Say you have some left over beer and you don’t even want to think about it going to waste … what do you do?

You invite some friends over to help you make good cheer of it, right?

That’s what High Point Brewing (Butler) did with a leftover keg of their 2007 Ramstein Winter Wheat, a doppelbock that has a quite a fan base and has earned a measure of critical acclaim.

The open house on Saturday drew a crowd of about 100 or so beerheads armed with their growlers to the brewery, where they snapped up the doppelbock faster than you can say ice bock (or more aptly, eisbock), which is what it became after the brewery staff froze it, drew off the ice, and split it into sixtels, adding another dimension to a beer that's great to start with.

Clocking in around 12% ABV (the strongest offering from the brewery's lineup), the winter wheat/eisbock was definitely rich, deep, dark and inviting – even in the dog days of August, when you'd wonder if it was going to seem like the beer equivalent of a parka in summer.

But it was a really tasty offseason headliner, a pleasant surprise to the loyal Ramsteiners, accompanied, of course, by Ramstein's Classic Blonde and a pilsner and golden lager (which was our take-home beer; the bock ran out before we could think about getting a growler filled. Alas.)

If you missed the winter wheat, be patient. It’s the brewery’s November-release seasonal. It’ll be back around (and maybe the eis, too).

Meanwhile, we got an early taste of the 2008 Ramstein Oktoberfest ...

It’s still a little young and yeasty, with some hop presence that will fade and take its proper place behind the malt flavors by the time it’s ready for September release.

Speaking of debuts, circle Sept. 13 on your calendar. That’s when the brewery kicks off Oktoberfest with an oak barrel tapping.

Bring your growlers that day, too.

High Point will be pouring at the Stoudt’s Microfest Aug. 23 in Adamstown, Pa.