Saturday, September 27, 2008

Central Jersey Beer Fest 2.0, Part 2

Here’s the video we shot in Woodbridge a week ago.

And we’ll make this point about the 2008 Central Jersey Beer Fest: Growth suits it. It doubled in size from last year, and it has more room to grow for next year, room for more brewers and vendors, especially food.

The pizza and bar-type fare are OK, but the event's all about beer, and that creates a great opportunity for more interesting pairings. That’s probably easier said than done, but we still think it’s something to consider, something worth investigating.

Anyway, the video ... It runs a little under 6 1⁄2 minutes. Thanks to everyone who paused for an interview, and a special thanks to Brian Boak for sparing some time from his Boaks Beer station, where for most of the day, he was working solo, keeping up with the demand for his Abbey Brown (7% ABV), Two Blind Monks (7.4% ABV) and Monster Mash imperial stout (10% ABV), all proving to be very popular choices of the day.

A longtime homebrewer, Brian jumped into commercial beer not quite a year ago, hiring High Point (where he volunteers and conducts the tours at the Butler brewery) to turn out a batch of Monster Mash for him under contract. Woodbridge was Brian’s first festival, but he’ll be pouring at Sippin’ By The River, the beer, wine and food fest at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, on Sunday (Sept. 28).

Monster Mash and Two Blind Monks form the core of his brands right now. But if you check out his Web site or brochures, you’ll notice he has plans for a porter, a wheat beer with lemongrass and Three Blind Monks, a stronger version of Two Blind Monks that's meant to be aged.

Aside from the contract brewing, Brian’s essentially a company of one, labeling his bottled beer by hand from his business digs in Pompton Lakes, and trucking cases and draft versions of his beers in his white van to bars (like Andy’s Corner Bar, the first establishment to carry him) and outlets in New Jersey and a distributor, Stockertown Beverage, in Pennsylvania, a state that’s so far been good for business. (Brian’s beer is in 17 eastern Pennsylvania counties, including Belgian beer-loving Philadelphia.)

With 33 barrels brewed so far this year, Brian forecasts finishing the year at 60 to 75 barrels. If Woodbridge is a bellwether, 2009 could a Monster year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Throwing stones

The Newark Star-Ledger, on a respirator and hemorrhaging money (so say the news sheets), is wading into the waters of magazines with Inside Jersey. It’s a business move, so whatever, that’s not the beef. (FYI, links to it may be gated and ask for birth year and ZIP code).

But their review of the state’s brewpubs, though not an utter trashing, is the point of contention. And not because it’s a review. There’s plenty of scoring (take that in a few definitions of the word) of Jersey brews going on at Rate Beer and BeerAdvocate. Beer is subjective (which is why we don’t venture down the review road. We know what we’ll have two or three pints of, and we allow you the same).

The real issue here is the degree of outdated uselessness of the review. (Plus this piece is a warmed-over turn of something done by the Ledger four years ago – Aug. 27, 2004. We plumbed the Web and found it. Again FYI, that's a cached link, so it may crap out.)

For the record, we don’t care when they started putting this together, nor care about the amount of legwork involved. Or if it had to be done as a spare-time side gig to another newsroom duty, or that it took a while to get around the state and drink. The readers don’t know that, nor should they have to account for it; they just see the Sept. 16th date.

The Web’s immediacy demands being current. And anyone in the know about Jersey beer (and there are plenty of folks out there who are) can see the legwork here is utterly Jurassic. Yet the review was published in mid-September, when the fest and fall seasonals are going on tap and brewers are gearing up for winter warmers or a hearty, smoky Scotch ale. There's no mention they even do them.

A good example of the ancientness: Dave Hoffmann hasn’t had a maibock on at Basil T’s in Toms River for months (we called Dave on Tuesday to ask how long it’s been, he says four months at least). And it won't come back until next May because it's a spring seasonal, of course. (Yet here were are in the fall. Hmmm.)

One more: Tun Dark at the Tun Tavern in Atlantic City kicked at least a couple of months ago (again we checked with brewer Tim Kelly; we had guessed three). In late August, Tim put on a new version of their IPA, dry-hopped with some really floral-smelling Cascade and Nugget hops, fresh from his friends’ suburban garden. Guess the Tun gets no points for what they're doing right now – locally grown, locally served. Sigh.

Yet another point regarding the Tun: trashing the house light beer, Tun Light. Let’s face it, light beer is to real beer what Britney Spears is to real music. Most craft beer drinkers know what to expect with the house-brewed lights. They're light beer, meant to be less pronounced – hops, body, maltiness – than the rest of the beer list; they're the mainstream brew knockoffs, more bubbly than anything else. They're not for everyone, just like that double IPA isn’t, either. It’s a business decision (like, perhaps, the ailing Star-Ledger and its magazine venture?)

Yet another example: The Ship Inn’s Black Death Stout went on late June, early July, and kicked by the time we were back there in Milford in mid-August, which is when we tried their West Coast IPA, something new at the Ship.

And not for nothing, but word got out three weeks ago that New Jersey is getting another brewpub, Iron Hill, in Maple Shade. So what if that’s not for a few months; if you’re willing to talk about beers people can’t drink right now, or for that matter in quite a while, you can mention a place that opens next May. Iron Hill’s a fresh part of the beer scene in the Garden State. It's current.

Also, maybe it’s just us, but we think this is a misleading point in the review ... The brewpubs are conveniently spread around the state. Um, no more than say corners bar are. They, in fact, are the corner bar for many folks. But, as important, they're also destinations for those passionate about beer and interested in sampling the brews of New Jersey. So for the latter (especially South Jersey), it’s hardly convenient. We raise the point because the review attempts the statewide glimpse and because high costs for liquor licenses charged by local governments keep new brewpubs out of places where they would easily enjoy support.

So, spread out means traveling the state (trust us, we’ve done it – regularly), which brings up another point. Better guidance for the beer tourist. All of these places have their mainstay brews, styles almost always on tap, plus their seasonals, and even specialties (like Triumph in Princeton and those oak barrel-aged and cask-conditioned beers brought up from the cellar on the first Wednesday of each month), some clear, serviceable information there would have been nice. It's not always about what's on tap, but what the pubs do.

So yeah, we're throwing stones at others who threw stones. Defending the brewpubs? Sure, we'll cop to that. Many of them have just a lone brewer tending the kettle, fermenters and serving tanks, toiling in a state where pedestrian Bud and Coors Light dominate practically every bar.

If you're truly interested in navigating the Garden State’s brewpubs in one stop before you hit the trail, forget Inside Jersey. Just grab Lew and Mark’s book. You'll be doing yourself a favor.