Thursday, October 23, 2008

In the Bears' den

Some thoughts on the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild festival last Sunday ...

Best thing: The guild did two events this year – a North Jersey festival, at that – instead of the usual single, summertime festival that has essentially found a home over the past three years aboard the battleship/museum USS New Jersey in Camden.

The fall fest’s location, the Newark Bears stadium, proved more than viable: plenty of space, shelter in case of rain, and a boatload of seats in case you wanted to sit for a while.

Tied for best thing: A real ale/cask-conditioned beer station, where the 10 participating Guild breweries could feature live-beer offerings in one stop. This was a worthy addition, a way to break up the monolithic set-up of brewery, brewery, brewery. It’s also a selling point. We hope it carries over to next summer’s festival, then repeated in the fall.

Good thing: The festival had a theme. OK, so it was a no-brainer, Oktoberfest, but themes speak to deeper planning than just setting a date and putting tickets up for sale. Themes add to the marquee (that selling point) and create specialty attractions for festival-goers.

Another good thing: Mass transit to Newark. It was a cinch by train.

Yet another good thing: Great weather. Blue skies, sunny and comfortable. Not hot, not cold. Obviously out of everyone’s hands except Mother Nature’s, but still you couldn’t ask for better fall weather.

Buzzkill: Attendance. It was low by a lot of people’s standards, less than half of what the Guild’s summer festival did. But that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. We’ll explain why in a minute.

Buzzkill No. 2: Some Guild members, notably Long Valley, Ship Inn and J.J. Bitting, skipped the festival. Long Valley has had some doubts about the bang for the buck, and stayed away from June’s festival, too. We don't dispute their argument, just hope this fall fest can spark a new interest. Meanwhile, this has been a hectic year for the Ship’s brewer, Tim Hall, just too much going on to worry about the festivals (the Ship was likewise absent in June). But it was curious that Bitting passed.

Another buzzkill: Festival held on a Sunday, during football season (and there may not be a simple solution to this, given the brewpubs' schedules and some other issues). During the festival, the Giants-49ers game was on the big, outfield TV screen, but the distance made it look small; plus, you couldn’t see the chyrons of scores from the other games going on. Simpsons moment: “Moe’s Tavern, home of the world’s biggest small-screen TV …” Trivia moment: Bartender Moe Szyslak is modeled in part on Jersey City bartender Red Deutsch of Tube Bar fame.

Bottom line: Have faith and look forward to a 2009 Guild Oktoberfest, thanks to some foundations laid this year.

So yes, we’re saying that even pulling off this festival qualifies it as a success, despite a turnout that could throw a log on the fires of critics wont to point out the gate didn’t do a blockbuster return. The key point is North Jersey is an underserved demographic, when it comes celebrating Jersey-made beers and the Guild getting across that message. It's a circumstance made more puzzling when you consider most of the Jersey craft brewing action happens above Interstate 195. So this is the start of new push to turn things around, find some equillibrium.

The venue is something Dan Soboti of the Gaslight brewpub has chased for a while, for either the summer festival or follow-up second festival. The difficulty, Dan says, has been changes, time and time again, in the front office of the Bears. Whenever he’d get some momentum rolling, one of those changes would send him back to the starting line.

By the by, Dan counts himself among those who saw the turnout as a downer. But, like Greg Zaccardi of High Point Brewing, he concedes the compressed time between getting a final greenlight for the festival (mid-September) and the day of the event left little time to get the word out and build a buzz among beer enthusiasts.

But ask either brewer, and they’ll tell you the location worked well, and the gate can be boosted with sufficient advertising and advance ticket sales at Guild breweries’ open houses and tours. That’s something that wasn’t in the cards this time out.

Speaking of …

  • The Gaslight’s Web site has undergone some redesign and should be up and running by the end of the month. The South Orange brewpub has a Halloween party set for next Friday, featuring their pumpkin ale, Prince of Darkness dark mild, Warrior ESB (hopped, of course with Warrior hops), and Abbey Normal Belgian dubbel. Plans are also taking shape for their Victorian Christmas dinner in mid-December.
  • High Point’s November open house comes early this year, on the 8th. They’ll be rolling out the ’08 Ramstein Winter Wheat Doppelbock, a big beer with a big following. The Butler brewery’s open houses are held on the second Saturday of the month; hence the heads up about it falling early next month.
  • The Tun Tavern’s buffet Oktoberfest ($24.95 per person) is 1-5 p.m. this Sunday at the brewpub in Atlantic City. Brewer Tim Kelly says he just filtered a pumpkin lager that will be served along side his Märzen. The Tun will also have a keg each of Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner Oktoberfests, thanks to an assist from their beer distributor (remember, AC is a convention town, so the Tun keeps some tap space set aside for mainstream brews). Next month, look for a cask-conditioned Irish Red, dry-hopped with East Kent Goldings. Tim just got a pin, and hopes to make a monthly cask ale feature (like a happy hour).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Off to the next one

The start of a fall classic? Could be.

The Garden State Craft Brewers Guild pours at its inaugural Oktoberfest event today, from the confines of Riverfront Stadium, home of the Atlantic League baseball's Newark Bears.

Not to feed the North Jersey-South Jersey biases, but a lot of people above I-195 are happy to again have a Jersey-brewer festival that's closer to home.

Whatever the case, here's a look at the Guild's summer festival on the battleship.