Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Down in the valley

Bucolic Sussex County gets another beer festival this weekend, but folks behind The Best of the BrewsFest are looking beyond the inaugural event that will be held under that banner on Saturday.

Specifically, the festival at Hidden Valley ski resort in Vernon Township (Sussex County) is being viewed as a chance reclaim some of the past glory for the state's northern half, harkening to the days when the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild would hold its summer festival at Waterloo Village in Stanhope.

Coming on the heels of August and September beer events at Crystal Springs Golf Resort in Hamburg, Best of the Brews is not an official Guild-organized event, but it is expected to feature a beer/brewery lineup that's built on seven Jersey-made brands from the Guild's membership roster.

Best of the Brews is also expected to feature some beers accented with regionally grown hops – Garden State Harvest IPA from JJ Bitting brewpub (Woodbridge), Catskill Hop Harvest by Port 44 Brew Pub (Newark), and Wet Hop NJ Pale Ale by festival organizer Cricket Hill (Fairfield). Port 44, the Garden State's newest brewing entity, began pouring its house-made ales in August and Best of the Brews marks the brewpub's first festival pouring.

"We have 10 breweries showing up. We're going to have some food, and we're going to have a good time," says Rick Reed of Cricket Hill.

The Guild "used to have a beautiful show up at Waterloo. It would attract 1,200 to 1,500 people," Rick says. "All of a sudden it went away, and it was replaced with the tour down on the (USS New Jersey) battleship in Camden. North Jersey got robbed of a great beer show. So we're trying to resurrect the North Jersey beer show."

The Guild's last festival at Waterloo was 10 years ago. A change in stewardship over Waterloo Village pushed events like concerts and beer festivals to the sidelines. On top that, the facility has had to deal with financial issues.

The Guild did hold a fall festival, nicely augmented with a cask ale station, in Newark two Octobers ago. But some sharply compressed planning time – and the festival date falling on an NFL Sunday that saw the Giants playing at home – unfortunately made for an anemic turnout.

"We tried to do it at Newark Bears stadium, but they were between owners and they went bankrupt. The Guild got financially screwed, and so that didn't work out," Rick says. "We (Best of the Brews organizers) found Hidden Valley, a ski resort at the base of a mountain that's just a beautiful venue for a beer thing."

Rick says organizers are cautiously optimistic about the turnout for Saturday. But there is competition for the beer drinkers' stomach space and festival dollar: Oktoberfest events at the Headliner bar in Neptune (Monmouth County) and the Blue Monkey Tavern in Merchantville (Camden County), not to mention the annual Kennett Square beer festival in Chester County, Pa., and Sipping By the River in Philadelphia the next day.

"We're hoping for a crowd. We know the first year is going to be small. All we're trying to do is plant the seed for a revival of the North Jersey show. Hopefully in three or four years, we'll be back to the 1,200 to 1,500, and North Jersey will get its beer show back."

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