Saturday, October 2, 2010

Office trolley

An aggregator moment ...

Nate Schweber
, whose name some folks may recognize from New York Times bylines, takes a beer snapshot of Westfield for, and highlights the Union County town's watering hole, the Jolly Trolley, which sets up pints these days under its corporate banner, The Office Beer Bar & Grill. (The item also is in today's news feed column on the right; Nate also fronts the band New Heathens, who have a couple of albums to their credit – Hello Disaster and Heathens Like Me.)

The Office wades into craft beer deeper than just being a chain of craft beer friendly bars. The folks there also sponsor competitions for the brew-it-yourself crowd, Homebrew Wars, in which winners get to go commercial and make scaled-up versions of their beer at High Point Brewing in Butler.

A West Coast-style IPA turned in by Ian Burgess and Brett Robison landed in the winners circle of the most recent Homebrew Wars. The beer is scheduled to go on tap at Office locations during the week of October 18th.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Great minds collaborate – maybe jam, too

Do a Web search on brewing collaborations and you'll find plenty of brewers and breweries that have put their collective minds and talents together to produce imaginative beers.

Oregon beer-makers Deschutes Brewery and Hair of the Dog Brewing have a collaboration brew due out in 2011. And here in New Jersey, Flying Fish's Exit 6 Wallonian Rye is the effort of the Cherry Hill brewery working with Nodding Head (Philadelphia) and Stewart's (Bear, Delaware) brewpubs earlier this year.

We're thinking of another collaboration that COULD (all caps because it hasn't even been brought up) produce a great beer and a musical tie-in to boot: River Horse in Lambertville and High Point in Butler, two breweries whose mash tuns are manned by quite capable guitar players.

First of all, neither brewery has been approached with an idea to collaborate (that we know of), so let's make that clear. We're not reporting something, we're suggesting something.

The collaboration would work this way: Pick a beer style (a weizenbock or a dunkel of some sort), refine the idea, brew it. Chris Rakow, guitarist-brewer at RH, and Bryan Baxter, guitarist-brewer at High Point, take things a step further and put their musical minds and fretboard chops together on a tune, too.

Easier said than done of course. But imagine the rocking release party for the beer.

Beer Here? Where have you been, SL?

Not to go too far with this, because having more voices in the village square that is craft beer is a great thing.

And that's a sincere comment.

But The Star-Ledger of Newark and its online entity do deserve a thumbs down for their sudden interest in the craft beer scene with the column Beer Here and for not knowing that Port 44 Brew Pub in Newark is New Jersey's newest brewery.

SL says New Jersey Beer Company is the newest. The North Bergen brewery fired up the kettle this past spring. Port 44 began brewing its lineup of ales in August. It's a quibble yes, but isn't SL a Newark newspaper?

A couple more quibbles: The recycled use of "New Brewski" as a nickname for the state. That moniker was tossed out in 2008 when SL launched its monthly magazine, Inside Jersey, which featured a column that pretty much slammed the state's brewpubs. (Afterward the magazine seemed to care more about wine than beer, save an article by Jersey Brew author Mike Pellegrino about Jersey's beer past, and a back-page item about the Krueger brewery and canned beer being born in the Garden State.)

And didn't SL sponsor the beer festival at Monmouth Park over Labor Day weekend? (That was a festival, that while it had contract-brewed beers with state ties, none of the craft brands actually brewed at home were represented; yet Beer on the Pier last week in Belmar had five Jersey-based brewers there.)

Sadly, this seems more like a dash for advertising dollars (look for the SL hotdog mobile to show up at every festival on the calendar) than genuine interest and a keen read of the marketplace, since New Jersey has had a viable (and yes, now growing stronger) craft beer industry for 15 years.

But newspapers are slow to react (which is why they're dying, and this newfound love of beer sort of reminds us of how the Asbury Park Press newspaper cold-shouldered Bruce Springsteen until he was obviously too big to ignore. However, it's not always the case: Eric Asimov and The New York Times didn't wait until the Brewers Association announced that craft beer was a $7 billion a year industry).

In all fairness, this is the early goings for SL's effort. Stay tuned.

FOOTNOTE: Yes SL did do that silly beer-tie in to the NCAA tournament (March 2oo9 comes to mind), and Climax Brewing owner Dave Hoffmann's Helles got a nice bounce from it. But we seem to recall that tasting panel put styles like IPAs, pale ales and imperial stouts side by side in the same judging session. Make no mistake, Dave's beers are solid and he deserves props, but folks who are seriously into beer would call a foul for the mashup.

Speaking of growlers ...

Some raw video footage of growler filler at Iron Hill, shot to test a new Flip Ultra video camera. So basically this one's for the idly curious.

Nothing truly spectacular here, except the beer, which by the way, was an Oktoberfest.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jersey-wide distribution for Boaks

The Garden State is proving sunny for Boaks Beer, the Pompton Lakes-based beer company that Brian Boak started with a white van, a storage facility in Wayne and a contract with a brewery.

Two-plus years ago, if you called Brian on his cell phone, he'd probably answer from the driver's seat of that van, en route to or from Pennsylvania, where he would truck to a distributor kegs and cases of his Belgian brown and imperial stout brewed at Butler-based High Point Brewing, better known as the makers of the Ramstein beer brands.

Pennsylvania represented a real foot in the door of the beer industry for Brian, who at the time had a handful of New Jersey accounts and was doing bigger business west of the Delaware River.

That was then, this is now. Growth for Boaks has swung to Brian's home state.

New Jersey now represents the lion's share of business for Boaks Beer and its top-seller Belgian-style Two Blind Monks, Monster Mash imperial stout and Abbey Brown, another Belgian style, that will soon see a limited-release, barrel-aged version.

"Jersey represents about 65 percent of business right now," Brian says. "That is a swing. But that’s mainly because, first I was just distributing myself in New Jersey and I was having a distributor in Pennsylvania. Now I have two distributors – Kohler distributes me in northern New Jersey, and Hunterdon distributes me in central and southern New Jersey. Just adding central and southern was a whole lot of business I could not get by myself.

"We are available in all of New Jersey, from northern Bergen County to Ocean County, all the way down to Cape May."

But Brian has his sights set a lot farther south than where Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean both bathe the state's coastline. Entering the draft and bottle markets of Maryland and Washington, D.C., figures into a game plan that also points north and west to New Hampshire and Michigan

"Soon as I lock down Maryland and D.C., I’m going to go after Virginia. But soon as I lock down one more state, I’m going to order another fermenter," he says.

In April 2009, Brian bought a 30-barrel fermenter that was installed at High Point, where all of Boaks brands are brewed, kegged and bottled. High Point brewed 90 barrels for Boaks last year. Brian says volume is already up this year and could hit 150 barrels by year's end.

Meanwhile, he's jumped on the whiskey barrel band wagon with Wooden Beanie, a stock of Abbey Brown aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels with Madagascar vanilla beans. The beer hit the barrels around the end of August; it's still aging – at just over a month now – and goes to distributors in a matter of days. (Brian says he'll have some of the beer at the Sippin' by the River festival in Philadelphia on Sunday.)

"I had always liked some of those oak-aged porters and all the other beers out there that are oak-aged, and I drink Jack Daniel’s. So, I was like 'Let’s play with this,' ” he says.

But there's some more backstory to Wooden Beanie.

"What actually happened is, Abbey Brown is a beer that hasn’t been out in a while, and the kegs were a little overcarbonated, so I had to figure out a way to (degas) them," Brian says. "So this Abbey Brown is going to be a special treat for people, because it actually is about a year old. It is a well-aged, 7 percent Belgian brown ale that is then aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels with the vanilla beans."

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."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Getting into the growler game

Four-packs, sixpacks, bomber bottles, 12-ounce singles and now growlers.

These days, the yardstick by which you judge a great package store that's big into craft beer may not just be a selection of brews as wide as the US. It may include whether the establishment has a state license to fill jugs with take-home draft beer.

For a long time in the New Jersey craft beer scene, filling growlers has been the province of the dozen brewpubs spread across the state and a couple of production breweries (High Point in Butler and Cricket Hill in Fairfield) that offer them as an option to the two sixpack maximum allowed for retail sale at breweries.

One one brewery, Climax in Roselle Park, bottles exclusively in the half-gallon containers, using a filler system that founder Dave Hoffmann, a former machinist, built himself.

But nowadays some of the big discounter package goods stores in the Garden State are tapping into the market, capitalizing on a thirst for draft beer from Jersey brewers and craft brewers whose labels are hot tickets among beer enthusiasts.

Count the two Joe Canal's Discount Liquor Outlets on Route 1 in Islen (Woodbridge) and Lawrenceville among those establishments with taps dispensing take-home draft in proprietary growling-bulldog-monogrammed glass. Refill prices range from about a fin to 16 bucks depending on the brand of beer.

"We started in the Lawrenceville store at the end of June, and end of July over here," Michael Brenner, the stores' general manager, said last week. "We do a decent business."

(You'll find growler stations at other independently owned Joe Canal's in South Jersey, i.e. West Deptford.)

"Craft and microbrews are popular to begin with. They're getting more so," Brenner says. "There's as much interest in the different styles and regions where they come from, as we see in the wines. Folks are talking about it; they're exchanging notes, and it's a lot of fun."

Brenner says patrons are able to keep up with what's available from the taps by signing up with the stores' email notification program. The two stores, which also sell koozies to keep the jugs cold, have even scored some choice, hard-to-get brews for growler fills. "We had (Founders) Kentucky Breakfast Stout. We had a sixtel in both locations," Brenner says.

The beer sold out lightning quick. "It was great; it got a lot of people talking" Brenner says.

To help drive sales, store crews sold the empty jugs at a recent craft beer festival in Trenton. A Princeton marketing firm created the logo that's emblazoned on the brown glass.

"We think that this is such an interesting and unusual thing that you don't see every day that we wanted to brand it separately," Brenner says.

Besides hot-ticket crafts, the stores also put on some of more familiar brands, like Samuel Adams Summer Ale and Blue Moon, Brenner says, "because we want this to be accessible for everybody."