Saturday, January 29, 2011

#3 - New Jersey, "The Garden State"

Lately when anyone outside of the New Jersey/NY/Philadelphia region hears the words New Jersey they immediately think of fist pumping, slicked back hair, and Snooki. Me, I don't watch that show, so I think of not being allowed to turn left, urban blight, and vast populations of people who are probably related to my ancestors but who just weren't lucky enough to get out like my family

I'm only (half) kidding. I like New Jersey. And although I have told my wife that we will never have a New Jersey address, I have some very strong ties to the state. Two of my best friends are residents; one from South Jersey and one from North Jersey. My wife's family has a vacation place in at the Shore, so we have spent a lot of time there during the summers. And my sister-in-law and her husband live in the NYC suburbs.

I feel just about the same way about my personal ties to New Jersey as I do about the beer from the state. I only care to have tried a few beers, but the beers I have tried, I like a lot.

Stats for New Jersey:
Most Well Known Cities: Newark, Trenton, Camden, Atlantic City, Princeton (one of these things is not like the other.)
# of Microbreweries: 6
# of Brewpubs: 15

# of Governors who look like they are either in the mob or in a lot of gambling debt with the mob: 1
There seems to be a common theme among the Jersey breweries. They tackle the classic styles of beer that are not too far out there on the taste spectrum and then just try to do them really well. I am not sure why, but maybe it's to appeal to a diverse audience, which is something you will definitely find in New Jersey. Could be a coincidence too. I took statistics back in high school and I don't think 6 is a very large sample size.

River Horse is based in Lambertville, which is right outside Trenton. One night I was home alone and I was watching a movie sittin on my couch. I had gotten some River Horse Tripel Horse at my most recent beer swap. I had one then had another over the course of the hour or hour and a half movie. I stood up when it was over and almost fell over. That stuff hits you. It's like 11% alcohol, so I had essentially had 6 Bud Lights. Didn't really realize it till it got away from me a bit. I should have known because there is a strong alcohol taste to that beer. You live and you learn. I like this brewery. I've had several of their beers and never have been disappointed. Their website sucks so I have no background history or distribution info, but I know they distribute at least in NJ and PA. Their label art is pretty cool with the hippos and lettering that looks like it was written by a hippo, or at least someone with hippo hands. Check em out. 

Flying Fish is probably the most recognizable New Jersey brewery. They distribute to NJ, DE, MD, DC, and PA. I would say that they are also the most creative of the Garden States craft beer scene. I like their logo too. It's a fish skeleton with two props on it so that it's flying. Get it? They actually also try to make drinkable beers but they are all about trying to pair their beer with food, even giving some beer related recipes on their website. I've had the Grand Cru Winter Reserve, the Farmhouse Summer Ale, and the Exit 4. That is the first in their Exit series, which is a great concept. They make beers inspired by the specific exits of the New Jersey Turnpike. For example the Exit 1 is a Bayshore Oyster Stout, inspired by the bay lifestyle. They make 6 so far in the series and I had the Exit 4 last weekend (American Trippel.) I enjoyed it. Sweeter and smoother than I expect for a Trippel. This is a well run brewery and they are based in Cherry Hill, outside of Philadelphia. So I need to cross the Walt Whitman someday and check out their facility. So do you. 

New Jersey Beer Company is a new company based in North Bergen. Their bottling line is broken, so they are only distributing kegs and only in NJ. You'll have to find them on tap somewhere in the third state. If you ask, you might find a Belgian abbey style session beer called 1787, which is the year New Jersey became a state. I wager that they chose that name because they knew I was writing this blog and they wanted to get mentioned. Thanks for giving me relevant topics, guys, but you're out of luck because I am the only one who reads this.

Cricket Hill is based in Fairfield, which is in Northern Jersey, just far enough west that you forget that you are in New Jersey, but not far enough west to escape the accents. Cricket Hill is another one of the breweries that is interested in a middle of the road menu. They don't want anything wacky, they just want to stick to the classics and make 'em well. They call it the gateway philosophy, almost like they want to get your business before you get hooked on the hard stuff and start spending your rent money on $160 cases of 14% Imperial Pumpernickel Stouts. I had them at a beer festival last year, but again, it was a beer festival so no lingering memories about the taste. They have a slick cricket logo and distribute in NJ, NY, Maine, PA, and VA.

Climax Brewing is celebrating 10 years brewing and are a father-son operation based in Roselle Park, which is an NYC suburb. They brew "authentic" beers with simple descriptive names. They distribute in NJ at stores and restaurants. Nothing fancy at all about them.

High Point Wheat started brewing in 1994 as the first American brewery to specialize in wheat beers. Their beers are brewed under the Ramstein name and use only wheat, barley, hops, and yeast that are imported directly from Germany. They are essentially a German brewery that happens to reside in Butler, NJ, and they make traditional wheat beers and lagers. They distribute to NJ, NY, and Eastern PA.

Let's hand out some hardware.

Best Beer Name: River Horse Hop-a-lot-a-mus (Unfiltered Double IPA)
Best Concept: Flying Fish Exit 16 Wild Rice IPA. Based on the exit where the Meadowlands are, where surprisingly, there is a lot of wildlife. The rice apparently ferments and dries out this beer to let the flavor of the 5 types of hops come through even more. They added a lot of hops with fruity profiles. Sounds too hoppy for me, but I would try it. It's supposed to be paired with spicy food or seafood.
Beer That Best Represents Jersey Shore: Cricket Hill Jersey Summer Breakfast Ale
Best Label Art: River Horse

Road Trips:
Take a road trip up the coast on route 9 and stop off at some of the amazingly packed beach towns from Cape May to Atlantic City to the home of the Boss in Asbury Park. Cape May is a clean little family town with very good restaurants and Atlantic city is essentially the exact opposite of that, although there is still good food. You can drive from the bottom of the Garden State parkway at exit 0 (Cape May) to the NY State Line in about 3 hours, without traffic, so you could definitely get to every brewery within a three day weekend if you wanted to do it. 

Gaslight Anthem is from New Brunswick, New Jersey and they opened up for Weezer at a few shows around here this past summer. I have their album The '59 sound, and yeah, they sound a lot like they copied Springsteen, and yes, a lot of their songs have the exact same lyrical and production style but they at least do what they do pretty well. I like the song "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" because it's a slightly slower song which is a departure from the rest of the album.

New Jersey Beer Trail Map

Sunday, January 9, 2011

#2b - Pennsylvania, "The Keystone State" (Harrisburg and West)

One of my friends from college was from outside of Pittsburgh and he raved about Iron City beer. So, when a bunch of us went to Pittsburgh for a football game in 2005 I was expecting big things. What I got was run of the mill light beer in an aluminum bottle, before aluminum bottles really took off. So kudos on early adaptation of environmental stewardship, but I won't be buying a case of Iron City any time soon.

But now looking back, his love of Iron City makes me realize just how unifying crappy beer can be for a region. Regional beers, like Natty Boh in Baltimore and Genesee in upstate New York, along with many others, become ingrained in a local culture. Disrespect those beers to a person from those areas and you directly disrespect them. Even if these beers are clearly no better than hop flavored water. That being said, there are so many better beers than Iron City that are brewed in Western PA. Sorry Tony. At least you made up for your bad beer taste by being good at Mario Tennis.
Beer Stats for Western PA:
Cities: Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, Altoona
# of Microbreweries: 16, mostly small batch and local, but 9 with significant regional or state distribution
# of Brewpubs: 14
Cities that I have never considered living in: 4 (although I was pleasantly surprised with how cool Pittsburgh was and I've never been to any of the others)
I'm going to be honest and say that I have not tried the majority of the breweries that are listed on Just off the top of my head, it looks like I've had beers from 3 breweries and I've been to one of the brewpubs. So, since at my current pace I'll finish looking at the breweries of all 50 states when I am staring down my 30th birthday, I'll just talk about the four that I've had. 
Erie Brewing - I was first introduced to Erie Brewing at one of my beer swaps. One of my co-workers brought Ol' Red Cease and Desist Ale. It's what they call a Wee Heavy Ale and it's definitely a strong dark red. They say on their website that it was originally called Red Ryder BIG BEER, but apparently they received multiple cease and desist letters telling them they had to change the name. I can only assume that the company that makes the bb gun with the same name didn't want their young customers accidentally drinking a beer that's 10.1% alcohol and then suing them when they shoot their eye out. So they changed the name to C & D. Pretty good story for a beer that I really liked. Erie opened as a brewpub in 1993 and became a full fledged brewery 6 years later. It's distributed in 15 states and D.C.
Troegs - Troegs is based in Harrisburg and I've had almost all of their beers. They have very bright and detailed label art, which I think is used to distract you from the fact that there is a a 75% that you are about to be assaulted by hops. They seem to be a hop-heavy brewery, which is fine with me in certain instances and certainly not their only niche. Their Nugget Nectar is insanely hopped, they have an 11% winter seasonal called Mad Elf, and then they have my personal favorite, Dead Reckoning. It's a very smooth porter with strong caramel flavors an a good hop taste to it that doesn't linger because of all of the normal coffee, chocolate, and malt flavors that come with a lot of porters. They distribute to 8 states and D.C., so if you are in NY, NJ, DE, PA, OH, MD, MA or VA listen to what people are ordering because it's always fun to see people try to pronounce their name.  
Iron City - I didn't mean to knock Iron City in the first couple paragraphs, because they clearly have a strong following and everyone needs a beer to stock up the fridge or bring to the tailgate. I'm just personally more into beer that is creative and has flavor. 
That previous paragraph was this month's Backhanded Compliment brought to you by your local microbrewery.
Otto's Brewpub - I went to Otto's this past fall on a weekend trip up to State College with some friends. The bar was enormous and the restaurant was pretty spacious but it was still extremely packed, so it's definitely a local favorite. We sat there for an hour or so and had a few of the beers on tap while we ate lunch. The food was what I've come to know as standard for most brewpubs, which is a compliment, because it was high quality sandwiches and appetizers. We had a great time and I wish I remembered specifics about the beer, but I know that I liked the brews that I tried. I recommend State College in the fall. It's a classic college town with great local shops, bars, and restaurants. And if you have time you could even visit the grave of longtime head football coach Joe Paterno. Wait, I'm being informed he's still alive and is still the head coach of a Division 1 program. Truly astonishing. If you want a good laugh, check out this radio interview he recently did. Terrible radio idea to do a phoner with an 84 year old guy who can't hear, but comedy gold.
Best Beer Name: Gotta go with Ol' Red Cease and Desist Wee Heavy Ale. It's a mouthful of a name, and every time I say "Wee Heavy" in my head, the accent is what I would think an old Scottish guy with 4 teeth would sound like.
Trippiest Label Art:  Troegs is the winner by far. 
Best Unintentional Comedian: JoePa. We love you Joe. We said WE LOVE YOU JOE. You know what, nevermind. Go recruit 18 year olds and make snarky comments at press conferences.  
Road Trips:
Besides spending a fall weekend in State College, there are good sites to see all over PA. If you like baseball or football and are near Pittsburgh. Catch a game at either PNC Park or Heinz Field. They are in a great location, overlooking the skyline and the rivers. If you are near Troegs in Harrisburg, the Appalachian trail crosses right through there, so if you are into hiking, you can't beat that. 
I couldn't find any bands that I liked that are from western PA, so here's a random recommendation. Throw some Spoon in your iPod. I have their album Gimme Fiction and it is part of the regular rotation on my commute. I don't know how to classify them, but I know I like them.

PA West Beer Trail Map