Oh what a difference a few years can make. After Samuel Adams’ Boston Lager hit the market the liquor stores and bars began to carry beers we had not heard of before. In 1988, while working as a rifle range instructor for the Boy Scouts, I used to go to a bar called Floods in East Stroudsburg, PA. This place had a placemat that listed beers, broken down by country. Xingu from Brazil, Elephant from Denmark, Samuel Smith’s from England, Dos Equis from Mexico, San Miguel from the Philippines, Sapporo from Japan, Troika from Russia, Singha from Thailand plus others I have forgotten. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in Floods and pouring my first bottle of Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and being amazed that the bottle was clear! I had thought that the beer was stored in a black bottle; I had no idea that the beer was black. My first sip of it wasn’t the epiphany one would think. It was very different to me and took me almost the whole bottle to warm up to the complex and malty flavors. To my underdeveloped palate this beer had too much flavor at first. But when I ordered my next beer it seemed so weak to me, so dull, so bland. And so I sought out more dark beers and finally came upon Guinness. Yes, I had Taddy Porter before trying the ubiquitous Irish stout.
In the early ‘90s I went to the Laughing Lion in Dover. It had the first beer club that I ever came across and I think they called it the Beer Club. Give them a break; very few places were doing this so originality wasn't necessary. I was amazed to see that this place served beer in yards and half yards! What were these glasses that were three feet tall and needed a stand and had to be placed on the floor? Well, once you understand that these glasses were invented to hoist up to carriage drivers in England you appreciate their shape. Why someone would feel the need to drink out of one in a bar is beyond me, except for the cool factor. Want to impress me? Drink from a 3L boot without wearing a drop of your beer. But drinking vessels will be the topic of another post. This place offered John Hardy from England and they served that in a snifter! I understood why after my first sip nearly gagged me, not realizing that this beer was nearly as strong as brandy. I still have a copy of their beer list that my then future mother-in-law pilfered for me. Other beers listed were Chimay, Corsendock, Duvel and Orval from Belgium, Eku 28, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Pinkus, Spaten and Warsteiner from Germany, Mackesons, Samuel Smith and Young's from England and beers from 33 other countries. Their beer menu even included a dissertation on the Art of Brewing. Oh, and they're still there.
But if you were keeping track above, I was talking entirely about imports. American microbrews were starting to open up here and there in the US. Harpoon and Pete’s Wicked both began operations in 1986 and their beers were gaining popularity quickly. The Dixie brewery in New Orleans had been around a long time, but it wasn’t until the late eighties that their beers hit the New Jersey scene. Dixie Blackened Voodoo made quite a splash. This dark beer was not for everyone and became a favorite of beer drinkers that were looking for something with a different taste…and it was different. More locally, Catamount was founded in 1986 and in 1987, Brooklyn Brewery was founded and started to put out some really nice beers. Stoudt’s opened in the same year and I remember their stout (which was called Stoudt’s Stout). What made that one stand out? It was bottle-conditioned. This was a first for me and I remember the beer manager at Grand Opening in North Haledon, a wonderful beer store, warning me about the lees. Still, I was a little taken aback by the amorphous blobs that came along for the ride and I am ashamed to admit that I wound up not drinking the last inch of beer in the bottle. I laugh at myself now as I love to pour the lees into the glass and get my regular dose of B12.
When Celis hit the scene a whole new world of beer began to emerge. Pierre Celis was the man who founded Hoegaarden, yes the Hoegaarden that we Americans like to jam a wedge of orange into...which is absolutely unnecessary. The man was already a legend in the brewing scene in Europe and he had decided to bring Belgian beer to the US. Okay, okay, Chimay and Corsendonk were already here, but they were in 750ml bottles. Few people were willing to pay $10.00 or more for a bottle of beer despite the fact it was the size of a champagne bottle. Why? It was “only beer”. I know that statement is blasphemy, but at the time, very few of us realized it was so much more. So Pierre started to brew Celis in Austin, Texas (of all places) and it was rumored that he brought his brewing yeast with him. Now go ahead and read up on it on wikipedia and other websites. They’ll list a whole bunch of different labels coming out of Celis Brewing, but there were only three that made it to New Jersey at first: Celis White (basically Hoegaarden), Celis Raspberry (which was not really quite a lambic) and Celis Grand Cru (which was my favorite). For those who were still craving different, this was it. All three came in 6-packs that cost less than one bottle of Corsendonk. New Jerseyans were drinking Belgian beer…and many of us were liking it. Sadly, Celis sold out to Miller and the line was discontinued in 2002. Miller re-established the Celis line of beers and they brew it in Michigan. I have not tried any of these and I am in no rush to do so for oh so many reasons.
Another development back then was that the American microbrews started to put out holiday beers. Samuel Smith had already brought Winter Warmer to the United States, but for some odd reason it was available year ‘round. Anchor and Harpoon were the two big ones that I remember. Anchor was more expensive and was nicknamed “Tree Beer” because they always depicted a tree on the label. The first year it was a Christmas Tree, but then they began to switch it up. One year they even depicted a palm tree. Harpoon’s Winter Warmer was also highly sought after, even though the name for their seasonal brew was not original. They were the first holiday beer that I drank that was spiced…not as highly spiced as it is today, though. Brooklyn joined the fray by putting out a winter beer, not a holiday beer. This was Brooklyn Dark Chocolate Stout. At first everyone was excited that there was a beer brewed with chocolate. Then all of us idiots learned that it was made with chocolate malt and we’re not talking Ovaltine. By the time we figured it out, it was too late. We loved it and it sold so well that it became a year ‘round beer.
Every year in October we’d start to bug our favorite beer mongers about when the new holiday beers were coming out. I was regularly at the Buy Rite on Route 46 in Clifton and my brother had his regular haunt near the K-Mart in Bricktown behind what was a Rustler Steak House. Neither store is quite what it used to be. The one in Clifton is still a Buy Rite, but they have reduced their selection in craft beer and the one in Bricktown is now called Circle on the Square Liquors and caters more to the oenophiles. Area residents who prefer craft beer now go to Johnathon Ron in Brielle. Back in the day you had to know about which liquor stores carried what and I’d sometimes speed out the parking lot of the book store I worked at, in order to make it to a certain liquor store before it closed because one of my customers told me that they still had some Santa’s Private Reserve from Rogue left. Oh yeah, Rogue. Almost forgot about them. When Dead Guy Ale came to New Jersey in its painted bottle no one had heard of a maibock. After tasting it we didn’t care what a maibock was, it was yummy! Oregon had fired their first shot across the bow of the USS New Jersey.
So word of mouth drove much of what we knew about where to get beer. And then some genius started to publish the Ale Street News in 1992. The liquor store ads in this publication did not tout their wine selection, the fact they had Jack Daniels on sale or what the case and keg prices were for Budweiser. Instead they were bragging about their selection of microbrews and imports! Their ads were dotted with the logos from Harpoon, Pete’s Wicked, Anchor, Brooklyn, Sam Adams, Dos Equis, and Fosters…to name a few. Beer awareness in New Jersey was starting to increase exponentially. What we didn’t know was that more and more home brewers across the US were starting brew pubs and breweries. The new giants of the beer world were about to awake and sadly I was about to check out of the beer scene for a while.
Next Time: THE TURN OF THE CENTURY AND THE CORKSCREW