The Druids worshiped nature and held many plants to be sacred. Mistletoe and holly were representative of the male and the female reproductive roles. Think about the colors of each plant’s berries and you’ll understand the symbolism. Their use in the Yule festival carried over into our present-day Christmas decorating orgy (pun intended). The shamrock (or cloverleaf) was also sacred to the Druids as its make-up of three leaves held the sacred number and apparently had the power to ward off evil spirits. I have a ton of it in my front yard and my family and my in-laws rarely visit, so effectiveness holds true in modern times. Eventually, this plant was subjugated to the Christian conversion cause (as was everything "pagan") in Eire and came to represent the Holy Trinity. The word “Druid” actually translates to “knowing the oak tree” in Celtic. They held the oak sacred as well, and performed many of their rituals in the presence of these stately trees. The added existence of mistletoe growing on the tree further accentuated its mystical power. This is how the Druids rolled, but did they know beer? Probably not, although it is thought that they drank mead which is a close cousin to beer, as is saké. So why bring them up and talk about their sacred plants? It’s because two places that have become sacred to me bear the names of two of these plants: the cloverleaf and the oak tree.
I have already mentioned the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell earlier in this blog and I explained that it was worthy of its own entry. Well, it will actually have to share, but it’s in good company. During my first visit to Cloverleaf, The Senpai and I drank quite a few beers and I noticed their Master of Beer Appreciation (or M.B.A.) program. I picked up a card that night and took the single step that started the journey of 45 beers. The card lists each of these beers and they punch a star in it when you finish each one. Since a handful of them are seasonals you can’t do it in one sitting or one week or one month. However, if you start it at the right time of the year you could conceivably finish it nine months. I am on course to do just that. The Senpai started about a month or so after me and is starting to catch up. So if you do this, complete any seasonals that are currently in stock or you might wind up waiting another year for them to come around.
(I finally figured out how to make links work, yay me!)
The program comes with incentives, as all good rewards and loyalty programs do. For each 15 beers you finish you are awarded a $15 gift card. Once you complete all 45, you get your name on a plaque, get a t-shirt and drink your pints from larger glassware than other customers paying the same amount. Not too shabby.
The only problem with the M.B.A. is that some of the beers on the card are ones that most Beer Samurai are unwilling to drink, so you need to slog through those. My advice to The Senpai on dealing with these beers was to chug the whole thing so you only have to taste it once…twice, if you belched afterward. That is the method I used to deal with J.W. Dundee Honey Brown, Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, Red Stripe, Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer and Labatt’s Blue. There is a beer on the list however that many have difficulty finishing and that I do not advise that you chug: Aecht Schlenkerla Rauschbier Urbock. It is a smoked beer from Germany that tastes like someone burnt down a house and fermented the charred timbers in river water. It is definitely an acquired taste. I did not enjoy it at first, but later came to appreciate the style. The Senpai still has nightmares about his experience.
Once you complete the M.B.A., or only have seasonals left, they allow you to start on your PhD, that is Professor of Hops and Drafts...not quite as clever as Master of Beer Appreciation, but who cares? This new list consists of 60 beers, but it changes from year to year so they only list the beers by season and number. Once you get rolling on this, you have to ask for the seasonal beer list when you sit down as these beers do not appear on their "standard" beer menu. Each beer corresponds to a number on your card and your card is punched by that number. If you don’t complete the whole season in the same year, the beers you need to do the next time that season rolls around might very well be different. Once again there are incentives. The gift cards are upped to $20, but come after every 20 beers that you finish, so they maintain a dollar reward per beer average. Also after each twenty you get a special bottle for “home study”. Once you complete all sixty, your name goes on another plaque, you get another shirt and the glassware gets even larger. If you run through the PhD three times, you get a huge ceramic mug to drink from. So now we know the Beer Samurai’s goal.
But it’s not the drinking clubs that make this place what it is...it’s the staff. The Senpai and I have become pretty familiar with the bartenders and know some of the regulars, but have not yet reached Norm status. We’ve become particularly friendly with two of the bartenders there and enjoy discussing everything about beer. One of these guys works at a liquor store that he constantly brags is the best in New Jersey…and he’s right. Due to his ties to both of these sacred spots I shall refer to him from now on as The Druid. I have referred to this liquor store before in an entry where I stated that we’d find a place that would make Circle Liquors and BLO look “woefully understocked”.
Oak Tree Buy-Rite Liquors is so named because it is on Oak Tree Road in South Plainfield. It’s very possible that this place is also a great wine store, but I wouldn’t know. I grab a cart and head toward the beer coolers, but stop before reaching them and check out the boxes of new releases. Once going through those I take a left into the aisle of domestic craft brews. So many of them are available in singles and you can ask for some empty six-pack carriers and start grabbing bottle after bottle. Go to the end of this aisle and you’re at the back wall, the Great Wall of Imports. Not only is their selection of Belgians impressive, but they’re the first place I’ve seen some of the first offerings from the fledgling Italian craft beer movement being sold. They also had every one of the Mikkeller single hop IPA series. Their prices are some of the best I’ve seen and the staff is very helpful and knowledgeable. Incidentally, and tying into this entry’s theme, they also carry more varieties and brands of mead than I’ve ever seen.
After I was rung up after my first visit, the store manager came up and handed me a couple of beer glasses…yeah I spent more than I probably should have. I did the same thing when I returned, with an awed Senpai in tow. We both got to choose glasses from the secret stash in the closet. The result of these shopping trips was that I could barely close the beer fridge. It is good to know that having it crammed full significantly raises the efficiency of the compressor since there’s less air to cool…or so they say. Just go with me on that one…it makes me feel better.
And now it's time to get all Beer Samurai on you. One must always look upon every person one meets as a potential sensei…every place you visit as a possible dojo. Brewshido requires that you continue to learn and we learn by listening and tasting. Reading the words I write may help guide you to these places or these people, but you cannot learn unless you experience. The Way of the Beer Samurai has no end and we learn more each and every day. Now that I have shared the encounters that have put me on the Way it is time for instruction in the Way to begin.
Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: An Introduction