Saturday, April 30, 2011


Through the hills and valleys

Whatever route you take to get to Long Valley you drive through a countryside rife with old-growth forest and teeming with wildlife. The massive, old trees lean over the roads and deer are visible in many of the hills and fields. On cool, humid nights fog fills the hollows, vales and glens between the ubiquitous rises and folds in the land. This untamed landscape attracted many immigrants into the area and towns popped up along the Lenape paths through the deep forests as the Europeans widened these trails to accommodate their horses and carriages. As the British settled into Bedminster, Chester and Mount Olive, the valley to the south was settled by the Dutch and was named Dutch Valley. Eventually, German immigrants filtered into the valley and became the dominant ethic group, so the valley was renamed German Valley. When the United States went to war helping the British and the French stave off the Germans it became necessary to change the name once more. The valley and the settlement in the valley became known as Long Valley.

One of the early German settlers had a patch of land that he used as a dairy farm and this farm operated into the 1960s, existing through all the name changes. Changing regulations in milk pricing and inspection forced the closure of the dairy farm and the land was purchased with all the buildings intact. The old, stone barn was left to deteriorate until an effort was started in 1995 to renovate the structure and turn it into a brew pub. Some changes had to be made, but an attempt was made to salvage as much of the original walls and timbers.

THE ATMOSPHERE – The 200-year-old restored stone barn certainly makes for a great drinking and dining venue, bringing a rustic, historical feel to the visit. The bar is in the middle of the main floor with dining rooms to either side and the brewing equipment visible behind the island-style bar. "Island-style" is not in the Caribbean sense (there are no tiki torches), but because you can walk all the way around it. I’ve found this style of bar to be wasteful of space and I feel they’d be better served having the bar span the back wall, in front of the tanks, and have some tables with stools in front. This would alleviate the problem that the bar patrons spill into the reception area since there is no clear delineation between the two. I can imagine that the traffic in this area would make it difficult to leave through the front door, having to wind through bar patrons and diners waiting for a table. I could think of many ways to redo the floor plan, but the same is true of my favorite watering hole, so I’ll refrain from expounding on that. There are also two dining areas upstairs, directly above the ground floor dining rooms. Overall, the building is a really neat place to toss back a few pints and grab some grub.

The crowd seemed to be around the forties on median. Many tables had children present, with one group having a separate table for the kids. So the place is definitely family friendly, as are many brewpubs. The people drinking at the bar seemed younger, but not by a lot. Regardless of age, The Control and The Senpai were very appreciative of the charms of the female patrons and I was worried that we’d have to have one or both of them treated for whiplash. Even though most people were wearing jeans the air about the place was upper middle-class. Most jeans-wearing ladies accessorized with expensive shoes, designer tops and Coach or Louis Vuitton bags. However, it didn’t feel snooty at all and our group of middle-management schlubs never felt out of place.

THE SERVICE – I had called a few days prior to make a reservation and we were seated immediately upon arriving. Not thrilled with the table they directed us to, we asked for another one and they obliged gladly. Apparently, the Long Valley Pub and Brewery is a BYOF…Bring Your Own Fork. We had two missing from the table and promptly stole two from another table. A couple were seated there without the hostess noticing that they were missing forks, so they went to another table and stole two. I imagine this may have gone on all day long and would have continued had a confused bus boy not taken away the table that now had missing forks, only for someone with better counting skills to return the table ten minutes later. We never took notice if that table came fully-equipped with forks or not. The staff is mostly younger and some of them tend to be easily startled by requests and questions while the older members of the staff are well-organized and knowledgeable. Our waiter belonged to this latter group, but he was a bit slow refilling our beers. We obviously drank at a quicker rate than he was used to, so that was on us. Despite all that our food arrived promptly, but not completely…one entrĂ©e had been left behind but followed quickly. 

THE FOOD – The Senpai had the highest regard of us all for the food and stripped his 16oz porterhouse down to gleaming bone and during dessert nearly licked the plate, that very briefly held his Chocolate Decadence cake, spotlessly clean. We all enjoyed the food and the wings are really good…sizeable, well-fried and adequately sauced. Their sausage platter, cleverly called the Best of the Wurst, contained three very tasty German sausages. Apparently the person who names the food has more creativity than the people who have named the valley throughout history. The food was fresh, hot and delicious. I had heard that the brewpub had really good food, but that it had gone downhill. Something changed and that seems to have brought the food back to more-than-acceptable levels of yumminess.

THE PRICE – The wings were $9.00…not exactly cheap. The entrees ranged from $13 for mac and cheese, $11 for a burger and $24 for a full rack of ribs. Not cheap but not extravagant and the quality of the food was well worth what we paid. We never took notice of what they charged per pint of beer, but found out later it was only $5.00 a pint. Bargain! So let's talk about the beer.

THE BEER – I’ve heard a lot about how good the beer is here and I’ve read about their awards. With this kind of hype I was looking forward to experiencing them for myself. They had six beers on tap which is pretty decent for a brewpub. Four of those are their year-rounds: Hookerman’s Light, German Valley Amber, American Pale Ale and their most-celebrated offering, Lazy Jake’s Porter. They also had two seasonals on tap: Dusseldorf Alt Bier and Nut Brown Ale, another brew with multiple awards. The four of us all ordered different beers to start and I went with the APA, thinking that a hopped beer would go well with the spicy wings. This is a classic pairing, but the APA did not stand up well as the hops were not that assertive. This would not be a problem if the beer was classified as a British-style pale ale, but when you call something an American Pale Ale one expects a pretty aggressive blast of hops. 

There were two problems with each beer and each beer had the same two problems. We tried 5 of the 6 offerings and every one was very light in aroma, making it really hard to get any sense of what the taste would be. The other issue was that the body of all the beers seemed a bit watery. The Geisha even commented on the APA’s lack of body stating that she’d hate to think what the Hookerman’s Light would be like. That was the one beer none of us ordered for that very reason. Fortunately, the taste of the brews was their saving graces. The Lazy Jake’s Porter was indeed the class of the brewery and had great roasted flavors. The website brags of its “full body” so maybe something was a bit off the day we were there. Perhaps the pint glasses were not fully dried and the beers got watered down. I’ll return to investigate, that I solemnly swear since the flavors were very well delivered.

Overall, I'd have to say that we all enjoyed our visit. I can't see coming here just for the beer though, but the food is good enough that we will return and we already have a date scheduled to come see a Classic Rock cover band perform...a friend of ours is the drummer. So if you're hunting for great beer in New Jersey and want a good brewpub scene this is not a bad choice, especially if you want an overall excellent dining experience with great ambiance and excellent food and pretty good (not great) beer. Navigate through the hills and valleys and see how the brewpub has navigated their own history and maybe if you're lucky you'll be able to appreciate the hills and valleys that The Control and The Senpai took note of. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bud! Bud! Goose!

The beer world is abuzz with the purchase of Goose Island Brewing Co. by Anheuser-Busch. No one seems to be happy about this and they point to the history of A-B acquiring smaller breweries to either shut them down and take over their market or use their facilities as area breweries for their own swill. I'm not even sure the veracity of these claims, but even if they do keep Goose Island as a viable brand, the detractors claim that the bean counters will reduce the quality by making the bumpkins at Goose Island cut corners to become more profitable. Few are taking a pragmatic view of this supposed horror, but I'd like to propose an alternative view of this news.

I first heard of the news from a friend who sent me an article explaining how bad the news was. I received e-mails from others with links to various articles with the same tone...bereavement for Goose Island. Another theme also ran through all the articles; they all stated that the purchaser is Anheuser-Busch with either passing or no reference to InBev. Remember, A-B is owned by InBev which is a Belgian company. If A-B had purchased them before they were owned by InBev then I’d see this as bad news since they probably would destroy Goose Island.

I think this is different. Big Beer has taken note of the rise of craft brewing in the U.S. The fact that sales of craft brews rose during the recession and their own sales plummeted was not lost on them. Yes, the market share is still less than 5% in the U.S., but it's growing. A-B and Miller Coors both recognize this trend, as has been made evident by their many failed forays into the craft brew world with their own “handcrafted” creations. They failed because the beers they produced were not all that great...and I'm being kind in many cases. By purchasing GI, A-H is taking a step into the craft brew world using the skill and knowledge of their new acquisition. From what I’ve heard, they’re retaining the GI brewmaster. That’s telling. He’s even come out and spoken about the acquisition saying that having the A-B muscle behind them will allow them to get their beer into more hands. He specifically mentioned Matilda, whose sales rose 100% from last year comp. He's either confident that A-B's financial, marketing and distribution prowess will work in his favor or he's been badly lied to.Goose Island has long been allied with A-B. They've been using their distribution channels for years, so they have experience with these guys.  

The book is out on what exactly will happen and the proof will be in the bottle after the reins are handed over, because once the accountants get involved they may try to change the way GI does what it does. Accountants don't make a company profitable by contributing income, they do so by limiting expenditures. It's possible that they'd want inferior ingredients to be used or they may just streamline some processes. Who knows? But let's not forget that A-B is not stupid. They may make some pretty bad beer, but have lasted pretty long doing so. 

Why? First of all, they have a marketing team that has many fans of NASCAR devoutly believing that their beer is superior to anything else simply by telling them its so and showing them hot women, Clydesdales and the occasional holiday commercial that tugs at your heartstrings and/or buoys your patriotism. Morality is a discussion for another time, especially if you've heard Anthony Bourdain's claim that Big Beer drove Brew Masters off the air by threatening Discovery that they'd pull their sponsorship. Again, another time for that by read this for now: When you do so remember that Bourdain's production company is the same that one that produces Brew Masters.

If you think about the financial expenditure and risks involved in this purchase for A-B, you know they had to have done a good deal of research ahead of time and I doubt they’d acquire a brewery with a shoddy operation. There are some efficiencies that I’m sure they’d want to put into place and we can only hope that it’s on the distribution and marketing side and that they’d leave the operation and creative aspects alone. As long as the quality doesn't fall off and the creative process is untouched this could be a good thing. 

At the top of the page I invoked InBev as the parent company because they do not have a history of destroying their acquisitions or interfere with the way they brew their beer. They add marketing campaigns and increase their production and distribution capabilities. Stella Artois is a prime example. I’m not a huge fan since I’ve had better Belgian pales, but it IS still the same beer it was prior to being purchased. InBev also owns Leffe and I’m a huge fan of both the blonde and bruin. I wish they had a redhead. Rewind a few months when Anchor Steam was purchased through Griffin Group by Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio . We did not see the same media storm at that time. Why? These guys are not Anheuser-Busch. A-B is the Darth Vader to craft beer's Ewoks. Okay, bad analogy (many Star Wars fans bought Galactic Battlegrounds just so they could shoot Ewoks), but the point is that A-B is bad bad bad bad bad and has been the mortal enemy of any beer with flavor since time immemorial. Nothing they do could be a good thing, right? Well...

You could look at this as good news for beer geeks in the Garden State as it could result in larger distribution which could include New Jersey. Yay! But only "Yay!" if the quality is not sacrificed. I still find it hard to be hopeful that a massive increase in production will result in no loss in quality. Let's not forget the change for the worse for Pilsner Urquell when the Iron Curtain fell and they finally allowed to take their profits and update their equipment. It's still damn good, but not as good as it was. I’m also a little worried if the brewers at Goose Island will be allowed to continue with the big bottle portion of the operation Since I have yet to sample it, I'd be heart-broken if they discontinued  the Bourbon County Stout line.

The whole beer world in the U.S. will be watching this develop. 
  • The micros will be watching with paranoia to see if and how A-B will rape the company. They'll swear to not let it happen to them. Already today, Nimbus Brewing from Arizona is poking fun at the acquisition.
  • The beer snobs will be extra critical of the Goose Island beers after the transition occurs, claiming that Big Beer has destroyed a maverick in its prime. I doubt we’ll see objectivity from that segment of the beer geek population in this matter unless the Brothers Alstrom can make them heel. They've never been too successful with that, but they do try. 
  • The macros will also be paying attention. If it works for A-B then it will be a race to create the largest U.S. beer conglomerate and Miller/Coors and A-B will get into bidding wars over the likes of DFH, Rogue, Sierra Nevada, Widmer Brothers and Stone.
I’ll reserve judgment and watch along with everyone else to see if this will launch craft beer into the next realm and then try to figure out if that "next realm" is Nirvana or Gehenna. The worse that could happen is that one of the micros is sacrificed for the good of the rest as a warning to beware macros bearing gifts. 

POST PUBLISHING NOTE: CEO Greg Hall has announced he will step down as brewmaster at Goose Island. While this is a shame it is not disastrous. Brett Porter from Deschutes Brewing Company will take over. Anheuser-Busch has stated that it is dedicated to keeping the brewing tradition at Goose Island intact. This change in personnel may be a sign that they actually mean it.