Saturday, April 14, 2012


More Rye, a Fly-By and a Regular Guy

Let's face it; New Jersey is rarely mentioned when discussions of the best beer states come up. Our breweries and brewpubs don't show up in beer tourism itineraries. The beers brewed in this state rarely appear on anyone's wish lists. No "whales" are brewed in this state. In fact, it's not all that often that you'll find a bottle of beer brewed in the Garden State taking up room in my beer fridge. Like most other beer geeks in this area, it's dominated by offerings from Pennsylvania, New York, California, Colorado and even Delaware. The fact that the three states that border New Jersey produce highly-desired beers and spark pilgrimages to their brewing facilities should really irk New Jerseyans, but most take little notice of this.

This is a function of two things: 1) our breweries never really created anything really special, and 2) our brewpubs aren't allowed to distribute. That second one might change soon if A1277 gets passed through the New Jersey Assembly. The NJ Senate already passed their version of the bill (S641) and Governor Christie has promised to sign it into law if it reaches his desk. Yay! But that does nothing to fix that first thing, the quality of the beer coming out of New Jersey.

Maybe using the term "quality" isn't fair. As far as the quality of the process and the end product, our brewmasters know what they're doing. But many of the breweries were producing the same-old, same-old. It's been changing, slowly and surely. The Flying Fish Exit Series has been highly experimental and very rewarding for those snatching up the likes of Scarlet Hoppy Ale, Chestnut Brown and Chocolate Stout. Cricket Hill has taken up the clarion call of bourbon barrel-aging with some impressive results, especially their BBA Barleywine. River Horse continues to tinker with their recipes with improvement in balance seen every year. But the beer geeks in this state crave more. The fact that New Jersey has the highest distribution of beer labels in the country is a testament to our thirst for new and different beers to try. That was noticed and the cry for MORE was answered from within.

2011 may go down in New Jersey beer history as the year the Garden State put their stamp on the craft beer world. That was the year that Kane Brewing, Carton Brewing and Cape May Brewing started to distribute their beer. Cape May Brewing is a nano-brewery and have no plans to bottle (that I know of), but the other two are being urged from all directions to get on with it! All were founded by homebrewers, as is usually the case, and they have managed to translate their homebrew recipes into larger batches that currently enjoy tap space throughout the state. The larger two of these breweries were the primary targets of this beer excursion and Carton Brewing was up next!

Carton Brewing is located in Atlantic Highlands and first hit the NJ craft beer scene with Boat Beer. Boat Beer was designed to be an easy drinking beer with a low ABV and a light body, but one that could still deliver a buttload of flavor. Think of it as a heavily hopped kolsch and you get the idea. So were excited to visit to see what else they had to offer.

The Senpai and the Duck outside Carton Brewing
The building is pretty unassuming and you walk in on the ground floor where they do the brewing. But, if you read the signs, you're directed to go upstairs where the tasting bar is. If you read the blog entry on Cricket Hill, you'll remember that NJ has some laws about tours and tastings. Part of that law is that a brewery must conduct a tour before offering a tasting…well, that's how some interpret the law. Carton adheres to this portion of it, so when we appeared at the top of the steps one of the guys behind the tasting bar came out to conduct the tour. We were to be given the tour by Auggie…Auggie Carton…with his cousin, he's one of the founders and owners. He explained that, like so many NJ shore towns, Atlantic Highlands was originally a religious retreat and the front portion of the building was where the tents for the retreat were stored during the off-season. The expansion of the building is not as well-documented, but he knew that it was once a candy store. At the time, the building across the street was a high school, so it was well-located. Now, the school is an elementary school and the candy store is a brewery. Auggie quipped that this was a "natural progression". 

Carton Brewing's "Tippy"
As we approached the brewing equipment he asked we knew of the process. We (us and Auggie) were grateful for this because it saved us all a lot of time covering stuff we already knew, but he did point out a fluid delivery system that you have to see to fully understand. I can't really do it justice, but let's just say that they can move liquids from any piece of equipment to another with one simple mechanical change at the manifold. From there he pointed out the Tippy. This is their 20-gallon, gravity-driven, experimental small batch brewing system. They start the base beer here and then Chris, the brewmaster, carboys smaller batches of it with different yeast strains to determine which works best. From there, it goes up to the tasting room and feedback from their patrons helps determine if it gets into the regular brewing rotation.

Another fixture in the brewing area is their beer fridge. This is a full-sized fridge stocked to the gills with craft brew from around the world. As Auggie explained, "They love beer!" And that was also evident when we went to the tasting room and watched as some of their neighbors shared bottles of Surly Wet and Surly 4. The empties lining the top of the bar paid testament to how often this occurs and the rarity of the bottles that they bring. It definitely made for a jealous Beer Samurai.

Carton's tasting room
So we started our tastings and Auggie regaled us with the story of the brewing of SOH Rye. If you visit, ask him about it; it's a pretty funny story. They didn't have SOH Rye on tap, but they did have what eventually became Red Rye Returning. They also served Boat Beer, Carton of Milk Stout, BDG (Brunch.Dinner.Grub.), 077XX and 077XX Double. A funny thing about 077XX is that I never really understood why someone would name a beer with an alphanumeric designation like that. Sure, test batches may get something like that attached to them, but then they usually get a real name when they go to production. But when we walked in and saw the staff wearing 077XX shirts with something that resembled the US Post Office Eagle logo I finally understood. All of the zip codes in that area start with 077. Since the Senpai grew up in that area, he was rather embarrassed that it took that visual clue to turn on the light bulb. 

The owners, brewers and the rest of the staff are the kind of people you want to sit down and drink with. They are very friendly, quite chatty and willing to share beer and brewing knowledge (to a point). They love having people visit and are eager to show off their operation. If you go, I recommend giving the visit more than the half hour we allotted. We actually stayed 45 minutes and would have stayed longer had we not had more stops on the itinerary. 

The next stop on the trip was supposed to be The Original Basil T's, but we spent more time than planned at Uno and Carton so we decided to run straight to Kane Brewing so that we could arrive well before closing time. The shortest route was right past Basil T's, so we did our fly-by and pressed on south through Red Bank, Shrewsbury and Eatontown on our way into Ocean Township.

Kane Brewing is another one of those breweries housed in a non-descript building in a business complex, but we did take note of how much space they have there. We entered the tasting room, at the end of the entry hallway (where the bathroom is strategically located) to see two guys behind the taps and the room nearly half full. We were told that they were short-staffed so the tours were self-guided, but we should grab a sample of beer to aid us through. Good advice! So I asked for and received a sample of Afterglow which was yet another rye beer. Four stops for drinking and three rye beers, but this would be the last, and the best, rye of the day.

The Senpai and barrel-aging stout @ Kane
The Senpai and I headed into the brewery as the Duck was still debating where to begin with the taps. The brewing equipment was against the left wall, but what caught our attention was what was tucked into a corner on the right side, a large rack full of barrels! Upon further inspection we saw that they were all labeled, "Imperial Stout - Bourbon Barrel-Aged". We contemplated sneaking a barrel out, but decided our backs probably couldn't handle it and joined the Duck over by one of the fermenters that was creating a lot of blow-off. We also noted that they had a nice spot for a bottling line and then started to head inside when the Duck noticed that they had a surf board hung over the door between the brewery and the tasting room. Having been a surfer back when he lived in California, he explained what kind of board it was and something about the fins, the wood and the finish. I was intent on getting the next sample and didn't pay much attention, much like the Control does to me when I talk about beer.

Kane's tasting room taps
Drift Line and Head High were also on tap and we tried both. We had all had Head High before and I remember my first pint. It was at the Cloverleaf Tavern and the guy who runs the place, Ryan, recommended it, claiming it was the "best beer on the East Coast". Since this was a seriously bold statement I was dubious and approached the glass with skepticism. But the first whiff of it told me that this was a special beer. That impression was reinforced by the first sip which quickly turned into gulps. This was an IPA of epic proportions and I conceded to Ryan that it was definitely the best beer brewed in New Jersey and I might be convinced to say it was the best IPA on the East Coast. Best beer on the East Coast? That's a tall order, but it's up there.

We talked with Mike a little bit as he filled our growlers with Head High…Mike? Mike Kane, the founder and owner of Kane Brewing. That's the beauty of visiting the small, young breweries; you usually get to meet the owners. Mike is a very tall red-head with a really unassuming air to him...a regular guy. Like the people up in Carton, it's easy to picture yourself plopping down at a bar with him and drinking the whole day away. I asked him how he managed to hit home runs as a rookie. What was his background in the business? That's when we learned that he decided to open a brewery while he was in college, working on a degree in finance. When he graduated he got a job learning how to run a business, but did homebrewing on the side in order to learn that side of the business. Armed with his business experience a repertoire of successful homebrews, he hired a brewer from Victory who took his recipes and scaled them up. The results have been quite astonishing and my infatuation with this brewery's output and success only grew.

In fact, I returned a few weeks later on the way home after participating in the Polar Beer Plunge in Seaside Heights. I wanted to secure another growler of Head High to send off in a trade and also one for myself. But then another revelation presented itself! In honor of the upcoming Saint Patrick's Day celebration Mike explained that  he wanted to brew a stout and he came up with Port Omna. Named after the town in County Galway in Ireland from which his family hails, this was one delicious stout and I got a growler of that instead. I eagerly opened it when I got home to further explore its depth of flavors. It sat somewhere between an Imperial Stout and a Milk Stout. Sweet, yet bitter and roasty with coffee and chocolate overtones, the mouthfeel of this beer is spot on. You can read my review of it here:

So we managed to visit both breweries back-to-back, and met the owners of both. Oh, I forgot to mention that Chris Carton was also serving in the tasting room. He was on the far side of the bar from where we were though. We grabbed some swag at both breweries and I'm really itching for a return to Kane Brewing to see what else Mike has on tap (literally and figuratively). Both breweries have tap presence up in Northern Jersey, but you can't beat visiting the brewery and bringing home a growler.

Next time will cover off on the last two brewpubs we visited and an underwhelming visit to one of our favorite beer stores.