Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Miller Time?

After a long day of travel, the missus and I decided we needed to stop for a bite and a brew. Being in the Woodbridge area, we chose to give the relatively new (to NJ, anyway) Miller's Ale House on Rt. 9 a shot. Born in Florida and now branching out, the chain has a place in Paramus that supposedly does $160,000 a week.

Yet, I had heard mixed reviews about the place, with one friend saying the food was terrible and the beer list was just OK. Another friend gave me the exact opposite account, claiming his was one of the best burgers he'd ever had, and the beer list was substantial and varied.

So in we went to learn for ourselves. To begin with, the place is cavernous, with no fewer than 70 TV's. Two huge rooms, one for dining, and one called "The Patio" sporting 26 TV's. The dining section was pretty packed with couples at tables and families and groups in booths. The sound level was relatively subdued, especially when compared with The Patio where  the "pub hubbub" was considerably greater. For a moment, I thought The Pope or Billy Graham was on TV, because so many of the bar patrons were yelling "Jesus Christ!" But it was just the NY Jets playing on MNF.

Manager Percy Gray allowed that The Patio was "usually a place for the 'younger crowd' to congregate," and we considered it rather a compliment to be escorted to a fireside seat there. There is actually a real patio outside The Patio where patrons can gather around a firepit and smoke, all while watching a huge HD TV. Must be neat in the Spring and Summer.

The Beer List offered something for everyone, IMHO, though it certainly wasn't "crazy" with beers for the true beer nut, especially one who has just returned from Belgium. Still, the draft offerings were adequate, while the bottles were more mainstream--and therefore ignored by The PubScout.

Our friendly and very pleasant server Rayna shared that Dogfish Head 120 was in the house, though not yet on the printed menu. I ordered an Old Reliable SA Winter Lager, and the missus, still on Belgian time, ordered a Stella.

Rayna & Captain Jack
The first thing I noticed about the food menu were the prices, which ranged from very reasonable to moderate. My "loaded" Philly Cheesesteak on a soft roll, which actually tasted like a real Philly Cheesesteak, was outstanding, and it came in under $10. The missus got what she said were 35 delicious shrimp for just a buck more. The Winter Lager worked perfectly with my dish, and her Stella did the same for hers. All the food is made fresh, and there's only one item that gets microwaved--not that there's anything wrong with that. Hint: it's up top on the appy menu.

Though we usually eschew dessert (it takes up too many calories that could be better spent on beer), we asked Rayna for a recommendation. She immediately suggested Cap'n Jack's Buried Treasure, with the ice cream cake made fresh on site. Suggestion: unless you're a big dessert eater, one order can easily satisfy two, and at just $5.95, it's a steal. There's also a decent Kids' menu with similar prices. Good beer, good food, filled bellies and a total tab of $42 isn't too bad these days.

Bottom line: Like The Terminator, I'll be back. The missus concurred.
And when that happens, it's like getting advice from The Oracle at Delphi.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Running With The Big Dogs Soon: The Little Dog Brewing Co.

It was a Little Dog Day afternoon for me and a horde of others who piled into Gretchen Schmidhausler's new digs. Of course, with Gretchen being the consummate organized professional, the hordes were invited in segments, orderly upon entering and beaming when they left.

Much of that had to do with the divine Ms. S and the way she goes about her business. After all, this is the first NJ Brewmistress to garner a coveted GABF Gold Medal, so she clearly knows what she--and her beer--is about. And awards like that do not go to those who are sloppy, haphazard--or lucky.

After having put in twelve successful years at Basil T's (now Birravino) in Red Bank, and having come up through the brewing ranks for years before that, Gretchen decided it was time to do her own thing. And her own thing involves water, malt, hops and yeast. And what she calls a "Frankenstein Brewing System."

Gretchen Schmidhausler and Frankenstein
Frankenstein notwithstanding, her own thing has retained all the quality of the endeavors that preceded it, winning her plaudits from not only the beer cognoscenti, but from regular beer nuts like yours truly. Her little ten-barrel brewery on Steiner Av. in Neptune City had four beers available today, something for every palate.

Upon entering this invitation-only event on a bright, but chilly, Saturday afternoon, this palate was pleasantly washed by an outstanding Copper Ale (Clare's favorite, btw). If this is the standard, I thought, she's in for a very good run.

But it wasn't just the Copper Ale that impressed. A gingery Pumpkin ale and a chewy, coffe-ish porter also were available. Most surprising to The PubScout was his own affinity for her Spicy Apple Ale. Its cinnamon and nutmeg, balanced with the slightly tart apple cider contained therein, produced an effect that was at first unusual. Then very pleasant. And then it became compelling.

So much so that I took a grunt of it and the Copper home.

The Apple and the Copper
Little Dog will not go fully commercial till after the first of the year. So this is a good time to get down there and see the place, sample the beers and chat with Ms. S. while her clothes are still relatively dry. Brewers are fond of saying, "If you ain't wet, you ain't working."

Even after that, The Little Dog Brewing Company will likely not cause The Big Dog Brewers to have any sleepless nights, especially in terms of volume. But knowing Gretchen and her passion for her product, that Little Dog will be nipping at lots of legs as it finds its way on to MainStream Street.

The PubScout

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal...

At Bosteel's Brewery in Belgium...
After four days of work, I just finished my account of a beer trip to Belgium that has been on my bucket list for many years. It will be appearing at greater length in the upcoming issue of NJ Brew, so be on the lookout.

My affinity for Belgian beers began with Michael Jackson’s book event in NYC sixteen years ago.

Someday…someday, I kept saying.

And suddenly, someday was here.

The Grand Place, Brussels
 My dream trip is now a collection of memories and digital pictures—recollections of new places, new foods, new beers and new people, including the always delightful experience of making some new friends.

For The PubScout, beer is more than just a liquid to be imbibed, evaluated, assessed or categorized. It is tied inextricably to a moment and a place. I could get some Belgian beers and sit in my (or your) Barcalounger while drinking them, but it’s just not the same as drinking them while looking at a four hundred year-old cobblestone street, a five hundred year-old pub or a six hundred year-old church, all from a sidewalk or through a mullioned window from a fireside seat.

And special is the memory of sipping a Duvel, a Delirium Tremens, a Le Garre, a Kwak, a Tripel Karmeliet, a Chimay, a Westmalle Tripel, a Rodenbach Classic or Grand Cru, a Boon Kriek, a Brugse Zot Bruin, a Westvleteren 12, a De Struise Double Black or a Timmerman’s in just the right place, at just the right moment—and in just the right glass.

Good memories like that are the nuggets we take out as we age to warm ourselves, assuring our inner souls that a credo like “Life is not a dress rehearsal” has true worth.

Erica and Evan
I used to say that anyone who is a true Beer Nut owes it to himself to visit the GABF Festival in Denver at least once in his or her lifetime.

Same now goes for Belgium.

So when are you going?

The PubScout

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Havoc in Belgium?

This just in:

A NJ man is being sought by Belgian authorities for causing chaos at the Westvleteren Trappist Monastery during a recent visit there. Kurt Epps, a US beer fancier, got ten monks drunk with repeated toasts to their beer-making prowess, and while they were incapacitated, he made off with a dozen barrels of their world-renowned, rare--and very expensive-- beer. 

When the monks emerged from their beer-fueled reverie and discovered the heist, they ran down the cobblestone streets screaming obscenities, despite having taken lifelong vows of silence. Clutching rakes, pitchforks and hoes, they pursued the trickster on foot to no avail. Belgian police joined in the chase, but conceded that the culprit had "too much of a lead" for them to overtake him.

Using a horsecart he hijacked, and a driver who he plied with beer, Epps was last seen by Belgian peasants
--with whom he downed a half-barrel of the precious liquid-- headed towards the German border, where reports say he had arranged for the trove to be shipped to his central Jersey home via the Black Market. 

According to his sons, his plan is said to involve moving the contraband across the US southern border with Mexico, which he said, "is as porous as a colander," according to the trip organizers who overheard his plan during a morning drinking session.
"We thought he was kidding," said Larry Porter, organizer of the trip. "I guess he wasn't."

Porter, who owns a pub in Easton, PA, said, "I'm sure Kurt will contact me when he gets back in the US. We have a lot of beers at Porters' Pub, but we've never had Westvleteren."

"My husband doesn't kid about his beer," said his wife, Donna, who is being held for questioning by local monastic and police authorities. She said, "I was afraid this was going to happen. He's been wanting to come to Belgium for a long time. And when he saw the monastery, his eyes lit up."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Looks Like Walt C. is the guy to beat...

Masskrugstemmen at the Racquets Club
The PubScout is a big fan of stein hoisting competitions at his dinners, and apparently it's a craze that's catching on.

Called Masskrugstemmen in Germany, it's a very popular event at many Oktoberfest celebrations.

And those of you with strong arms might want to win a trip to Munich for next year's competition. Check out the details at Sam Adams' site. Be advised that you'll have to input your age to get into it, but it looks like great fun.

There's a separate contest for the ladies, too. For what it's worth, I wouldn't mess with Joann M., either.

Check it out. You could be going to Munich!

Of course, it looks like the people at Sam Adams use real beer, too. They can afford to. My events use water. Watch the Steinshaming video while you're there.

I hate to see even a little bit of good beer spilled.
Worse, I hate the nasty comments onlookers make when I go to lap it up.

The PubScout

Sunday, October 12, 2014

O-Fest Beer Dinners Are Some Racquet

Victoria offers up a Ramstein
Double Platinum Blonde
There is a first time for everything, apparently.

While The PubScout has hosted many beer dinners, Oktoberfest and otherwise, they have always been at restaurants, pubs or brewpubs that are open to the public. The one I hosted on October 11, however, was at a private establishment--The Racquets Club of Short Hills.

The result, however, was the same. Great food, great beers--all from NJ--some raucous singing and stories, German lessons, a laughing, loud and fun crowd and a Masskrugstemmen contest all combined to make a memorable night for all.
Now wrestling, Maria at 112 lbs.

The dinner was the brainchild of club bar manager Maria Varga, who, while having hosted wine dinners, had never ventured into the world of craft beer and food pairing. Her working relationship with Racquets Club Pool Manager John Foscolo, beer connoisseur and wrestling coach (how's that for a pairing?), made her contact yours truly. I explained that my mission was to make the general public aware that (if I may borrow from Shakespeare's Hamlet) "there are more beers in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And they almost all go well with various foods.

Utilizing her floor and kitchen staff to efficient perfection, Maria came away with her perceptions about beer altered, and all for the better. She did note that the atmosphere at the first-ever beer dinner was markedly different from the usually sedate nature of the wine gatherings. So, whatever the opposite of "sedate" is, that's what this event was. And it was great fun.

A healthy mix of men and women, all club members, gathered to learn about how to taste beer, and more importantly, how to enjoy pairing it with food. Chef Jose's menu was creatively and excellently drawn up and delivered. It consisted of five courses, each course paired with a Jersey beer.

Course 1--Radicchio/Endive salad with beets, mushrooms, haricot vert and sliced eggs in a Charlotte Mustard was accompanied by Ramstein's Double Platinum Blonde
Course 2--German Potato Cabbage Soup (super, by the way) joined by Dave Hoffman's Oktoberfest
Course 3-- Wurst Assortment of Knockwurst, Bratwurst and Weisswurst with Braised Red Cabbage, paired with Ramstein's Dunkel Weiss
Course 4 (Entree)--Weiner Schnitzel with Spaetzle, Fines Herbs and Braised Brussels Sprouts. This excellent course was paired with Angry Erik's Vanagandr
Course 5 (Dessert)--Apple Cranberry Kuchettes (incredible!) accompanied by Carton of Milk Stout

Hoffman's Oktoberfest earned plenty of praise, but Angry Erik's Vanagandr, Ramstein's beers and Carton Milk Stout also gathered a healthy share of new adherents. More than one guest gushed, "I never knew beer could taste like this!"

Eight brave, game (and possibly beer-emboldened) guests, six men and two women, came up for the Masskrugstemmen contest, and their efforts were applauded by the attendees whose camera phones were clicking wildly away. The winner received a free invitation to the next beer dinner at the club, courtesy of Maria and Ken, the club manager.

Die Masskrugstemmen!
The Pub at the Racquets Club is ideal for such events, with its open, yet cozy layout, and the bar itself is on a kind of stage where great bars and great beer drinkers belong.

My only disappointment came from the realization that such great food and beer in such a great place was not open to the general public, though Ken advised that an entrepreneurial promoter could rent out the beer-dinner-friendly pub for more events like this. Still, those lucky souls who did come out had a "night to remember," according to John Foscolo, and another such session is in the works for the Spring.

I hung out at the "Wives' End" of the table

I don't know if there's a waiting list to belong to the Racquets Club, but you can't say you didn't have time to inquire. Just ask for Greg, Maria or Ken.
And you may be lucky enough to attend the next beer dinner as a member.

Provided, of course, that it's not sold out.
In that case, you can opt for "sedate."

Mother of FOUR?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Black and Blue: Poe's Place?

I had occasion yesterday to visit Easton, PA, and my usual stop when there is at Porters' Pub, a quintessential tavern with a remarkable beer list, a neat mug club and superlative food.

But this visit was a few blocks away at yet another tavern owned by Larry Porter called Black and Blue. It is one of the neatest drinking emporia I have ever patronized.

With a decor reminiscent of La Belle Epoque, the place exuded character and depth. The bathtub in the vestibule containing beer-related periodicals (like NJ Brew) lets the visitor know early on that this is not your buddy's sports bar. Dimly lit, except at the bar, the drinking areas had overstuffed chairs at a fireplace as well as tables for two and four.

And it has absinthe. Once illegal in this country (due mostly to temperance movements and myth), it is no longer, and entrepreneur Larry Porter jumped on the opportunity to stock it, making Black and Blue the largest purveyor of la fee verte--the green fairy--in the tristate area. Unsurprisingly, this pub also has an extensive and admirable beer list.

Edgar Allan Poe
Hence, it was not difficult at all to imagine Edgar Allan Poe at one of these tables with a glass of absinthe, his marvelous pen and mind busy at work (though whether he actually imbibed it at all is questioned by serious biographers).

Technically, of course, Poe died long before La Belle Epoque, but Black and Blue is a place in which his brooding melancholy would likely have found solace. I know I found it, especially with a wide variety of absinthe, which I had never tried, on the menu. For the record, mine tasted like licorice skim milk. It was quite good.

Many people think Poe was a drug addict and an alcoholic (read this link for more), but, being a student of his work, I seriously doubt that the precision of his poetry and complex sentences could be accomplished while under the influence of anything much stronger than tea. And the reality is that his constitution was not well suited for alcohol consumption at all, hence a small amount could have a large impact on him. That's especially possible with absinthe, which is notorious for high alcohol content. The one I ordered (and thoroughly enjoyed) was called Vieux Carre, and it was 138 proof. That's kick-ass by anyone's standard, and it would have absolutely rendered Poe both inebriated--and literarily incapacitated--had he romanced it.

Vieux Carre Absinthe
In any event, Black and Blue, located right across from The Courthouse, also boasts a very creative and delicious array of foods to have with your absinthe, beer or tea. I opted for an appetizer called Wild Boar Brat with a fig mustard that was delivered on a slab of polished granite, topped by a house made large pretzel. It was absolutely fabulous, though not overly large in portion, which would allow room to sample the other delicacies on the menu. Porter is a devotee of fine food as well as fine beers, absinthes and spirits, and he shares that passion with his customers.

I sat in an overstuffed chair in a darkened room near a fireplace on the night I visited, and there were five decorative skulls on the mantel. I asked Larry if this deco was for Halloween, and he responded no, that it was "year round." I suppose I can be forgiven if Poe and The Raven came to mind. But it was neat as heck to sip my absinthe and recall some of those famous lines which I have committed to memory:
"Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December, and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor..."

Be advised. Though its food and beverages are varied and delicious, this is not your typical pub. Interaction among customers is encouraged, as is personal reflection if you are there alone. It was oddly comforting to me to sit alone and absorb the unique ambiance of this establishment. In fact, it made me want to write this column.
And as I was finishing it, I realized that yesterday (October 7) was the anniversary of Poe's death. Spooky, no?

But will this column do for my career what The Raven did for Poe's?


The PubScout