The city of Newark is currently undergoing its greatest revitalization. New entertainment spots have sprung up recently, including the Prudential Center Arena, New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Riverfront Stadium, allowing for increased cultural arts, sports and restaurant revenue. In accordance, Port 44 Brew Pub opened May 2010, serving Newark’s first craft beers in nearly 100 years. Tucked inside Commerce Street’s industrious downtown neighborhood, the ample three-story pub enjoins retired Newark police officer Greg Gilhooly with ex-Orange fireman John Feeley, as co-owners.
Newark boasted 27 pre-Prohibition breweries, most established by German and English immigrants commemorating Europe’s longstanding heritage. Though each is long gone, Port 44 restores New Jersey’s most populated city’s once-proud brewing tradition.
Visited September, the wholly refurbished watering hole featured three standard brews (plus two specialties), fine continental cuisine, $3 happy hour house beers, and an affordable 20-ounce mug club ($55 per year for decorative personalized glassware, drink-food discounts and more). The brick-walled, stone-tiled, oak-furnished street level’s central octagon bar (with six TV’s) services several black-chaired tables. Four front-windowed, 15-barrel fermenters occupy the concrete red-floored left side. Right side stairs lead to a second floor oak bar with more seating and copper-kettle tanks. The unfinished third floor will become a conference-banquet room. In the basement, a foam-insulated walk-in cooler holds more brew tanks while a raw keg storage space will soon be correctly pitched for sub-pumps.
Established brewer, Chris Sheehan, wearing a classic Krueger Beer T-shirt celebrating America’s first canned beer, greets me at high noon. Originally from Buffalo, the self-proclaimed metal head started as a home brewer before heading West to join California’s revolutionary microbrew hotbed. He attended an intense week-long brewing course at UC-Davis to learn microbiology, sanitizing and tasting, working part-time at Berkeley’s historic Triple Rock Alehouse prior to moving across the bay to San Francisco’s bigger 20 Tank Brewery as a full-timer. He landed at Manhattan’s now-defunct Neptune Brewery (located above Chelsea Market) for three months, then Chelsea Brewing thereafter (accepting several national awards).
Recruited to craft newfangled libations for Port 44, Sheehan understands the local impact a brewpub could have on a community. He’s aware of Newark’s extremely diverse cultural populace and realizes each pub should have its own identity, even if it’s as multi-faceted as the Brick City’s heterogeneous community.
“To a certain extent, we wanted a nice pub feel. Prevalent use of wood décor, stone tiling, and up-front tanks add an Industrial feel. We didn’t want to be a full-blown sportsbar, but wanted to accommodate and focus on the Devils fans three blocks away at Prudential Center. So we had to have a sports appeal for the fans we anticipate hosting,” Sheehan explains as I quaff his lightest offering.
Named after Jersey’s state bird, the soft-focus Goldfinch Ale will please pilsner fans. Its tannic lemon-spiced, dry-hopped bitterness and parched wheat bottom counter sweet cereal-grained, crystal malting.
Sheehan adds, “It has the mentality and attitude of a pilsner, yet it’s top-fermented and treated as a hoppy golden ale at warmer temperatures. A sack of light caramel pils gives it a subtle sweetness you’ve perceived as crystal malts. It’s been described as lemony, attributed to a generous dose of German-hybrid Mount Hood hops.”
Next up, grassy-hopped, grapefruit-peeled, wheat-dried, American-styled Siren’s Wheat, retains a mild juniper-embittered lemon zest.
“That’s a very fair description,” Sheehan approves. “25 cents of every pint goes to a charity scholarship for children of injured policemen, firemen and EMT workers.”
Still experimenting with Siren’s recipe, he divulges, “I didn’t want it to come out as hoppy, but the pleasant surprise about the system we’re using is the pronounced hop utilization. In this case, it pumped up the hops too much. I want to back off a bit to make this a truer expression of an astringent American wheat. It’s too similar to Goldfinch right now, which is going to run out. I’m a one-man show trying to catch up. So Siren’s got to pick up the slack.”
Soft-watered, butter-spiced, orange-soured, quince-flinched Devil’s Red scatters grapefruit-embittered Simcoe hops across roasted Vienna malts. A short alcohol burn accompanies the tart yellow-fruited finish.
“Citric notes are a good descriptive for American hops, in general. Obviously, brewed to appeal to Devils fans without plagiarizing the franchise, I like using chalkboard imagery to invoke the legendary Jersey Devil as well,” the brewmeister points out.
Robust dry-bodied hop-charred coffee-roasted Longy’s Black Market Stout (just tapped on this day) brings mild espresso-cappuccino sedation to cedar-seared, black-tarred anise gunk, finishing comparably to a mochacchino. Named after Prohibition mobster, Longy Zwillman, it’s not dissimilar to Sheehan’s award-winning Chelsea Black Hole XXX Stout.
“This one’s closer to an American-styled stout with aggressive Centennial hops and milder coffee. Black Hole’s a foreign-styled stout, stronger (8 percent alcohol) with super-intense malt roast. Longy’s will continue to evolve. Flavors will mature, round out, and the rough-edged harshness will dissipate,” Sheehan says.
To close my session, 13-day-old Catskill Hop Harvest, still embryonic, proved worthy. A fruitful, creamy-headed, rust-hazed, wet-hopped ale, its tropical rain-watered pineapple-mango-papaya-cantaloupe sweetness, floral hibiscus-heather whisk, and caramelized sugar malting juxtaposed salty earthen hops.
Anyone doubting Sheehan’s serious-minded brewing techniques should know he drove to Upstate New York to collect Catskill’s homemade wet hops, describing its character as a bit British with earthen, floral nuances.
Feeling strongly about preserving Newark’s historic 19th century brewing reputation, the native Buffalonian realizes Newark’s tap water helped many pre-Prohibition breweries prosper. He’s been fortunate to work with great water in San Francisco, New York, and now, Newark, taking advantage of the situation whereby it’s not necessary to use salts for eliminating bacteria.
In the near future, Sheehan hopes to craft a German doppelbock, since he owns up to being intrigued by Ayinger’s esteemed Celebrator Doppelbock and Spaten’s equally fine Optimator. Admitting he learned more in ten months visiting Europe after high school than he would’ve attending four years of college, the seasoned brewer confesses the trip was not necessarily done to ascertain ancient European brewing techniques, but instead to peruse the continent as a relative greenhorn readying for the world. Now teamed up with former Jersey public servants, Gilhooly and Feeley, the spirited trio has rescued Newark’s long-dormant brewpub scene.
As Jersey’s newest brewpub, Port 44’s ultimate success will hopefully enable other local brewers to create friendly competition. It took time, but Brooklyn Brewery inspired craft beer newcomers Sixpoint and Kelso after a decade of prosperity. So here’s a toast for Newark’s reawakened beer barons.
John Fortunato is the author of the best-written site for beer geeks and rock freaks. Visit beermelodies.com for proof.