JERSEY CITY, NJ—On a beautiful early June evening I finally got the chance to peruse the wholly revitalized Jersey City financial district at a highly praised drinking establishment founded when the craft beer revolution exploded upon the Jersey scene in 1996. Thanks to a much needed and overdue redevelopment and beautification program, this Hudson River sanctuary across from Lower Manhattan (and staring out at Lady Liberty) has gained belated prominence over the past decade.
Once a destitute urban wasteland, filled with political corruption, shattered rail yards and rundown factories, Jersey City’s reputation changed with the building of several upscale riverfront properties, shopping plazas, residential towers and waterfront walkways. Best of all, a local red-bricked tavern with a wiry iron monkey figure and baby blue sign with beige insignia changed the way these territorial beer drinkers viewed handcrafted American brews and vintage imports.
Tucked into its downtown Greene Street neighborhood on the York Street corner, Iron Monkey Restaurant & Bar serves over 100 bottled beers and a dozen tapped beers at any given time. Owned by Steve McIntyre, a local entrepreneur whose meditational ‘80s trip to China inspired him to open a successful restaurant-bar, this narrow 4-tiered tavern appears out of place amongst the mammoth multi-office edifices in its modernistic urban surroundings, but local businessmen and post-teens keep this intimately rustic hotspot going.
Two benches, a chalkboard menu and neon beer signs welcome patrons to the ground-floored, low-ceilinged, slate-topped right side bar. Sanctified beer bottles line the walls and a glass mural centers the 12-seat bar, where a few TVs are tucked into the corners and 24 tap handles serve only the finest craft beers.
Patriarchal mahogany stairs lead to the second-floored, four-seat bar (with several family-styled tables, olden tiled ceiling, gothic-draped windows, taupe walls and antique wood-steel furnishings). Beyond the third floor open kitchen lies an upper deck, open-air, five-seat bar serving red umbrella-sheltered lunch tables. A copper water wall with greenish oxidized patina and an adjacent building serving as a video projection screen add to the coolness factor.
As Oasis’ heavenly “Champagne Supernova” blared from the rooftop patio speakers, my wife and I struggle to find space in the cozily cramped outdoor confines for this evening’s highly anticipated event, Yards Meet The Brewer Night. Celebrating Philadelphia’s oldest living microbrewery (established 1994) with six well-priced libations, Iron Monkey is packed to the hilt tonight. The highest demand is for Yards India Pale Ale, which was finished off by 9 p.m.
Founded by Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit, who’d previously worked at an English-styled Maryland brewery, Yards Brewing Company began as a garage-sized operation in the yuppie-like Manayunk section in northwest Philadelphia, crafting Yards Entire Porter and an adjunct non-spiced golden barleywine called Old Bart. Soon after, caramel-honeyed, almond-toasted, off-dry conqueror Extra Special Ale debuted at 1995’s Philadelphia Beer Festival, increasing Yards’ recognition. From 2001 to 2007, Yards moved to the Kensington area of Philly, but the space became too tight and the brew crew had to move yet again, allowing the smaller Philadelphia Brewing Company to thrive better in this former spot.
Now stationed at the Northern Liberties district north of Philly’s Center City, Yards gets respect for being the first 100 percent wind-powered brewery in Pennsylvania. In fact, this very ‘Green-leaning’ brewery recycles hot water and cardboard, provides spent grain for local farm animals, and even uses salvaged mahogany trim for its bar and walls.
After ordering my Yardage samplers, we decided to sample each refreshing beverage at the less populous second floor bar, where the taps serve Lindeman’s Framboise and Peche, two world-class Belgian lambics, plus exotic herb-spiced, rye-dried, Finnish-styled Dogfish Head Sahtea. My wife, Karen, had to get her fruit juices going, settling into the middling Boulder Kinda Blue Blueberry Wheat Ale while I ripped into the previously untried Yards Brawler Pugilist-Style Ale.
A soft-tongued, dry-toned, bronze-bodied, English dark mild ale, the feisty-named Brawler Pugilist brought brown-sugared, raisin-greened, port-sauced, plum-fig-apricot illusions to coffee-iced chocolate nibs duskiness, picking up ashen nuttiness as well as chamomile tea herbage along the way. Its claim as a pugilist styled ale may be a bit overstated for such a calming moderation. Perhaps, it’s only supposed to be a welterweight boxer they’re trying to emulate.
As a bunch of admirable post-collegiate craft beer denizens begin to assemble at the bar behind us, we’re now in very close quarters, unable to freely swing an arm or stretch a leg. But I feel fortunate to be here since a rep from Hunterdon Distributors that came earlier never gained access due to the incommodious dinner time conditions. She had to go elsewhere in Jersey City to find a cool brew, but then admitted to being a bit impatient following the heavy traffic conditions pre-Fourth Of July. At least we’re seated. And I’ll need to be for the more Herculean 18th century presidential offering that’s about to reach my lips.
One of Yards’ ‘Ales of the Revolution,’ which includes General Washington’s Tavern Porter and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale (in honor of Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday), the exquisite Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale was originally made with ingredients grown at the ex-Prez’s self-sufficient Monticello, VA, estate. A fully expressive English Strong Ale, the Jeffersonian vintage placed honey-sugared caramel malts and butterscotch spice caking atop berry, citrus and quince fruiting ‘til its gin-soaked, ethanol-burnt aftertaste threatened to overwhelm the 8 percent alcohol elixir. It got the eyes bleary, numbed the body and ultimately pleased three of my five senses.
Yards boss Tom Kehoe claims he liked Bass Ale and wanted to make a beer that retained similar characteristics, resulting in the beefed-up chocolate malting of Yards Extra Special Ale. At Iron Monkey this evening, the subtler cask version of the bottle-conditioned ale was available for scrutinizing. Its cherry, citrus and berry illusions stand out a bit more as the frisky, spice hop tingle of the bottled edition, which gets toned down against the enhanced fruited niceties.
Yards Saison Belgian-Style Ale benefited most from its tapped version, escalating its peppery-hopped, orange-peeled, lemony grapefruit bittering and counteractive sugared spicing.
Though I didn’t get to try the ever-popular English-styled Philadelphia Pale Ale at this mobbed shindig, its bottled version had a sourdough buttering that usurped the understated, wheat-chaffed dryness and roasted hop bitterness.
Now and then, Yards’ onsite tasting room, open from noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays, features ambitious, tap-only concoctions such as bourbon barrel-aged beers and other one-off specialties. But customers will also find six-packs, half-gallon growlers, cases, kegs and pints of their favorite delectable liquids as well.
In its newest warehouse space on North Delaware Avenue since 2008, this ascending microbrewery continues to craft quality beers and ales for essential East Coast imbibing. Surely, as proven here at Iron Monkey, there’s a major interest from Jersey City’s proudly elitist craft brew hounds, heretofore labeled ‘brewpies,’ courtesy of Mercury Brewing’s head zymurgist, James Dorau.