Beer Trails: Successful First Annual Asbury Park Beerfest

While various Octoberfests celebrate Germany’s greatest bohemian tradition and the Great American Beer festival boasts enormous participation amongst thousands of beer geeks and hundreds of brewers, the smaller Asbury Park Beerfest took a few steps towards significance in its first annual event. Held at Asbury Park’s Convention Center on Saturday, Oct. 8, the festive affair didn’t need a staunch Octoberfest theme to succeed.

In typical blue collar Jersey fashion, this newfangled beerfest allowed some less exciting traditional macrobrews to compete against more exhilarating new micros with little table space separating the two very divergent classes. As a veritable seaside rendezvous for adventurous and pedestrian drinkers alike, Asbury’s encouraging entry into the United States’ ultra-busy autumn beerfest schedule showed a lot of initial promise and ultimately pleased the majority of local minions on hand.

Sponsored by Shorepoint Distribution, plus rock station WRAT (whose DJs broadcast live from the stage) and consummate beverage store, Spirits Unlimited (with 23 locations), this fresh two-session gathering may not be a connoisseur’s wet dream like Portland’s Holiday Ale Fest or Shmaltz’s Geektoberfest, but it definitely increased beer awareness. Madison Marquette, a driving force in the redevelopment and resurgence of Asbury Park’s waterfront, also deserves sponsorship credit.

There were hardly any ‘high-end big beers’ or ultra rare libations on hand, but that wasn’t problematic since many choice offerings from small local zymurgists proved the Garden State’s expansive microbrew industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Besides, there were undoubtedly a few stingy Bud-Coors-Miller macro hackers whose heads got turned by various lesser-known micro dynamos making the rounds.

Beautiful, clear-skied Indian Summer weather made the Convention Center’s open air second floor loft a nifty outdoor retreat for happily imbibing patrons (most in their 20 and quite a few paired up). Shorepoint, whose stalwart selection of invigorating craft beers, iconic retro beers and ciders ruled the roost, began operations in 1933 and deserves credit for bringing Samuel Adams trailblazing micro beers to Jersey way back in ’87 at the absolute inception of the craft beer movement that continues to thrive today.

At Asbury’s early session, celebrants began packing the arena at noon. Aerosmith’s lustfully deviant “Love In The Elevator” blared from the convention speakers as trusty beer advocates started gobbling up two-ounce samplers. Dedicated Octoberfest enthusiasts were immediately welcomed by Germany’s Weltenburger and Spaten booths, set up close to the entranceway for easy access. Meanwhile, new stateside microbrewers such as Carton, Kane and Boaks were given prominent space near the stage front alongside established Jersey rivals Flying Fish and Cricket Hill.

“We tried to keep things simple the first time around,” Shorepoint’s Mike Levy said. “People got to try some awesome beers they may not have otherwise had a chance to discover. If there was a theme, it was more or less just a celebration of beer.”

My favorite fest beer, Innis & Gunn Rum Cask, came from Scotland and got soaked in American oak used for Jamaican rum barrels. Its mellower eloquence differed from the usual alcohol-burnt, oak-aged elixirs. A smooth Scotch creaminess, soothing vanilla-bourbon subtlety and dainty chestnut-pecan lilt picked up a light buttered spicing.

Just down the second floor hall, Keegan Ales kept dark ale fans intrigued with tapped versions of its wonderful Joe Mama’s Milk Stout and the sweeter, less provocative Mother’s Milk Stout. The former brought heavy coffee bean bittering to hop-charred oats toasting, relegated espresso creaming and latent chocolate-y vanilla resonance. The latter maintained a roasted coffee motif and yummy milk chocolate center. Softer palates went for Keegan’s Old Capital Golden Ale, an herbal-hopped, crystal-malted medium body with lemon zest, dried orange, green apple and moldy peach illusions.

Maine’s Peak Organic, Vermont’s Magic Hat and Denmark’s Carlsberg also had booths on the upstairs level just down the way from a few archaic pinball games stationed along the backside wall overlooking the ocean (where fishermen, sunbathers, and boaters gathered near the black rock formation). A few feet away were some venerable ‘Old Man Beers’ by Schaefer, Ballantine and Pabst.

As for the Octoberfests I sampled, Cricket Hill Fall Festivus outdid Blue Point Oktoberfest and Yuengling Octoberfest. While Festivus retained a bitterer Extra Special Bitter-like timbre, crisper rye wheat sedation and leafier hop foliage, Blue Point’s autumnal offering stayed milder, bringing a soapy brown-sugared caramel-cocoa restraint to dry citric nuances. Yuengling’s lighter draft-only bid fitted faded caramel toasting and slim chestnut roasting next to minor vegetal notions.

Going beyond the fall season taste-wise, Germany’s Weltenburger Wintertraum allowed dry rye, fig and date to envelop beechwood-like smoked malt vestiges, noticeably spurning typical autumn or winter spicing for a lighter and less characteristic springtime thrust.

One of the best limited edition beers for any season, Cricket Hill Belgian Double, pleated funky Belgian-styled candied yeast with creamy banana-pureed, apricot-peach-pear fruiting and sweet clove-coriander spicing to contrast its sharp-hopped bitterness.

Some of my most memorable samples came from two of the Jersey Shore’s newest breweries.

Kane Brewery’s dry-bodied Heads High IPA brought alcohol-burnt, lemon peel bittering to tangy mango, peach, pineapple and tangerine tropicalia. Molasses rye breading sopped up peat-dried, pumpernickel nuttiness for Kane’s ‘quasi pale ale,’ Afterglow Rye.

Another worthy shore-bound upstart, Carton Brewing, laden with excellent promotional material and a knowledgeable staff, surprised everyone by winning the People’s Choice trophy as best brewer (voted by attendees). Carton Launch Golden Ale delivered a sharp, lemony, orange-peeled, grapefruit bittering to earthen oak pining, tangy tropical fruiting and fresh-chopped herbage. Easygoing zip-coded fave Carton 077XX East Coast Double IPA saddled dry-wooded, grapefruit peel bitterness with candied pineapple, mango and orange zest.

According to Carton co-brewer Auggie Carton, second place for the People’s Choice award went to Cricket Hill, followed thirdly by Kane, fourthly by Boaks and fifthly by Innis & Gunn.

My wife, onboard to drink Coors Lite, was wowed by Brew Punch, whose sugarless, syrupy, natural flavoring jazzed up macrobrewed light beer fodder. Young entrepreneurs Luke Gulbranson and Brian Carr created three Brew Punch flavors so far—Fruit Punch, Pomegranate and Mango. Each fared well when dropped into the bland Colorado soapsuds emanating from the once-respectable Coors factory.

The night session apparently drew a more manic crowd. Those lucky enough to imbibe the very limited Sierra Nevada Life & Limb Strong Ale (tapped at 8 p.m. and gone in a half-hour) made me jealous. But what the hell, I got to imbibe three samples of Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence during my four-hour afternoon session.

Expect Asbury Park’s next beer shindig to provide a less dubious Octoberfest manifesto and heighten its extensive microbrew selection. Perhaps a larger sampling of tapped selections by each brewer will be granted.