Beer Trails: Nine-Day Thanksgiving Feast

November 19: Enjoyed 381 Main’s November Winter Fest in Little Falls, NJ, this Saturday, featuring Jersey brewers’ elixirs tapped or bottled. Owner Steve Baskinger’s made this lounge-y hangout the perfect sports bar for craft beer enthusiasts. Alongside New Jersey Beer Co’s Matt Steinberg and Carton co-owner Augie Carton, I consumed three previously untried libations and one wee fave.

“There’ve been a few brewery events like this, but this type serves all Jersey brewers in one spot,” promoter John Fladung boasted.

East Coast Brewery’s Beach House Winter Rental, a dry schwarzbier, benefited from chocolate-malted cola nuttiness and dark-spiced cocoa dusting, differing dramatically from River Horse’s Belgian Freeze Winter, where candi-sugared black cherry, raisin and prune secure musty cellar pungency. Carton’s Come Out And Play widened its common lager tag, flaunting spicy dried fruits and dark chocolate resin. NJ Beer’s previously tried Weehawken Wee Heavy attenuated more fully, yielding a heavier mocha profundity and richer bourbon-sherry whir.

Tuesday: Before getting daughter at Penn Station, I tried soured ales at Jimmy’s No. 43. A dank, concrete-floored cellar dwelling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jimmy’s all the rage amongst beer aficionados. Each night, owner Jimmy Carbone’s beer-wine menu changes, every week there’s at least one special event.

As I conversed, Crossroads Outrage IPA imbedded lemon-seeded grapefruit bittering with bark-dried pining. Belgian-styled Wandering Star Berkshire Hill Saison retained oaken cherry, plum and fig niceties. Goose Island Dominique, a flagrantly sour ‘wild ale,’ brought vinegar-puckered champagne dryness to tannic grape-cherry esters.

Wednesday: Stopped by Uno Chicago Grill in Metuchen, the chain restaurant’s only brewpub. New brewer Chris Percello tweaked recipes and maintained quality. Friendly bartending hostess Alina kept me entertained while serving Cuban black bean lentil soup and New York clam chowder. Uno’s best-selling Ike’s IPA retained a fruitier pining and sturdier hop footprint. Deeper nuttiness, richer roasted hops and dewier peat elevated updated Station House Red and dryer Gust-N-Gale Porter. Best bet: Dark Lager—a German knockoff binding peanut-oiled hops and peat-smoked chocolate. After lunch, a green version of Uno’s top seasonal, the chocolate-spiced Scotch Ale, kicked ass with peat-y earthen graining and caraway-fennel snip.

Sunday: My daughter packed up for college in Rhode Island. This time, my wife and I drove and discovered two unvisited Massachusetts breweries and two worthy standouts sojourned prior.

Up a narrow rural road in rustic Bolton at an early Americana compound west of Boston, Nashoba Valley Winery opened in 2004. Besides its estate-type vineyards and olden wood edifices, the winery also brews its own beers at one of its on-site dwellings. Exquisite food, wine and beer pairings are recommended.

Past the weather-shaken grey farmhouse and open-air pavilion right down the beaten dirt path lies the flag-smitten green ranch that houses the winery and restaurant. A provocatively cloistered New England manor with debonair elegance and Old World charm, this vintage hilltop farm is king. I bought five bottles of each available Nashoba Valley brew. IPA ruled, but Blackberry Ale drooled. Heron ESB wavered like bitterly twisted Bolt 117 Lager, but fruit-foliaged Oaktoberfest held up.

After settling in at our hotel, it was off to Worcester’s Wormtown Brewery, a fabulous one-year-old company connected to Peppercorn’s Grille & Tavern that’s making waves in New England’s second largest city. We sat at Peppercorn’s slate gray side wall across the pristine 10-stool wood bar readying for brewer Ben Roesch’s efficient selections. As the Patriots spanked the Eagles this Sunday eve, I delved into lobster corn soup and meaty Bolognese Pasta.

One of Wormtown’s most impressive beers this autumnal twilight was enchanting Wormtown Birthday Brew #1, a celebratory 1st anniversary ale placing woody Amarillo hops beside piney grapefruit, pineapple, peach, apple and mango fruiting. Lighter thirsts lean towards mild, red-orange-fruited Elm Park Amber Ale and autumnal Wormtown Oktoberfest, a spicy, citric-hopped mid-ranger. Seven Hills Pale Ale provokes hop-heads with its grassy-hopped lemon rind bittering and dry bark acridity.

On the dry side, The Buk Rye Pale Ale (brewed for Boston’s famed Bukowski Tavern) slipped pumpernickel rye breading into Citra-hopped, grapefruit-lemon-pineapple-mango fruiting. Even drier, Be Hoppy IPA matched dry, grapefruit-juiced juniper bittering and pine-resinous floral spices to brisk orange-lemon-peach overtones. Mass Hole boasted ‘crystallized barley and zesty citrus.’ Picking up wood-smoked malts and a sharp nuttiness, hop-charred Wormtown Wintah Brown proffered. After dinner treat, Woosta Weizenbock, pleated chocolate-spiced smoked malts with banana, cherry, apple, grape and stewed prune.

Awakening Monday, we traveled 10 miles south of Worcester to rural Sturbridge, where Yankee Spirits compared favorably with best East Coast beer store rivals (Poughkeepsie’s Half Time/ Manhattan’s New Beer Distributors).

Then we headed to hilly northern Massachusetts to revisit Gardner Ale House. Food’s been improved, beer’s been given a boost and a wildly successful Mug Club inspires members.

We sat at right side bar quaffing five previously untried libations while consuming an abundant chicken nacho platter on a seasonably warm weekday perusal. Brewmeister Dave Richardson’s two terrific India Pale Ales and three stylistically disparate brews led the way. Face Off Double IPA brought glazed tropical fruiting to creamy, caramel-malted pecan-almond sweetness and peppery-hopped pining.

Richardson’s latest favorite, aggressively detailed Nightcrawler Black IPA, bested the rest. Tossing grapefruit atop piney, molasses-sapped cola nuttiness and earthen, wood-burnt hops, this peat-y Cascadian Dark Ale rocks the house. While my wife settled into light-bodied Summer’s End Kolsch, I imbibed XSB, a smoothly rye honeyed Extra Special Bitter prototype with similar ethanol citric spicing as peppery-hopped strong ale, Belgian Chair.

For dessert, Chocolate Porter easily sufficed. Its cocoa-dried dark chocolate and vanilla sweetness gave way to oats-roasted, hop-charred walnut bittering. Since opening June ‘06, Gardner Ale House has gotten increasingly better.

“It’s all about balance and unique flavor profiles,” Richardson suggests. “Unlike women, beers don’t care if you try another.”

On the way home from our post-Thanksgiving journey, I rediscovered quaintly ambitious Northampton Brewery. We kicked our feet up at the newly designed lounge across main horseshoe-shaped bar watching the pre-game Monday night football show on a side-walled TV consuming three previously untried India Pale Ales plus a nifty chocolate cookie-styled dark ale.

Dry-hopped Humbug Holiday Ale brought buttered apple warmth to acidic grape-skinned esters. Better was ‘hop-hammered’ Imperial-styled Mean Green IPA, an approachable medium body with piney bark dryness contrasting oats-sugared grapefruit-orange zest. Not as aggressively hopped but besting its in-house rivals, Pucker Power IPA danced gently on the tongue as polite crystal malt sweetness embedded mild floral-hopped grapefruit-orange rind bittering.

For dessert, the delectably dubbed Milk N’ Cookie Milk Stout layered lactic cacao nibs and cocoa beans inside chewy oats-toasted chocolate-vanilla sweetness, managing a heavenly cookie dough likeness.

Then it was back to Jersey to watch the Giants get slaughtered.