Beer Trails: Rummaging Jersey Pre-March Madness

A few days before Kentucky and Syracuse lead a field of limber hopefuls into the NCAA basketball tournament, I perused Central Jersey’s northernmost shoreline in search of newfangled brews from three trusted brewpubs and one freshly sprouted microbrewery—though I’d have to accomplish this feat on two separate days.

But first, before heading to the coast, there was a quick lunchtime stopover in Butler at one of the finest Bavarian-flavored breweries. And that’s where my wife and I start our seven-hour Saturday expedition.

At noon on March 10, the daylong journey begins at America’s incipient exclusive wheat beer brewery, High Point, makers of the fine German-inspired Ramstein lineup for over a decade. Located in Morris County’s northerly province, High Point takes advantage of fresh mountain spring water to make its humble suds.

Today, brewing owner Greg Zaccardi not only celebrates the latest seasonal release of draft-only humdinger, Maibock, a tartly fruited wonderment spreading earthen dewiness across honeyed malts and the freshest green hops, but also the newly acquired 2,500 square-foot to the right of his existing space.

As Zaccardi mops the taproom floor in advance of a 2 p.m. tapping of a special limited edition wood-barreled Double Platinum Blonde (that I’d unfortunately miss due to time constraints), I got to meet Jeff Linkous, the man behind Garden State’s informative website, Beer-Stained Letter. His respected online newspaper venerates Jersey’s craft beer movement with enlightening articles discussing timely industry happenings. Enlightening front page blurbs on Ship Bottom and Flounder (two new breweries) as well as masterful Unibroue brewmeister, Jerry Vietz, subsequently caught my attention.

Hopping back in the car, we head south on Route 287 for an hour-long drive to Atlantic Highland’s Carton Brewery, a highly respected domicile a half-hour north of another high flying 2011-initiated company, Ocean Township’s Kane Brewing. While conversing with Carton brewmaster Jesse Ferguson at the first floor brewing area, he pours me a just-finished version of his latest concoction, Red Rye Returning. Served right from the tank, its caressing brown-sugared chocolate malting and dainty fig-sugared dalliance sit atop a serene peat-y rye base tingled by mild Simcoe hop bittering.

Then it’s off to the second floor bar where a few dozen brew hounds sample Carton’s sessionable Boat Beer and toast its brisk citric lure. Ferguson’s partners, Augie and Chris Carton, greet me and break out a pilot version of Honey Porter, a sensational newly tapped libation bringing uppity rum-spiced illusions to smoked maple molasses, black chocolate, honeyed pecan, purple grape, hickory and chicory illusions. Augie then gives me a shot of a fantastic Caribbean rum called Shipwreck that he’s trying to emulate with future piloted renditions.

As we get set to leave, I meet Dan Hitchcock, a young brewer whose Rushing Duck Brewing is due to open June ‘12 in Chester, New York. The former Weyerbacher brewer (and American Brewers Guild grad) promises year-rounds such as Coffee Porter, Strong Ale and West Coast Pale Ale.

Within a half-hour, we land at Toms River’s exquisite Mediterranean restaurant, Artisan’s, which just happens to be one of Jersey’s best brewpub destinations. At mid-afternoon, we get seated in the intimate left dining area, a cozily romantic space where I down brewer Dave Hoffmann’s two latest libations. (Cigar aficionados should be advised that a sectioned off area accommodates smokers.)

I’ve always found Hoffmann’s general fare to be refined and soft-toned. And the man who splits time fronting Climax Brewery would not disappoint this time. The amiable Artisan Bock balanced mild chocolate-roasted coffee tones with sugared fig, dried cherry, musty grape and wafting cellar dew. Arguably better, coffee-roasted dark chocolate leanings and earthen peat malts secured Baltic stout-like Chocolatey Porter, a waterier dark ale crowding hazelnut, peanut and macadamia undertones in a crisply clean manner.

I’m completely full after chowing down Artisan’s incredibly generous $14 Early Bird Special consisting of rich mushroom soup, Bleu cheese salad, stuffed flounder (with spinach and feta cheese) and strawberry-topped cheesecake. I don’t even sample my wife’s Mediterranean Flatbread Pizza (gathering hummus, olives, roasted peppers, caramelized onions and feta) until I reach home nearly an hour later.

Due to over-eating, I missed out on JJ Bitting’s 15th annual anniversary party, where cable television’s Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro, brought a multi-tiered cake for everyone to enjoy at this established red-bricked Woodbridge landmark (the second oldest Jersey brewpub behind Milford’s Ship Inn). However, on Monday I’d get a chance to sample Bitting’s latest excellent fare.

As I enter the spacious brewpub-restaurant, owner Mike Cerami and head brewer Chris Sheehan are, just by chance, there to welcome me. I apologize to Chris for missing the Saturday shindig, but he’s probably too stoked about the latest Big Beers on hand to care. First, he offers the busy Anniversary Abbey Ale, a splendidly honeyed Bastone yeast-draped full body bringing plum-sugared fig spicing to candi-sugared biscuit malts, cedar-etched Hallertau hops and briny white-peppered citrus. Its lemony orange tartness finds space amidst Cabernet, Sauvignon and tannic green grape nuances.

Next, Vintage Cherry Stout takes sensory control. While Chris maintains “It’s all about the cocoa” and tastes like “Flour-less chocolate cake,” I propose a sweet Maraschino cherry nosing, whiskey-backed cherry cordial mouthfeel, brandied cherry kirsch salience and sour oaken cherry tartness rising above roasted mocha malts as well as dried fruiting (white apricot, prune, grape).

It’d be hard to top that. But bold 15th anniversary celebrator, Barley Legal Barleywine, would certainly try. Its laid-back pear juicing, syrupy peach viscosity, red apple graze, tangerine tang and vanilla wafer subtlety received a persistent dry-hopped alcohol burn.

On cask, the understated IPA soothed the savage beast with a delicately softer manifestation of the highly praised India Pale Ale style. Easygoing red, yellow and orange fruiting edged into red licorice notes while mild floral herbs trickled through.

It’s nearly dinnertime as I trudge into Basil T’s in Red Bank. For March, founder Victor Rollo’s celebrating his authentic Italian restaurant dining experience with a 26th anniversary Big Price Rollback. A brewpub for over a decade now, this classy shore-bound hotspot got packed by 4 p.m. Jackson Browne’s classic “Runnin’ On Empty” played in the low ceiling bar area as many locals enjoy the special cheap fare alongside favorite brews such as Maxwell’s Dry Stout and Ms. Lucys Weimaraner Wheat.

I feast on outstanding Cozze mussels (with chickpeas) then complementary chicken wings while consuming Basil T’s latest fine offering, the stylistically easygoing Luppoli IPA. Its ripe fruited milieu and creamy caramel malting saturated spruce-tipped dry hops. A spicy tingle penetrates tangy pink grapefruit, peach, orange and nectar illusions. I drain a second pint before heading safely home again.

POST-SCRIPT: Jersey-bound dark ale lovers should check out River Horse Oatmeal Stout, an approachable medium-bodied sweet milk stout retaining mildly creamy lactic resonance over oats-roasted hop toasting and fizzy carbolic aridity. Fudge-y burnt caramel underscores its ancillary black cherry, raisin and fig hints.

Another newly brewed Jersey find is Flying Fish Red Fish, a lovely medium-to-full-bodied red ale bringing bittersweet wood-toned India Pale Ale fruiting to creamy crystal malting and toasted hops. Its brisk grapefruit-peeled lemon drop bittering and resinous spruce-tipped pining perfectly contrast tangy apple-spiced pineapple-peach-mango tropicalia.