New breweries are opening left and right in New Jersey these days, and as craft beer gains a foothold in this Bud Light-loving state, people are starting to wonder what the fuss is about.
Three years ago, New Jersey had fewer than 50 breweries and brewpubs across the state. Today the total number sits at 98, according to newjerseycraftbeer.com, with 22 more reported to be in startup mode.
A lot of people are realizing that a taproom is a fun place to spend an afternoon. Of course, the rise in popularity of taprooms means a lot of people are visiting breweries who haven’t put much thought into their beer before—who don’t know a raspberry blonde from a nut brown.
Taprooms are becoming so popular that the company that makes Miller and Coors beer has gone on record saying that brewery taprooms are taking a bite out of their overall sales numbers. Big Beer is trying to figure out just when this “craft beer fad” is going to end. Bad news for them is, it’s not a fad, and it’s not going to end any time soon.
If you’re new to craft beer and have been wondering if there’s some way you could get more out of the taproom experience, this article is for you.
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First: relax. There’s nothing “wrong” you can do in a taproom—except, possibly, feel rushed and get anxious and make decisions that even you don’t understand. Get comfortable. They may know more about beer than you, but there’s nobody cooler than you there.
By law, breweries can’t serve food. (Then they would be brewpubs.) Make sure you’re well fed before you go, and don’t bother asking for a food menu.
Taprooms come in all shapes in sizes, but there aren’t many that have table service. So look for a bar or similar service area, usually with a chalkboard or HDTV listing the day’s offerings. If the place is busy, have someone in your group stake out a table to sit at or a barrel to stand around while you get beer.
Although people who work at breweries are usually friendly, they probably can’t help you all that much. You might ask, for instance, “What do you recommend I try?” But the question is impossible to answer unless they know you.
Often they’ll ask you what you usually drink. But if you usually drink Amstel Light, they probably won’t have anything like it on tap. You’re at the craft brewery because you don’t want to drink what you usually drink, no? It’s not even a good question.
So order a flight: small pours of four or five of the beers they have available. If you have to choose from among a long list of beers, don’t get caught up in the names and descriptions of the beers. Hops are one of the main ingredients in beer, and aficionados like to know which varieties they are tasting, so today’s taplists are awash with the names of more hops than you can probably remember. A day may come when you care about them, but probably not today.
The one technical thing on the taplist I do recommend you pay attention to is ABV, or alcohol by volume. Craft beer often clocks in at 6 or 7 percent ABV or even greater. If you want to get home safely you’ll want to be aware of that.
Until you start knowing what you like, I wouldn’t worry about names and styles. Pale ale, Belgian ale, milk porter, chocolate stout—they’re all different, they’re all bitter, and they’re all beer.
I like to drink beers from darkest to lightest. This surprises some people, who expect darker to signify stronger flavors, but today’s pale beers are often so bitter they affect the flavors of other beers. Dark beers like porters and stouts can have “roasty” flavors, but also tend to be sweeter.
It’s up to you whether to drink all of one glass in the flight before starting another, or alternate among all of them until they’re all gone. I find that I drink more slowly if I alternate, but also find it harder to remember what I’ve tasted unless I really focus on one at a time.
Smell them, sip them, share your thoughts about them with your companions. It’s OK to say what you feel. Do you taste oranges? (A lot of new hops varieties are citrusy.) Bananas? (that would be the esters that develop during fermentation.) I had a beer one time that tasted like pickles, and I said so. Suddenly my drinking companions tasted the same. (Beer should not taste like pickles, so if yours does, you’ve got yourself a turkey.)
It’s fun, although often difficult at first, to try to articulate the sensory experiences beer provides. There’s no good way to get to like beer better other than to just keep drinking it. Keep developing that palate and gradually you will find your affinities forming.
There are a few places in the area that I recommend to people who are just getting their lips wet on the craft beer scene. These are great places to bring a date, a group of good friends, snowbird parents in town for a visit, and even your kids. (Most taprooms are kid friendly.)
One is Screamin’ Hill Brewery in Cream Ridge. Cozy and simple, Screamin’ Hill usually has a good variety of beers on tap, all served with a smile. Screamin’ Hill is also located on the premises of Bullock Farms, which in the fall offers hay rides and a pumpkin patch.
Another is Lone Eagle Brewing in Flemington. They have an enormous taproom with great places to sit and watch the game on TV while the party poopers in your group can shop instead of drinking. Lone Eagle is very newbie friendly, usually featuring a dozen beers on tap of styles ranging from very dark to very pale.
Mercer County had the second brewpub in New Jersey, Triumph Brewing in Princeton (the first was the Ship Inn in Milford), but until 2013 there were no breweries in the county. That changed when River Horse Brewing Company moved here from Lambertville. River Horse’s taproom is more functional than cozy, but the brewery has other ways of making visitors comfortable. Check their website for details on special events like trivia nights and private brewery tours, or special attractions like the River Horse Running Club.
If you want to check out Hopewell’s breweries—and you should—keep in mind that neither offers a typical taproom experience. The Referend Bier Blendery, on Reed Road, makes an uncommon style of beer that originated in Belgium. The beer is fermented by exposing it to the naturally occurring yeast of the outdoors, then aging it for months or years in casks, usually ones that have previously held wine or spirits.
The beer is funky, tart and unlike any other. You won’t find pale ales, porters or any other familiar styles on tap, but you will have an experience you can’t get anywhere else.
Troon Brewing, on the site of Double Brook Farm on Hopewell-Rocky Hill Road, doesn’t have a taproom, but you can get its beer next door at Brick Farm Tavern, the only place in the world that serves its highly sought beer. You can think of it as Troon’s taproom, only you can get (very good) food there.
There’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker, and that should continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Hope this will help get you started if you haven’t already. Cheers!