You may be surprised or not— depending on what’s in your fridge—to learn that “craft beer” Google searches have quadrupled in the past four years, and the term ranks fifth on the list of top-ten food-and-drink-related Tweets.
But, craft beer is not only on our minds, it’s in our glasses. Sales are soaring and the number of NJ craft breweries has more than doubled in the last five years, according to The Brewers Association. With at least nine breweries in Monmouth County and more in the works, our area is a hotbed for the cool refreshment.
Craft beers are distinctive, complex, full-flavored, and brewed in small batches by small, independent breweries. Some varieties are made using time-honored methods and traditional ingredients—water, yeast, hops, and grains such as barley, wheat, or rye. But, other micro-brews experiment with unusual techniques, creative recipes, and quirky flavor combinations.
Craft beers are tank-to-table; available only in a limited radius. Breweries can sell directly to consumers in kegs, cans, bottles, oversized cans called “crowlers,” and/or large refillable jugs called “growlers.” Some self-distribute product to area liquor retailers, and to bars and restaurants for on-tap service. Most breweries also have on-premise tasting rooms where, after taking a mandatory tour (it’s one of the unusual state regulations governing craft breweries), visitors can sample a flight or pint.
“The craft beer trend is part of a larger local-foods movement. People are interested in how it’s made, what’s in it, who’s brewing it, and they want to try different types,” says Mike Skudera, a co-owner of Jughandle Brewing Company. Opened last summer in a Tinton Falls strip mall, the brewery has 12 beers on tap for tasting and retail sales, with limited-edition flavors offered alongside classic ales, stouts, porters and wheat beers.
Customers can view the action in the brewing area and see small-batch experiments in five-gallon vessels not much bigger than soup pots. Such experimentation is how the brewery developed recipes for The Bee Sting, brewed with quinoa, wheat berries and fresh local honey, and Gruit, which substitutes yarrow, heather and mugwort herbs for hops. “When something works, we scale-up production to the large tanks,” says Skudera. Among their small-batch successes is Booskerdoo Breakfast Stout, brewed with coffee and whisky-soaked oak chips and served with a shot of cold-brewed French roast. The initial collaboration with locally owned Booskerdoo Coffee & Baking Company, sold out in four hours.
Asbury Park Brewery was founded by Jeff Plate, a practicing attorney and former musician who got his feet wet as a home-brewer. The brewery, located in a warehouse at the end of Sewell Ave, pays homage to Plate’s former career. Beer tanks are named John, Paul, George, and Ringo, larger-than-life photos of rockers line the walls, and 4/4 Beer, is named for the music time signature.
Plate says, unlike some craft beers that have “gotten very esoteric,” Asbury Park Brewery brews with simplicity, purity and accessibility in mind. “You reach more people with lagers than IPAs,” he says. The brewery’s flagship beer is Blonde, a lager. It also offers 4/4, a session IPA brewed with four grains and four hops; a dark Roasted Stout; XPA extra pale ale; and a seasonal selection. The brewery was just honored with “The Best Thing to Happen in Asbury Park” award.
Another Asbury brewery, Dark City Brewing Company, opened a year ago and is getting acclaim for its flavorful, inventive brews. Founder Kevin Sharpe says the brewery’s signature is Bond Street Brownie, an American-style brown ale with aromas of chocolate. Sharpe and head brewer Stephen Bohacik collaborate regularly with next-door neighbor Asbury Park Roastery on coffee-inspired brews, including Populous, a robust, smoked, coffee porter. “We have the bestsmelling
block in Asbury Park,” Sharpe teases.
Little Dog Brewing Company in Neptune City might be Monmouth County’s smallest brewery, but its brewmaster, Gretchen Schmidhausler, literally wrote the book on the subject (Seriously; it’s titled “Making Craft Beer at Home.”). Schmidhausler was a local newspaper reporter who began dabbling in home-brewing over 20 years ago. She later managed a brewing-supply store, was an assistant at a pioneering craft brewery, graduated brewing school in California, and became NJ’s first female head brewmaster while working 12 years at Basil-T’s brew-pub (now Birravino) in Red Bank.
Schmidhausler opened Little Dog—named for her late beloved pup Quincy—in 2014. The boutique brewery specializes in what she calls “classic styles that are drinkable and balanced.” Gesundheit!, a German-style amber Altbier, her signature, is always available in the tasting room, with Duck Boy, an American pale ale, and Seafarer’s Stout, a dry Irish stout with coffee notes. Specialty seasonal beers, round the selection.
Food and craft-beer enthusiast Augie Carton, launched Carton Brewing with his cousin Chris in Atlantic Highlands in 2011 because, “there were no New Jersey-made beers at our local liquor store.” The company’s first offering was Boat, a session IPA he describes as “ complex, with layers of flavor, but crisp and refreshing enough to want to drink on the commuter boat home.” Its success has led to many other flavorful varieties with equally clever names.
Host of the podcast “Steel This Beer” and the TED Talk “Beer is Cuisine,” Carton says their rotating roster of special and seasonal beers is often inspired by food. Cupid, offered around Valentine’s Day, is a stout nuanced with flavors of chocolate and roses. Tharsis balances the heat of chile peppers with saffron, and GORP is reminiscent of trail mix with hints of raisins, peanuts and chocolate. “If craft beer is like art, ours are Picassos; new, modern and unconventional interpretations.”
A tasting tour of these and other local craft breweries is a fun way to spend a winter’s afternoon. Cheers to beers!