NEW JERSEY – NORTH
In September 2004, I began an extensive journey through the Garden State, initially hitting Woodbridge’s J.J. BITTING BREWING, an easterly sea-bound alehouse in central Jersey just across Staten Island.
As I went along, sojourning to the State’s thirteen well-run brewpubs, it was easiest to divide Jersey in half via North and South sections.
Because two of New Jersey’s biggest urban areas (Trenton; Paterson) lack brewpub representation, I thought it’d be difficult for brewpub enthusiasts to recognize where all these small town suburban, rural, and seabound breweries throughout my home state were without getting ‘em lost on the journey. Therefore, I’ve split the map down the center and created North-South borders.
J.J. BITTING, based at an old red brick grain depot with archaic 3-story tower since 1997, flaunted rustic square bar with several TV’s and overhead toy locomotive encircling its perimeter. Crown Royal and Dewars insignias line its brick walls alongside other antiques. Midsection glass-encased brew tanks separated bar from stone-floored dining section while balcony area and back deck provided further seating.
Well portioned pub fare went well with admirable lighter brews mainstream patrons may enjoy, such as spicy floral-hopped Garden State IPA, mildly bitter, raspberry-seeded, fructose-dabbed Raspberry Wheat Ale, spicy pale-malted Victoria’s Golden Ale, and dry Saaz-hopped, wheat-chaffed, yellow-fruited lightweight Rat Pack Pilsner.
Heartier thirsts will lean towards hop-embittered, caramel-roasted, alcohol-astringent best seller, Avenel Amber. Excellent cappuccino-milked, coffee-enriched, dry-bodied Cappa Cappa Crusher Porter, with its tertiary wood-charred tobacco chew and hazelnut illusions, proved worthy as dessert-like digestif.
Hung out with brewer, James Moss (replaced by Port 44 brewmeister, Chris Sheehan in October), during sweltering June ’11 afternoon, quaffing three previously untried potions. Moss, in his second year, worked at RAM in Tacoma before heading east. His well-rounded beers represent an array of American-styled elixirs.
Approachable hop-spiced WHALES Brew IPA boasted grapefruit-embittered, pine-combed, Cascade hop bitterness contrasting apple-candied apricot-cherry-tangerine tang. Blackjack Stout placated its coffee-roasted brown chocolate frontage with ashen hop-charred oats, peat-smoked molasses malts, and black cherry nuances. Best bet: cask-conditioned Barleywine, a cherry-bruised, prune-stewed, raisin-pureed, burgundy-spiced softie with creamy chocolate center, Scotch whiskey daub, and peat mossing.
As I finish my selections, dinnertime’s approaching and the bar fills up with casual businessmen and women getting off the train across the street. Meanwhile, midsection brew tanks ready summer seasonals such as Woodbridge Light, Strasse Hefeweizen, Raspberry Wheat and Triple XXX.
Good friend and experienced zymurgist Chris Sheehan reigned supreme since joining J.J. Bitting, October 2011 (leaving two years hence to start Bronx’s Gunhill Road Brewery) . After creating many fine adjunct brews at now-defunct Port 44 Newark and Manhattan’s still-thriving Chelsea Brewing Company, the slender Sheehan landed in Woodbridge to replace Oregon-bred James Moss (who left when his wife took a professional position in Massachusetts).
During my early December ’11 jaunt, I discovered four previously untried libations alongside Bitting’s delectable crabcake sandwich plus codfish and chips dish. Sheehan’s latest entry, the wryly-implied Rye Humor, worked fine as a well-balanced session beer less discriminating tastes will feel comfortable quaffing and more experienced thirsts won’t disparage. Its spicy rye entry brightens zesty foods while the dried orange tartness affably attenuates ancillary dry fig-date nuances.
Next up were two mocha-bound brews. The lighter hand-pumped Coal Train Porter – Cask brought peanut-shelled brown chocolate and cocoa-powdered acridity to tobacco-dried earthen peat, picking up auxiliary bark-parched dried fruit tartness over generously resin-hopped bittering.
“When the Chocolate Cherry Stout kicks, the regular porter will come out of the serving tank and we’ll tap it after Christmas,” Sheehan offers as I take a few healthy sips. “Then it’ll be on regular draught with plenty of time to settle. I expect it to be clearer and the carbonation will add effervescence. But I haven’t yet tasted it on the regular draught. I haven’t assessed the carbonation or taken measures to adjust it. The Palisades hops are pretty prominent and verge on American-styled citrus, but are not overly assertive. Some earthen English character comes through.”
The above-referenced Chocolate Cherry Stout, an aggressively English-styled fruited dark ale, bulges with bittersweet black chocolate resin above modest black and red cherry dryness, gaining tertiary roasted coffee, burnt caramel and café latte illusions for a completely robust dessert beer.
But Sheehan’s busiest and possibly best offering this afternoon may be the updated Woodbridge Winter Warmer. Its brown-sugared caramel malting gets inside the wintry cinnamon-toasted gingerbread, nutmeg, allspice and clove seasoning, leaving some perfumed ethanol residue at the chocolate-spiced finish.
“There’s a couple zingers in there as well, like juniper and cardamom” Sheehan claims after explaining his reticence towards making spiced beers. “What I like about it is it’s got a decent amount of hops in it, but the spice blend is evenly displayed. I detect the cardamom kernels and the ginger root I smashed up and put in there alongside ground ginger helps frame it. I brought it out before Thanksgiving.”
Sheehan goes on to say J.J. Bitting’s been doing the Winter Warmer every year, modeling his after past batches but putting his own special twist on the seasonal suds.
“As far as the malt base, it’s similar to the ones used in the past. The spices are similar, but may be more pronounced,” he concludes.
Due to over-eating at Artisan’s Restauranrt & Brewery, I missed out on JJ Bitting’s 15th annual anniversary party, March 10, 2012, 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.
On August 2012 one-hour stopover following Sandy Hook beach picnic, quaffed another fine Chris Sheehan elixir. Prodigious Onyxxx Stout brought embittered hop-charred coffee roast to creamy dark chocolate center, where vanilla bean, molasses, cocoa and anise richness deepened its ancillary hazelnut-cola influence.