BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NEW JERSEY
A totally exquisite English-styled Country Inn with cozy cabin warmth and intimate refinement, Berkeley Heights’ TRAP ROCK RESTAURANT & BREWERY offers topnotch handcrafted beers alongside upscale cuisine. Its natural stone and red-bricked walls render intrinsic rusticity elevated by the sun-beamed fireplace lounge, formal L-shaped oak bar, attractive mahogany booths, exposed wood beams and windowed copper kettles. The debonair ambience also graces the beautifully landscaped outdoor back deck, suggesting the same sylvan countryside affluence high profile clientele expect.
Yet despite its beamingly elegant luxuriousness, the casual atmosphere and relaxing vibe attract the usual rhapsodic working class suspects such as curious beer geeks, smalltime businessmen and local families. And the tantalizingly variegated menu allows regulars to gain an appreciation for a host of freshly devised dishes and spirited elixirs.
“It’s not so easy keeping up,” head brewer Charles Schroeder explains while readying for his 10th anniversary at Trap Rock this May. “But it’s a good problem to have until New Jersey legislation changes and brewpubs are able to sell beer off-premise and expand business.”
After attending Chicago’s renowned Seibel Institute and apprenticing at Flying Fish, Schroeder worked part-time at Ramstein, then headed off on a six-month stint at Victory Brewery. All that experience gave the New York City-bred Jerseyite the chance to man the tanks at Trap Rock when Rob Mullin (now at Idaho’s fabulous Grand Teton Brewing) left to go west.
“I learned a lot about production and turning out a substantial amount of beer at Victory. They sold tons of Hop Devil India Pale Ale,” recalls Schroeder.
To commemorate his decade-long tenure at Trap Rock, the seasoned zymurgist will churn out a few specialty beers formerly relished. The blasts from the past might include a peculiar German weiss beer, Hefedinkel, made with spelt instead of wheat (if he could find the spelt).
As a teen, Schroeder enjoyed his father’s richer ales, such as Heineken Dark, Becks Dark, Michelob Dark and Lowenbrau Dark. He worked in the parts and service car industry for a number of years before turning attention to home brewing around 1993 – inspired by a sagacious Pennsylvania friend.
“My first job was to crack the grains by putting them in a ziplock bag and using a rolling pin for flattening,” he says as I sip Aegir’s Pride Quad, a Belgian-styled full body gathering cocoa-dried Belgian chocolate spicing and rich cola-hazelnut surety above dehydrated prune, fig and plum nuances.
Never afraid to better a foregoing recipe, he then serves up the revised version of best-selling Kestrel IPA, where Chinook hops replace the Northern Brewer variety for a drier wooded tone that crisply contrasts a lighter crystal malt setting. But consistency is just as important as tweaking and upgrading the recurring lineup. Lighter thirsts invariably lean towards standardized Ghost Pony Helles Lager while heartier palates evidently crave sturdily coffee-roasted Capt. Carl’s Oatmeal Stout. Plus, there’s always something new and exciting to be explored.
On this chilly Wednesday, April, 2012, the previously untried Devin’s Devilish Double IPA gets me stimulated with its gooey pine-sapped grapefruit peel bittering, dark-roasted mocha malting and ancillary peach-pear-apple illusions riding atop a soft water base for an easygoing changeup to Kestrel’s orange rind-embittered revelry.
“We pride ourselves in having a well rounded selection. And I’m surprised how much dark beer we sell. People get upset if I don’t have one on tap,” Schroeder says as my meal arrives.
Described as New American cuisine with a Southern flare, Trap Rock’s heightened comfort food retains an approachable delectability suiting cultured connoisseurs as well as less discriminating tastes.
Tonight, I delve into the scrumptious Pecan & Maple Glazed Duck Breast with herb spaetzle and mustard that’s sweetened by cider braised red cabbage and complemented by the two aforementioned IPA’s. On previous trips, I sunk my teeth into the tender Tuna Tartara Tostadas (with chili, lime vinaigrette and cilantro slaw) and the smoked turkey sandwich. For a buttery noontime appetizer, the Maine Blue Bay Mussels with sausage, fennel and celery leaves piqued my interest on one occasion.
“People’s palates are constantly changing. I equate it to beer styles we’ve always known and making them better by altering the ingredients to adjust an individual’s expectations. American brewers like taking those ingredients you normally wouldn’t use and putting them in. There are a lot of regulars who’ve eaten everything on the menu ten or fifteen times over so we bring in different choices. Some Southern influences shine through the barbecued ribs, enchiladas and taco trio,” the tidy brewmeister insures as he pours a superfine Belgian-styled ale made with crystal malts and English hops called Abbey Du Roc (a spice-fruited dry body blending earthen grape esters, fig-juiced tartness and port musk above smoky peat).
Bringing upscale cuisine to a brewpub environment was quite unique when Trap Rock opened in ’97. The owners, Harvest Restaurant Group, who try to stay one step ahead off the curve, now run nine different Jersey eateries including two steakhouses, two Italian restaurants, a few taverns and a newly conceptualized high-end diner, Urban Table, which serves breakfast, alcoholic milkshakes and sundry craft beers. Local farms provide fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses to the growing minions. Furthermore, the wine assortment is outstanding.
While chowing down, the chatter of dinnertime patrons fills the barroom as the clock strikes 6 o’clock. A charming hostess seats supper guests at the left side booths. And the 15-seat bar reaches full capacity. It’s another busy night at one of the East Coast’s most rewarding brewpubs. Quite obviously, unacquainted outsiders ought to seriously consider this a ‘destination bar.’
Below is a survey of Trap Rock’s fine ales made during previous trips.
Opened in 1997 and initially visited April ’06 with family in tow, this quaint brown-toned slate-adorned pub offered elegant warmth from its cozy dual fireplaces to its woodsy back deck garden. Fabulous Single malt Scotch, bourbon, cognac, wine, and cocktail selections complemented breath-taking chow (calamari, ribs, hummus, pizza).
On tap were a wide variety of worthy suds. Though pungently grained, tartly lemony orange, wheat-hay-chaffed Ghost Pony Helles Lager and its softer diacetyl version, the sourly lemon-bruised, cereal-breaded Ghost Pony Lite, strictly appeased amateurs, the rest of the lineup really took off.
Much better were raspberry-soured lemon-tart Razzy Wheat, buttery apple-caramelized peach-dabbed Marzen-styled Hathor Red Lager, hop-pepped red-orange-fruited Fuggle Rock Ale, and spicy red-fruited floral-piney Cascade-hopped Kestrel’s Joy IPA.
Even more promising were zesty orange rind-softened, grapefruit peel-embittered, pine needled, cask-conditioned Tribute Pale Ale and dry black chocolate-y coffee-beaned espresso-finishing Thunder Storm Stout (a soft-bodied victor with ancillary smoked nut, cigar ash, and black cherry illusions).
After bringing parents to Newark Airport for Florida-Bahamas getaway, February ’09, ventured twenty miles west to revisit Trap Rock and imbibe brewer Charles Schroeder’s latest seasonals and new finds.
Dry green-hopped crystal-malted chamomile-tinged English Bitter-styled, Emily Rose Ale, and earthen barnyard-wafted grassy-hopped lemon-soured wheat-dried JP Pilsner were polite openers.
Tart candi-sugared, lemon-bruised, coriander-spiced, orange peel-embittered, green banana-soured Rockgaarden Wit, chocolate-dried fig-soured black tea-embittered Marcus Brown ESB, and extremely dry-hopped Chainsaw Double IPA (with its bark-bound grapefruit rind bittering offsetting fig-date-apple-apricot nuances) provided fruitful respite.
Burnt coffee and creamy espresso deluged black chocolate roast, pureed black cherry souring, and ashen cocoa-powdered charcoal bittering of dry-bodied digestif, Mac Clellan Stout.
During June ’11 layover with wife, reinvestigated standard fare and discovered a few previously untried brews. Light-bodied Ghost Pony Helles Lager placed lilting citric-floral nuances atop biscuit-y backend. JP Pilsner, a German-Czech-crossbred, had a lemon-bruised, sugar-spun, grassy-hopped spritz.
These were pleasant lead-ins for Hathor’s Amber Ale, a mild pale-malted, orange-dried, lemony-hopped freshener. Just as soothing, tart banana-cloved, lemon-limed summertime session beer, Schroeder Weiss, retained a bubble-gummy sweetness.
Hop-heads will lean towards dry grapefruit rind-embittered delight, Kestrel IPA, and sharp, nut-fruited, crystal-malted, English-styled charmer, Stealthy Mule Ale.
Low alcohol Belgian pale ale, Saison Du Roc, brought black-peppered lemon-peeled bittering, orange rind tartness, and coriander-ginger spicing to the fore.
Dark ale aficionados will enjoy coffee-roasted, chocolate-malted, peanut-shelled, oats-dried Capt. Carl’s Oatmeal Stout.
Upcoming summer ’11 fare will include a Bavarian Wheat, Blueberry Saison, and unspecified Rye Beer. A new fermenter and bottling line for point-of-purchase sales will be installed to handle increased volume.