For those unfamiliar with New Jersey, it’s a lot of things stuffed into a rather small state. A bit of the Sopranos, a bit of Springsteen, Sinatra, Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of. Then put a little Hee-Haw on the Cake Boss and you’ve pretty much got it covered.
The Garden State beer scene mirrors this chaotic sprectrum, with similar highs, lows, and all the in-betweens. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the highs.
Start at the top and names like Carton and Kane are bandied back and forth. It’s kind of like native sons Sinatra and Springsteen — both have advocates who swear by one or the other, but the reality is both are awesome and among the best in the business. Unfortunately they both mirror New Jersey’s NFL Giants in that they repeatedly produce winners, but don’t get the same respect as the New England darlings they beat in the process.
Regardless of which you prefer, the margin of favoritism for Kane or Carton is slim. Both produce highly regarded beers day in and day out and are mutually respected. Both push the envelope and redefine the artform, and are seldom at the heart of any heated arguments beer enthusiasts are so famous for.
The heated arguments are reserved for the Sopranos of the Jersey beer scene, Magnify Brewing in Fairfield. Reminiscent of Tony Soprano’s college tour of Maine with daughter Meadow, Magnify founder Eric Ruta is a Jersey guy who got bitten by the beer bug while attending Bates College in Maine. Sopranos fans may recall Bates was the first stop on the fictitious tour. Anyway Ruta was so inspired by the Maine beer scene that he chose to bring a slice of it back home after graduation, and pursued the daunting task of recreating Maine beer culture in Fairfield NJ.
When Ruta & crew did exactly that — producing some excellent and very New Englandish IPAs — it had an immediate polarizing effect on the Jersey beer scene. On one hand you had the “f–k you Magnify is overrated and the beer sucks” crowd, on the other, the even more vocal “f–k you Magnify is great and you suck, shut the f–k up” supporters. You can take the boy out of Jersey, but you can see the Soprano’s house from the back door of the brewery. I’m not making that up; the actual house used for location exteriors is shown here:
That Maine Beer Co. “Do What’s Right” culture is going to be a tough sell in Jersey…but Magnify is making some fantastic beer, so who knows. I wouldn’t underestimate Mr. Ruta.
Not far from Magnify is the well-established Cricket Hill Brewery, also in Fairfield. Highlight of your visit is usually the tour, which features a gentleman who seems to have sampled the product generously. He proceeds to rant and ramble for a few minutes, during which you’ll hoot and holler and applaud loudly in full agreement. Minutes later you’ll be hard pressed to recall what the hell he was carrying on about. Cheers!
Jersey Shore honors belong to Cape May Brewery in Cape May, mostly due to proximity and the frequency of intoxicated shore birds who flock to its door. Often the beer is seductive and fantastic — the Cape May IPA is reminiscent of JWoww dressed for a night on the town. They do have the occasional overblown and overdone offering, again, JWoww comes to mind. Taken as a whole it is just as compelling as the tv series was, albeit a lot more palatable. A must-stop for beerfans venturing south on the Parkway.
At the other end of the state are two modest breweries that quietly produce beer that is arguably just a tick below the stuff from Kane and Carton. First up is Northwest NJ’s Angry Erik Brewery in the sleepy town of Lafayette. Here’s a brewery that goes about its business, doesn’t foment controversy, doesn’t create absurd release line-ups. They also don’t make much in the way of “light.” True to their Viking-themed motif, pretty much everything happens up north, in beer terms that means north of the 6.0 ABV line. So when you visit, easy does it, just get a flight of four and buy a growler. As a relative newcomer to the scene, they’re making some darn good beer.
The other quiet success is called Ramstein, but it might actually be called High Point Brewing. Whatever, it’s in Butler, NJ in some drafty old mill building right in the middle of town. Ramstein is all about the German style. Even if they don’t think so, it’s all about the German style. They do it so well that it almost seems like they out-German the Germans. Among the Eastern breweries Vermont’s Von Trapp may be the best known representation of the style; Ramstein is arguably brewing equally well and in some cases better. Das ist gut!
I suppose it could be done, but please, DO NOT try and visit all of these in the same day.
Top photo: Anger management on the Jersey side at Angry Erik’s Brewery in Lafayette.