is a member of the North
American Guild of Beer
Writers, His blog
Adventures in Beerland
is now a regular feature
|Back in the day, no, not as far back as the time of Raptorex, Tyrannosaurus Rex or even Ryan Rex, to say that a
hotel bar was a destination stop for great craft beer was about as logical as saying jumbo shrimp, original copy, or
deafening silence. Anyone doing that was sure to be thought of as the moron in Oxymoron. That however, at least
here in the Garden State (another oxymoron considering New Jersey people identify their living area by exit numbers
on the long black pavement of the Turnpike or Parkway) changed forever thanks to the Daniel Boone of hotel craft
beer, Kevin Torpey. This pioneering evangelist of brew singlehandedly turned the Tap Room at the Somerset Hills
Hotel into a craft beer heaven. Now, as the hotel and bar are to be shut down for over a year for “renovations”
(rumor has it will be torn down and totally rebuilt), it’s time to salute this pub and its many regulars who stood with it
through power outages, sunken ceilings, hurricane destruction, rotating General Managers, staff changes, small
kegerators instead of tap lines, repainting, redesign, rebuilding, and a lot more other “re’s” than I care to re-member.
For years The Tap Room, like most hotel bars, served multiple variants of Coors, Bud and Miller. Once in a while
they’d also have on tap variants of Miller, Coors, and Bud. What did you expect? It is a hotel bar after all. In their
defense, the bar did have one line given over to Guinness as a reluctant nod to better beer drinkers who might be
staying at the hotel. Then it happened. Instead of the sun coming up tomorrow it came up the day when the powers
that be hired a new beverage manager, Kevin Torpey. Little did management know that he was a lifelong aficionado
of craft beer and had a singular goal to remake the Tap Room into a beer drinkers’ paradise. Legend has it that
when he got the job Kevin leaped onto the bar and shouted “no swill will ever pass through these tap lines again”.
I don’t know how true the part about him making that big jump up onto the bar is since the laws of gravity were
functioning at the time but I can attest to the fact I’ve never seen swill of any kind on the pub’s 20 lines.
It was well over a decade ago when I first wandered into The Tap Room and saw Kevin removing a Guinness tap
handle. I was shocked. When I asked him why he was disrespecting that venerable institution from St. James Gate
he said “I’m going to make this a rotating stout line with beers like Founders Breakfast, Great Divide Yeti, and Old
Rasputin. Guinness is an excellent but it’s readily available. I want to give my customers a chance to taste some of
the other stouts and porters out there.” In the context of the time, those were words of total insurrection. And it was
also courageous; removing Guinness could easily incur the wrath of the big bosses if it hurt the bar’s bottom line
while also angering leprechauns everywhere who revere their homeland’s most famous product. Fortunately it
worked out as the bar’s profits continued to grow and the leprechauns learned that a lot of the Guinness we get here
in the USA is actually brewed in Canada.
As people began to realize that The Tap Room’s macro swill had been replaced by quality craft offerings business
began to boom. More and more serious craft lovers discovered the place. And many of these were locals.
Unlike patrons of most hotel bars who go upstairs to their room after enjoying a few pints, they just went home.
Somehow Kevin had transformed The Tap Room into a neighborhood pub, a trick worthy of Houdini at his best.
People didn’t come because it was inexpensive or fancy or trendy or hip but because it had great craft beer in a
warm, welcoming environment. All of this was because Kevin cared about his customers and about beer. Managers
like that are about as common as finding something that really is a dime a dozen, honesty in a political debate, or a
bar with free beer today and not just tomorrow.
Over the years I met many hotel guests who stayed there only because of the beer. Dom from North Carolina was
easily the most devoted. Along with his sales group he would travel North to visit accounts in NJ every month or so.
At first they all stayed in the hotel. Then as the rooms aged and were no longer competitive with other places in the
area Dom’s entire group opted to stay somewhere else, all except Dom that is. When his colleagues made fun of him
for putting up with the constant quality issues Dom sang over and over to them “my hotel has better beer than yours,
my hotel has better beer than yours, my….”. The only time Dom ever considered leaving was when his room was so
bad he asked to be upgraded. Management responded by moving him up a floor.
Once I met an honest to goodness private detective who was at The Tap Room on assignment to follow a woman who
might be having a secret rendezvous. He pointed her out to me - a middle aged brunette on the opposite side of the
bar. She stayed for quite a while as our erstwhile Magnum PI patiently continued to drink beer after beer. When she
finally got up he was totally sloshed. In desperation he asked me to follow her to see what room, if any, she was
going to. How did he know one of my life long ambitions was to be a shamus? I blithely put on my deestalker cap and
Belstaff 'Milford' coat, both of which were exact replicas of the ones worn by Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone not
Cumberbatch). The game was afoot and I was ready. I stayed on the trail for at least ten seconds which is what it
took her to get into an elevator and have the door close in my face. That was the end of my sleuthing career and
probably the other guy’s too.
The Tap Room was also where I met the only other person I’ve ever known that enjoys the comedy classic movie
"Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952) as much as I do. It’s available on Amazon and trailers are on
Youtube. Be sure not to read any reviews before you see it. Those critics clearly do not have a sense of humor.
One word of advice - you'll find the film a lot funnier if you have a few beers before and during and after watching it.
The Tap Room became home to a diverse group of regulars making it more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. In a
salad bowl, you put in different things –vegetables, lettuce, cucumbers, unidentifiable green stuff – that somehow
maintain their identity within an overall unity. Our group was just that, a myriad of occupations and origins that
became good friends. We had day traders, nurses, painters, sanitation workers, attorneys, actors, music producers,
teachers, mechanics, and one “farmer” who was just waiting for the state to make marijuana legal. The magical
forces that brought them all together were good beer and Kevin Torpey.
The cadre of Tap Room regulars eventually formed an unsanctioned “beer club”; one with no dues, membership
cards, or secret handshakes (well, maybe a handshake, but you won’t get another bit of information out of me).
I hereby submit their names to this article so they will forever be immortalized in the clouds of the Internet – John,
Andrew, Jay, Kathy, Karl, Ann, Bruce, Teddy, Greg, Jean, Larry, Bob, Lorraine, Livingston, Dave, Artie, Jack, Chris,
Flor, Michael, Artif, and many others who asked not to be publicly associated with that group.
Today is The Tap Room’s final hurrah, last roundup, closing bell. Late tonight when they announce “last call” they’ll
literally mean it. It will be a sad time for sure but there will be great craft beer flowing, lots of it. We'll be raising
many a glass to mark the end of a special era in the lives of many.
If you have to go you’d be hard pressed to find a better way to say goodbye.
click to contact vince