|Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard
writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Check back often for the next installment of
Vince's Adventures in Beerland
|It's Not Really a Hotel by Vince Capano
Stirling, New Jersey is a nice suburban community with a small (as in don’t blink twice) town
center. Despite rumors to the contrary, I’m told it even appears on some maps, excluding,
of course, any I’ve ever had. The good news however is that there are at least five equally
confusing ways to almost find it. You can try your luck on either of two highways, one main
road, one “boulevard” and a series of detour signs along a stretch of land called “The Great
Swamp” (we are in New Jersey after all). Needless to say the key elements to getting to
Stirling are a car with a full tank of gas and some luck.
I had received a tip from usually reliable beer hunter “Dr. K”( a necessary Nome de plume
here – she works for a rival beer site) - that this little hamlet had a beer bar worthy of a
special trip. No, she said, it wasn’t because they had several thousand taps, and no, it was
not the home of a GABF medal winning brewpub. All "Dr. K" said was that I should go and I’
d find out just why one particular pub in the town topped her secret list of best beer places
no one knows about. Which reminds me, in the spirit of keeping the promise I made to the
good Doc that I would only mention this place to my closest friends, all those reading this
are duty bound to maintain silence. Remember, loose lips sink ships, or in this case will
overcrowd one great little beer oasis- The Stirling Hotel.
The exterior of the Stirling Hotel, to my mind, looks much like it must have when the
structure was built in 1903. Weathered wood, a tidy porch, and a few small windows. I
almost expected a stage coach to pull up with Gene Autry singing a few tunes and John
Wayne riding shotgun. A double door (a swinging one would have been perfect) leads to a
small entranceway separated from the bar by a long, heavy curtain which I can only assume
is for insulation from the windy gusts let in by excited beer geeks who think beer first and
close the door second .
There are fewer than 25 seats at the inviting bar. No chrome or glitz here. Everything is
wood- worn, warm, and welcoming. Behind the bar was the usual array of glassware and
bottles. Usual, that is, only at first glance. Of course there were the standard, nondescript
shaker pints but there were also pilsner glasses with names like Victory and Urquell, goblet
style vessels with Chimay, and Duvel printed on them, uniquely curved glasses boasting of
gold lettered Brooklyn Brewmaster’s Reserve, Sierra Nevada Celebration, Bigfoot , and…well,
you get the idea. According to the Official Beer Hunter’s guide book, any pub that has
such glassware either serves great beer or knows someone who goes to a lot of promo
nights for the free swag.
I sat in front of the bar’s nine, yes only nine, tap handles. I was told there are another six on
the outdoor deck that is open in summer. Needless to say even the research requirements
of this article couldn't get me out there in 5 degree weather to verify this. Of the nine
indoor taps one was Miller Lite. Now we’re down to eight that actually serve beer. Well,
not only were they a great eight, the eight actually became 11 by the time I left and had
morphed into 14 by my next visit the following week. For the official record let me state
that all counting was done while sober. And who was responsible for this feat of incredible
prestidigitation? No not Harry Houdini or David Copperfield, but one Dan Schneider, bar
manager and beer guru.
It’s a fundamental violation of the magician’s code to tell you how a trick is done, but we at
BeerNexus have no such constraints. The only thing that would keep me from telling you
right now how Dan works his magic is if my Nexus paycheck bounces. Again. Now here's
the neat little secret behind making 8 taps into 14 – just never, never have a dead one.
Bring in quality beer, often in sixtels, and watch the turnover. When one tap goes down
just put a new and different beer up. Please note, this is not a ‘we have more draft beers
than anyone’ bait and switch deal (have you ever been to one of the Firewater chain’s
pubs?) where they’re usually out of more beers than they have. On my last trip to Stirling,
as soon as the Chimay was kicked, Dan had Corsendonk flowing within 5 minutes. When
the Old Engine Oil tap gurgled empty McGregor’s Scotch Ale was being poured in it’s place.
When I finished the last ounce of heavenly Hop Rod Rye Imperial IPA, my next glass was
filled with Mojo Risin Double IPA.
Just why is the turnover so quick at the Stirling Hotel? One look down the bar explained part
of it – there were a lot of good-beer drinkers there. For every glass of wine or mixed drink
served I saw dozens of quality ales. Maybe it was the pioneer spirit encouraged by the
rustic décor that made even macro lager fans into adventurous craft beer drinkers. Then
again, perhaps it was all due to global warming, a theory I’d gladly explore for any grant
giving foundation out there. My real guess however is that it’s all due to the enthusiastic,
contagious love of beer that engulfs the Stirling Hotel thanks to that afore mentioned
magician of suds, Dan Schneider. Hey, this is our kind of guy – he even took his vacation at
Dogfish Head. Enough said. It seems Dan is able to convince just about anyone who walks
in to try just about anything in his great lineup of brews. Logic dictates that if he gets you
to try a Leffe Brune any sane person wouldn’t leave without trying the Brooklyn Extra
Brown or the Bourbon Barrel Imperial Brown. The pied piper of Hamlin has nothing on this
pied piper of brew.
When a tap goes down the excitement goes up. The murmur of the bar’s beer denizens as
to which brew will soon replace an empty tap has been known to drown out even bone
jarring claps of thunder from major nor’easters. On my last visit I had just settled in with a
glass of Weyerbacker Insanity, when Mr. Schneider announced the last glass of Eel River
IPA had been served and that a new one – he slyly didn’t identify the brew- would be on in
several minutes. Some at the bar wiped their brow, a good move that prevented the
perspiration of anticipation from dropping into their still perfectly good glass of beer. Some
looked for the closest paper bag in case hyperventilation took hold.
Several of the sharpies leaned forward trying to get a clue when Dan reached into a well
covered box of tap handles. Showing them that peeking doesn’t pay, Dan lifted one tap
handle out of the box, hesitated, and then put it back shaking his head. He repeated this
several times as the ah’s and oohs from the beer faithful grew. As the tension ratcheted up
nervous shouts of beer choices came from a group standing to the left of the bar. Dan just
looked at them, expressionless. Seconds seemed like days. Just when the faint of heart
began to wonder who in the bar knew CPR to help them, Dan picked up a single tap
handle. He coyly smiled and held it aloft for all to see. Then, in a voice worthy of NFL film
highlights, he said – “it’s a Smuttynose Wheat Barleywine which I have personally aged for
one year in the cellar below”.
Cheers and applause engulfed the bar. Dan had delivered once again! To be honest I must
add that amidst the joyous throng of craft beer people I did notice a quiet frown from one
disappointed soul who wanted Buckler’s NA, while a “you guys are all nuts” look was thrown
out by the Budweiser drinker on the last stool on the left. Clearly those two proved the
adage that you can usually tell the quality of something by knowing who doesn't like it.
So now you know why the Stirling Hotel has become a regular stop in my beer journeys.
Trust me on this one - the Stirling Hotel may not be a real hotel but to a beer fan it’s
definitely sterling – solid sterling!
|It's Not Really A Hotel