Vince Capano is a two time winner of the Quill and Tankard writing award from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Calling Noah… calling Noah. The one time I need an Ark and he’s nowhere to be found. I’m stuck in the middle of a tidal wave of massive proportion; the biggest I’ve ever seen in my long history of parking my rear end down on a bar stool. This flood hitting New Jersey bars and liquor stores has come all the way from Colorado courtesy of the New Belgium Brewery. Yes, New Beligum has finally begun distribution in the state. That’s distribution with a capital D….. which rhymes with P …..and that stands for Proliferation (hey, if I said pool it would make no sense). In other words, the beer is everywhere - from dive bars to upscale gastro-pubs, from the mom and pop shop on the corner to exclusive wine boutiques. Everywhere.
We’re talking about the 4th largest craft brewery and the 6th largest overall in the country. Since its founding in 1991, New Belgium, until last week, was distributed in 43 states as well as Canada, Sweden, Japan and South Korea. Not part of that 43 total was, inexplicably, New Jersey. Now that we’re in that not so select group the question is why did it take so long? Some say it was because the New Belgium honchos believed they couldn’t grow their market here claiming the only things that grow in NJ are smokestacks and crime rates. Some said they listened to Woody Allen who once declaimed, "I believe there's intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey."
Woody may have a point but I think the real reason is a bit more practical. New Belgium just built a brand new brewery in Asheville, NC. At full capacity, the 127,000-square-foot plant can produce up to 500,000 barrels of beer for sale. That’s a lot of anything to move. Ah, but New Belgium likely did their geography homework. A mere 529 miles away (851 km for those who prefer to drink beer from a 350 ml bottle and not the 12oz. ones) is the most densely populated state in the county, New Jersey. And it’s a state that likes to drink beer. Well, at least just about everyone I know does which might not mean that much since I do hang around with a rather shaky crowd. And they know who they are.
In the days leading up to New Belgium’s introduction the local beer community was in a near hysterical state…okay, enough New Jersey jokes. Actually there was a lot of anticipation. The reputation of New Belgium’s Fat Tire had preceded it. To many it was the second coming of Coors. No not the watery, tasteless, yellow liquid of today but the watery, tasteless, yellow liquid of years ago. The one that was never available on the East Coast. The one that scarcity transformed into a sought after treasure, a legendary brew spoken of with great reverence and then only in hushed tones.
Back in the day only a very select few people in the untamed wilds east of the Mississippi had ever tasted a beer made with “Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water”. And according to those lucky souls it surely beat any Eastern beers made with water from the Hudson River. Their maniacal ravings cemented the mystique of the beer and the desire to get it.
The best way to score a can of this liquid gold was to find an intrepid traveler returning from a jaunt to Colorado. In the days before E-bay and online trading a car’s trunk easily became an instant retail outlet once again demonstrating the flexibility of the free enterprise system. Cases and cases of Coors in a trunk would instantly transform an itinerant smuggler into a true entrepreneur.
Although I’ve never seen New Belgium’s Fat Tire sold out of a trunk, it too had a reputation in the hinterlands that far surpassed its actual quality. That’s mainly true of most other New Belgium’s beers too. The bottom line is tNew Belgium simply is not Founders or Stone or Carton or Hill Farmstead. And that perhaps explains the carpet bombing roll out strategy of New Belgium. Get beer out to the bars, saturate the state, and push hard before people realize it’s just another decent product from just another decent brewery.
On the first day of availability, NJ’s premier beer bar (and 3rd best in the country according to USA Today), The Cloverleaf, in Caldwell opened their doors at 11 AM to begin pouring every New Belgium beer available– eight. Fearing a crazed throng of beer lovers like the ones that packed the place well before noon for the recent Kane and Carton tap takeovers, my buddies, “The One Percenters’ Beer Aficionados Group” arranged to meet at Cloverleaf at 10:59 AM. They beat the crowd. Easily.
Fearing the same overwhelming turnout I had asked the Group to save me a seat at their table. That they did and it seemed they also saved most of the other seats around the bar. New Belgium was a much smaller draw than anyone had expected at least on this chilly, damp,Tuesday morning.
I enjoyed two flights which allowed me to sample all eight beers. Some were fair and some were good and that’s about it. The Flat Tire was somewhere in between. Despite the indifferent quality I left the Cloverleaf feeling somewhat special since surely it would take quite a while for these beers to filter into other establishments. Well, if “quite a while” is less than 18 hours, then I was absolutely correct.
The following afternoon beer hunting serendipity took me to a noted dive bar called Hoover’s in Morris Plains. As Dive bars go this was everything you could hope for. Bud and Coors and PBR proudly on tap, worn but comfortable bar stools, quiet regulars, and a nary a pink umbrella drink in sight. Making things even more authentic, most people had an empty shot glass next to their beer bottles or drink tumblers. This place is the real deal. I sat down searching the taps for my favorite guilty pleasure – Rolling Rock. And then saw on a side wall a large poster declaring “Today – New Belgium Tap Takeover”.
Yes, Hoover’s shockingly had 6 New Belgium beers ready to pour. As a responsible citizen of the beer world I felt morally obligated to support this and any dive bar bold enough to bring in craft beers. As such, I considered making a donation to Hoover’s favorite charity but decided to order a New Belgium Citradelic instead. It was a quite nice tangerine IPA. It was even served in a New Belgium pint glass. Way to go, Hoover’s! I do admit however that my first thought was Hoover’s probably got this shipment by mistake. After all, New Belgium is a rare treat.
Later that evening I was off to The Hat, a modern, nicely appointed pub/restaurant located in the Grand Summit Hotel. A stop there seemed to make sense. After all I was passing by (as long as “by” is defined as 14 or so miles) and besides my car was tired. The bar has two entrances, one directly at ground level and the other through an elevated main lobby that takes you down a short, winding staircase. I always pick the one through the lobby hoping to meet a celebrity (Michael Jackson once stayed there) or at least find a $100 bill carelessly dropped on the floor by one of the hotel’s affluent guests. Neither happened.
Finally, ensconced on a soft bar stool, I looked at The Hat’s chalkboard list of beers. Most were the usual craft suspects except for the last six. You guessed it – Flat Tire and five of ts friends. The New Belgium monsoon was raging.
As Popeye said (almost as well as Howard Beale), “that’s all I can stands I can’t stands no more.” My new mission was to find a bar that didn’t have New Belgium. Not knowing where to turn, I put my trust in GPS. Under “places” I carefully typed in “sports bar in a hotel that’s been newly renovated, has pool tables plus a happy hour and is near the home office of a professional football team ”. My thought was that a place meeting that criteria simply had to be a New Belgium free facility. The GPS spoke – “follow the highlighted route”. I did just that and arrived at my destination “on the left”, Vanderbilts , located in a Wyndham’s hotel, across from the Jets complex. The place was definitely upscale, definitely noisy, definitely crowded with hipsters, and definitely not a beer destination establishment. Most of the patrons were carrying cocktails of various colors not beer bottles. Despite the crowd I easily found a seat at the bar; it seems millennials prefer motion and screaming while drinking.
I asked the bartender for the beer list.
“Our beers are listed on the board sir. But today is your lucky night.”
“How so?” I responded.
“We’re having a New Belgium promo. Can I give you a taste of Fat Tire?”
I politely said no and asked that my martini be shaken not stirred.