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Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Perfect Day--Even to Wait Outside

That's The Festhalle in between these two Ocean Grove visitors...

When the theme of your blog is "Good Pubs, Good Beer, Good People," a visit to Asbury Park's newest Beer Emporium is apropos. This past Saturday was the day to do it--perfect weather for a motorcycle ride and early enough in the season to avoid shore traffic and crowds.

And after being fully sated with all of the above inside, I wandered outside the Asbury Park Festhalle & Biergarten, hereinafter known as The Festhalle, to enjoy this absolutely perfect afternoon with an Alvarez cigar.



Owned by some of the same guys (Andy and Ladi) who launched Hoboken's wildly successful Pilsener Haus, The Festhalle gives off a similar vibe, right down to being unable to find a parking spot--not because it's parking challenged like Hoboken, but because finding an empty spot requires "Natalie Luck." While she found one--right in front of the place, no less--my biker buddies and I crossed over into quaint, charming Ocean Grove, where there were plenty of spots. Only a one-minute walk across a small footbridge brought us to the Festhalle. It's a strategy worth remembering if you go.

On Saturdays, the place opens at noon (4 PM during the week) and, at 1 PM, we anticipated no problem finding a place to sit.

Wrong.
Allison

The place was packed, all tables were full and there were people standing around barrels with their food and grog resting on them. So after ordering from bar maid Allison, a stunner who used to work at Hailey's (and, bless her heart, who recognized me), we sidled over to a table where this delightful family looked like it was ready to pack up. When they did, we swooped in, and just in time, too, as four senior citizens on walkers, there for the 5 PM early bird specials, were targeting those seats. But they weren't fast enough, and like George Costanza evacuating during that episode with the fire, we got there first! 

Just kidding. They were millennials.


When this lovely family left, we pounced...
The upstairs room had not yet opened, and nor had the outside Biergarten area. With all rooms open, the capacity is 760.

The Festhalle has an impressive list of beers on tap that rotate, and an extensive list of others in bottles. Likewise, the Festhalle's food menu fits the ambience of the place perfectly. Natalie ordered us a pretzel the size of a steering wheel ($11), and, with the accompanying mustard, it was absolutely delicious.


I won't run down the list of what's available as you can get that from their site, but our server Tasha (from New Zealand) was a total delight. The bottom line here is that if you're a fan of Biergarten- type dining and drinking (which I am) you will absolutely love this place (which I did).

But that's if you can get in. While enjoying my Alvarez, I got to chatting with "Big John," a mountain of a man stationed outside who was checking ID's. He was also only allowing in as many people as exited the Halle into the bright sunshine.  Those guests range from 21 year-olds to families with children to senior citizens. 


Tasha
John said that he was stationed out here in 5º weather back when the place opened, and there was a one-hour wait to get in. And while yesterday was certainly a pleasant day to wait outside, not all days will be like that. So figure that into your plans.

Oh, and one other thing. The Festhalle's wi-fi is not accessible to the public. As Tasha explained, "We want our guests to interact with each other, not with their cell phones." That's an idea I support 1,000 percent.

My first visit to The Festhalle will definitely not be my last.
Go, even if there's a line.
Cheers!
The PubScout

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Gathering of Willing Fools


Full disclosure:
Last night's Beer Senate at Hailey's Harp and Pub was not my first.

And it damn sure won't be my last, because these events are just plain fun. 

With their Beer Senates, Chris Flynn and Moishe Atzbi have struck upon a formula that packs the back shuffleboard room with thirty-five "Senators" every month (except in the summer when, like Congress, the Senators take a recess).

The behavior of the Senators varies between raucous and rowdy, especially during the voting of best beer of the night, where their behavior mimics that of our wig-wearing English brethren in Parliament.

And why not? Most of them usually come into the session either bearing a pint or having consumed one, and that's before the four beers of the main event have even been poured. Those four beers, accompanied by some outstanding food, are not little tasting glasses, but full pints as well. But the Senators
are nothing if not dedicated to good beer, good food and good cheer.

There were four beers on the agenda last night: Oskar Blues Pinner, Blue Moon White IPA, Duclaw Celtic Fury and Magic Hat Stealin' Time.

The Honorable Senators, Angela and John
What's that? You've not heard of all of these? Well, that was exactly the theme of the dinner--April Fools Beers--or beers that one doesn't think of immediately when seeing the name of the brewery.

Moishe works his magic in the kitchen as well as behind the bar, and the food always includes a wing dish. Last night's wings were "sweet-heat," initially sweet to the palate with a nice little jolt of fire from the peppers. They disappeared as quickly as they appeared on front of the finger-lickin' Senators.

But for The PubScout's money, the best dish, as well as the best pairing, was the first--Pinner with a crazy good lentil soup, hidden cavatelli and unhidden sorpressata. It was so good, I told Moishe that if the Senate took an early recess, I'd consider the night already a success. 

I also suggested he put that exact combo on the regular menu, for that's essentially what the Senate does--it selects a beer to be put on tap and offers menu suggestions which Chris and Moishe heed. And the fact that they listen to their Senators may be one reason why they have one of the 10 best Irish pubs in the state, according to NJ.com.

Pinner (the winner) will be the next beer on tap, and the next Senate theme set for the second Tuesday in May will be Cinco de Mayo. Moishe will put his thinking cap on to come up with beers and food that follow the theme, and as of today, he'll be getting in the right frame of mind to do so, headed as he is for Cinco de Mayo land to see if he can get the "Most Interesting Man in the World" to make a guest appearance. 

But no worries. When the next Senate convenes, I am sure it will be celebrated with full vigor--if not aplomb. If you're a lover of good beer, good food and good cheer, become a Senator.

If our government Senate approached its business the way the Beer Senate does, it might actually get more done.


Stay thirsty, my friends.

Cheers!
The PubScout


Monday, April 13, 2015

Pleasant Surprise in Salisbury


I first heard the name Salisbury back in the days when you actually had to get out of your chair to change the TV channel. As a youth of only single digits in age, I thought TV dinners were cool, and my favorite was Salisbury Steak from Swanson. 

You got the "meat," the peas, the mashed potatoes and the gravy, the soup and dessert all in this neat little formed aluminum tray. Apart from being allowed to eat and watch TV in the "living room," a treat of epic proportions back then, the best thing was that when you were done with your dinner, there were no dishes. 

And I loved the Salisbury Steak, even though my mother said it was "just hamburger."

My recent weekend travels, wrestling-related, took me to the Maryland city of the same name, and upon checking into my motel (which, ironically, was opposite from a restaurant called Steak Salisbury), I asked the counter clerk for pub/restaurant recommendations where I could find good beer. Without hesitation, she said, "Evolution is just 5 minutes from here."

I was not unaware of the name, as I had some of its product in Atlantic City a month ago during a different wrestling-related event, and I found it quite good. So off to Evolution Public House we went.

I'm glad we did. We got to meet the lovely Victoria and the friendly and knowledgeable Assistan Manager Brian Mertz (no relation to Fred and Ethel), who left the teaching profession to eventually become Evolution's Beer Quality Control Guru. Whether the strains of the first profession led to the grains of the second, I'm not sure. But the newly married, Brian told me he chose his bride based on two basic criteria: "She had to love kids, and she had to love beer." Sounds like a strong foundation to me.

Victoria offers up a Prelude Red
Because Brian really loves his beer and his job, he spoke with great knowledge of it and affection for it. He also suggested a tour of the large, 33,000 bbl-per-year brewery, located within the Public House confines. In addition to outside seating, a pleasing dining area and a very comfortable Tasting Room, Evolution boasts a wide distribution area. It includes the legendary beach resort in nearby Ocean City called Seacrets for which a special beer called Tropicale is produced.

The Life of Brian
My guess was that just the brewery operation alone was a $3 million dollar one, and even though the original brewer... is now in Florida, the reigns have been adequately assumed by brothers Tom and John.

Evolution offers a wide variety of brews, of which my choices this day were limited to a red called Prelude, which Brian informed me is used as the base for sour beer blends as well. In appearance, it looked cloudy and "undone," but in taste, it was spectacular, and with its relatively low ABV could serve as a good session ale. It also went exceptionally well with my House Burger, which was also done a perfect medium-rare.

But the beer that rang my bell (in more ways than one) was a special Rise Up Imperial Stout. At 10% ABV, its rich coffee and chocolate flavors came through  on a very smooth mouthfeel. Lots of brewers make good stouts, but this one was great, a bit bigger than the "regular" stout pictured here. And the Lucky 7 Porter they provided for the tour was also spot on.

In all, an unexpected and delightful find, and beer lovers should look for Evolution beers as their ever-expanding distribution continues. According to their beer locater, there are many just across the Delaware River in PA, including Isaac Newton's, and as mentioned, I found it in Atlantic City. There are many places that have it on the Southeast Jersey Coast.

If your personal beer journey is evolving, be sure to include Evolution as a stop.
Just remember they don't serve TV dinners.

Cheers!
The PubScout




Thursday, April 9, 2015

Beer and Baseball: The Devil is in the Details


As is my wont on a 40º, overcast, and raw spring afternoon, I was surfing for "suds news" when I ran across this story on NJ.com. 

The information herein will never impact me, as I am not devoteé of the National Pastime, unless either the Yanks or the Mets are in the Series. 

And even if they are, I would not attend, as I find it much more convenient to watch from home, sit in my favorite easy chair, have a quality craft beer or two (without paying usurious rates) and being able to access the loo without a queue.

But while the article above tells you at which MLB stadia you will pay the most and least for your beer, it leaves out a very crucial piece of information.

It gives prices, and sometimes amounts, but doesn't identify any beer. 

While I might be relieved to learn that a beer costs just $4.00 at Cleveland and Arizona stadiums, it doesn't say which beer. There are some beers that would be colossal bargains and great values at that price. And there are other beers that, in my view, are priced $3.50 too high.

Knowing that the Yankees and the Mets are "in the middle of the pack" (with $6.00 and $5.75 being the cost according to this article), or that the Phillies, Red Sox and Cubs are at the top end, provides insufficient information without naming which beers are available for those prices.

While The PubScout will frequently make suggestions as to what you might want to try, this column never tells you what you should like or should drink. Your beer is your choice. That's the way it is with beer. And if you want to spend $7.75 for a bland tasteless yellow lager at the ball park, that's your wallet, your palate and your call. I, however, will not.

Last Game at The Vet

But I do recall a brutally hot summer day in Philadelphia years back. My buddy and I got free tickets at The Vet to see the Phils and the Expos. The on-field temperature that day was 130º, and we were sitting in the "sun-field." The seat next to me was vacant, but it belonged to Satan, who had moved back under the shaded overhang. Water was evaporating from our bodies at an astounding rate and required frequent replacement.

When the beer hawker came by, he was selling bottles of Coors Light for $4.00. Bottles of Poland Spring were $3.50.
Apart from the message that price structure sends, which was the better buy?

We left after the third inning and repaired to the Monk's Cafe, where we ordered up Lucifer in tribute to the guy who gave us the seats.

 I doubt that any stadium in the US has Lucifer on tap. But it would be worth $7.75 for 21 ounces. Just be sure to have a buddy to lean on after you're done.

Cheers!
The PubScout


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Best of Follies and the Folly of “Best”

 

What’s the “best anything” in America? Or in your own state?

Of late, FaceBook, that supreme time-waster, has been laced with these “best of” posts to click on. These are only slightly less annoying than those “What Kind of Dog-Cat-Color-Song-Beverage-Season- Hairball Are You?” studies.

Of course, the idea is not to determine the “best,” but to drive traffic to a given site for whatever reasons that site needs to increase its traffic.

But “best contests” are now rife on online news sites, too. Best Beers, Best Bars, Best Irish Pubs, Best Dive Bars, Best Bagels and Best Pork Roll Sandwiches (only Jerseyans get to vote)-- even Best BYOB joints have been part of these contests.

How anyone rates a BYOB as “best” is a mystery, since which bottle accompanies your meal often affects the quality of the experience, and everyone brings his own bottled joy to a simple restaurant. But it’s about traffic, not common sense. But I digress.

It appears to be an empty exercise beyond wasting time, as the qualities of a “best anything” are totally subjective and not quantifiable. Oldest brewery in the world? There’s an answer. Oldest pubs in the world? That’s a quantifiable list. Most beer taps? Fact. Maybe.

But Best Bar? Depends. Best Beer? Depends.
Best Adult Diaper?


Of course, the establishments or products that “make the cut” may take understandable pride in having done so, and may even use the publicity to advantage. Nothing wrong with that.

I can’t speak for you, but I’m not making a 90- minute special trip to some obscure bar at either end of the state just because it “won” some online poll or made some magazine’s top 25. If I’m in the area, that’s different. Maybe I’ll drop in. If I can remember the name of the joint.

The Rule of Subjectivity dictates that “Best of” anything means very little, beyond ephemeral bragging rights.

Not so with “Favorite.” Favorite is expected to be subjective, and what’s more, can change depending on a variety of factors. Good luck, for example, getting someone who is a craft beer enthusiast to name his favorite beer. That designation changes with the season, the food, the company, the atmosphere and other factors. An honest answer is the same as the response to Best Adult Diapers.

Same with a favorite bar, restaurant, pub, Irish pub, BYOB or massage parlor. Personally speaking, I have many favorites, and so do most people. Compiling a list of people’s favorites would seem to be a daunting and pointless task, as it’s just someone’s subjective opinion.

But essentially, that’s exactly what a “Best of” list is. Some folks get together and put together a subjective list and pass it off as The Best, when it’s nothing more than a shared opinion. And if those folks are benefitting (getting ads or other special considerations from a place or product on the list), the subjectivity takes an even darker turn.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. When an average Joe sees one of his beers or bars on a “Best of” list, it’s natural that he would commend himself for his excellent taste. But the reality is that his taste happens to agree with the person who wrote the piece. That’s all.

Bottom line? If those “Best of” contests or articles make you feel better about your own personal choices, have at it. You might even want to make plans to visit or buy those Bests. Your wallet, your call. But don’t think for one minute that the “Best” is anything other than an opinion. And you know what opinions are like.

I’m wondering when FaceBook will have a “What is the Best Time Waster in the US. Contest?

I have a nominee.

Cheers!
The PubScout




Sunday, April 5, 2015

Led to Zeppelin at Last


The first question that should come to your mind is “What took you so long?” Because that’s the first question that came to mine as I walked into this cavernous, multi-roomed biergarten in Jersey City.

And I really don’t have an answer. It’s not far from my home, and it’s not difficult to get to. Maybe it was because I always viewed Jersey City as just someplace you have to go through to get to New York City—or Hoboken. Kind of like the way many folks view the entire state of NJ.

And certainly not as a place that could have a legit German Festhalle und Biergarten. I had heard a bit about it and made mental notes to myself to get there someday. Perhaps it was the offhand comment from a friend who said the beer list was great (it is), but the food wasn’t. And if I’m going to a bierhalle, I need quality sustenance to accompany my quaffing. That is, after all, part of the fun of drinking beer—seeing how it goes with food.


I suppose my epiphany came when I saw an ad about a BaconFest that was taking place there. Few places can screw up bacon, so I grabbed the missus and my baby boy and drove the 30 minutes.

I anticipated that parking might be a problem—like it is in Hoboken, but The Zepp has its own free lots about a block away. First thumbs up. The rather pedestrian entryway was not in any way indicative of the interior. Zeppelin Hall is high-ceilinged and, with the long bench tables and wrap around bars leading to other very large rooms, very inviting.

I met and chatted some with Manager Chris who said the Hall is in its sixth year of operation, and he allowed that, with normal spring/summer table turnover and with the outside biergarten open, Zeppelin Hall could accommodate a “Munich-esque” 2800 people. The normal capacity is 420, however.

That’s a lot of people to serve. But not if they have to serve themselves, which they do. Grab a menu, decide what to order and pay for it at the window, where they’ll give you a buzzer to alert you when it’s ready. Then go get it yourself.


Look over the very impressive beer list, walk up to the bar and order  a liter or a half-liter (flights are available and worth investigating), pay for it and enjoy while waiting for your buzzer to go off. If you are seated next to someone you don’t know, strike up a conversation and make a new acquaintance. If they are amenable, of course. Don’t be a PITA.

What to talk about? The Bacon Cheese Bratwurst, which was—no lie—the best Brat I’ve had anywhere, including Munich. So much for the so-so food rap. I’d come back just for that, but it’s only there until April 19, after which they’ll do some other themed attraction. 

The Zeppelin Hall is privately owned with a sister restaurant three blocks away called Surf City which will re-open in the Spring. A beach-themed place, it comes complete with sand, usually as scarce in Jersey City as a parking spot in Hoboken.

In sum, if, like The PubScout, you enjoy great beer, great food, bench seating, high ceilings and the pleasing din of a large, packed Festhalle, Zeppelin Hall should be on your must-visit list. You can check out the beer and food list here.

 Please keep in mind that you will be your own server. 
So going on Yelp to complain about the service makes one look both stupid and lazy.

Ein Prosit!


The PubScout

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Beer First, Work Second...


Zach preps for the Cask Fest

After at least three cask events as Uno’s Brewer, Zach Conner has the whole Cask Beer Fest thing down to a science.
“My first one was definitely more work in terms of acquiring and setting up the beers. That part’s easy now, thanks to all my contacts in the beer business.”

I arrived early to acquire a seat, set up my own beers and schmooze with my contacts behind the bar, so I chatted with Zach as he was tapping the iced-down kegs in preparation for what he hoped would be continuous throngs of beer nuts.

“The only thing I don’t know is how many will come or how long they will stay.”
In an attempt to encourage longer stays, Uno’s was providing live band entertainment from 3-5 PM. I didn’t stay to hear them, but I had a good excuse—helping my youngest son with a college assignment. And I didn’t want to be too many sheets to the wind, considering what I’m paying for his opportunity to graduate and go jobless for a couple of years.

Still, that looming task didn’t prevent us from stopping in, nailing down some half-priced Buffalo Chicken Quesadillas and sampling some of the ten beers on hand from six different breweries.


Seth and Natalie
Firkins were provided by Uno’s, Kane, Carton, Forgotten Boardwalk, Harvest Moon and Bolero Snort. I first sampled Uno’s Coconut Brown from the hand pump, and it paired superbly with my quesadillas. Then it was on to Coffee Cake from the hot-and-getting-hotter Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing folks from Cherry Hill. A very unique beer that could actually substitute for dessert—or breakfast. Kidney buddy Seth Dolled happened in and took a picture with Beer Nut Natalie Lay (advertising in a conspicuous place) and me.


Then it was time for a delicious Harvest Moon’s Irish Coffee Stout (conditioned with vanilla beans and Jameson soaked oak. And, still in a stout kind of mood, I had my son Cody get me a Bolero Snort Lucky Bomb—delicious, but at just 4.4% not destructive of the thinking process I’d need later to help with the assignment.

 
Cody--pre assignment
I heard rave reviews from bar-mates, like Hailey’s Harp owner Chris Flynn, about Carton’s Hoppun, and Carton of Milk Stout is one of The PubScout’s regular faves.

As I always say, you meet a lot of nice folks at beer events, and this time it was a delightful lass named Amy Dundee with whom I chatted about beer and our mutual hometown roots.

It’s 7 PM as I write (“my” college assignment dutifully completed), and for all I know, the event may still be in full swing. I hope so. And so does Zach Conner. But if you missed this event, which was pretty crowded at 2 PM, you lost—not him.


Cheers!
The PubScout