By Kurt Epps—The PubScout
On a sparkling Indian (can we still say that, or is there some more PC term now?) Summer day that has to be among the best five days of 2009 so far, and after spending five hours of it at Parker Press Park in Woodbridge, NJ, three things have become crystal clear to this American Indian writer:
First, God must have His own barstool at JJ Bittings, because it's obvious that Mike Cerami and God are on a first-name basis regarding the weather. Second, As quaint, shady and convenient as it is, Parker Press Park may have to yield its spot to a larger venue that can accommodate a lot more NJ beer lovers. And third, any Jersey brewer who doesn't jump on this Beer Bandwagon is only hurting itself.
Last year's fest was a winner by anyone's reckoning, and word of its success undoubtedly led to the overflow crowds that attended this one. The lines to get in snaked outside the park and up Woodbridge Ave. all the way to Main Street. Even at 2:30 PM with the Fest almost half over, there were patrons lined up to gain access to the beers of seven brewers smart enough to show up. Had those brewers anticipated the numbers of the crowd this day, they undoubtedly would have brought much more beer to satisfy the thirsty throngs. As it was, three of the seven had to check out early because their supplies ran out. And by 4:30 Only three diehards remained: Bittings, Boak's and Uno's. Harvest Moon, River Horse, Tun and Cricket Hill had exhausted their brew and packed it in an hour early.
The lines for beer stretched across the midriff of this pocket park, from the taps to the food concessions, often intermingling with each other. But nobody was complaining because the lines moved pretty quickly, the attendees were extraordinarily convivial, and the cause was a good one, as all proceeds went to a family who lost their two-year-old child to cancer, racking up some formidable bills during the battle.
Speaking of the food concessions, a newcomer called Fun Food Concessions did a land office business, providing what Amy of Hillsborough said was "absolutely the best cheesesteak I've ever had." This cheesesteak lover would concur. The husband and wife team of Vinnie and Lisa Torio cranked out food continuously, varying their fare from the aforementioned cheesesteaks to sausage sandwiches to funnel cakes to Fried Oreo cookies. Vinnie's a carpenter by trade but he should have a very profitable sideline gig in the food business, too.
As happened last year, Boak's was the clear choice of many of the Festgoers early on, and the affable, lanky Brian brought plenty of his exceptional brews to satisfy his increasing number of devotees. Two Blind Monks, Double BW, Abbey Brown (7% ABV) and Monster Mash (10% ABV) saw tremendous action as Brian, at times imitating a carnival barker, lured people in to hear all about his beers. Those beers will now be distributed by Kohler Distributing to the seven northern NJ counties Boak calls his "catchment area." Two Blind Monks won a Bronze medal out at the LA Beer Competition a while back, and he's got Jan's Porter coming out soon. The Abbey Brown is not technically true to style, as Boak only brews beers that he likes to drink. "It's lighter and thinner than a true Abbey, without the syrupy sweetness commonly associated with the style," said Boak. "It's less cloying." His Monster Mash, a Russian Imperial Stout, was 21 months old, and was an absolute joy to taste. Boak screens his potential customers, and is not averse to directing them to another brewer when they ask for something specific—like a pale ale. "Go to that guy," he advises, pointing to the next booth, "because I don't make that beer."
Another brewer who sported long, long lines was Mike Sella of Uno's on Rt. 1 near Menlo Park Mall. Mike had his Oktoberfest on tap and it was clearly a crowd favorite. His recipe for this year's version changed from his usual ale yeast to a genuine lager yeast, and the difference was clearly noticeable. Ordinarily a good Oktoberfest beer, this year's qualifies as an exceptional one, and should please a lot of palates at Uno's October 12 beer dinner—cooking courtesy of Moshe. The always-reliable Ike's IPA and 32-inning Ale were also on hand.
Bitting's brews were big crowd faves , too, though Augie Lightfoot heard plenty of disappointed voices when they discovered his award-winning Bad Boy Oktoberfest was not yet ready for prime time. They might be even more disappointed when they learn that Augie himself is getting ready to turn his job over to someone else as he's "burned out," and wants to spend more time with his kids. Augie's been good for Bittings, and though Mike Cerami will surely miss him, Mike will get a brewer who can continue Bittings' fine brewing traditions.
Beer writer par excellence Mark Haynie was up from Atlantic County, helping Tun Tavern with its distribution. Tun's dark was a very interesting and tasty beer that would make a great session beer. Harvest Moon's sole offering, a Pumpkin Ale, was remarkably good, even for those, like yours truly, who aren't normally big pumpkin fans. I could easily see this beer on my Thanksgiving table and on the coffee table helping me deal with another loss by the Detroit Lions.
Mike Cerami, the fest organizer, was joined by Woodbridge Mayor John McCormack and Councilmen Greg Ficarra and Rick Dalina when all took part in helping distribute beer for the cause. Cerami, asked if this fest exceeded his expectations, responded with, "Definitely! It's been great! Excellent, in fact!" Pics here.
This writer would agree. And giving credit where it's due, the Porta-Pottie situaton was MUCH better this year, as no one was left doing a Two-Step Fandango while waiting for an open loo. My only complaint in that area is why the porta-pottie people designed their booths without a single flat surface to rest your beer on. I mean, a guy has to be able to set his beer down while he tends to business, Mr. John. Yeah, he could bring a buddy, but guys don't hit the head en masse like the gals do. So you either set your beer down and hope nobody even lightly jostles the Loo, or you hold your beer in one hand and take care of business with the other. Either way, it's not a condfidence-building situation....
As I did last year, I bicycled to the Fest from my home. Parking was a breeze, and I avoided any chance of a DWI. But if this Fest gets any bigger, I may have to change my mode of transportation.
I ain't biking to the Meadowlands.
©Kurt Epps 2009 All rights reserved