First Person

Beer Paradise at Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell

By | September 15, 2016
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Ryan Dorchak
Ryan Dorchak, the grandson of Cloverleaf founder George Dorchak Jr., pours one of the 24 beers the tavern has on tap. Any more draughts would risk slow turnover, which affects quality, he explains.

Tonight’s step toward an MBA is a summer farmhouse ale from Flying Fish Brewery in Somerdale, Camden County. But I’m not in business school. I’m at Cloverleaf Tavern, whose MBA (Master’s in Beer Appreciation) program gives drinkers a rigorous education by furnishing a list of 45 vastly different brews and rewarding patrons who try them all.

My ale cuts through the humid Essex County night with a crisp flavor and a creamy head. Bartender Greg, a certified beer expert like everyone on staff at the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell, assures me that ‘‘farmhouse’’ is a distinct style of beer that descends from rustic home brews, not a clever name concocted by the marketing department. This one has a strain of yeast found in many Belgian brews that imparts the barest hint of banana, Greg explains, from behind a bar that is probably more than a century and a half old.

I didn’t taste the banana, and I didn’t care. I was enjoying the Cloverleaf, a historic tavern that has grown into a nationally renowned craft-beer destination. There are usually about 100 beers to choose from here, 24 of them on tap. An updated beer list is printed daily, sometimes even more than once a day. Half the drafts rotate in and out; there are 15 new bottled beers available every week, and last year the Cloverleaf served more than a thousand different beers. USA Today recently listed the Cloverleaf as the third-best craft beer bar in the country—after ones in Virginia and Michigan, and that’s just too far for this Jerseyan to go, even for beer.

Owner Ryan Dorchak is the third generation of his family to run what now is Caldwell’s oldest business. His granddad, George Dorchak Jr., started the Cloverleaf 83 years ago, with remarkable foresight and the energy of a 23-year-old. It was 1933, and George, the son of a farmhand from nearby Roseland, could see that the 13-year national nightmare of Prohibition was coming to a close. So he borrowed a few dollars from his uncle, went up the hill to Caldwell and landed the town’s first liquor license. He found a storefront on Bloomfield Avenue, a former bakery, and opened his tavern. George was 100 percent Czech, but his wife, Ann Meehan, was half Irish, Ryan explains. The name of the bakery—the Cloverleaf—became the name of the bar. Life was different in the hospitality industry back in those days.

The Cloverleaf sold local brews—Rheingold, Pabst and Ballantine, made a few miles down Bloomfield Avenue in Newark—to men who drank them standing because there were no seats.

No women, either: The town of Caldwell had a law that prohibited ladies from being served across the bar. They never even entered the place until the 1960s, Ryan says. ‘‘The stubborn personality that my grandfather was, throughout his lifetime, he never served women across the bar.’’

After George passed away in 1975, Ryan’s father, Richard Dorchak, welcomed women— and proved that he meant it by installing the bar’s first ladies’ room. He also started serving food and typed up the first menu on a horizontal piece of paper. It’s hanging in the Cloverleaf today near the hostess station. The hot pastrami sandwich for $2.25 looks like it was a winner.

The business kept growing, and the beer industry consolidated. Anheuser-Busch gobbled up the lion’s share of the market, and Richard felt the company was getting too cocky in its business dealings, Ryan says. So Richard banned all Bud products and the Clydesdales they rode in on. To this day, you won’t find Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob or any other product from the Saint Louis monolith of American beer at the Cloverleaf.

‘‘He always said that when somebody comes in here and asks for a Budweiser, he wanted to tell them, ‘Sorry, I don’t have Bud, but I have everything else you could possibly get,’’’ recalls Ryan, a tall, fit 41-year-old with close-cropped brown hair. ‘‘That kind of shaped the direction we were headed in.’’

The result is evident. Recently, the Cloverleaf ’s 11 a.m. beer list included a delicious raspberry ale from Founders in Michigan; a chocolatey stout from Weyerbacher of Easton, Pennsylvania, with a knockout punch of 11.9 percent alcohol (for comparison, Guinness is 4.1 percent); and a saison from Magnify Brewing, three miles away in Fairfield, that was reminiscent of white wine.

Raspberry Ale
A glass of Founders Brewing Co.’s Nitro Rubaeus raspberry ale. It has that palate-tickling sweet and tart mix of fresh raspberries.

Carrying on the tradition of that first menu with the hot pastrami sandwich, the Cloverleaf these days is by no means just a beer joint. It has comfortable dining rooms, an atrium and a leafy patio. The menu has a selection of creative burgers and steaks as well as other dishes, including a roasted portobello–fig salad and a pan-seared salmon with an elegant take on that North Jersey staple, broccoli rabe. How good is the food? My wife hates beer (‘‘It’s like drinking bread’’), yet the Cloverleaf is where she wanted to have her Mother’s Day dinner. I supported this wise decision.

The waitstaff is trained to help beer-drinking customers make a selection. Every server has earned at least the first level of Cicerone certification, beer’s version of a sommelier. They even found a brew my missus likes—Allagash White, a witbier from Portland, Maine.

Come here enough, and you will learn about beer yourself, using the Cloverleaf MBA as your guide. The program was dreamed up by Ryan, a marketing major at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. MBA candidates get a folded card with 45 different beers grouped into nine styles. Each time you drink one, a server punches it off your list. When you complete your studies, you get a glass, a T-shirt, a round of applause from everyone in the place and your name engraved on a plaque. The tavern has conferred this degree on about 2,700 people since it started ten years ago. This is by no means a frat-boy award for guzzling four dozen frosties from plastic cups during a beer-pong marathon: MBA candidates taste styles from hops-focused bitter India pale ales to cloudy wheat beers.

‘‘I love that literally every day we are educating someone new,’’ Ryan says.

The tavern feels like a local pub. A big black-and- white photo of Ryan’s grandfather George smiles down on the bar area like an icon in a Byzantine church. Big-screen TVs show sports, and the walls are covered with local historic photos and the names of thousands of beer-drinkers who earned their MBAs. Even if you aren’t from western Essex County or a beer savant, the Cloverleaf feels like home. The servers and even the customers make you feel like a regular. It becomes your local, whether you are sampling something as exotic as smokebeer or sipping a Coors Light and watching a ballgame.

‘‘The culture there and the staff is really welcoming,’’ said Chris Walsh, owner of River Horse Brewing Company of Ewing. ‘‘It’s not a beer snobbery place.’’

River Horse beers are often featured at the Cloverleaf, and Chris says the bar’s success has a lot to do with its experience. ‘‘They had a first-mover advantage,’’ he says.

Ryan says his “a-ha” moment came in 1996, when his father took him to the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. Ninety-eight percent of the beers he tried weren’t available here, he recalls.

‘‘I said, ‘Wow, this is what New Jersey could be like.’ That was the vision that I always held closely while I was developing the business,’’ he explains.

Someday soon, I will complete my MBA, and my name will join the alumni on the walls of this tavern. I will be proud, if a few pounds heavier. Fortunately, I can pursue a lifetime of learning: There is a Cloverleaf PhD—Professor of Hops and Drafts, with a 60-beer list— awaiting.

Cloverleaf Tavern
395 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell

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