Five Craft Beer & Spirits in Fairfield
When I first met the guys behind Magnify Brewing Company last November, it was five months after they’d kegged their first batch, and 20 minutes before they took the Best Beer award at the Beer BBQ Bacon Showdown at Waterloo Village in Stanhope. Eric Ruta, the 23-year-old founder, was telling me about the saison he’d just poured as crowds swarmed around his and 13 other brewery tents serving up everything from pale lagers to double chocolate imperial coffee stouts. I visited Magnify a few months later and discovered that Fairfield is quietly becoming a craft brew and spirits destination in New Jersey. Within a two-mile radius are three distilleries, two breweries and an impressive collection of local flavors.
Here, in the first of a new Edible Jersey column devoted to craft beer and spirits, are the highlights of a tasting trip to Fairfield Township, population 7,500.
Magnify Brewing Company
Foeder-fermented Search Saison
If you’re lucky enough to visit Magnify on brew day, you’ll find that behind its foggy front windows, the tasting room smells as sweet as a bag of malt, because it opens into the brewing room. On tap this spring is a major change to the brewery’s award-winning Search Saison, thanks to a new piece of equipment that arrived last month. In the middle of a room full of stainless steel sits head brewer Erich Carrle’s most unusual toy: a giant wooden barrel with a built-in thermometer. This foeder, or oak fermenter, allows yeast to live inside the wood and evolve from one batch to the next. Normally used for sours and farmhouse ales, this fermentation vessel puts a rustic spin on a beer described behind the bar as “funk and hops, with a touch of white wine.”
“Creative leeway is the best part about working here,” says Carrle, whom Ruta (the founder) first met on ProBrewer, a kind of eHarmony for brewers. Carrle’s brewing experience stretches as far west as Speakeasy Ales & Lagers in San Francisco, and includes time working as what he calls a “beer mercenary” at a contract brewery in New York, where small brewers can have their beer made on a larger scale.
“When we’re thinking of a new beer, we always ask, ‘What has nobody done before?’” says Ruta, explaining the Magnify brainstorming process. Carrle, who has probably seen more recipes than he can count, quietly adds, “It’s a fun constraint.”
1275 Bloomfield Ave, Unit 40, Bldg 7
Cricket Hill Brewery
Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine Ale
If you ask about a beer at Cricket Hill, the first thing they do is pour you one. That’s how I wind up trying the Sim-Jerko Jamaican Hot Pepper Ale, a Simcoe-hopped imperial IPA infused with roasted hot peppers for a strange balance of bitter and spicy flavors, rounded out by the smell of a vegetable garden.
Cricket Hill is one of the oldest craft breweries in the state, but the formula for its original beer—East Coast Lager—has changed three times in the 15 years since the first batch. I still haven’t finished the ale, but as soon as I ask about the lager, the founder, Rick Reed, pours me one. “We change it as the sophistication of beer drinkers in New Jersey changes,” he says. The implication is that the state’s drinking sophistication has vastly increased since Cricket Hill first settled in Fairfield in 2001.
Reed then lets his passionate cellarman, Andy Lasiy, pour me a glass of bourbon barrel–aged imperial porter, whose aging he’s carefully monitored over a minimum of 100 days. As I try the smooth blend of oaky vanilla and malty chocolate, Lasiy tells me about the next thing going into the now-emptied Heaven Hill bourbon barrels: barleywine. Assistant brewer Mark Ryan immediately groans at the mere mention of the word. So much barley is used in this beer that it actually rises above the stirring paddles in the mash tun, requiring muscle to mix it back in by hand. New for 2016, this labor of love is due out in March.
24 Kulick Rd
Jersey Spirits Distilling Co.
At the helm of Jersey Spirits is John Granata, an expert distiller and mixologist rolled into one. Among his latest creations is a 45-proof apple hooch—using pressed apples from Wightman’s Farms in Morristown— that’s as delicious as mulled cider, with a little heat on the finish. Granata takes a special pride in sourcing local ingredients, including local honey for a flavored version of his DSP.7 Gin. The distillery’s regular variety tones down the floral notes present in a typical gin, in favor of quick hit of juniper, followed by spicy citrus flavors on the finish.
The must-try is the Crossroads Whiskey, a 63-17-17-3% corn, rye, wheat and barley malt spirit aged six months in charred new five-gallon American oak barrels. The greater ratio of surface area to whiskey means that six months of aging goes a lot further in these small barrels than it would in a standard 53-gallon bourbon barrel. The flavors of a much older whiskey are all there, they’re just not integrated. The grains present themselves in waves: sweet corn, spicy rye, and at last a decisive but not overwhelming oak and vanilla finish. Phenomenal.
1275 Bloomfield Ave #40b
Claremont Distilled Spirits
Jersey Devil Moonshine
When Chris DeGasperis steps out of his office—which is really just a desk on the Claremont distilling floor—he looks up at the towering 165-gallon dual-reflux column with a certain sense of glee. It’s time to check the temperature probes again.
“In vodka, all you want is ethanol,” he says, pouring some of the clear liquid off the still into a drum. His palate is refined enough that he can differentiate by taste the pure ethanol “heart” of the batch from the undesirable “tail” that comes out at the end containing some impurities. Even so, he’s already done the complex calculations to determine exactly when to close the valve. “Near the tail there are more oils with mouthfeel and body, but then it starts getting bitter and you have to cut it off and re-distill the rest.”
Despite its futuristic technology and rank as the largest distillery in the state, Claremont’s unaged base spirits show a lot of character. The vodka is made from potatoes, not wheat or corn sugar, which gives the final product a creamier flavor that almost brings to mind buttered mashed potatoes. The moonshine is technically corn whiskey, and has an even more distinctive flavor, owing to its minimum 80% corn mash. If you know the smell of fresh-ground corn flour, you know the taste of this whiskey.
25 Commerce Rd, Fairfield, NJ
Jersey Artisan Distilling
James F.C. Hyde Sorgho Whiskey
When I visited Jersey Artisan, they were just finishing up a batch of cold brew coffee… rum, that is. It’s dubbed Morena, and it’s produced by soaking whole Brazilian coffee beans in the distillery’s Busted Barrel Silver Rum, producing a black, unsweetened spirit just begging to be shaken with ice and simple syrup into what co-founder Brant Braue calls a Jersey Joe.
The rum trickles out of the copper pot still at 160 proof—relatively low compared to other clear spirits—preserving the original character of the molasses. Then it’s either proofed down to 80 for bottling as Busted Barrel Silver Rum, poured over coffee beans, or barreled and aged in charred oak for two years. The latter process creates Busted Barrel Dark, a rum with the oaky flavors you’d expect of a bourbon. “It’s dry, crisp, and has enough vanilla and tannins that I can get a whiskey drinker to appreciate it,” Braue says.
As I was leaving, I saw the unopened barrels for which I’ll be returning in March. They contain aging James F.C. Hyde Sorgho Whiskey, a spirit named after the man who helped bring “Chinese sugarcane”—also known as sorghum—to America. Braue describes the taste as “slightly sweet whiskey notes on the front, with a rye nip on the back,” but we’ll just have to wait and see.
32C Pier Lane West
BREWERIES OPENING SOON
OPENING IN MARCH
Garden State Beer Company
247 E White Horse Pike, Galloway
Lower Forge Brewery
14 S. Main St., Medford
OPENING IN APRIL
Jersey Girl Brewing Company
426 Sand Shore Rd., Hackettstown
The Alementary Brewing Company
58 Voorhis Ln., Hackensack
Asbury Park Brewery
810 Sewall Ave., Asbury Park
Twin Elephant Brewing Company
13 Watchung Ave., Chatham
Atco Brewing Company
302 White Horse Pike, Atco
Kelly Green Brewing Company
401 S. Broadway Ave., Pitman
UPCOMING CRAFT BEER EVENTS
Big Brew Beer Festival
March 5, 12–4pm; 6:30–10:30pm
Morristown Armory, 430 Western Ave., Morristown
The Atlantic City Beer Festival
April 8, 8pm–12am; April 9, 12–4pm and 6–10pm
The Atlantic City Convention Center, 1 Miss America Way, Atlantic City