Despite getting distribution from more breweries than almost any other state in the nation, New Jersey doesn’t have a great beer reputation. That’s because unlike states like California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oregon and others, it doesn’t have a wealth of fantastic in-state breweries. Or rather, it didn’t used to. That’s changing. Here are five beers worth checking out from the Garden State.
Kane Head High IPA
New Jersey may not have the brewing bona fides that Pennsylvania boasts, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some outstanding beers worth paying attention to coming out of the Garden State. Take a tour of some great beer bars in the region and you’ll find more than a few NJ brews worth drinking. Head High from Kane, for instance, is very quietly one of the finest IPAs being brewed on the East Coast. Its crisp, dry finish is preceded by big tastes and aromas of fresh mango, pineapple, and other citrus, with just a dash of resinous pine for good measure. This is balanced by a surprisingly nuanced malt backbone that has touches of crackers and toast. Not super bitter yet robustly hoppy, you need this beer.
Carton Boat Beer
When people talk about the hippest new breweries in New Jersey, there are a pair that get name-dropped each and every time. Kane is one of them. Carton is the other. Carton has established a reputation as brewers who refuse to brew to traditional styles, which is how you end up with concoctions like Boat Beer, one of the most flavorful low alcohol beers you’ll ever drink. It’s just 4.2 percent ABV, but it packs a punch all the same. The beer defies category – it’s a kolsch, it’s a pale ale, it’s a session IPA, it’s all of the above – but category doesn’t matter when a beer drinks this nicely. Crisp, dry and refreshing like a German pilsner, but also boasting a huge explosion of grapefruit-laden hops, you’ll want to put down more than a few of these.
River Horse Oatmeal Milk Stout
While relatively new breweries like Carton and Kane snatch all the attention in the New Jersey beer scene, longtime mainstays like River Horse continue to quietly push out excellent brews. One of their highlights comes out only once a year: Oatmeal Milk Stout, a beer whose name should say it all. Get ready for a rich, roasty, creamy indulgence that is perfectly suited for cold winter days. Both oatmeal stouts and milk stouts are fairly traditional variations on the stout style, and both tend to feature a silky mouthfeel and full bodies. River Horse combines both for a beer that offers an overload of smoothness. You might as well be pouring velvet down your throat – but this is velvet laced with nuances of roast coffee, cocoa, and milk chocolate. An underrated beer that all beer geeks should sample.
Boaks Wooden Beanie
In addition to the usual suspects, New Jersey has several breweries that don’t get nearly enough attention, Boaks among them. The folks at Boaks brew an excellent Abey-style dubbel called Two Blind Monks. That beer is good enough on its own – sweet breads, clove-kissed spice, dark fruits and mild alcohol are all highlights – but what happens when you age a small batch of it in Jack Daniels barrels, and throw in some Madagascar vanilla beans for good measure? You get Wooden Beanie, a complex, tasty, and very rare draft-only beer that Belgian lovers will want to try. Vanilla, caramel and oak greet the nose; the taste follows with sweet nuts, dark fruit, sharp whiskey, and a slightly sour finish. The whiskey and vanilla are most prominent, but pay close attention and raisins, plums, and hints of cocoa will shine through, too.
Flying Fish F.U. Sandy
After you’ve sampled beers from all the newcomers and small guys in the NJ craft beer scene, it’s nice to circle back to the grandfathers of Garden State craft brewing: Flying Fish. This beer is a good excuse to do so, too. After Hurricane Sandy beat up the New Jersey coast, Flying Fish came up with F.U. Sandy, a hybrid ale that also raises funds for those recovering from the storm. “Forever Unloved” blends a wheat beer and a pale ale, and also uses an experimental hop that had never before been used in a beer. The result is a beverage with the smoothness of a summer wheat beer but the fragrant hopping of a pale ale or IPA, yet without the typical bitterness associated with those styles. Think of it as a mild session IPA and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. F.U. Sandy is yet more proof that the Garden State is making some damn fine beers these days.