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Beer Madness: New Jersey reigns supreme

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Unlike California, much-maligned New Jersey has no snowcapped mountains, no redwood forests, no Disneyland, no Hollywood, no Golden Gate Bridge.

What the Garden State does have, however, is the 2011 Beer Madness champion.

By a 6-3 vote, Exit 4 American Trippel from Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, N.J., upended Lagunitas Maximus from Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, Calif.

Lagunitas Maximus, a big but balanced brew that brewery owner Tony Magee describes as a “doublish IPA,” was a formidable challenger. Among our tasting panelists, Christina Hoffman was most effusive in her minority opinion, terming it “well-rounded, sweet yet hoppy. Love this beer. Definitely one I could drink in a snowstorm or on the beach.”

But Exit 4 triumphed by virtue of its drinkability (in spite of its even higher 9.5 percent alcohol) and its complexity. “Yeast, hops, sweetness: there was something for everyone!” wrote taster Justin Garcia. “Crisp, hoppy, floral, clean, fruity,” added chef Brian Robinson.

A triple (or “trippel” or “tripel”) is a strong, pale, top-of-the-line abbey beer that brewing monks might serve to a bishop or other visiting dignitary. Commercial examples range from sweet and sugary to earthy and herbal. Exit 4 is drier than most, thanks to a liberal addition of four hop varieties, including two (Simcoe and Amarillo) that are thrown into the fermenting beer in a process called dry-hopping (unusual for Belgian styles).

The hops add a fruitiness reminiscent of grapefruit, orange, or apricot. The beer also has notes of banana and clove, which brewery founder and general manager Gene Muller attributes to the high fermentation temperature, around 72 to 74 degrees.

We classed Exit 4 in our Fruit and Spice category, but the only nonstandard ingredient is demerara sugar, a type of brown sugar made from partially refined sugar cane extract. Muller says he adds the sugar to bump up the alcohol without making the beer syrupy or cloying, the way an all-barley-malt recipe would.

Muller considers Exit 4 especially food-friendly, recommending it with “stinky strong cheeses,” fish, shrimp and any spicy cuisine.

Flying Fish introduced the triple in April 2009, the first in the brewery’s series of single-run, experimental beers named after the 18 numbered exits along the New Jersey Turnpike. “Everybody uses them for a point of reference,” Muller notes.

No sooner had he released the first Exit beer, though, than Muller began catching flak from the New Jersey Turnpike Commission and the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Both thought it was a bad idea to associate an alcoholic beverage with a highway.

Muller brokered a peace by running a disclaimer on his Web site stating, in part, “Both the Turnpike Authority and Flying Fish agree that you should never drink and drive.”

Muller thought the complaint had no merit, but the publicity didn’t hurt the brewery: “We were on 50 TV stations around the country in a two-week period.”

After Exit 4 won a gold medal in the Belgo-American Style Ale category at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival, Muller made it a year-round brand and began releasing it in 12-ounce bottles.

Flying Fish beers have been available in the District and Maryland for several years, and they recently popped up in Virginia in the aftermath of a deal that the brewery inked with the Total Wine chain.

The company rolled out 12,000 barrels last year, says Muller, making it the second-largest brewery in New Jersey. (The largest, he adds, is Anheuser-Busch’s Newark plant, which pumped out about 12 million barrels.)

Muller is shopping for a larger facility and new equipment that will let him increase production. He says he’d like to revisit some of his six other Exit beers, which include a hoppy wheat beer, an oyster stout and a wild rice double IPA. But it’s hard to believe that any could make a more graceful Exit than this Americanized Belgian brew.

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