Hoppy birthday, New Jersey

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DRINK UP, Jersey, it’s your 350th birthday.

And Flying Fish – the Garden State’s largest craft brewery – has brewed a fitting pint for the occasion: NJ350 Anniversary Ale.

It’s the Camden County brewery’s version of a traditional English stock ale (this birthday marks New Jersey’s establishment as a British colony, remember), with a brash bite of modern-day American sedition.

“The idea was to pay homage to 350 years of history,” Flying Fish brewery manager Barry Holsten told me when I stopped by on brew day earlier this month, “so we looked backward and forward.”

As you might guess from its name, stock ale was a brewery’s base beer. It would be aged for several months or longer, then blended with fresh beer to give the final product a distinct, sometimes tart flavor. It’s the same idea as that pot of chicken stock your grandmom might’ve had on hand to be ladled into a variety of dishes.

Though Flying Fish won’t be aging NJ350, it should boast the strong, rich character of a strong English ale. Credit that to a healthy addition of Maris Otter barley malt, the classic ingredient in those cellar-temp British cask ales that are so revered in London pubs.

Where most grain these days is germinated and dried in massive silos, this variety was spread out in small portions across a vast floor, in an old-fashioned process known as floor-malting.

“It gives the beer a smooth, drinkable quality with a slight biscuity toast to it,” Holsten told me, sifting a handful through his fingers. I chewed on a few grains, and the flavor reminded me of Keebler Sandies Pecan Shortbread cookies.

Colonial brewers – short on proper malt supplies – often added other fermentable sugars to their batches. Flying Fish complemented its grain bill with a generous dose of Black Pearl molasses. Holsten wasn’t looking for a source of additional alcohol in this case, however. Instead, the molasses is there to add a roasty, slightly burnt note, like smoky toffee.

So, those are the historic ingredients of this brew. Where’s the modern dose of sedition?

Well, for one thing there’s the hops: Centennial, Cluster and Simcoe, all very assertive and all very American. Using these varieties in an English ale is like inviting a blustering Chris Christie to tea with the Dowager Countess of Grantham from “Downton Abbey.”

But there’s more than that.

Standing on the flight of steps that leads to the top of Flying Fish’s brew kettles, Holsten waved to the rows of gleaming stainless-steel fermentation tanks and the high-speed bottling line below. Flying Fish’s year-old facility in Somerdale is a long way from the days when early Dutch settlers first brewed in Hoboken. Hell, it’s a long way from its original plant in Cherry Hill.

“We’re running a modern, automated brewing system here,” he said. “We aren’t making beer the same way they made it 350 years ago.”

How will that affect the flavor of NJ350?

We’ll know when it’s released on draft and in 750 ml bottles throughout the Garden State (and Delaware and Pennsylvania, too) in a couple of weeks.

More from the Garden State

Since New Jersey’s so-called Craft Beer Bill of 2012 eased sales restrictions at breweries, at least a dozen start-ups have popped up throughout the state, and more will open before the snow finally thaws.

In a nod to that growth, New Jersey Craft Beer – a website devoted to small breweries and enthusiasts – has organized its first statewide beer collaboration. Seven brewers, a yeast supplier and others formulated the recipe, sourced ingredients and brewed the batch earlier this month.

The site’s operator, Mike Kivowitz, described their beer as “a dark rye saison.”

“But, really, it’s a New Jersey beer,” he said. “It’s a little dark, a little spicy. It’s quirky, eccentric and maybe a little angry.”

It will debut locally on April 4-5 at the Atlantic City Beer Festival, with a formal release party on April 10 at Harvest Moon Brewery & Cafe, in New Brunswick. Info at NewJerseyCraftBeer.com.


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