I was thinking that in the world of craft beer, 20 years makes someone an old timer. Here’s a bar whose history goes back to the end of Prohibition.
Each year, the Brewers Association conducts their Great American Beer Bars competition. 19,000 crafties submitted 3,400 nominations this year. These were narrowed to 10 finalists in each region, and further voting narrowed this to the top five in each region, and the top five nationwide. When I realized that one of that national top five was 40 minutes away, I had to get there, so off I went to the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell, NJ.
I found a noisy, happy place with a bar area plus substantial (and quieter) seating areas, and a pretty extensive menu. There are 24 taps (plus a cask, I think) with another 80 selections in bottles. A beer list that size is a bit intimidating, but as they say, “We should all have such problems!” Making life easier is a paper menu listing the current selections and a preview of beers that will soon rotate into the lineup. Let’s talk about the beer and then about the tavern.
In honor of Oktoberfest I looked for a Marzen as a starter, and there were three. My choice:
This pours a darkened yellow bronze with little head, at least in a shaker pint. On the palette it delivers a nice yeasty malt. It’s crisply refreshing with a light lager finish. This is a classic.
I followed this up with a “New Jersey Craft Flight” of four:
Carton Hop Pun
This is an American Pale Ale from Carton Brewing. A small head rings the top of the glass above simple amber, and there’s a nice citrus hop nose. On the palette there’s a silky mouthfeel, quite hoppy but only moderately bitter. Pine and citrus come on the finish. Hop haters might say “cat pee” in the nose but I love it. This was the strongest hop finish of the flight. 5.3% ABV, 33 IBU
Flying Fish OktoberFish
Back to the Marzen style, pouring dark amber with a small head. There’s not much on the nose but there’s a hint like apricot. It’s fairly smooth and malty with a bit of toast and maybe of vanilla. I get touches of fruit and dry dust, then a strong finish with light hops throughout. 6% ABV
Why the name? I don’t know yet. This pours with a very persistent head over yellow amber. It’s a real glass coater with a strong hoppy nose of pine & floral. On the palette it’s silky smooth, perhaps a Carton trademark, and effervescent. A good malt balance follows into the finish with firm mellow hops still in balance. That balance is why Hop Pun seemed hoppier on the finish. Nice stuff. This made me wish I had a growler. 7.8% ABV, 80 IBU.
Kane Deep Rooted
This is an American IPA, pouring amber with a light tan head. There’s a soft peachy nose. It’s malty with almost a lager touch. Hops come in slowly then assert themselves. It’s a nice profile like a car that smoothly accelerates. There’s a pleasant hoppy light finish, in fact this is the lightest ale in the set. [An interesting note from Kane, this is "brewed with 100% New Jersey grown, fresh picked hops." You might not have known that hops are grown in Jersey, but four different kinds go into this brew.] 7.1% ABV
At about this point the manager came around pouring tastes of a Barley Wine from The Bruery. This arrived with a rich bourbon nose, hazy brown in the glass with no head. This is like good candy, caramel candy. There’s even a sense of crunchiness as the caramel continues into a whiskey finish. This is dessert.
I said, “the manager” but this is Ryan Dorchak, the General Manager and Operating Partner, a Certified Cicerone® happy to share his knowledge and passion. As an example, we talked briefly about The Bruery and its warehouse with all the varieties of wine casks and bourbon casks which impart rich nuances, especially during the Solera process of blending old barrels with new barrels of the same beer.
Asked about the tavern and its history, he provided the following:
When prohibition ended in 1933 my grandfather opened the Cloverleaf Tavern. At the time, it was all local beer. When my father took over the bar in the early 70′s he always tried to focus on supporting the local businesses. When NJ breweries began opening he was the first to welcome them on draft with open arms. Despite having half of the draft lines that we have today, guests could always count on Cloverleaf having 2-3 lines dedicated to a local craft brewer.
Today, while we do not boast the largest selection at any moment, we certainly have the largest annual selection in NJ. We’re rotating 10-15 new beers onto our list each week with 1-3 menu revisions daily. Every time a guest comes in he or she will see fresh selections to choose from. In 2013, we had over 600 different beers pass through the bar. We also pride ourselves on providing guests with an education in craft beer.
To judge by the crowd at the bar–and the voting–Cloverleaf is succeeding in spreading the craft gospel and sharing that wealth of choice. I’ll be back . . . I just wish they were a tad closer than 40 minutes.