Beer Bites: My Favorite Things

Every beer geek has their favorite place. A place where there’s great beer choices, knowledgeable staff to give you informed recommendations and friendly patrons who are happy to join in the beer banter. When I walk in the door I get a warm greeting and an immediate run down of the newest beer just in. Everyone knows your name and whether you are a hophead, malt junkie or a Belgian lover. It’s your favorite……

…Liquor store? You bet. It’s the Christmas season folks and it‘s all about the retail baby! We’ll cover more brewpubs and beer bars in the months to come, but right now I want to talk about my favorite retail establishment and give you some gift giving ideas for the beer lover on your list. My little slice of retail beer nirvana is Jonathon Ron in Brielle.

Matt Yochim and Chris Marvel man the impressive beer section and know just about all there is to know about beer in New Jersey. They’ll also teach you a lot about beer in general too. For instance, I’d always assumed that Belgian style Scotch Ales and Stouts were recently created hybrid beers spawned by some crazy craft brewers. In fact, Matt points out that they were created during World War I to accommodate the British soldiers serving in Belgium. The Belgians used their distinctive yeast strains and tried to mimic British favorites. Little nuggets like that are why it takes me 30 minutes or more on Friday night to pick up a six pack (meanwhile my girl waits for a glass of wine from that bottle I promised to get her. Sorry Hun.)

Ok, so what’s hot for the holiday season? In retail terms, the colder weather means a shift from sales of lighter (and “lite”) beers to more hearty, darker beers. That’s not just perception either. The sales numbers confirm it. The most popular of the holiday seasonals has to be Troeg’s Mad Elf. It’s styled as a Belgian Strong Ale that clocks in at 11% ABV. It’s ruby red color and hints of cherries and honey are indeed festive and warming. Right now, it’s also readily available throughout the state. Another popular trend is beer aged in oak bourbon barrels. There are a ton of them out there and they usually come in “cork and cage” type of bottles which are great gifts as well.

For that extra special someone, how about a bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin by BrewDog of Scotland? They make some of the wackiest beers in the world and this 32% ABV Imperial Stout is a beer geeks dream. It’s described as more like a brandy than a beer and is going to be hard to find.   Distributors are keeping a close hold and only a select few retail stores may get a bottle or two. At a  retail price of approximately $100, this is definitely a “special someone” gift.

How about something not quite so extreme, something a bit more classic? Authentic Belgian Trappist Ale hits the mark. There are only 8 breweries left that can legally be called “trappist”. Not all are available in the United States but at Jonathon Ron you’ll find Westmalle, Koningshoeven, Chimay, Rochefort, and Orval . Chimay offers a nice 3 bottle sampler box that includes a glass (Belgian beer absolutely must be consumed out of the proper glass!) for around $17. You might also look for Ommegang, a Belgian style brewer from upstate New York, who use authentic Belgian Duvel yeast. Their not-to-be-missed seasonals are Tripple Perfection and Adoration.

As you can see, I could continue with recommendations and ideas forever. I won’t. Instead, I’ll just leave you with one more. When you find a retail store with a better than average beer selection you can bet that there will be some dedicated employees making that happen. Get to know them. Not only do I get the skinny on what’s going to be on the shelves next week, I also get honest reviews and recommendations. You don’t have to be a beer expert to talk to Matt and Chris either. Jonathon Ron hosts a beer tasting every Friday from 5pm to 8pm. You’ll find both Matt and Chris there, ready to answer your questions, track down that rare brew, or just shoot the breeze.   For even more gift ideas for your favorite Beer Geek, check out Christian DeBenedetti’s article on

Hoppy Holidays folks!

Pete’s Pick:
What do I want under the tree this year? The Ommegang gift set would be a great place to start. Three bottles of great Belgian style beer (and not their usual production beers either) plus a really nice glass. I want one.

Matt Yochim’s Pick:
Tactical Nuclear Peguin. Matt’s tried them all. He’s tough to impress. Nothing else will do but the craziest beer available!

Chris Marvel’s Pick:
Allagash Black. Remember the history lesson? It’s a Belgian Stout. The beer isn’t rare or crazy but anything from this Portland, ME brewer is going to be good. Any beer geek would love to see it in his stocking.

Peter Culos is the editor of “Beer Bites,” a new monthly feature about breweries, bars and good beer in the garden state.  A graphic designer by day, and a life long New Jersey resident,  Peter was first introduced to the novel idea that beer could actually have flavor during several visits to the UK.  He’s been riding the craft beer bus ever since.  It has been called the ultimate social lubricant and Peter’s philosophy on beer is, “I’d rather split my last good beer with a friend than drink the whole thing by myself.”  Besides beer he also likes history, dogs, Jeeps and painting.  In the past, he has written a History and Art blog for the Weider History Group and occasionally contributes to his own blog,  Life is short.  Drink good beer.