Friday, August 19, 2011

The Ship Inn - Oldest Brew Pub in New Jersey

“After .2 miles you have arrived at your destination”.  “What did she say?” asked Doc, referring to the female voice of our GPS.  “She says we’re here”, replied Rich with less confidence than the voice. You couldn’t blame us for questioning.  We had been driving the country roads of Hunterdon County, NJ for about a half hour looking for the The Ship Inn, the oldest brew pub in the state. 

Doc and Rich are two retirees who make it their life’s work to find the best food and drink in this part of the country.  For example, they have been driving down to Maryland on what they call the “crab train” for 35 years to dine on the tasty crustaceans.  So when they invited me to join them on this brewery visit I couldn’t say no.
Our drive took us past farms and rolling hills that looked more like neighboring Penn than the most populated state in the country.  But our GPS girl was right; we drove into Milford, NJ and back about 100 years in time.  The Victorian homes, white steepled church and clapboard barns reminded me of a colonial New England Town. 
The brewery was built in the1860’s and has gone through a series of incarnations including a bowling alley and a speak easy in the 1920’s.  Ann and David Hall purchased the building in 1985 where they served fish and chips and John Courage Beer.  Ten years later they installed a seven vat brewing system and became the first to brew beer for consumption on premises since Prohibition. 
We got out of the car and walked the length of the town in about 5 minutes and crossed the foot bridge over the Delaware River into Penn.  The River looked silty from the recent rain and we wondered if the brewery tapped into the river to make their beer.  Sure enough, the menu described “Muddy Waters” made from Delaware River water.
Upon entering this establishment we had to side step a piano that must make this pub come to life on weekend nights.  We visited on a weekday for lunch, but the dark wood walls made the pub feel warm and cozy.  We sat in a sunken dining area which overlooked a creek that surely flowed into the Delaware.  Over the bar, which is made from the floor of the old bowling alley, hung dozens of pewter mugs that only added to the Victorian feel of the place.

We started with flights consisting of 6 oz glasses of the 6 beers on tap.  The chocolate stout had a strong coffee taste and the Golden wheat was light and drinkable.  But the hands-down winner was the Killer Bee Ale made with local honey.  All their beers have a 5%ABV or lower so it was easy to try them all and still have a pint of my favorite.  Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who loves this brew.  The waitress said that we just killed the keg with our samples. 
We later received a tour from Brew master Lea Rumbolo who said that she uses 65 gallons of honey in order to produce 210 gals of this popular beer but it lasts only about 2 weeks on tap.

The Ship Inn brews beer in the English tradition using barley malt and Kent Golding’s hops.  The brewing system was designed and built by Alan Pugsley of Maine who imported this brewing style from Great Britain.  Lea uses finicky Ringwood  yeast which top ferments and along with the toasted malt adds a hint of caramel flavor to their beers.  At the end of the brewing process the spent grain is fed to cows at the surrounding dairy farms.
I have been reading a lot about the “small” movement in the craft beer industry but hadn’t experienced it until visiting the Ship Inn.  From the limited production of beer made with local ingredients, to the personalized tour by the brew master to the tiny Delaware River town this brewery calls home, our visit made me a believer that the old ways sometimes are better.  

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