Secaucus residents Ira and Su Ni Morenberg raised their glasses in another in a series of toasts. “We get to taste a variety of international beers that we can’t buy over here. It’s awesome,” said Su Ni.
The couple was wandering the floor of the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus on Saturday, Jan. 31, enjoying the fifth annual International Great Beer Expo. About 90 vendors filled the floor, serving up samples of their finest wares. The atmosphere resembled a big party. Friends and strangers drank together, drifting from tap to tap.
“And you notice one hour, two hours later people are so different,” laughed Su Ni. “The same person.”
Vendors came from across the globe, but event organizer Andy Calimano pointed out the rapid growth of New Jersey brewers since the expo’s inception. “When we first started we had a higher amount of international breweries, and now we have more U.S. breweries,” he said. “This event has really grown bigger with more and more craft breweries coming into New Jersey, which is reflective of the whole country, because there’s more craft breweries out there. A lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to taste some of the New Jersey breweries. Either they make a limited batch or they don’t distribute in Northern New Jersey, so this gives them an opportunity to taste those beers. We try to stick with craft breweries.”
Asked what defines a craft beer, Calimano said, “That’s an interesting question, and if you ask 25 people you get 25 different definitions. You can go by the amount of beer that is brewed, which is what the Brewers Association goes by. They raised the amount from two million to six million barrels, so Sam Adams falls under the craft category. It’s a moving definition. It’s not like bourbon, which has a definition. It’s constantly changing as the industry changes.”
“Nobody goes to a beer festival by themselves. I’ve only seen it happen once and he was pretty lonely,” said Calimano. “Some people get together with families, some make up t-shirts and come as a group.”
John P. Murillo belongs in the latter category, attending with a crew of buddies in matching orange jerseys. “We’re a rugby team. We’re called Princeton Athletic Club,” he said. So they’re from Princeton? “No. I’m actually originally from Hoboken. My parents moved there in the mid ’70s and raised us until they got fed up with the parking and moved out.”
“Nobody goes to a beer festival by themselves. I’ve only seen it happen once and he was pretty lonely.” —Andy Calimano
Making their way around the expo center floor, the crew tasted the wide array of flavors available, both conventional brews and offbeat variations. “I typically don’t like the flavory type beers but there’s a chocolate peanut butter porter that’s really good,” said D-side member Clark Smith.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Beer? Believe it. The brew was popular enough that vendor Horny Goat, from Milwaukee, ran out less than halfway through the show.
“The day before the Super Bowl is a good day to do the festival,” explained Calimano. “People don’t travel for the Super Bowl; they stick around, they have parties. TV stinks. How much more can you listen to the Super Bowl stuff?”
Attendees at the expo receive a five-ounce glass with a two-ounce pour line and are free to fill it to their heart’s (or their stomach’s) content. “Designated driver” admission is also available at a reduced cost, with no glass included and no drinking allowed. Included in the cover price are seminars like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (dispelling myths about dark beer) and “Meet the Women in Local Beer.”
Asked about the typical expo attendee, Calimano said, “Anybody between the ages of 25 to 65 and male.”
Barbara Hutchinson would argue that point. Her friend Bill Sobchik from Hasbrouck Heights described her by saying, “This girl knows more about beer than any 10 guys put together.”
Bearing a card reading “Beer Goddess,” Hutchinson said, “The whole craft beer thing I compare to wine. It’s the same thing. Figuring out what you like. And you have to be open minded.”
More than just beer
A variety of other items were available at the expo, from cigars to t-shirts to specialty hot sauces. And then there were the cured meats. An abundance of cured meats.
Several vendors hawked jerky, including the one-stop meat supermarket, JerkyHut. Parfections, from Maryland, went them one better, offering “bacon bark.”
“Bacon bark is a dark chocolate bark with crispy bacon, real bacon, crispy and crumpled evenly into the chocolate,” said vendor Mercedita Blair. What made Parfections think those two flavors would complement one another? “Two great ideas, two popular commodities in life,” laughed Blair. “Or luxuries. Or necessities.”
If that sounds a little hard to swallow, The Bacon Jams, from Pennsylvania, offer three flavors of spreadable bacon jam.
“Bacon spread goes really well with a bagel,” said Brian Gorab, from Montville, New Jersey. Like many attendees, he wore an array of foodstuffs tied on a string around his neck, in his case including half-munched bagels. What was with that, anyway? “Just carbs, you know?”
“Last year was our first time and we saw everybody wearing them and we asked where’d they get those?’ said Sobchik. It turned out the attendees made their own carb necklaces, to supplement their drinking. “You see all kinds, with like cheese and sausage on them. You come one year and you see it and you find out what the deal is and then you come back with your own.” This year Sobchik sported his own pretzel neckwear.
Also noticeably popular this year were the many types of cider on offer – everything from the Boston Beer Company’s (Sam Adams) Angry Orchard to the imported-from-Frankfurt Possman Pure Cider.
“There’s over 15,000 varieties of apples,” said Melissa Mohle of Original Sin Hard Cider, a small independent company out of New York that produces several varieties of cider. “There’s only so many kinds of hops. There’s only so many kinds of barley. There’s so many different ways you can go about cider.”
Mohle credits at least some of the current popularity of cider to gluten intolerance. “All apple ciders are gluten free.”
“I think cider’s the new trend,” said Angela Annecchino. “I’ve been in a cider mood today. It’s nice. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, ciders are great.”
Annechino, a teacher by profession, attended the event as part of the “Brew Crew” along with friend Nick Downham from Bloomfield, helping to set up booths before the doors opened to the thirsty throngs.
So now they had to wait for it to end and break things down, right? “Oh, no,” said Downham. “We’re not doing the breakdown. We’re done for the day.”
Meaning they could just kick back, relax, and drink in the proceedings. “This is the best volunteer job I’ve ever had,” said Annecchino with a smile.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.