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Battle of the Beer: The Best Brews on Tap

A journey to five local bars, sampling 20 different beers.

Editor's Note: In the spirit of the steamy season, we're running this piece again. It's hot out there and cool brew might bring down the temperature... at least for a while.

Summer is upon us and there's only one appropriate way I can think to herald the tolerable weather: a frosty glass of beer on tap at a local bar. Just thinking about it puts a smile on my face and I can't help but let out a content little sigh. Warm weather and beer are a fair maiden and her perfect match, a milkmaid and her heifer, a bearded lady and her beard... Yes, I could go on, but I'll spare you.

In the name of journalism, I hit up five local bars in one night to see who offered what and how they compared. Alas, I'm only one person, so I had to limit the testing to four beers at each place. I let the house choose which four.

O'REILLY'S BAR & GRILL
This place may not be in the center of downtown, but it's worth the extra trip. I was lucky enough to be served by the gracious Woody who explained to me that O'Reilly's cleans their tap lines twice a week and that you can really taste the difference. I asked around, and this is the most frequent line cleaning of any bar I found. They have 12 beers on tap and just introduced Long Trail, though I missed it by a day. The prices are just a tad on the cheaper side than many other establishments. I sampled their New Castle, Sam Adams Summer Ale, Brooklyn Lager and Magic Hat #9.

Ben's Pick: I have to go with the Sam Adams Summer Ale. The barkeep added some lemon to it, which was a nice touch. It had a nice spice to it, zesty, with a pleasant carbonation. Woody commented that “the kids like it,” which I took to be a compliment on how in-touch and hip I am. Yeah, right.

Of Note: The Magic Hat #9 was particularly good. I've had it in the bottle a couple times but can't say I was particularly impressed. But this was different. It had a fantastic apricot taste I couldn't get over, prominent but not overpowering. I enjoyed the touch of fizz. Very pleasant to drink.

Not Crazy About: I have to say I wasn't bowled over by the New Castle, a new offering from O'Reilly's. It's a brown ale, light with a refreshing element to it, but quite boring, even a little watery to my taste. I spoke later to an English friend of mine who explained it to me: New Castle doesn't travel well. If you're going to get it in the States, you really should just get it in the bottle. Interesting.

Bonus: Sure, it may not be in the center of a downtown, but O'Reilly's has its own parking lot! Us locals understand the significance of that.

ST. JAMES GATE PUBLICK HOUSE
These guys are serious about their beer. I was taken care of by John, the owner, who has been in the beer industry for 30 years. I bet he could spin you a yarn about any of the 14 beers they have on tap. There were many tempting options. I ended up sampling Tennents, Hoegaarden, Magners and Guinness.

Ben's Pick: I was smitten with the Hoegaarden. This is as unusual a beer as its spelling (seriously, I'll die a happy man if I never have to attempt to copy the spelling off a blackboard again). It's a wheat beer, a subcategory that's becoming increasingly popular, according to John. Interestingly, it's the only unfiltered beer I tried. It has a cloudy, different look to it, but don't let that scare you off. It was a fantastically refreshing beer for spring with a nice spice to it. It was just complex enough and was served with an orange slice, which added the perfect dimension.

Of Note: Okay, so technically speaking, Magners isn't a beer, it's hard cider, but this article is about refreshing alcoholic drinks on tap for spring, and Magners certainly fits the bill. Apparently, the real Irish guys drink this stuff. But don't let the mellow alcoholic nature of it fool you: Enough hard cider and even the toughest Irish lads will be belting love ballads and weeping over their frosty mugs. It was delicious, with a fantastic spice and complexity above anything that beer could ever achieve. Lip-smacking tastiness.

Honorable Mentions: I had to try the Guinness after being told that people often say that this is the best glass of Guinness they've had since being in Ireland. Not to mention the fact that The Gate sells twice as much of it as they do any other beer in the pub. It had a nice smoky, coffee flavor to it. I have to admit, I'm not much of a dark beer drinker—I always thought Guinness would be too heavy for me, but it's surprisingly light, with just as many calories as most other beers. In fact, if you order a half and half (Guinness and Harp), you'll notice that the Guinness is the one that's on top.

The Tennents is also worth a quick note. Considered the Budweiser of Europe, this Scottish brew was mild but with some good flavor. It was mellow without being watery, lingering pleasantly in the mouth. It would definitely be reinvigorating after a long day of yard work.

Bonus: Accompany that beer with some of their award-winning food or go for the live entertainment on weekends.

CRYAN'S BEEF & ALE HOUSE

Walk through their front door, wind around the corridor, go down the stairs and you'll find yourself in a quaint Irish haven. I spoke with the manager, Josephine, who told me about their happy hour, which is from 4 to 6 p.m., where you can get glasses (bigger than a pint—what I call a pint on steroids) of Coors or Yuengling for two bucks a pop. Not the most inspired choices, but definitely one of the best deals in town. They have nine beers on tap and next week, they'll be cracking open the Sam Adams Cherry Wheat. I sampled Sam Adams White, Blue Moon, Killian's and Smithwick's.

Ben's Pick: I dug the Blue Moon, served with an orange slice. It was nice and light with a little bit of zing, unobtrusive yet invigorating. I'm not ashamed to admit that Josephine told me this is a beer particularly popular with the ladies. Yeah, you can save your “Ben is a giiiiiiirrrrrrlllll” jokes—I heard enough of those in elementary school, thank you very much (what's so wrong with not wanting to get your clothes dirty? But I digress...).

Of Note: The Killian's was a bit different than a lot of the beers I tasted. This was on the heavier side. It had more body to it than most of the beers I sampled and was quite a bit hoppier.

Bonus: Cryan's is the place to be on Tuesday nights, when you can get their famous five buck burgers, complete with two toppings.

GASLIGHT BREWERY & RESTAURANT
The only microbrewery in the county, The Gaslight currently has 11 beers on tap. Seven of them are brewed in-house (there can be as many as nine) with four guest beers. Of their guest brews, one is typically a cider, one a Belgium lambic and one a wheat beer, while the fourth rotates. I spoke with the owner, Dan, who I'm actually concerned I offended a bit. With straight-faced delivery, he asked me if I didn't like the beers, since I didn't finish the samples he poured me. I tried explaining that this was The Night of the Twenty Beers but he didn't seem all too sympathetic. I hope I didn't break some unspoken beer code... All four beers I tried were the Gaslight's own brews, the Bison Brown Ale, Perfect Stout, Eliminator and Bring IPA.

Ben's Pick: I particularly enjoyed the Eliminator. It was very fruity yet mild with a nice zing to it. Interestingly, it has highest alcohol content of the beers I tried at the Gaslight (8.8 percent!). They make this beer only once a year at Easter—just 250 gallons of it that typically lasts four or five weeks. It was so delicious, I went back the next night to get another glass of it. Get it now while you can!

Of Note: The darkest beer I tried at all five bars, Perfect Stout had a strong coffee taste. It might not sober you up after a night of drinking, but it's the best next thing.

Not Crazy About: I wasn't a big fan of the oak-aged Bring IPA. It was mild but a little bitter. Light but a tad hoppy, it even tasted a little flat to me.

Bonus: Love drinking beer so much that you're thinking of making your own? Upstairs, the Gaslight sells all the paraphernalia you'll need. Don't feel like making your own but want to enjoy some locally-made beer while lounging on your deck? Buy a growler and take a jug of the Gaslight's brew home with you. It's particularly great to bring to parties, but be sure to keep the jug, as you have to buy the jug if you're not refilling.

BUNNY'S RISTORANTE & PIZZERIA

Bunny's is our local Cheers, where everyone knows your name. It's a lovable hole in the wall, second in comfort only to being in your own living room. They have a fantastic happy hour from 4 to 5 p.m., where you can get free pizza and one buck Buds or Bud Lights, served in plastic cups. It's a little campy but I can think of no better way to celebrate an early day off from work. They have five beers on tap, mostly of the tried but true varieties. Barkeep Paul served me Bud Light, Stella, Budweiser and Yuengling.

Ben's Pick: I couldn't resist the Stella, my fallback beer, which I like to take with a lemon twist. Smooth, upbeat, pleasant, Stella is certain never to offend yet interesting enough not to bore.

Of Note: Gosh, I can't think of the last time I had a Bud Light. It's incredibly light. Sure, it's not the most complex beer out there, and, yeah, maybe it tastes a little watery, but on a hot summer day, this will quench your thirst. Might be a good starter beer before you move on to something more substantial.

Bonus: Enjoy your beer while basking in the sun with their outdoor seating, complete with music and great container landscaping.

MOST NOTEWORTHY

Best Bar for Beer: A difficult choice, as each of the five are fantastic for knocking back a brewsky in their own way, but I'd have to go with St. James Gate. All four brews I had there were contenders for the best. The Gate offers more beers on tap than anyone and I'm itching to try more.

The Lightest: Bud Light at Bunny's

The Darkest: Perfect Stout at Gaslight

Most Unusual: Hoegaarden at St. James Gate

Most Surprisingly Interesting: Magic Hat #9 at O'Reilly's

Most Lively: Magners at St. James Gate

There are a total 51 taps across all five haunts; do you think I missed a particularly good one? Let us know in the comments and I guess I'll have to drag myself to the bar and sip another glass of beer. Oh, what a tortured life I live.

Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each Thursday, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.

rod April 17, 2009 at 02:57 PM
"Honorable Mentions: I had to try the Guinness after being told that people often say that this is the best glass of Guinness they've had since being in Scotland." What does Scotland have to do with Guinness? P.S. Fruit in Stella is a crime.
Ben Salmon April 17, 2009 at 03:19 PM
Oy gevalt, Rod, you're right about the Guinness. We're correcting that mistake. In my defense, I did drink twenty beers--we're lucky I even remembered that I had the Guinness. As for lemon in Stella, I'm afraid we're going to have to disagree with that one. Luckily, you don't have to have a lemon in yours. And even without a lemon, it still would've won my pick at Bunny's. Thanks for focusing on the positive! *grin*
Elissa Malespina April 17, 2009 at 10:47 PM
Ben I liked it. It was a nice article.
Jessie Blum April 21, 2009 at 09:02 PM
I love the citrus twist to beers - it really adds a nice flavor, especially with Blue Moon! Yum!
52brews May 02, 2009 at 02:47 AM
NIce write-up of the local joints. I'll argue for the Gaslight as best beer bar - 11 taps AND a cask as well as better bottle selection (by far) than any of the above. Their homebrews are inconsistent, though I always give 'em brownie points since they're the ONLY brewpub in the area (unless you count Egan's psuedo-brews in Montclair). Also to be noted, the Gaslight does not serve AB products, so these are carefully chosen brews. I always love to hear the tours from non-beer geeks, sometimes I lose the down-to-earth perspective of most beer drinkers. Check out some more recommendations and write-ups on my weekly review blog http://52brews.com
DnA_07040 July 04, 2012 at 06:09 PM
Shame you left out Highland Place - they have some interesting beers on tap - like Arrogant Bastard.
Your Name Here July 05, 2012 at 02:04 AM
You lost me at, "The barkeep added some lemon to it, which was a nice touch."
Prosper July 05, 2012 at 10:58 AM
Ben Thanks for the write up. It mustve been a tough job but somebody had to do it. Prosper
Hawk July 05, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Hawk's Tavern?
Robert July 05, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Great article, Ben. I'm not much of a beer dude, but have been enjoying Magic Hat #9 in bottle ... will try it on tap. Robert
Michael Paris July 05, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Coda's happy hour (half-priced drinks and snacks, 4-7 weekdays) make me happy from time-to-time.
Leslie Pogany July 05, 2012 at 06:46 PM
This article was a reprint? Bunny's Sports Bar hasn't had Bud on tap in years. Our tap beer currently is Yuengling, Coors Light, Blue Moon, Sam Adams Summer Ale and Guinness. We do welcome everyone into our newly rennovated four generation business.

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