Draught Diversions is the catchall label for mini-rants, think-pieces, and posts that don’t just focus on one beer here at The Tap Takeover. We hope you don’t grow too weary of the alcohol alliterative names we use…
The brewery visit posts I’ve published here at the Tap Takeover have all been New Jersey breweries. When I first started the Tap Takeover, my goal was to feature more brewery visits and brewery focus posts than just the breweries of the 70 currently in New Jersey, but that’s easier said than done. There’s also a nice selection of breweries very close to my house, so featuring those first seems quite logical. None of those breweries are as close to my house as the brewery featured today, Conclave Brewing in Raritan Township, NJ, which is only about five miles from me. The brewery has another added appeal, my fraternity’s annual meeting is called Conclave. While I’ve enjoyed the majority of the beers I’ve had from those other breweries I’ve featured, from the top to the bottom of their list, Conclave makes the best beers. Last year for my Birthday, my incredible wife got me in the car and took me to a handful of breweries within driving distance (Twin Elephant, Kane, Beach Haus, Carton, and Conclave). Conclave’s beers were at the top of those I visited that day.
Carl and Tim are the two guys behind the brewery, high-school friends who had a passion for great beer. Although they are originally from Northern New Jersey, life coincidentally brought their careers and lives to proximity once again to Hunterdon County. They eventually decided to open Conclave, which according to them got its name thusly:
“The name comes from a secret society of brewers. The myth we created is that they merged old world techniques with new world craft beer styles.”
Conclave is also the smallest of the breweries I’ve highlighted here, but every single beer I’ve had from them has been top shelf and excellent representations of the style. I’ve only had 9 of their beers and the lowest rating I’ve given one of their beers on untappd was 3.75 bottle caps, everything else was 4 or higher. Conclave Brewing is also relatively new, they opened up in 2015, but their reputation has grown very nicely in that time with those honed and focused brewing efforts. The picture below illustrates just how small the brewery is, they typically offer only 6 beers on tap. But that small quantity means that the focus on quality is spread across 6 magnificent beers. Not on the list, technically, are the cans of Gravitational Waves (Conclave’s highly rated and much-loved IPA) being sold that day.
The tap list at Conclave on September 2, 2017
In their two years brewing beer, Conclave has gained a well-earned reputation as smart artisans of craft brewing. Last summer, NJ.com posted an article which touted Conclave as the highest rated NJ brewery on untappd (with one of the highest rated beers, Gravitational Waves). The current average on untappd by all users for all Conclave beers is 4 bottle caps. A majority of their beers on Beer Advocate have average ratings above 4 (out of 5) and all of their beers with over 15 community reviews are cumulatively rated above 4.25 (out of 5) and have a lively discussion thread in the Beer Advocate forums which illustrates their local, dedicated fan base. Just couple of weeks ago, Conclave was ranked highest in the “Philadelphia Metro Area.” So yeah, well-earned recognition which drives people make to make out-of-state trips just to sample their beer and fill their growlers.
What those two paragraphs above prove is that perfecting a smaller number styles is a smart way to build a brewery, dedicated customers, and a reputation that spreads beyond the borders of the state. The only reason I gave one of the beers a lower than 4 rating is that it is typically not my go-to-style of beer. It was still a very good beer.
The first time I visited the brewery in November 2015, I sampled and filled one of my growlers with Espresso Milk Stout. To this day, it is one of my favorite Milk Stouts and one of my favorite beers brewed in New Jersey. The beer is brewed with lactose and coffee beans from local roaster Benfatto Roasters. With Conclave starting to occasionally can beers, this seems like a perfect candidate for 16oz four-packs.
From a growler fill last November. Such a lovely, dark stout. If you squint enough, you can see the black Conclave logo on the glass.
As if the Espresso Milk Stout weren’t good enough, this beer has a delicious spicier cousin Mexican Morning. Few beers I’ve ever consumed produced such a cacophony of wonderful flavors that came together in a symphony of delicousness. Carl, Tim, and Bryan take their wonderful Espresso Milk Stout and: “kick it up with dried red chile de arbol peppers, vanilla bean, cinnamon and cocoa nibs. Sweet and complex, it brings just enough heat to invite one sip after another.” The process for making this beer is timely and more complex due to the peppers (among other things), so only once that I know of did Concalve offer this in growlers, and only 320z growlers. When it is on tap at the brewery, they usually only offer 4oz pours. For me, it is a mandatory pour every visit to Conclave when on the menu. Sadly, as my picture of the tap list above indicates, Mexican Morning was not available during my most recent visit.
Photo of Mexican Morning from Conclave’s Website
As much as I love Mexican Morning (and most people who have had it seem to love it, too (a cumulative review of 1,244 untappd users rates it at 4.27 as of this writing), Tim and Carl upped a beer which is already an amped up beer. At the Garden State Brewfest in September 2016, Conclave was pouring a Barrel aged version of this beer. They used bourbon barrels from Four Roses (one of the premier bourbon distillers). I feel lucky to have had a sample of the beer, it was sublime and elegant. They’ve done a couple of brewery pourings of this one, too. Hopefully this one will be available again, as B.A.M.M was easily the best beer I had at that Brewfest and probably one of the best beers I ever head.
From Garden State Brewfest 2016
Like a lot of breweries in NJ (and across the country) have been doing lately, Conclave began canning some of their beers. I think the first was Hop Ritual Pale Ale and the release was smashing successes. When they released the cans, they did a special release and the brewery was very, very crowded with all the cans going quickly. The next release in cans was (and is) Gravitational Waves. Again, when they announced it, the beers flew off the shelves. What they’ve done more recently in these can releases is not announce it, and simply have it available at the brewery in a “soft release,” but the 4-packs still sell. As I said, I think Espresso Milk Stout would be a great beer to go in cans, but something tells me either Gravitational Pull or Tyrion might be next. Regardless I’ll be buying if they are for sale. Conclave’s plan may be to go with the “soft release” of the cans which ensures the regular visitors will have first shot at the 4-packs.
I had the chance to chat briefly with Bryan and Matt this past weekend, who were working the growlers and taps in the back room where the brewing equipment and seating was located. Bryan is one of the brewers and when I asked what Conclave has on the horizon, I was happy to hear three of my favorites from would soon be returning: Gravitational Pull (A New England IPA), Equinox Brown (the best brown I’ve ever had), and the main Espresso Milk Stout. Bryan mentioned more than one of their customers who always returns for fills of Equinox Brown when I told him how delicious I think the beer is. I got a growler fill of that one New Year’s Eve two years ago and couldn’t have been happier with the beer. It was a smooth, tasty beer that was much cleaner than many browns I’ve had, the beer had a sweet almost caramel finish.
Despite what was probably a frozen glass and not the best pour from the bartender, Gravitational Pull was fantastic.
My only regret with regard to Conclave is that it has been so long since my last visit. With the brewery so close, I’m going to make a point of returning more often, for small growler fills, sampling, and to check to see what cans are available. Two years into their existence, Conclave has proven to be a great brewery and I look forward to seeing what they brew next. I certainly feel lucky to live so close to the brewery where these fine folks make and pour their beer.
Resources for this post and additional reading about Conclave Brewing:
Best brewery in Philly region (August 2017)
Brew Jersey (May/July 2017)
NJ.com June 2016
Hops and Horns beer blog (April 2016)
Courier News (Hunterdon County, December 2015)
NJ Monthly July 2015
Hunterdon Happenings (no date, probably July 2015)