Conclave Brewing - Flemington, NJ
The craft beer landscape has changed considerably in the past two years. I remember that by the end of 2014, there were about 25 open breweries. By the end of 2015, there was easily double that number. 2015 was a year of great expansion within the beer community and although many breweries were either very well-received or not at all, there are just an elite few who flew under the radar for the past year. Conclave Brewing is beginning to decloak and to start being on the map for a few Jersey beer aficionados. Generating an avalanche of popularity in the past 2 or so months advertising solely through social media and word of mouth - it's time to kick the door down - Conclave Brewing is here and it's here to stay.
I learned of this brewery back in the winter and had heard many great things about it from people who had ventured out to Conclave. The tough part for me was the limited hours of operation that they currently have. Open from 5-7 on Fridays and 1-5 on Saturdays, I had to make a concerted effort to get out there since it was over an hour drive and it would have to be the sole focus of me visiting the area. I was finally able to get the chance to head out to Raritan... and boy do I regret not going sooner. I was truly anxious to try out the beers that Tim Bouton and Carl Alfaro had to offer. The first thing that jumped out at me about this brewery was the fact that they offer just six beers on tap. Now, don't get me wrong, this is a great thing because in a world of breweries that open with 15 beers on tap - what this tells me is that Conclave's focus is on making quality beers whose floor is no lower than "great".
I won't mince words about this: all six beers were quality beer. Did I "like" all of them? No, simply because even though I am a man that enjoys trying all beers, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are all for me. Still, even the one I liked the least was still above average. And if you look at that board up above, you'll see a happy little situation: Even after having a flight of all the beers, I honestly had a hard time picking what I wanted to drink as a full serving. A full flight of 6 beers at the time was $11 and Tim walked us through each one. If you're a beer connoisseur, you'll appreciate the attention to detail. If you're a beer rookie, you're just in luck, you get to experience all styles of beer done WELL. Try the flight first no matter what your level of expertise is.
And as you can see above, the taproom is quite small - hopefully for now. It's a little more intimate, but at no point did it feel crowded to us. Merchandise like shirts, glasses, and growlers are up on the wall and the bright chalkboard is a quick reminder of what beer you might want to have next.
There is additional room to the right of the taproom where all the brewing magic happens. There are a few standing tables and another table or two to sit down. It might not be all dressed up and following the recent trend of trying to turn a new brewery into an elegant bar - but I actually appreciate that sort of thing. It makes me feel like I am a part of the process, nothing is hidden and everything is within plain sight. After all, it should be all about the beer and the people, everything else is a bonus. Bring a group or come alone, you'll be sure to at least talk to someone and most certainly will be able to share a great beer experience at the same time.
As previously mentioned, they do just six beers and they do them well. There's a style for everyone to find here. The Diplomatic Immunity was indeed the beer that I did not like as much, but that is based entirely on me not liking that particular style (Belgian) of beer. It was still drank to its entirety because you can never let good beer go to waste. If you like brown ales, the Equinox Brown is a really good one to have as well. I've had browns in the past that were certainly too thin, but this one packs quite a lot of flavor for a 5.4%.
But the Mexican Morning Stout - this is a real winner. I could talk for days about this one. Unfortunately, this one is not available for growler fills nor for a full serving of it, but I'll be absolutely honest: I enjoyed this a lot more in a smaller quantity. The Mexican Morning utilizes the Espresso Milk Stout (We'll get to this one in a minute) as a base and then kicks it up with cinnamon, cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, and chile peppers. I've tried a lot of beers that utilize these elements in a beer together, but very rarely does it feel like a uniform experience. Conclave's take on it pulls no punches, you get everything blended in beautifully. Similar beers I've had in the past will bring the heat in the back-end, Mexican Morning Stout gives it to you all at once in a well balanced fashion. This one is a definite must have even if you get the taster a few times.
Conclave's American Blonde Ale, "Heart of Glass" was probably the beer I was least thrilled to try - until I tried it. I'm not a fan of blonde ales in general because a lot of breweries I've been to will do one just to have one. They are usually thin to the point of being unrecognizable from a thin lager or pilsner with little to no flavor. This Blondie-inspired beer isn't like any of those. Heart of Glass actually has quite a bit of flavor to it, making it a great BBQ beer. I'm not sure why, but that's the first thing I thought of while having it. I was surprised that it was brewed with a small dose of Nelson Sauvin dry hop which probably punches it up a little bit giving it that nice taste as it goes down. It was good enough in the flight to actually warrant a whole glass. The light color can be misleading, it looks great as it pours and tastes great fresh from the source. I really did enjoy this brew.
So after raving about the Mexican Morning Stout, it is only fitting that I dedicate some attention to the Espresso Milk Stout. I love this beer. I love it for so many reasons that I don't think that trying to explain each one could actually do it justice. How many times have you had a milk stout or any stout under 6% that couldn't bring flavor to the table due to a lower ABV? I am pretty sure we have all tried a few. The Espresso Milk Stout impresses as soon as you take in the aroma. There's no hiding the coffee aspects of this beer - it's creamy without the supreme bitterness of coffee beers with a higher ABV. It's smooth without being overwhelming and you can hardly notice the lack of ABV, as this one clocks in under 6%. I could have sipped on this all afternoon. If I could have a brunch beer in the morning, this might be it.
Had Gravitational Waves not been on tap on the day we visited, I'd easily say the Espresso Milk Stout was my favorite, but it was there, so for the time being I need to express how much I enjoyed this beer. Coming to Conclave, I already knew this would be a juice bomb. Knowing that the three hops used were Galaxy, Mosaic, and Citra - I was 100% in for this. This is no hype, this is easily one of the best five IPA's (note: single IPA) I've had in New Jersey. This beer checks in at 6.84%, so you definitely don't have to feel guilty about having a few of them while you are at the brewery. And make no mistake, if you come to Conclave and it is on tap, you are doing IPA lovers all over the country a huge disservice if you don't try at least a full glass. I could go on and on about how much we enjoyed Gravitational Waves, but this is one of those "You need to try it yourself" scenarios. Now, it is limited, so I would check either their Facebook or Instagram accounts to see if it is available.
As far as the brewery is concerned, regardless of the offerings at the time of your visit, it is assuredly worth the time you would take to drive out, have a flight and pick a favorite. Since the place is rather small and I did favor all of their beers (a rare occurrence), I asked if Conclave had any plans for expansion, and although I cannot say anything specific about it, I can tell you that there are some plans. As to canning and/or bottling, the same applies. This to me indicates a very prudent and conservative approach to the brewery and one I can truly appreciate. Conclave truly is about the beers and the people first. It's about the people who work there and the people who come to visit. Even when it was incredibly busy, there was always a plethora of smiles and attentiveness from every single employee.
Everything I heard there was exactly the common sense that I miss witnessing from other breweries. In a state, now, chock full of breweries trying to expand and aggressively market, it's actually refreshing to come to one brewery where you can feel like you are part of that growth. It doesn't matter if it's coming by and stopping for a flight and growler to take home, or whether it's posting a picture on your Instagram feed about this nice little brewery you went to, or posting an honest opinion on an internet website - Conclave Brewing feels like the kind of brewery you've always wanted to visit and enjoy. I drove over an hour just to be there on a beautiful Saturday afternoon - I'll do it again throughout 2016, many more times.