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N.J.’s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

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N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

N.J.'s best craft brewery: 2 heavyweights battle for Shore supremacy

Tasting rooms, found at most every craft brewery, sound sedate but are anything but; they are lively, convivial hangouts, usually devoid of big screen TVs and loud music, where beer lovers can talk shop and suds with like-minded souls.

The rooms come in all shapes, sizes and styles; the second-floor tasting room at Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands is a compact space where dogs happily camp out on the floor and humans lounge on well-worn couches or lean against the bar.

“The girls are out for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and dinner; we just took the boys to laser tag,” says John Kugel of Matawan, with his two sons and nephew. The boys were busy with a video game, while their dads discussed the merits of Boat, Cosmonaut and other Carton beers.

Cousins Augie and Chris Carton opened the brewery six years ago in a turn-of-the-century brick warehouse. Carton is one of the state’s best-known craft breweries; demand has outstripped supply to the point where 300 barrels a month are brewed by contract at a Connecticut brewer. A much-needed expansion at Carton is underway next door; about 4,400 barrels were produced by Carton last year. 

Start with the requisite brewery tour with Valerie Canubas or another guide; Canubas later helped bartend upstairs as the tasting room quickly filled up on Sunday afternoon.    

I ended up at the bar (fancy that) next to John J. Ward, whose artwork here is on display until the end of April. A digital board listed upcoming Carton events, including a tap takeover at Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell on April 18.

I’ve been sampling eight beers at each of our semifinalists; conveniently there were eight on tap during our Carton visit, so tough decisions were not necessary. My favorites here: Nitro Milk, a stout; and G.O.R.P. (for Good Old Raisins & Peanuts), a porter.

KANE BREWING CO., OCEAN TOWNSHIP

Ignore the dentist-office-like exterior, walk through the gift shop and into the cavernous tasting room at Kane Brewing Co., where owner Michael Kane is partial to American style and Belgian-influenced ales. 

I interviewed Kane at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver in 2014, where Kane won a gold meal for its A Night to End All Dawns, an Imperial Dark Ale that starts as an imperial stout and is transformed into a strong dark ale after 15 months in bourbon barrels.

Demand for A Night to End All Dawns is so high that the brewery instituted a recent lottery system to win a set of five brews and a limited edition stem glass for $135 a set. If you didn’t already enter the lottery, it’s too late; the deadline was Monday. 

Among those in the tasting room was Meghan Curti, who couldn’t wait to come over and say hi; her parents had hosted the Munchmobile and crew at their 4th of July picnic in 2008.

Curti showed off her nifty N.J. Brewery Passport, developed by Vinnie Basciano, which holders can get signed and/or stamped, just like a regular passport. Curti, partial to saisons and sours, has visited 30-40 of N.J.’s 83 craft breweries/brew pubs.

Aaron Darretta, Kane’s director of retail operations, showed us around.

Asked to account for Kane’s standing as one of the state’s top brewers, Darretta replied,  “We were lucky to get in right at the beginning. Building a core lineup; instead of a ton of beers, making a few beers really well.”

My favorites here: Malus Belgian dark strong ale, and Sneak Box American pale ale.

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