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Tasting R.J. Rockers

November, 2000

By Bobby Bush

In jolly olí England, neighborhood pubs are part of everyday life. Usually within walking distance, for convenience and safetyís sake, these small, homey bars are gathering places where friends convene for lengthy conversation and frivolity. Beer, the drink of choice, serves as both magnet and catalyst.

And so it was that sweet Carolyn and I set off for Spartanburg, SC on Thanksgiving Eve destined for R.J.Rockers, the hospitable burgís downtown brewpub. As a guest of brewer/owner Mark Johnsen, we were invited to help with the presentation. A beer tasting was the main event, followed by a regularly scheduled trivia contest.

Arriving earlier than even we expected, we plopped our cold butts into a cozy booth and, quite naturally, ordered up a sampler tray. Might as well do a little homework in preparation for the official tasting, right? Lite Rock 117, the obligatory bicycle beer, was paper thin and accordingly soft in flavor. Carolina Kolsch atoned for the light start. Its malty taste chased a short, tangy finish. In other words, the Kolsch, a traditional German-style ale, was nice, a great session beer. Sparkling gold in color, Dr. Dís Elixir of Life began sweet before hitting a tart hop wall, while the medium bodied Frau Bluchers Munich Lager was reddish gold, malty and filling. Seasonal Daniel Morgan Marzen was an Oktoberfest-style lager brewed from Munich, Vienna, Caramel and Wheat malts,

Just into our taster tray with food on the way, we were joined by patron and mug club member Mark Isbell. He and several other loyal patrons, (also known as Mug Clubers) would later helped facilitate the tasting program. Markís favorite brew was next in line. Intense hops punctuated the Sierra Nevada-like Panther Ale, rendering this IPA one of my favorite RJR beers as well. Bulldog ESB was a work of contrast. Smooth in mouthfeel, initial mildness met a bittersweet yet satisfying ending. The Horse You Rode In On Amber Ale was, along with the Kolsch, a perfect session beer. Not too bold in bitterness or sweetness, this succinctly balance beer was on the light side of medium in body and revealed just a hint of honey sweetness as each swallow trailed down the throat. Done English style, Downtown Brown was a ringer for Newcastle. Refreshing was the operative word for the nutty-finishing Mr. Hankeyís Hazelnut. Though compared on the beer menu to Guinness, RJ Rockersí Spartanburg Stout was extremely complex in malt bill. Its deep blackness revealed signs of coffee, mocha and chocolate before yielding to a nicely harsh coffee end and aftertaste.

From the conditioning tank, someone fetched a sample of brewer Johnsenís Christmas brew. The First Snow Ale was sprinkled with the smell and taste of various spices, including but not limited to cinnamon, cardamom, clove (12 tablespoons in a 10 barrel brew), fresh orange peel and honey. Merry Christmas indeed!

Time for the show. As Mug Club president Kim Senn, who holds mug #1, and cohorts Pete McNamee and General Manager JC Cudd distributed small glasses of Carolina Kolsch, Johnsen took the stage to introduce yours truly. In all its cacophony, the crowd collectively yawned over the Beerdrinker of the Year story, a traditional bedtime tale in my household, so Mark took over to introduce the kolsch. A little inside-brewing info from Johnsen accompanied by some historic or anecdotal blurb from me, the hundred or so gathered patrons sipped their way through beer and verbage for five more RJ Rockers beers and one of my homebrews.

A beer trivia questionnaire, compiled by me, had been circulated earlier. The winner and his wife took home two growlers full of beer. As the real trivia program progressed, Mark and the Mug Club crew were privately treated to several other unusual (at least in South Carolina) ale and lager delicacies. A good time was had by all.

Founded May 1, 1997, RJ Rockers has become a downtown watering spot in spite of the urban renewal construction around them. Johnsen has to beg, borrow and plead, trying almost any promotion (including free beer tastings) to bring in the masses. And his regular crowd, a subset of the 480-some mug club member, do all they can to help. And itís working. RJ Rockers is a comfortable, neighborly place, almost Cheers-like in friendliness. Intended or not, thereís a little bit of English tradition living in Spartanburg.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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