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Heavyweight Brewing: Big is Phat

Jan. 9, 2000

By Kurt Epps

When I show my six year old something he likes, he responds with a special comment: "Whoa! That's Phat!" The word has nothing to do with obesity, and everything to do with what we boomers used to call "Cool" irrespective of temperature.

Brewer Tom Baker’s bold venture into the white-hot competition of the Microbrew Wars deserves a backslap from anybody who appreciates craft beer, and especially from those who like BIG beers.

Baker’s taking a big risk, too. He’s aiming for a VERY evanescent, not overly profitable, yet potentially very loyal target: the beer-drinking populace who knows and likes big beers.

Baker will be the first to admit that the two brews he produces (Lunacy and Baltus O.V.S.) aren’t everybody's cup of tea, and he goes a step further by advising that even if you love his stuff, you shouldnít use it as a session beer unless youíre very close to your own bed.

Because Baker’s beers are as big as his dreams. Right now, heís the sole employee of Heavyweight Brewing, located in Ocean Township, NJ. Wife, soulmate and market-savvy Peg Zwerver is the unpaid, yet essential, part of their team, though Baker claims that HWB won't make money for a year or so (which matters little to Peg).

But he insists that there is a market for the high-octane ABV (depending on how long it resides in the bottle) Lunacy he produces with the single-minded passion of a protective parent. "Big beers are more complex; they're never boring," says the former head brewer of the successful JJ Bittings Brewpub in Woodbridge, NJ. "There's an 'edginess' to them; they're unique."

I'll say. I tried two different samples -- one that was freshly bottled and ready for shipment to the growing number of outlets his distributor (Hunterdon Brewing Co.) is supplying -- and another that had been maturing for four months, not available for sale.

Both are unfiltered, but the difference was like that of George Bush and Dubya: one seasoned, wiser and a bit sweeter, with more sophistication and punch (7.9% ABV) to one thatís pretty good, learning the ropes (6.99% ABV), albeit rougher around the edges. In both you can taste the (supposedly) La Chouffe yeast, Pilsener malt, the two Goldings (Kent and Styrian) hops and a tantalizing hint of coriander that neither fades nor intrudes.

Both produce a beautiful Belgian Lace, but donít tell Baker heís a Belgian Brewer. He wants to create his own thing, his own niche. And heís convinced he can do it.

Heís not concerned about awards or honors ("I want the beer-drinking public to award me medals by buying and enjoying my beer"), and he warns that you'll "never see this beer in Denver." But he does want to be able to reach a point where "some guy in California really wants my beer and can't get it."

His second brew, Baltus O.V.S. (for Our Very Special), due to hit the stores a month from this writing, is even bigger than its brother. Adorned with the logo of a heavyweight (get it?) wrestler modeled after a famous Polish wrestler named Zbigniew, Baltus "will look like an amber after it floccs out," says Baker, a devotee of Baltic Porters like Finland’s Sinebrychoff, which he keeps on hand for "reference."

Made with 30% wheat (German) and floor malted pale ale malt, blended with unrefined turbinado sugar, Baltus will be an even higher gravity beer, and consumers are advised to lay it down for a while before drinking it. You can't judge a beer until it has run its time, says Baker. My sample tasted great -- flocced out or not, but Baker’s advice to be patient could only improve what is already a very tasty -- and very BIG -- brew.

Baker is a homebrewer's brewer, exuding a pure love for the craft and eschewing the quick profit that might accrue from doing mainstream stuff just to jump into the fray. I like being small. "I don't really want to make a ton of money, allows Tom. It does get lonely here, and the work is incredibly boring," he admits. "But I follow the maxim that says 'Do one thing and do it well.' "

There's only one word for a Heavyweight attitude like that.

Phat.

Heavyweight Brewing Company
1701 Valley Rd.
Ocean Township, NJ 07712
732-493-5009

®Kurt E. Epps 2000 All Rights Reserved

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