A oasis of peace, with justice

Feb. 23, 1999

By Kurt Epps

"You are hereby summoned to appear before Judge Whatever for the purpose of formulating a State Grand Jury."

There aren't many things Americans are obligated to do for the privilege of living here, but Jury Duty is one of them. And when that dreaded letter arrived at my home telling me that I had to make the trek to Trenton, NJ, the state capital, I was feeling less patriotic than I should have.

On top of that, this was a State Grand Jury, not some local civil court; and, if selected, I would be Trenton-bound one day a week for twenty weeks, probably to listen to mob related shenanigans that would have me looking out my rearview mirror for years to come. And my summons was for the middle of Jersey's nastiest and grayest month--February. Not exactly a set of circumstances anyone relishes, though the wonk who greeted us lucky winners told us what an honor it is to serve.

I would rather have seen Ed McMahon pull up with the big Van and a bigger check.

But duty is duty, so I hied myself to Trenton, comforting myself that I had heard of a brewpub there called Joe's Mill Hill Saloon.

As Fate would have it, Joe's was a chilly two block walk from where my Inquisition would take place, and I made for the spot right around noon, after being denied the honor of twenty weeks of service by virtue of a high call number.

There was nothing fancy or pretentious about the place which sat on a hill (duh) on the corner of S. Broad and Market overlooking the Mercer County Courthouse and the Hughes Justice complex. Stepping through the door of the 130 year-old building, I felt that I had indeed stepped back into a Roaring Twenties saloon.

There was nothing pretentious about Owner Joe La Placa either, working behind the old mahogany bar (taken from Atlantic City's Claridge Hotel). Joe was cordial enough to make me feel immediately at home--and warmer. And there was certainly nothing showy about the beer selection. "Only four," said Joe, "sometimes five if Andy feels like it." And, depending on which beer you wanted, Joe might even have to sojourn down to the brew cellar to get it. He only keeps one or two on tap upstairs because he opens the brew cellar in the evenings.

Securing Joe's permission to visit the bowels of the saloon and chat with Brewer Andy Schuessler was a snap. But nothing I had seen in the cozy and laid back upstairs prepared me for my first glimpse of the beer engines that power Trenton's first brewpub. No glistening, towering lauter tuns, bright liquor tanks or fermenters here, but what looks like a Rube Goldberg system of pipes, tubes and pots with a capacity of - get this - just a half barrel a day. "Hey, it's the freshest beer you can buy," said Andy, who indicated that if push came to shove, he could turn out five barrels a week.

The place looked like someone's darkly finished basement, but smelled like my kitchen when I brew at home. Andy is a homebrewer at heart, and he's deadly serious about his beers, which on this day included a superb Old Ale, a velvety smooth Imperial Stout, a rich, hearty and virtually opaque Porter that might have been the model for the style,and an exceptionally fine Ginger (flavored) Ale, flavored with Chinook and malted with Maris Otter.

At $2.25 the pint, there's not a better bargain in the state. Malcolm Early, my affable waiter, trundled out some outstanding pub grub, too: A Shrimp Bisque that was more shrimp than bisque was paired with the Ginger Ale for an appetizer. Then an incredible Pub Pot Pie (LOTS of chicken) showed up with the Porter, making for a complete cockle-warming experience.

There were plenty of homemade desserts to choose from, but, looking out at Trenton's winter-gray streets, I opted for Andy's Imperial Stout to top off the visit. Just think of the calories I saved . . . . Malcolm told me that the entire State Board of Health eats here often (a good sign if ever there was one) and that Senator - er, Governor Christie Whitman has also paid frequent visits.

Driving home, I arrived at a verdict. Coming down to Joe's Mill Hill Saloon for lunch once a week for twenty weeks might not have been such a bad sentence after all.

But the lawyers who stood before me after lunch might have wondered about the big smile on my face.

Joe's Mill Hill Saloon
So. Broad and Market Streets
Trenton, NJ

®Kurt E. Epps 1999 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps