Back to the future at Triumph?

Feb. 19, 2000

By Kurt Epps

Tom Stevenson, the horticulturist-turned-brewer at Triumph Brewing Co. in Princeton, NJ, has gone back to his, er, roots. His herbs, to be precise.

Actually, he's gone back to the Middle Ages with a gruit (rhymes with fruit) beer that promises to "stimulate the mind, create euphoria and enhance sexual drive."

According to author Stephen Harrod Buhner (Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Siris Books, 1998), "...Gruit ale was the ale of Europe for at least 700 years, much as hopped ale or beer"

Whether or not gruit beer can deliver on its lofty promise was not immediately discernible, given the constraints of quaffing it in a public house absent the missus, and only getting a short sample to boot. But it is different -- and it is good.

Gruit is actually a mixture of three herbs -- sweet gale (also called bog myrtle), yarrow and wild rosemary. Incredibly aromatic and smooth tasting, this gruit beer is called Gothic Ale at Triumph, and it's served on the hand pump for full effect.

Stevenson, a student of history as well as horticulture, asserts that, "It has always been important to craft brewers to appreciate and , if possible, to revive old beer styles that are in danger of extinction to keep the world's beer culture rich and diverse in the face of powerful pressures toward uniformity and blandness."

Hear, hear!

Stevenson's attitude toward his craft is reflected in his ever-alert, always-looking-for-something-interesting approach to brewing.

For example, he noticed a Triumph food menu item that used sun-dried cherries. He wandered into the bowels of the brewpub where the supplies were stored, and as he ogled a cache of the cherries, he decided that if he were ever to make a cherry stout, sun-dried cherries would be the ingredient to use.

A few days later -- Voila! -- his Cherry Oatmeal stout was born and fermenting, ready just in time for Valentine's day and part of a very successful, sumptuous Gambrinus beer dinner tied to the holiday.

He's renaming it Washington's Cherry Tree Stout in honor of the Presidential holidays for public consumption. No session beer this, his stout is smooth, chocolatey and full bodied with a generous nose of cherries that doesn't dominate the other flavors. If you like chocolate-covered cherries (who doesn't?) in liquid form, hie your dessert-loving self to Princeton with haste.

His specialties during this visit included an impressive Helles Lager, designed to aid those Budmillercoorsmen who remain unconvinced about the pleasures of craft beer. This brew should win their hearts, if they're brave enough to take the plunge.

He also had a Mardi Gras beer called Jolie Blonde on tap. If you like chili peppers, ginger, and black pepper you'll find them in this beer. Tom assured me that it goes well with anything Mexican on the menu. I'll admit it was interesting to sample, but I like my beer to cool down the spiciness of my Mexican food, not add fuel to the fire.

The best surprises, however, were released from their vaults just for the PubScout, and before being generally available to the public.

Stevenson brought out a Rauchbier that was made with 98% smoked malts, disdaining the warnings of some rauchbier brewers who advise being chary with the smoky malts. The smoked flavor was full, though not overpowering, and the beer was quite good--easily a session beer. Maybe it's the beer you'll need to order if the town of Princeton enacts the NO SMOKING IN RESTAURANTS law it's pondering at the moment.

But Stevenson's best-kept secret is his brand new Triumph Trippel, and Abbey Trippel that can hold its own against any Belgian produced stateside and some from across the pond. With an 8.0 ABV, this is not a beer to funnel. Fresh, balanced and true to style, this is a powerful, satisfying brew that will sneak up on you very quickly, aided by a smoothness and a nose that are seductive in the extreme. Due on tap about three weeks from this visit, it should find a permanent home in toney, upscale Princeton.

Triumph still retains its original tap beer list -- a Honey Wheat, Bengal Gold IPA, an Amber Ale and a Stout, though not the incredible Coffee and Cream Stout that wowed the wort-watchers at Waterloo last year. All Stevenson's brews are tried and true examples of their styles, but it is Stevenson's forays into the unusual that should attract real beer lovers to Princeton.

You have to respect a modern brewer who replicates an herbal brew from the Middle Ages.

And claims that it's Y1K compliant.

Triumph Brewing Company
138 Nassau St.
Princeton, NJ 08542

®Kurt E. Epps 2000 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps