Bud Not Spoken Here
The Tap Room At the Somerset Hills Hotel
By Vince Capano
Kevin Torpey is a linguist. Just go into the pub he manages, The Tap Room at the Somerset Hills Hotel, and prove it to yourself. Kevin can engage you in a conversation about International Bittering Units, original gravities, and wet hopping. He speaks the language of Stone, Founders, Chouffe, Ommegang, and Spaten. He can communicate in stout, porter, IPA, ryes, and lambics. His voice is heard in each of the 12 rotating taps and 80 bottles that dispense some of the hardest to find beer on the East Coast. However, there is one thing you should know about Kevin - he doesn’t speak Bud, Coors, or Miller. Its quality craft beer or his lips are sealed.
The Somerset Hills Hotel in Warren, NJ has long been known for its inviting style and high quality accommodations. It was definitely not known for its bar.
Then, about 4 years ago, hotel management made a fortuitous decision – they appointed Mr. Torpey as beverage manager. Thanks to him the once pedestrian bar has now reached a point where you can say, without fear of immediate and well-deserved institutionalization, “move over Andy’s Corner Bar; a hotel pub is now the premier beer stop in New Jersey!”
When you enter the warm, relaxing area of The Tap Room proper you can’t help but notice the beer menus on the bar. Make that the totally current, atomic clock accurate beer menus. Every time a new beer goes on line Kevin is out of his office with an updated list within minutes. Think Michael Phelps speed but without the water. Even more, the menu includes tasting notes, alcohol content, serving size, and price. Listing the price is a special treat since any self-respecting male would rather ask for driving directions than ask about the price of a beer. And yes, those prices are reasonable. As a bonus, there is always a great deal on the daily special. True to his customer friendly approach, Kevin makes sure the special is not some leftover or slow mover; it actually is a special special. “One reason I put a really good beer up that way is to encourage the customer to taste a world class brew they might not have considered before”. He’s not fooling around; the last three specials at the Tap Room were bottles of Piraat, Golen Draak, and St. Bernardus Abt 12.
There’s even a new “Kevin’s Secret Bottle Stash” list with brews that are hard to find even for Kevin. The only problem is that he hasn’t figured out how to tell people about the list and still keep it secret.
Kevin also includes the style of the serving glass on his menu. As he explains, “the correct glass can enhance the beer drinking experience for our customers. That’s important to me.” He wants his beer menu to be as complete as possible “because it’s only fair to our customers. They should know everything about the beers we have so they can make the right selection.” This guy is so good Mrs. Claus would probably dump Santa in a heartbeat for him.
Of course the same affection might not be forthcoming from leprechauns since Kevin is an Irishman who took out the Guinness tap and replaced it with a rotating line of stout treasures like Founders Breakfast, Great Divide’s Yeti, and Rasputin Imperial. “Guinness is an excellent beer but it’s readily available. I wanted to give my customers a chance to taste some of the other great stouts and porters that are out there.” Amen. Besides, I don't think Kevin has to worry about those leprechauns anyway. Rumor has it they don't really care about the Guinness we get here in the USA since it's all brewed in Canada. Really.
Making a hotel bar into a premier beer pub was resisted by upper management at first. For Kevin, “craft beer in a hotel was the way of the future”, for management it was a tad more bottom line- if we build this will people come? In a word, the answer is yes. If you look around the bar on any given night you’ll see beer aficionados, local residents (a major coup for any hotel), and hotel guests enjoying the craft beer world.
Getting the typical hotel guest to try a craft beer was perhaps Kevin’s toughest challenge. “I try to talk to many of the customers about what flavors they like to help them select something they will enjoy. I put special pamphlets about beer on the bar. And I’m lucky to have great bartenders like Rachael and Carli who have gone out of their way to learn about beer to help our customers. Our outstanding bar manager, Mynor Elis is a beer guy too. Even the hotel chef, Kevin Donnelly, is on board; he now uses beer in cooking some of his excellent dishes.”
While bottles of Coors and Bud Light are discretely hidden in the cooler under the bar, Kevin usually recommends Cricket Hill (a fine local brewery) as an entry level lager for those making the transition from macro to micro brews. Most people take his advice and are amply rewarded. If you don’t, there’s no need to worry. Kevin is a beer expert, not a snob. When one customer opted for a Coors Light on ice (yes, on ice), Kevin simply filled up the guy’s glass with ice, opened the bottle, and politely smiled. To this day he denies being the one who ran into the hallway and let out an uncontrollable scream of despair.
In fact, Kevin freely admits to formerly being a swill light-lager guy himself, albeit without the ice. He was a devoted, gasp, Bud drinker. His beer epiphany came when he had his first glass of Chimay . After that it was full speed ahead, damn the macros. “I love the Belgiums, but also am a huge fan of stouts and porters. I like good lagers and hoppy ales too.” We get it Kevin, you like beer.
From searching online to personally contacting micro breweries Kevin is proactive in getting the best craft beer into The Tap Room. “Distributors and brewers know that we’re building a customer base here that will appreciate their product; they’re beginning to think of The Tap Room first when they have something special.”
Now there’s a coincidence, that’s the same thing beer fans are doing ……thinking of The Tap Room first when it comes to great beer!