By Sean Lynch, Monk's bartender
I first became aware of Tonewood Brewing in 2016 as soon as they opened in Oaklyn, New Jersey. Once I heard that a new brewery was opening around the corner from my childhood home, by alumni of the same high school I went to, I was immediately curious. At the time I was a year into working as a barback at the greatest beer bar in the world, Monk's Café. I had officially become a beer snob, so I wasn't going to let hometown or high school bias influence my opinion. This was at the height of the craft beer revolution, when countless new breweries were opening, so I was learning how to use discretion when gauging the quality of a beer, if not any other choices in life.
And yet as soon as I took my first sip of Tonewood Fuego I knew this brewery was different. I'm not a huge fan of hazy IPAs, but Tonewood Fuego was well balanced between that dank bitterness and juicy citrusy flavor that is difficult to dial in. After that I tasted their other styles, thinking surely, like most nascent craft breweries, these brewers would only focus their energy on making good IPAs. I had their early takes on the pilsner, dunkle, English mild, and stout styles, and was impressed with their versatility.
Everyone knows Tom Peters, founder of Monk's Café and Godfather of craft beer in general, only wants to serve the best of the best. It was clear from the outset that Tonewood valued the two most essential qualities that I think Tom looks for besides just the product itself: craftsmanship and sustainability. The way that brothers and founders Taylor and Eli treat their coworkers with dignity and respect is another important aspect of what makes Tonewood so appealing. When Monk's Cafe hosted the Pennsylvania launch party for Tonewood Brewing in 2018, we had as big of a turn out as we did when we launched Wicked Weed that same year.
Fast forward five years to when the Monks Cafe crew took a trip over the Walt Whitman bridge to Tonewood's original Oaklyn location to collaborate on brewing a beer. This is where they still do their pilot brewing, with a focus on mixed fermentation saisons. The coolest part about this location is the attention given to wood in the interior design. Wooden tables and barrels are complemented by new oak foeders, one of which would be used later on for our collaboration beer. Their sleek new, larger location in Barrington is where Tonewood now brews their flagship beers. All in all we had Tom, John, Maeve, Rick, Rachel, Monti, Matt, Luke, Brennah, and I to help out, but most of all to take part in a fun and educational process. We were met bright and early on a beautiful Monday in June by Mike and Taylor, who led the way as we selected the malts and hops under the supervision of Tom.
Rabbit Hill Malthouse, a local South Jersey maltster, provided the most interesting ingredient that we were to brew with: barley smoked with mulberry wood from a tree that was struck by lightning on the Rabbit Hill farm. This malt has a unique mesquite flavor that differed from typical smoked malts. It was important to have the pilsner only be subtly smokey, using mostly non-smoked pilsner malts, and to retain the refreshing thirst quencher feel that everyone wants from the style. We chewed on the grains to get a taste of the base of our beer, then we smelled different hops to figure out what kind of flavors we wanted to stand out most. We went with Saaz for a citrusy aroma and Hallertau for a bit of spicy bitterness.
It was the first time brewing beer for many of the Monk's crew, which made the usually mundane and arduous tasks of stirring the mash and emptying spent grain genuinely exciting. Even cleaning is fun when it's your first time brewing! We all took turns doing mostly the glamorous stuff though, like hopping the boil. (Everyone wants to be the person that gets to put the hops in the brew.)
The highlight of the long brew day of course was thanks to Katie and Alli, who brought Tonewood's mascots Flora and Koda to the brewery. These fluffy canine friends can often be found greeting customers at both of the brewery's locations, as Tonewood is probably the most dog friendly brewing company out there. And while many of the Monks Cafe crew were distracted by petting dogs and drinking, I mean, sampling Tonewood's awesome beers - Mike and Taylor did most of the heavy lifting when it came to brew day. Thanks to Tom for his leadership and guidance on conceptualizing the beer. A big thanks to Eli and the rest of the Tonewood crew too, for keeping regular operations going while we got to have fun and experiment with a new beer.
MC Lager turned out crisp and delicious, perfect for the late summer to early fall. I'm certain that this lightly smoked pilsner is going to be a hit. Keg and cans of MC Lager hit Monk's and Tonewood taprooms on Wednesday, August 17 beginning at 5pm.