Critics' Corner

The Ship Inn, Milford, NJ

By Kurt E. Epps

What do you get when you take a very young Anglophile, teach him how to brew and put him in charge of your tavern? You get an authentic, charming, must-visit English pub, right down to the food and decor.

The Ship Inn, located in the picturesque Northwest New Jersey countryside, sits on the Delaware River facing Pennsylvania, across the Upper Black Eddy Bridge in the quaint town of Milford. Situated appropriately on the picturesque Okeecachokee Creek, the legendary inn has the distinction of being New Jersey's first brewpub, licensed on January 2, 1995.

Of course, it has been in operation for ten years as a successful bar and restaurant, and it's easy to see why. From the moment you walk in you know this is a classic English pub with panoramas of brass and lacquered wood, with all kinds of interesting bric-a-brac adorning the walls. It should also be noted that a huge stack of Beer and Tavern Chronicles greets the cerevisaphile immediately upon entering, indicating that the Ship Inn is serious about its brews and its well-deserved reputation.

That's because its Head Brewer, Tim Hall, only 24, is now the captain of this ship. At the tender age of 14, he was pressed into service in the galley of what was then his Mom (Ann) and Dad's (David) new frigate/tavern for its maiden voyage. His original goal of being a chef didn't pan out, but he confessed that he "always liked English beers." His British father David encouraged Tim's frequent visits to the "other side of the pond" for the purposes of education and enculturation. A smart move that, as that British feeling permeates everything in the place, including the food. (Hint: The Shepherd's Pie might be the best on either side of the Atlantic.)

Tim, who admits to never having homebrewed, took a two-day crash course in brewing at Kennebunkport, ME at (you guessed it) The Shipyard Brewery. He followed that with a quick trip to Oliver's Wharf Rat in Baltimore, and he hasn't looked back since.

Captain Tim has brewed 84 batches at seven barrels a batch (that's 588, for those who quaff while reading), and they provide ample ballast. The six generally available are Golden Wheat Light Ale, an exceptional Paddlewheel Pale, a super-hopped India Pale Ale, a dazzling Nut Brown Ale and a rich, dark, roasty Irish Stout (OG-55) served under nitrogen. Speaking of nitrogen, The Ship Inn even has a chaplain to tend to your spirit at the bar with Abbott Ale on draft. The incredibly smooth Abbott shares the draft dais with Harp, Whitbread, Fuller's ESB, Guinness and Stonehouse Cider.

Periodically, Tim will bring out a seasonal, but don't let the names he gives them fool you. For instance, during a special tour to the bowels of the Ship's hold, Tim drew a glass of a special ale called "Celebration Ale" which is due out shortly. This remarkably beautiful, red-amber beer was superbly balanced and a testimony to Tim's English Ale know-how, but it's coming out under the name "Wimpy." It's anything but. Tim will even name a beer batch after special customers or friends. He had one brew called "Old Dinmore" named after his buddy who recently became a father. Rumor has it that an upcoming batch will carry the name PubScout. Ale.

His bottled brews might as well come from Windsor Palace or Westminster Abbey. Let the Bishop's Finger point the way to a Royal Family of 36 British Brews, including various offerings from Young's, Watney's, Sam Smith, Shepherd Neame and Charles Wells. The food was nothing short of supreme, especially if you like English fare. Chef Travis Pfenninger, 27, specializes in regional game (venison, pheasant, rabbit), and he excels at steaks, chops and seafood as well. His Portobello Mushroom Sandwich captures devotees daily.

Clearly, the clients from Tim Hall's "Catchment Area" (a British term for sales territory) don't mind the hour and a half drive it takes them to get to the Ship Inn on the weekends, which is about the time it would take from NYC. And Pennsylvania is just across the river.

Asked about what being NJ's first brewpub meant for business, Tim allowed that the first 6 months produced a boom honeymoon, but the Ship took a broadside when the second and third brewpubs, Triumph and Long Valley opened fire with their kegs. Customer traffic has now stabilized, Tim said, returning to former levels. And, because he runs a trim ship (only 25 employees), his profit margins are better. He's even toying with the idea of making the Ship Inn accessible by canoe. With his incredible selection of brews, culinary wizardry, and a charmingly British ambience, the Ship Inn Canoe Tie-Up may not be far off.

By land or by "sea," one visit to The Ship Inn reminds you that Independence from England had a downside too. (61 Bridge Street, Milford, NJ) ) Kurt E. Epps, 1996 All Rights Reserved