The Beachcomber

Hop Sauce Festival: LBI Eateries Hold It All Down

Food Appeal of Long Beach Island’s Big June Event
By JON COEN | May 26, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Johnson for Hop Sauce Fest The food vendors at Hop Sauce are the ones who keep pushing the envelope of fun and flavor on LBI.

On June 3, lovers of flavor – musical, artistic, brewed and culinary – will descend on Beach Haven for the fourth annual Hop Sauce Festival. It could be over 6,000 lovers, if last year was any indication.

Since its inception in 2014, the idea was to not only marry craft beer and hot sauce, but to set a tone of different flavors. Directed by locally-based apparel company Jetty, and Beach Haven retailer Spice it Up, the idea was to locally influence a much bigger movement away from generic tastes, mega breweries and musicians who solely play other artists’ songs.

The movement has gained traction around the world. And locally, each summer new eateries bring fresh ideas and ingredients, the local original music scene has made strides, and four craft breweries have opened in Southern Ocean County.

At Hop Sauce, the focus of the festival is normally the music or some new micro brew. The Hop Sauce Festivals have featured relevant national acts that headline larger venues and play late night talk shows. The area’s new breweries have tapped special kegs. Even some of the hot sauces seem to garner rock star status.

But each year, the food vendors get little fanfare. They are all local. They leave their restaurants, which are just getting into the season, and serve up delicious offerings that keep everyone happy all day. It’s nice to taste hot sauces on chips and pretzels, but the idea is to combine food and spice, to experiment with different flavors on different types of fare. And that makes the slingers of tacos and sliders, wings and clams on the half shell, integral to the day.

“Basically, Hop Sauce is the one event we actually look forward to. A lot of these things are just a lot work with no upside,” explains Mark Cohen of The Chicken or the Egg restaurant in Beach Haven, “We already have great exposure, so we don’t need the extra publicity. But Hop Sauce is different. It’s got a vibe unlike any other event. Chowderfest is fun, but it’s a competition, so it’s stressful. We get busy at Hop Sauce, we make a few bucks, and everyone there is so laid back and looking to have a great time.”

Hop Sauce tickets are $20 general admission or $40 for beer tasting. The vendors all serve $4-$8 portions, so that festivalgoers can enjoy a lot of different food with different flavors of heat.

The Chicken or the Egg will be serving wings, The Arlington will serve pork belly sliders, El Swell will have their famous fish tacos, Shore Fire Grill will offer pulled pork with mac and cheese, Barry’s Do Me A Flavor will serve up cheese steaks, Country Kettle will have chowder, and Spice It Up will have brats and hot dogs. Crust and Crumb will have delicious baked desserts. New this year is Parker’s Garage in Beach Haven, opened this month by the Mud City family of restaurants, in place of the Black Whale at the festival. They will serve clams, oysters, crab cakes and a much anticipated lobster corn dog.

As this festival has always taken great lengths to curate the experience, these restaurants are the ones pushing the culinary envelope locally.

“When planning for the first Hop Sauce and looking at the different options for food vendors, Jeremy (Defilippis, co-founder of both Jetty and Hop Sauce) and I decided that we had great talent here on the Island, and that we wanted to highlight the variety of food choices,” said Regina Lotito, event director and owner of Spice It Up. “We sent dozens of letters out to the restaurants explaining what we were doing and what we were looking for with the food. Our vision was a ‘tapas-style’ menu: smaller portions priced to entice people to try different foods or pair different foods with the craft beer or hot sauces.”

And there is literally food for everyone – from baked treats to vegan plates.

“There’s this stigma behind festivals such as Hop Sauce that if you’re drinking beer all day, you must have meat. Vegans drink beer, too!” laughed Rob Ramos, owner of Living on the Veg in Beach Haven Gardens, the only completely vegan/vegetarian restaurant in the area. “The guys at Jetty have helped us out tremendously. It’s an honor for us to help them out in any way we can and give back. It’s just an awesome community event at a perfect time of year, and we feel privileged to be part of it.”

These eateries come back year after year because they’re a perfect fit. Kevin Sparks is the third-generation owner of Howard’s Seafood, but he also opened El Swell in Beach Haven Gardens four years ago, a perfect pairing for Hop Sauce.

“El Swell is a better fit than Howard’s because most of what we serve is handheld food, perfect for festivals. Hot sauce on a fish taco is the cherry on the sundae, so to speak,” Sparks asserts.

Whereas the bands, the hop sauce companies, and the beers just have to show up and do their thing, these restaurants have to stay open as well that day. While it’s a challenge to staff a restaurant on a late spring weekend and put their best foot forward at the festival, it’s one the restaurants don’t back down from.

“It is tough to staff a 24-hour restaurant and run a booth at Hop Sauce, but like anything worthwhile, its ends justify the means,” explained Cohen. “We love that Jetty raises money with it. We love that there is plenty of beer. We love the camaraderie of the vendors. We love the bands. We love that it is local. Seeing our friends and neighbors benefit from the popularity of the event is awesome. We are proud of its success and the huge strides the event has taken in such a short time.”

Of course there are the usual big stories at Hop Sauce this year. The headlining act is Lee Fields & The Expressions, a soul crooner who released his first record in 1969 and is a popular touring act today, playing a combination of funk, lo-fi blues, and Southern soul. He’s supported by SUSTO, ELEL, the Hardwork Movement, plus the young locals of the Double Negatives.

South End Surf N’ Paddle has built up a considerable paddle race called the Hop Sauce Tune Up, which brings paddlers from all over the New Jersey Shore to the race and the festival.

Under the beer tents, the local breweries often garner much of the attention, such as Ship Bottom Brewery, which overlooks the festival grounds and Manafirkin Brewing Company, which opened on East Bay Avenue in Manahawkin this year. Another highlight is Jetty Session, Jetty’s own beer, which became available for the first time ever in May.

So if you’re headed down to the Taylor Avenue waterfront for the festival this year, you’ll clearly be interested in the music, spice and brews. But eventually, you’re going to get hungry.

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