CRICKET HILL BOASTS ‘BEST BEER ON EARTH’
It’s truly fitting that Grateful Dead’s “Built To Last” would be playing on the radio as I make my initial visitation to Cricket Hill Brewing Company. Just a few weeks earlier, the Fairfield-based microbrewery had been temporarily shutdown due to the nasty flooding Hurricane Irene brought to the area. Happily, the decade-old warehouse housing Cricket Hill was spared from water damage.
“God must love beer,” owner Rick Reed proclaims over the phone just days earlier. “Everybody else got flooded so there’s this Fairfield camaraderie now. We’re creating beer energy.”
Nevertheless, there were some early problems to overcome when Cricket Hill tried opening its doors May 15th, 2001. The first major concern was almost a showstopper. Reed bought brewing equipment, set up operations and filed for a federal brewer’s permit, but the disastrous events of 9-11 slowed the filing process and Reed didn’t receive a permit until 2002. Meanwhile, he’s struggling to pay rent and electricity to no avail.
“My brewer at the time told me as long as we have all this downtime, let’s brew a lager instead of an ale. So we made East Coast Lager,” Reed recalls. “Most microbreweries won’t do lagers because it takes too long and uses up too much space. Flying Fish doesn’t do any, but we do three now.”
Before getting involved in the brewing game, Reed worked in the computer services industry finding help for companies hiring cheaper overseas labor. On his 10th wedding anniversary, he and wife Patti headed to Bermuda. While driving around on a scooter, they came across now-defunct Triangle Brewery.
“Triangle had some wonderful beers,” Reed admits. “We left there knowing I had to get involved with brewing. The owner was a New Jersey accountant and the brewer left Chicago when his wife dumped him. I got a nice severance package from my old company and never looked back.”
At the time, there were only five breweries in Jersey. And Reed believed he could help Coors-Bud-Miller swiggers make the transition to better easy-to-drink beers.
Reed contends, “We didn’t want to scare away macrobrew drinkers. Our philosophy was to create Step One beers. Our four flagship beers – East Coast Lager, Hopnotic I.P.A., Colonel Blides Altbier and Breakfast Ale were definitely approachable. We also felt Jersey may be a fickle market, but when it turns it’ll do so with a vengeance. We’re a huge market.”
By 2007, Reed received additional capital from retired financier, John Watts, whose self-proclaimed job description, ‘Reserve and Small Batch Inspector,’ barely scrapes the surface. His monetary contribution helped Cricket Hill acquire fermenters and packaging supplies. And yes, he did help expand the specialty line and Reserve Series.
Presently, Cricket Hill is the third largest state brewery behind Flying Fish and River Horse, brewing 2,000 barrels and 13,000 cases of beer per year. A Pittsburgh native weaned on Iron City Beer (a ho-hum libation nearly as metallic as its namesake), Reed got into Ballantine Ale in the early ‘70s. At the time, he was a hard-nosed American refusing to try imported beers. Many years later, New Jersey’s Waterloo Beerfest had some great beers and he wondered why everyone was not “drinking this stuff.” Though he can’t remember which beers he enjoyed, Reed soon attended the American Brewers Guild for online testing and a one-week training session in Sacramento. In fact, Reed started a recent 25-day intern program for novice brewers at Cricket Hill.
“It exposes apprentices to every angle of a little brewery, from filtering to cleanup. So far, we’ve had a dozen guys come and ten now have jobs in the industry. Two are at Magic Hat and some others are at Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Weyerbacher and Alaska breweries. They leave here with such a wonderful foundation of knowledge people hire them as cellar men and assistant brewers. It’s not as intense training as the Brewers Guild, but we take on three people per month for direct training. Presently, we’re writing a course curriculum,” he acknowledges.
Though Cricket Hill doesn’t necessarily make designer beers, head brewer, Mehmet Kadiev (who left for J.J. Bittings during 2013), has definitely enlarged the palate of his aged-in-the-wool boss. Kadiev made his mark at Fayetteville, Arkansas’ respectable Hog House Brewing Company. But he pined to move back to his home state and soon took on head duties for Reed.
“I got the opportunity and was happy,” Kadiev tells me as I sample Cricket Hill Nocturne Dark Lager, a brown-sugared, cocoa-seeded, coffee-roasted delight with bitter hops submerging malt sweetness. “A huge part of brewing is consistency. Hop varieties change from season to season. I’m a Hophead who loves Imperial I.P.A.’s. I also enjoy Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous 11th Anniversary Ale. It’s a supposed black I.P.A., which is an oxymoron to call a pale beer ‘black.’ I’d rather call them India Black Ales.”
Besides crafting batches of best selling East Coast Lager, Kadiev’s brewing a Russian Imperial Stout and Porter set for the winter, both of which will also come in limited edition bourbon barrel versions.
While Reed may not have an overly expansive palate, he admits being pleasantly surprised by how well the Reserve Series has been.
“The bourbon barleywine I could drink all night long. I love bourbon.” He adds, “You learn to have this appreciation for home brewers. It’s a lot of fun and a big adventure. The craft beer industry is truly a blast. I don’t have a very good critical palate. I just go by flavors without picking up certain illusions. Do I like or dislike it?”
So far, all Reed’s beers are made to the strict specifications of Germany’s purity law, which states only water, barley, hops, and yeast are used.
“I’m a purist,” Reed insists. “That’s not to say we won’t add seasoning. We never have. But one of our small batches may utilize that.”
Draft-only small batch brews such as Cricket Hill Belgian Dubbel have already knocked the sox off some Asbury Park Beerfest patrons I drank with in early October.
As we leave Reed’s office and return to the brew room, the two of us settle into a bottled version of Cricket Hill Bourbon Barleywine, the 500th brew made here at their busy 3,000 square foot facility. A heavenly elixir a tad softer than typical oak-aged barleywines, its chewy caramel malting and prickled hop spicing lead a parade of vanilla, pecan pie, chocolate cake, butterscotch, marzipan and coconut illusions.
Like a rugged old codger, Reed likes to tell tall tales to unsuspecting customers. If you’re speculating about Cricket Hill’s chirpy moniker, he’ll tell you one of three stories.
“I tell ‘em when the Germans came over the first commercial hop farm in Saranac was named Cricket Hill. That’s a lie.” He continues, “The second is Australians drink more beer per capita than any country and the game of cricket could last for days and the blokes drinking blue collar beers sit on Cricket Hill. That’s true. But the real story is my Boonton-based 1753 farmhouse had a barn we wanted to convert into a tavern but got denied permission.”
Furthermore, Reed’s Hilarious Brew Plant Tour Speech on Youtube (given at most Friday night 5 to 7 PM tasting tours) is extremely entertaining. Amongst other goodies, Reed defiantly alleges, “You have been brainwashed since you were children to believe there’s nothing else to drink than Miller-Coors. They think we’re stupid!”
On my second sojourn to Cricket Hill on Veteran’s Day in November, Reed gives a different rant at the tasting tour, one that salutes our brave armed forces. After toasting the vets on hand, he then rails against the music industry’s archaic royalty rules, which state that he has to ‘supposedly’ pay $500 for any copyrighted songs the local instrumental Jazz combo plays.
As an extended jam of Van Morrison’s seductive “Moondance” plays in the background, the line for beer goes out the backdoor. But patient customers have no trouble reaching the serving station within a few minutes. On tap, Cricket Hill’s Paymaster Porter retains a deeper prune hue, richer mocha malting, more pronounced dried fruiting, and mossier earthen dewiness. Even better, the newly unveiled Trappist India Pale Ale displays a wonderful musty Belgian yeast funkiness to contrast affluent raisin, prune, and fig notes above feisty sharp-hopped black peppering and creamy caramel malting. It’s a splendid addition to Cricket Hill’s increasingly illuminating elixirs.
Best of all, Reed’s enthusiastic disposition and jovial personality make the Friday tasting sessions the perfect retreat for hardened beer nuts. And the love he shows for his sanctified minions extends to the beer Cricket Hill serves. Cheers!