We tend to think of craft beer as a relatively recent trend that came up alongside the foodie movement and DIY culture. But independently operated breweries have always been around. They were called microbreweries back in the day. Even in New Jersey, a handful of microbreweries have been around for a couple of decades.
Such is the case for Cricket Hill in Fairfield. Going into their sixteenth year of operation, they have not only survived, but thrived in the state’s craft beer boom. Alongside Flying Fish, River Horse, Climax and Ramstein, Cricket Hill and its original line-ups of IPAs and pale ales paved the way for New Jersey to slowly become a craft beer destination.
The journey to be one of New Jersey’s O.G. breweries starts with founder and co-owner Rick Reed. The career Information Technology professional would frequently travel to London on business and discover the different varieties of beer that were not available stateside. Seeing a business opportunity in an area with not much competition, he started Cricket Hill in 2000 and eventually started brewing Hopnotic IPA and East Coast Lager the next year.
While the logo has an insect, the inspiration for the name comes from the sport. In England, the Caribbean, Australia and Africa, cricket is played at the bottom of hills. Along the playing field nearby are the upper class fans who drink wine and eat cheese while the working class watch up on the hill and drink beer.
While Cricket Hill was starting out in the 2000s, fellow old-school beer fan Ed Gangi would hang around the warehouse and volunteer to help out with promotions, logistics and even mundane tasks like bottling. Eventually, he bought half of the brewery and now runs the day-to-day operations. “Since I bought in, we’ve updated our beer line-up, increased our output and expanded the tap room,” said Gangi on a Saturday afternoon in the production facility while his wife was serving thirsty customers.
Even with a who’s who and what’s what line-up of beer styles, it’s the original Hopnotic IPA that brings in new and returning customers. The four-blend hops bring out the grapefruit notes with a strong floral aroma. It’s an IPA for serious hop heads. Their other original beer, the East Coast Lager, is a crisp and crushable Helles-style German lager made for tailgating or downing after a hard workout.
Since adding more fermentors onto their original equipment, which includes a 50-year-old bottling line from Germany, Cricket Hill can go toe-to-toe with the other local breweries with more specialty or seasonal offerings and one-off, barrel-aged beers. Thus, making a pilgrimage to a warehouse area off Route 46 near Willowbrook Mall worth the trip. The seasonal that flies off the shelf is their warm weather Jersey Summer Breakfast Ale. While there’s no pork roll added, this Belgian-style pale ale makes a great addition to your kegs and eggs summer get-togethers with strong banana flavors.
On the dark side, you can find their Russian imperial stout and barleywine aged in any type of booze barrel you can think of — bourbon, wine, rum — available in small batches. Since they are trailblazers in New Jersey, they have a style for any discerning beer guy or gal. You want a trendy sour beer? Their Schnick Schnack Session Sour will satisfy. You craving a English-style pub bitter that taps into your anglophile nature? There’s the Colonel Blides ESB. For the chocoholics, there’s the Nocturne Chocolate Ale. For the pumpkin fetishist, the Pumpkin Ale (using real pumpkins) creeps in at the end of the summer.
Last year, to celebrate 15 years of beer goodness (which is about 70 in craft beer years), they brought out a Oktoberfest-inspired marzen. “We wanted something that bookended our original East Coast Lager that showed our growth,” explained Gangi. “On top of that, we introduced smoked porters, wet hop IPAs, double IPAs, dubbels and tripels. It shows how far we’ve come since 2001.”
The aspect that has remained consistent in their history is that new customers turn up every day. Gangi estimated that 60-percent of their business in the tap room comes from first-time visitors who hear about them through friends, find them on Untappd (an app for beer aficionados) or have seen their bottles on store shelves and were curious. Recently, brew bus tours have come around to transporting beer fans around North Jersey. “The beer scene in New Jersey is finally coming of age since the brewing laws changed in 2012. It’s a totally different environment from when we started a decade earlier,” he said. “All the new breweries that have popped up around us have increased our business. We’re lucky in that we distribute statewide and into New York and Pennsylvania.”
While you can consider Cricket Hill to be one of the elder statesmen of beer in New Jersey, it’s still about the people who come into the building and marvel at all the unique beers. “We’ll get people in the area who are in for business or a wedding and they come by to try the beer,” Gangi concluded. “We don’t know them, but we get to know them and before you know it, we’ve welcomed them into our little beer community.”
Missed the last installment of Brew Jersey? Read all about Devil’s Creek.
Name: Cricket Hill Brewery
Location: Fairfield, Essex County
Standout Beer: Hopnotic IPA
Know Before You Go: Tasting room provides pints, flights, growler fills, kegs and merchandise. Check Facebook for up-to-date hours, upcoming releases, events and tap list. Food is allowed in the tap room. No pets. Parking available behind the warehouse.
About the author: Chris Castellani writes about the NJ beer scene for BestofNJ.com. He also writes the travel blog Why Am I Not There?