Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Tour Until You Drop

  "And I do my little turn on the catwalk"

Almost every brewery that you visit will have the mash/larter tun and brew kettle next to each other. Since both of these need to be accessed from the top to add ingredients, there is always a catwalk around them both. Anyone who has been on a brewery tour knows this. At Cricket Hill Brewing Company in Fairfield, NJ, this is where one of the most passionate brewery owners ascends to deliver his sermon to the faithful and qualify the shindig that takes place every Friday afternoon as a "tour". We'll get back to what is perhaps my favorite "tour" of any brewery that I have ever taken, but I need to go through the usual rundown first.

If you just pop in, get the lay of the land and maybe sample a few beers you're not going to get what this place is all about. Stick around and let the "social lubrication" work its magic and for the beer goggles to be set in place. For when you first arrive you'll see people in the parking lot, drinking beer and smoking cigars. They carry both activities in and out of the building all afternoon. Follow them inside and at first appearance you'll get the impression that busy employees shoved everything that wasn't nailed down on the brewery floor into every crack and crevice to make room for a party, just like Fezziwig's staff just prior to the Christmas, Christmas tour. In the rafters there are strands of little, white lights that do less to make the place dark and dingy than to draw your attention to the plastic, childrens' riding toy shaped like a cricket. But  never mind all that and go get your samples and you'll find that beer goggles work not only with members of the opposite sex, but with buildings as well. Ignore your first impressions because if you put too much stock in it, you will miss the true heart and soul of this place and the inner light that is not perceived at first. Hang out and drink it all in...literally and figuratively.

The BUILDING is unimpressive and like many craft breweries is situated in an industrial complex, sharing its cramped, pothole-laden parking lot with a few other businesses that inhabit the street-facing side of the building. There is nothing architecturally or historically interesting about the place (like River Horse) and it is not spotlessly clean (like Flying Fish). But it has something both of those are missing...a deeply passionate soul. Although you wouldn't want to drop any of the proffered snacks on the floor and apply the five second rule, the owner assured me that their sanitation protocols are "over the top". And when you really think about it, all that matters is that the ingredients are fresh and that all conduits that the beer travels through are clean. As long as the product coming out the other end is drinkable, who cares what the floor looks like?

I'm trying to get some verification on the existence of a GIFT SHOP as I saw no merchandise on hand for sale. It's entirely possible that there was a sheet, listing available items, posted somewhere that I missed while enthralled by the band and the beer. Maybe the tasting table from the neighboring cheese company supplanted their "company store", but three visits from four different kohai all came away with the same impression: there is no gift shop. On their website the prices seem pretty reasonable. One of their pint glasses is $4.00; most other places charge $5.00.

Rick Reed Adressing the Faithful
The TOUR is what makes a visit here entirely worthwhile. I made the mistake of referring to the surrounding revelry as a "party" to the owner, Rick Reed. He quickly corrected me and said that it is indeed a "tour". I gladly stood corrected and, when the time came, enjoyed a tour like no other before it. If you're reading this then you've more than likely been on a brewery tour. You may have even suffered through a boring, repetitive, monotonous dialogue from an office stooge whose turn it was to lead the tour that day. You probably even resisted the urge to correct them as they confused the mash tun with the whirlpool, as I have done on a tour or two. Yes, on those tours they teach you HOW they make beer, but most of us are past the overview portion of that lesson. From his perch on the catwalk, Rick may not teach you much about the process (or he may), but you learn about the method...the method to his madness. During the pontification you get a good understanding of WHY people brew beer, WHY they scrap perfectly profitable careers to get into this business and the JOY they experience by having made that choice. You may hear some of the frustration that comes with this business, but you'll get the feeling that the love of the craft will always overcome any roadblocks.

Rick gives this tour so that they can operate the TASTING BAR and keep within state legality (so he says. ..I honestly believe he really enjoys entertaining his tour guests). As you enter, you give someone at the table $2.00 and you take your plastic cup that has four tickets in it. Regardless of the color, each ticket will get your cup filled with any of the beers they're offering that day. I hear that on some days you can pay $5.00 and get a souvenir glass as well. It was not one of those days when I was there so I'll need to go back. There are four taps mounted to the wall between the brewery area and the refrigeration room, so you can try them all unless they've got a sixtel going through a cooling rig. They had the Summer Ale, Colonel Blide's, Hopnotic, a Belgian Dubbel and a shandy...yes, a shandy. Rick was not happy about this, because they had made it from a failed batch of East Coast Lager, their flagship beer. In fact, the story of East Coast Lager and the mistake that resulted in pouring most of it and adding lemonade to the rest was the basis of the tour sermon. He implored everyone to try the shandy and let him know honestly if they liked it or not. You almost got the feeling he wanted people to tell him it was horrible as if he had a bet with someone in Marketing that a shandy wouldn't sell. It was actually pretty good...for a shandy. My mom would have loved it.

Cricket Hill's BEER selection is developing into a nice assortment of styles that are done very well. Rick touts the results of his labors as "the finest beer on the planet Earth." There are people who would dispute that  brash claim, as I might be inclined to do, but I have to give Rick props on making some really nice beer, across the board. From the tasting bar I was really impressed with the Belgian Dubbel and it would have been the tops for me had Rick not brought forth a couple of bottles he had in back. The first was a barleywine and it was very, very nice. But then he produced a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine that was phenomenal. Folks, I LOVE Weyerbacher's Insanity, which is Blithering Idiot aged in bourbon barrels. I never thought that I'd ever say that there was a beer brewed in New Jersey that I liked better than Insanity, but here I go. The bourbon barrel-aged barleywine that Rick poured for us was so perfectly balanced that the bourbon did not overwhelm the beer and both swam harmoniously in my mouth and made me loathe to swallow down the last drop from my cup, knowing it might be the last time I ever tasted it. It was superior to Insanity on many levels. Can you find this on the shelf? We asked Rick about that and he was evasive, so don't hold your breath, but join me in crossing your fingers. Update: Yes, it has been distributed in 22 ounce bottles.

You can watch the YouTube videos of Rick's little turn on the catwalk. Go ahead and click the play button to watch him in action. But you're not going to get the full effect of being there and FEELING how connected this man is to his brewery, his craft and his loyal drinking base. Is this a case of Rick being "too sexy" for his beer? Does his likability drive you  to WANT to like the beer more, so you wind up overestimating its true value? Does his passion act as beer goggles so that a dingy, unimpressive-looking brewery feels like a great place to piss away a Friday afternoon? I can't answer those questions for you; you're just going to have to go and figure that out for yourself.

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