For James Priest, brew days are more like two days, sometimes three. The founder and owner of The Referend Bier Blendery in Hopewell Township, New Jersey, doesn’t have his own stainless-steel brewhouse under his roof, so when he needs wort, he has to schedule time at a nearby brewery, drive with his ingredients in the back of his truck, and spend a day doing a double batch. At some point during the day, he’ll go back to the truck, pull out his mobile coolship, and set it up within a hose length of the brewhouse.
Priest, who opened his doors in 2016, specializes in spontaneously fermented and barrel-aged beers, following in the well-worn footpath of certain Belgian brewers and a handful of U.S.-based artisans. At an early (drinking) age, he was drawn to the geuzestekerij model, and when the voice in his head became so loud, convincing him it was time to open his own place, Priest realized that doing something different from so many of the other breweries that were coming online at the same time could help him stand out. He notes that he’s “not a brewer,” so while others in his generation might have spent time working on a brew deck, Priest instead spent time on packaging lines and working at a winery.
“I knew that every bit of wine knowledge would be better for the business,” he says, “because this cellar work is functionally identical to working in wineries, on a comparable scale. Having that knowledge was important to me and helped with confidence going in.”
Priest spends most of his time among the barrels in his 13,000-square-foot warehouse and tasting room. Brew days, while long, are few. In midwinter, Priest had spent only three days brewing this year; last year he logged seven days.
Once the spontaneously fermented wort has cooled at the host brewery, Priest pumps it into totes and takes it back to his blendery where it’s transferred into barrels. “I can’t brew more than three days per week because the following days always entail filling, stacking, placing, and cleaning,” he says.
There’s also the challenge of making sure that if he makes wort, there will be barrels to fill afterward, so maintaining a schedule—as much as the beer will allow—to fill bottles also dictates when brew days happen. That’s why he typically works with breweries that allow him a bit of scheduling flexibility.
A big thing is “making sure we don’t have too many barrels hanging out or, [on the other hand,] run out of barrels, all while trying to buy puncheons as frequently as our flimsy budget can allow.”
Priest has forged relationships with breweries relatively close to his blendery, such as Kane Brewing Company, Cape May Brewing Co., and a few in neighboring Pennsylvania. He’s exacting and meticulous when it comes to the wort being made, knowing a proper base will help with uniformity because there are conditions, such as the weather, that are out of his control.
“The microbes vary from place to place, so it can be hard to pick up what’s contributing what,” he says. Still, during every brew day, he tracks or notes the weather—whether it’s raining, for example, or the daytime and overnight temperatures, even what the air smells like or humidity levels. “All these things could potentially concern the fermentation or how it begins. Having the elements responsible for this part of the process is more interesting than doing it all ourselves.”
Still, when you’re mostly making one kind of beer, there are obstacles to overcome. “This beer takes an inordinate amount of time to finish,” Priest says. “So, it’s making sure that you’re balancing the operation such that you are still producing the highest quality beer you can and not releasing beer prematurely. That’s the underlying challenge behind everything.”
Then, of course, there are the risks of spontaneous fermentation. “It’s opened up to all kinds of infection or acidifying. There’s all kinds of horrible things that are possible unless it’s properly managed.”
The Referend serves some young beer, aged seven to ten months, in the tasting room. Some others are fruited after a year or two, and some are aged for three years. Blending takes time, and Priest tries to make sure that each final batch has the right balance and has adhered to the traditions of the style.
There are blends, of course, made with all kinds of fruit from grapes to peaches, and starting with the 2018 brewing season, he made the move to all New Jersey malt for his beer, using the newish operation of nearby Rabbit Hill Malt (Shiloh, New Jersey).
“The push to do that was ‘why not?’ because we have this great malthouse nearby. They opened when we did. While it’s hard to go 100 percent local grain for a conventional beer, our costs are not so much in ingredients, so we can spend a little more to get better-quality local grain and support friends at the same time. It’s a no brainer.”
In addition to the gueuze-style beers he makes, Priest also produces a variety of Berliner weisse, under the Berliner Messe name (named after a full choral mass—or messe in German—of the same name, written by Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt). And that’s where, he says, the malt really shines through. Because the beer is younger, the grain character is stronger. It’s more noticeably grainy than the conventional Pilsner malt he was using in the previous brewing season. With those beers, he’s also able to give a bit of the in-the-moment desired flavors to customers, such as variations dry-hopped with Calypso or Mosaic hops. Others receive treatments from Riesling ice-wine juice.
He’s also been experimenting with aged hops. Typically, he’ll purchase whole-leaf hops that already have some age on them but have been sealed and cold stored and are in relatively good shape when they arrive at his blendery. So, it’s up to him to introduce the hops to ambient temperatures, giving them two, three, even four years of exposure outside of cold storage. Depending on the varietal, he’s found some interesting aromas from herbal tea to cheesy rind to other intriguing smells. There’s also a deeper reason for the hops trials he’s running.
“There’s some discussion that a good deal of lambic and wild-beer character that we attribute to yeast might actually be what happens to aged hops over an extended boil,” he says.
Visiting the tasting room, sitting among the barrels, there’s a chance to try the Berliner-style beers on draft or cask, to purchase bottles, and even to get some to go. In early spring, Priest was selling 750 ml bottles of Berliner Messe: Credo, his blended Berliner from the choicest barrels from every age, for $21 each, with a limit of four bottles per person.
While he prefers the traditional 750 ml cage-and-cork-topped green bottles as his primary package, Priest also knows what today’s drinker is looking for; that’s why he recently purchased a seamer and started selling a limited number of cans, starting with an anniversary blend.
It sounds like a joke—a spontaneously fermented operation selling cans—and indeed, that’s how it started. He had canned requests from some customers, but the more he thought about it, the more Priest thought it could work. But whatever goes into the aluminum isn’t meant to age the way his bottled offerings are, he warns. “You’ll enjoy these the most within a month.”
Aging beers is something he admits he’s obsessed with. Each time a batch is blended and bottled, he hopes it will continue to mature gracefully and that the beers are increasingly more cellar-worthy.
“I have a fetish for old beer, and I want to make beers that can last in the bottle for decades. Everything we do is with an eye for that.” It’s one reason he chose the space he did. There’s room to grow into it, and a long-term lease means he won’t have to transport in-use barrels to a new location anytime soon.
Of course, he gets the question, almost daily, whether he’ll ever install his own brewhouse at the blendery, and Priest is fairly firm in his answer. No.
“The appeal for me right now is to almost exclusively focus on the cellar side of things,” he says. “I’m still there for every brew day, but we don’t have a brewery to maintain and clean. Instead, we have barrels to maintain and clean, and that’s important to me.”
Sure, as the business grows, a brewery might be in the cards—partly out of necessity—but for now, he says he likes to do as much as he can, himself. There’s an intuition, even working on someone else’s system, that is easier than a standard operating procedure that might have to come into play should he grow.
“Turning this into something more regulated terrifies me personally,” he says.