In Hopewell Township, N.J., a small, nondescript business park plays host to one of the most unique beer-makers in the country. But don’t expect to find any brewing happening.
What you’ll see at Pennington’s Referend Bier Blendery is spontaneous fermentation in hundreds of oak barrels in a taproom space that looks more like a wine cellar than a brewhouse. Batches of wort, or unfermented beer, age for long periods into delicate, intriguing sour-style brews so good that one — Berliner Messe: Credo — took home first place for best barrel-aged beer at this year’s Inquirer Brewvitational.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fun — that’s all of our beers,’” said founder James Priest, 31.
Opened in 2016, the Referend is among a small but growing number of beer producers in the United States known as blenderies. Philly’s Fermentary Form is another example, as are farther-flung companies, like the Rare Barrel in California, Colorado’s Casey Brewing & Blending, and the House of Fermentology in Vermont.
Blenderies generally don’t produce their own wort, instead buying it from or producing it with local breweries. They take careful consideration in its fermentation and aging, and in the blending of different barrels to get the taste just right. They may be new in America, but the tradition of blenderies goes back hundreds of years to the time-honored lambic brewers of Belgium’s Pajottenland.
“We’re all doing it out of logistical necessity,” Priest said. “We’re trying to do something very difficult on the time scale and production side, so we haven’t wanted to be burdened by everything associated with owning and operating your own functioning production brewery.”
Priest’s blendery journey began almost a decade ago, when the Chicago native first tasted a Cantillon Gueuze lambic at a bar in Maine, where he was living while working at Baxter Brewing Co. Though he didn’t like the beer at first sip, he did find it baffling and intriguing, like a piece of experimental music or surrealist poetry, two things he became well-versed in as a music and English major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, from which he graduated in 2010.
“I like that element in anything,” he said of the beer’s complexity. “Maybe you are going to have to spend your entire life with this poem or beer or person, just trying to figure out what is happening here. It’s the only thing that keeps my interest.”
Trips to Maine’s Allagash Brewing Co. — the American forefathers of spontaneous fermentation — and Belgium followed, and the seed was planted for Priest to start his own blendery. In 2011, he moved to Philadelphia, where his wife, Melissa, enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. He picked up more beer industry experience at Tria Taproom and Hawthornes Cafe.
Those jobs led to a role as canning manager at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md., where Priest spent time wondering how to make a place like the Referend happen. He settled on a return to Philadelphia in 2015, and he took up gigs at such wineries as Amalthea Cellars in Atco and the now-closed Ten Gallon Hat Winery in Chadds Ford to learn how to work with barrels.
“All the cellar work, the production side of things, that seemed important and was,” Priest said. “It was good experience for starting this. … It was partially confidence-giving.”
While working those other jobs, Priest developed a business plan, found investors, and secured the Referend’s New Jersey taproom space. For a while, he made the daily drive from 18th and Bainbridge to Pennington, commuting at odd hours to avoid traffic. (He’s since moved to Yardley, much closer to the blendery.)
Today, Priest makes only spontaneously fermented brews, wild beers that never get cultivated strains of brewer’s yeast added to them. Instead, the Referend relies on the wild yeast present in the air, as well as the oak barrels where the wort lives, to convert sugars into alcohol for the lambic-inspired beers that Priest calls “spontaneously fermented golden ales.” Priest avoids using the term lambic for his beers in part because they aren’t made in Belgium, much the way makers of sparkling wine outside France don’t call their product Champagne.
“It is fraught with nomenclatural complications,” he said.
(Speaking of nomenclature, the blendery’s name is not consciously a play on Priest’s. It refers to to the “instrument or act of reference" — and Referend borrows or “references” traditions, songs, and literature for its beer names.)
By nature of the Referend’s blendery model, its beers always start out at another brewery — often Stickman Brews in Royersford, though Priest also has worked with Lone Eagle, Vault, Kane, Double Nickel, and others to make his wort.
Brew days take place from October through May, when Priest travels to a given brewhouse with his own wort recipes (the Referend produces four base beers for blending), grains (all from New Jersey), and aged hops (sometimes as old as nine years to remove their bitter qualities).
The process starts with a complicated, arduous form of brewing known as a “turbid mash,” which takes twice as long as the more common single-infusion mash most brewers use today.
Priest then pumps the young wort out of the kettle and into his mobile “coolship,” a traditionally stationary piece of brewing equipment that is essentially a large, shallow metal pan that takes up about two-thirds of the back of a 24-foot box truck. Putting it in a truck, Priest said, allows him to travel from brewery to brewery and cool the beer on site, when the wort is initially inoculated with whatever wild yeast strains are in the area’s air.
We can thank Walter White for the concept.
“I think maybe while watching Breaking Bad, I was like, ‘Hey, you could put anything on wheels,’” Priest says.
After the wort cools overnight in the coolship, Priest pumps it into 300-gallon containers to take it back to his New Jersey headquarters. He never drives the coolship around full — a common misconception — because “sloshing would be a problem.” From there, Priest transfers the wort to his many oak barrels — formerly home to spirits such as wine, port, bourbon, and whiskey — to ferment and age, a process that can take years.
A complicated, trial-and-error process of blending barrels follows, as does the addition of fruit if the beer is to be fruited. Priest estimates about half of the Referend’s beer gets the addition of locally grown fruit such as strawberries, cherries, or peaches. Winning beer Berliner Messe: Credo, which takes its name from a choral mass by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, is all barrels with no fruit, however.
During the lengthy aging process, any number of things could go wrong and give the beers off flavors, often because of unwanted microbes. When serious problems do occur, those brews are destined for the drain instead of customers’ glasses, which hurts the company’s bottom line. Though painful, that element of blending beers hasn’t turned Priest off yet.
“You have to be comfortable with that even when your bank account is not comfortable with that, because you can’t put out trash beer,” he says. “There are certain sins nothing can redeem. Aside from the risks inherent in the process, I don’t want to do anything else.”