James Priest has been on a spontaneously fermenting whirlwind since one of the beauties from his Hopewell Township “bier blendery,” the Referend, took a top prize at last year’s Inquirer Brewvitational. As a relatively new blendery, he doesn’t actually brew his own beer (yet) so much as collaborate with multiple local breweries to make base beers, then ferment, barrel-age, and blend them into an elegant range of limited-edition bottles that deftly orchestrate tartness, bretty funk, and frequent shades of fruit. It’s a niche already occupied by a number of masters in both America and its Belgian birthplace, where gueuzeries compose legendary examples from various lambics. Among the most coveted styles is the kriek made with sour cherries.
The Referend is not the first local to produce them. I’ve tasted compelling variations from Free Will Brewing and La Cabra. But Priest’s recently released Krak! and Krek! are notable for their balance, complexity, and experimental spirit. The first is a fruit-forward variation made from a young golden ale aged for nine more months on cherries. The latter is made from older brew aged in Cognac barrels for up to three years, with a drier tartness hedged by toasty vanilla-oak notes. The names are not a drug reference, but a nod to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ description of frog songs.
I absolutely enjoyed these food-friendly, labor-intensive beers, almost as much as Priest’s apricot- and rhubarb-aged bottles that also came and went quickly. But some local beer luminaries are croaking over the cost of the Referend’s offerings — around $20 and above for 375-milliliter bottles.
“The pricing of these bottles are both higher than what we pay for Cantillon Kriek, Russian River Supplication, and Allagash Nancy,” says Tom Peters of Monk’s Cafe, who decided to pass.
To be sure, they’ll appeal to a niche audience. But the price isn’t so egregious considering the cost for a small operation without the benefit of economies of scale. I’d agree Priest has a long way to go before he’s reached the level of a Cantillon, Tilquin, or Allagash. Who doesn’t? But these unique and lovely beers are nonetheless still worth local support and appreciation while Priest remains on a promising path aimed at the gueuzerie stars.