You might not have known it, but New Jersey is home to one of the most unique beer locations in the country. The Referend Bier Blendery in Pennington isn’t a traditional craft brewery, but a tap room dedicated to one style of beer, the lambic. The large tap room is a place for beer lovers to enjoy a Belgian-style ale that isn’t normally produced in the United States.
There’s no brewing going on here, or any tanks that you’d associate with craft beer. Instead, there are large rooms of barrels with magic happening inside.
While lambics are rare in a world of IPAs, pale ales, stouts and summer beers, the most well-known name in any liquor store is the fruity Lindeman’s Framboise.
The mastermind behind The Referend, James Priest, is a Chicago native. Priest settled in New Jersey for one reason: it’s the Garden State. Quality fruit from local orchards is well within reach when Priest is making his unique blends.
The journey to making lambics starts in one of the world’s greatest beer hubs, Denver. Priest attended the University of Colorado at Boulder with the intention of being a music teacher.
“That didn’t last long, but I graduated with degrees in music and English. I have nothing against music education, it just wasn’t for me,” he shared while filling a firkin in the barrel room.
“The good thing was that the beer scene in Colorado is fantastic. Left Hand, Avery, Beyond the Mountain, Mountain Sun – they were very influential to me.”
After graduating, he followed his then-girlfriend, now-wife to Maine. He got a job at the well-regarded craft brewery, Baxter, in Lewinston, just when they were starting up in 2011. There, he learned the brewing process.
“It was just serendipity, I just needed any job to keep me going and I loved being a part of something that other people were excited about,” he said.
When he got ahold of a lambic beer from Cantillon (where a bottle can go from $40 to $500), he discovered a world of inspiration.
“I love the acidity of it and the complexity. It can be a very broad taste, but also there’s little things you discover about it with every sip,” he explained.
“I also love that it can be weird and unexpected, but that’s what makes it exciting and fun for the drinker.”
Learning to Make Lambics
Even though he knew how to brew beers, making lambics is a completely different process.
Priest took several trips to Belgium to learn the complex and arduous task of making spontaneously fermenting beers. The process dates back thousands of years to the Roman Empire.
The steps are essentially as follows. Priest will go to a brewery, like Lone Eagle in Pennington, and develop wort. Wort is the liquid you get from boiling grains.
Priest takes the wort and processes it in a mobile cool ship. While it may sound awesome, it’s just a shallow metal swimming pool where natural micro-organisms from the air will ferment the beer. Next, he transfers the wort into barrels ranging from bourbon, wine or sherry where they will sit for roughly a year.
Then, the art of blending comes into play. Priest takes crates of Jersey Fresh fruits, like peaches, grapes and berries, to create something unique.
Once Priest’s wares are ready, those interested can taste the final product in the Pennington tap room or by purchasing a bottle to be aged at home.
“Or you can just pop it and drink from a bottle,” Priest joked. “Nobody’s stopping you.”
Their standard lambic base is Berliner Messe, an oak-aged 4% ABV that’s tart and dry. Priest will take this, age it in a port and blend it with champagne grapes for their Sanctus series or age in Buffalo Trace barrels for their Veni Sancte Spiritus release. For The Sound and the Fury, the base will blend with local peaches and be dry-hopped with Calypso hops.
What brought a line twenty deep an hour before the doors opened was Alleluiavers, a Hungarian oak red wine barrel-aged for a year and blended with Jersey peaches.
“There’s a lot of ways we can take the beer, there’s a little experimenting where we take different types of barrels and then blend with various fruits to see the results,” he explained. “Now it’s our time to get busy with all the produce coming our way.”
The Referend Gets Its Start
While working at Baxter, Priest thought he would become a traditional brewery owner. However, the long process of making lambics and the excitement of tasting something different never left his mind.
With every trip to Belgium and to lambic producers like De Cam, Cantillon or Timmermans Brewery, it became more of a fact-finding mission than vacation.
He settled in central New Jersey, just outside of Princeton (and a five-minute drive from River Horse Brewing Co.). Here, he saw how breweries like Kane, Carton and Cape May were making the state a beer destination.
“I think the beer and wine scene are starting to merge and specifically in this area,” he said. “Philadelphia has an amazing beer scene. I worked at Tria Taproom for a while my wife went to school nearby for her doctorate, and people are just more educated about beer.”
Priest was able to find a large space in Pennington to house their nearly-100 barrels. The spot can also accommodate a large tap room.
“We take good care of the barrels,” Priest explained. “Some of the breweries in Belgium have barrels that have lasted a 100 years.”
Priest is passionate about the year-long process of making lambic, but he’s also passionate about music and literature. Thus, the name The Referend (not be be confused with The Revenant or a reverend).
“We get a lot of mispronouncing, but I just like the definition, ‘the instrument of active reference,'” he shared.
“It’s not a widely-used philosophical term. All of our beers are a reference to works of art, music or literature that I love. I also like to tie taste to memory as a reference point.”
Besides the William Faulker and Umberto Eco nods, you’ll find plenty of vinyl. Wilco, The Grateful Dead, Phoenix, Talking Heads are just a few artists being spun in the tap room.
The idea of well-educated beer drinkers gave Priest confidence that his unusual operation could work. It’s common to find people lined up before opening to grab a highly sought after beer.
“I’m glad that we have that base, but we love when people come in not knowing what to expect, and they come away with a beer style that they will return to,” Priest said. “For me, that’s the best part of doing what we do. It’s delightfully complex, if that makes sense.”
Name: The Referend Bier Blendery
Location: Pennington, Mercer County (1595 Reed Rd, Unit 2)
Standout Beer: Berliner Messe
Know Before You Go: Taproom is open for pours, bottles to-go and merchandise. Plenty of parking available. Pets and outside food allowed. Check Facebook for updated tap lists and events.
Don’t forget to check out the entire Brew Jersey series here.