“Welcome to the part of Belgium that’s on Long Island! I hope you’re thirsty,” Jamie Adams says on the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. It’s only 7:15 a.m. and I mumble something about being hungover from the previous night (courtesy of an entire bottle of Long Ireland Beer Company‘s just-released Black Friday Imperial Stout), so Adams generously pours me about five ounces of Saint James Brewery‘s lightest offering, a Belgian-style witbier named Rachelle Blanche. He also hands me a large glass of water. “We’ve all been there,” he says.
While I plan to nap ferociously once I leave Saint James, Adams has a long day ahead. After we chat in the brewery’s yet-to-open-to-the-public tasting room, the 41-year-old owner and brewmaster will deliver kegs of Rachelle to a few bars before helming a booth at the Riverhead Farmers’ Market for five hours to sell bottles and pre-filled growlers of the same beer. When he returns to his facility — one unit in a large warehouse at 929 Lincoln Avenue in Holbrook, less than a half-mile from Spider Bite Beer Company‘s headquarters — later that evening, he’ll sanitize kegs and start bottling Krak des Chevaliers, a Belgian-style dubbel. “This is gonna be the year we’re really getting out there and putting our beer in people’s hands,” he says. “It’s been a long time coming and I’m excited we’re finally at this point. We’re ready.”
I started seeing Saint James’ Belgian-inspired beers in local bars last fall, first at BBD’s in Rocky Point, where I was impressed by La Mure, a lively and somewhat tart ale with a lovely fruity aroma that’s made with blackberries grown on Condzella Farms in Wading River. A few days later, I sent Adams an e-mail and was surprised to learn that his seemingly new brewery, which he operates with his wife, Rachel, has been fully licensed since 2012. “We weren’t in a rush to hit the market,” he said. “We’ve spent the last couple of years building recipes and growing our equipment, and pouring our beers at local festivals to get feedback.” On the day of my brief visit, he adds: “The objective’s been the same from day one: a single-minded dedication to using local ingredients to make Belgian-style beers. That’s us.”
These are some things I learned about Saint James Brewery:
1) A native Long Islander, Adams started homebrewing in 1995, while living in Manhattan. “I had just finished my junior year [at Colby College in Waterville, Maine,] and had slowly gotten into [craft beer] there,” he says. “But when I got home I realized the city’s beer scene was much weaker than at school. So I decided to learn how to make my own.”
During his senior year, Adams developed an affinity for Belgian and Belgian-style ales after discovering Allagash White (a popular example of the latter) at a pub called the Great Lost Bear in Portland, Maine. “From then on I was determined to further my knowledge,” he says. “I went out and bought Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium and tried to consume as many featured in the book as I could get my greedy hands on. This is also the point when I started to focus on brewing Belgian styles: witbiers, tripels, quadrupels … The rest is history.”
2) As a farm brewery, a state license introduced in 2012 and one of several major factors contributing to New York’s flourishing craft-beverage industry, Saint James is focused on sourcing most of its ingredients locally. Pomme is made using apples from Richter Orchards in Northport, for example, while many recipes feature grains grown and malted by Batavia’s New York Craft Malt.
Adams considers Saint James a conduit between local farmers and craft-beer enthusiasts. While the brewery specializes in Belgian styles, “we approach the art of brewing in a likeminded manner as other Belgian-style brewers. That’s more important to me and why I label us a Belgian-style brewery.”
He adds: “I like to sum up the mindset of Belgian brewers in one word, simplicity. In his book Brew Like A Monk the great beer writer Stan Hironymous opines that a Belgian brewer utilizes the raw materials most readily available to him or her. That spoke to me. In fact, I would argue it’s more ‘Belgian’ to use fresh, local-to-us ingredients, including the most important ingredient, a house yeast strain of Belgian origin to define the brewer’s flavor profile and be the common link between all ales, rather than imported barley and hops. This to me is the essence of true Belgian brewing.”
3) Saint James’ portfolio is seasonally influenced, and most releases are contingent on the availability of ingredients. As a result, beers infused with fruit or honey (Cherie is an example of the latter) are made only once or twice each year.
Adams also brews some recipes regularly, including the aforementioned Belgian-style dubbel. According to its description, Krak des Chevaliers is made “in tribute to the noble knights of the l’Hospitalier,” with “select New York State barley, locally grown hops and our own proprietary yeast strain.” It displays “rich malty sweetness, moderate fruity aromas, and smooth alcohol warmth.”
4) Saint James sells its beers — all packaged in growlers, some also in stately designed 750-milliliter bottles — at several farmers markets across Long Island. (A complete schedule with locations and times is on the brewery’s website.) The bottled beers, currently Rachelle and Krak, are packaged “using a specific Belgian bottle-conditioning method,” Adams says, “to give the ales a characteristically Belgian flavor, effervescence, and mouthfeel that I feel is unrivaled.”
Adams is also selling his small-batch beers to bars and restaurants. He was initially worried about making enough to start distributing regularly, but “we’re really dialed in and staying ahead of the demand,” he says. “Our beer has reached spots as far east as Westhampton and as far west as Manhattan. And we deliver every keg, something I’m really proud of.”
5) Adams’ six-barrel brewery isn’t named for (or located in, as I initially presumed) St. James, the historic hamlet on Suffolk County’s north shore. “We’re named in honor of the patron saint James the Greater. That’s who my parents named me after,” he says.
In his 2,000-square-foot space in Holbrook, Adams hopes to open an eight-tap tasting room sometime in the spring. He also wants to launch several satellite tasting rooms, a farm-brewery perk, to handle the bulk of Saint James’ sales. “We’re allowed five off-site tasting rooms with the [farm brewery] license and that’s how we’ll sell, right to the customer while growing and still achieving the best quality control,” he says. “I want to open them not only on Long Island but also Manhattan and possibly upstate.”
Niko Learns is a series about one of our writers, Niko Krommydas, learning stuff.