In case you were busy for the very first CBR:Session at Refuge, here’s what you might have missed: great conversation, great beer and great people. One of whom was John Kelly, Production Manager at Refuge Brewery.
Everyone enjoyed their favorite pour from the Refuge tasting room before John lead an amazing tour of the brewery, which included an introduction of the brew pup (Nani), a detailed rundown of the brewing process and the best part, beer straight from the bright tank. We also got a free can of Grapefruit IPA from the canning station; which was an added bonus.
John had such amazing stories about Refuge and his journey with them, we decided to get a more in-depth look at the guys that help bring some of the tastiest beers to the Temecula Valley.
How did you get into the brewing industry?
JM: Well, I was working at a chemical plant here in town (Temecula) and I had a friend that was doing some home brewing out of his parents’ house. So, one day I went over to his house and he was brewing out of the kitchen, which blew me away because I always drank beer but never thought people had jobs making it, you know? After that first day, I went to a home brew shop and bought everything I needed and started brewing in my garage. From there it turned from hobby to obsession and I kept thinking of what I could do to get out of my job and make that transition. I studied at Siebel Institute (brewing school) and honed my skills as a brewer for Mammoth Brewing for 2 1/2 years.
JK: I feel like my path was not so much a dream that I got into, but something that I kind of fell into. I was working at a machine shop in Lake Elsinore and there was a craft brewery around the corner from me, and that’s where I got my first TRUE brewery experience. I started going there after hours and became close with them and I would help at events and randomly got to help them brew but not really much after that. I was really wanting to become a chef and so I started helping out on the Devilicious food truck and they started coming here [Refuge]. One day we were slow on the truck, so I came inside to see if they needed any help and they put me to work cleaning out the mash tank…ALL BY MYSELF (laughs). I guess I did a good job ‘cause they brought me in and I’ve been working 40 to 60 hours ever since.
Refuge does everything in-house, except for distribution. What’s it like to work with a huge distributor like Stone?
JK: It’s awesome! We don’t have to worry about a sales team and they can sell our beer (almost) faster than we can make it. So much so, that we are now replacing almost all of our 40 barrel fermenters and putting in all new 60 barrel fermenters, which we are excited about. We definitely need these new fermenters to keep up with the high demand that Stone wants.
How has Refuge been able to take a traditional, Belgian style beer and elevate it?
JK: It was all about trial and error, and our Blood Orange Wit is a perfect example of that. We took an old school Belgian wit and mixed it with fresh local blood oranges and said, ‘let’s see if we can do this!’ You know, traditionally you have coriander and orange peel and there you go, but with the addition of the fruit it makes it totally different, you know. Just, that took a lot of R&D even now we’ve gone through a few different ways of putting the blood orange into the beer.
The Blood Orange Wit and the Grapefruit IPA have such an organic background, tell me about it.
JM: It started with a friend of the brewery bringing down some blood oranges and basically asking, ‘what do you think you can do with this?’ At the time we had our Wit and we would hand juice them and hand peel them (still do) and try all kinds of different ways to get the flavor into the beer. Since then, we’ve come a long way but we still get the oranges locally and it’s all 100% done by hand. It definitely takes time and there will be days that we come in to 15,000 lbs of blood oranges that we have to go through by hand and pick them out one at a time. It’s a labor of love though.
JK: It’s the same process with our grapefruits, but we actually go and hand pick them from a farm in De Luz. We are literally climbing, getting poked by branches and carrying a huge satchel around our bodies, grabbing the fruit straight from the tree!
In 2015 Refuge grew almost 300%, what do you think drove that kind of success?
JK: Quality combined with our amazing distribution with Stone. We’ve not only gotten consistent quality from our beer but also with our core staff. Everything that was done with expansion of the brewery, with the exception of the concrete and the epoxy, was done by a Refuge employee.
How does it feel to have two craft brew classics with, The Blood Orange Wit and The Grapefruit IPA under your belt?
JM: I think it’s kind of impressive! We launched Grapefruit IPA about a year ago and we were only surviving off one beer until that point and I’ve never heard of another brewery do that — in the Temecula area.
JK: To me, I gotta give a lot of credit to Stone for being like, that big brother that kept us grounded. They really kept us focused on making an amazing beer consistently, so that meant making one beer exceptionally well and then moving to the next beer.
What’s the inspiration for the new West Coast Red ?
JM: We wanted to do something a little lighter for the customers that are looking for their first ‘taste’ of a craft beer.
JK: On our distribution side, we wanted to give our restaurants and mom-and-pop-shops a viable craft beer that we could stand behind and be proud of.
What’s something that you are excited about with Refuge?
JM: The pilot system! We have a 20 barrel system that makes beer for the tasting room, distribution, everything and the smallest batch that I can do on it is an 8 barrel, without losing efficiency. So now, the 20 barrel system will be used strictly for distribution and the 5 barrel pilot system will be used for tasting room, R&D and collaboration; it’s like I get to home brew again. We’ve already done 6 collaborations so far and we have some others in the works. With new pilot system I wanna get a program started and give all the employees the opportunity to brew what they want. I’ll help them make the recipe and show them how to make it and then put it on tap in the tasting room.
If it’s not a Refuge beer, what beer are you most excited about right now?
JM: Right now I’m on Swami’s kick…Pizza Port Swami’s OR Maui’s Coconut Porter.
JK: For me, it’s the Stone Delicious IPA. A good amount of people have it but it’s not one that you see everywhere. It’s something to do with either the lemon drops or the El Dorado hops that are just like, so good on my palate.
A huge thanks to both John K. and John M. for the insight and in case you haven’t heard, Refuge has some
new collaborations in the works Women’s Beer Collective and Wiens Brewing Company; so make sure you follow Refuge Brewery on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more details on upcoming collabs and events.