The robot has made the move. Pale blue, boxy, with biohazard and electrical warnings stuck to its chest, a wink to the campy sci-fi flicks of yore, it once stood watch in the snug Herndon tasting room of Aslin Beer Company. Now, two-and-half years since that location stopped functioning as anything more than a site to produce beer and then sell can and bottles directly to consumers, its view has improved considerably.
Perched atop an encased entranceway, the robot now overlooks Aslin’s spacious, bright, sleek tasting room – the focal point of a new Alexandria facility that opened to the public on July 15. Surely, if this animatronic being is not capable of time travel, the change of the scenery must be a shock.
When Andrew Kelley and Kai Leszkowicz opened Aslin on the fringe of Fairfax County in September 2015, they advertised available beers with butcher paper and magic marker. Tap handles emerged from a chalkboard festooned with chintzy pink flamingo Christmas lights, advertising beer sizes – pony, middy, and schooner, in tribute to their Australian wives – and their corresponding prices. Above hung a vinyl tradeshow banner with Aslin’s pill-shaped logo, as if someone would just wander into the small, nondescript storefront inside a larger, nondescript business park and not know where they were.
While significantly larger, the Alexandria tasting room is an exercise in restraint by comparison. Kelley dubs the motif “Scandinavian industrial” – simple, clean, bathed in whites and greys. Massive windows provide a view to the production floor, while a smaller one allows visitors to gaze into a wood-paneled coolship chamber. Gone is any semblance of chalk or markers – a sizable LED screen will instead displays the day’s beers. Below it, a sea of white tiles cover the wall behind the bar. The sole piece of decoration upon it: two purple neon lights – one a closed curve shaped faintly like an A, the other an orbiting circle. Together, they form Aslin’s minimal logo.
Designed by Mike Van Hall, this is not the same icon once displayed in Herndon, but it does carry the original’s lineage. According to the artist, the ovular shape provided the new logo’s “foundation.” Indeed, look close enough at the A, and its two components reveal themselves as essentially one “pill” leaning against another.
But what to make of the circle?
“The circle is meant to represent the challenges we face and go around,” explains Van Hall, whose role honing Aslin’s visual representation has expanded exponentially since he first became involved with the brewery in 2016. “We call it the ‘squiggle A’ because we squiggle around whatever impediment we encounter. Getting this place open was a million of those squiggles. It’s a really direct interpretation of Andrew and Kai and the rest of the team: When they face a challenge, they figure it out. That’s just how these guys operate.”
Aslin’s entire history has been a series of squiggles. The brewery established itself nationally for decadent stouts (typically clocking in at a whopping 15% ABV and loaded with an array of adjuncts), thick double IPAs (hazy, high in gravity, and occasionally supplemented with some combination of lactose and vanilla, as with the Johann series), and fruited kettle sours – in other words, styles coveted by newer, younger, often internet-active consumers.
Surprisingly, though, the former homebrewers’ initial line-up of offerings included more traditional fare like a Belgian-style blonde, amber ale, and English IPA – “one beer for every type of beer drinker,” Kelley once told me. It was only after a few months of operation, informed by the success of a double IPA called Mind the Hop, that Aslin recalibrated their strategy, moving aggressively towards the New England-style IPAs that at the time were both hard to find locally and still somewhat controversial in the brewing community, perhaps comically so in retrospect.
“We were scrutinized for making hazy IPAs when we started,” Kelley recalls. “Now everyone is making hazy IPAs. Ocelot is making hazy IPAs. Adrien [Widman] would tell me we were doing something wrong, and now I give him shit for it.”
A year of rocket-propelled success followed, marked by unremittingly long lines for Aslin crowlers that were often traded with Untappd-savvy drinkers around the country, thus further perpetuating the hype around the brand. Then came a seismic squiggle. Aslin and Herndon had been engaged in a long-running dispute about the tasting room’s occupancy restrictions – the brewery arguing it should be 80 people based on the zoning laws in place when space was built, the town putting it closer to 40, including employees. When a Herndon fire marshal shut down Aslin one night during the last week of 2016, it was clear which side had prevailed.
But rather than simply go along with the reduced occupancy, Aslin opted to permanently shut down the tasting room, expand the production floor into the newly emptied space, and sell cans and bottles strictly to-go, all while looking for another building to install a new tasting room. Two-and-a-half years later, it remains a radical choice.
“We made that decision in, like, a day,” says Kelley, showing me around Alexandria a week before the opening. “We were calling it the Tree House model. We were kind of skeptical of how it would work, but after the first month of can sales, we knew that we could add more tanks and slowly increase our production.”
The gambit paid off. During the past year, Aslin sold nearly 6,000 barrels of beer directly to consumers – a significant number for any small brewery, let alone a remote one operating without a tasting room to attract consumers. Kelley says Aslin was pleasantly surprised, but he certainly doesn’t sound stunned.
“I think we provide unique products that you can’t really get around here,” the co-founder says. “The closest peer we have in terms of putting out similar styles and quality would be The Veil in Richmond, and Tired Hands if you go north. I’m not saying there aren’t other breweries that make good beer, but in terms of rotating [recipes] and pushing the limits, it’s The Veil and Tired Hands and us.”
While the past two-and-a-half years have served Aslin well, Kelley and Leszkowicz did not anticipate waiting so long before unveiling another tasting room. In fact, Aslin had announced in July 2017 that it would be opening a new tasting room in downtown Herndon, complete with a rooftop bar, bocce ball court, and covered deck. Moreover, the brewery had already purchased the property.
And then… nothing. Or at least such was the case publicly. Behind the scenes, Aslin and Herndon would once again joust over zoning issues.
“The Herndon tasting room has been a disaster,” Kelley admits. “The town has been horrible to deal with – they just have a lack of understanding of what we bring to a town. It seems like everything they’ve done has been purposeful.”
The co-founder backtracks slightly here, saying he doesn’t want to besmirch Herndon, mostly because the two sides have enjoyed a détente this year.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we’ve agreed to coexist at some level,” he says. “They’ll leave us alone, we’ll leave them alone, and we’ll all continue business the way it should be.”
A further wrinkle in the Herndon tasting room saga, according to Kelley, is that the building’s general contractor “went bankrupt and stole a bunch of money” from Aslin. This, in turn, has led to an ugly legal dispute.
“It’s almost as if we should just get rid of Herndon,” Kelley muses, “but we’re so pot committed at this point that the losses we would have would damage the business pretty significantly.”
After years of stagnation, the Herndon tasting room is back on track. Optimistically, Aslin hopes to have it open by the end of the 2019.
“Herndon has been weighing on them,” observes Van Hall. “You set your goals and you think you’re on the right road, but nothing works, so you look for an alternative. Alexandria could not be better – this space, this spot, this whole location. It’s great for the city. It’s great for the larger DC beer scene because it’s more accessible, and it will attract different people, certainly different from those that are standing out in Herndon.”
In contrast to the tribulations in Herndon, Aslin’s experience in Alexandria has been a breeze. The company took possession of the old FEMA office and warehouse last October, and after navigating the invariably tedious permitting process, proceeded to buildout.
“Having Alexandria be so supportive and allowing us to turn around this large of a facility in seven months is a blessing,” says Kelley, noting for example that the city recently expedited some paperwork after discovering during an inspection that Aslin’s former construction manager had never submitted it. “They’re all really excited. I think even Port City is excited – it’s all about bringing people to Alexandria for beer.”
In total, the new facility is ten times the size of the original 2,200-square-foot property in Herndon. Kelley notes with some glee that the cold storage alone could fit the old brewery.
“People are like, ‘How much space do you have?’” he tells me on a walk through the oversized refrigerator. “I like to take them in here and tell them this what we’ve been working with.”
In addition to the central tasting room, Aslin has built out a two-level private event space that will be open to the public when not reserved. On the lower level of that area, a print of Van Hall’s Mind the Hop art stretches two stories high on one side. Currently bare, an adjacent wall will soon be graced with reinterpretations of four other Van Hall labels by English graffiti artist Loch Ness.
On the whole, the latter is more likely to be the model: Aside from a few permanent murals (Dreams in the upstairs portion of the private event space; Berliner Weisse with Passion Fruit and Mango in a hallway; original patterns evoking AV and VA in the bathrooms), art will be displayed and cycled through like exhibitions. If creating a space conducive to Instagram posts was a consideration, the company has unquestionably succeeded.
Between the tasting room and the event space, Aslin is playing with a capacity of 350 patrons. One place it doesn’t want to find people is waiting in line outside the brewery for cans and bottles. Instead, the brewery is implementing a deli-style system for to-go sales. Customers can enter through a separate entrance, take a ticket from the brewery’s to-go station and merchandise room, and then hopefully enjoy a beer in the tasting room while waiting for their numbers to be called. (In the longer term, Aslin is developing a mobile app that will allow customers to order beer on their phones before returning to the counter.) In addition to cans and bottles, the brewery will also be offering crowler and growler fills of draft-only releases.
Many of those draft-only releases will be the product of the original Herndon brewery, which despite sending all 30-barrel tanks to Alexandria, will remain operational with its 8.5-barrel German brewhouse and 17-barrel fermentation tanks. Production there will be overseen by Zac Ross, a veteran of Kent Falls Brewing and The Answer who Aslin recruited earlier this year.
At Aslin, Ross has been charged with what Kelley calls “R&D,” a phrase that covers both entirely new beer and modifying existing offerings, which Aslin will then release as new beers before deciding whether to change the original recipes. He can also use the smaller system to make less buzzy brews – for example, Kelley specifically mentions brown ales – that will add some “diversity” to Aslin’s draft offerings. (Meanwhile, the newly emptied portion of the original Herndon facility will be converted into another private event space.)
Ross’s larger task will be managing Aslin’s vaunted barrel program. This includes the brewery’s popular – and lucrative – barrel-aged imperial stouts. (To wit: In June, Aslin released 14 barrels of Harrisonburg, a rye barrel-aged imperial stout conditioned on marshmallows, peanut butter, cocoa nibs, and graham crackers. Priced at $30 per 500mL bottle, it sold out in one day.)
More intriguingly, Ross will be attempting to reinvigorate Aslin’s barrel-aged sours, a portion of the brewery’s portfolio that has previously been the source of some frustration for its co-founders. Kelley expresses dissatisfaction with some of the sour ales it had contract brewed in the past (and never released), in addition to those produced by Aslin, but he also admits the focus and effort required to “turn” IPAs and stouts on a rigorous two-week schedule meant that some things had to suffer – and it was often the sour program.
“Now that we have a tasting room, the margins aren’t as thin as when we were just selling cans, so it gives us a little more flexibility to hire someone to focus on the quality of those beers,” he explains. “That’s not to say the beer we released weren’t quality, but now we’ll be able to fine-tune them and produce them more consistently. We’ve dumped so many sour beers because we weren’t able to focus on those products.”
There are approximately eight different sour ales currently bottle conditioning, and Aslin projects to release them in the coming months. Not long beyond then, the first wave of Ross’s mixed-fermentation saisons (a style for which Kent Falls amassed acclaim) should see the light of day. Kelley says Ross has been developing recipes for the sour program with “light involvement” from the co-founders, in addition to monitoring barrels and devising blends.
“They’re tasting good,” Kelley shares. “As with anything, we’ll tweak them to where we think they need to be. But overall we’re happy with the direction its going.”
While Aslin is currently using the future Herndon tasting room to store about 400 barrels of stout and another 200 of sour ale, the Alexandria facility has been built to handle such maturation going forward. An L-shaped room in back of the brewery will hold the sour barrels, in addition to 18 horizontal foeders, “a bunch” of puncheons, and fruiting tanks. Naturally, barrel-aged stouts have their own bay, lest Aslin inadvertently end up with a bevy of dark sour ales.
One source of liquid for the former barrel room will be Aslin’s coolship. Contained within a room lined with American white oak, the oversized pan will be used in cooler months to inoculate wort with the yeast and bacteria naturally occurring in the Alexandria air. To accomplish this indoors (as opposed to a farmhouse attic with large windows, as was done historically), Aslin has installed air ducts that pull air out of the room and replace it with untreated outside air.
With the room’s window into the taproom, the magic of spontaneous fermentation will be on display for patrons. Kelley plans to enhance that visual experience with magenta-colored LED lights, which are also slightly uncommon to the Belgian tradition.
Of course, the vast majority of beer produced in Alexandria will come from the brewery’s new 30-barrel brewhouse, which will fill feed into a collection of 90-barrel fermentation tanks, along with the aforementioned 30-barrel tanks imported from Herndon. With the arrival of two more tanks in the near future, Aslin’s production capacity in Alexandria will sit around 16,000 barrels. Once the floor is filled with tanks – something that won’t happen for a while – the facility will max out at 60,000 barrels annually.
But just because Aslin has a new sports car doesn’t mean it wants to immediately take it 150 miles per hour on the Autobahn. The brewery has been squirreling away beer for over a month because the Alexandria location is opening as essentially a taproom. It will be roughly three more weeks before the brewhouse is commissioned, and another few more weeks before beer will be ready for consumption. Once the system is operational, Kelley says Aslin will first produce 30-barrel batches to dial in its efficiencies and other variables like water chemistry.
“I’m sure we’re going to be dumping beer,” the co-founder shares. “But who knows – maybe we’ll get it right on the first try.”
Kelley expresses similar temperance in the expansion of Aslin’s production capacity.
“Alexandria allows us to have more controlled growth,” he shares. “Previously, it was go, go, go, go, go. It was let’s react to customer’s needs. Now we’ve created this base for us. Let’s grow 20%. Let’s go from 6,000 to 7,500 [barrels]. And then next year, let’s go from 7,500 to 10,000 – instead of 6,000 to 12,000 to 24,000. If we were growing at the same clip we have for the past four years, it would be insanity.”
Even as Aslin is opening a 350-person tasting room and is preparing to open another, Kelley makes the current change sound like taking a breather after two-and-a-half years of breakneck can production in a crammed environment.
“Right now, we just turn, turn, turn beers out,” says Kelley, who on top of everything is scheduled to welcome a child two days after our conversation. “We’re on a strict schedule. The brewers are so used to working on weekends. Now, if something happens and we need to work on the weekend, we can just wait until Monday. We don’t need to turn beers in 14 days – it could be 18 days. Our brewers bust their ass, and they’ll still bust their ass, but there’s this sigh of relief.”
There is perhaps no greater reflection of the brewery’s less-pressurized ethos than its four 90-barrel horizontal fermentation tanks, which it plans to use exclusively for the production of lager – beer that generally take about twice as long to produce as an IPA or stout. Granted, the brewery hasn’t shied away from lagers over the past few years – producing excellent renditions of Helles and Czech-style Pilsner, most notably – but the occasional lager is a far cry from investing in four gargantuan tanks dedicated to rotating, naturally carbonated lagers.
Given the deepening of Aslin’s portfolio, I ask Kelley if there’s anything he’s particularly excited to produce. With that, the co-founder – a former management consultant who rarely raises his voice beyond a hushed, even flat delivery – calmly uncorks an exquisite bottle of swag.
“People know us as an IPA and stout brewery, and I know it’s probably a bold statement but I think we could make the best beer of every style on the East Coast,” he says. “It doesn’t scare me to say that. Once we are able to focus on our lagers, we’re going to produce top 3 lagers in the country. That’s what excites me the most: Being able to focus not just on IPAs and stouts and kettle sours but all of the other styles and sub-styles, and executing them at the high standard that people associate with Aslin.”
Where this beer gets sent outside the brewery remains to be seen. Aslin recently hired Shane Douress from the prominent distributor Hop and Wine to be their Director of Sales. Douress will oversee Aslin’s self-distribution in DC and Maryland, as well one-off shipments to states outside the region. But with the new taproom and another coming as soon as late 2019, Kelley admits he doesn’t know how much they’ll need to distribute.
“With Alexandria and the Herndon brewery and the barrel program, that’s 18,000 barrels – three times more beer than what I’m doing now,” he shares. “But I’ll have two tasting rooms. Am I going to sell more cans? Am I going to sell less cans? What kind of tasting room consumption am I going to have? There are a lot of these unknowns. We’ll be distributing quite a bit more than we do now, but I don’t know how much more.”
Then there are the other planned expansions: Aslin is currently in negotiations for a fourth property in Virginia Beach, and it’s set on opening a Charlottesville location in the next two to three years. Kelley estimates that approximately 65% of his time has been dedicated to getting Alexandria off the ground, with the remainder of his bandwidth split between business operation and, to a lesser degree, recipe formulation, cellar work, and bottling. (Likewise, Leszkowicz is bottling in Herndon during my visit.) Once Alexandria is up and running, Kelley plans to hire an operations manager to handle day-to-day functions; then he can focus on the growth of the business: the Herndon tasting room, Virginia Beach, and Charlottesville, in that order.
Aslin also has designs on opening an urban natural winery with a fermented food concept in a warehouse space next door, possibly as a joint venture.
“We want to stay in the beverage industry realm… for now,” he tells me. “Kai and I get bored easily. It’s like, ‘What else can we do?’ Now that we have a proof of concept – the ability to provide customers with something they want – let’s take some of our other interests and run with with them.”
I ask how much the two are inspired by other breweries. Aslin is part of an exclusive in-crowd of buzzy breweries, and accordingly its co-founders are often traversing North America and Europe, pouring at the invitational festivals of and collaborating with some of the most innovative and successful breweries currently operational. But Kelley refrains from answering my question within its parameters. He discusses his personal travels to Japan and taking in their food concepts. He mentions Leszkowicz time in Copenhagen, namechecking not Mikkeller’s beer and food empire but the revered restaurant Noma.
“When we started brewing, we didn’t make our own beers,” the co-founder says. “We tried to replicate beers we couldn’t get – like, from Tree House and The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead. To be good at something, you have to want to emulate what other people are doing well, and then put your own twist on it and make it your own. Traveling allows you to see those places and meet the people who are creating something unique and high quality, and then you figure out how to intertwine it with your current business or a new one.”
Food is already incorporated into the Aslin’s Alexandria space, albeit somewhat unconventionally. For over a year and a half, Aslin has possessed food trucks, which it has operated in partnership with chef Taylor Gates. These trucks pulled up to Aslin’s pop-up beer garden at National Stadium last summer, to the brewery’s District Space residencies, to its events in Herndon. The idea was to use these opportunities to hone the recipes and concepts that would be showcased in the tasting room.
The twist is that the higher-end food’s preparation won’t be leaving the food truck. While patrons in Alexandria will order dishes like fried burrata and Asian-inspired pulled pork sandwiches at the bar, the facility’s “kitchen” will remain in two food trucks more or less permanently stationed in the back.
This logic behind the decision is purely practical: Trying to install a proper kitchen in the space would have added an additional six month of regulatory hurdles. However, if Aslin chooses to buildout a kitchen in the future, it can do so without any hiccups to food or beer service.
In the meantime, Aslin plans to present beer dinners in the private space with special menus from Gates and bottles pulled from the cellar.
Kelley explains this to me as we stand in the upstairs portion of that space, where the blue and black art for Dreams, printed on a special foil material, decorates the wall. We’re joined by Van Hall, who is mildly concerned that the print has turned out sexually suggestive. This was not his intention.
“It’s a little…” he begins, trying to find the right words. “It insinuates a lot.”
Kelley just chuckles” “You’re really stuck on that.”
“I am,” the artist shoots back, not ready to laugh it off. “We’ll adjust it.”
For now, this is Aslin’s mentality towards the space: We’ll adjust it. It will open a week from my visit, but it won’t be done. It will never be done. It will continue to evolve.
“The introduction of art into the space will be piecemeal – we want to make sure nothing is too dominant,” explains Van Hall, a provocateur who is fond of sneaking subversive messages into his label art. “The back room is almost the experimental part, because it’s kind of out of the way. I want to let customers discover things on their own time rather pushing it in their face. I don’t want to dictate what their experience for Aslin is on the can – it shouldn’t be any different for the space itself.”
Van Hall, who also serves as Stillwater Artisanal’s creative director, was initially hired by Aslin to design their labels. Over time, he has exerted more and more influence on the brand, serving as a de facto advisor on a number of matters, all while churning out new art at a stunning rapid gait, sometimes several times a week. (Many fans of Aslin don’t realize there is just one person responsible for the wide range of label concepts.)
“My eye for design is not the best, so I like to lean on people who have that expertise,” says Kelley. “A lot of designing this space was consulting with Mike. We talk every day. This was our vision – sort of how we perceived the space – and then we allowed people to give us options and go from there.”
Van Hall describes his job in Alexandria as adding accents to the space.
“I see things a different way than they do,” shares the artist, who has lived in the Virginia city for over two years. “They have to see the functional elements, but I can leave touches here or there to surprise people.”
He points to the lights throughout the tasting room – circles hanging from the ceiling, each colored cyan, magenta, yellow, or black.
“You need to illuminate the place, right?” Van Hall continues. “The original lights we had were… just lights, like you’d see at any brewery. When we found these things, it was like, ‘These are really cool looking, and they match our motif of roundness.’”
More generally, he explains that the cleanliness of the Aslin brand – the “squiggle A,” for example – is meant to counter the “craziness” of the can art. Likewise, the clean design of the space is meant to provide a foundation for that art – and perhaps, the adventurousness of the beer itself.
Now they’ll have to wait and see how vigorous the response will be to visiting the Alexandria tasting room and drinking that beer.
“It’s nerve-racking,” Kelley admits. “We haven’t had a tasting room for longer than we did have one. We’re going to be going through that new brewery learning curve all over again. We have the can game down, we can process lines better than probably most people, but in terms of serving a beer…”
Kelley trails off.
If the past three-and-half years have been any indication, Aslin will safely squiggle its way around those challenges, too.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.