From crisp German lagers to floral IPAs to fruity sour ales, spring has sprung in all its glory around the DMV’s brewing scene.
Below, we’ve chosen ten of our favorite spring beers… and spoken with brewers who make each of them.
Are all of these beers technically spring seasonals? No, there are also one-offs and year-rounds and “occasionals.” But breweries are less and less bound by traditional production schedules, and so are our picks.
All you need to know is that any of these beers would be a fantastic accompaniment to enjoying the sometimes warm, sometimes chilly transition from winter to summer.
One night not too long ago, Ro Guenzel was out in Denver drinking with his good friend Bill Eye, co-founder of the city’s Bierstadt Lagerhaus, when the two moseyed into another local brewery. Soon enough, they found themselves in the company of the establishment’s brewer, and after some cordial chitchat, Eye asked him a simple question: What’s your favorite beer?
“The brewer kind of stumbles, and he thinks about it for a while, and finally he names some esoteric weird whale that you can only get by knowing a secret password or some shit like that,” recalls Guenzel. “And Bill looked him dead in the eye and said, ‘You are in the wrong in the business. Your favorite beer should be on that board behind your bar there.’”
Bluejacket’s Director of Brewing Operations tells me this story by way of explaining the impetus for making the Helles lager For the Company. If someone walks into Bluejacket and asks Guenzel what his favorite beer is, the answer would indeed be on the wall behind him.
“I wanted a beer that I’m happy to drink every day and to share with friends when they come to visit – something I can be proud of,” the Left Hand and Great Divide veteran shares. “That’s not to say that the rest of the beers at Bluejacket aren’t good; it’s just that this is my style. This is what I want.”
First brewed by Bavarians in the 19th century as a breadier, maltier rival to the Czech Pilsner, a Helles is an easy drinking lager with a pillowy body and a hint of sweetness. Guenzel jokes that if you were to look up “beer” in Webster’s Dictionary, Helles should be cited as the definitive example.
“In my mind, it’s just a classic flavor,” he explains. “It’s malt, it’s barely, it’s hops, there’s some yeast nuance, and some bitterness. You can taste everything, but nothing overwhelms you. A good Helles should be sessionable – you can sit down and drink a lot of it – but it shouldn’t be insipid and bland like so many light lagers. Our Helles has a tad bit of sweetness that provides that satiating element, and it has a nice body, but it’s not cloying or over the top.”
Prior to Guenzel’s arrival at Bluejacket last April, the brewery had planted its flag on nontraditional lagers like the lusciously dry-hopped IPLs Slingshot and Rude Mechanical or the saison-lager hybrid Lagerfarm. For the Company – much like the new Pilsner Love Cats – is a turn in a more classical direction.
The one modern twist is the deft incorporation of the Pacific Northwest hop Loral, a relatively new varietal that marries the floral, spicy character of European noble hops with the dark fruit and overall amplified volume of modern American hops. It’s used in moderation here, providing a slight bitterness to balance the malt and a kiss of those new and old world characteristics, but the hop’s presence is unmistakably and quite pleasantly felt.
Guenzel’s passion project made its debut at Bluejacket late last September, just as baseball season – when visiting Nats fans hoover lagers – was drawing to a close. The poor timing didn’t matter, though: Through the cold and dreary winter months, For the Company still went neck-and-neck with the brewery’s flagship IPA Lost Weekend in sales. It became a standard. Now, baseball spectators are returning to the Navy Yard, and the cold, crisp lager awaits them.
“I’m really excited to see what happens,” Guenzel says. “I’m sitting out on our patio right now, and it would be so much better if I had a nice Maß of Helles.“
Taraxacum officinale is a flowering herbaceous perennial plant that has inspired many colorful names through the centuries. Cankerwort. Pee-a-bed. Irish daisy. Witch’s gowan. The French called it dent de lion – “lion’s tooth” – because of its serrated leaves. At some point, that name was bastardized by the English, and our mother tongue adopted the one you’re likely most familiar with: dandelion.
The dandelion is a ubiquitous fixture of American yards, parks, and meadows. To many, it’s a weed. To others, it’s purely ornamental. But the dandelion also has a long history of being prized for its curative properties – for indigestion, for infections, even for repelling mosquitoes.
“Dandelion root and dandelion leaf are bitter herbs that have natural medicinal qualities,” says Right Proper Head Brewer Nathan Zeender. “They’re great for cleaning out your blood. They were often found in traditional spring tonics across a lot of different cultures.”
Now, within the walls of his brewery, Zeender is using dandelion to bitter and flavor Berliner Weisse, a German style of tart wheat ale. The beer is called Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine – a nod to the 27-minute song by drone metal progenitors Earth, as well as a supergroup named after that epic tune – and it’s one of four seasonal Berliner Weisses produced by the brewery. These straw yellow, slightly hazy beers each have their own personality, but they share a common DNA. They’re all brewed with a light grist of pilsner malt, wheat, and splash of Munich malt. They’re all dry and bubbly, like a good sparkling wine, and fall under 4% ABV. They’re all “aromatized” – which is to say, dry-hopped – albeit with different varietals. And they’re all fermented solely with Right Proper’s house lactobacillus culture, a strain of delbrueckii that converts sugars to alcohol at a very leisurely pace.
“It take up to three weeks to ferment out – about twenty times longer than if we used our house mixed culture – but I feel like it gives us this really nice fermentation character,” explains Zeender. “We get a ton of peach and kiwi flavors. A lot of times people actually think we put fruit into these Berliner Weisses, but there’s no fruit added. We also get a nice mineral quality without adding any salt, which I like, too. As you know, I have a love for dried out, weird white wines, and this an approach to that flavor palate for me… They’re really great aperitifs; they’re basically building the appetite and exciting the senses.”
The dandelion root and leaves enter Teeth of Lion Rule the Divine prior to its slow climb to 3.5% ABV, back during the boil, thus introducing some bitterness to a beer that is otherwise hopless until the tail end of fermentation. That’s when its dry-hopped with Centennial and Chinook, two varietals meant to literally evoke the season.
“For me, Centennial has a nice floral quality to it, which makes me think of springtime and flowers,” Zeender says. “And then Chinook has a really interesting green bitter quality to it that’s reminiscent of just picking up a dandelion and eating it. Those two hops combine to almost taste like a bitter dandelion leaf to me. The whole idea of the beer is springtime.”
This year’s batch of Teeth of Lion Rule the Divine was kegged out on March 19, and just in time: As Zeender was entering Right Proper that morning, the first dandelion of the season had popped up in front of the brewery.
Each February, Ocelot Brewing unleashes Talking Backwards, founder Adrien Widman’s tribute to Pliny the Younger and the brewery’s entry to the canon of classic American triple IPAs. Hopped with choicest Pacific Northwest hops – Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe – the beer is a clinic in the purity of flavor that can be extracted from Humulus lupulus. It’s also a silent killer: At 11% ABV, Talking Backwards goes down impossibly smooth. You can sit down and drink a few tulips of the triple IPA, even though that’s ill-advised if you have plans the next morning.
Like many, Jack Snyder found this out the hard way. The brewer joined Ocelot early last year, just as the 2017 edition of Talking Backwards was seeing release. Eventually, he brought a question to Widman and Head Brewer Mike McCarthy: What if he could reverse-engineer a miniaturized version of the behemoth?
“I love Talking Backwards, but I can’t really consume a ton of it at 11%,” says Snyder. “So, I talked to Mike and Adrien, and I said, ‘I’d love to have the profile of this IPA – the Citra, the Simcoe, the Mosaic – but in something that’s slightly more quaffable. We landed on 7%, which probably a little above the threshold of quaffability, but it’s better than 11%.”
The challenge for Snyder was capturing the malt character of Talking Backwards in a smaller beer. The triple IPA isn’t malty per se – like many of Ocelot’s IPAs, it’s still on the drier end of the spectrum – but it’s brewed almost exclusively with the premium British malt Marris Otter, which lends the liquid a light amber hue and leaves behind the slightest bit of residual sugar. It’s a robust grain, one strong to stand up to the hopping rates and alcohol of Talking Backwards, but in a 7% beer, that much Marris Otter would dominate. Snyder’s solution was to construct a grist with 70% pilsner malt and 30% Bairds pale ale malt – just enough of the latter to evoke a similar appearance and SRM to Talking Backwards.
But as is always the case with Ocelot IPAs, this beer – dubbed Gorgeous & Alone – is first and foremost about the hops. Like Talking Backwards, Gorgeous & Alone receives whirlpool additions of Citra and Simcoe, and is later dry-hopped with those two varietals plus Mosaic. How the three hops interact is key to the beer’s dynamic.
“Citra is kind of a bully – it definitely shines through here – but I like how Simcoe and Mosaic ride underneath and add a different bouquet of perceived fruit,” says Synder. “A hop like Mosaic can do so many different things, and it stands up really well on its own, but if you mix it with other dancing partners, it takes a backseat. It definitely pushes some of that citrus character of Citra into directions of berry and a vibrant fruit salad.”
Gorgeous & Alone first saw release last spring, but in the year between then and its forthcoming April 18th debut in cans, Ocelot’s approach to IPAs has changed in notable ways. The brewery now aggressively adjusts its water chemistry to “soften” beers, and it has transitioned almost entirely to Cryo Hops – a pelletized version of lupulin powder that strips away the vegetal character of a hop. Both of these adjustments are on the full display with the new version of Gorgeous & Alone, which has been further boosted with a heftier dry-hop.
“We’re in a brave new world in terms of how different and clean and articulate those hop flavors and aromas can be,” Synder says of using Cryo Hops. “As far as the water chemistry goes, that was always one sticking point for me last year. I was like, ‘This beer turned out well, but I wish that we had been able to make those adjustments.’ So, this year the beer will have a softer profile. I wouldn’t call it pillowy – it’s not a high-protein grist – but there’s a rounder presentation.”
Unsurprisingly, when Widman sat down in late 2017 to figure out what IPAs would part of the brewery’s inaugural run of cans, Gorgeous & Alone was one of the first options off the board. Its name is cribbed from the lyrics to “Impossible Germany” by Wilco – one of his favorite bands. (Each of Ocelot’s tanks is adorned with the first name of a rock frontman, and the one that visitors most often can’t guess is Jeff Tweedy.) Inspired by the cover art for Sky Bly Blue, as well as Widman’s own reflections on the song, artist David Kammerdeiner’s label for Gorgeous & Alone’s interprets the Manuel Presti “Sky Chase” in the striking image of a person shattering into hundreds of pieces. As with all Ocelot cans, it comes printed with the phrase “IT’S JUST BEER,” which is true, except when it isn’t.
“Scottish session ales can be read as tiny treatises on the expressiveness of malt flavor,” Jeff Alworth once wrote. At 5% ABV, Tartan Ale is pushing its luck as a session ale by Britain’s modest standards, but Port City Brewing’s spring seasonal is nevertheless the manifestation of this idea. Ever so slightly hopped with earthy U.K. varietals, the 80 Shilling Ale is testament to the premium pale malt Golden Promise and brewers who know how to unlock its deep swirl of caramel, dry fruit, and bready flavors.
If you’re wondering why this sounds familiar, perhaps you read February’s Freshly Tapped profile of Colossal Seven, an 8% Scotch Ale brewed to commemorate the Alexandria brewery’s seventh anniversary.
“Tartan is essentially the little brother to Colossal Seven,” observes Chris Van Orden, Port City’s Manager of Marketing and Beer Strategy “It has a very similar malt bill and everything. It’s fun to drink them side by side, which helps you understand what that malt flavor does for each beer. It’s basically just alcohol strength that differentiates the two.”
Unlike that particular Colossal, though, Tartan makes its appearance every March. Port City fancies it a beer for people weaning themselves off stouts and winter warmers but not quite ready to part ways with a full malty beverage. There are worse ways to ride out the herky-jerky weather of D.C. spring than a smooth 80 Shilling Ale – a style that head brewer Jonathan Reeves likens to the Scottish take on an ESB.
“Tartan is just a good transition beer,” says Van Orden. “It can be evocative of the Scottish countryside around here in the spring, when everything is starting to thaw, and it’s a little bit soggy, and you want to have a couple pints of something but you’re not yet patio drinking.”
As the weather changes, so too does Tartan. The beer wasn’t constructed to be cellared, but Port City’s brewers will often tell you how much they like beer with a few months on it.
“It ages pretty well – it get a little cleaner, brighter,” says Lead Brewer Adam Reza II. “It’s not a beer you should try to age, but right before it dies, it’s pretty good. The malt changes over time, and you get more of that caramel, roasty toastyness, Some people prefer it fresh, though. It’s a good go-to after-work beer: low alcohol, malt-forward, not very hoppy, super British.”
In other words, it’s probably not a beer you’ll find yourself pontificating on like Alworth, but it’s one you’re always happy to find in your pint glass.
“This is a terrible term, but it’s drinkable, which is something that I and a lot of our brewers appreciate,” says Van Orden. “I love a beer that makes itself easy to drink. And it’s awesome to have a malty beer that’s not a dark beer, too, which is not something that you see a ton of.”
Last year, when DC Brau brought online its shimmering new 35-barrel brewhouse – an elaborate piece of German machinery subtly christened the CRAFT-STAR – much of the discussion focused on what the brewery could do with its old brewhouse. You see, the new system would alleviate a traffic jam in flagship and seasonal production, thus empowering the brew team to flex any atrophying creative muscles on the smaller 15-barrel system with collaborations and Deeps Cuts and Dock Releases. And while this certainly played out as many hoped – with recent gems like a stunning barrel-aged barleywine and an experimental kviek-fermented IPA to prove it – what’s gotten lost in the shuffle is the effect the CRAFT-STAR has had on existing recipes.
In February, DC Beer’s Bill DeBaun shone a light on the changes to flagship pale ale The Public, a beer that’s suddenly brighter, lighter, and more aromatic. Now, this spring brings another example of evolution: El Hefe Speaks. Initially released less than five months after DC Brau sold its first pint of Public, the traditional German Hefeweizen was the brewery’s innaugrial collaboration, a joint effort with John “Solly” Soloman and Chris Frashier, two veterans of Old Dominion Brewing and the owners of U Street bar Solly’s.
“We all like very approachable beers, so Hefeweizen seemed like a no brainer,” remembers Brewmaster Jeff Hancock. “For as many riffs on standard styles as there are out there, I feel like there’s always place in the market for a traditional beer.”
A top-fermenting ale from the bottom of Bavaria, Hefeweizen is a beer whose name literally translates to its defining characteristics: “yeast wheat.” On the latter front, a Hefeweizen’s grist should be composed of no less than 50% wheat, with the rest of the malt bill filled out by malted barley. The wort from those grains are fermented with a unique yeast strain that throws off unmistakable notes of fruity banana esters and clove phenolics. In a refreshing, cloudy Hefeweizen, those flavors are met with a slight tartness from the wheat and a mild bitterness from German noble hops.
From the inception of El Hefe Speaks, Hancock has sought to honor the style’s heritage. He hops the Hefeweizen with Hallertau Tradition, a Bavarian varietal with muted floral aromas and a subtle spiciness that compliments the beer’s malt. El Hefe Speaks’ yeast strain, meanwhile, is derived from one used by Weihenstephan, a historic brewery north of Munich founded by Benedictine monks over a thousand years ago.
“When we do these traditional styles, I try to get ingredients from whatever region the beer that I’m making is from,” Hancock explains. “Typically, before I make a new beer, I’ll look at the benchmarks for the style and see what a foundational recipe would look like, and then I spin off that. But El Hefe Speaks that we’re putting out now is drastically different from the first pow-wow we had with John and Chris. With the new German brewhouse, we’re able to recreate it even more accurately than before.”
The CRAFT-STAR enables Hancock and his brew team to give El Hefe speaks a more complex mashing regime. Hitting a wider but more precise range of temperatures, DC Brau can trigger different enzymes and proteins, thereby eliciting a richer depth of clove and banana flavors. Just as notably, the brewhouse can handle more wheat – a grain that often leads to the dreaded “stuck mash” – which has allowed Hancock to up El Hefe’s wheat content to 60%. With a higher protein content, the Hefeweizen displays and keeps a more attractive head, and once you stop ogling that, it has a fuller body.
DC Brau is placing a bet that local drinkers will be equally smitten with the latest mark of its Hefeweizen: El Hefe Speaks is now a year-round offering.
“We’ve done some market research and seen that when we stopped brewing it in August or September, there are a lot of other breweries who are more than happy to take its place, and then every spring we have to regain those tap lines,” says Hancock. “Hopefully, with the year-round status, we won’t have to do that anymore.”
When Adam Benesch was a kid growing up in Baltimore during the ‘80s, most of his friends and classmates worshiped at the altar of Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken was the face of the Orioles baseball franchise. He was “The Iron Man.” But Benesch cheered loudest for Eddie Murray, a relatively quiet but dependable first baseman with a legendary dual aptitude for base hits and home runs.
“Eddie Murray is my favorite Oriole of all time,” Benesch told me a few years ago. “Everyone loved Cal Ripken, but Eddie Murray was the guy who hit the three-run home run to win the game. He didn’t really talk to the press, and he didn’t have the friendliest reputation, but he was the cool guy on your team.”
Decades later, Benesch would help found UNION Craft Brewing in his hometown, and not too long after, he would name a beer in honor of his childhood hero: Steady Eddie. A 7% wheat IPA, Steady Eddie hits lead off in UNION’s seasonal IPA series, landing on shelves each spring just in time for MLB opening day. UNION’s co-founders originally drew inspiration for Steady Eddie from 3 Floyd’s hoppy wheat ale Gumballhead, but it’s hardly a homage to the Midwest beer. For one, Steady Eddie sits at 7% ABV, making it a touch boozier than its more sessionable counterpart – not that you can really tell when you’re drinking it.
“Steady Eddie goes down way too easy,” says head brewer Kevin Blodger. “The wheat gives it this slight creaminess. I can have three or four of them without thinking about it, and then all of sudden it hits me with that bat – that’s when I know I’ve had too many.”
As with UNION’s other seasonal IPAs Foxy and Rye Baby – and unlike the brewery’s intentionally skewed “flavorful hop bomb” Double Duckpin – Steady Eddie celebrates malt character at a time when many breweries are running away from it in IPA construction. In addition to wheat and a pale malt base, the beer is brewed with a touch of honey malt, lending Steady Eddie a butterscotch orange hue and a kiss of sweetness.
“It’s a nice, flavorful beer,” says Blodger, who grew fond of honey malt during an early stint at the now-defunct Frederick Brewing Company. “You get a lot of flavor from the malt, and then the hops kind of ride out on everything.”
For all Steady Eddie’s distinct malt character, its hop profile is arguably its most recognizable feature. While citrusy hoppy wheat ales have become a staple of craft beer in the wake of Gumballhead, UNION’s brew strays from that well-trodden path: Steady Eddie showcases Sorachi Ace – a Japanese-developed hop that throws off unique notes of lemon, lime, and dill – and is complimented by the stonefruit flavors of Azacca.
“We knew Steady Eddie was going to come out in the spring and summertime, and I wanted to get some tropical, summer-like flavors in it,” Blodger shares. “With the coconut and the lemon and the peach, it reminds me of summer in a glass.”
When UNION first canned the beer in 2016 and subsequently made a Steady Eddie t-shirt, the brewery would hear from the Hall of Famer’s lawyer. Thankfully, an arrangement could be struck over some beers.
“They were cool about it,” Blodger recalls. “They came out to the brewery, and we worked out a deal with him. So, now we have Eddie’s endorsement to make this beer.”
Only two-and-a-half miles of field, forest, and the Loudoun County Parkway separate Solace Brewing from Ocelot Brewing, but the story of these two breweries’ friendship begins before either had produced a drop of beer.
Back in 2014, when Ocelot founder Adrien Widman was still building out his brewery, the former NCMEC employee made an effort to befriend other local brewers – for camaraderie, sure, but also to pick their brains on the nitty gritty of setting up such an operation. He would find both sage advice and good company at Beltway Brewing, where owner Sten Sellier welcomed him with open arms. During his visits, Widman got to know the rest of the Beltway team, which would eventually include Drew Wiles and Jon Humerick – the future co-founders of Solace.
“The Solace boys are very dear friends of ours,” says Widman, who is quick to tell you that collaborations are little more than excuses to hang out with people you like. “I got along with Drew and Jon from day one.”
Good karma would come back around for the Wiles and Humerick when they were getting their own brewery off the ground: The first beer to bear Solace’s name was Patiently Waiting, a collaboration India Pale Lager brewed on Ocelot’s system last spring. Almost a year later, the two began discussing making another beer together.
“We wanted to return the favor and get a collaboration on with them at our place,” explains Humerick, Solace’s Director of Operations. “We talked a lot about what we wanted to brew, and it was like, ‘Hey, this beer just so happens to be coming out in March, perfect spring weather, let’s go Maibock. Let’s do something that people aren’t going to expect from us.’”
Maibocks are the palest of the German-style Bock beers, ranging from deep gold to light amber in color. Also known as Helles Bocks, they’re the hoppiest, too, though in the world of malt-tilted Bocks, that essentially means they’re balanced. Smooth, clean, and covertly boozy, these lagers were historically brewed to welcome spring. And while neither Ocelot nor Solace are strangers to lager production – Ocelot won a gold medal at GABF for its kellerbier Sunnyside Dweller, and Solace’s hoppy lager Tree Zero is a brewery staple – a Maibock is hardly an obvious choice for a collaboration between the two.
“I think most people expect hop-driven beers from Ocelot and us,” says Humerick. “We brew a lot of IPAs, they brew a lot of IPAs, so to come up with a traditional German-style spring lager might throw some people off, but we all love a nice clean lager to drink.”
The Maibock that the breweries produced, irreverently coined Maibock Music, is brewed with simple grist of pilsner and Munich malts – “as German as it gets,” Humerick notes. And it’s fermented with the same hard-working yeast strain as Patiently Waiting – one that attenuates clean and dry, and thus helps Maibock Music avoid the cloying territory that can afflict renditions of the style.
Widman’s primary contribution to recipe formulation was a suggestion to dry-hop the beer with Grüngeist, a Michigan-grown sibling of the peachy next-generation German hop Callista. Showcased by Ocelot in its recent lager Float On, as well a forthcoming Pilsner to celebrate the World Cup, Grüngeist throws off floral and subtle stone fruit notes.
“Grüngeist is a hop that we’re really enjoying lately – nice and delicate, but with just enough floral bite to stand out and rise above the noble hop thing of the German varieties,” Widman shares. “You can taste it a little more.”
As a wink to Ocelot’s proclivity for music-inspired beer names, Wiles bestowed the moniker Maibock Music upon the 6.7% lager.
“We threw on some Rick Ross in the tasting room when we poured the first pint,” Wiles recalls. “I heard he had a health scare the other day, so we’re thankful that he pulled through. Otherwise, it would have been a tribute.”
Before Daniel Vilarrubi could write the recipe for this year’s Home Rule, he had to brew some tea. More specifically: hop tea. Home Rule is Atlas Brew Works’ hoppy Pilsner, and each edition of the spring seasonal pairs the New Zealand varietal Waimea with a new hop. In 2017, it was the Australian hop Galaxy. In 2018, it would be… well, that’s what the tea was for. The Head Brewer made teas with five or so prospective hop candidates, and then blended each with a Waimea tea to see how their flavors and aroma interacted.
“It seems like every year they come out with a plethora of new hops, so it’s fun to be able to test them out a little bit,” Vilarrubi explains. “There’s actually a fair amount of R&D that goes into changing a beer’s recipe.”
Change has been a steady theme of Home Rule’s story since it was introduced in early 2014. Conceived by former Head Brewer Will Durgin, the beer was initially single-hopped with Waimea, a varietal boasting tart, citrusy characteristics that evoke lemon, lime, and lemongrass. It was a more bitter beer then, too, and slightly thinner, but Vilarrubi – who started at the Ivy City brewery the month it was first released – says he was a big fan of the original Home Rule. Nevertheless, palates both within the brewery and outside of it have shifted in proceeding years, and Vilarrubi has incrementally tweaked the recipe along with them. He started mashing in at higher temperatures, which leads to a fuller-bodied beer. He shifted hops from the boil to the whilrpool to tone down the bitterness and punch up the hoppy aromatics. And he accentuated those aromatics with the addition of a second, complimentary hop.
Which brings us back to those teas. Tasting the various combinations, Vilarrubi became enamored with the combination of Waimea and the Pacific Northwest varietal Azacca.
“Azacca normally puts off stone fruit flavors, but in conjunction with Waimea, we get a lot of tropical fruit – kind of like guava and papaya,” the Head Brewer says. “A lot of the Waimea lemongrass still shines through, but Home Rule is definitely a bit different this year. It’s my favorite iteration so far.”
Yet another difference in 2018 – and one outside of Vilarrubi’s control – is how the beer is being presented. Formerly an India Pale Lager, Home Rule is now labelled a hoppy pilsner. Or if you’re drinking it from the can: a “Happy Pils.”
“The plan was always for Home Rule to be a contemporary American Pilsner – a Pilsner but with more modern hops than you’re normally used,” Vilarrubi shares. “If someone wants to call it an IPL, that’s fine, but it’s kind of weird because the British never really sent lagers to India. I always took issue with that a little bit.”
Of course, there’s not much historically accurate about “happy pils,”either.
“We decided to give it that playful moniker really out of jest,” Atlas Brew Workers founder Justin Cox explains via e-mail. “It’s a hoppy Pilsner; we just liked ‘happy’ better.”
A little over year ago, Crooked Run expanded from a nanobrewery in Leesburg to a proper production facility in Sterling, but the upgrade didn’t mean that Head Brewer Jake Endres would tone down the restless experimentation and stylistic hybridization that defined his three years at the smaller (and still operational) location.
On any given day, the Virginia brewery’s 12 taps offer an assortment of new and intriguing oddities: a Berliner Weiss brewed with Skittles, a rum barrel-aged barleywine fermented with avocado honey, a cherry Belgian dubbel, a wheat beer with cucumber and mind. There are sure to be slew of sour ales and juicy New England IPAs, as well – areas where the brewery has excelled – but only three offerings fall into the category of “core beers.” These are the crowd-pleasers, the beers that practically sell themselves, pour after pour after pour. One is the popular double dry-hopped IPA Heart & Soul. Another is Cruise Control, a Pilsner buoyed by New Zealand hops. And rounding out the trio is… a fruited, kettle-soured IPA?
Yes, on paper, Raspberry Empress is unconventional choice for a core beer, but the numbers don’t lie: It’s Crooked Run’s best seller in warmer months.
“We’ve done well with Raspberry Empress as a consistently available, clean kettle sour, which is just not something a lot of people around here are offering,” says the co-founder, whose blog reflects a heightened awareness of the trends playing out across the craft beer landscape. “In general, fruited kettle sour may not be super popular right now, but it sure will be in the next couple of years. I mean, I see people at the brewery who order four or five of this beer.”
While Raspberry Empress arrived upon its core status organically, it is nevertheless something engineered for accessibility. Endres kettle sours the beer – a method of quickly lowering the wort’s pH over the course of a few days, then killing off the bacteria – with a lab culture that produces a bright tartness, not an “enamel-stripping acidity.” Later, the brewer adds the fruity Pacific Northwest hop Mosaic to the whirlpool, accentuating Raspberry Empress’s sweetness while bringing a touch of bitterness.
“It has just enough bitterness to balance the beer and give it some of that grapefruit pith,” Endres explains. “We didn’t want it to be just a dry-hopped hop sour – a Berliner Weisse with fruit. It was supposed to be a beer with a little bit of bitterness and a dry-hop. It was supposed to be a sour beer that you could have more than one of, and I think that’s really what it turned into.”
Although the distinction between a dry-hopped sour ale and a sour IPA is somewhat nebulous – and Raspberry Empress is indeed dry-hopped with Mosaic – it’s the addition of hops on the “hot side” that primarily delineates the two styles. Endres also notes that he chose grains and yeast that would help mimic the full mouthfeel of New England IPAs. As for the first component of the sour IPA’s name, raspberries enter the beer at end of fermentation, when its simple sugars are quickly fermented. In contrast with some of the gushing and exploding beers popping up on social media, Raspberry Empress is shelf stable.
“It has a decent amount of fruit in it, but there’s not, like, more fruit than beer,” the Head Brewer shares. “That’s what I like personally, and it’s really turned into a lot of people’s go-to beer that we brew.”
Nathan Zeender came into this world on March 14, 1977, and for the past four years, Right Proper’s Head Brewer has marked the arrival of his birth month with a gift of sorts – for himself, yes, but also for us: Bière de Mars, a farmhouse ale constructed from his favorite things. It’s built on a base of pilsner malt, wheat, and oats – his favorite grains. It’s fermented with Right Proper’s house mixed-culture, an evolving blend of saison yeasts, Brettanomyces strains, and lactobacillus that lends Right Proper’s rustic beers an instantly recognizable dry, slightly funky character. And it showcases Galaxy, a prized and pungent Australian hop varietal that Zeender has coveted since it first became accessible to U.S. craft brewers.
“When brewers started getting access to hops from the Southern Hemisphere, it was a really big deal, man – it was like the Beatles touring for the first time,” Zeender recalls. “It opened up flavors that no one had tasted before in beer. It was like, ‘Wow! There are hops that taste like pineapples and gooseberries!’ Galaxy is probably my favorite of those hops. It’s the complete package. It’s got all those wonderful passionfruity flavors, but then there’s nice grassiness into all of those white wine flavors that I like.”
Unfortunately, Galaxy is hard to source and carries a hefty price tag. It’s not a hop that Right Proper can pragmatically include in a year-round recipe. But when it’s your birthday, you splurge, so Zeender’s farmhouse ale is dry-hopped generously with the Aussie varietal. As is the case in all beers, however, the bold aromatics of Bière de Mars will fade with time. That’s OK: This 5.6% brew is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible.
“It’s almost become our Beaujolais Nouveau, only it’s good,” the wine connoisseur quips. “It’s representative of this very ephemeral thing: It comes, and it’s got all of these wonderful things, and then you probably only get a couple weeks to drink it, and then it’s gone.”
The name Bière de Mars pays homage to that fleeting nature. It translates literally to “March beer.” Of course, this isn’t exactly a turn of phrase sprung directly from Zeender’s mind: Bière de Mars is a recognized style of beer, albeit one with a slippery definition. Historically – or, at least until start of the 20th century – Bière de Mars referred to a low-alcohol lambic beer made from second or third runnings of Belgian lambic production. In more recent decades, American and French brewers have interpreted it as a strong, smooth, amber-hued ale along the lines of a Bière de Garde. Zeender knows all of this. As is often the case, he’s just chosen to subvert terminology and bend definitions to his liking.
“This beer is a complete departure from the current understanding of the style, but all of these ‘farmhouse’ beers are so open to interpretation and infinite variations,” he explains. “That’s why I can slap ‘farmhouse’ on any beer that we brew – because it doesn’t really mean anything. We’re not a farm. I was completely ready for some people to say, ‘Hey, this is not a Bière de Mars! It’s not the right color! Those beers weren’t dry-hopped!’ But we’re just being playful. It’s a dried-out, funky, saisony beer, brewed with my favorite things, in my favorite month. It’s a Bière de Mars.”
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View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.