For as long as Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock have been packaging beer, they’ve been educating anyone with a 12oz DC Brau can in their hand about DC voting rights.
The original label for the brewery’s flagship pale ale, The Public, displayed the fact that the District’s Department of Motor Vehicles has been issuing license plates with the slogan “Taxation Without Representation” since November 2000. A subsequent design highlighted the recurring legislative proposal to make DC, rechristened New Columbia, the 51st state. That label also pointed the more curious towards DC Vote’s website. Meanwhile, The Citizen, another initial flagship, noted on its can that DC residents were only granted the right to vote in presidential elections during the early 1960s.
“The Citizen was an important name for us,” Skall told me in 2015. “The rights of being a citizen are different in DC than anywhere else.”
At the time, DC Brau had just released Smells Like a Freedom, a high-profile collaboration with Colorado’s Oskar Blues. The IPA was brewed, canned, and released by each brewery, but its inspiration could be traced decidedly to DC and its Initiative 71, a ballot initiative that legalized the recreational use of cannabis. Written across the top of the can was a message, one directed at least partially towards the restrictive federal backlash that Skall and Hancock feared was coming: Votes Should Count.
“When we decided to brew Smells Like Freedom,” Skall explained, “it was more or less deciding to bring awareness to the fact that DC still has no independent control of its votes and how they’re allocated in Congress.”
Five and a half years later – and another four since the initial The Public cans – DC Brau is again entering the electoral discourse, this time with a message that resonates equally across every state, territory, and federal district: vote.
It’s that simple. That’s the message. That’s the name of the beer. Vote.
“Some of the messaging on our cans in the past have been historical references, facts that we thought were eye opening, things that we thought people in the rest of the country didn’t know and might find shocking,” Skall shares over a Zoom call in early September. “The Vote can is much more centered on what you can do right now to have your voice counted. It’s a little more present and future-thinking instead of historically reflective.”
Designed by Kaleigh Tanthorey, DC Brau’s Vote can features a cornucopia of electoral iconography: buttons and banners and ballot boxes, stars and bars, everything some various shade of red, white, and blue. To the right, there’s a reminder of the approaching Election Day, November 3, for which all DC Brau employees will be given a paid day off, as they are every Election Day. To the left, a block of text revisits the familiar subject of denying DC representation.
“To this day, Washingtonians still don’t have full voting rights in Congress,” it reads. “This lack of representation makes it even more imperative the voices of DC residents are heard on November 3rd!”
The can, both in writing and through a QR code, then directs the drinker to a DC Brau webpage with links that residents of DC, Virginia, and Maryland can follow to check their voter registration, to register to vote, to find their polling place, or to volunteer at the polls.
“Of all the elections I’ve been alive for, it’s a really good year to remind people: Hey, make sure you’re registered to vote,” says Skall. “Now’s the chance for our voices to be heard, whether you live in DC or outside of it.”
“It’s sending a message to the larger audience around here,” adds Hancock, dialing in from his brewery office. “Statehood is still important, but there are things that are more pressing matters. I would love to see DC statehood, and I’m glad it’s finally being talked about more seriously in this new age of reckoning and airing out the dirty laundry with a lot of social issues that have existed in this country’s history for so long. But, yeah, just get out and vote. It’s the lowest-hanging fruit we have afforded to us in this country – to be physically and literally involved in the democratic process.”
The concept for Vote was the brainchild of Dave Delaplaine, general manager and beer director of Adams Morgan restaurant Roofers Union. Delaplaine, who expresses frustration about having to “stay somewhat nonpolitical” in the food and beverage industry, says the idea came to him in a dream.
“I woke up thinking about how certain people are making it harder and harder for other people to vote, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to pitch this beer to the DC Brau guys,’” he shares. “Nobody better represents DC than DC Brau. They have a brand that allows them to shout this from the rooftops: We’re frustrated about the state of the world, and we’re frustrated that we don’t have full representation, and we want to make sure that everyone else takes their vote very seriously. If you live outside DC, we don’t to get to vote as much as you do, so vote. Vote, vote, vote.”
On the last evening of July, Delaplaine reached out to Skall, who was driving up the Baltimore–Washington Parkway with his kids, en route to a weekend camping trip.
“Dave said, ‘I think we should do a beer called Vote, and it’s just all about voter awareness. It’s about getting the word out for people to vote. It’s about reminding them that in Washington, DC, we sort of get cheated on the voting rights that other places have,’” he recalls.
The co-founder loved the concept, but he couldn’t commit on the spot. Like other regional breweries, DC Brau has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Skall calls the first few months of the pandemic financially “traumatic.” Draft sales, which accounted for over 50% of brewery’s sales, disappeared, and to add insult to injury, it had to take back full kegs that hadn’t been absorbed by bars and restaurants. (That beer would eventually be donated to make hand sanitizer.)
“We took it on the chin,” he admits. “It really stretched our dollar thin, as it did for every business in the country.”
The effect going forward is that DC Brau has to be even more strategic in what it decides to brew than it’s had to be in the past.
“It’s not a normal year,” Skall continues. “We can’t just jump in on a good idea and brew a beer without a whole plan behind it. Right now, it’s important that everything we make has a home and will get sold. We can’t overshoot the amount we’re brewing and have the beer go out of code. At the same time, we can’t make too little and leave money on the table when we could have sold an extra 15 barrels. Every single drop needs to be accounted for. I wouldn’t say that we were happy-go-lucky, but if we got excited about a beer, we would just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to brew it.’ But this is not that time. This is a time when we have to be very calculated with every ingredient we buy and every beer we make.”
In a fortuitous twist, though, the pitch for Vote crossed Skall’s dashboard minutes after he had been discussing the production of a new recipe with Hancock. Skall saw an opportunity to play matchmaker.
“I called back Jeff, and I said, ‘These two things have collided. I think we can make these things work,” he remembers. “In hindsight, it definitely seemed like this was just meant to happen. Everything happened at the perfect time in the perfect place.”
The beer that the two co-founders had been discussing was a kristallweizen. Also known as kristall weissbier, this German-style ale is essentially a filtered take on hefeweizen.
“I’ve only had a few in my twenty-plus years of drinking,” says Hancock, one of the DMV’s most prominent proponents of the German brewing tradition. “It does definitely differ from a normal hefeweizen and an American wheat beer.”
Brewing a kristallweizen is a logical – and financially shrewd – decision for DC Brau. The brewery produces a flagship hefeweizen in the form of El Hefe Speaks, and thus it already has on hand all of the ingredients it would need for a kristallweizen.
“We essentially brewed another batch of El Hefe and treated it differently,” says Hancock. “Now we can put a mark on the fermenter and say we’ve made this style. It’s a nice riff on the tradition.”
One of the only DC-area hefeweizens produced year round, the relatively light-hued El Hefe Speaks is brewed with an even split of wheat and malted barley. It’s hopped with the German varietal Hallertau Tradition, which imparts muted floral aromas and a subtle spiciness. And it’s fermented with a yeast derived from a strain used by Weihenstephan, a legendary brewery north of Munich founded by Benedictine monks over a thousand years ago.
Weizen yeast is unquestionably the defining component of a hefeweizen. It throws off the banana esters and clove phenolics that make the style unmistakable. Combined with the grist’s high-protein wheat, this yeast also lends the beer its cloudy appearance. (Weizen yeast doesn’t flocculate particularly well, so the yeast remains in suspension.)
Filtering a hefeweizen, therefore, has a more dramatic effect than filtering, say, a pilsner. There’s an inherent trade-off: removing the protein haze and suspended yeast reduces some of a hefeweizen’s complexity and body, but the remaining kristallweizen is cleaner, crisper, and more refreshing. Perhaps that explains why the latter style is more popular in Northern Germany than in the chillier, higher-elevation Bavaria.
“When it gets filtered, you have to pay close attention to the color, which we have under wraps since El Hefe is lighter than most traditional hefeweizens,” says Hancock. “When it hits package, it’s going to be at optimum flavor. It’s going to be interesting to see it crystal clear, like our pils and our helles, and, hopefully, it still has that rocky head.”
“I’m excited to see how this beer is going to taste with a lighter body and a nice crispness,” says Skall. “And the remnants of that weizen yeast strain should make it a really interesting beer and unlike anything we’ve made before.”
On the synergy between the style and the message, the co-founder adds, “It’s kristall clear that voting is more important than ever.”
Early in the morning of September 24, hours before the sun rose, Vote went into 16oz cans within DC Brau.
“I just feel like 16oz cans go well with beers that are sessionable pounders,” says Skall, who also notes that he’s seen DC consumers letting go of their preference for 12oz cans during the pandemic.
At 5.2%, Vote is indeed a sessionable pounder. As Delaplaine sees it, those beers are desperately needed in the current environment.
“Given the state of the world, there are times when we maybe need to sip on an extra beer to get through the news cycle,” he says. “This is a beer you can do that with and not regret it the next day.”
Skall acknowledges that there is great uncertainty as DC Brau and every other businesses continue to weather the pandemic, but it’s vital to make a positive impact where we have the ability to do so.
“It’s not going to be an easy road for any industry here or moving forward,” he shares. “The most important thing we can do is to vote. So, let’s do it, and let’s have a nice kristallweizen waiting for us at home.”