Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Death Becomes Us, a 4% ABV “sparkling ale” brewed with blood orange and tangerine. Produced by Devils Backbone in collaboration with BYT, cans of the beer will be available at Death Becomes Us: A True Crime Festival and are currently in select bars around DC (including Tonic at Quigley’s, District Commons, Bier Baron, and Hook Hall). A portion of proceeds from the beer’s sales will go to Lorena’s Wagon, a Haymarket nonprofit founded by Lorena Gallo to help victims of domestic violence.
Full disclosure: I am paid to write for BYT, a partner in this collaboration. I’ve posted a note at the bottom of the article to address potential conflicts of interest.
Jason Oliver is fascinated, mildly obsessed even, with the low end of the craft beer spectrum. At a time when a segment of drinkers – the most vocal, online at least – are fixated on the most booze, the highest hopping rate, and the thickest viscosity, what really gets the Devils Backbone brewmaster going is low-alcohol, low-calorie beverages.
This is hardly a new interest. It certainly was the case almost four years ago, when I found Oliver in the basement of the original Meridian Pint, tasting through one of his brewery’s Adventure Collaboration Packs. The release boasted a bevy of bombastic brews – a double cream ale, a double Pacific ale, two different imperial stouts – but it was evident that the 12-pack’s session-strength India Pale Lager was what Oliver was really excited to talk about.
“I wanted to get as low as I can,” he said of the beer’s 3.8% ABV. “That’s my trend: I want to get low.”
Oliver first felt compelled to get low in 2007, after coming across 21st Amendment’s Bitter American, a session IPA that predated the “session IPA” descriptor. When he left his gig as at Gordon Biersch to help open Devils Backbone a year later, his own take on a session IPA, Four Point, would soon follow.
“I think the low end is cool,” the brewmaster told me in 2016. “A lot of session IPAs tend to be 4.5% or 4.8%, which is getting up to normal beer strength. But if you can get closer to 4%, I mean, that’s the ultimate. That used to be what 18-year-old kids could drink back in the day.”
Then Oliver added an important caveat.
“But what you’re drinking has to be cool,” he said. “You have to want to drink it.”
In the time since then, Devils Backbone has produced dozens of new beers, some of which have cranked the ABV well north of 8% (see: the recent fruited barrel-aged barleywine or its hazy double Pacific lager), but Oliver hasn’t lost track of that idea. He never stopped trying to make low-ABV beers cool.
Typically, those beers take familiar forms: a 3.6% American light lager, a 3.3% hazy IPA, a 4.5.% Kölsch, the list goes on.
But in the case of its Bright series, Devils Backbone sought to create a new style. Or, rather, it decided to repurpose an existing, albeit rarely used, one: the sparkling ale.
For well-versed craft beer nerds, “sparkling ale” evokes one specific beer: Coopers Sparkling Ale. Produced in Australia since 1862, the rustic brew is a bit of an oddity, bottled conditioned with a house yeast that produces an atypically bubbly ale.
Devils Backbone’s sparkling ales are not Australian sparkling ales. Instead, according to Oliver, they’re something of a hybrid between a light ale and a hard seltzer. They sit at an approachable 4%, they’re lightly hopped with a fruity varietal, they’re fermented bone dry with the assistance of the enzyme amyloglucosidase, and their flavor is boosted with the addition of fruit. Thus, just as the Brut IPA descriptor is meant to evoke champagne, Devil Backbone “sparkling ale” hopes to conjure associations with sparkling wine.
“We called them sparkling ales because we try to make them really pale, extremely light and dry, and effervescent,” explains Oliver. “’Sparkling’ sort of sums up what these beers are like to consume. It’s not really defined – it’s more of a state of mind. These beers blur the line stylistically. There’s malt and hops, but there’s also sugar added to lighten the body and an enzyme to ferment everything dry.”
Devils Backbone’s sparkling ales share more in common with brut IPAs than clever branding. They also both utilize that enzyme.
To step briefly into the weeds, during fermentation amyloglucosidase essentially breaks down all of a beer’s sugars into smaller-chain molecules, thereby making it easy for the yeast to consume them. With all of that sugar chewed up and turned into alcohol, what’s left behind is a dry, highly attenuated beer.
The enzyme isn’t especially new to craft beer. Derived from black mold, amyloglucosidase was first adopted by macro brewers who saw it as a way to break down residual sugars in the production of industrial light lagers. Eventually, craft brewers began using it to help reduce sugar and sweetness in big, boozy beers like imperial stouts and triple IPAs. California’s Social Kitchen And Brewery is generally credited with applying the enzyme to pale IPAs in November 2017, thus igniting the brut IPA trend that took craft beer by storm in 2018.
Well before brut IPA’s arrival, Oliver had utilized the enzyme in his own prototype of the style, which he called a “light IPA.” The only difference? He had used some caramel malts in the grain bill, which gave the beer a malty, brown appearance. The new brut IPAs tended to be as pale as possible to enhance the visual association with the enzyme’s “champagne effect.” Oliver, meanwhile, had looked completely past that presentation: He was focused solely on how reducing residual sugar would create a less caloric beer. Nevertheless, when word of brut IPAs spread, Oliver didn’t hesitate.
“As soon as I heard about Brut IPAs, we launched into that,” he shares. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been trying to do that for a while. Now I just have to make it as pale as possible.”
Devils Backbone released a Brut Extra Pale Ale brewed on its pilot system in April 2018. By July, it had put Brut IPA into full distribution. Clink, a bottle-conditioned imperial strength brut IPA, arrived this February.
If you hadn’t been paying attention to Devils Backbone’s experimentation in this area and outside of it (much of which is limited in distribution to the brewery’s two tasting rooms), this might have seemed like an odd pivot for a company that rose to prominence (and was purchased in 2016 by global beer conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev) on the strength of traditional German lagers (like Gold Leaf Lager, Trail Weiss, and Schwartz Bier) and its ubiquitous Vienna Lager. But Oliver is quick to dismiss any perceived dissonance.
“I’ve been brewing for 23 years, and you see various levels of purists out there, but I actually like seeing these technologies come into this industry,” he shares. “In the ends, it’s about more tools for the brewer to chase their dream. And don’t get wrong – I love German beer and I love the Reinheitsgebot, and when I do a German beer, I love to brew it authentically. But I also love how there’s different beer coming into craft beer that takes it into different directions. And these days, it’s hard to find purists when you’re doing these lactose, vanilla pastry IPAs.”
Oliver views Devils Backbone’s Bright series sparkling ales as an extension of its lessons in brut IPA. (And it’s quite possible it will outlive the slowing brut IPA explosion.)
The first entry, Bright Tangerine Sparkling Ale, saw release this spring. The next to enter full distribution will showcase pineapple. A third, with apple, will be available exclusively at 7-Eleven in the near future.
Then there’s a fourth iteration of the series – a one-off brewed and canned exclusively for this weekend’s Death Becomes Us true crime festival. Simply dubbed Death Becomes Us, the 4% brew melds the flavor profile of Bright Tangerine Sparkling Ale with another, sinister-sounding citrus fruit: blood orange.
“We liked the hook of the blood orange – it has kind of kitschy tie-in with the more gruesome aspects of true crime,” says Cara Flynn, Experiential Marketing Manager for Devils Backbone. “We also wanted something that would be pretty widely palatable and easy drinking so you’re not imbibing too heavily while you’re trying to take in your true crime fix.”
Flynn worked on developing the Death Becomes Us beer with BYT founder Svetlana Legetic and festival director Jenn Tisdale. (The two sides connected via a mutual friend at Capital Eagle, one of Devils Backbone’s distributors.)
It’s a partnership that makes sense for the Virginia brewery for several reasons. First, it fits into a larger strategy of fortifying the Devils Backbone brand in DC. That’s something evident in its production of special beverages (three beers, one hard lemonade) for each of the four major DC sports franchises, as well as this spring’s two-week Lemon Grove pop-up bar to celebrate the launch of its Hibiscus Hard Lemonade. The brewery’s Lexington production facility may be three hours outside the city, but it’s clear the lens through which Devils Backbone views DC.
“DC is a really important market for us,” shares Flynn. “It’s the largest city in our area, so we like to participate in events and partnerships with DC as much as possible. Death Becomes Us seemed like a really good opportunity to participate in something really unique.”
The Death Becomes Us beer is also consistent with Devils Backbone’s Heartland Initiative – a program started by the brewery in 2017 with the goal of donating $1 million to Virginia charities and volunteering 4,000 hours of community service by 2020. (It released a mixed Give-Back Pack in October.) A portion of proceeds from both the festival and the Death Becomes Us beer will go to Lorena’s Wagon, a Haymarket nonprofit founded by Lorena Gallo to help victims of domestic violence.
“We don’t do a lot of event specific beers, which makes this pretty unique,” adds Flynn.
The project arrived on Oliver’s desk without much in the way of direction. But after some back and forth, they settled on tying the beer into the Bright series – a decision surely not hurt by the prospect of introducing the hard seltzer alternative to the website’s younger readership. (The tangerine iteration even comes in the skinny 12oz cans common for the increasingly popular alcoholic beverages.) After that, Oliver said he had one directive: “It was like, ‘Make this really red looking.’”
To amplify the bloodiness of the liquid, Oliver employed an unusual ingredient for the first time: concentrated purple carrot juice. The liquid – “amazing stuff,” per Jason – ferments out cleanly, with no sugar or flavor left behind. Just a bright red hue.
Aside from the root vegetable, production of Death Becomes Us tracked almost identically to Bright Tangerine Sparkling Ale. It starts with a simple grist of pilsner malt, wheat, and acidulated malt. From there, the wort receives light additions of orangey Amarillo hops during the whirlpool (when the liquid is cooling and hops leach flavor and aroma more so than bitterness).
“I hope to use ingredients that will form a synergy, whether it’s apparent or not,” Oliver says the hopping. “It’s like, ‘Let’s use a hop that has a very tangerine-y character to it.’”
The whirlpool is also where Devils Backbone adds fresh zested tangerine and blood orange peel, as well “crystals” from both fruits. (“To call them dehydrated juice is a little disservice to them,” Oliver remarks of the latter. “They’re really neat stuff.”) These additions form a base of flavor that carries through to the finished product.
During fermentation, the brewers pitch amyloglucosidase, as well as the sugar dextrose, which lightens the beer’s malt character. (A similar technique is employed by Belgian brewers with candi sugar.)
“We want it be as pale as possible, as dry as possible, as delicate as possible,” Oliver says of the fermentation additions. “On the whole, we’re still tinkering with these beers, and we’ll see where it goes. But I’ll tell you what: They’re really light and refreshing.”
Brewed on Devils Backbone’s pilot system at its Roseland “Basecamp,” the Death Becomes Us beer is a minor part of the brewery’s larger play in what Oliver calls the “better for you bracket.” 100 cases of Death Becomes Us – approximately 9 barrels worth – were made for the event and sent to bars around George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. (In contrast, Devils Backbone’s Lexington brewhouse produces 120 barrels of beer every time it’s fired up.)
The brewery’s other entry in this bracket is it’s hopped hard lemonade. (That beverage sprang from Oliver’s attempt to brew a clear IPA as a playful “fuck you” to the New England IPA… but that’s another story.) Like the sparkling ales, the hard lemonade is fermented dry and posses virtually no carbohydrates.
Oliver is optimistic these health-conscious alternatives will find an audience.
“I’ve been trying to knock away at healthy craft for a long time, but I think there’s a more savvy consumer base now,” the brewmaster says. “I don’t think craft has to be, like, a million calories and super strong in alcohol. Like cooking in fat, alcohol is kind of flavor enhancer. When you make lighter beers, there’s less intensity, but there’s no reason why you can’t have fuller-flavored light beers. You can have a hoppy, full-flavored, low-calorie beer. You can have a dark, roasty low-calorie beer.”
You can even have a punchy, refreshing, fruited, low-calorie beer-seltzer hybrid.
“I’ve been trying to chip away at this for a while,” Oliver tells me. “And I think times are slowly changing.”
Note: As mentioned above, I am paid to write for BYT, a partner in this collaboration. I personally had no involvement in developing this beer nor organizing the Death Becomes Us festival. No one from BYT contributed, reviewed, or edited this article. No one from BYT gave direction on it content. The only interviews conducted, informal or otherwise, were with Devils Backbone.