Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
It’s the beer that launched a thousand blogposts. The shutdown ale. The poster child for a disaffected industry. The Precious One. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
But before it was any of these things, before it received its malapropistic name, before it became the focal point of a lawsuit against the Acting Attorney General of the United States, it was just a fruited IPA. In fact, when Atlas Brew Works debuted a pilot batch of the beer in its tasting room two months ago, it was simply called Apricot IPA. What else did you need to know?
Atlas conceived the 6.4% brew as a new spring offering – the first entry in a revamped series of seasonal beers. In its sixth year, the Ivy City brewery was making some not insignificant changes to its line-up. Founder and CEO Justin Cox once bristled at the “seasonal” descriptor and its corresponding model, but he had decided Atlas would play that game in 2019 with four beers, all spaced three months apart, each hitting shelves and tap lines five or six weeks before the actual transition of seasons.
There would be some turnover, as well. Atlas’s original warm weather seasonal, the hoppy lager Home Rule, was being shelved to make way for The Precious One and then a hoppy Belgian pale ale dubbed Ninja Sauce in May. More dramatically, Atlas was relegating its inaugural flagship Rowdy – a rye pale ale based on a homebrew recipe that Cox lovingly tweaked for eight years prior to opening Atlas – to the winter seasonal slot. Taking its place in the core line-up in March: Blood Orange Gose, a tart kettle sour that has unexpectedly taken off for the brewery.
This is what it looks when a brewery yields to the demands of the market.
“You know, I had to swallow my ego a long time ago,” Cox tells me. “I’ve always had a very special relationship with Rowdy, obviously. It’s everyone’s favorite beer that nobody buys. But I get it – it’s a weird, complicated beer that doesn’t fit neatly into a style. The challenge is just getting them to try it.”
I’m sitting with Cox in a corner of the brewery’s tasting room on a late January afternoon. The weather is temperate for the first time in weeks but the founder is still wearing a black, puffy Atlas jacket indoors. He says his office, encased essentially with cinder blocks, is always cold this time of year.
That chill doesn’t appear to be affecting Atlas’ shaggy head brewer Daniel Vilarubbi, who’s also sitting with us and appears quite comfortable in a white t-shirt adorned solely with a picture of Billy Bob Thornton in the movie “Bad Santa”. Quickly approaching his five-year anniversary with Atlas, Vilarubbi has overseen the brewery’s production since December 2015. During that time, he’s been behind the formulation of new beers like Blood Orange Gose and Double Dance of Days, but he’s mostly left his mark on existing recipes, particularly the brewery’s lagers. Lagers are unabashedly Vilarubbi’s beer of choice. Unsurprisingly, Home Rule is one of his favorite Atlas beers.
“It was the source of a bit of an argument between me and Dusty,” the brewer says of the decision to place the hoppy lager on indefinite hiatus.
“Dusty” is Dusty Poore, Atlas’ sales director. When Atlas began planning its 2019 seasonal line-up last fall, Poore lobbied for a fruited IPA in the spring. Viarubbi – or “V,” as he’s known within the brewery – wanted to retain Home Rule. Poore won.
“We try to make all of our decisions with an open floor for management,” Cox explains. “I will say that Dusty and V have very different – maybe even opposite – taste in beers, so I try to wrangle them together and find compromises and allow them both to explore what they need to explore. But The Precious One is absolutely a Dusty beer.”
Though it may not have been his idea, Vilarubbi would carry out the execution of this fruited IPA. Of course, the first decision facing him was what fruit to showcase. It’s a decision a majority of U.S. breweries have had to make at some point this decade. Pick a brewery and the chances are it has – or had – a fruited IPA somewhere in its catalog.
The progenitor of this style is generally recognized as Aprihop, an apricot IPA first produced by Dogfish Head in 1999. (This should come as no surprise: When it comes to adjuncts, the Delaware brewery is the craft beer equivalent of “The Simpsons Already Did It.”) But adding fruit to hop-forward ales truly took off as a trend after Ballast Point unleashed a grapefruit variant of its flagship IPA Sculpin in early 2013. The massively popular beer inspired breweries across the country to pair citrusy hops with literal citrus, resulting in beers like New Belgium’s Citradelic Tangerine IPA, Siera Nevada’s Sidecar Orange Pale Ale, and Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA. By 2016, Paste Magazine was lamenting “Okay, These Fruited IPAs Are Getting Ubiquitous” and Thrillist was wondering “What’s the Deal With All Those Fruit IPAs?”
However, 2016 was arguably the peak of this craze. While brewers haven’t entirely forsaken citrus fruit IPAs – to wit, Stone just recently resurrected its Grapefruit Slam IPA – many have moved onto pairing tropical hops with tropical fruits like guava, mango, and passionfruit. Or some have let the trend pass by altogether, like Firestone Walker, which at the beginning of 2017 debuted its rotating-hop IPA Luponic Distortion as an alternative of sorts.
“When we designed the beer, we were trying to take a left turn when everyone was going right into fruit beers,” Brewmaster Matt Brynildson told me that year. “Even Sierra Nevada is making a fruited pale now, and obviously Ballast Point was mimicked by a lot of breweries putting grapefruit and every other fruit under the sun in their IPAs. Then our marketing team comes to us, like, ‘What are we going to have in our quiver to fight this battle?’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t we go the opposite direction? Let’s go deeper into hops. We can make fruit-forward beers with hops, so let’s go that way!’”
Atlas is well aware it’s entering the fray a little after the dust has settled.
“In traditional Atlas style, we’re doing a beer that was trendy two years ago,” Cox says.
Quips aside, the brewery sought to be savvy in recognizing and filling a niche in the market that might exist locally or even nationally.
“We didn’t want to go traditional with grapefruit and grapefruity hops,” Vilarubbi explains. “Tropical fruit was obviously low-hanging fruit, too – no pun intended.”
Ultimately, he settled on apricots because, well, someone tossed out the idea in a meeting and, Aprihop aside, you don’t see many apricot IPAs. It didn’t hurt that Vilarubbi was personally fond of the fruit, either. He says whenever stone fruit season rolls around, you’ll often find him snacking on apricots. And in his apricot IPA, he wanted the hops to compliment the fruit, rather than the other way around.
“We wanted to create something that’s not like what’s out there,” the brewer says. “We wanted to play to the fruit rather than having the fruit coming from the hop aroma, as is usual. Most of the time when I have a fruit IPA, the hops and the fruit clash.”
Vilarubbi’s apricot IPA paired purée of the fruit with two American varietals: Mosaic and Bravo. The former was a logical choice. An exceedingly prized hop, Mosaic can throw off a range of vibrant flavors and aromas – berries, tropical fruit, even pine. What Vilarubbi most gets from it is “dank pineapple,” which he believed would pair well with apricot.
Bravo was a more eccentric choice. Most brewers use it primarily as a bittering hop – Atlas included. But Vilarubbi has found it works as a flavor and aroma hop, even going so far as to showcase its sweet fruit and candied orange flavors in the Double IPA Giant Flaming Zombie Polar Bear last year. In The Precious One, though, he used a defter hand, adding the hop to just the boil and whirlpool – enough for it to sit in the background and let the fruit and Mosaic be the stars.
The IPA’s grist was also designed to elevate those elements without muddling their flavors. In contrast with Aprihop, an old school IPA brewed with a heavy dose of caramel malts, The Precious One has a nimble malt bill of Pilsen malt with just a dash of oats for mouthfeel and a little Special B to color what would otherwise be straw yellow beer.
“I think it kind of looks like apricot flesh,” says Cox, holding a pint up to the light, “but I don’t know how much of that is the power of suggestion.”
The Precious One isn’t the only Atlas beer to feature apricots. Its summer sour Ugly & Stoned – a collaboration with MOMs Organic Market, the Environmental Working Group, and Food Policy Action – is brewed annually with a rotating selection of mildly bruised, discarded stone fruit, mainly peaches and nectarines, but also apricots, plums, and the apricot-plum hybrid pluots.
“We’ve used apricots before, but not in a major role by any means,” says Cox. “With Ugly & Stoned, we use what we’re given – that’s the whole ethos of that beer. There are some apricots in there, but it’s not a dominant flavor.”
I ask if they ever thought operating a brewery would lead to an expertise in stone fruit.
“There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t think I would learn,” Vilarubbi shoots back.
Another lesson in stone fruit would come in naming the beer. When the brewery was brainstorming monikers, Poore suggested the apricot IPA be called The Precious One – a direct reference to the Romans’ name for it. The name caught on and was submitted to Bates Creative, the brewery’s marketing firm, who began designing the can and writing the copy for it.
There was one problem, though: In researching that copy, the firm discovered that the Romans actually called apricots precocious, not precious.
“At the most basic level, the name [apricot] comes from the same root as the word ‘precocious,’ and essentially means the same thing.” Sam Dean writes in Bon Appétit’s “On the Etymology of the Word Apricot”. “The apricot, compared to its cousin the peach, ripens earlier in the year (and the botanical sense of ‘precocious’ precedes the figurative one in English, but only by about fifteen years – good luck keeping a poet away from a gardening metaphor), so Pliny called it a praecocia (literally, ‘early-ripen’).”
Rather than correct the name, Atlas and Bates Creative opted to scrap their precious previous copy, write new text about “spring’s most delicate fruit,” and roll with the malapropism.
By late November, Atlas had finalized a can design for The Precious One. Then, as is required by law, it submitted that design to The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or “TTB”) for a certificate of label approval (or “COLA”). On December 17, about two-and-a-half weeks later, the TTB approved the application. Once Atlas brewed The Precious One, it could now distribute cans anywhere within the country.
So far, so good. This was the typical way the regulatory process unfolded.
Three days later, on December 20, Atlas submitted the labels for The Precious One’s “keg collars” – the rings of paper atop each keg that leaves the brewery – along with nine other labels for forthcoming one-offs and special releases. (If a keg crosses state lines for the purpose of distribution, it must have a keg collar. Typically, approval of these labels is pro forma. Sometimes, the agency requires some minor changes, like when it asked Atlas to clarify on Ugly & Stoned’s keg collars that the beer doesn’t include marijuana.)
Then, less than two days later, the government shut down. All nonessential federal operations – including the TTB’s review of new can, bottle, and keg labels – had paused. Five of Atlas’ labels had been approved. The other five, including the keg collar for The Precious One, had not. When Cox went to the TTB site, that label was tagged as “in review.”
“I assume someone was looking at it when the government shutdown went into effect,” Cox muses.
Without a TTB-approved keg collar, Atlas would be unable to sell kegs of The Precious One outside of DC. (A brewery may distribute kegs intrastate without federal label approval.) Nevertheless, Atlas proceeded with brewing the beer as scheduled. The brewery had promised accounts that the beer would be ready for shelves and draft lines by the beginning of February. So, on Thursday, January 3, 40 barrels of this fruited, hop-forward ale went into an Atlas fermenter in Ivy City.
Here is where things got more interesting.
By midday the following Monday, just four days later, The Precious One was the subject of an article on DCist titled “New Craft Beers Are ‘In A Holding Pattern’ Thanks To The Shutdown”.
The piece made a number of erroneous representations – namely, that Atlas Brew Works had brewed the beer “late last year,” before the shutdown, as opposed to nearly two weeks into the shutdown – but it laid out the basics of what would become The Precious One’s narrative. The basic gist was: The beer was lingering in purgatory, and it might be sacrificed to the bureaucratic gods.
“Now the Ivy City brewery is stuck with a whole tank of IPA brewed with fresh apricots that may never hit shelves,” it noted breathlessly.
This fatalistic chord was struck again a few paragraphs later: “Now, that release date is getting postponed – if it ever comes at all.”
The article even floated the prospect of a “nuclear option:” Atlas having to dispose of the beer altogether.
“In the past we’ve had issues with a beer we can’t sell,” founder Justin Cox told DCist. “Sometimes we have to dump it. And that hurts, emotionally and monetarily.”
That particular quote gained notoriety a few days later when Stephen Colbert lightly mocked it in a segment on “The Late Show”. (The clip currently has about 1.2 million views on YouTube.)
“That was surreal,” Cox admits. “I didn’t even know that it had happened – I didn’t watch the show live. Mark, our warehouse manager, came in and said, ‘Did you see you made Colbert last night?’ I was like, ‘Whaaat?’”
The CBS show didn’t credit Cox with the quote, but soon enough the founder was appearing elsewhere on TV to discuss the brewery’s predicament. By the end of the week, he was appearing on Yahoo! Finance.
“We actually have our spring beer, which is called The Precious One, which is an apricot IPA,” Cox explained. “It’s sitting in our tanks now, with nowhere to go, because our labels are in limbo with the TTB.”
A video about the shutdown and Atlas appeared on DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s social media that same day.
“We don’t have label approval for our newest beer, The Precious One, which is an apricot IPA,” Cox says in the clip before big red X is superimposed over the image of the tank containing the beer.
If you were skimming all of this information, you were likely left with two impressions. 1) Atlas was in possession of a finished beer “with nowhere to go.” 2) That beer is a spring seasonal called The Precious One, which is an apricot IPA.
While the second impression is a hard fact, the first is a little squishy. In reality, Atlas was at that point in possession of a beer that would be finished in a few weeks, some of which might have nowhere to go.
To get granular for a moment, Atlas brewed 40 barrels of The Precious One on January 3. When the beer was packaged on January 22, a little over half of the batch went into cans. The remaining 18 barrels or so went into less than 40 kegs. Four of those kegs were kept for the taproom, and the brewery says it had planned to split the leftover kegs evenly between DC and then the out-of-state markets of Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee as a whole. (The “vast majority” of Atlas’ volume is sold within DC, according to the brewery.)
That means the worst-case scenario, the whole time, was that Atlas might not be able to sell at most 18 kegs of The Precious One – around 20% of the batch – outside of DC, as it had planned. In court documents filed in mid-January, Atlas projected the potential loss of such sales at $5,000.
To be clear, that is not an insignificant amount. The margins in brewing are smaller than most people imagine, particularly when beer leaves the tasting room and the brewery’s bite of the apple gets smaller. There are also intangible costs, like not being able to get a new and exciting beer into less-developed markets.
“When we release a new beer, part of the reason we do it is to engage new customers,” says Cox. “It generates a little buzz. Hopefully, a bar manager brings in a keg of The Precious One and then they’re like, ‘Oh, I haven’t had Dance of Days in a while. That beer is fantastic. Let me grab a keg of that.’ There’s a multiplier effect that keeps prevailing.”
But there was never any risk that the entire batch of The Precious One would be dumped. Cans of the beer were always going to hit shelves, on time, in all four states. The release date was not going to be postponed.
From a business perspective, though, it’s hard to fault for Cox leaning into The Precious One’s narrative.
“We didn’t decide we wanted to run with this as a story – it just happened organically,” Cox tells me when I ask about that positioning. “Everything just sort of snowballed. Of course, the whole time, we were like, ‘Press is great. It’s terrible that we’re in this situation, but I’ll definitely scream about it from the rooftops.’”
On the day I visit Atlas to meet with Cox and Vilarubbi, January 23, the brewery is releasing cans of The Precious One. Over the preceding 24 hours, Atlas’ social media has been marketing The Precious One as “the beer at the center of all this controversy” and the “#shutdownbeer.”
“The whole experience has been very surreal,” the founder says. “We’re just trying to do our thing and make our beer and sell it. We’ve just been encompassed in this larger story about how the entire economy is grinding to a halt because of all the craziness with the government.”
What we didn’t know at the time was that the shutdown would be over in two days, and four days after that those much ballyhooed keg collars would escape purgatory and ascend to federal approval. What we did know is that those labels wouldn’t be needed – at least, not until Atlas brews another 40 barrels of the beer. As a result of all the attention surrounding The Precious One, Atlas has sold all of the kegs originally allocated for out-of-state markets within DC.
“I don’t think we’re really sitting on this,” Vilarubbi admits. “The press really took off and this beer is selling like crazy. Before we even tried to sell the beer, we got e-mails from bar managers that were like, ‘We’ll take two kegs.’”
Cox nods in agreement.
“Ironically, we’re going to be able to ‘drain’ this in our approved distribution channels due to the press we’ve received,” he tells me. “There has been a groundswell of support from the local community within DC.”
Beyond attracting the interest of District beer buyers, the attention surrounding The Precious One also caught the eye of Alan Gura, an Alexandria-based attorney who Cox describes as “a big First Amendment guy.” Quite notably, this is the man who successfully represented Flying Dog in its landmark Raging Bitch dispute with Michigan.
After a mutual friend connected the two during the shutdown, Gura posited a legal theory: By neglecting to review beer labels, the federal government was suppressing Atlas’ free speech. Gura wanted to file a lawsuit against Acting Attorney General Mathew Whitaker that would effectively block the Department of Justice from enforcing federal law if Atlas were to distribute kegs across state lines without TTB label approval during this shutdown – and potentially future shutdowns.
In Cox, who holds a J.D. from George Mason but never practiced law, Gura had found a sympathetic audience.
“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I get that, it’s valid, and I think it’s practical from the position of solving a problem that we have at Atlas currently,’” Cox says. “It’s also just good for the general jurisprudence of what goes on during government shutdowns.”
Gura filed Atlas’ suit against the federal government in DC’s U.S. District Court on January 15. He and Cox were before a judge a week later. The Atlas CEO felt encouraged by the judge’s questioning and general demeanor.
“He asked if we brought samples into the court,” Cox recalls. “I actually did think about that ahead of time, but I was like, ‘I don’t want to look like I’m bribing the judge.’”
The duo is scheduled to reappear in front of the judge again on February 28. Although the shutdown has now ended, the case could establish a legal principle for label review and distribution during any shutdown. (Gura and Cox discussed the case in depth on a recent episode of the podcast Head Retention.)
The implications of the lawsuit would extend far beyond Atlas, and a positive outcome would be met with rejoice across the industry. After all, while Atlas was able to gain approval for The Precious One’s can design prior to the shutdown and thus proceeded somewhat as planned with its production, there were countless other breweries forced to put packaged beer production on ice during the 35-day standstill. (Port City founder Bill Butcher recently testified about the shutdown’s effect before the House’s Small Business Committee.)
I ask Cox if he feels like a poster child for the cause.
“It feels weird calling yourself a poster child for something, but we’ve definitely been vocal about it,” he says. “We fucking sued the federal government over it – that’s definitely throwing our name out there. We’re speaking out for the industry.”
Not everyone has been thankful for the leadership. Over the past few weeks, Atlas has been the recipient of the occasional rambling voicemail and e-mail.
“There’s some negativity out there, which we’re choosing to ignore,” says Cox. “It’s very much a small part of the response. There are people who think we’re the absolute devil for suing the federal government. It very much seems to be down partisan lines, I’ll put it that way.”
“A lot of people seem to think we’re suing Trump personally,” adds Vilarubbi. “This case should be a conservative’s wet dream.”
Someone left a Yelp review complaining that his food arrived cold. Atlas does not have a kitchen. This same “customer” also complained that both bathrooms were full of vomit, which would have required some impressive sleuthing.
“We’re making a very traditional conservative argument, insofar as freedom speech is important to conservatives,” says Cox, mildly exasperated. “This isn’t a political attack on the current administration. We’re not against the TTB. We’re not trying to blow up the system.”
It remains to be seen if The Precious One will be remembered as the beer that changed that system or as just another tasty fruited IPA.
Atlas is probably hoping for both.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.
Revisit other recent Freshly Tapped profiles on Port City’s Colossal 8, Ocelot’s Lean on Me, Atlas Brew Works’ Solidarity Pilsner, Allagash’s Little Brett, Perennial’s Prodigal, and Old Bust Head’s Table Talk.