By Philip Runco.
Photos by Nicholas Karlin.
Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days, a hoppy wheat ale brewed with Mosaic and Citra hops.
Sam Puffenbarger shows me a picture of Sam Puffenbarger.
In it, he’s perched atop a white bucket, his back slumped over, leaning towards a small, metallic mill that’s resting on another bucket. A few tubs of grain have accumulated at his side. A colleague sits across from him, flashing the camera a thumbs-up sign and wearing a shit-eating grin. He looks like a kid in front of the orangutan exhibit at the zoo. Puffenbarger’s smiling, too, but he looks tired. His left hand is flicking off whoever is behind the camera.
This was the afternoon in early July that Puffenbarger crushed 200 pounds of unmalted wheat using a hammer drill and a piece of homebrewing equipment winkingly dubbed the Cereal Killer. The task took almost two hours. That’s two hours of a high-power drill jerking and twisting in his hands; two hours of his fellow Atlas brewers razzing him; two hours of his flipping them the bird.
“It was definitely a pain in the ass,” Puffenbarger remembers, sitting on the patio of Brookland’s Finest a month later. “It was hot inside the brewery. It just sucked.”
There are easier ways to do this, of course, but they require a certain type of equipment. To get into the nitty gritty of brewing for a moment: Unmalted wheat has to be mashed at a lower temperature than modified grains, which means it has to be milled separately, then mashed, then allowed to rest before the other grains are added. Breweries that deal with unmalted wheat on a regular basis typically use a full-scale mill equipped with a slide gate, which allows them to collect any grain before the auger carries it to the grist case.
“One of those would have been great, but Atlas doesn’t have that,” Puffenbarger says. “We had to think outside the box. We had to ask ourselves, ‘How the hell are we going to do this?’”
In the end, the answer was Puffenbarger and a drill and a homebrew mill that only held ten pounds at a time. It was Puffenbarger because it was his beer. Dance of Days was his recipe. The hoppy wheat ale was one he’d wanted to make for a long time. And on top of all of that, it was a tribute to his wife.
“I’m kind of obsessed with all the beers I’ve brewed, but I might have spent a little more time on Dance of Days than I should have,” he shares. “I was like, ‘I’m going to brew it. I’m going to dry-hop it. I’m going to smell and taste it every day.’ I did all of the steps.”
Dance of Days had first taken root in late May, when Atlas owner Justin Cox approached his production team about brewing a new summer beer.
“We talked amongst ourselves, and we started thinking about the beers that we would like to drink in the summer,” Puffenbarger recalls. “Then we went back to Justin and suggested that we do smaller runs of three different beers – that way there would be more variety.”
Cox bit on the pitch, and the production team of Puffenbarger, Austin Liebrum, Will Cook, Sean Palmateer, and then-lead brewer Daniel Vilarrubi set about fleshing out the recipes that would ultimately become Dance of Days, the kettle-soured Should I Stay or Should I Gose, and a session saison called Rye, Rye, My Darling. All three beers were released concurrently last month.
“The idea was to do something different and stand out,” shares Cox. “The three styles that we brewed are really variant. A gose is very, very different from a rye saison, which is very, very different from a hoppy wheat. We wanted to show off our brewing chops a little bit.”
The gose and saison are calibrated for patio sipping – the former sitting at 4.2% ABV, the latter somewhere near 4.5%. At 5.7%, Dance of Days doesn’t quite fit that mold. In fact, there are a lot of ways the beer doesn’t fall in line with the other summer beers – or for that matter, almost everything that’s come before it during Atlas’ three-year run.
At the same time, Dance of Days is also a reflection of eight months of change within Atlas – the departure of its original head brewer, the emergence of different perspectives, the new techniques and tightened protocols introduced by an experienced “free agent.”
But first and foremost, it’s the beer that a wonk-turned-brewer wanted to drink.
As the story goes, Justin Cox hired Sam Puffenbarger because he wouldn’t leave.
“He was hanging out too late in the tap room one evening, about to get kicked out, when he heard us talking about how we needed more people,” Cox recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, I’ll do it!’”
At the time, Atlas had only been open for a month or so. In contrast, Puffenbarger was hardly a spring chicken: He was 33 and working for a non-profit environmental association. He possessed two graduate degrees, and neither of them had anything remotely to do with beer.
But he had been homebrewing for a year, which was more than enough time for him to immerse himself in the science and culture of brewing – and to figure out it was something he wanted to pursue.
“When Sam gets into something, he goes all in,” says his wife Anka.
Puffenbarger worked in the tap room sporadically for six months before convincing his desk job boss to let him switch to a four-day schedule. This freed him up to go into Atlas on Fridays, when he would clean kegs and fill bottles – the “grunt cellar work,” he calls it.
Then, in February of 2015, a more significant opportunity opened at the brewery with the departure of cellerman Dan Bedford to Sierra Nevada. Puffenbarger decided to put five-and-a-half years of graduate school and a comfortable job in the rear-view mirror and apply.
“I was really worried they wouldn’t hire me,” he recalls. “The application asked for all of this production brewing experience, and I was like, ‘I don’t really have any of that.’”
“He was so nervous,” Anka adds.
It turned out to be much ado about nothing. “I walked in and they were like, ‘Well, it’s yours if you want it,’” he remembers with a laugh.
Within the household, the transition – and the substantial pay cut that came with it – was not one free of hand-wringing.
“I had this slight freakout when I took the job that I was only going to make it four months before I had to start dipping into savings and be forced back into the real world,” Puffenbarger recalls. “We had this discussion where I was like, ‘If it doesn’t work out, I still have the degrees! I still have experience in the workplace!’ But, knock on wood, it’s been fine.”
“Sam made a very tough life decision to leave his normal, professional gig and pursue a career in brewing, which is not an easy thing to do, and I admire him for that,” says Cox, who jettisoned a legal career of his own to start Atlas. “He’s dedicated to his craft.”
Over time, Puffenbarger would advance from cellerman to brewer, though at a brewery the size of Atlas, everyone does a little bit of everything. On the side, whenever he could, he would develop and brew his own beers on a small pilot system. In the fall, he drafted his first recipe for commercial production – Wet Hop American Summer, a hoppy wheat ale to commemorate Atlas’ second anniversary. The beer didn’t turn out exactly as he had initially envisioned but it was nevertheless an important milestone in his development as a brewer.
“There are three ways to get into brewing: open your own brewery, go to brewing school, or do what I did,” Puffenbarger shares. “I feel like the majority of people just work their way up.”
The truest sign of Puffenbarger’s progression would come six months later, when Cox entrusted him with rebuilding Atlas’ flagship IPA.
Over the past decade, a divide has emerged in the tastes of brewers and consumers when it comes to IPAs, and it boils down to one thing: balance.
On one side are hopheads that clamor for the IPAs popularized by many West Coast breweries. These beers tend to aggressively hop-forward. That’s not to suggest they’re always bitter; it’s more that the recipes are engineered with a nimble malt backbone intended to place emphasis on the juicy, dank hops of Yakima Valley and Australasia. In that sense, they’re slightly unbalanced beers. They’re also wildly fashionable right now.
In contrast, fans of East Coast IPAs – a closer derivation of the English style – favor a heartier malt backbone that balance the bitterness of hops with caramel or creamy sweetness. Think Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA, or Port City’s Monumental IPA.
Within Atlas, there was a split between the brewers. Puffenbarger, the self-described “resident hophead,” was firmly on the side of West Coast IPAs. Meanwhile, then-lead brewer Daniel Vilarrubi favored more traditional, “old school” IPAs.
“There was always a joke that if Daniel liked it, I’d hate it, and vice versa,” says Puffenbarger. “Most of the time, I’d bring him an IPA and be like, ‘This is amazing!’ And he’d be like, ‘Meh, don’t like it.’”
But as is the case at most breweries, the final arbiter of what beer Atlas produced was its head brewer, and the man with that title, Will Durgin, was less enamored with the West Coast style. Thus, when Atlas rolled out a flagship IPA called Ponzi last July, no one was accusing the brewery of riding the zeitgeist.
“Will Durgin wasn’t much of a fan of florally hoppy beers,” says Cox. “He designed that recipe to be much more East Coast or English-style with a nice malt backbone.”
In December, change would come to Atlas when Durgin exited the brewery and returned to Massachusetts. At first, the departure didn’t have much of an effect on what beers Atlas produced; the remaining production staff just carried on with the recipes it had.
“After Durgin left, we really didn’t do any beers,” Puffenbarger says. “We definitely tweaked some beers, but it was just changing little things like hop additions.”
At the end of March, Atlas released Ponzi in cans for the first time. Not long after, the brewers approached Cox about radically changing beer.
“We basically just called a meeting and talked about the beer, and we came to the consensus that we weren’t super happy with it,” Puffenbarger remembers. “It wasn’t bad by any means, but we thought it could a lot better.”
“Ponzi wasn’t what the rest of us really wanted to present as the flagship IPA for Atlas,” says Will Cook, a seasoned brewer who had recently been brought on by Atlas. “We wanted more of a West Coast style IPA. So, we talked to Justin about it, and he said, ‘Let’s just go for it. Let’s do a revamp.’ It was a grassroots decision that came from within the brewery. How were we going to sell a beer that were not happy with as brewers?”
Overhauling a recipe that’s already gone into cans and out to market is a big deal. When it comes to packaging, the name of the game is consistency.
“Not only was Ponzi out in bars, but it was out in grocery stores,” Puffenbarger says. “It was a concern, and for obvious reasons, Justin was a bit hesitant. It was like, ‘Now we have something that’s out in mass, how much can we change it without having any repercussions?’ I think we all came to the agreement that if it became a better beer, it didn’t really matter. People would forget and forgive.”
The alternative option, launching a new IPA, was cost prohibitive.
“We had already invested the time and money into creating Ponzi as a brand and all of the accessories that come with that – tap handles, t-shirts, cans,” Cox says. “We had 25 pallets of Ponzi cans sitting in a warehouse.”
So, Cox turned to Puffenbarger to take the reins with this Ponzi. The significance of the responsibility was not lost on him.
“It was a big deal,” Puffenbarger says. “Justin put a lot of faith in an experienced homebrewer to redo his IPA.”
Unsurprisingly, the biggest difference between the original Ponzi and Puffenbarger’s West Coast version is the malt bill. The original had a healthy proportion of Munich malt, and most of it had to go.
“As far as West Coast IPAs go, that much Munich malt is ‘inappropriate’” the brewer says. “It ends up hiding your hop flavor, and it starts to balance the beer more than I was looking for. So, I wanted to reduce that as much as I could.”
The other changes to the beer – how it’s hopped, the method of dry-hopping, its minerality – came from the influence of that new face in the brewery.
Will Cook came to Atlas on an indefinite lease.
The 24-year Marine reservist had previously served as lead brewer at Port City, and then as lead brewer at Fair Winds, where he helped get the Lorton, Virginia brewery up and running. Even before he took that second gig, though, his goal was to get back to government service. He loved brewing, but the hours and pay had becomes less conducive to the particulars of his life.
“I’ve got two kids now, so I needed to get back to a government job so I can actually be a responsible human being again,” he deadpans, en route to a Sunday performance of Cirque du Soleil with his family.
In the early spring, Cook approached a few area breweries with a proposition: His services were available, but he couldn’t say for how long. When the government job finally came through, it would be time to go. Operating without a head brewer and approaching the summer busy season, Atlas couldn’t refuse the opportunity to bring in a brewer with such experience and pedigree.
“I just came in as a free agent,” Cook says. “It was a temporary thing: Come in, give a hand where I could. And it kind of snowballed into something else.”
Cook began noticing certain deficiencies with the equipment and processes at Atlas.
“The crew at Atlas was a great crew; it just wasn’t a crew that had a lot of years under its belt,” the brewer shares. “I came in and started getting Atlas more up to speed. And I have to give a lot of credit to Justin, who was like, ‘Where are we deficient? What can we do to make all of the processes better?’”
Cox puts it more succinctly: “Will came in and whipped us into shape.”
Cook showed brewers how to recirculate hops with a variable speed pump after the dry-hop – a technique that breaks those hops open, thereby enhancing the flavor and aroma they bring to the beer. He showed them how to transfer beer using a CO2 exchange method, which keeps more of that aroma intact. He began tweaking the pH levels on the different recipes where the brewery employed more a blanket approach previously. All of these techniques would have marked effect on hoppier beers like Ponzi – and, eventually, Dance of Days.
But before that, Puffenbarger would lean on Cook’s expertise in developing Ponzi’s new hop profile. Specifically, the seasoned brewer had commercial experience in hop blending, the practice of using a mix of multiple hops at each of the various stages of the boil.
The effect of hop blending is twofold. First, it serves as insurance from the shortages of any one hop. If you run out of a particular hop, it’s easier to plug in an alternative without radically altering a beer’s flavor when it’s one component of five.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, hop blending allows you to better manipulate the hops you have to achieve sought-after and desired qualities.
“We can’t get a lot of the hops that people are losing their minds for with these award-winning IPAs, so we have to take what we have and try to blend them to get some of those citrusy, dank, or piney flavor and aromas that people want,” Cook explains. “It’s not like you can just be like, ‘Hey, I want to make an all Citra IPA.’ Sometimes you can’t physically get a hold of Citra hops, and if you do, you’re going to be paying twice the amount on the open exchange.”
The latest version of Ponzi utilizes a blend of three old school hops (Cascade, Chinook, Centennial) and two new ones (the citrusy Mandarina Bavaria and Ahtamun, an up-and-coming variety akin to Amarillo). It also uses more of them, and in different places in the boil.
After ten or so batches of the new Ponzi, it remains a work in progress.
“At this point, we’re still tweaking it a little,” Cook admits. “Almost every single batch of the past five months has been slightly different from the next.”
This was the plan of the revamp all along – start from scratch, and hone it in from there.
“We basically threw out the old recipe and made a brand new one,” Cook says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s make little incremental changes here and there.’ We’ve done that with some of the beers. It was like, ‘Let’s just change it, and we’ll keep tweaking until we get it where we want it to be.”
In this sense, Dance of Days is an entirely different story. It was perfect from the first batch.
Puffenbarger wasn’t sure Dance of Days would get made – or, at least, not how he envisioned it.
“I was scared to submit the recipe to Justin because I didn’t know if he would actually bite and pay for these hops,” the brewer shares.
The hops of discussion were Citra and Mosaic, two of the so-called “Gucci hops” that are sought-after by brewers across the world. These are the varieties that Puffenbarger had chosen to showcase with Dance of Days, and since Atlas wasn’t contracted for either, he knew that Cox would have to pay a pretty penny to get them on the secondary market.
In his mind, they would be worth it.
“Magical things happen when you combine Mosaic and Citra,” he says. “Those two hops are amazing on their own if you do it right, but that’s really hard to pull off. Citra definitely helps mellow Mosaic out.”
Over its near three years, Atlas’ beers has rarely if ever splurged on the priciest ingredients. Instead, the recipes of Will Durgin were often based on doing complex things with simple inputs.
“I was hesitant about the cost,” Cox admits. “He picked two of the most expensive hops. But the hop market is based on supply and demand, and there’s a reason why they’re so expensive: They’re absolutely delicious.”
Sold on the recipe’s hop utilization rates and the success of the Ponzi revamp, Cox gave Puffenbarger his Mosaic and Citra.
Those Gucci hops would be going into a beer inspired by largely by 3 Floyd’s Gumballhead, a popular wheat ale hopped exclusively with Amarillo.
But even beyond the hop profile, there are a number of ways that Dance of Days is different from Gumballhead. By design, Puffenbarger’s beer is much softer.
The softness starts with Dance of Days’ grain bill: Pilsner malt, wheat, and a dash of honey malt. “The grain bill is really simple,” Puffenbarger says. “That’s one of things I learned from Durgin. He was all about simple beers.”
When Cook saw the recipe, he proposed using unmalted wheat, something he knew would contribute a softer mouthfeel from his time brewing Optimal Wit at Port City. He also liked how the unprocessed grain added a cloudiness to beer akin to the haze produced by the yeast strain of a typical witbier or Hefe.
“What’s always driven me nuts with wheat and white IPAs is that they often don’t look any different from a regular IPA,” Cook says. “If you use regular malted wheat, you’re not going to get that cloudiness that you typically associate with a wheat beer. So, my simple suggestion was that some of the best white IPAs – like Chainbreaker from Deschutes – use raw wheat, which gives it a bit of cloudiness and the extra mouthfeel you get from a wheat beer.”
Puffenbarger also sought to amplify the flavors and aroma of the hops by scaling back Dance of Days’ bitterness, something he accomplished by adding its bittering additions “super late” in boil. According to the brewer, that’s the direction a lot of IPAs are headed, led by the aromatic and juicy brews produced by places like Massachusetts’s Tree House and Richmond’s The Veil.
“That’s the evolving IPA taste,” Puffenbarger observes. “There will always be old school ways of doing things, and they’re totally fine, but it’s fun to try new things. In my opinion, the late additions leave plenty of bitterness in the beer without it being too bitter.”
Puffenbarger’s last task was convincing Cox to let him call the beer Dance of Days.
The name has well-known roots in D.C.’s hardcore scene: It’s the title of a song by Ian MacKaye’s short-lived band Embrace, as well as Mark Anderson’s book on the scene. Dance of Days also had a more personal connection for Puffenbarger.
“It was and is my wife’s online persona,” he shares. “When I met her, it was her instant messenger name. Now, it’s her Instagram name. So, I thought it would be a nice and grand gesture to name a beer after her.”
“We both grew up as punk and hardcore fans,” the Woodbridge native continues. “I can’t say I’m a Washingtonian but I started coming up here for shows as soon as I was old enough.”
The fact that Rye, Rye, My Darling and Should I Stay or Should I Gose nodded to other punk greats the Misfits and The Clash, respectively, made it an easier pitch to Cox.
“I was like, ‘Here’s a D.C. tie-in, too!'” Puffenbarger recalls. “And he was like, ‘OK, sounds good!’ I thought, ‘It worked! I bamboozled him!'”
In an ironic twist, his wife hasn’t drank alcohol for as long they’ve known each other, so she’ll probably never enjoy her tribute beer.
But plenty others have and will.
Every day during the production of Dance of Days, Puffenbarger would draw samples to taste and smell. This is a torturous thing for a brewer to put themselves through.
“It’s hard to get an idea of what a beer is going to taste like until it’s the end because it tastes different during whole process,” Puffenbarger explains. “There are these off-flavors that happen during fermentation, and I was getting these super funky things going on. I was like, ‘Oh boy, I hope this turns out OK. Hopefully the hops will save me.’”
It wasn’t until Atlas cold-crashed the beer to knock the yeast off that Puffenbarger allowed himself to believe he had created something good.
Not long after, the beer was dry-hopped, recirculated, and allowed to rest overnight.
“I came in the next day, poured a glass, and then I just kind of lit up,” Puffenbarger recalls. “I was like, ‘This is delicious!’”
“It’s the beer that I want to be drinking,” he continues. “It’s super aromatic and has a little bit of dankness to it, which has actually picked up a little bit as it’s gotten the older. It definitely has the super juicy flavor and aroma I was going for.”
“I think we hit a home run,” Cook concurs. “I think a lot of why it turned out so great was the selection of hops that Sam wanted, and that Justin and Dan went out and got them.”
Cox didn’t just love it; he put his money where his mouth is. “As soon as I tasted it, I immediately went out and bought more hops for another batch,” he tells me.
Is Puffenbarger enjoying the warm reception within and outside the brewery?
“Yes, but I’m also obsessively checking Untappd reviews,” he admits. “It’s the Internet, so people can say whatever they want, but generally I think people like it.”
Puffenbarger says the beer’s stylistic label might lead some people astray.
“When some people see ‘hoppy wheat’ on the board in the Atlas taproom, they think of Hefeweizens or a Belgian Wit,” the brewer shares. “We definitely have people who come in on the weekends and ask for a wheat beer, and they may be expecting a Hoegaarden or a Blue Moon, and Dance of Days is definitely not that.”
At 5.7%, the beer falls between the cracks of a pale ale and an IPA. It’s also too hoppy to be considered a wheat ale. But, ultimately, trying to put Dance of Days in a bucket defeats the point.
“Brewers have this discussion a lot: Are you going to brew to category or are you just going to brew what you like to drink and hope that people like it, as well?” Puffenbarger says. “For this beer, we definitely just wanted to make something that we liked.”
Two weeks ago, Dance of Days was brewed for a second time at Atlas, but Puffenbarger wasn’t there.
Not long after producing the first batch, he accepted a position at DC Brau.
“It was a professional growth thing,” he says of the move. “I love the dudes at Atlas, and there were no hard feelings.”
Puffenbarger tells me that he couldn’t pass up the chance to brew on DC Brau’s system and to work under Head Brewer Jeff Hancock and Production Manager Chris Graham.
At 36, the brewer says the clock is ticking.
“I’m old, and this is a young man’s game,” he admits. “I need to be learning as much as I can. I’m playing catch-up. And I felt like there were some things I could learn at Brau that would take a while for me to get at Atlas.”
After almost three years Atlas, does Puffenbarger feel like he’s graduating to the Harvard of D.C. IPA production?
“It definitely wasn’t a deterrent,” he says of DC Brau’s hop chops. “When I have a Wings or this year’s Space Reaper, it’s like, ‘Yeah, these guys know how to make IPAs.’ Hopefully I can learn from them and improve what I’m doing.”
Cook says Puffenbarger’s departure is part of the craft of brewing.
“Sometimes you just want to go to another brewery to get a different perspective,” he shares.” I’ve been at three breweries in my career, and I’ve learned something different at each one. If you just work at one brewery your entire career, you may not end up the most well-rounded brewer.”
As for Cook himself, that second batch of Dance of Days was his last production for Atlas – at least in his current role. The government job finally came through.
“Overall, my experience at Atlas was great,” he says. “It was extremely positive and very rewarding. There was never any intention of me becoming a lead brewer or head brewer. Dan [Vilarrubi] was always the lead brewer, and now he’s the head brewer, which is great. That was one of the overall goals of everybody: Let’s get Dan to be the head brewer. Everyone loves Dan. He’s good at his job.”
“I didn’t know Will that well before he started working at Atlas, but I became good friends with him,” Cox says. “He’s a smart, motivated guy, who unfortunately just needed to be paid more than the brewing industry could pay him.”
Cook now holds the title of Brewer Emeritus at Atlas. It’s a role that will keep him involved with the brewery in some capacity going forward, whether it be providing technical advice, brewing when he can, or hosting his heavy metal nights. He says he’ll always stay affiliated with Atlas.
“It’s definitely transitionary at the brewery,” Cox shares. “Sam was here for a long time, and we’re sad to see him go. The silver lining is that everyone who comes in has a different set of experiences that we can draw from, so we’ll hopefully be able to learn from them, and they learn from us.”
With the departure of Cook and Puffenbarger from everyday operations, though, Atlas has lost not only its two resident hopheads but also its two resident metalheads.
Cook called himself the Master of Heavy Metal Operations at both Port City and Fair Winds. His business card at the latter brewery literally listed it as his title. But when he joined Atlas, Cook assumed the role of Assistant Director of Heavy Metal Operations in deference to Puffenbarger’s seniority.
The duo went to heavy metal shows together. When beer was transferred to fermentation, they would mark tanks with the names of the grizzled bands they had been listening to that day. Centinex. Gojira. Slayer.
“I’ll miss working with Sam,” Cook reflects. “I felt like we were two peas in a pod sometimes. We aligned on beer tastes. We aligned on musical tastes.”
On his last day, brewing Dance of Days, Cook noticed a shift was already underway at Atlas.
“I was looking at the new music written on the fermenters,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘Ah, there’s a lot less heavy metal these days.”