Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
It wasn’t long after Jace Gonnerman tasted Dance of Days that he tried to corner the market on the beer. And he wasn’t particularly coy about it.
“If you were wondering what happened to all the @AtlasBrewWorks Dance of Days,” the Meridian Pint beverage director tweeted at the time, “I just ordered it. #sorrynotsorry.”
As the person who oversees three of DC’s best beer programs – the other two being Meridian Pint’s sister locations Smoke & Barrel and Brookland Pint – Gonnerman is always on the lookout for an exemplary local beer. If something is objectively great (at least by his palate) and brewed in the DC area, he wants to be pouring it, and that’s especially the case for hoppy offerings, which continue to dominate both consumer preference across craft beer and the draft lists in Gonnerman’s restaurants.
As such, his first encounter with Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days – a hoppy wheat ale showcasing Citra and Mosaic hops – certainly caught his attention last August.
“I was blown away,” says Gonnerman. “I thought it was incredible. The wheat gave it a fuller mouthfeel and body than you’d expect for a beer at 5.7%, and there was all of this bright, citrusy, tropical flavor and aroma, while still being crisp and drinkable.”
Atlas had produced Dance of Days as part of a limited-run, three-beer summer series. This meant that between the brewery’s taproom allocation and a handful of scheduled events around town, the one-off was in relatively short supply. Nevertheless, the beer director was determined to secure as much as possible.
“Jace told us, ‘I want all of these kegs,’” Atlas founder and CEO Justin Cox recalls. “We didn’t give him all of them, but he definitely got a large majority.”
Running the beverage program of Meridian Pint’s pedigree – not to mention the one where Atlas sold its very first beer – has some advantages.
“I bought a lot of it,” Gonnerman says with some satisfaction. “I drank a lot of it.”
He wasn’t alone.
“When we put that beer out, it just flew,” Cox tells me. “The market loved it. Internally, we really loved it, too.”
The response was so strong that less than two weeks after the release of Dance of Days, Atlas was already brewing another batch – a pricey endeavor given the inflated cost of Citra and Mosaic hops on the secondary market. Still, the brewery had just stumbled upon gold, and it would have been foolish not to capitalize on it.
“In my three restaurants, that’s the Atlas beer that has resonated most enthusiastically,” observes Gonnerman. “People love the Brett saison, too, but that’s more of a niche thing. I feel like pretty much anyone could have a pint of Dance of Days and enjoy it.”
For the past nine months, bar patrons from Maryland to Virginia and over to Tennessee have more or less been able to enjoy the hoppy wheat ale – or “pale ale with Citra and Mosaic,” as the brewery now bills it – with some regularity. After scavenging for those “Gucci hops” early on, Atlas entered into hop contracts to ensure a steady supply of Citra and Mosaic at a more palatable price. People still can’t get enough Dance of Days, which is good because it’s not going anywhere. It will even be making its way into cans later this summer.
“One of the best things you can say for any beer is that you intended for it be a one-time thing, and then immediately upon the first release, you decide to make it a staple,” says Will Cook, a former fulltime brewer who moonlights as the Brewer Emeritus and the Director of Heavy Metal Operations at Atlas. “It’s probably the most talked about Atlas beer, whether it’s online or with my friends or whatever. It’s a very approachable, drinkable, well-balanced, well-made, flavorful beer. It just hits it on all the markers.”
In late January, Atlas invited Gonnerman over to Ivy City to see what else it had been working on – a recently christened pilot system, new beers, some dialed-in recipes. After a few rounds of taste testing, someone brought up the idea of a collaboration, as sometimes happens after a few rounds of taste testing. Cox was thinking something small, perhaps on that three-barrel pilot system.
“We said, ‘If you wanted to brew a beer with us, what would you want to do?’” the founder recalls. “Without a hesitation, Jace was like, ‘Double Dance of Days.’”
The suggestion found a receptive audience.
“We were like, ‘Holy shit, that’s a really good idea,’” Cox continues. “We hadn’t really considered it before.”
Just like that, a summer blockbuster sequel had been greenlighted.
Daniel Vilarrubi’s days used to be much simpler. They weren’t easier – just simpler.
The man referred to as “V” within the Atlas started at the brewery in March of 2014, six months after it opened. Working under founding head brewer Will Durgin, the responsibilities of the former Franklin’s Brewery intern were cut and dry, chiefly: make the beer.
But when Durgin unceremoniously left Atlas in December 2015, Vilarrubi began assuming many of his vacated responsibilities. By summer of last year, he had formerly taken on the role of head brewer.
“It’s been a different world,” Vilarrubi says of the change. “I was used to the grind of being a brewer – you come in, you make the beer, you go home. Now, I go home, and I have to keep paying attention to my e-mail all night. In the end, any scheduling snafu is on me. I’ve been trying to get a little better every day.”
To those outside the craft beer industry, the title “head brewer” might conjure ideas of recipe experimentation and creative vision – and those things are certainly part of the gig – but ultimately, it’s an administrative position. It includes less glamorous tasks like overseeing the production schedule, managing a brew team, and ordering ingredients. (“You have to say it sexier than that,” Cox instructs his head brewer of that last function. “You have to say, ‘Raw material procurement.’”)
He’s also taken a more active role outside the brewery – at public events, in partnerships with local organizations, with the press. It’s an interesting fit since Vilarrubi is far from a natural salesman. That’s not a knock – the soft-spoken brewer just isn’t inclined to toot his own horn, and he appears allergic to hyperbole.
“I’ve been told by more than a couple interviewers that I’m a man of few words,” he admits. “So, I’ve been trying to talk more. I want to be a face in the industry.”
That face appears much younger than Vilarrubi’s 29 years might let on, though he hides it under the requisite brewer’s beard and, until recently, a mop of long, black, curly hair. It’s a look that earned him the nickname Jon Snow, which he has good-naturedly embraced despite having temporarily shed his raven locks in the name of charity this March.
On the most superficial level, Vilarrubi is a natural match for his boss, whose own baby face and chipper, straight-laced demeanor continue to evoke the youngest sibling on a wholesome 1960s family sitcom. (His penchant for hoodies only reinforces this.) Of course, there is a more substantial connection between Cox and Vilarrubi, and it’s one that’s strengthened over the past year.
“V has really been awesome,” the CEO says. “He stepped up to this role without much experience on the management side, and he’s adapted to it very well, which is great because having a competent partner frees me up. It allows me to do all the other stuff that we have to do to organize and guide this company.”
There have been a few notable developments at Atlas over the past year. The splashiest is its expansion into Tennessee, which is a relatively nascent craft beer market compared to North Carolina or Pennsylvania or New York City – the places where DC breweries tend to head after settling Virginia and Maryland. A native of East Tennessee, Cox says the move is a mix of personal significance and long-term strategy.
“The market is probably six or seven years behind DC, but craft beer is starting to take hold,” he observes. “I just thought, ‘This is a perfect opportunity for our beer. My connection to Tennessee helps us fit in a little bit. We’re not local, but we’re not completely out-of-state, either.’ Now my high school buddies will text me pictures of our beer out at bars, which is kind of a cool, surreal thing.”
Back in the District, Atlas is a year into operating a sleek, modern taproom. Once an imposing sight, the space’s big beer board – designed to mimic a train station’s arrivals and departures – and 16 beer slots on it are consistently at capacity.
“When Justin told me that we were going to have 16 taps, I was like, ‘We’re never going to fill all of those,’” Vilarrubi remembers. “Now we’re worried about clearing a line before we can get the next one on.'”
That new pilot system is helping Vilarrubi and his team accomplish this sustained occupation. The three-barrel operation (partnered with a pair of small fermenters) allows Atlas to churn out taproom exclusives that double as R&D for future large-scale productions. The extra revenue that such exclusives – and the space, more generally – attract don’t hurt, either. That’s “next-day cash” to fund more expansion.
With just its fourth anniversary on the horizon, Atlas is settling into the posture of being an older, wiser brewery.
“In the past, we were running around, trying to catch up, being very reactive to everything that’s happening,” Cox says. “Now we’re trying to turn the corner and become a little more proactive. We’re trying to be a grown-up company rather than just the two-guys-in-a-garage start-up thing that we were for a long time.”
One byproduct of this more measured approach is better beer.
“For this market, four-years-old is pretty old, but in the grand scheme of things, a brewery is still in its baby years,” Gonnerman notes. “We’ve seen Atlas grow quite a bit from a size and scope perspective, obviously, but also in terms of the quality of their beer. That was very evident on the day that we visited to brew our collab. They’re making some really, really nice, exceptionally well-brewed beers across a variety of styles.”
This is also the result of something less obvious within Atlas Brew Works: the company culture.
The top two accomplishments of Will Cook’s life read as follows:
- Fathering a pair of beautiful, healthy children.
- Getting a beer called HaSaWoDo served inside Nationals Park.
Or so Cook tells me over the phone on an early June evening.
While we talk, those two children run circles around him, catching bugs and shooting Super Soakers at each other in the backyard of their Alexandria home. Every ten minutes, Cook breaks from our discussion to reel them back from committing some new kind of mischief.
Don’t step on all the toys. Don’t be down range when she shoots. Do not pull that back. Get over here.
These orders may be coming from a 26-year Marine Corps reservist but his audience sounds wholly unfazed.
Cook’s second accomplishment has a mischievous streak, too.
A 6.66% black saison, HaSaWoDo was brewed for Decibel Magazine’s Metal and Beer Fest in April. The oddly shaped mishmash of letters is an acronym for “Hail Satan Worship Doom,” which is something that Cook and former Atlas brewer Sam Puffenbarger had been wanting to call a beer for a while. It’s a nod to the 2010 album Satan Worshipping Doom from Chicago metal band Bongripper. If you’ve never heard of Bongripper, then you’re probably not a metalhead. Cook is a different story. To quote his Atlas bio: “Will loves to brew beer. He loves heavy metal. He loves to brew beer while blasting heavy metal.”
For five months, Cook and Puffenbarger overlapped at Atlas, forming a dyed-in-the-wool metalhead contingent within the brewery. Late last summer, though, Puffenbarger would move on to a new gig at DC Brau, while Cook accepted a government job he’d been patiently waiting on. But despite Cook’s absence from the day-to-day brewing operations, he’s remained affiliated with Atlas as its Brewer Emeritus and the Director of Heavy Metal Operations.
The first of these titles ties into what led Cook to Ivy City in the first place. In early 2016, the veteran of Port City and Fair Winds had been brought on to, essentially, help improve Atlas’ processes, upgrade its equipment, and assist Vilarrubi in assuming the duties of head brewer.
“Dan was already basically doing the job of head brewer – he just didn’t have the title,” Cook says, downplaying that last responsibility. “Atlas had a great crew. They were slightly less experienced, but they were talented and they were hardworking. Dan guided Atlas through a period when we were going through massive changes in how we did everything. We cleaned tanks differently, we brewed beer differently, we kegged beer differently, we carbonated beer differently. But the whole time, he was patient, understanding, humble – maybe occasionally frustrated, but he worked hard and came into work.”
In the first few months after Cook stopped working at Atlas fulltime, the veteran brewer would continue to field the occasional technical question, but at this point, such inquiries have all but dried up. That’s a good thing.
“The less involvement I have on the brewing side, the better,” Cook says. “Very rarely do they need my help these days.”
While such technical involvement has waned, his role as Director of Heavy Metal Operations has only expanded. The heavy metal concerts Cook began organizing during his time at Atlas have taken on a life of their own. These shows are now a monthly occurrence, and as the person responsible for promoting and booking each one, he’s still intimately involved.
“A lot of bands are coming to us now because the word is really getting out there,” he shares. “It’s a big enough space, it’s not crowded, and we give all of the money to the bands. It’s like, ‘Come in. Play music. We love heavy metal.’”
It would probably be less than truthful to say that everyone at Atlas is equally enamored with heavy metal – or, at least, the music itself. But that’s largely irrelevant. And the fact that it’s irrelevant is important.
“Justin, you know, he likes jam bands,” Cook says. “He’s not into punk or metal. But he creates an environment where people can come to him with ideas. The same can be said for Dan. They have the final say, but for the most part, it’s like: ‘You got an idea? OK, that sounds good – go do it. Let’s see what you’ve got.’”
Every brewery is structured differently. There are some where all recipes are written by the head brewer. There are some where every concept and name and event originate with or are filtered through the personalities of its founders. There are some where the ideas – regardless of their origin – are attributed to upper management. It’s hard to pass judgement on how someone opts to runs his or her company, and for many, such structures work just fine. What’s notable is how over the past year-and-a-half Cox has turned Atlas into a brewery that gives every employee a voice, the chance to execute his or her ideas, and full credit for doing so.
That’s how HaSaWoDo ends up on a draft list next to Stoned & Ugly, a fruited sour ale brewed with the Environmental Working Group to raise awareness for discarded food products. It’s why last year’s summer series beers were all punk song puns, in contrast to polished flagships names like District Common and Rowdy. It explains why Vilarrubi – who isn’t a big fan of hoppy beers and recognizes that – entrusted Puffenbarger to write and execute the recipe for a hop showcase like Dance of Days.
In short, it’s the core of why Atlas can feel like a mosaic of some many different tastes and personalities.
“It’s not necessarily a conscious choice,” Cox explains. “I just think it’s my personality to let everyone shine. But that sort of diversity of thought and people and interests is what makes Atlas unique.”
According to Cook, the effect of such a philosophy reverberates across Atlas.
“I found everything about Atlas refreshing,” he says. “There’s no ego. There are people who have stepped up across the brewery, like Rachel [Murray] – a taproom manager who’ll go back and work on the canning line. There’s Cory [Poole], the Director of Operations, who’s doing cellaring stuff and learning to brew. If there are people who are willing to step up and do extra work and learn new things, that means they’re working in an environment that they love.”
Of course, none of this is to say Cox is a pushover. As the CEO will point out, there’s a inherent tension between him (“the office spreadsheet guy”) and Vilarubbi (“the creative flavor guy”) when it comes to the cost of raw ingredients, particularly hops. However, if the continued production of Dance of Days and this year’s revamped Home Rule IPL – now brewed with Australia’s premium Galaxy hops – are any indication, he’s at least loosened his grip on Atlas’ wallet.
“Justin isn’t dictating a whole lot from the top, but he’ll guide or shoot down ideas,” Cook continues. “It’s common sense stuff like, ‘Well, let’s think about this: A Russian imperial smoked stout is really not going to sell in July, so let’s take that idea and table it until November. In the meantime, what can we make?’”
In the case of the black saison – a recipe developed by Vilarrubi, then brewed by Sean Palmateer – it was suggested that Hail Satan Worship Doom might best be shortened to HaSaWoDo.
As a result of that decision, the “satanic saison” has been able to infiltrate some unlikely places.
“There are wholesome families in Nat Parks unknowingly drinking a beer that’s short for Hail Satan Worship Doom,” Cook beams. “I find that to be one of my biggest life accomplishments.”
Sam Puffenbarger doesn’t check the Untappd reviews anymore.
When Dance of Days was first released, he was obsessed with its reception, constantly monitoring the online ratings and comments bestowed on his baby by anonymous amateur beer critics.
After ten months as a brewer at DC Brau, that feels like a long time ago.
“I still appreciate when people want to tell me it’s a good beer – if they even know that I had anything to do with it – but at this point, I’m a little bit removed,” he tells me one night after coming off a 10-hour shift. “Obviously, I’m pretty stoked that it’s been kept on as basically a year-round, but I don’t know, I’ve been busy.”
Puffenbarger left Atlas for DC Brau because of the learning opportunities that the latter presented. In that regard, he has not been disappointed. Recently, he and the rest of the Brau team finished a nine-month training program across the entirety of the system, from the brewhouse to cellaring to transferring. He likens the amount of tasks required of him on a daily basis – and the specific orders and combinations that they can be executed in – to a game of chess. He has not to this point, however, done much recipe development, though that may change with the launch of DC Brau’s new taproom-only Deep Cuts series.
“I knew going into this that I was giving up some of that,” Puffenbarger admits. “I do that miss part of Atlas, for sure. It was fun working with those guys and hashing out recipes.”
Even in his absence, though, Atlas has left Puffenbarger’s recipe for Dance of Days intact. The beer is still brewed with a simple grist of Pilsner malt, unmalted wheat (an initial suggestion from Cook to enhance mouthfeel and add a slight haziness), and a dash of honey malt. And it’s still hopped with “super late” additions of Citra and Mosaic – all in all, 22 pounds per batch, in part because hops come in 11-pound bags.
“It was a solid beer right out of the gate,” Vilarrubi says. “There’s been no reason to change it.”
In fact, it’s such a solid beer that Atlas decided not to deconstruct the recipe for Double Dance of Days. Instead, Vilarrubi proposed keeping most all of the ingredients and proportions the same and just reducing the amount of water used during the sparge. It’s a process that some brewers use for imperial stouts: you collect less wort in the kettle, but what’s in there is a concentrated version of the sugary liquid.
“We all love the Dance of Days, so why mess with a good thing?” Vilarrubi explains. “Just make it bigger: more alcohol, more hops.”
“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Cox adds. “Originally, we were going to design another recipe and try to scale it up, but there’s obviously some error that happens with that scaling, and your efficiencies change a little bit. Dan went, ‘Why don’t we just concentrate it?’ It was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’”
Aside from a stuck mash on the brew day, the execution of this idea went off without a hitch.
The final Double Dance of Days settles at 8.3%. It’s a touch darker on account of the increased malt presence, but it’s still an appealing golden yellow. Talking with Gonnerman a few days before the release, he was pleased with the results.
“I think we pretty much nailed what we were going for,” he says. “It pours a light orange with the slightest hint of haze and an enormous, rocky white head. The sweet pale malt and wheat backbone hold up aromas of tropical fruit, floral, red berry, and big, zesty orange citrus.”
The beer director compares it Lagunitas’ A Little Sumpin Extra.
“The wheat malts lend to an incredible, almost creamy mouthfeel while never losing drinkability,” Gonnerman continues. “The hop flavor pops with citrus leading the charge and background notes of tropical fruit, melon, and floral character. The bitterness is balanced, but nothing more. And the finish lingers with a long, citrusy character.”
Earlier this week, Vilarrubi sat down with Cox and the Atlas sales team to sample the final product.
“The truth is that it’s a great beer,” the head brewer shares. “It’s true to what we thought it would be: a bigger Dance of Days. I’m the least of the hopheads at the brewery, so if it’s a hoppy beer and I like it, we can be pretty sure that other people will like it, too.”
The next day, Puffenbarger stopped by Atlas to pick up something he had left there a year ago – a small electric hot plate that he wanted to use for malt steep tests in DC Brau’s lab. Vilarrubi happened to have Double Dance of Days on tap, so he poured him a glass.
“It’s fruity,” Puffenbarger says. “It’s got a lot of apricot and mango going on. It’s a little maltier, a little darker, which is what’s expected with that way of brewing it. It turned out well.”
Then the brewer took his hot plate and went on living his life.
Atlas didn’t set out to become DC’s lager brewery. These thing just happen. One day it was making a steam beer, and the next it was a Southern Hemisphere IPL, and soon enough there was a Helles-style lager.
“It just kind of snuck up on us,” Cox says.
The same can be said for the brewery’s unusual approach to collaborations, which more often than not stem from partnerships outside the beer world.
This year alone, Atlas has teamed with the Environmental Working Group for the aforementioned Stoned & Ugly – a beer that comes with a government-mandated keg collar clarifying that it is “made with stone fruit” and “does not contain drugs.” It initiated a collaboration with REI and DC Brau to raise money for the Capital Trails Coalition. Utilizing its pilot system, Atlas has also brewed small batches of one-offs for the United Launch Alliance and to benefit Common Good City Farm in honor of slain Bloomingdale resident Tricia McCauley.
“It’s strange that most of our collaborations have been with non-breweries,” Cox admits. “You have an idea to do something different, and that works, so you do something else like that. It’s snowballed into a unique proposition that we have for folks. It’s a way for us to support the causes that we like, draw attention to something that we think is important, and hang out with people that we enjoy.”
Even its few brewery collaborations have had tie-ins. Its excellent doppelbock with DC Brau, the Emprosator, was timed to coincide with Russian Circles concert (and named in honor of their record Empros). Similarly, its Champion Brewing collaboration, Decibeer Double IPA, was brewed with Decibel Magazine for its Philadelphia metal festival.
In a sense, Double Dance of Days is the most conventional one-off collaboration Atlas has made. That doesn’t mean it’s any less important, though.
“Meridian Pint is a wonderful craft beer group,” Cox says. “They know what they’re doing. They really pay attention to the beer. They care about the beer. They present it well. That goes a long way because there are a lot of retailers that don’t pay that much attention to it. It’s rare to find someone who cares about the craft as much as we do.”
For Gonnerman, meanwhile, it’s a coup of sorts to have his bar affiliated with the imperial version of Dance of Days, which was arguably the buzziest and best hoppy beer to emerge from inside the Beltway in years.
“We obviously want to buy the beer and sell a bunch of the beer,” he tells me, “but we also want to get people excited.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the only place in DC that you’ll be able to buy Double Dance of Days outside of the Atlas taproom is his restaurants.
This time around, there’s no need for Gonnerman to corner the market. He’s already got all of the beer.