Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Previously in Freshly Tapped: 3 Stars and Charm City Meadworks’ Two-Headed Unicorn, Aslin and Meridian Pint’s The Adventures of Audrey, Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days, Old Ox’s Funky Face, Handsome Beer’s White Ale, Ocelot and Bluejacket’s Raised on Promises, and 3 Stars’ #ultrafresh.
It can be rooted in personal history or the annals of antiquity. It can be inspired by the taste of Champagne or the colors of Kodachrome 64 film. It can nod to a silent Swedish documentary or Van Morrison’s second LP. But regardless of the particulars, a story lies behind every Nathan Zeender beer.
Three years ago, Thor Cheston opened the Right Proper brewpub with the goal of telling those stories. There was a larger goal, too – opening a production facility that would produce significantly more beer, and then distribute it outside the brewery’s four walls – but Cheston was willing to play the long game. He didn’t want a brewery that produced self-explanatory flagships. He wanted Zeender’s hard-to-categorize beers, and the layers of history and inspiration that came with them. Peeling back those layers for customers required time and patience.
“Nathan’s beers need a lot of context,” says the Right Proper co-founder. “To put Nathan’s beers in the right context, I needed to control that context as much as possible, and so the brewpub was really the best way to do it, because we had that trapped audience. That’s how we built the Right Proper brand.”
After two years of building, and gaining recognition, and collecting accolades, Right Proper opened a production house in Brookland last December. Under Zeender’s watch, this facility would focus on the “greatest hits” of the brewpub, like the aromatic pale ale Raised by Wolves, the subtle grisette Ornette, and the Baltic-leaning porter Häxan.
And so it has, but Zeender has occasionally still had the opportunity to produce something new on the system. In June, there was Oblique & Obscure, a tart, dry-hopped Berliner Weisse brewed with Meridian Pint and the DC Homebrewers. Not long after, he collaborated with Stan Hieronymus on Marginalia, an American primitive ale that incorporated local botanicals and wild American hops.
Now, on the eve of the production house’s first anniversary, the brewery has produced a beer for someone else’s birthday: local culinary institution Pizzeria Paradiso.
The beer is called Maslow, and on paper, it’s a simple thing. Weyermann Pilsner malt and a dash of oats form the light grist of the rustic farmhouse ale. It’s hopped (and dry-hopped) with Sterling, Tettnang and Cascade – varietals lending a grassy and floral quality that Zeender likens to “spring in the meadow.” And like many Right Proper beers, it showcases a house mixed culture that dries out the saison and leaves behind a slight acidity.
“That’s it – wrap it up and put a bow on it,” Zeender says. “Eat some pizza with it.”
You can certainly do just that. You could order a 12-oz glass of Maslow at Pizzeria Paradiso knowing nothing else and enjoy it immensely. You can view it as just a 4.7% farmhouse ale brewed for a restaurant group by a local brewery, and that wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect. But the story runs deeper. At its heart, Maslow is a tribute – to a basement beer bar, to an earlier time, to the feeling of discovery.
“This beer definitely bookends the history of craft beer in DC over the last ten years,” Zeender says to me. “It tells a pretty good story.”
Thor Cheston doesn’t seem like someone comfortable at rest.
Standing behind the bar in Right Proper’s tasting room on a Wednesday afternoon, he’s constantly doing something – washing glasses, cleaning surfaces, filling growlers. Anything but nothing, even if the brewery doesn’t open for few hours.
The Right Proper co-owner has been doing this – standing behind a bar, handling craft beer, bustling – for thirteen years, and it all started with Pizzeria Paradiso.
“Right Proper would not be here if it wasn’t for Pizzeria Paradiso,” he states assuredly. “It really created the foundation for this.”
Cheston began working at the then-new Georgetown location of Pizzeria Paradiso back in 2003, when he was enrolled in a pre-med program and trying to earn some extra cash. What led him to Pizzeria Paradiso? Ruth Gresser’s M St. restaurant had started carrying Chimay, one of his favorite beers.
“When they opened Georgetown, they had more than one draft line, so that Pizzeria Paradiso could do some cool stuff,” he recollects. “Ruth is always an innovator, so she wanted to have a good draft list, and that’s when things Chimay and Jever Pils showed up.”
As time passed, Cheston solidified his place at Pizzeria Paradiso, as well as his relationship with Gresser. One day, while the two were chatting, she lamented not knowing what to do with basement dining room left behind by the building’s previous tenants.
“I said, ‘Well, if it was up to me, I would turn it into a beer bar,’” he remembers. “I had to convince Ruth, though. She was like, ‘Why are people going to spend more money for a wider variety of craft beer?’ My analogy was Bell & Evans Chicken: If people were going to pay more for organic chicken at Whole Foods, they’ll pay for a higher quality beer.”
It would take almost a year to come to fruition, but this conversation was the genesis of Birreria Paradiso, and what would become one of DC’s most influential beer bars.
In part, Cheston modeled Birreria Paradiso on the spirit of the beer bars he had recently visited in Belgium.
“The Belgians treat their beer the way the French do their wine,” he says. “Just the care and the time they took with the individual beers – I fell absolutely in love with it.”
Beyond how the beer was handled and stored, Cheston wanted Birreria Paradiso to be an approachable and friendly space for craft beer drinkers old and new alike – a stark contrast to one of the city’s more established beer bars.
“The Brickskeller was the only place to get really good beer around there, and the whole impetus around Birreria Paradiso was to be the anti-Brickskeller,” Cheston says. “There was an arrogance and elitism that I associated with craft beer aficionados at that point, and it was intolerable. I wanted our staff to be thoroughly educated, and telling someone what they should or shouldn’t order was absolutely unacceptable. If someone wants a Miller Lite, you say, ‘I’m sorry, we actually don’t have Miller Lite, but we do have this.”
There were other ways he modeled the bar in opposition to the Brickskeller model. He wanted a smaller menu, with 100 to 150 beers, instead of a thousand. That menu would be organized by style or category, which by 2004 was more instructive than the countries of origin. And it would be kept up to date with what was actually stocked in the fridge.
“I predicted that Birreria Paradiso was something the city sorely needed,” Cheston continues. “There was nowhere that you could sit down, where there was any sort of community atmosphere, where you could actually have a conversation about the beer. It really took on.”
Josh Fernands, Pizzeria Paradiso’s current beer director, had begun working at the Georgetown Pizzeria Paradiso as a summer job in 2004. When he went back to school, Birreria Paradiso was still in the planning phases, but when he returned the next summer, it was up and running, and he could tell Cheston had tapped into something special.
“There was this energy in what we were doing and what we exuded to the customers,” he remembers. “Beer was just starting to become a thing in this city, and I think being a big part of that wave – at the top of it, in my biased opinion – was exciting. We were constantly exploring new flavors, and discovering new breweries, and all learning together.”
The wave of bars included Alexandria’s Rustico and Dupont’s Big Hunt, where beer directors Greg Engert and Dave Coleman, respectively, were also helping to usher in a new era of craft beer in the city.
“It was difficult, and it was mayhem, but oh my god, did we have fun,” says Cheston. “We were just knucklehead kids. They’re still close friends of mine, and they probably will be forever.”
Of course, the folks behind the bars weren’t the only ones enjoying the sea change.
“At the time, draft lines were relatively static in DC,” recalls Zeender. “You would go to a bar, and there would be eight draft lines – you know, Sierra Nevada, Guinness, Yeunling, maybe a Victory – and you’d go back a month later, and it would be all those same beers. So, it was pretty new and exciting to go to a bar where you would go back week to week, and it had a whole new set of beers on. It was a great place to catch-up on education.”
Zeender was playing catch-up from a late entry into the world of craft beer. He had spent his 20s entrenched in wine, and it wasn’t until his early 30s that beer began to speak to him.
So, most Tuesdays, Zeender and his best friend would bicycle to Birreria Paradiso to take advantage of its half-off happy hour.
“The basement always felt so cozy, and to be there, discovering all of these wonderful European producers and beers that I had heard of, it really changed the course of my life,” the head brewer says. “It led to where I am, doing this.”
Zeender would meet Cheston for the first time in the basement of Pizza Paradiso. There wasn’t a straight line from that encounter to Right Proper – the two would fall of out of touch and reconnect years later when Thor was working at Brasserie Beck. But the line unquestionably starts there.
Last Monday, Josh Fernands manned the Birreria Paradiso bar with two old friends: Greg Jasgur and Steve Mendoza.
Both had previously worked for Pizzeria Paradiso’s beer program before making the transition to the other side of the industry. A ten-year veteran of the company, Jasgur left DC in 2014 to help Maine’s renowned Oxbow Brewing open a Portland facility. Mendoza, meanwhile, founded Bog Brewing in St. Augustine, Florida earlier this year.
Fittingly, the only beers on draft downstairs were from these two breweries. And throughout the night, the three bartenders would pour a lot of them, at least partially because the beer, like the pizza, was on the house.
This was Pizzeria Paradiso 25th anniversary party – an event several months in the making, if not exponentially longer in the more symbolic sense.
“All beers tonight are former Paradisians who have gone on to make a name for themselves in the beer world,” the menu read. “Over the years the Paradiso family has touched many lives.”
Another such life was upstairs, where Cheston could be found wearing a Right Proper hoodie and working the bar alongside Pizzeria Paradiso’s assistant beverage director Drew McCormick.
In addition to several of his brewery’s offerings, the Right Proper co-owner was pouring Maslow.
Fernands had approached the brewery in the waning days of the summer about the possibility of brewing a beer for the occasion. Despite knowing Cheston and Zeender for over a decade, Fernands admits to some mild apprehension.
“I was a little worried,” he says. “Nathan has probably forgotten more about beer than I will ever know. He’s an encyclopedia of beer knowledge, especially when it comes to brewing. So, I was very grateful that when I did approach them, they were 110% on board.”
The beer director had just gotten back from a recent trip to Portland, where he had generously imbibed the easy drinking farmhouse ales of Oxbow.
“Tasting a nice, light delicate Belgian beer straight from the brewery is a wonderful thing,” he says. “Even in the process of getting Oxbow down to DC, the extra couple weeks of aging make a difference.”
He also consumed “an absurd amount” of Allagash House Beer, a slightly hoppy Belgian-style ale available only at the brewery.
Those two styles combined to give Fernands a rough idea of what he sought in an anniversary beer.
“I wanted something light and delicate, with a prominent hop profile, but nothing that would fry your palate,” he says. “I wanted it to be approachable to everybody, and to showcase being fresh.”
The desire for freshness dictated the choice of a local brewery, and with that being the case, Right Proper was the obvious fit.
“Those flavor profiles were in line with something that Right Proper would produce,” he continues. “It really fit their wheelhouse.”
“It was kind of a no-brainier,” echoes McCormick. “The Right Proper guys are good friends. We knew we could come in here and be with like minds. And we have an immense amount of respect for Nathan and the things that he’s doing.”
Fernands’ Maslow concept presented Zeender with an opportunity to brew a love letter to the beers he first tried in the Pizzeria Paradiso’s basement a decade earlier.
“This beer is a very direct reference to small European breweries like De La Senne and De Ranke and Fantôme and Cantillon,” the head brewer shares. “Those breweries have very strong house character; they’re very yeast driven. If there’s a beer that represents those early emotions, those memories of when I went and had all of those wonderful beers for the first time, it’s this.”
Zeender dives into the historical context of these beers, citing a chapter of the iconic Farmhouse Ales written by Yvan De Baets of De La Senne.
“What he really captures is that they’re beers from antiquity that were made on these farms, and that when they were young, they would have this small wild side,” he continues. “Each beer had a real charm and house character. They could be identified with the person that brewed it. The farms would borrow yeast from each other, but one farm’s beer would taste different from another’s, just because the beers lived in the equipment for long periods of time. This beer is sort of Right Proper’s time machine to the good old days of southern Belgium and northern France, 150 years ago.”
Right Proper’s choice of herbal hops – Sterling, Tettnang and Cascade – drives home that connection. They brighten the beer, but without any of what Zeenders calls the “super fruit bomby” qualities you might expect in an IPA or a more playful Right Proper farmhouse ale like Kodachrome Dream(ing). Similarly, both the modest alcohol level and simple grist provide an understated backbone.
“A beer like this captures our yeast really well, because it’s not big and strong or malty,” Zeender shares. “Some of my favorite beers all fall within this similar alcohol range, like Allagash House Beer, De La Senne’s Taras Boulba, and Bam Bière by Jolly Pumpkin. If you put all of those beers together, it wouldn’t be dissimilar from this this one. Hopefully, it falls in line with some of those wonderful 4.5% table-ish, yeast magic beers that I love so much.”
If Maslow is indeed a “yeast magic” beer, we should probably explore the magic of Right Proper’s yeast.
If Right Proper’s Brookland facility doesn’t house two different breweries, it at least allows for two distinct fermentation programs.
One of these programs uses stainless steel tanks for “clean” fermentation, and is responsible for relatively more conventional beers like the fruity pale ale Raised by Wolves or the crisp Kellerbier Being There.
The other program is built around three 45-hectoliter, French oak foeders, and produces funkier offerings that range from a rustic Biere de Garde to several tart, dry-hopped Berliner Weisses.
For obvious reasons, Cheston lumps the latter category together simply as “foedre beers.” Regardless of the style, these beers are all fermented with iterations of the same mixed house culture.
The history of this house culture stretches back to the earliest days of the brewpub, when Right Proper commissioned the Brewing Science Institute to blend two “pretty classic” saccharomyces brewer’s yeast strains (including one that can be traced back to Brasserie Dupont), two wild Brettanomycses strains, and some Lactobacillus bacteria.
“They were a bunch of strains I had used in the past and liked,” explains Zeender, who had morphed from a craft beer novice to a celebrated homebrewer prior to joining Right Proper. “I was like, ‘Let’s put them altogether and hopefully something fun happens!’”
Inspired by the “fearless” fermentation program of Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin, Right Proper has pitched and repitched its house culture over and over again – in total, a couple hundred times since the brewpub opened. All the while, these microorganisms have continued to evolve. In fact, Zeender isn’t positive how to describe the state of the mixed culture.
“The yeast strains have gotten to know each other,” he explains. “We could probably send it off for some kind of testing to get some idea of what exactly it is these days, but what it is just delicious. As long as it stays delicious, I’m happy.”
Every time Right Proper uses the mixed culture, its biology is a little different. The head brewer likens it wading into a flowing river: You can’t experience the same water twice. Still, there are some predictable flavors, notably an herbal, evergreen quality, sometimes with a fresh citrus character. Once a beer Right Proper kegs a mixed fermentation beer (and, someday soon, puts it into bottles), those qualities continue to change.
“The Brettanomycses keeps breaking down long chain sugars and esterizing some of the acids, creating fruitier and spicier characters, and that all becomes aroma,” he explains. “These beers have long lives. Maslow tastes one way with a small wild side, when it’s this fresh and young, but if it was cellared for nine months, it would be completely different – much more aromatic, what some people would describe as funkier. Most beers fall apart with age, but a small percentage of beers get better with age.”
While Right Proper may cellar a few kegs of Maslow for a later date, neither the brewery nor Pizzeria Paradiso expect the majority of the 15-barrel batch to be lingering a month from now. And that’s OK: It was made to be consumed fresh and with a Pizzeria Paradiso pie.
“One of the great combinations is super crusty bread and farmhouse beer,” Zeender says. “Pizzeria Paradiso gets such wonderful crust. Throw cheese into that, and it all makes a lot of sense. It’s almost like a plowman’s lunch.”
Unlike the majority of Right Proper’s mixed fermentation saisons and tart wheat ales (which ferment for a week in stainless steel, and then six-to-eight weeks in a foedre), Maslow was fermented entirely in stainless steel. On the heels of this summer’s radler-inspired farmhouse ale Kodachrome Dream(ing) and the aforementioned Marginalia, it’s the third such beer turned around in three weeks using this process. As a result, it doesn’t pick up the tannin or oak of the foedre, but it retains a residual haze of the yeast in suspension – a quality that boosts its rustic charm.
Regardless of whether or not it aged in a foedre, the house mixed culture – the connective tissue of Right Proper’s wild beers – shines through. Here’s why that’s important: While the majority of breweries source their yeast from the same few laboratories, leading to overlapping flavors and qualities across craft beer at a national level, Right Proper’s evolving mixed culture is unique to them.
“When Josh and I began discussing Maslow, I knew it would have to be done with our house mixed culture, because that’s such a strong identity for this brewery,” Zeender explains. “And it’s an easy reference to that love affair with those small European producers and their house characters.”
“What I appreciate about a Right Proper beer is that I can typically drink one and know it’s a Right Proper beer, and yet each one is very unique in its own right,” Fernands adds. “There are no holes in their beers. When you drink one, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s a soul to that beer. There’s no hole that needs filling. You’re getting a complete experience when you’re drinking a Right Proper beer.”
Solera is a process of aging beer – and other things, like vinegar and wine – where a portion of each batch is saved and then blended in with the next production. Not only does the process assure a certain level of consistency, but it carries over depth and complexity that has developed over time.
California’s The Bruery is venerated for its solera program. The brewery never completely empties a fermentation tank, but it’s constantly pulling beer out and adding new beer.
“The evolution of Paradiso and the way it’s changed hands over the last ten years as a beer program is very much the same way,” Fernands tells me. “I learned a lot from Thor and Greg. Thor taught me a lot, and then he left, but parts of Thor are both physically at that bar and in the inherent values that we stress on taking care of the product. And then when Greg Jasgur took over the program, he put his own brand and entity on it, and that still exists today. All of the other assistant bar managers, and the bartenders, and the customers have influenced what we end up pouring, too. Every single beer nerd that has come into that bar has put their little touch on what makes Birreria Paradiso special.”
“I was really honored after I left that Ruth continued to invest in the program, and Greg Jasgur did such an amazing job with it,” adds Cheston, who says he remains a regular at Pizzeria Paradiso. “I like to be there. It’s still feels like going home.”
When it came time for Cheston to build a new home, he brought some of his old home with him.
“When I was writing the business plan for Right Proper, I tried to take as many lessons as I could from Pizzeria Paradiso and apply them to the brewpub: how we hired people, how we trained people, even how the dining room is set up,” he shares. “We tried to put in place as many Pizzeria Paradiso systems as we could, because they worked, and we wanted to create that culture where everyone is friends, and everyone gets along, and everyone is excited about what everyone else is doing.”
Now, approaching one year in Brookland, Cheston admits to still be figuring things out.
“I’d been working in the restaurant-bar model for twelve years, and that’s really all I was used to, so learning the production brewery model while doing it has been a hair-raising experience,” he shares. “There’s a huge learning curve. Everyday, it’s like, ‘Oh shit, that’s why you do that.’”
Zeender, meanwhile, is slowly adjusting to sending his beers out into the wild.
“A lot of these beers have stories, and at the brewpub or in the tasting room, our staff can tell those stories,” the head brewer says. “But when you send it out to market, you have to rely on the distributor and the people who are serving to continue to tell that story.”
There will be changes at Right Proper to come in its next year. It expanded distribution into Maryland this summer, and stated sending beer to a few Virginia counties very recently. All of its beers are still only available on draft, but it hopes to start canning Raised by Wolves. It has also acquired pallets of bottles to begin a bottle conditioning. (“In my head, I already have a cellar dug out in this building,” Cheston says. “I can envision the long, candled staircase. In my head, it’s already done.”)
After 25 years, things at Pizzeria Paradiso are a little more static. Aside from the ongoing construction of a fourth location in Hyattsville, the restaurant group is content with refining a very successful status quo. Fernands says he’s focused on “the unsexy side” of craft beer: cleaning draft lines, establishing structured system for maintenance, keeping up with rotating inventory.
“I know it doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s one of the most important things,” he shares. “If you consider the brewer the artist, I’m just the vessel. I’m the last destination before a beer reaches where the brewer wanted it to reach: the customer. Above and beyond everything else, it’s my job to make sure that in the brief amount of time it’s in my hands, I’m doing it justice to the best of my ability.”
The name Maslow is a reference to Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist most famous for developing the “hierarchy of needs” theory. According to Maslow, once the basic needs for human survival are met, we start building on them – first love and belonging, then self-respect, and finally self-actualization or peak experience.
An avid podcast listener, Fernands began to think about the theory in the context of his life after listening to a TED talk called “Maslow’s Human Needs” earlier this year.
“The hierarchy of needs fit the story of Pizza Paradiso,” the beer director says. “We’ve got our basic needs down: We have the Pizza Paradiso family, we have a really good beer program, we have good pizza. It’s our chance to ascend to the next tier of the pyramid.”
Of course, there’s one thing that could get Pizzeria Paradiso to the next tier faster.
“There are serious talks about continuing to brew Maslow and making it our house beer,” Fernands dishes. “We need to make sure that we get some final stamps of approval, but it’s really looking like this could be something you’ll consistently be able to find at Pizzeria Paradiso.”