Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, we explore MIC Saison, a 4.3% farmhouse ale brewed with coriander, grains of paradise, and orange peel.
Previously in Freshly Tapped: The Technicolor Life of 3 Stars Brewing; Stillwater’s Modern Confusion; Atlas Brew Works & Meridian Pint’s Double Dance of Days; Hellbender & St. Feuillien’s Days Gone By; DC Brau’s Collaboratron; Right Proper, Stone, & Pen Druid’s Soused; Denizens’ Backyard Boogie; Port City’s Colossal 6; Ocelot and Meridian Pint’s Talking Backwards; Right Proper and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Maslow; and Union and Ocelot’s Lucifer’s Trees.
They call him Mr. Liquid.
From coffee to lemonade, cocktails to “mocktails,” beer to bourbon, if you pour it into a glass, it’s the provenance of Taha Ismail.
Ismail is the beverage director for Mike Isabella Concepts, and since the titular ‘Top Chef” alumnus turned restaurateur has a whole lot of concepts, that puts Ismail in charge of a whole lot of liquid. At the moment, Isabella’s small empire consists of ten proper restaurants and four more casual properties – together stretching from Richmond to Bethesda – but that number will nearly double this fall with the opening of a “nine-concept food emporium” in Tysons, plus another Requin on The Wharf.
It all started at Graffiato, though, the hip Italian eatery that Isabella opened just six years ago in Chinatown. That’s where I find Ismail on an early Thursday evening in September, sipping contently from a sleek, glossy can of MIC Saison – the new house beer of Mike Isabella Concepts. He and Isabella and the bearded brethren of 3 Stars Brewing have congregated to celebrate the release of the farmhouse ale. It’s something worth celebrating: from the concept to the recipe to design, this beer has been over a year in the making.
“It was a long process of getting exactly to my vision of what I wanted this beer to be,” says Ismail, a Morocco native who speaks in energetic but succinct bursts. “Most of our concepts are Mediterranean, so I wanted a beer that fits throughout the whole program. And since our restaurants are chef driven, I wanted the beer to be culinary driven – something different, something bright, something you can drink the whole year round, and something lower in the ABV, because the lower the ABV is, the more you drink it.”
Spoken like someone who knows how to move booze.
MIC Saison is the latest in a line of Ismail projects that bring fermented potables under the Mike Isabella Concepts brand. The beverage director has flown to Greece to make his own blends of red and white wines for Kapnos. He’s traversed the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon country to help produce a private label whiskey with Jefferson’s. For his beer, however, he didn’t have to look far, enlisting the local 3 Stars Brewing for the collaborative task.
“We like to get involved in every single produce that we have,” Ismail shares. “I wish I could make everything we have behind the bar, but, of course, we can’t, and there are other people that make it better than us – that’s what they specialize in.”
Since it opened in 2012, 3 Stars has indeed specialized in saisons, an effervescent, lightly alcoholic style of Belgian ale historically produced for farmworkers. While the DC brewery has built up a formidable sour program and moved into hop-tilted double IPAs in recent years, its approachable flagship Peppercorn Saison remains its best seller, and a number of its most popular seasonal offerings – the cranberry-infused Nectar of the Bogs and the summer sipper Citra Lemon Saison – riff on its original formula.
“In my eyes, 3 Stars is one of the best breweries in DC, and they make one of the best saisons in the country,” says Ismail. “We also have a very close relationship with them. They’ve supported us the entire time we’ve been open. I wanted that relationship to continue to collaboration – a partnership.”
3 Stars is not exactly a stranger to such collaborative efforts. It’s brewed a series of beers inspired by Dante Alighieri for Pizzeria Paradiso, and it’s currently producing exclusives for The Dubliner and Daikaya. But the brewery is certainly choosey about whom to align with and how to allocate its precious tank space.
“We don’t take on a lot of these projects,” explains 3 Stars CEO Mike McGarvey. “They’ve all started with relationships. Mike has been very supportive of our products, and we obviously love his stuff. It’s just kind of a natural progression.”
McGarvey’s partner, the outspoken and colorful Dave Coleman, feels a kinship with Isabella.
“He’s a lunatic, and I’m lunatic,” the co-founder deadpans. “We just click on a certain level. Mike believes that the only way that he gets better and more successful is if all the people in his network think the same way, and I’ve talked about the rising tide for as long as I can remember. So, we see very much eye to eye on team building and all of that. We’re just very similar people.”
There is perhaps one key distinction, though.
“Mike doesn’t drink beer,” Coleman continues. “He drinks gin and sodas. But when it came time for this project, he was like, ‘I want my own house beer, and I want it to be something reflective of our cooking but also super easy drinking.’”
It would be Brandon Miller’s responsibility to find that line and walk it.
When Brandon Miller joined 3 Stars last fall, he was immediately presented with a dream opportunity.
“I am a huge cooking show fan and a ‘Top Chef’ nerd, so when I knew that I got to work with Mike Isabella, I felt like a little kid,” the head brewer remembers. “I kept thinking, ‘This is just so weird.’”
Ismail had already been in discussion with Coleman and McGarvey about the project, and the beverage director had fleshed out the basics for the beer: a sessionable saison brewed with coriander and grains of paradise.
Most often associated with Belgian witbiers, coriander seed is a potent ingredient that, used in moderation, lends citrusy notes to a beer. Grains of paradise, meanwhile, is a less-common spice that brings a zesty, peppery flourish. (See: Port City’s Optimal Wit.) These were two “culinary” components that Ismail wanted incorporated into the beer.
“Originally, I’m from Morocco, so we use a lot of spices,” the Mike Isabella Concepts partner explains. “That’s why you see the grains of paradise here – I grew up mixing with that. And the coriander brightens the beer up little.”
“From the beginning to the end, there were things that Taha wanted to do flavor wise,” McGarvey adds. “There were things just in terms of Mike’s food, trying to balance those great flavors from his cooking, developing a beer that would fit around all of his spots. This was an iterative thing – a lot of back and forth.”
Miller estimates brewing six or so small test batches until everyone was satisfied.
“I would do a pilot batch, and we would send it down to Taha, and he and his crew would sit down and taste it and then send back notes, and then we would do another batch,” says the head brewer. “The main thing was that it be easy drinking, something that wouldn’t be too assertive. The beer is there to accentuate other nuances of the dining experience.”
For one of the earliest pilot batches, Miller brewed three variations of the saison: one with more coriander, one with more grains of paradise, and one where he decided to add bitter orange peel. Ultimately, the tasting panel loved the orange peel – so much so that it’s presence was increased with each iteration. Miller also opted to ferment the beer at lower temperatures than, say, Peppercorn Saison, a technique that subdues the estery qualities of 3 Stars’ house saison yeast strain.
“It’s so refreshing and drinkable,” McGarvey says, taking a swig of the final product as Santana’s “Smooth” appropriately blasts in the background. (Slightly cheesy modern rock is a staple of Mike Isabella restaurants.) “When you start messing around with coriander and grains of paradise, they can very easily spin out of control. Those things are here in this beer, so you notice them, but the addition of flavors is really nice. It’s clean, it’s bright, it’s a saison that’s not super estery. Brandon did an incredible job with this.”
Miller’s confidence in the refreshing qualities of the beer was solidified when 3 Stars and the Mike Isabella Concepts team packaged the saison on a muggy summer day.
“It was brutally hot in the brewery, so beers were coming off the line as we were canning, and they were going down super easy,” he remembers. “We were like, ‘OK, this beer works. It hits the spot.’ That was its trial by fire because we all sweated a couple of pounds that day.”
Thankfully, those looking to imbibe MIC Saison can now do so in the air-conditioned confines of Isabella’s DC restaurants. After jumping the requisite regulatory hurdles, it will be in his Virginia and Maryland locations, too. From there, the success of MIC Saison is out of 3 Stars’ hands.
“What it comes down to is the acceptance of Mike’s staff and how much they like the beer, because they’re going to be the sales people,” McGarvey observes. “Everyone comes in asks, ‘What’s new? What’s local? What should I have?’ This is all of those things, and it’s a natural fit alongside the food.”
Putting the 4.3% witbier-esque ale into 12-oz cans allows Mike Isabella Concepts to serve the beer at all of its locations, including those without draft lines. According to Ismail, the particular metallic design of the label and the name printed upon it reflect the influence of the company’s boss.
“We wanted something that pops,” the beverage director says. “We wanted something that fits the thing that we do. And we went back and forth on what to name it. We had different names, but we decided that MIC Saison would be a good first edition of our beer collaborations with 3 Stars.”
Does this mean we can expect more collaborations between 3 Stars and MIC?
“There may be,” Ismail shares with a grin. “There may be.”
For now, however, he’s content seeing one vision come to fruition.
“It reminds me of a nice beautiful day on the beach,” he says of the beer. “If I was there, this is what we’d be drinking.”