Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Mixed Up / Torn Down, an IPA fruited with apricot and peach. Brewed for Record Store Day, the 7% beer is a collaboration between Bluejacket Brewing, Ocelot Brewing, Mobius Records, and Red Apron.
Everyone who loves music does so in their own way. Some memorize the words to every song that passes fleetingly through the top 40; others compile mixtapes and playlists for friends, prospective lovers, or anyone who will listen. Some scavenge for limited-edition 7” records; others are content to stream. Some make music their living – playing it, selling it, promoting it; others find ways to make music a part of their otherwise unrelated occupations.
There is no shortage of local brewers who fall into the last category. Right Proper Head Brewer Nathan Zeender often folds references to art-house rock into the concepts for his art-house beers, and even went so far as to brew a “Nordic IPA” with venerated doom-metal band Sunn O))) last April. Likewise, DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock has produced beers with, for, and in honor of several volume-inclined acts, like Baroness, Clutch, and Russian Circles. One of D.C.’s best spaces for heavy metal is Atlas Brew Works, where Director of Heavy Metal Operations Will Cook books monthly, band-friendly concerts. Meanwhile, next week, 3 Stars is set to host a hip-hop showcase and release 808’s, the first in a series of beers dedicated to ‘90s rap car culture.
Over the past four years and change, similar displays of affection have been manifest at Bluejacket. In that time, the Navy Yard brewery has produced hundreds of unique beers across an array of styles, and the vast majority of them have nodded in some form to music or the visual arts. There are references to bands (The Jam, Darling Buds, 9 Pound Hammer), to albums (Bone Machine, Murmur, Figure 8), to lost forgotten music styles (Anacostia Delta). And there are too many song titles to tally, though a flip through the jukebox of beers released since March reveals Love Cats, Part Past Part Fiction, Perfect Places, Jeepster, and Lights & Music.
The person responsible for pairing these references with fermented liquid is Greg Engert, Bluejacket’s creative overlord. (Official title: Beer Director.)
“At the end of the day, I’m looking for something that can work both referentially and not,” Engert says. “I’ll ask Michael to riff on a bunch of songs or album titles that he likes, and then I go through them and try to think about what’s a cool name – something that sounds great on its own but also has a cool reference.”
“Michael” is Michael Babin, the founder and owner of the area’s sprawling Neighborhood Restaurant Group, a collection of nearly 20 bars and restaurants that includes ChurchKey, The Sovereign, Hazel, and Bluejacket. Babin is another one of those people who bake their music fandom into almost everything they do. Sometimes it’s explicit, like the turntable set-up at the Mosaic District bar literally called B Side or the wall of cassette tapes and antique jukebox at the Hill’s Eat Bar. More subtly perhaps, every experience at an NRG property is soundtracked by Babin’s mix of personal favorites, which tends to encompass cult classics from the ‘70s and ‘80s, ’90s “college rock,” and a handful ‘00s indie pop cuts. (I hear Richard Swift’s “Lady Luck” approximately nine out of ten visits to an NRG spot.)
Unsurprisingly, Babin has staffed his enterprises with other obsessives, like Engert, Red Apron butcher Nathan Anda, and NRG Director of Operations Erik Bergman. This is a group that spends their free time listening to, thinking about, and discussing music. They go to Superchunk and Nada Surf and Built to Spill shows together. They frequent Fairfax’s Mobius Records, where they’ve befriended founder – and former live sound engineer – Dempsey Hamilton.
It was likely only a matter of time before they would conspire to make a beer for music geeks’ high holiday: Record Store Day.
That beer arrives today in the form of Mixed Up / Torn Down, a collaboration between Bluejacket, Red Apron, Mobius Records, and Ocelot Brewing. (As for the musical bona fides of the Virginia brewery, it’s named after a Phish tune, every single one of its 150+ beers is a song lyric, and its website expressly states “we love music.”) Nicking its moniker from a new The Cure reissue and remix collection queued up for Record Store Day, the fruited IPA will be released in cans at the brewery this afternoon, prior to Saturday’s official release party at B Side.
“We’ve been discussing doing something with Dempsey for a while, and Mobius Records is close to B Side, where we play records, so we started thinking, ‘We should definitely do a Record Store Day event there,’” Engert recalls of Mixed Up / Turned Down’s genesis. “When [Assistant Beer Director] Tim Liu suggested it might be cool to loop in Ocelot, who has also worked with Mobius in the past, I was like, ‘Well, if that’s what we’re going to do, we should get Bluejacket involved, brew a collab, and do a canning release around it. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Deciding what style to brew was equally a no-brainer.
“Clearly, Ocelot brews lots of IPAs, and we do too, and we love putting IPAs in cans because, well, people love IPAs in cans,” says the Beer Director for Bluejacket, which started releasing cans for the first time earlier this year. “If we were going to do our first collaborative can release, and it was going to be with Ocelot, then it had to be something hoppy.”
While Ocelot may produce award-winning renditions of a kellerbier and a Baltic porter, not mention viscous imperial stouts and the occasional light saison, hops are unquestionably its forte. When the brewery opened in 2015, it specialized in pale, dry IPAs with a prickly bitterness, but in the last year and a half, it has strayed further and further from that San Diego-indebted model. The results have been stunning: vibrantly juicy flavor, soft mouthfeel, with the persistence of a subtly bitter backbone and invariably a clean finish. The brewery makes a strong case for producing the region’s best IPAs.
“Ocelot is a modern brewery that sprang out of great, standard traditional practices,” says Engert, who oversees beer curation for the entirety of NRG. “They’re a brewery that I can trust for rotation. Every week is a different IPA from them, and I always know it’s going to be great. I also love that they now have embraced some versatility and experimentation in their IPAs without turning their back on what they used to do. They’ll have some modern haze, but they’ll also have some neo-West Coast IPAs. I like that mixed bag.”
Bluejacket itself has also been a laboratory for experimentation. Under the watch of Ro Guenzel, the Director of Brewing Operations for the past year, Bluejacket has unquestionably become the premiere IPA manufacturer within the Beltway, while still maintaining an impressively wide and varied assortment of traditional English, German, and Belgian styles, as well as wild and sour ales. In contrast with Ocelot, Bluejacket has gone all-in on the New England IPA movement, producing opaque, minimally bitter, hop-saturated renditions of the style. At the same time, it has continued to produce cleaner – though no less fruity or fragrant – takes on hop-forwards beers, like the recent Great Raft Brewing collaboration Here We Roam.
“The nature of Bluejacket is experimentation and kind of jumping around all over the place and riffing on stuff,” says Guenzel. “We are currently putting our IPAs into some different tracks as we continue to learn and explore the possibilities of IPAs and the new New England IPA styles.”
That Guenzel would be the person charged with producing such beers would have seemed quite unlikely not too long ago. An unmitigated lager enthusiast, Guenzel joined Bluejacket after years spent in Colorado as head brewer for Left Hand Brewing, then as brewery manager at Great Divide Brewing – two large breweries with extensive distribution networks and therefore slightly conservative streaks. Hopping a beer with eight pounds per barrel of Galaxy and Citra wasn’t part of his daily routine.
“Being pushed and made uncomfortable is part of growing,” he shares. “As much as I love making and drinking classic beers, mostly German, I also enjoy being pushed and trying new things. I knew coming here was going to present some challenges. No more dedicated lab team or large sensory panels. What I would give right now for a forklift and spent grain silo; a centrifuge wouldn’t be bad either.”
“But as scary as this is for me, it is also very liberating,” Guenzel continues. “I would have never considered doing some of the things that are routine here and so critical to the types of beers we produce. I would have been laughed out of the brewery ten years ago for suggesting we put eight pounds per barrel in a batch… As a larger distributing brewery, you are driven to make mostly beers that are extremely efficient and shelf stable. Once the shackles of those priorities are removed, a whole new world opens up.”
Inspired by the early success of its Forbidden Plant – a Kolsch that’s dry-hopped exorbitantly, but minimally hopped during the boil – Bluejacket’s Lost Weekend IPA was constructed with an eye towards shifting hops from the kettle to the whirlpool and dry-hop, thus amplifying hop flavor and aroma while reducing bitterness. And faced with “hard” water flowing through its pipes, the brewery also started adjusting that beer’s (and other beers’) water chemistry, adding minerals to manipulate fermentation character – a practice that is now de rigeur. In both senses, as well as Lost Weekend’s slight haze, the flagship IPA can be viewed as a progenitor for what would follow throughout the area.
But the space where Bluejacket has been most focused over the past year is the interplay between hops and yeast, and the ways the latter can boost the characteristics of the former. In the past, Bluejacket – like most American breweries – had been more or less content to ferment its IPAs with what’s known as California (or Chico) Ale Yeast, an efficient strain popularized by Sierra Nevada Brewing. It’s a yeast prized for producing a dry, clean, and slightly fruity beer. But if you’re willing to forsake the efficiency of Chico, there’s a bigger world of ale yeasts that produce more vibrant flavors as they convert sugar to alcohol.
For Bluejacket, a breakthrough came last March with the release of an IPA called Turning Road. Hopped exclusively with Mosaic, Turning Road is fermented with what Guenzel’s describes as a “mutated version of a classic IPA strain that kicks a bunch of esters and really promotes and highlights some of the tropical notes desired of the style.” Since then, Bluejacket has been experimenting increasingly with hop and yeast pairings, manipulating each in different ways. It’s been a rewarding process, albeit an expensive one when beers don’t meet the bar set by previous successes.
“Like any great brewery, we dump beer,” says Engert. “We don’t release everything we make, because we hold ourselves to a very high standard. We’re doing some crazy things with yeast, and sometimes it just didn’t give us the flavors we were hoping for, and we chalk it up to evaluation and learning. That happens to every brewer who’s trying to innovate and make cool, new stuff but is also to try to run a business and get things out.”
One recent hit was Perfect Places, a tropical and pillowy soft IPA showcasing the New Zealand hop Nelson Sauvin. As fate would have it, this beer was fermented with a little help from a Bluejacket friend: Ocelot founder Adrien Widman.
This story begins after Engert first tried Big Cat, a double IPA that Ocelot brewed with Richmond’s The Veil in February.
“I was telling Adrien about how much I loved the yeast character in that beer – it put off just tons of soft, juicy, peachy flavors,” Engert shares. “I also liked the way that it tempered the grassy notes and earthy qualities of the hops they used. It was just super expressive. That’s when Adrien told me about the yeast they had used – a special yeast that he had been using and had banked on a certain generation that they really liked, and he was like, ‘If you ever want to give a shot, let me know.’ And I was like, ‘I’d love to.”’
That special yeast – which Ocelot refers to as “House Ale 3” on its cans – was isolated by Jasper Yeast, a yeast laboratory that has been subletting a portion of Ocelot’s warehouse space for the past year.
“Adrien wanted a specific yeast strain with certain characteristics, and we isolated something that kind of fit that bill,” says co-owner Jasper Akerboom, who skirts revealing the yeast’s exact origin. What’s most relevant is: At some point, the strain came from England, like all American ale yeasts, and its use by Ocelot is representative of a larger trend within craft brewing.
“When the craft beer movement started, most people started to use cleaner ale yeast strains, like Chico, but there’s been a shift in current craft beer toward more English yeast again, or at least yeast that still has a strong English character – softer and fruiter,” Akerboom explains. “One thing that can be prevalent in these English strains is something called bioconversion capacity. It basically means that the strains can express certain proteins that help convert specific hop compounds into more aroma and more flavors, and they also generate more of a hazy character when you use them with a specific grain bill.”
All of the attributes of certain English ale yeast strains are most clearly on display in what have come to be known as New England IPAs: the flavor, the aroma, the impenetrable haze. These are the markers of the style. But while Ocelot’s House Ale 3 yeast shares a similar DNA with, say, the ubiquitous London Ale III, it also deviates in small yet important ways.
“Ocelot’s yeast kind of falls in the same group, but it’s a little different – it’s a little cleaner,” Akerboom observes. “It doesn’t leave so much body behind as some of the other English ale yeasts. It’s definitely fruity, though, and very soft – extremely soft.”
Akerboom maintains Ocelot’s House Ale 3 yeast – which also made appearances in the brewery’s Thought Control and Break My Balls IPAs earlier this year – but Jasper Yeasts doesn’t include it among its offerings for other breweries. (Ocelot’s other two house ale yeasts are more straightforward: Chico and Fuller’s English Ale.)
“We kind of just keep it for Ocelot,” the former Lost Rhino brewer says. “Adrien might say to someone, ‘Hey, feel free to use it,’ then we will share it, but otherwise I leave it up to him. It’s kind of their strain in a way.”
Widman would opt to share the yeast with Bluejacket, and it found a home in the brewery’s Nelson Sauvin IPA. Then, weeks later, as the Widman and Engert were planning the Record Store Day collaboration, Engert realized that the yeast could be culled from Perfect Places and deployed in their fruited IPA.
“We used Ocelot’s yeast from Big Cat – albeit in a different generation – in Perfect Places, and now we’re using it on Mixed Up / Torn Down,” Engert says. “That’s a cool layer to the collaboration that I think is different from what most people talk about. I think it shows the collaborative nature in the industry, beyond when we actually put our names on these beers.”
As with most collaboration, the selection of hops for Mixed Up / Turned Down was limited to some degree by what varietals the hosting brewery had on hand. Thankfully, Bluejacket keeps its cold storage stocked with some prized hops. The breweries sought juicy varietals that Ocelot’s yeast would accentuate, ultimately settling on whirlpool additions of the Australian varietal Vic Secret, and a hefty dry-hop with that hop and two blockbuster cultivars: Citra and Galaxy.
Named punningly after the Australian state in which its grown (Victoria), Vic Secret is a hop that’s recently found its way into beers from both Ocelot (Much Obliged and the forthcoming anniversary triple IPA Stairway) and Bluejacket (Lights & Music). Ocelot brewer Jack Snyder – who is positioned to fill the shoes of current Ocelot Head Brewer Mike McCarthy in July – characterizes the hop as a steadier version of Galaxy, although arguably with a lower ceiling. It’s Galaxy Lite, if you will.
“Galaxy is just a big bully for me – a little bit goes a long way, but it boxes out a lot of hops,” he explains. “Vic Secret plays better with others. It punches up hops. It has a very similar fruit profile to Galaxy – those soft passionfruit characteristics. I find the vegetal character is always there, but there’s a nice balance, and it doesn’t have the wild swings you can get with Galaxy. Galaxy can be like munching on a bowl of grass clippings or it can be all fruit, whereas Vic Secret seems to be pretty consistent. You get a nice balance of that herbal character riding underneath all of that passionfruit. I dig it.”
As for fruity Galaxy and citrusy Citra, well, this isn’t the first time those hops have come together. I ask Widman how he would describe what happens when they join forces.
“What happens?” Widman asks rhetorically. “Magic.”
Snyder weighs in with a more considered take.
“Galaxy alone almost has this perceived candied fruit – it accentuate sweetness in a way that’s kind of cloying to me, like sweet passionfruit, and I have trouble sustaining drinking that,” the brewer shares. “But what Citra always does for Galaxy is kind of balance that out, then adds citrus, punches up the tropical notes, and adds a green balance to it. I think they’re incredible together – and, obviously, they’re too incredible aroma hops. If they’re executed well, you should be able to smell Galaxy and Citra IPA across the bar.”
Further adding to Mixed Up / Turn Down’s bouquet are the peach and apricot, which Guenzel notes were added at the tail end of fermentation in order to preserve as much aroma as possible. The reasoning behind fruiting the IPA in the first place was two-fold.
The breweries wanted to differentiate the beer from their other IPAs. (The two had also collaborated a relatively straightforward IPA called Raised on Promises two summers ago.) Of course, it didn’t hurt to know that bottles of Weekend Crush – a variant of Bluejacket’s Lost Weekend IPA intensely fruited with blood orange – had sold out of the Navy Yard tasting room in a few hours last December.
The other consideration was the involvement of Red Apron, which occupies a space adjacent to B Side. Engert wanted a beer that would pair with the butchery’s charcuterie.
“I love really big peachy beers with pork and charcuterie of all kinds, so that influenced not just using fruit but the kind of fruit,” the Beer Director shares. “But I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a peach bomb, so when thinking about what other fruits we might want to play with, apricot came to mind. I really liked the way peach and apricot played when we did a new version of our wedding beer this past fall.”
With that, the marriage of stone fruit, fruity hops, and a soft, peachy yeast strain was sealed.
Like most Bluejacket IPAs these days, Mixed Up / Torn Down was brewed with a grist of Weyermann pilsner malt, plus wheat and flaked oats. A bag of Simpsons Golden Naked Oats made it into the mix as well, though Guenzel peeled back the amount of that adjunct grain originally found in Widman and Engert’s recipe.
“Adrien gets away with using some ridiculous amounts of oats out at Ocelot,” Guenzel shares. “We have tried to use some higher percentages like Ocelot but have had mixed success. Oats get really gummy. Out of the fear of having an embarrassing brew day, I asked that we tune the oats down a bit from what was initially proposed.”
No one wants a stuck mash. The whole point of a collaboration brew day is to have fun. Or so Widman says. To hear the Ocelot founder explain it, collaborations are hardly the epic intercompany crossover comic books that many beer nerds imagine them to be.
“I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but it’s very rare that two breweries sit there and punch numbers and try to figure out how to showcase the best of both breweries,” Widman shares. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, man, you want to hang out? Let’s do something.’”
“Collab brew days are best spent in the company of people you genuinely enjoy,” Guenzel adds. “Most of the day is spent shooting the shit and standing around.”
Guenzel and Widman haven’t known each other well, but they appear to be fast friends.
“I first met Adrien at the Aslin anniversary party last summer – I think he gave me a hug,” the Bluejacket brewer recalls. “I spent most of that day hanging around his booth. Between his jukebox and a bottle of tequila, it was the most happening 20-square-feet of the fest.”
The relationship between Widman and Engert goes back a bit further. It’s been a few years of festivals and beer dinners and even a trip to Belgium together. And, quite literally, no one buys more Ocelot beer than Engert.
“They’re just great friends of mine,” Engert says. “We always make it a point to hang out when we’re at things together. I’m really excited for Mike’s new brewery, and I’m also excited for Jack. We’ve both always had a respect and love for beer; it’s something that’s always evolving but is still respectful to tradition.”
Evolution is a recurring theme when discussing IPAs with Engert. And as much as his counterpart may want to downplay the meaning of collaborations, the Bluejacket Beer Director views them – and perhaps those brew-day conversations – as an integral part of that evolution.
“The most current brewers, the best brewers, the ones that are making the best stuff – they’re the brewers that are drinking the most beer that’s not their own and are in conversation with the best brewers in the world,” he observes. “Period. You can just see it. You see these clumps of brewers that are hanging out together, doing things together, and they all tend to do well – they’re sharing information, but they’re also hungry for information. They’re not resting on their laurels. They’re not just doing what they’ve been taught or have been doing forever or thought they liked. They’re open to new things.”
Follow writer (and, in this case, photographer) Philip Runco on Twitter.