Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, we explore Hope, a 6.6% hazy IPA hopped primarily with Galaxy. Brewed by Ocelot in collaboration with The Veil and Bluejacket, the beer benefits the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and will be released Saturday at the Dulles brewery.
Adrien Widman doesn’t consider himself a stubborn man, but he’s lived the majority of the last three decades on his own terms.
As a teenager, the Ocelot Brewing founder dropped out of high school, then reenrolled at an alternative academy that let students come and go as they pleased. Finding an unrestrictive environment more to his liking, Widman flourished and eventually gained admittance to West Virginia University, where he would refuse to take a class before noon. After college and a few years spread across South America and Florida, he moved to Virginia and began IT consulting – again, a gig that allowed him to set his own schedule.
“I would tell them, ‘I’ll be there at 11:00. I’m not coming in at 8:00 or 9:00,’” the burly but soft-spoken brewer recalls. “I don’t like to get up early. That’s just who I am. I usually go to bed at 3:00 in the morning.”
Over a decade later, Widman operates his brewery in a manner that, above all, channels to his own tastes and preferences. Rather than produce steady and reliable “flagships,” he and head brewer Mike McCarthy have simply made the beers that they want to drink, a constantly moving target that in the course of two-and-a-half years has translated to 102 unique IPAs alone. Widman has overseen how these beers are marketed – which to say, hardly at all – and personally chosen every bar or restaurant that receives some of it. Of course, it’s a testament to the quality of Ocelot’s product that everyone from patrons to beer directors to a distributor have recalibrated their expectations to his approach. It’s what you have to do if you want arguably the area’s best IPAs.
“When you walk into this place, what you see is me,” Widman shares, sitting in his office on an early November afternoon, his beloved Pink Floyd blasting from nearby speakers. “I’m laid out from the music to the atmosphere. I’m 43 years old. If I’ve been doing something a certain way my whole life, that’s probably who I am. I just need to embrace that and roll with it.”
If you’re trying to get a complete sense for who Widman is, though, there’s a seven-year stretch of his life – between his time consulting and the opening of Ocelot – that shows a very different side of the founder. It begins in the spring of 2005, when an admittedly cocksure Widman, freshly out of his twenties, began a job somewhere that swiftly humbled him: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Created by Congress in 1984, the non-profit has a broadly defined mission that its president, John F. Clark, summarizes succinctly: “We find, protect, and rescue kids.” From an office in Alexandria, the organization seeks to accomplish those goals across 22 operational functions, including hosting both its 1-800-THE-LOST hotline and a CyberTipline, providing forensic assistance and law enforcement training, and serving as the national clearinghouse for information on missing and exploited children.
Widman joined NCMEC at a critical juncture in the organization’s history as it continued to grapple with the unique problems posed by the internet – a technological innovation that threw fire on the problem of child exploitation.
“The organization was twenty years old at that point, but we were still learning so much, particularly on the exploitation side,” says Michelle DeLaune, NCMEC’s Chief Operating Officer. “Adrien began in our IT department, which was critical because of what was happening on the internet. We were completely reliant on that department to help us build capacity and respond and properly serve stakeholders like law enforcement. Adrien came in with a tech background, we had the child advocacy protection background, and between the two of us, we were able to build some amazing programs. There’s a special kind of feeling when you’re building something, and Adrien was a big part of that.”
Not one to mince words, Widman credits DeLaune with changing his life.
“She basically took a knife to my heart, opened it up, and said, ‘Hey, there’s a spot here,’” he remembers. “I was like, ‘Well, thank you, I didn’t know that existed.’”
In his capacity as an IT guru, Widman assisted the entirety of the public-private partnership: the Exploited Children Division, the Missing Children Division, the call center, the imaging department, the training group, even “the fifth floor,” where NCMEC’s leadership resides. And for seven years, the otherwise unmalleable Ocelot founder bent to the needs of his colleagues.
“When I worked for the Center, I got up every day at 5:30 in the morning, and I was out the door by 6:00 a.m.,” says Widman, who was commuting from Loudoun County to Old Town. “I didn’t mind. I loved that place. I loved the people. I couldn’t wait to get in there. I cannot tell you how inspirational it is to work somewhere that everyone loves their job, even though their job is one of the hardest things on the planet. Not all days are gloom and doom, of course, but it’s difficult. I knew people whose job every day was to call people and tell them, ‘We don’t have an update on your kid.’ That’s not easy. What keeps you going every single day?”
The answer, according to Widman, is the glimmer of hope that any given day might be the one when a case turns around.
“They’re not robots over there; they have feelings,” he shares. “They know every single account and every single kid that’s gone, and it’s difficult. But then, when a breakthrough comes, it’s freaking awesome.”
In the fall of 2011, Widman would leave NCMEC – in part to stay closer to his wife and kids, in part to plan his brewery.
“It was a loss when Adrien left, but it was obviously an enormous gain for his family, and it really gave him the platform to find his dream, which is starting Ocelot,” DeLaune says. “Everyone at NCMEC is really proud of him and what he’s built.”
“I always say that your reputation precedes you, and Adrien’s still very well know and very well liked at the Center,” Clark adds. “I’m told that it was a sad day at NCMEC when he left, but he’s told that me he was always trying to think of ways to give back to us.”
A 28-year veteran of the U.S. Marshals, Clark has overseen NCMEC since December 2015. It was nearing his first anniversary on the job that Widman approached him with the idea for a way he could give back.
“I told him, ‘I can’t stroke you a check for a million bucks, but I know how to make beer. I will make a beer in your honor and donate everything it produces to you guys. If that’s cool, let me do it. If not, no worries,’” Widman recalls. “He went back to the management people, and called me a week later to say, ‘I had a meeting, they loved it, let’s do it.’”
First released last December, that beer is named after the thing Widman says keeps the organization going: Hope.
The closest thing that Ocelot has to a “core beer” is an unfiltered, hoppy pilsner called Sunnyside Dweller. A gold medal winner at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival, it’s now produced five times a year, though Widman will tell you that such frequency has nothing to do with the accolades.
“Why do me make Sunnyside?” he asks rhetorically. “We don’t really sell it to distribution. We sell it here. It’s for staff. It’s for us. We love that beer. We get upset when it’s not on tap. If we know the next batch of Sunnyside is a month away and there are only two kegs left, we take it off the board; then that tap’s just there for the staff.”
Sunnyside Dweller is illustrative of Widman’s approach to Ocelot: While the brewery was pegged early on as a “one-and-done” operation, rarely producing something more than once, it’s both more and less complicated than that.
“The model has always been to brew what we want to drink,” the founder says. “It was not to brew one-and-dones. It was to brew what we want to drink.”
For two and a half years, what Ocelot has most often wanted to drink is IPAs. A former homebrewer who fell in love with craft beer via the light-bodied hop bombs of San Diego, Widman has an unquenchable thirst for IPAs and a particular type of ADD when it comes to his own. When a new one is tapped at the brewery, it’s all he wants to drink, but within a week he’s likely bored with it and has moved completely onto the next. Like a good DJ or any other number of tastemakers, Widman has been successful less because he’s chasing trends than because the preferences of a large consumer segment happen to align with his.
It hasn’t been on account of self-promotion. In fact, Widman jokingly refers to himself as “the antichrist of marketing.”
“You never really see us advertising or posting a whole lot of stuff across social media,” he told me earlier this year. “We like to fly under the radar. I get yelled at all the time for not being more proactive on social media, but we kind of like being the quiet little go-to place.”
While Widman has since ceded social media responsibilities to Ocelot’s affable English tasting room manager Graham James, the brewery’s muted approach has remained more or less the same. This isn’t to say that Ocelot doesn’t care about selling beer. On the contrary, Widman and McCarthy each have a healthy fixation with how quickly beers are moving in its taproom – at least partially because its IPAs are designed to be consumed fresh and their aromatic allure declines precipitously after six or so weeks. (This is why it hasn’t brewed a black IPA in two years.) But no matter how badly Ocelot wants its kegs to kick, the brewery refuses to proactively conjure hype.
However, to the degree that there’s an exception to all of this, it is Hope.
Widman doesn’t treat Hope like a regular Ocelot IPA. It’s the beer whose success he’s arguably most invested in. It is the one beer he goes out of his way to promote. (Widman has invited me to write about Ocelot twice: Both times have been about Hope.) Moreover, it’s a beer that he and McCarthy initially constructed in a way they believed would attract people’s attention.
“I wanted Hope to catch a buzz,” Widman says of last year’s beer. “I wanted it to sell quickly. I wanted to get the Center the money. I wanted this beer to be remembered. I wanted people to think of the beer – and thus the Center – in a good way.”
Last year, Ocelot brewed Hope exclusively with Galaxy hops, a highly sought-after varietal prized for its tropical fruit flavors and aroma. That’s one way to catch a beer nerd’s eye.
Another way it sought to differentiate the IPA was by using oats in its grist. High in protein and oil content, oats add a silky, creamy quality – or “mouthfeel,” as it’s unfortunately known – to a beer. Traditionally used in darker beers like oatmeal stouts, the grain is increasingly being incorporated into IPAs by brewers looking to “soften” their final products.
“We had used oats a few times before, but we really wanted to separate Hope from our normal IPAs,” Widman explains. “We wanted to do something different, something a little more special, something that wasn’t the same old, same old. We’ve brewed over a 100 unique IPAs, and if you ask even our regulars to name twenty of them, they’d have a hard time. And that’s fine. I just wanted this one to standout a little bit.”
Hope’s 10% oat content also likely had the effect of helping to produce a hazy IPA. That’s notable because while Ocelot had made dozens upon dozens of IPAs up to that point, all of them had been more or less straw pale yellow and clear. The brewery uses Clarex – a fining agent that clarifies beer by helping its yeast drop out of suspension – in all of its IPAs, and Ocelot has never engineered a beer to be opaque, despite the industry’s ongoing “haze craze.” Hope was no different.
“There were a lot of questions about why Hope turned out like it did, because it wasn’t intentional,” McCarthy admits. “With all of our IPAs, we’ve never gone for a visual. We did everything that we normally do with Hope. Nothing changed. But it had somewhat of a hazy, milky quality. It was still light in color – it wasn’t turbid – but it was hazy, for sure.”
Intentionally or not, that hazy quality attracted a particular type of beer consumer in addition to Ocelot’s regular fan base, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Unfortunately, there are certain people who need to see a beer looks a certain way before they can think it’s good, so that helped in that sense,” Widman says. “The way a beer looks doesn’t mean a whole lot to me unless it’s completely turbid and opaque, in which case I don’t like that. Ultimately, though, we liked the way Hope turned out. The oats softened up the beer a tiny little bit.”
To those who had kept close track of Ocelot over its first year and a half, Hope was certainly an eye opener.
“I remember it being phenomenal,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for the influential Meridian Pint. “That was one of the early beers where I think Ocelot started playing with its style. It wasn’t as dry or bitter as some of their IPAs at the time. It was crisp and drinkable, but soft and packed with hop character.”
Beyond Hope’s importance to Widman personally, the beer marks a turning point in the evolution of Ocelot’s IPAs.
A year later, that journey is readily apparent in the second version of the beer.
Ocelot opened in 2015 with a particular type of IPA in its tanks. Invariably, they were pale, dry, and devoid of caramel malts. They were constructed first and foremost to showcase hops. They were often juicy, too, but they certainly weren’t joose. That is to say, Ocelot’s IPAs had prickly bitter backbones – something the brewery believed helped elevate the aroma and flavors of the hops.
Fairly or not, these beers were often characterized as “well-balanced, West Coast-style IPAs.” In the years since, the latter descriptor has continued to follow the brewery’s IPAs, mildly to Widman’s chagrin.
“I wouldn’t say it bothers me, but it’s not exactly what we do – at least, not anymore,” he says. “When we opened, sure, but even then there were some slight variations to the actual West Coast style. For example, we never used crystal malt from the get-go. But our IPAs were clean, bright, and a little more bitter, so they kind of got put in that category. Still, it’s just not what we do anymore.”
Over the past year, Ocelot has repeatedly experimented with – and, in essence, broadened – its approach to IPAs. For many of their hoppy beers, Widman and McCarthy have slightly turned down the bitterness, moving away from continually hopping their wort throughout the boil to primarily doing so at the tail end and then during the whirlpool, a technique known as “hop bursting.”
“Procedurally, we’re always learning, and we feel like we’re doing a better job than we did a year ago,” McCarthy shares. “We’re always trying to tweak how to dry-hop a little more efficiently. We’ve honed our fermentation profile. That all comes into play with this year’s Hope. It’s not going to be the same exact beer as last year because of some of these changes.”
In addition to its oats content, the new Hope displays other ways Ocelot has continued to soften its IPAs. The most noticeable of the Fuller’s English ale yeast used to ferment the beer. Compared with the classic American Chico ale yeast Ocelot had traditionally used on all of its IPAs – including the first version of Hope – an English ale strain attenuates less. In layman’s terms, this means the yeast leaves behind more residual sugar, resulting in a slightly sweeter beer with a fuller mouthfeel.
“Sometimes our IPAs can be just a little dry, and while that can be nice, something a little rounder gets you that juicier profile, especially with a hop like Mosaic or Galaxy,” explains McCarthy, who notes Ocelot has brewed with several different English strains now. “We’ve actually found that we like more bitterness when there’s English yeast and the beer is softer. We’re not trying to counteract everything that we’re doing by making a soft beer, but the underlying backbone of the bitterness needed to be elevated to make that beer still taste good at three- or four-weeks old. Otherwise, it faded out and kind of got sweet.”
While Loudoun County is blessed with soft water, Ocelot has been playing with the chemistry of its H2O to further soften the character of its IPAs.
“Before we started doing a lot of water changes, we were getting this ‘house profile,’ if you will,” Widman says. “That’s not a bad thing, but it was making it hard for me to differentiate our IPAs, and I like to drink different stuff all the time. So, we started playing around with the Fuller’s strain, which combined with some water changes and revised hopping schedules has resulted in some beers that we really enjoy.”
McCarthy characterizes Ocelot’s experimentation – conducted 30 barrels at a time – as part of a “never-ending quest” to have six IPAs on draft that are “different but still all ours.” It’s not easy, he says, and he’s not sure if Ocelot achieves such diversity all the time, but it’s the goal nonetheless.
Of course, the Dulles brewery is hardly alone in making these sort of adjustments. More than any other style in recent memory, innovation in the formulation of IPAs appears to be accelerating on an exponential curve.
“With IPAs, there are lots of subtle changes you can make that become pretty dramatic in the final product, and that’s something brewers really talk about,” says the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Greg Engert. “It’s almost a rabbit’s hole of sorts. But everyone is pouring their energy into these investigations because IPAs are so popular, and there’s so much at stake in the IPA game. The impetus to continually improve and make the beers what you – and other people – want them to be is there because that’s where the money is coming from.”
As the beer director for NRG’s vast empire, Engert is likely the single biggest buyer of Ocelot’s IPAs. As a hands-on partner at the group’s brewery Bluejacket, he’s also been involved in the refinement of his own hop-forward ales. Twice these interests have converged with in an Ocelot-Bluejacket collaboration: first with last year’s Raised on Promises, and now for the second production of Hope.
“Last year’s Hope was more of classic Ocelot IPA, but they’ve been moving away from that a little bit,” Engert observes. “It was a beer that was already in our wheelhouse – we had sold and enjoyed it a lot – so it was kind of fun to say, ‘We’re not going to start from scratch. We’re going to tweak the original.’”
The initial conversations about the beer occurred when Engert found himself in Belgium with Widman and Matt Tarpey, head brewer and co-owner of Richmond’s acclaimed The Veil. The three had traveled across the Atlantic for Brussels’ BXL Beer Fest, and after an afternoon at Cantillon, they made their way to dinner, where conversation would eventually turn towards Widman and his time at NCMEC.
“I was telling them about the Center and my story and why we make Hope,” Widman recalls. “They were both like, ‘We want in.’”
The original Hope had been a collaboration between Ocelot and four other Loudoun County breweries: Belly Love, Old OX, Tin Cannon, and Old 690. Contrary to the law of blockbuster sequels, its successor would have a smaller cast. It made sense strategically, though: The Veil’s Reverie Distribution spreads Ocelot’s beer across Richmond, and NRG sells more craft beer than anyone in DC. They also flex formidable promotional muscle, which is not insignificant to this story. Plus, both collaborators are far ahead of the curve on IPAs.
“It’s kind of this three-headed collaboration: Sterling, DC, and Richmond all coming together,” Engerts adds. “This is definitely still an Ocelot project, though. It wasn’t like Matt and I came in and said, ‘You’ve got to change this.’”
One other notable adjustment to this year’s Hope is the addition of the Pacific Northwest varietal Azacca to the whirpool and dry-hop. While the IPA had previously been single-hopped with Galaxy, both Widman and McCarthy were left disappointed with a similarly hopped Ocelot double IPA called Burn Your Papers from this summer. Like any crop, the characteristics of a hop can vary from harvest to harvest, and Ocelot found this year’s Galaxy a tad underwhelming.
“Galaxy is citrusy, floral, and very bright in its own sense, but the brightness was lacking from this last year’s batch, so we wanted to accentuate that by helping it along with a pairing,” Widman explains. “Azacca is good at boosting Galaxy a little bit. It brings a more pineappley and citrusy character to the party.”
In addition to the kegs of Hope that will be sent across the NRG network of restaurants and bars next week, that party will be packaged in 1200 bottles – roughly four times the number of bottles Ocelot normally produces. Those vessels will be available at the brewery this Saturday for the brewery’s Hops for Hope event, with 100% of the proceeds going to NCMEC.
Staff from across non-profit will be at Ocelot, too, which is perhaps the bigger point of this whole endeavor.
Widman used to rise at the crack of dawn and commute to NCMEC, but today NCMEC comes to him.
It’s November 7, a rainy and chilly Tuesday, and Ocelot is flooded with over 100 NCMEC staffers. They’ve come to the Dulles brewery for Hope’s brew day. Based on the rowdy din and steady stream of laughter wafting through the brewery, they appear to be having a good time.
“Last year, we had about twenty of us out here – we weren’t quite sure what to expect,” Clark says. “This year, Adrien was kind of honest, like, ‘I know you guys can do better than that.’”
Free Ocelot beer, free pizza, an entire weekday outside the office: As far as unofficial staff retreats go, it isn’t too shabby. And if anyone deserves one, it’s probably this group.
“A lot of the people here today deal with the really tough issues we have at the Center,” Clark notes. “They’re the ones preparing our CyberTip reports. They’re seeing and handling the rough stuff. We just thought it would be a nice way to give them a little break.”
All of this – the food, the drink, the staffing – is on Widman’s tab. While the beer being brewed here today will grab the headlines, this is as just an admirable display of generosity.
“The Center is a non-profit, which means something in terms of pay grades, and it’s hard work these people do,” Widman says. “If I can provide one day a year where they can just let go and not worry about anything else and have a good time, that makes me fucking smile. I’d pay five times the amount – I really would.”
In Widman’s company are NCMEC staffers he once worked with, including John and Staca Shehan, two Ocelot regulars who oversee the organization’s Exploited Children and Case Analysis divisions, respectfully. There’s also the woman who took the call center’s very first inquiry 33 years ago. But, mostly, the brewery is hosting a large contingent of what Clark calls his “millennial workforce.”
“Many of our employees already know Adrien, but there are many who don’t, and I think it’s inspiring for them to see a former who used to walk in their shoes doing something new and finding ways to support the organization,” observes DeLaune. “It’s a good shot in the arm for our staff – who deal with difficult material and difficult cases day in and day out – to recognize that here is a former employee who’s using his time and money to help build something that will help support more families. I think it makes everyone feel a little more connected.”
The support from Hope is both monetary and less tangible. On the former front, all proceeds from the IPA will go to NCMEC. With the entire grain bill donated by the Country Malt Group and the contributions of Bluejacket and The Veil in selling the beer, it’ll end up being a sizable pot. In the grand scheme of things, though, while every dollar helps, Widman recognizes that its nothing compared to what federal appropriations and NCMEC’s corporate partners offer.
“They get funding from the feds, they get funding from private parties, they get a lot of money from a lot of places, and it goes to the right things,” the Ocelot founder says. “Anything I could do is a drop in the bucket to them. They’ll never say that, but it’s not what Cisco or the feds or Microsoft can do.”
The bigger cause of Hope is one without a price tag: raising awareness. One of the challenges NCMEC faces is reaching new demographics and engaging them in what it’s doing. When the non-profit sets up shop at Ocelot on Saturday for Hope’s release, as it has for other Ocelot events, it comes into contact with families it otherwise might not reach.
“A lot of people that come here are parents, and they have young kids, and they’ll go out the door thinking, ‘Hey, I need to pay attention to this,’” Clark says. “The average person may not give a dollar to us, but they are leaving with a greater sense of awareness. Although we do raise a good amount of money from this event, it’s not necessarily a make-or-break dollar amount for us. But you take this idea and pair it with other ideas, and suddenly you have a momentum that’s much more important.”
Hops for Hope, as the larger initiative is called, is part of NCMEC’s recent efforts to rebrand itself. It’s safe to assume that not everyone who’s run the organization in the past would be able to see the benefit of pairing with a brewery for an event.
“I don’t think someone would look at beer and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and think, ‘Oh, those things mix well,’” DeLaune says. “But this should be an inspiration for all other companies out there: There are clever ways to do these things.”
Approaching her twentieth year anniversary at NCMEC, DeLaune discusses the organization’s mission with casually delivered but razor-sharp messaging, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone who’s testified before Congress on several occasions.
“I think people hear the name of our organization and say, ‘My child’s not missing, and they’re not being exploited, so good luck to all of you. Keep doing what you’re doing,’” the COO shares. “But they don’t see how our organization can help their family. I think what this event does is allow members of the community to learn more about what it is that we do. Yes, we help find missing children. Yes, we help reduce child exploitation. But we have an entire education program that’s free and available to the public for parents and guardians to learn how to better protect their children both online and offline. If the public were aware of who we are and that we’re a charity, they would be more inclined to not only utilize the products that we develop for their families but also support us as a cause.”
Even if he claims he’s just making beer, Widman is doing his part.
“Adrien’s a very humble guy, and I appreciate that,” Clark says. “He’s opened up his place to us, literally, and not just today. He said he’d do anything he can for us, and he’s been gangbusters so far.”
A lot of people promise that kind of stuff.
“And not everyone follows through on it.”
Photos by Philip Runco. Photo editing by Clarissa Villondo.