Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe. Today, our beer is Old Ox Brewery’s FestivALE, a 5% ABV farmhouse ale infused with tart Montmorency cherries and hibiscus petals, and brewed in collaboration with the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Chris Burns can recall the first time he saw cherry blossoms blooming around the Tidal Basin.
“I remember it vividly,” the Old Ox Brewery co-founder shares, his long, coarse, calico beard imbuing these words with a certain gravitas. You half-expect any story to start the same way.
“Ah yes,” he said with a twirl of his furious white mustache. “I remember it vividly…”
This particular tale takes place several decades ago, when Burns was back in elementary school and living outside of Chicago. He and his family had traveled east to visit an aunt and uncle in Virginia, and at some point, everyone piled into the car and headed towards the District. It was approaching the city that he caught a glimpse of the trees and their vibrant colors through a backseat window.
“We were on the other side of the river, driving down what I know now is G.W. Parkway, and I just saw flashes of them – this bright pop of pink,” he reminisces. “It was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ My parents were like, ‘Oh, those are the cherry trees that were brought over from Japan as a gift to the U.S.’ I didn’t know anything about them.”
Like any good fifth grader, Burns would take this valuable information back to Illinois and share it with his classmates as part of a school project.
“Of course,” the 39-year-old adds dryly, “that’s when I hatched the scheme to become the official beer of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.”
Burns is joking – partially, at least. Earlier this month, Old Ox released FestivALE, a beverage that is indeed the official beer of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. But as the co-founder explains, standing amongst his brewery’s fermentation tanks on a damp February afternoon, the seeds for this collaboration were sown a bit more recently than the first Bush administration.
Last year, the family-owned Ashburn brewery provided beer for a volunteer event organized by the National Cherry Blossom Festival Foundation – a non-profit charged with promoting the festival (plus, on a slightly loftier level, “the beauty of nature and international friendship,” according to its website).
“We had a great time, and we really enjoyed interacting with the foundation itself, so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a beer for the Cherry Blossom Festival?’” Burns says. “They were immediately intrigued by the idea, and so over the last six months, we hammered out the details.”
This what they call a “yada yada.” Hammering out the details – namely, figuring out what exactly FestivALE would be – would take a fair amount of time and effort.
“The idea was to build something that was approachable, great for the season, and kind of complimented the ideas of the festival,” says Allison Lange, Old Ox’s head brewer.
As you might guess, the biggest nod to the festival would be the incorporation of cherry, a fruit that doesn’t actually grow on any of the Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin but has still come to symbolize the festival. (Not surprisingly, several other local breweries, including Oliver Brewing and 3 Stars, have produced spring cherry blossom beers in recent years, though none bear any sort of official affiliation with the festival.)
Old Ox’s challenge was producing a broadly appealing beer – after all, it would be sold at festival events flushed with a broad swath of wandering dendrophiles and tourists – that showcased the fruit. As such, the two most obvious cherry destinations were immediately off the table.
“We were trying to stay from anything sour or a stout, which are the natural places you’d think cherries would be,” Lange explains. “It’s spring, and those aren’t necessarily beers you’d want to have on a warm afternoon.”
In their place, Lange and her team brewed test batches of several other cherry beers. One, a pale ale, fizzled out – the hops and the fruit clashed. More successful, however, were cherrified takes on a lager and a saison. Ultimately, Burns brought growlers of these two brews to the foundation’s K Street office for board members to taste and parse. It was more than a perfunctory sampling: The final decision on what beer would get a hefty 120-barrel production would lie with the non-profit.
“It was in our best interest to make sure that everyone was behind the beer,” the co-founder says of entrusting such a big decision to an outside party. “We wanted them to have some influence on the creative process, and tasting everyone on the different beers and seeing what they actually liked was a fun way to do it. But it was a little hairy there for a few minutes because the first thing someone said was, ‘I really liked that lager.’”
Within Old Ox, the cherry lager was not the preferred option.
“I wanted the saison to win,” Lange admits. “I think Chris wanted the saison to win, too. It’s a natural fit for a fruity, floral-accented beer, and I thought that the peppery, estery yeast character really matched what we were going for.”
Fortunately, the “right choice” was made: FestivALE would be a saison infused with cherry and hibiscus. This decision was just one step in the nearly yearlong dialogue between the brewery and the foundation – one that culminated with the beer’s release earlier this month.
“We had let the Cherry Blossom Foundation get comfortable with us, and help them understand exactly what we were trying to do and how it was going to represent them as an organization,” says Burns. “They have to guard their reputation very closely, right? They don’t need some yahoo coming in and calling themselves the official beer of the festival and then not executing a good product.”
With another cherry blossom presentation out of the way, all that what was left to do was execute a 120-barrel batch of fruited beer.
What could be so hard about that?
Each spring, the National Cherry Blossom Festival helps coordinate three weeks of festivities – concerts upon cultural expos upon a fairly sizable parade – and then it hopes that Mother Nature plays nice.
The show will go on regardless, but the hope is that these events dovetail with peak bloom, the span of a week or so when 70% of the Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin are in bloom, and thus when Instagram snappers swarm the area in full force. The problem is that peak bloom, as determined by the National Park Service, is a bit of a moving target. A warm February will accelerate the budding process; a cold March slows it back down. Such has been the case the past two years when early peak blooms were announced, and then delayed and delayed again.
“The really interesting part about peak bloom is that it’s incredibly fluid,” says Burns. “It depends entirely on when the blossoms decide to show up. Last year, it was early because we had a freakishly warm February, and here we are again.”
As Burns and I are talking in late February, the NPS has just informed him that peak bloom will fall between March 17 and 20 – the latter of which dates the three-week National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled to commence on. So, hardly ideal timing. But what the Old Ox co-founder doesn’t know is that a wintry chill is set to grip the D.C. area for the weeks to come, holding the cherry blossoms’ green buds hostage for 18 days, and pushing peak bloom to end of March.
Old Ox had factored this unpredictability into the production of FestivALE. Whether peak bloom hit in early or late March, the brewery was determined to have this beer and its pink cans on shelves across Northern Virginia and D.C. at the very beginning of the month.
“We don’t do a lot of smart things around here, but the smartest that we did was say that we were going to have this beer ready on March 1,” Burns says. “That is going to be the start of the Cherry Blossom Festival for us.”
Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell the person charged with brewing FestivALE about the scope of the production.
“When this whole project was conceived, there was a huge miscommunication, and I thought this beer was going to be for, like, one event,” Lange admits. “The whole time, I was thinking that we would fill the grundy up, keg off 15 kegs, and be good. Then, all of a sudden, Chris tells me that they need 120 barrels. When we figured out when I needed to brew this beer to make sure we had it in time for the blossoms, I needed to have brewed it the day before.”
The fallout from this minor snafu was that Lange didn’t have enough time to propagate a large enough “pitch” of yeast to ferment the entire batch. The head brewer’s best option? Hope a D.C-area producer of saisons would be kind enough to help her out of the bind. Thankfully, she knew one that might fit the bill: 3 Stars, producers of the popular Peppercorn Saison, and Lange’s employer prior to Old Ox. Sure enough, after a call over to its head brewer Brandon Miller, Lange was back in business.
In the end, it was a happy accident of sorts: Reuniting with 3 Stars’ house saison strain meant brewing with an organism she was intimately familiar with.
“I know how their house saison strain works, how to get the flavors I want out of it,” she explains. “It has a real peppery character to it, and some vanilla notes I thought would pair well with cherry.”
Cherry juice is an intensely sugary adjunct, and it would give the saison yeast plenty of fuel. (For the beer novices out there: Yeast consumes sugar – typically only from the wort – during fermentation, producing alcohol and leaving behind certain flavors depending on the strain and fermentation temperature.) But before any fruit was introduced to the mix, Lange brewed a simple grist of mostly pilsner malt, oats, and wheat – a beer small enough to take on the cherry juice’s contributions and still settle around 5.5% alcohol.
Lange was no stranger to working with cherry juice. She uses the same tart Montmorency cherries in Old Ox’s Funky Face Cherry Sour, an Oud Bruin-esque kettle sour with a rich malt backbone that accentuates the dark fruit character of ingredient. The brewer had just never worked with so much of it before. Each 60-barrel batch required a 50-gallon drum of cherry concentrate, which was so thick that it had to be circulated into the tank by back-flowing the beer through a pump.
“It was an adventure,” she shares. “That cherry is super viscous. The pump was really mad at us. We shorted it out four or five times before we finally got it in.”
Once united in the fermentation vessel, the cherry juice and saison yeast would get along swimmingly – so much so that Lange arrived one morning to find the tank overflowing pink fluid.
“The tank was already filled to the brim, and when we pumped in the cherry juice, the yeast started fermenting all those sugars,” she recalls. “It’s an ale yeast, so it lives on the top of the fermenter, and it was coming out everywhere, accented by the cherry colors.”
Old Ox would opt to punch up that hue by adding dried hibiscus petals to FestivALE.
“When we started looking at our trials, we wanted a little more rosiness,” Lange continues. “So, we started to think about things that could get us a pink color – beets and all kinds of different things came up, but once we had the floral link as well, hibiscus was just natural.”
The hibiscus was added to the beer in the form of a florescent pink tea that Lange made from it. As the head brewer was surprised to discover when initially experimenting with the botanical, it also lends an a slightly zippy tartness to a beer – something she was sure not to overdo.
This is a theme that carries across FestivALE’s formulation: While it is far from the conventional or safe choice you’d expect from the official beer of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, its bold and eccentric components were introduced with some moderation in mind.
“We didn’t want it to be insanely pink, because we didn’t want to scare people off, but the beer definitely has a rose of blush to it,” Lange shares. “We also didn’t want to go overboard with the cherry and have it be a fruit beer. We wanted it to be a saison with hints of cherry.”
While you won’t find any other cherry saisons in Old Ox’s portfolio, it is emblematic of the brewery’s two-pronged approach to production.
On one side, there are its herd of core beers: Golden Ox, Black Ox, Alpha Ox, and Hoppy Place IPA. These are the flagships you will find on shelves around the D.C. area, and save for Hoppy Place, the beers Old Ox opened with in the summer of 2014. They are sessionable, approachable, familiar but distinct in their own ways. They are mass-appeal beers. They are the reason Old Ox brews on a 30-barrel brewhouse and uses primarily 60-barrel tanks.
On the other side, however, are increasing number of more adventurous, offbeat beers like FestivALE. These are the limited releases. They’re entries the Funky Face sour ale series, the versatile Hoppier Place double IPA series, and the Cooper’s Cloak barrel-aged series. They’re one-offs, like a wonderful new altiber (dubbed simply Bier), the reverse-engineered coffee lager Brew Backa, or a forthcoming citrusy wheat ale. And they’re accounting for more and more of Old Ox’s output.
It’s a trend seen around the country: Consumers want more variety, and breweries are recalibrating their production schedules to accommodate them. In the case of Old Ox, it’s scheduled to produce 32 new beers in 2018, rolling back the idea of more readily available “seasonals” to do so. Some of these new beers will get a full-scale production and release. Other will only fill one of the two seemingly out-of-place 20-barrel fermenters on the production floor.
“When I first started here, the very first thing I was going to do was get rid of those tanks,” Lange says. “I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ But once I talked with Chris, I realized it was so we could be versatile and try new things in the tasting room. Chris really has a focus on that, and it’s really cool.”
Meanwhile, Burns has found a head brewer in Lange that’s uniquely capable of overseeing this hybrid model – someone whose brewing experience includes both a traditional flagship brewery (Port City) and a more boutique operation (3 Stars).
But to limit Lange’s story to those two outposts would sell short the wildly unconventional road that led her to Old Ox.
Seven or eight years ago – it’s hard to remember at this point – Allison Lange woke up at 3:00 in the morning, drove her car to the Tidal Basin, and staked out a spot to see the sun rise against the backdrop of blooming cherry blossoms.
“It’s cool to be walking around down there when no one else is around,” the brewer says. “Obviously, people show up after you, but it’s quiet and serene in that moment. There’s a little bit of a fog that clears as the sun rises. There’s something magical about it.”
Lange took in this majesty several times over. It was more business than pleasure: In one of her previous professional lives, Lange operated a photography company, selling her prints at local markets and festivals. And few images are as quintessentially D.C. as the cherry blossoms and monuments at dawn.
“Every time I go down to D.C., and I’m on the highway, and I see the Washington Monument, I still can’t believe that I live here,” Lange says. “Every single time.”
Lange moved to the D.C. area after spending over nine years in Atlanta, where she earned a PhD in biochemistry at Emory University. This was another professional life – one that consumed countless hours with lab work and research and analysis, and one that she would leave almost completely behind.
Lange had relocated to Atlanta with her now-husband Pete in 2001, shortly after both graduated from Dartmouth University. The southern city provided him with an aerospace graduate program (Georgia Tech) and her with one for biochemistry. It wasn’t long after commencing studies that Lange developed what would become her specialty: nuclear transport in yeast.
“Yeast is a model organism,” she explains. “Its cells are a lot like the cells in our own bodies. It’s the most basic organism that’s similar to ourselves. And I liked working with yeast, more than a lot of other organisms. You know, it smells good, it tastes good, it grows quick, and there are no moral problems with it.”
In grossly oversimplified terms, Lange used yeast to better understand how cells determine what proteins want to get in and out of the nucleus.
“It turns out there are certain codes within proteins that transport proteins recognize, and then they carry them in, kind of like a zip code with the mail,” she continues. “My job was figuring all of that out. And the reason that it’s relevant is that this kind of system essentially controls everything. Anytime a cell wants to respond to something or grow or get anything done, you have to get a protein into the nucleus to transcribe the message.”
Lange enjoyed the work. She liked the collaborative nature of her field, which reminds her in retrospect of the craft beer industry. She felt as if her work opened new research avenues for others. She figured she’d eventually become a professor, which was the natural for her studies.
“Everybody that’s training you in grad school is a professor, and it’s what they know what to teach you to be,” she shares. “But I kind of realized that being a professor means a lot of paperwork. And it’s desperate paperwork; it’s paperwork that your livelihood depends on – i.e., writing grants. I realized that was a cycle that I just wasn’t excited about. Part of the reason that I liked science was that it was hands on and thoughtful and practical.”
Two-and-a-half years after getting her PhD – and two-and-a-half years into her postdoctoral research – Pete was recruited to work at a D.C.-area aerospace firm. Once up north, Lange looked for jobs in science-related fields, but none of the projects spoke to her.
“There weren’t any questions that I really wanted to study, and you have to really be into it,” she says. “So, I realized I had an opportunity to get off the pathway to academia.”
This was what lead her to photography – something she admits now was more of a hobby, but nevertheless filled two years of her life while she tried to figure out what direction to take next.
“I got to the point where I missed logic,” she says. “I missed rational thought and challenging conversations. I was trying to figure out what the most fun way to bring that back in my life was, and beer seemed like a pretty good answer.”
Beer had been an interest of Lange’s for as long as she was old enough to drink it – from playing “pong” in Hanover with Milwaukee’s Best, to broadening her horizons at the inexpensive Atlanta Brewing Company, to frequenting two of that city’s landmark beer bars, The Porter and the Brick Store Pub.
“We always used to joke about in lab: What’s the coolest thing you can do with yeast? It’s make beer,” she recalls. “We were always saying that we should make beer with our yeast. I think that probably planted the seed. I mean, you’ve got a lot of time to talk when you’re centrifuging stuff.”
Lange had read articles about breweries like Avery investing in lab programs to improve the quality of their beer, so in 2012, Lange cold called Port City and Bluejacket and told them she wanted to be their microbiologist. She pitched her familiarity with plating organisms, with yeast propagation, with the detection of bacteria. These were the things she had done every day for almost a decade.
“Apparently, I didn’t convince them,” she quips. “Bluejacket said, ‘We don’t have a lab. Come back in a year.’ Port City said, ‘We don’t have a lab. Do you want to come do manual labor for us?’”
The answer was yes, she did. Lange figured manual labor was a good enough way to get her foot in the door. So, twice a week, this doctor in biochemistry showed up at Port City to help work the bottling line.
Pretty quickly, though, the brewery realized that Lange showed up on time, worked hard, and was interested in brewing. When the other bottlers would go home, she would stick around and shadow de facto lead brewer Will Cook as he cleaned tanks, trying to figure out how everything worked. Soon enough, Port City brought her on as “one of the regular folks.” She would start the brewery’s micro program, but she would also learn to brew – the idea being that teaching her to do so would better enable her to target the weak parts in the processes.
Jettisoning one’s old occupation is not an uncommon story in craft brewing, particularly when it comes to founders, but I wonder how it felt leaving behind the cushy confines of academia for the grind of shift brewing.
“It was strange for me, but only in my head,” the Missouri native answers. “The differences were stark. I was used to setting my own schedule, to getting things done the way I wanted to – and in the brewing industry, it’s really about teamwork. You’re starting a brew and then passing it someone else, so you need to show up on time or you’re screwing up someone else’s day. There’s no deciding that you’re going to work really hard one day so the next day you can go out to lunch. That was a huge shift for me. “
Lange would spend three years at Port City, and though she would ultimately leave the brewery somewhat abruptly, she has many fond memories from this time. Towards the end of her tenure, she was devoting two days a week to lab work – “We were at a very nascent stage, so I don’t want to take credit for anything,” she notes modestly of the Alexandria brewery’s QA/QC program – but, primarily, she was a brewer.
“At Port City, I had learned how to make really good, clean, reproducible beer,” she says. “It turned out I really liked following protocols. And it was super cool to learn how solid styles were built, because that was something I had no experience with. But I wanted to be able to play a little bit, and that was something 3 Stars could provide. Just the idea of being able to move somewhere with smaller batches and more variety was intriguing.”
Lange joined 3 Stars as a brewer and the lead on quality control. She had interviewed with co-founder Mike McGarvey on a Monday and started that Wednesday. At the time, McGarvery was still serving as head brewer and Nathan Rice as lead brewer, and while both flexed the creative energy that the Takoma brewery prides itself on, they also had each come to 3 Stars from homebrewing. Lange’s technical expertise would prove invaluable.
“I had an opportunity to rebuild some of their cellar protocols, and to bring in a lot of new techniques for dry-hopping and some of the more basic stuff,” she says. “It was really cool to bring some of the lessons I had learned at Port City over to 3 Stars and kind of standardize some of their things.”
When Rice moved to Texas in the summer of 2016, many in the area assumed Lange would fill his spot as lead brewer. As it turned out, though, she had grander ambitions. There was an opening for the head brewer position at Old Ox, and Lange wanted to suss it out.
“If there’s a head brewer opportunity open in the area, you have to look at it,” she says. “This was a chance to do my own thing. And Old Ox had always stood out for me. I went there shortly after they opened up, and the beers were good. Everybody knows that you have to give breweries a grace period, so I had gone in without expectations, and I had been pleasantly surprised.”
She talked with Chris Burns for an afternoon. They walked around the brewery together, and she shared her philosophies on the importance of empowering the brew team: training them in every facet of brewing, but giving each his or her own specialty. Burns offered her the job on the spot.
“We were in start-up for the first two years of our existence,” Burns says. “Up until that point, we needed a brewer who understood how to lay out a brewery and could focus on things like cost of goods. But when Kenny [Allen] left, we said, ‘This is an opportunity for us, too. We get to reevaluate what our needs are and figure out exactly what will help us get to that next level.’ We needed a head brewer who was able to give us a focus on quality control and a focus on grooming folks into very high-quality brewers. I think those are two areas where Allison really excels. She knows how to execute things from the perspective of a small brewery that’s growing towards a larger brewery. She’s got such great knowledge in our head. I can tell you with a straight face that every core beer that we produce now is better than it was when we started because of her.”
At Old Ox, one of Lange’s focuses has been not just producing but improving those core beers – many of which originated as homebrew recipes of Burns’s. Under her watch, Alpha Ox and Hoppy Place have grown more aromatic, less bitter, and lighter. In February, the brewery released its Mexican chocolate porter Kristin’s Passion with essentially a new recipe courtesy of Lange.
“Old Olx is a wonderful hybrid of Port City and 3 Stars,” says the head brewer. “Everything is on the table. It’s a 30-barrel system, and part of our job is to keep cans on shelves and make super clean, trustworthy beer – all of our flagships are that direction. With the rest of it, there’s really a focus on trying to do interesting stuff.”
To some degree, Lange was lucky to land in a situation so suited to her experiences. At the same time, she wouldn’t have gotten there without sizable determination.
“Allison is very driven,” says former Port City brewer Will Cook, speaking with me on a Sunday trip back from Home Depot with his kids. “In four years, she went from having no brewing experience to being the head brewer of a big brewery. That’s incredible. She’s got a 10,000-pound brain, and she’s worked very hard to get where she is.”
In light of that ambition, it’s fair to wonder if Old Ox is another stop or the destination for Lange. Having a beer with the brewer at Merrifield’s B Side a few days after my visit to the brewery, she relays a recent story that reflects it’s seemingly the latter for now.
“Chris checked in with me the other day and kind of asked me how things are going,” she shares. “I answered that I don’t really know what else I can ask for. I can make whatever beer I want. I can tweak whatever recipe I want. I’ve got a team of great guys. I’ve got ownership that believes in me. It’s a great place to be.”
Lange is currently the area’s only female head brewer, and although she leads the D.C. chapter of the Pink Boots Society, the subject of her gender is one she has expressed a disinclination to focus on in the past. (It doesn’t come up during multiple interviews for this article.) She is also one of the country’s few professional brewers with a PhD. Here, she can see the connection between her work with yeast, then and now.
“In some ways, it’s kind of really similar,” she tells me. “All I was doing before was moving tiny amounts of liquid from one place to another. Now, all I do is move is huge amounts of liquid from one place to another.”
It’s not too long past noon on February’s last Saturday afternoon, and Old Ox is already a busy scene. There’s a baby shower taking up several table in the warehouse, and not far from it, patrons are intensely focused on dueling games of cornhole. The thud of the bean bags hitting raised wooden platforms is relentless, like mortar strikes in a military assault.
“Cornhole is a big part of our ethos,” Burns jokes. “Maybe too big.”
Behind the Old Ox co-founder are several pallets of empty cans, many of which bear massive dent marks. A few weeks ago, Burns hosted a hockey party for his 11-year-old son, and eventually those rascals began firing bean bags at the brewery’s supply of aluminum vessels. Now, they’re decorative.
The décor elsewhere in the warehouse has become a pet project of Lange’s. The brewer recently took it upon herself to begin painting the space, recreating the art for Old Ox’s cans on particular walls.
“We looked around at one point and realized that nowhere did it say ‘Old Ox’ in here,” she shares. “So, we’re trying to make it feel like our space. It’s been kind of fun. Plus, I like projects.”
When it came time to designing the package for FestivALE, Old Ox was decidedly less involved.
“The National Cherry Blossom Festival was really hands on about what their desires were, in terms of the beer and the package,” says Lange. “The FestivALE name came from the festival. They designed the labels, and had a very strong opinion about that. It was cool to have them really be a part of the process.”
FestivALE’s cans are bright pink with a splash of white, stamped with impressionistic imagery of the blossoms, old Japanese architecture, and the U.S. Capitol.
“You’re not going to miss this on the shelves,” says Burns. “When a stack of them is on display in a Total Wine, you’re not just walking by.”
These cans will be distributed at bottle shops and grocery stores throughout Northern Virginia and D.C. The beer will also be served at various National Cherry Blossom Festivals, and is naturally on tap at Drink Company’s Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar, amongst other bars. Overall, the response to FestivALE has been unequivocally outstanding.
“It’s easy to talk to people about this beer, and it’s easy for people to see the value of having it on at their establishment,” Burns observes. “Nobody has ever had a beer associated with this festival before, and it’s an iconic event. I mean, millions of people come to Washington to see these blossoms every year. To have a tangible product that’s associated with that, in a beautiful can that people can actually take as a souvenir – I think that’s pretty special.”
In fact, the response to the beer was so enthusiastic that Burns almost immediately regretted not making more of it.
“I have to remind myself every day that we always did this thinking that we wanted to sellout quickly, and that this was the first time we were going to do it, and that we expect to do it again,” the co-founder says. “This is kind of a test case for everyone involved. We’re beginning to understand what the market is going to think of this product. We’re going to take all of that information, we’re going to digest it, and then we’ll know how to rightsize it for next year.”
“Selling out is not the worst thing on the world,” adds Lange. (Of course, less than a week later, Burns will convince her to brew another 20 barrels of the beer.)
Drinking FestivALE from a secret employee tap line in the brewery, Burns marvels at the pink liquid in his tulip glass.
“My romantic notion is that if you see this beer across the bar, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, what is that? I’ll have one of those,’” he tells me. “Or try to picture yourself drinking this when it’s 70 degrees out, and it’s sunny, and you’re looking at the Tidal Basin.”
We’re in a chilly warehouse, but Burns takes a sip nevertheless.
“I find it to be very harmonious,” he continues. “The herbal, peppery notes go really well with the dark fruit of the cherry. What I really appreciate about this beer is that it is not overly sweet. Sometimes you’ll get fruit beers that are cloying, and that’s the worst thing in the world for me. This has the essence of cherry, but all of the residual sugar has been eaten by that saison strain. It leaves this really dry finish that just evaporates off your tongue. It’s like, ‘Where did that go? I should probably have another sip.’”
Lange is equally pleased with her creation.
“It, like, glows in your glass,” says the brewer. “It tastes bright. It’s refreshing. The cherry is forward, but it’s not syrupy, like cherry can be sometimes. I like the effervescence. I like the compliment of the white pepper and vanilla from the yeast. I think there’s a great roundness in there from the oats, but the otherwise super-light malt bill keeps it clean.”
“The brunch crowd loves rosé,” Old Ox brewer Alan Mendoza says, “and this definitely along the same lines as that.”
As breweries try to grab people’s attention in an ever-crowded landscape, FestivALE presents a novel blueprint for collaboration and cross-promotion.
“We love collaborating with our fellow brewers – I mean, we have the Sir Oxcelot on right now – but it’s cool to step outside of your comfort zone a little bit and do new collaboration projects with people outside of the brewing industry,” says Burns. “You gain some new perspective, and you get to introduce people to craft beer.”
As for the charitable or corporate entities collaborating with breweries, who wouldn’t want their own beer?
“The cool thing is that it’s not like we’re selling vacuum cleaners,” the co-founder continues. “We don’t want to be the official vacuum cleaner of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Beer is a universal language. When you say, ‘I think we can make a product that really represents the festival and tells a story,’ it makes it a little easier. And it’s delicious. And people love beer. And we think we can make something special that people will look forward to just like the festival itself.”
So, Old Ox plans to make FestivALE annually?
“We’re already talking about next year,” Burns responds.
This is news to Lange.
“Well,” the brewer says, “I’m going to start planning now.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.
Revisit our previous Old Ox feature Freshly Tapped: Funky Face Mango Sour