By Philip Runco. Photos by Maya Moore.
Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Mike McCarthy leans back in his chair, tucked in a corner of a bar that’s flickering out.
For the past three hours, the brewer has been talking about beer with anyone that will listen. Since the majority of these people have paid $35 to sample what he and his team have been producing at Ocelot, he hasn’t struggled to find a captive audience. In fact, I’ve been trying to pull him aside all evening. Over and over again, no sooner has he finished addressing the larger group than he’s locked into a conversation with a different four-top table.
It’s a Tuesday at Rustico – the Alexandria one, the original, still going strong after a decade. McCarthy and his boss, Ocelot founder Adrien Widman, are here to debut Raised on Promises, a Double IPA brewed at their Dulles facility in collaboration with Bluejacket. Like Rustico, Bluejacket is owned by Neighborhood Restaurant Group, the DC area’s culinary behemoth, albeit a nimble one. The architect of the group’s beer program Greg Engert is also on site to discuss the beer. A month ago, he sat down with Widman and McCarthy to develop the recipe for Raised on Promises and brew it that same day.
Now, sitting in this nook, McCarthy is still riding the energy from the night’s whirlwind of interaction. His shirt is charcoal gray. His arms, particularly the left one, are a swirl of red, green, blue, and black tattoo ink. His pint of beer is straw pale yellow. This makes sense: He’s drinking an Ocelot IPA. They’re all this color.
“So, we have a certain type of IPA,” McCarthy tells me. “There’s no caramel malt. It’s never going to be red. It’s never going to be that maltier, sweeter style.”
The particular beer in his hand at this moment is Thought Control, a new IPA brewed with New Zealand’s limey Motueka hops. He is not drinking a Raised on Promises. You’d be able to tell if he was: It’s the rare Ocelot IPA that deviates from that standardized appearance. It’s a tad orange.
Appearance is one of several ways that Raised on Promises goes off the brewery’s well-established blueprint.
“This is a little different than what we’ve been doing at Ocelot,” the head brewer explains. “This is a soft beer. We usually have a bit more bitterness – not enough to rip your teeth off, but a little bit more. This is pretty soft and rounded.”
If Raised on Promises pushes Ocelot slightly outside of its comfort zone, that’s a good thing. That’s arguably what a collaboration should do: Produce something that represents a little bit of each brewery.
Of course, experimenting with a beer that will be sent out across Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s 20 properties is not without some anguish, even for a brewer with two decades of experience.
“I rarely feel a lot of pressure about any given batch of beer,” McCarthy says. “I’ve been doing this for long enough that it’s just what I do. But with this one, I actually did feel a little pressure. Greg is the crème de la crème of wanting to sell beer around DC. They don’t mess around. In every place you go into with them, they just do it right. I wanted this beer to be good-good.”
The brewer pauses for a moment.
“All of that said, did I do anything different than I try to do for an Ocelot beer?” he continues. “No, I try to make really good beer each time. There’s no little pixie dust or magic tricks. We just paid attention to it.”
There are a lot of breweries in Virginia, and most all of them want to sell beer to Greg Engert. As beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, he’s gatekeeper for some of the area’s most prestigious beer bars, most notably ChurchKey.
“We have 20 places, and it all flows through me,” says Engert, dressed dapper as usual in a tucked-in oxford and navy necktie. “It’s hard. There’s seemingly a new Virginia brewery opening every day. I have trouble even just keeping up.”
Often, Engert relies on distributors familiar with his taste to flag promising operations for him. Such was the case with Ocelot last summer, a few months after the brewery had started producing beer. Engert invited Widman and McCarthy up to Bluejacket’s Navy Yard location to meet, and Ocelot didn’t drag its feet.
“They brought a bunch of beers, and Bluejacket had a bunch of sours – just because of all the fruit we had that time of year – and it was very clear that we were all on the same page: similar hop-forward beers, similar fruity beers,” Engert says. “There was just a lot of similarity there.”
Since then, Neighborhood Restaurant Group has been a steady purveyor of the Dulles brewery’s offerings. In a way, that’s a privileged position to be in. It wasn’t long after Ocelot opened that its beer was in near-constant demand.
“Ocelot is making some of the most exciting beers in Virginia,” Engert shares. “We’re lucky enough to get a lot of it – not many people do.”
Eight weeks ago, Rustico began planning to host an Ocelot tasting event. The brewery suggested a field trip out to Dulles in advance to show Rustico’s staff its production facility. Engert raised the ante, throwing out the idea of brewing a beer together during the visit. Eventually, the staff field trip fell victim to scheduling conflicts, but the idea of a collaboration stuck.
“We were like, ‘Let’s still make a beer and have it ready for that tasting,’” Widman remembers. “Honestly, we jumped at the chance to hang out with Greg and make a beer.”
“It made sense to collaborate,” explains Engert. “We’ve collaborated with a lot of people but it’s always very deliberate and specific. It’s people that we’re friends with and have similar brewing ideas with.”
The three-year-old Bluejacket collaborated with 39 breweries in its inaugural year alone, but Raised on Promises marks only the third collaboration release for Ocelot. A fourth effort with Adroit Theory was discarded before it went to market. “That was very expensive,” Widman deadpans.
In that case, the two Virginia breweries had attempted to make a barleywine with lager yeast – an ambitious effort that failed when that yeast buckled under the high alcohol content and wouldn’t attenuate further.
For Raised on Promises, Ocelot and Bluejacket decided to keep it simple.
“Nowadays, so many people try to do collaborations and the first thing they say is, ‘What can we make that’s unique and off-the-wall crazy because we’re collaborating?’” Widman observes. “My thought was that instead of making a coffee coconut oak-aged IPA, why don’t we just make something that we’re both going to like? So, a double IPA? Sure, it’s in our wheelhouses.”
Double IPAs are a showcase for hops, and the breweries waited until the brew day to figure out which ones would go into Raised on Promises.
The star of the show would be an unlikely one.
As with any agricultural product, the characteristic of a hop can vary year to year.
Where a varietal is grown, the weather that season, its cultivation – these things all have an effect on the aromas and flavors.
“Hops aren’t just a plant that you can just stick in the ground, grow, and harvest anywhere,” McCarthy observes. “It’s not corn. The terroir of what’s going on plays a big part in what you’re going to taste.”
Sometimes, as a hop becomes more sought after, more farmers plant it, and the overall quality can dip. According to Engert, this was the case with the Simcoe. At its best, the variety gives off a mix of piney, citrusy, and earthy aromas, but recently, it had leaned overwhelmingly towards that last descriptor.
“Simcoe is a hop that’s been very variable over the years,” the beer director shares. “Any time a hop becomes really popular, there’s danger of getting not the best crop of that hop. For a long time, a lot of Simcoe you would see would be very long on the vine, very garlicy, very scalliony. It stopped being that sticky grapefruit and started being really green.”
Ocelot had noticed that trend with similar displeasure. “We almost abandoned Simcoe,” Widman says.
When Ocelot and Bluejacket sat down to discuss hops in June, though, they quickly arrived on the topic of how unique 2015’s harvest was.
“Simcoe is a hop that everybody knows but this year was a reintroduction,” Engert says. “We couldn’t get over how different it was, so we immediately said, ‘Let’s brew a beer that’s Simcoe heavy to showcase just how different that hop has become.’ And as you can taste in Raised in Promises. It’s juicy. It’s still sticky, too, but it’s more fruit than pine.”
McCarthy says other recent Ocelot beers that have utilized the hop have been surprising discerning craft beer drinkers. “We’ve gotten a lot of ‘I couldn’t believe this was a Simcoe beer,’” he shares. “Simcoe was just too much on your palate, but it’s lost some of those oniony and garlic flavors. It’s turned into something more fruity.”
“I’m blown away by it,” Widman adds.
Complementing Simcoe are Centennial hops in the base and a primarily Citra dry-hop.
“There’s more Citra in this beer than anything else, but it’s in the dry-hop, so that’s more on the nose,” Widman shares. “Simcoe by itself on the nose isn’t going to bust out at you, but the flavor profile is pretty much all Simcoe.”
The malt bill, meanwhile, is mostly Two-Row with a dash of oats.
“My favorite thing about it is the juicy Simcoe flavor married with the malt on the palate – it’s exceptional,” Engert shares. “In the nose, you get some Simcoe, but there’s a Citra overtone almost. It’s a nice melding of the two.”
Producing a great – or even good – beer is about way more than ingredients, though. How to coax the right flavors out of them is what makes the difference. This may be Brewing 101, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle.
Hops, yeast, malt: On a piece of paper, they only tell a small part of the story.
“I truly believe craft brewing is more procedural-driven than it is recipe-driven,” Widman tells me. “You can take a great recipe and turn it into a piece of crap with bad procedures. Any homebrewer can tell you that. They can get a Pliny the Elder kit, and they can brew it, and they can ferment it at 80 degrees, and they can mess things up, and it’ll be the worst beer you’ve ever had in your life.”
Rigorous procedural and handling techniques aren’t exactly sexy in the craft beer world, but they make all the difference in the final product.
“We massage our mashes. We massage our fermentation. We massage our dry-hopping,” says Widman. “We’re constantly working on procedures to get the best out of what we can.”
Ocelot’s model is especially conducive to such TLC. The brewery launched with a firmly anti-flagship model. It produces a certain beer whenever it feels like it. Maybe it produces it again, maybe it doesn’t. As Widman has said repeatedly, Ocelot makes whatever it feels like drinking at a given moment.
“Our fermentation schedules are a little bit unique, but we’re OK with that because we don’t have to put out a certain amount of core beers every month or quarter,” the founder shares. “We don’t have contracts. We can let the beer take a little bit longer because we don’t have to put out beer.”
There is a similar ethos at Bluejacket, where the vast majority of beer is sold on premise and at an adjacent bottle shop. It can produce offerings on its own timeline. The facility is massive, though, which leads to frequent misimpressions.
“People always look at all of our tanks and they’re like, ‘You should be able to make lots of beers!’ Engert shares. “And it’s like, ‘It’s partly so we can put beers away and just forget about them. That’s not just for lagers and Brett beers. It can be for IPAs, too. Raised on Promises is a five-week beer – not an 8-day beer, not a 14-day beer.”
“We could have cranked this beer out in two-and-a-half weeks if we were a company that put out a butt-ton of beer under certain contracts, but we would rather take a little bit longer, change the temperatures on it, kind of coerce it into what we want it to be,” the Ocelot owner says. “We don’t want to just crank out a beer to be done with it. All of our beers are like that.”
According to Engert, the biggest challenge with Raised on Promises was drawing the right flavors out of its showcase hop. “Simcoe is a hop that used to be emphatic, and now it’s slightly more delicate, so we definitely went about temperature control and dry-hopping to try and promote that intensity,” the beer director shares.
As previously mentioned, they also sought to produce a hop-forward beer that was more delicate than what Ocelot is known for. At roughly 48 to 52 IBUs – admittedly, a measurement to be taken with a grain of salt – Raised on Promises certainly accomplishes this.
“We’re off the charts below the charts for the standard guidelines of a Double IPA should be,” Widman says. “We wanted to make a Double IPA with a soft mouthfeel, not too bitter, but high on the aroma and flavors.”
To arrive on that profile, Ocelot and Bluejacket did only a small bittering addition of hops, but followed it with a massive whirlpool addition to build up the brew’s IBUs. This sort of “backloading” is something Bluejacket does often. Ocelot, less so.
“We’re always trying to manipulate hops to make them last as long as they can,” McCarthy says of Ocelot’s usual offerings. “Just as people talk about a malty backbone, we imagine a hoppy bitterness backbone to let those aromas and other favors linger around a little more. There’s just a little bit of prickliness around them for longer.”
Another mildly uncommon characteristic for this recipe, at least for Ocelot: The addition of some simple sugar to push the alcohol content up to 8% ABV and dry out the beer.
All of this might be inside baseball, but it’s the key to what makes Raised by Promises such a success.
“We could have made this exact same beer at somebody elses place, and if those hops hadn’t been handled the right way, it wouldn’t taste this way,” Engert says. “You can give anybody the recipe, but coming up with the exact same flavor profile is difficult without the attention to fermentation time and length, yeast, dry-hop temperatures and length – all sorts of things.”
After developing the recipe, Engert summarizes his contribution to the brew day succinctly: “I did absolutely no work,” he says with a laugh.
Ultimately, Ocelot yielded 27 barrels of Raised on Promises. Half of the batch will remain in the brewery’s tasting room, the other half will be spread out across Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s portfolio of restaurants and bars. The beer was kegged out Monday and picked up the next morning.
“Part of our whole shtick is letting people know that kegs are two- or three-days old from when the beer went in,” McCarthy says. “As far as hop-forward beers, that’s when you want to drink them.”
To state the obvious, being able to provide DC-area consumers with the freshest beer is a perk of being a DC-area brewery.
“There are wonderful examples of IPAs from the west coast, but when you get them down the line, they’re four-months old,” Ocelot’s head brewer continues. “It’s like eating leftover food: It might have been great at one point, but after six weeks in the fridge and then the microwave, it doesn’t taste so good. That’s what happens to beers – and certainly hoppy beers – when they’re four-months old.”
The beer will also go on tap at Bluejacket, where Engert says his team is making its best IPAs to date.
“Our procedures have changed a lot over the last three years, and we’re getting into a groove now,” he shares. “We’re finally figuring out how to use our system, and we’re dialing it in pretty hard. Bluejacket brewed a lot of beers year one and a lot of beers year two, but we’ve been brewing fewer and fewer new things recently. It’s been a lot of rebrews and tweaks.”
Meanwhile, Widman estimates that Raised on Promises will last three-and-a-half to four weeks out in Sterling, where it’s currently competing with seven other IPAs. (The brewery also has a collaboration planned with Richmond brewpub The Answer in August, and Miami’s J. Wakefield Brewing in October.)
One last note: If you’re wondering about the name, like almost every Ocelot beer, it’s a reference to a song lyric. This one is fairly prominent in the pop cultural lexicon. If it’s not ringing a bell, try singing it in your best Tom Petty voice: “Raised on promisssssses.”
That’s right, “American Girl”.
Now try not hearing Tom Petty in your head when you see the name of this beer.