Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Right Proper Brewing’s Ravaged by Wolves, a Brett IPA fermented with the brewery’s house mixed culture and hopped with Mosaic, Citra, and Comet.
There are trillions of live bacterial cells inside every tulip glass of a Right Proper Berliner weisse, and Nathan Zeender can’t bring himself to hurt them.
“I don’t really like the idea of pasteurizing my beer,” the head brewer tells me over the phone one spring morning. “I don’t want to kill all of those cells – I feel kind of weird about that.”
A computer programmer in his former life, Zeender is fond of fanciful wordplay – beer isn’t dry-hopped, it’s aromatized; water isn’t steeped, it’s dynamized – so there’s something almost jarring about his use of that term. Pasteurization. It’s cold and technical and more evocative of milk and eggs than German-style wheat ales inspired by the dulcet drones of Earth. Of course, most beer that ends up on a grocery store shelf has indeed been treated with mild heat to eliminate pathogens, but Zeender is using the term more specifically in reference to kettle souring, a method of producing tart ales that has skyrocketed in popularity over the past five years.
Kettle souring allows breweries to make sour beer on their regular systems, where in the past such production would be quarantined from “clean” beers. During the process, brewers pitch lactobacillus to wort (i.e., the sugar water); let the “bugs” lower the beer’s pH to more acidic levels; and then just a few days later boil the liquid, effectively eliminating all of the bacteria in less than fifteen minutes. From there, the beer can be transferred to any tank for primary fermentation without the fear of contaminating tanks, hoses, or packaging lines.
This process produces a particular type of tartness – done right it can be clean and bright, with notes of tropical fruit. It’s more one dimensional than the flavors of a traditionally soured beer, but some brewers prefer that approachable simplicity. Zeender is not among them.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of kettle souring,” he admits. “I find a lot of kettle sour beers lack fermentation character or a ‘middle’ in the flavor appreciation. A lot of them are sharply acidic, and there’s not a lot beyond that.”
And then there’s the whole bacterial genocide thing.
In contrast, Zeender produces Berliner weisses at Right Proper solely with a house culture of lactobacillus delbrueckii. This strain – which has been corrupted to some small degree with the brewery’s mixed culture of saison yeast and Brettanomyces – naturally lowers a liquid’s pH to about 3.2, and then leisurely sets about converting sugar to alcohol.
“It take up to three weeks to ferment out – about twenty times longer than if we used our house mixed culture – but I feel like it gives us this really nice fermentation character,” Zeender told me earlier this year. “We get a ton of peach and kiwi flavors. A lot of times people actually think we put fruit into these Berliner weisses, but there’s no fruit added. We also get a nice mineral quality without adding any salt, which I like, too. As you know, I have a love for dried out, weird white wines, and this an approach to that flavor palate for me.”
Zeender’s most popular Berliner weisse Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne accentuates that connection. Brewed with kettle additions of fresh grapefruit peel and dried elderflowers, then dry-hopped with blend of the grapey varietals Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Blanc, the 3.8% ABV beer was designed to mimic the character of Brut champagne.
“The flavors are built up almost like a cocktail, where you would use some citrus and an herbal component,” the brewer explains. “It doesn’t have any of the sweetness that a lot of cocktails would, but it does have dryness and acidity and a nice floral character.”
Despite the opulence of its name, Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne is an unrefined, unfiltered, and unpasteurized beverage. The bacteria in the beer doesn’t die off – it just stops producing lactic acid and alcohol. It enters a stasis. And Zeender is content to leave it there.
“We don’t own a filter,” he states. “We will never own a filter. That’s what works for us.”
But while this approach may work for Right Proper, there is one segment of the industry for whom it most always does not: mobile canners.
A mobile canning company offers smaller brewers the means of packaging beer in aluminum receptacles without having to invest in pricey and space-intensive canning lines themselves. These operations appear at a brewery’s doorstep, set up their machinery, work through a brite tank or two, and then move onto the next brewery. The concern with packaging a beer like Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne is that live lactobacillus and wild yeast may work into the equipment’s many small crevices, stow away, and subsequently infect the next brewery.
This isn’t a concern that Zeender is immune to.
“No one is going to trust a mobile canning line that’s had lactic acid bacteria or Brettanomyces or any other untamed yeast go through it,” he shares. “I don’t know if I would even trust a canning line that said, ‘I just came from a brewery and they did a mixed-fermentation beer.’ If I didn’t know exactly what’s in their culture – it could be pediococcus, it could acetobacter – I would be very scared.’”
In early November, Right Proper did begin canning one of its beers via a mechanic mercenary: the broadly appealing pale ale Raised by Wolves. Like the robust porter Häxan and the kellerbier Being There, Raised by Wolves is a product of the brewery’s “clean” production side. (Zeender thinks of Right Proper’s clean and wild production as two separate programs.) It poses no threat to a mobile canner.
A few days later, though, Right Proper unveiled its inaugural 500 mL bottles of wild beers. First came a barrel-aged version of the rustic bière de garde Baron Corvo, and, shortly thereafter, its dry-hopped farmhouse pale ale Astral Weeks. This spring, the brewery would also release the rustic witbier White Bicycles and a batch of the grisette Ornithology that spent time in red wine and gin barrels. All of these beers were fermented with Right Proper’s house mixed-culture for months in its 45-hectoliter French oak foeders, before eventually being bottled by the brewery on a small, manual machine and allowed to condition and further develop for several months more. These are the beers that Zeender has always been most passionate about.
“Being able to readily supply people with bottle-conditioned foeder beers was a real dream come true,” the brewer says. “It’s how those beers were meant to be enjoyed.”
But if we separate Right Proper’s production into buckets, there’s one that’s neither clean nor foeder aged. It includes the Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne and the stable of the Berliner weisses, which have been released seasonally or as one-offs. It also includes mixed-culture farmhouse ales fermented in stainless steel then dry-hopped, like Runcible, Kodachrome Dream(ing), and Bière de Mars.
The thread connecting these beers is that they’re meant to be consumed fresh – or, at the least, they have a hop character that diminishes gradually with time. As such, they don’t paricularly make sense in 500 mL bottles, both because there’s no need for further conditioning and because that packaging implies to consumers that the liquid is meant to be stashed in a cellar for months or even years to come. Cans are a more appealing presentation, but as we’ve established, no one outside of Right Proper wants to go near these living liquids.
So, last month, Right Proper took the plunge and invested in the Cask Semi-Automated Manual Canning System – a “very labor intensive and slow canning line,” per Zeender, that can package approximately 15 of Right Proper’s Berliner weisses and hoppy Brett beers per minute.
“We’re taking on new an endeavor,” the brewer says. “I don’t know why – to torture ourselves, I guess?”
Easing that pain is the coincidence that Bluejacket began canning beer with its own Cask SAMS earlier this year. In the months since, Ro Guenzel, the Navy Yard brewery’s Director of Brewing Operations, has generously served as a resource for Zeender – hosting Right Proper staff on canning days and fielding any questions that arose. (“When Ro told me that they were bringing on the same type of line, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic – you can suffer through it and then let us know how it goes,’” Zeender quips.)
This week, Right Proper canned and released Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne for the first time. Four-packs of the 12oz cans are available at the brewery’s Brookland Production House, and will soon be at the Penn Quarter and Dupont farmers markets, where Right Proper sets up shop on Thursdays and Sunday, respectively.
But the wine-inspired Berliner weisse isn’t the first Right Proper beer to pass through the new canning line. Last week, the brewery sought to make a splash into this new endeavor with an entirely new beer: Ravaged by Wolves, a Brett IPA inspired by its flagship pale ale.
In the summer of 2010, Nathan Zeender visited a friend in Vermont who had recently opened a brewery. At the time, Zeender was just a homebrewer – in so far as homebrewers featured in The Washington Post can be “just” homebrewers. In other words, despite not professional brewing, Zeender was well known and his beer well regarded, particularly on the corners of internet primarily concerned with such things. That’s where Zeender met his friend and struck up an online dialogue. They talked about the brewery that his friend was building. It would be called Hill Farmstead.
“I remember visiting Shaun when he had only been open for a couple of months,” Zeender recalls. “It was only him – he didn’t have any assistants – and a small seven-barrel system that he had cobbled together next to his house, and I got to try his beers.”
One of the beers that founder Shaun Hill poured Zeender was named Edward – a tribute to Hill’s grandfather.
“It was this 5% or so pale ale that was just really well done,” Zeender continues. “It wasn’t hazy like a lot of these beers out there – it was unfiltered. It had a beautiful glow to it. And it had a really nice, fresh hop character. I sort of took a mental note that if I was going to professionally brew a pale ale, it would not be dissimilar from this beer. I was like, ‘Wow, this is sort of like an updating on Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – it’s a template for beers to come.’”
When the Right Proper brewpub opened in the fall of 2013, the first beer Zeender brewed was a pale ale inspired directly by that experience: Raised by Wolves. Brewed with pale malt, flaked oats, and a dash of colored malt, the 5.0% beer slides somewhere between a classic American pale ale and an IPA: medium-bodied, quaffable, and bursting with the juicy flavors of primary aroma hop Citra. It’s an approachable beer that satisfies craft beer novices and connoisseurs alike.
“I was pretty sure that it was going to be our best-selling beer,” Zeender shares. “I was not surprised when it became our best-selling beer. And I ‘m not surprised that it continues to be our best-selling beer, because of the way that it’s structured.”
This doesn’t come off as a boast. The brewer makes these statements quite matter-of-factly. There’s little sense of satisfaction in his voice. In truth, Raised by Wolves isn’t a beer that engages him much. Think about his reaction to Edward: if I was going to professionally brew a pale ale… Raised by Wolves is a beer he felt compelled to make, and so he did, and so he continues to do so.
“I don’t drink a lot of pale ale,” he admits. “I generally prefer lagers or beers with a high fermentation character – generally, but not exclusively.”
More intriguing to Zeender is Right Proper’s experimentation with hoppy Brett beers. These IPAs and farmhouse ales are fermented with the brewery’s house mixed culture in stainless steel, then dry-hopped. In most ways, they’re produced like any other modern IPA. They do not have the complex fermentation character of a Right Proper beer that’s spent months in an oak foeder – where the Brettanomyces continues to eat through sugar and produce new flavors – but the hope is that they have something more interesting to say than just another run-of-the-mill IPA.
“I like to think that we’re adding something to the conversation about the current state of hop-forward beers,” Zeender says. “If you’re not adding to that conversation, if you’re just piling onto something, it’s just not terribly interesting. If Ravaged by Wolves was just another heavily hop-forward IPA, I’d feel like a jerk.”
By Zeender’s count, Ravaged by Wolves is his fifteenth or so take on Brett IPAs, mixed-culture hoppy farmhouse ales, or whatever else you want to call them. (“I don’t really care about styles at all,” the brewer once told me. “I don’t get too bogged down with that stuff.”) Some, like the warm-weather New Zealand hop showcase Songlines, have been around seasonally for over four years. Others, like the boozier winter brew Runcible, were added to the rotation after the brewery opened its Brookland Production House in late 2015. Last year, things took a turn for the hoppier with the D.C. Brewers Guild’s Solidarity Brett IPA, which Right Proper produced and hopped with Citra, Mosaic, and Raku at a rate of four pounds per barrel.
In a sense, these beers served as prototypes for Ravaged by Wolves – the first Brett IPA to enter the Right Proper rotation as a year-round beer. (Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne has also been elevated from a winter seasonal to a year-round offering.)
“Over the years, I’ve gotten to know how different hop additions at different times and dry-hopping rates affects our house mixed culture,” says Zeender. “I had to figure out what I was comfortable with, and what would work well with the finished beer. This is some long thinking.”
Like other recent Brett IPAs, Ravaged by Wolves is hopped almost entirely in the whirlpool, when the wort is cooling and absorbs hop flavor and aroma while extracting minimal bitterness. Hopping these beers is a balancing act: Because the house mixed culture dries out any beer and leaves behind a certain acidity, a slightly excessive hop bitterness can result in an astringent taste. Ultimately, Zeender arrived at something not too dissimilar from Solidarity Brett IPA for Ravaged by Wolves: 1.5 pounds of whirlpool additions, then another 2.5 in the dry-hop.
“That seems to be a happy place to get that fresh hop character to it,” Zeender says. “And the great thing about these Brett-driven, mixed-culture beers is that when we dry-hop them and put away vintage kegs for six months, nine months, or even two years, they keep a very bright dry-hop character, I assume because of the oxygen scrubbing abilities of Brettanomycses. Whereas a normal hoppy dry-hopped beer would fall apart after six months, these beers stay really fresh and interesting. Obviously, they’re a bit more aromatic from the Brett doing its thing, but they stay very vibrant in a way that dry-hopped brewer’s yeast beers definitely do not. I’m not suggesting that people cellar these beers, but they do seem to hold dry-hop characters for a really long time.”
The hop bill for Ravaged by Wolves is not identical to Raised by Wolves. In this instance and other, it is important to note that the new Brett IPA is not merely the flagship pale ale fermented with the house mixed culture. (Zeender has done that before, back at the brewpub, and called it Wild Wolves.) While the two beers share Citra and Comet, the primary hop for Ravaged by Wolves is Mosaic, a Pacific Northwest varietal prized for its complex mix of berry, lemon, tropical fruit, and herbal notes. It’s a varietal that Zeender gained greater exposure to brewing Solidarity Brett IPA and the Nordic IPA Soused last year.
“I think it’s interesting how our house culture plays with some of these very fruit intensive hops,” he shares. “And I knew Mosaic would combine well with Citra and Comet.”
Ravaged by Wolves was brewed with the same base pale malt and flaked oats as Raised by Wolves, but its grist gets a protein boost with the addition of red wheat and Golden Naked Oats – a grain that’s showing up increasingly in hazy IPAs on account of the body and color it brings to a beer.
“Ravaged by Wolves definitely takes lessons from the last five years of IPA brewing in North America,” Zeender says of the Brett IPA. “It takes those lessons, and it synthesizes them through our identity.”
At 6.5% and with a more assertive malt character than Right Proper’s light and bone-dry summer Brett beers, Ravaged by Wolves most closely aligns with Runcible. But with the same, mutating mixed culture running through all of these beers, they’re part of a whole. In that sense, Ravaged by Wolves is arguably a truer Right Proper beer than Raised by Wolves will ever be.
“If I gave the recipe for Raised by Wolves to any other decent brewery, it would taste pretty similar,” Zeender says. “This beer, because it’s our house culture – something that’s been repitched so many times – it really feels like a family member. It has an expressive yeast character. As a drinker, I find it more engaging.”
It’s a Tuesday when I visit Right Proper’s Brookland location to sample Ravaged by Wolves, which means it’s movie night. Back on the production floor, a projection screen hangs from a shelf holding several dozen bags of malt. Nathan Zeender and five or six friends are perched in collapsible polyester camping chairs awaiting this evening’s feature: the 1951 comedy “The Lavender Hill Mob”.
One particular guest stands out, an older gentleman, perhaps in his early 50’s, with expensive eyeglasses and well-coiffed greying hair. He’s wearing black Toms, olive slacks, and a soft zaffre blue Oxford. He leans back in his chair, one foot draped leisurely over the other, with an air that I’m tempted to describe as professorial, but that’s likely because we have just spoken and I know that he is indeed a professor.
This is Eric Jenkins, and he teaches at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning. He is also quickly becoming the preferred artist for Right Proper. He was here earlier to discuss another venture with Zeender, but the sample cans of Ravaged by Wolves and Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne lying around the brewery display his expanding body of work.
Jenkins is not a professional artist – at least, not in the sense that he’s being employed by Right Proper. Prior to meeting Zeender, he had never sold art or designed a label for anything. But he’s been putting pencil to paper for decades.
“This is a hobby I’ve had since high school – drawing and doodling and science fiction,” says Jenkins, who cites “Star Wars” as a major influence. “I’ve always been drawing, drawing, drawing.”
His webpage collects many of these drawings, organized into categories like napkin sketches, doodles, and accretions. Not long ago, Zeender found himself browsing through these pages by happenstance. He had been looking for someone to help him with some architectural studies when he stumbled upon them. The brewer – who handles the art direction for Right Proper’s releases – asked if the two could meet.
Up until that point, Zeender had been spreading label work among a range of artists. The portrait of the titular Baron Corvo was handled by Right Proper co-founder Thor Cheston’s cousin Doug Raber. For Astral Weeks, Zeender commissioned famed heavy metal artist Arik Roper to paint the lightly psychedelic image of a foeder entrenched in vines. The brewer followed that thread for Ornithology, recruiting Michael D’Andrea, another artist whose milieu has most often been trippy album covers and tour posters for apocalyptic music.
“We went in a psychedelic direction for a little while,” he shares. “I’ve really enjoyed working with those artists, but it was kind of tough because sometimes someone is on the other side of the country.”
Zeender is a considered individual. Every element of his beers – from their construction to their names – is entangled with meaning. Can he tell an artist what he envisions and provide feedback over e-mail? Sure. But what Zeener wants is someone who’ll grab coffee with him, watch a movie together, and then kick around ideas. In Jenkins, he had found just that. After the initial meeting, the two began a conversation about what would become the label for White Bicycles – a surrealistic sketch of foedres rotating around the sun.
“Eric is a super talented artist and easy to work with, and it’s been nice to find someone who’s a ten-minute walk away,” says Zeender. “It’s a much tighter working relationship than with the other artists. We sort of mind melded over this for a long period of time and went through a lot of different ideas.”
“It’s very collaborative,” adds Jenkins. “I need Nathan’s input. I usually come in with a series of sketches, which are kind of a range of where we can go.”
Jenkins’s label for Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne features the drawing of an early Roland drum machine – the kind of beat generator that would have been used by the band Suicide in the late ‘70s. While the reference may be lost on the average drinker, the Berliner weisse nods to that iconic minimalistic art-punk duo.
“People just like that name – that’s maybe why it’s our most popular Berliner – but it’s also definitely a song by Suicide, a band that I’ve found endless fascination with,” Zeender explains. “They made very minimal music that really speaks to me, and one of my favorite songs is ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’, so it was an easy jump from that to a Berliner weisse that sort of tastes like champagne.”
When it came time to design the label for Ravaged by Wolves, Zeender’s only request was for Jenkins to include hopvines. Jenkins painted a number of fluid, impressionistic watercolors where hopvines bled into into a pair of wolves. It was important to the professor that these wolves be sufficiently menacing: He wanted to conjure the fear he felt as a child staring at the cover of the “Peter and the Wolf” soundtrack.
“The image of the wolf lurking scared the shit out of me,” Jenkins remembers. “My brothers would always run after me with that album. So, I wanted to convey that these wolves were about to ravage and attack you.”
The final image on the label of Ravaged by Wolves is a composite of three watercolors – the wolves, the hopvines, and the grey backdrop – that were scanned individually, then blended together with Photoshop.
“We wanted people to look at it and think, ‘Is that a vine or is that a wolf?’” Jenkins says. “Because these wolves are clever. They’ll get you.”
I wonder if his colleagues think his new gig moonlighting for the local brewery is cool.
“Oh yeah, but my students do especially,” Jenkins replies. “I brought in the labels, and I’ve brought in a couple beers for them. They’re all graduate students – they’re old enough. They think it’s pretty cool. They’re just up at Catholic, so they come down here all the time.”
If these students or any other patrons happen to mix up Raised by Wolves and Ravaged by Wolves during subsequent visits – well, that’s a scenario that Zeender seems to already be relishing.
“There’s going to be a lot of confusion with these names, which I like,” he tells me. “The other owners are like, ‘Noooo, it’s going to be bad! Nobody is going to know which Wolves they’re talking about!’ And I’m like, ‘I love it.’”
Follow writer (and, in this case, photographer) Philip Runco on Twitter.
Revisit other recent Freshly Tapped profiles on Bluejacket and Ocelot’s Mixed Up / Torn Down, 3 Stars Brewing’s ’90s hip-hop car culture series, Perennial’s Prodigal, Old Ox’s FestivALE, and Port City’s Colossal 7.