Freshly Tapped: Solidarity Brett IPA
phil runco | nicollaetzion | Aug 22, 2017 | 9:00AM |

By Philip Runco. Photos by Nicolla Etzion.

Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.

Today, we explore Solidarity Brett IPA , a 6.0% hoppy farmhouse ale brewed by Right Proper in collaboration with other local breweries for DC Beer Week.

Previously in Freshly Tapped: The Technicolor Life of 3 Stars Brewing; Stillwater’s Modern Confusion; Atlas Brew Works & Meridian Pint’s Double Dance of Days; Hellbender & St. Feuillien’s Days Gone By; DC Brau’s Collaboratron; Right Proper, Stone, & Pen Druid’s Soused; Denizens’ Backyard Boogie; Port City’s Colossal 6; Ocelot and Meridian Pint’s Talking Backwards; Right Proper and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Maslow; and Union and Ocelot’s Lucifer’s Trees.

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The socks are brighter than they were five years ago. The sneakers look cooler, too. Beards have more or less supplanted goatees, and they’re growing from new faces. But some things never change about a Solidarity brew day, and one of them is Barrett Lauer.

It’s a predictably sticky morning in late July, and the District ChopHouse head brewer is standing with me on the production floor of Right Proper’s Brookland production facility. His hair is pulled back into a long ponytail, and the bottom of his collared brewer’s shirt tucks neatly into a utilitarian pair of knee-length cargo shorts. This is Lauer’s signature look – a familiar sight to many in the DC brewing scene, including the representatives from seven different breweries currently in his company.

“This is what craft beer is all about,” the thirteen-year veteran of the Penn Quarter brewpub says, surveying the scene around him. “It’s about camaraderie and getting consumers to enjoy a quality product no matter what it is. DC breweries really don’t compete with each other. We find strength within each other. That’s why we named the beer Solidarity.”

The Solidarity beer is a collaboration between DC-area breweries to mark the city’s annual beer week. As Right Proper head brewer Nathan Zeender explains, it’s essentially the flagship for the eight-day festival.

Today marks the sixth time that Lauer has participated in brewing one. Or, at least, he thinks so. To be honest, they’ve started to run together a little. He first had the idea of rounding up the city’s other breweries and collaborating on a recipe back in 2010. At the time, that meant Capital City, the Gordon Biersch on 9th Street, and his own District ChopHouse. Needless to say, the landscape looks a little different these days.

“There’s been a lot of growth over the last ten years,” Lauer observes. “The best part is how organic it’s been.”

After that first joint effort – dubbed Alt Together Now – the Solidarity beer was officially born, and from there, it has experienced its own winding transformation. It’s been a beer brewed at multiple locations, then either tapped separately (as in 2011) or blended together for distribution (see: 2012). More commonly, it’s been a light-bodied ale produced at a single location from a hodgepodge of ingredients donated from local breweries. But now, in 2017, the Solidarity beer has arrived at what feels like its final form: a polished (and packaged) product that plays to the strengths of the host brewery, while being informed by market preferences, improved by collaborators’ suggestions, and guided by the lessons of previous iterations. On that last consideration, Lauer’s expertise is unrivaled.

“Barrett is our institutional knowledge of how Solidarity has been run in the past,” says Kathy Rizzo, the executive director of the DC Brewers Guild, the nonprofit organization that since 2016 has overseen DC Beer Week and the Solidarity beer that arrives with it. “The beer had always been an ad hoc thing: Hey, brewers in the DMV, let’s show our solidarity for DC Beer Week by coming together to plan a recipe and brewing something that we can put out during the week. Back in the day, it was sort of like, ‘DC Brau has these hops it can donate. Atlas maybe has malt of this variety. Lost Rhino can contribute something, and Denizens can, as well. Let’s see what we can put together and create a brew.’ As the years went on, I think we’ve gotten a bit more intentional with the planning.”

It’s appropriate that the Solidarity beer would arrive at Right Proper at this point in its development. In fact, it feels like it could have only happened now. Because if there’s a word to describe Zeender’s approach to brewing, it’s intentional.

“Nathan is probably the most deliberate person I’ve ever met,” says Thor Cheston, a co-founder of Right Proper. “Everything he does is really well thought out and done for a reason.”

“I don’t think I’m always the easiest collaborator, to be honest,” Zeender admits with a laugh. “I don’t know why people want to work with me.”

Zeender isn’t a stranger to oversized collaborations. Earlier this year, he brought together the extraordinarily unlikely team of Stone, Pen Druid, and the metal band Sun O))) to brew a Nordic IPA called Soused. But listening to him describe that beer at the time, it was clear the collaboration was far from a free for all. It was more like the other breweries were playing parts in a movie that Zeender had already scripted and knew exactly how he wanted to direct.

“I think a lot of people complain that collaborative beers spin out of control,” the brewer shares. “There’s too much lack of focus. I can understand that, because you’ve got all these different people, and it’s sort of an exciting time, and there’s a lot of different ideas you can smash together. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I could see how things go off the rails pretty fast.”

With over ten breweries voicing an opinion about the 2017 Solidarity beer, the first challenge was keeping the beer on course.

“We don’t just sit down and sketch out a new recipe in the course of an afternoon,” Lauer says. “We did this over the course of months. We know how each of our breweries work, and Nathan knows how his works, so we all kind of come to a consensus. The proof will be in the pudding.”

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Deconstructing the process of how a Solidarity concept becomes an IRL beer is convoluted enough to warrant a “Schoolhouse Rock!” segment.

At the top, there’s the DC Brewers Guild, whose board of directors – composed of representatives from the city’s breweries – have oversight of DC Beer Week. Underneath them is a proper DC Beer Week planning committee, which includes not just brewers but also bar and restaurants owners, retailers, and a handful of enthusiasts. Separate from that is a roundtable of brewers charged with developing the Solidarity beer’s recipe, sourcing its materials, and figuring out how much to produce. All of these groups share members, and those members shuttle thoughts and suggestions from one group to the other.

In other words, a lot of people have a say in planning this beer.

Coming into the 2017 Solidarity brew, this collection of groups had a few thoughts about how to improve the beer. The first was streamlining how the recipe was built.

“As we’ve done this time over time, what we’ve found is that everybody wants to be a part of producing this beer,” says Mike McGarvey, the CEO of 3 Stars Brewing (who produced the 2016 Solidarity Grisette) and a member of the Guild’s board of directors. “One of my criticisms of last year’s beer was that it got to the point where people were like, ‘Oh, I’ll throw in a bag of wheat.’ ‘I’ve got these hops.’ ‘And I’ve got these hops.’ Before you knew it, it was like, ‘Alright, I know everyone wanted to be involved, but if I was making this beer, I would said no to that, and no to that, and yes to this, and no to that. Sometimes, it’s better that we all focus and say, ‘Yeah, that’s enough.’ Even though everybody wants their thumbprint on it, this is about producing the best beer we can put forward. We should all be willing to say, ‘That’s too much. That’s not the right fit here.’ I think the group has gotten to that point.”

Members of the group worked with vendors – namely the Country Malt Group and YCH Hops – to line up donated raw materials, thus alleviating the need for brewery contributions.

“We didn’t want to end up with twenty different malts and twenty different hops – how do you make that work?” says Zeender. “Almost everything was donated, so we were able to say ‘No one has to bring anything. Let’s just bring our ideas.’ After that, the focus came in pretty tight”

As with most previous Solidarity beers, the group wanted a beer that would be approachable and refreshing.

“We wanted to make something that would enjoyable in August,” says Lauer. “We also wanted to make a style that the public would like – not something for just us brewers, like a beer with a low pH that was extremely tart. We wanted to make a pretty well-hopped but balanced beer that both beer aficionados and regular beer drinkers alike would enjoy. We didn’t want to make something too esoteric.”

Hops were always going to play a big part in the beer. The craft beer market wants hops. In fact, members of the planning committee initially envisioned a double IPA as the Solidarity beer to satiate that appetite. The only hitch was the brewery selected to brew this year’s Solidarity beer is also the least likely to produce a traditional double IPA.

“We’re approached by a number of breweries that want to work with us, and we end up saying no, because they’re not really fitting in with who we are and our ethos,” says Cheston. “We’re on a certain path, and we want to continue going down that path. If someone wants to come in and brew a double IPA, that’s taking a hard turn off that path. We know what we’re good at.”

One area where Right Proper shines is mixed-fermentation farmhouse ales. It was just a matter of Zeender leading the roundtable to that comparatively untrodden path of beer production.

“I just sat back like a wallflower,” Cheston says of the early deliberations. “Watching these guys try to convince Nathan Zeender to produce anything that he doesn’t want to make is the funniest thing in the world. He’s so nice about it, like, ‘Sure, yeah, that’s not going to happen. Nope, that’s not going to happen, either. Oh, yeah, sure we could do that at another brewery.’ Nathan knows his equipment, and he knows himself. It was fun seeing him turn everyone to brewing a very Right Proper style of beer – a beer that’s going to come out dry, it’s coming to come out light, it’s not going to be a hop bomb, it’s not going to be loaded with alcohol, it’s going to be a beer that we can stand behind and say, ‘Yes, absolutely, that beer was made here.’”

Zeender makes those conversations sound like a breeze.

“Within a couple of minutes, I think we all realized that it would be a beer with our house mixed culture,” he recollects. “Then the idea of marketability became important. We wanted something that would highly sailable because most retailers – bars and restaurants – are only going to buy this beer for DC Beer Week. Otherwise, it’s like buying a Christmas beer after the holiday season. So, we wanted something that would be pretty marketable – something that would move. So, doing something that was going to be really well hopped made sense.”

Lauer had one idea for helping to market this hoppy farmhouse ale.

“I merely suggested that if we were looking to sell the beer, we should probably have IPA in the name,” says the District ChopHouse head brewer. “Everyone is truly consuming a lot of IPAs lately. But I kind of hold the hand of whoever is hosting the event because ultimately it’s their name on the beer.”

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Hoppy farmhouse ale, Brett IPA, farmhouse radler – Right Proper has used a handful of names to describe what are essentially variations on a theme.

Since last summer, the brewery’s Brookland production facility has been churned out a series of saisons fermented with its house mixed culture in stainless steel tanks, then dry-hopped. According to Zeender, some of those beers – namely, this summer’s Songlines and its winter counterpart Runcible and – have been working towards a new kind of style that he’s dubbed the “DC IPA.” The Solidarity Brett IPA is the culmination of that development.

“I see this beer as the prototype for what I’ll call the DC IPA for now, which would be a mixed-culture beer with a decent amount of hop saturation late in the whirlpool and then in dry-hopping,” he explains. “It’s sort of a juicy, funky, unfiltered take on an IPA. We’ve danced around that before with a couple of beers, but never as strongly as with this one. This goes even further into that hoppier field, especially with the newer, fruitier aroma hops.’”

To wit, while Runcible was hopped with the floral Centennial and grapey Hallertau Blanc varietals, and Songlines with Galaxy, Motueka, and Nelson Sauvin (“Also in more of that passionfruit, grapey, grassy type of world,” says Zeender), Solidarity Brett IPA received heavy late additions of Citra and Mosaic – two pricey hops coveted for their vibrantly citrusy and berrylike characteristics, respectively. Those flavors are accented with Rakau, a lesser-known New Zealand hop that pulls in the grassy notes often found in Southern Hemisphere varietals.

All in all, Solidarity Brett IPA was loaded with over four pounds of hop per barrel – an amount that Right Proper has only exceeded once before. There’s a key distinction to make here, though. That beer, the aforementioned collaboration Soused, was a “clean” beer fermented with a Nordic farmhouse yeast strain that left behind some residual sugar to balance its formidable hop character. In contrast, Solidarity Brett IPA was fermented with Right Proper’s house mixed culture, which dries out every beer it touches.

“This beer is hopped at a pretty ridiculous rate, but you really have to work to get some balance in there because the dryness and tannin and acidity can result in very sharp flavors,” Zeender explains. “There’s no sugar to play off of the bitterness, so if we just walloped on this thing like it was a bitter IPA, it would be very astringent to drink. It’s really an art.”

To avoid such astringency, the kettle additions were made almost entirely during the whirpool, when the liquid is no longer boiling but is still plenty hot. This is a technique called “hop-bursting.” It allows the hops to leach flavor and aroma without adding significant bitterness.

Zeender developed the hopping regime in consultation with the other collaborating brewers, like DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock, who had recently brewed a hop-bursted saison for his brewery’s Deep Cuts series.

“They put out a Google doc, and I had a couple comments since we recently did something similar,” the head brewer shares. “This is going to be a freaking seriously hoppy beer for Nathan in terms of amount of hops going into it.”

Likewise, fleshing out Brett IPA’s grist was group effort. After kicking around some ideas for grains, the brewers settled on a base of lean pilsner malt that’s supported by oats, wheat, and some Munich malt.

Of course, Zeender hardly needed any pointers when it came to fermenting the beer.

A blend of two “pretty classic” saccharomyces brewer’s yeast strains (including one that can be traced back to Brasserie Dupont), two wild Brettanomycses strains, and some Lactobacillus bacteria, Right Proper’s house mixed culture been a defining component of Zeender’s beers since its brewpub opened in 2013. Over the years, this collection of yeast strains and “bugs” has been pitched and repitched again and again, from batch to batch to batch of various beers, mutating into something wholly unique to Right Proper along the way.

As we’ve explored in the past, every time Right Proper uses the mixed culture, its biology is a little different. Zeender has likened it to wading into a flowing river: You can’t experience the same water twice. Still, there are some predictable flavors, notably an herbal, evergreen quality, sometimes with a fresh citrus character, and a hint of tartness.

“I think our house character is such a vital part of the brewery’s identity,” Zeender says. “It makes our beer more like a growing family. People who are familiar with it can pretty much nail our beers in a blind tasting. That’s always been important to me. I was really into wine in my twenties, and in both the wine and beer world, I’ve enjoyed breweries and vineyards that had very strong vital house characters that were nursed over long periods of time.”

The Right Proper head brewer fermented Solidarity Brett IPA “nice and warm” to draw out the expressive qualities of the house character, which play well with the citrusy and tropical hops.

“The first thing you pick up, pretty well immediately, is the nose – it’s massive,” says Meridian Pint beer director Jace Gonnerman, sampling the final product with me on a mid-August afternoon. “The interaction between the hops and the mix of yeasts is really nice. These kind of aromatics – bright tropical fruit, zesty, orange citrus – should appeal to anyone that’s remotely into hops.”

Gonnerman takes a big sip.

“It nice and dry,” he continues. “The saison yeast definitely gives it some orchard fruit, some green apple, some pear. And then the hops coming big again, especially towards the finish –  some grapefruit, some orange juice, a little bit of red berry. It goes down really easy. I recall liking the 3 Stars Grisette quite a bit last year, but I would say that this is probably my favorite Solidarity beer.”

Zeender will settle for accomplishing what everyone set out to do.

“This is a very hop-forward beer that very much has our house stamp on it,” Zeender says. “It’s definitely going to be at its hoppiest when it’s freshest, and then it will change along the road.”

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Somewhere within Right Proper’s Brookland facility are several pallets of unmarked bottles. Some contain Baron Corvo Cuvée, a foeder-aged biere de garde that’s been further aged in second- and third-use rum and bourbon barrels, then blended with “fresh” foeder-aged biere de garde. Others are filled with Astral Weeks, a rustic dry-hopped pale ale similarly matured in 45- hectoliter French oak foeders. Both liquids were fermented with the brewery’s house mixed culture, then cellared away to bottle condition for months.

For the moment, these bottles are awaiting labels, but once that packaging is finalized, these beers will see release – thus marking a significant milestone for the brewery, and a sign of what’s to come.

“We have a real vision ahead for a lot of the mixed fermentation and foeder beers to end up in bottles – to be laid down and drunk at whatever age people like to drink our beers,” Zeender says. “People can have them whenever they want: fresh, two years old, however they enjoy our house character.”

Right Proper’s mixed-fermentation ales are designed to age gracefully. As time passes, the wild Brettanomyces yeast still active in the beer continues breaking down long chain sugars and eating up fatty acids, thereby creating fruitier and spicier esters perceptible in taste and aroma. Some would argue that it takes years for wild beers like these to reach their full (and funkiest) potential. Right Proper has made a habit of cellaring kegs and tapping them as “vintages” many months down the road, but bottles will allow consumers to do so on their own time.

Enabling consumers to put a Solidarity beer into their refrigerators or makeshift cellars was likewise a goal for the DC Brewers Guild coming into 2017.

“One of the things that came out of last year was: ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if it we had this in a package?’” McGarvey recalls. “We kind of pushed that this year. All through the Brewers Guild, the opinion was: ‘Let’s focus on being able to distribute it in package and have it for people to take it home.’”

Packaging a Solidarity beer didn’t seem like a tall order at the time. After all, most DC breweries can or bottle their own beer, and those that don’t could bring in a mobile canning company. Once Right Proper and the brewers roundtable settled on making a Brett IPA, though, the guild realized it faced a predicament: Right Proper wasn’t set up to bottle a beer at this scale, and there isn’t a local mobile canning company for wild or sour beers.

Thankfully, 3 Stars was able to save the day. The brewery packages its wild and sour Funkerdome releases on small bottling machine, and – with some transferring assistance from Denizens Brewing – could package Solidarity Brett IPA in 750 mL bottles.

With time, the hoppiness of the liquid within those bottles will fade, though not as severely as a typical IPA fermented with Saccharomyces brewer’s yeast. That’s because as the Brettanomyces continues to ferment, it turns oxygen in CO2, thus reducing the oxidization of the liquid and degradation of the hop character.

“The oxygen-scrubbing abilities of the Brettanomycses that we use are really tremendous,” says Zeender. “These beers almost go into stasis. When we open up beers that have been dry-hopped and fermented with our house culture, even nine months later they’ll taste incredibly fresh.”

Right Proper brewed approximately 16 barrels of Solidarity Brett IPA, only about 40 cases of which went into bottles. A little over three-quarters of those bottles will go bottles shops around DC, marking the first beer brewed at Right Proper to be distributed as such. All it took was a little help from their friends.

“I think we did a good job piecing together a nice, hoppy beer that’s going to age well on the shelves,” says Lauer. “It’ll be interesting to taste a little later – I’m most excited about that.”

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Ro Guenzel is one of the new faces at this year’s Solidarity brew

The soft-spoken brewer – and self-proclaimed stickler for hose protocol – joined Bluejacket in March as its first Director of Brewing Operations. He came to the area from Colorado, where he worked at Great Divide and Left Hand, two operations that easily dwarf the production of anything within DC proper. Shortly thereafter, he found himself thrusted onto the brewers roundtable as a representative for his new home.

“Everyone’s been very welcoming,” he says of the experience. “I mean, you have to be nice here – there aren’t many brewers.”

He’s not wrong. Compared with the 164 members of the Colorado Brewers Guild, DC’s nine feels a bit paltry. Of course, the Solidarity brew participation extends beyond the not-quite-a-state’s borders. Port City is here, and Denizens is on the way. But even if those additions barely move the needle, there’s a healthy range of sizes and models within this group.

“I love watching the interaction between these different personalities and the levels of expertise and production capacities,” Cheston says. “You have DC Brau sitting here talking to District ChopHouse – you couldn’t get on further ends of the spectrum in terms of size. But, then again, Barret has been brewing a lot longer than Jeff has. So, it’s really cool to see, and we’ve all known each other for so long.”

Cheston doesn’t sit on the DC Brewers Guild board of directors – Right Proper co-founder Leah Cheston does – but he had been adamant about the nonprofit organization taking control of DC Beer Week.

“My big push was to get DC Beer Week under the guild umbrella, because the DC Brewers Guild should be the focal point of DC Beer Week,” he says. “There was a time when it was all about distributors pushing their own products, and there was a time when it was about bars trying to bring customers in by working with breweries from all over the country. It’s like, ‘Why is this not about the brewers in DC, Maryland, and Virginia?’ So, I think that we have arrived.”

Others, including some who have helped run DC Beer Week in the past, have different views about what the focus of the festival should be, but there’s little controversy around the beer that comes with it. And similarly to last year, all proceeds from Solidarity Brett IPA will go to the local guild. That money – and all money from organizing DC Beer Week – goes towards funding the guild’s work.

“Our goal is supporting the growing craft beer industry in the District,” Rizzo says of the 501(c)(6) organization. “We have a multi-pronged mission of honoring the brewing heritage of DC, fostering community development and pride, and educating consumers.”

Part of the guild’s work is advocating for legislation that makes the city friendlier to craft breweries, like the somewhat recent extension of taproom hours of operation. The guild also serves as a meeting point for brewery owners to hash out problems they facing together.

“Sometimes that can be a struggle because brewery owners are thinking of their own business interests first, which is completely understandable,” says Rizzo “It’s nice to get everyone together and say, ‘OK, take off your brewery owner hat and put on your craft beer industry hat. Let’s look at what this city is doing for craft beer as a whole and what we can do better.”

Even beyond those roundtable meetings or the annual brew day, there’s solidarity on display practically day in the city’s growing beer scene.

“There are only so many breweries in the area,” says 3 Stars head brewer Brandon Miller. “We’ve all borrowed malt and grain from each other. I think much more than where I came from, everyone is helping each other to make DC beer better across the board. It’s not, ‘Well, I’m doing this, and I don’t really care who comes along for the ride.’”

“Every Friday, we’re expecting to see guys from Port City or Brau or a meadery hanging out at Atlas, or we’re going there,” adds Atlas Brew Works brewer Austin Liebrum. “There’s a real camaraderie within the DC brewing community. What benefits one of us usually benefits the rest of us. There’s not as much competition as I would have expected. At the end of the day, we’re just all against Budweiser, right?”

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