Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Tacking Backwards, a collaboration between Ocelot Brewing and Meridian Pint. The 11% triple IPA is brewed primarily with Marris Otter, then generously hopped with Citra, Simcoe, and Mosaic.
Previously in Freshly Tapped: Union and Ocelot’s Lucifer’s Trees; Right Proper’s Maslow; 3 Stars and Charm City Meadworks’ Two-Headed Unicorn; Aslin’s The Adventures of Audrey; Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days; Old Ox’s Funky Face; Handsome Beer’s White Ale; Ocelot and Bluejacket’s Raised on Promises; and 3 Stars’ #ultrafresh.
There aren’t going to be enough burritos. As the big black bus rolls to a stop, this much is clear.
It’s a chilly Wednesday morning in December, a few hours from noon and a few days from Christmas. More notably, at least here in this nondescript Dulles industrial park, it’s the brew day for a beer called Talking Backwards.
That’s what has attracted the supersized vehicle outside. It’s why I’m standing in the company of Arash Tafakor, owner of Gaithersburg bottle shop Downtown Crown. It explains the presence of Phil DeCola, a former NASA scientist and well-connected craft connoisseur who casually offers to introduce me to Cantillon’s Jean Van Roy should I ever find myself in Brussels.
All of these people have come to Ocelot Brewing to be a part of Talking Backwards’ conception, however tangentially. They want to be able to say they were here.
“Reporting for duty!” DeCola had jestingly announced up on his arrival a half hour earlier. “I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Inside that bus is Jace Gonnerman, the beer director for Columbia Heights establishment Meridian Pint, along with its sister restaurants, Smoke & Barrel and Brookland Pint. Accompanying him is staff from all three locations – and, it would appear, plenty of them.
Ocelot’s Laura Widman has laid out a dozen or so breakfast wraps for the brewery’s guests, but the sight of 35 scruffy bartenders and waitstaff filing out of the bus makes such a spread immediately and wildly insufficient. Someone suggests ordering pizza.
This is not a typical Ocelot brew day. It’s only fitting, though. Talking Backwards is not a typical Ocelot beer.
For almost two years, the young but thriving Virginia brewery has not made a habit of producing something more than once. Sure, there have been a handful of exceptions, like flagrantly fragrant double IPA See the Light or the award-winning hoppy pilsner Sunnyside Dweller, but on the whole, most of its 190 recipes have been one and done. Love it or hate it, that’s the model.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped Ocelot’s fans – either in the brewery or across the internet – from clamoring for the occasional rebrew. And no recipe has been the subject of such attention like Talking Backwards.
“It is by far the one beer name that people ask us if we’re going to make again,” says head brewer Mike McCarthy. “Even people who know that we generally don’t repeat beers will beg us to.”
It’s not hard to figure out what the fuss is all about.
First released on February 3 of last year, Talking Backwards instantly became a white whale for local hopheads: a triple IPA showcasing enormous hop flavor and aroma, while remaining remarkably dry and crisp at almost 11% ABV.
“The positive response that we got from the first Talking Backwards was definitely abundant and quick,” McCarthy continues. “We realized within a couple days that this was a winner for us.”
Part of the response to the beer can be attributed to Gonnerman. Talking Backwards is a collaboration with Meridian Pint. The beer director first floated the idea of producing the triple IPA, and in the lead-up to its release and afterwards, he used every lever of social media at his disposal to draw the DC area’s craft beer community to it.
“I credit Jace with this beer’s popularity,” Ocelot founder Adrien Widman admits. “He started putting it out on Twitter, getting it into people’s heads. We don’t promote our stuff well, but that’s on purpose. I wanted Talking Backwards to come first, and then the popularity and the hype to come because the beer is good.”
Widman is an imposing figure. He speaks in a low, gravelly voice and possesses the top-heavy, lumbering physique of Marvel’s The Thing. But much of what he says boils down to nuance and understatement. He’s a self-described beer geek who seemingly operates Ocelot by a code of ethics distilled from a decade of that geekdom. The beer coming before the hype – that’s one of them, and it’s something that permeates across the brewery’s decisions.
Another thing you pick up on talking with Widman: In his mind, there’s a benchmark of excellence for almost every style. When Ocelot brewed its wee heavy, Gravity Always Wins, he measured it against AleSmith’s. When he’s brewed black IPAs, they’ve had to live up to standard of Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous.
With Talking Backwards, the brewer drew inspiration from one of craft beer’s most iconic beers.
“It’s kind of my tribute to Pliny the Younger,” he tells me. “It’s not the same recipe at all, but Russian River’s IPAs are notoriously dry, and that’s what we wanted to do here.”
To understand how Widman is able to actually pull this off, you have understand what led him to this point.
Adrien Widman went to Virginia because that’s where the computers were. He opened a brewery there because that’s where the beer wasn’t – or, at least, not the beer he wanted to drink.
Ocelot’s founder was born in the area – Montgomery County, to be specific – but his family relocated when he was seven. A decade later, he would attend West Virginia University, and after a lost post-graduate year in South Florida, he headed further south – to Bolivia, where his father’s had started an oil import company. The plan was to open a branch of the new family business in Argentina. Another 365 days later, that plan had fizzled out, and Widman found himself at a crossroads. Chatting with a buddy online one afternoon, he was given some prescient advice.
“My friend was like, ‘Come to Virginia. You were always good at computers in college. There are a lot of computer jobs,” Widman remembers. “So, I came here, and I got a computer job, and I’ve been here ever since.”
The year was 1999, and Widman had embarked on a career as a systems network engineer. Six years later, he started working for the National Center Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, running the firewall protecting its significant trove of sensitive information. He also developed a side-hustle in real estate in an effort to supplement the nonprofit salary. Eventually, he got married, bought a house in Loudoun County’s Stone Ridge community, and had two kids.
And somewhere along the line, he made a fateful trip to San Diego.
That’s where his younger brother Sebastian had moved a few year earlier. The two hadn’t spent much time together since then, so when NCMEC wanted to send Widman to Southern California for a conference, he decided to fly out a few days early for a fraternal reunion.
“On Saturday morning, he asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I don’t care. Do whatever you normally do. I’m just hanging out with you all day,’” says Widman. “So, he tells me, ‘I like to go breweries.’ I said, ‘Alright, sounds like a plan. Let’s go to a brewery.’”
At that point in Widman’s life, a Sam Adams Light was about the most exotic beer he consumed. Needless to say, the San Diego craft scene of the mid-2000s had advanced into more adventerous territory.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he admits. “We went to a brewery, we took a tour, and it blew me away. The guide literally sold me on this whole thing.”
Widman was mesmerized. He sat down the tasting room and told the bartender to give him the strongest, biggest, most in-your-face beer on tap. Next thing he knew, he was staring at a pint of Stone Brewing’s landmark Ruination – a massively hopped, 8.2% double IPA.
“I picked it up, and I was like, ‘OK, here’s my new favorite beer!’” remembers Widman. “Then I took a swig, and it was like, ‘Whoa. I was not expecting that at all.’ It was a little hard to choke it down, but I put on my game face and was like, ‘I can learn to like this.’ We filled a growler, went back to his place, and by the time that growler was done, I was hooked. I just absolutely fell in love with IPAs and craft beer.”
When Widman returned to Virginia, he called his brother and told him to immediately start sending him beer from the West Coast. So, once a month Sebastian would. Into various cardboard boxes, he’d pack offerings from Stone and AleSmith and Alpine and Pizza Port. Then, it became twice a month. Soon enough, the Ocelot founder had connected with others through online beer forums, and those guys were sending him beer, too.
“I was a big beer geek,” Widman says with a grin. “I’d be all over the message boards, making friends across the country who had access to beer that I didn’t, and we’d trade back and forth. I started developing a taste for beers from every corner of the world.”
He was also spending upwards of $500 per month in shipping fees, which was hardly sustainable as a nonprofit employee with one child and another on the way. His wife Laura had a possible solution.
“She was like, ‘You’re an engineer. Figure out how to make beer,’” recalls Widman.
So, he did. Or he tried.
“It was some of the most terrible beer in the world,” Widman says of that first homebrew. “But it made me think, ‘Why is it bad? What’s going on with it?’ It made me want to figure out the science behind it all. I always had an engineering mind, and I wanted to engineer beer.”
Much like the beer trading, this escalated quickly. He went from one bad batch to 14 carboys full of beer and a custom-made, stainless steel system with fermentation control. Brewing on that system, his confidence started to skyrocket.
“For the first time, I was seeing what I designed coming out exactly like I wanted,” he remember. “Then I knew I could do this.”
Widman would tell friends that he was thinking about opening a brewery – a place that made the Imperial Stouts he loved and those dry, pale IPAs from San Diego; somewhere people could hang out and listen to music and get to know each other.
“I was like, ‘Hey, we live out here in Loudoun County. I know other people like beer, too. This could work,’” he remembers. “I kept thinking about it more and more, and I was like, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”
His father had started a profitable oil import business later in his life. Why couldn’t Widman find success with a different sort of liquid?
It also would also keep him closer to his family. In fact, that’s what finally brought the brewery to bear. Working at NCMEC one day, Widman received word that his son had fallen on the playground and hurt his head. He told the school he would be right there.
“I jumped up, and I ran to my car, and then it took an hour and a half to get home,” he shares, the disappointment in himself still evident. “I was like, ‘My family needed me, and I couldn’t get there. I need to do something different.’”
Something different was Ocelot.
When Adrien Widman first sat down with Mike McCarthy, the Ocelot founder had three beers in the tanks and no intention of hiring a head brewer.
“I was going to be the head brewer,” Widman says. “I was just looking for an assistant, really.”
McCarthy had caught wind of Ocelot’s imminent opening through Favio Garcia, a friend who was brewing at nearby Loudoun County operation Lost Rhino. At the time, McCarthy was working at DC Brau, but after almost two years on the job, he was bumping his head against the ceiling.
“I didn’t have any issues at DC Brau, but you had Jeff Hancock, the head brewer, and Chris Graham, the lead brewer, so unless one of them left, there wasn’t much there for me,” he shares. “They understood that.”
McCarthy hardly needed any more on-the-job learning experience. The brewer had previously worked for brewpub chain Cap City, where he oversaw all locations as the director of brewing operations. Much like with Port City’s Jonathan Reeves or Devils Backbones’ Jason Oliver, over a decade of brewpub experience had provided McCarthy the opportunity to produce every style under the sun and hone his technique.
McCarthy called Widman to ask if he could pass along his resume. The Ocelot founder was overwhelmed with what he received.
“I was like, ‘Man, you are too overqualified to be my assistant. I’m just a homebrewer who’s just starting this place up. You have 15 years of professional experience,’” Widman recalls. “But he told me, ‘I like what you’re doing here. Give me a shot, and we’ll see where it goes from there.’”
Ocelot was a few weeks from opening, and its founder had gotten to this point without much assistance from anyone outside his immediate circle. To fund the brewery’s construction, he had pooled investments from four family members (and his best friend) with money that he had netted from a few good real estate investments during the mid-2000’s housing boom. There was no need for even a modest loan.
“I had put the business plan together and sent it all out for these people to proofread it, and then they wrote back, ‘Looks good. Here’s the check,’” he tells me with bemusement. “I was expecting to go to bank, but they were like, ‘We can do this.’”
One of those investors, an uncle, was a local general contractor with 20 years of experience, which made the build out similarly a breeze.
Now, after all of that, to bring in a head brewer – even one of McCarthy’s caliber – was not an easy decision. In a twist of fate, though, the two quickly came to the realization that they had known each other back at West Virginia University – something that helped smooth over any lack of familiarity. More importantly, Widman recognized that the demands of brewing on a 15-barrel system and running the front of the house would be tremendous.
“I can’t sit on the brew pad for six hours every day and still get done all of the work that needs to be done to run the brewery,” Widman says. “Mike is more than capable – more than I am – of running the show. Occasionally, I get back in there and jump up and brew a beer when I don’t have a lot of paperwork and e-mails to answer, but it kind of just turned into this.”
Of course, none of this would work if the two didn’t see eye to eye on the beers they want to produce.
“I certainly have been the professional brewer, and he’s the homebrewer who opened this place, but when it comes to styles and malts and techniques, we’re really in sync,” shares McCarthy. “There’s not a deal like, ‘You do yours, and I’m gonna do mind.’ We both feel the exact same way. Our connecting with other was very serendipitous.”
Where Ocelot’s approach to brewing is most distinct – at least outwardly and instantly – comes with its IPAs. Much like the IPAs of the third wave San Diego breweries (Modern Times, Societe), Ocelot’s IPAs are invariably pale and juicy and constructed to showcase its hops. The grist of one such an IPA may be built from a combination of Pilsen malt, oats, wheat, or rye, but the inclusion of caramel or specialty malts is anathema. Over time, those darker malts gradually smother the flavor and aroma of hops. And if Widman founded Ocelot to brew the beers he wants to drink, such beers do not include thick, heavy, malty IPAs.
“Adrien opened this business with a very poignant view on certain styles of beer,” McCarthy shared last fall. “In our opinion, caramel malts – even if they’re traditional or historically used in IPAs – overtake the hops too quickly. We know that all of our IPAs are going to die at some point, but we’d rather it be a fast, sharp drop-off of everything than a slow fade into creeping malt. We want the hops to sit on top of everything and really shine.”
When it comes to the operation of Ocelot as a company, Widman has a few more poignant views.
Ocelot isn’t just a brewery designed by a beer geek – it’s a brewery designed for beer geeks.
When Widman was writing Ocelot’s business plan, he thought about how he and his friends consumed beer.
“I looked at all of our gatherings and tastings, and everyone brought different bottles of stuff, and then we shared them,” the owner says. “No one brought a six-pack of one particular beer. Everyone drank a different beer every time. So, I was like, ‘Heck, we don’t drink the same beers over and over, so why should I expect my customers to drink the same beers over and over?”
This was the origin of Ocelot’s laissez fare approach to brewing. No core beers. No contractual obligations. No treading water. Once a 15- or 30-barrel batch has run dry, that may be the last time you see it. Or maybe not. The approach is less dogmatic than it might initially seem.
“Weekly, my tastes change,” Widman shares. “I get tired of my own beer, too. We make a batch, and by the time it’s gone, we’re onto the next one. If we really like a beer, we bring it back because we want to drink it again.”
The Ocelot owner is careful not to disparage the flagship model. It comes down to personal preference.
“There are a lot of successful breweries that rely on that one flagship beer,” he notes. “It’s just not something that I wanted to do. If I’m tired of a beer after a month, I don’t want to see it year round.”
While Widman shrugs off the challenge of commercially releasing a brand new beer or two every week, it’s certainly raised a few eyebrows in the local brewing community.
“Trying not to brew anything twice is a very ambitious thing that makes me both envious and incredulous,” says Kevin Blodger, the head brewer at Baltimore’s Union Craft. “Sometimes, when we’re brewing Duckpin, it feels like we’re making the donuts. I love that beer, but we’ve got to make sure we’ve got this beer and that beer and another beer to fit our distributor’s needs and what we’re selling. Sometimes, you can kind of lose the creative side. It would be cool to have the kind of freedom that Adrien and Mike do. At the same time, though, I think I’d lose my mind if I was trying to come up with all those different types of recipes all the time.”
Widman argues that without such churning experimentation, Ocelot would have never stumbled upon some of its best beers. Here specifically, he cites last fall’s Hope, a softer, slightly hazier IPA that strays slightly from the San Diego model with which the brewery launched. (The beer also benefited NCMEC.)
“If we had stuck to the same grain bill, the same hop schedule, the same hops, we never have discovered how much we love Hope,” says Widman, ever the engineer. “That beer came out fantastic. Now, we’re thinking, ‘What did we do with that beer that made it come out so good?’”
In the current craft beer landscape, as more and more consumers place a heightened emphasis on variety, Ocelot’s approach is also savvy business.
“For what they’re to do and their scope, it’s absolutely brilliant,” observes Gonnerman. “We live in a beer culture where people want to know what’s new, what’s fresh, what the hot thing. Ocelot has put an emphasis on producing new, fresh beer. If they were trying to be a 100,000-barrel-per-year place, that wouldn’t work because you’d need flagships and brands that people on a large scale. But for what they’re doing in this region, between their taproom and local accounts, it works exceptionally well for them.”
There’s more money to be had in 100,000-barrel batches, of course. If you don’t take that approach, there’s also money in canning your beers and selling them out of the brewery. Some breweries do this on a monthly or weekly schedule, promoting releases with a stream of Instagram posts or Facebook invitations. This is how many hop-minded breweries that Ocelot is often grouped in with operate, like the Veil or J. Wakefield or RAR. But as with the flagship model, it’s something that Widman respectfully passes on.
“You can play that game, but that’s not what we’re about,” he says. “You never really see us advertising or posting a whole lot of stuff across social media. We like to fly under the radar. I get yelled at all the time for not being more proactive on social media, but we kind of like being the quiet little go-to place.”
Once a week, usually on Thursdays, Widman posts a picture and a few short sentences on Ocelot’s Facebook page about the week’s new release. That’s it. There are more emphatic ads for mom and pop butcher shops.
Last year, Ocelot brewed a double IPA with Richmond brewpub The Answer. They named it Fuquette after The Answer head brewer Brandon Tolbert’s nonchalant attitude. Say it out loud: Fuquette. As in: Sure. Why not? Fuquette.
You can tell why Widman loved the name. It sums up his approach to a lot at Ocelot, too.
“It’s just beer,” the owner tells me. “I’m not trying to downplay its importance to us. Mike has dedicated his entire life to making beer. I’ve put everything on the line for beer. But at the end of the day, it’s fucking beer. We’re not saving the world here.”
Not everyone shares this approach. Ocelot discovered this when it was attempting to line up distribution for its beer.
“The first couple of distributors that I talked to were not really interested in what we were doing,” Widman recalls. “They weren’t happy with getting a sporadic new SKU every week. They wanted the same four beers, and they wanted lots of them, and they wanted packaging. They didn’t like not knowing how many kegs they were going to receive or having them all already allocated. So, they kind of passed.”
Here you find the limits of Ocelot’s fuquette attitude. While the brewery may not behave sanctimoniously, it treats the integrity and freshness of its beers with the utmost seriousness. To those ends, the brewery wants to choose where its beer gets sent and be assured that it’ll be received and put on tap promptly.
“We wanted to make sure the right people got our beer,” Widman says. “We’re beer geeks, so we care about proper glassware, the handling of draft lines, the other beers that are being curated at the bar. It’s about finding a place that I’d like to go. That’s really what it’s all about.”
As an upstart brewery, Ocelot wasn’t in a position to call its shots, so it waited a few months to sign with a distributor. In the meantime, Widman found one person in DC who was more than happy to serve his beer.
If you come knocking on door of Meridian Pint, Jace Gonnerman is prepared to hear you out.
“I’m willing to give any new local brewery shot,” the beer director tells me over the phone one January afternoon. “Ultimately, though, the beer quality has to be there. Some people will value local over quality, which is not what we’re trying to do.”
Gonnerman wants his Columbia Heights bar to be the epicenter of the DC-area’s very best local beer. That means pouring those beers in quantity, and, ideally, putting them on tap before anyone else, too. Not only does that help cement Meridian Pint as the place to sample the cutting edge of homegrown craft beer, it establishes inroads with those breweries for the months and years to come, when they get more popular and their beer becomes scarcer.
“We’ve been lucky – there have been a few really stellar local breweries that have opened in the past year or two, and our approach has paid dividends,” says Gonnerman, noting Meridian Pint’s strong relationships with RAR. “When you have places that are making incredible beer right in your backyard, you’d be foolish not to pour them. When you can have a relationship with the brewer, you can have total quality control, and total access to this amazing, fresh beer. You know exactly where your money is going, and if you have an issue, you can get it resolved immediately. When local and quality are both there, we want to be pouring that brewery, and we want to be pouring them in a big way.”
Early on, when Ocelot found itself with extra kegs of beer and no distributor, it would come knocking on Meridian Pint’s door. In Virginia, the brewery couldn’t sell beer outside its tasting room, but thanks to DC’s lax self-distribution laws, it could see directly to bars in the District. Widman’s first stop was the Columbia Heights bar.
“Meridian Pint has always been one of our favorite places to drink,” the founder shares. “It’s always so chill and laid back. We didn’t know Jace, but we knew he had a history of trying to support local beer whenever he could. So, my great friend Curtis [Griffith] – who handled sales when we started – was like, ‘Let’s just go into Meridian Pint.’”
Gonnerman pays close attention to online buzz generated by new breweries, but Ocelot had only been open for roughly a week when Widman and company visited. The Dulles operation barely registered a bleep on the beer director’s radar. But he gave them a shot.
“Adrien had samples of a couple different things, and thankfully I was smart enough to taste them and realize what they were going to be,” Gonnerman remembers. “These were essentially test batches, but even at that point, they were good. I knew I wanted to at least put them for a minute and see how they did. I wanted to see how people responded.”
However, it would be the next wave of beers – an imperial black IPA and a double IPA single-hopped with Nelson Sauvin – that made the Gonnerman realize the quality of the beer Ocelot was producing.
“I tasted them and it was like, ‘This is something completely different. We need to buy every drop of beer we can from these guys,’” the beer director recalls. “The Nelson IPA was just fabulously constructed. It was very pale, very dry, West Coast in nature, and brimming with that tropical, wine grape, citrus character. It was on par with the best double IPAs that I had tried from anyone at that point. That was when I realized they were going to be something different, they were going to be a cut above.”
Since then, Meridian Pint has ordered every single beer that Ocelot has produced.
“That’s 100 beers or something like that,” Widman says. “If we do half a batch of a one-off, something that’s nitro-only and 5% and nobody’s going to really love, Jace is like, ‘I want it. Just give me it.’”
As word of Ocelot’s IPA prowess began to spread, Gonnerman’s proactiveness started paying off.
“Once people figured it out, and then figured out that we were one of the only places in DC to get it, we started selling Ocelot’s beer at an incredible pace,” he remembers. “We would tap a fresh IPA, and a day or two later it would be gone, and then we’d have to wait a week to get whatever the next thing was.”
When it comes to a beer’s freshness and quality, Gonnerman is not one to mince words. Early on, he realized that that he had found a like-minded spirit in Widman.
“He cares about his product in a really special way,” the beer director tells me. “I remember the first order that I ever placed with him. I was like, ‘Do you have any Tangerine Trees left?’ And he told me, ‘Man, I tasted it the other day. It’s not what it was when it was super fresh. I don’t want to sell it to you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh. Alright. This is a dude that respects and cares about fresh beer, especially when it comes to IPAs.’”
As time went on, the two trade e-mails every week, discussing Ocelot’s upcoming releases, and what the brewery had just sent him. Gonnerman would offer encouragement and, occasionally, some constructive criticism. He would receive a substantial and steady amount of Ocelot’s beer, even as almost every other area beer began clamoring for it. He hosted Ocelot tap takeovers across his three locations and visited the brewery. On one such visit, Gonnerman floated the idea of brewing a collaboration. Widman was immediately receptive.
“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Meridian Pint is awesome. Jace has been so good to us from day one. Hell yeah, let’s do a collaboration beer,” the founder recalls.
The two sides wanted to brew something hoppy, but Ocelot was already producing a new IPA every week and a new Double IPA every three, so neither style felt special enough.
“I had the idea, ‘You know, winter is approaching. It’s triple IPA season,’” recollects Widman. “And Jace was like, ‘Let’s do a triple IPA.’”
Triple IPA season is late January and early February. That’s when the West Coast masters unleash their 10% to 11% hop epics. There’s Beachwood’s Hops of Fury. There’s Knee Deep’s Simtra. And, most notably, there’s Russian River’s legendary Pliny the Younger.
“People always bitch that winter shouldn’t be IPA season, but that’s IPA season,” Widman says. “And when Jace and I started talking about doing a triple IPA, we wanted to release it at the same time as Younger.”
Standing at the bar in Ocelot’s tasting room, Widman pivots his laptop to show me something. It’s an e-mail dated March 6, 2012.
The subject reads: “Someone submitted the form from your ‘Contact’ page.”
“Adrien,” the message starts. “Thanks for the e-mail. Your recipe looks good other than the Carapils and C-40. They should be at 5% each.”
It goes on to discuss hop varietals, fermentation temperatures, and a dry-hopping trick. It then ends: “Good luck, Vinnie.”
This is the response that Widman received when he messaged Russian River’s generic contact form page about the recipe for Pliny the Younger.
At the time, Widman had been trying to homebrew a clone of the triple IPA. He had done his research – studying online recipes, watching interviews with Russian River founder Vinnie Cilurzo – and was in the final stages of dialing it in. After a few beers one Friday afternoon brewing in his garage, Widman fired off his e-mail. Four days later, Cilurzo had personally responded with technical feedback.
“It just goes to show: What a fucking great guy,” Widman says now. “For who he is, for how popular he is, the fact that Younger is his pride and joy beer, this is amazing. He went right over the recipe that I sent him.”
Years later, when they Ocelot and Meridian Pint began discussing a triple IPA collaboration, Widman would show this e-mail to Gonnerman, too. He’s probably showed it to a lot of people.
Talking Backwards isn’t a clone of Pliny the Younger – the malt bill, the hops, many of procedures are completely different – but it is Widman’s tribute to the iconic beer: a smooth, remarkably dry triple IPA that showcases hops in all their glory. This is precisely what Gonnerman had envisioned when they were conceptualizing the collaboration.
“I had been like, ‘I’ve always wanted to try to do a super-big but dry and drinkable triple IPA without a bunch of caramel malt,’” the beer director recalls. “A lot of times, what I don’t like about IPAs that big is that they’re too over-the-top sweet and kind of flabby. Other than that, I just wanted to see a large amount of Citra and Simcoe, but I essentially entrusted Adrien and Mike with every little detail of the recipe.”
If Gonnerman sought to avoid heavy-handed use of caramel malts, he had certainly found the right brewery with whom to collaborate. But brewing a triple IPA without them poses significant challenge. Above 8% alcohol, Ocelot’s go-to base malt, Pilsen, begins crumble.
“When you’re making a beer this big, you need to go against our aversion to any malt profile whatsoever,” McCarthy admits. “Otherwise, it’ll just be hot alcohol and green hops, which isn’t good. It’s an overused term, but there needs to be a backbone of malt.”
At the same time, there’s tendency among East Coast triple IPAs to overcompensate and start tipping towards a different kind of strong ale.
“We were very aware when we were designing this recipe – the whole mash regime and fermentation – not to make an American barelwyine,” McCarthy continues. “That’s what a lot of triple IPAs turn out to be – just a very, very hoppy barleywine. And those can very tough to drink because you almost get more perceived bitterness coming through than hop flavor and aroma.”
Pliny the Younger walks this line with a grist that includes a scant 3.5 to 4 percent crystal malt. Widman wanted to avoid them altogether.
“We don’t use crystal malts in any of our IPAs,” the founder says. “What I strongly believe, and so does Mike, is that an IPA should showcase hops – not malt, not yeast, not anything else. That’s why we always have that lighter backbone in our IPAs. I wanted this triple IPA to do the same thing, but at the same time, I knew if I just used a very light base malt, at 11% alcohol it’s not gonna go well. So, that’s when I pulled out Marris Otter.”
Marris Otter is a British variety of pale malt. Its known for its big flavor, but also low yield and extract.
“You have to use a lot of it, and it’s really expensive, but it’s really good,” McCarthy summarizes succinctly. “It’s like a food item that’s very expensive, and you have to use a ton of it, but at the end of the day, you’re like, ‘That was so worth it. That ingredient might have cost $60 for a quarter pound, but this dish would just not be the same without it.’”
Talking Backwards’ grist is constructed almost entirely Marris Otter. There’s a touch of Pilsen, too, but the British pale malt forms a robust base. This composition only tells a portion of the beer’s story, though. As Widman told me when we first met: ““I truly believe craft brewing is more procedural driven than it is recipe driven. You can take a great recipe and turn it into a piece of crap with bad procedures.”
Ocelot’s ability to brew a dry, drinkable triple IPA is in largely the product of its patient fermentation and conditioning techniques. These aren’t the details you can fit on a beer menu, but they make all the difference.
Let’s dive into the weeds. First, Ocelot spreads its brew day over two mornings, filling half a 30-barrel fermentation tank one day and the other half the next. After the first day, the yeast has reproduced with itself, started a colony, and begun consuming the sugar in the liquid. But when the other 15 barrels of wort are added the next day, the colony receives more oxygen, stops eating, goes back into growth phase, and reproduces even more.
“We’re allowing it to make more yeast so it can chomp away even faster,” McCarthy explains. “So, we see actually see a better fermentation and a little bit drier beer.”
During those first few days of fermentation, Ocelot also controls for lower temperatures, which allows the brewery to suppress the phenolic and boozy off-flavors thrown off by its yeast at higher temperatures. After all, these are the things you don’t want in an IPA.
“The reproductive phase – that first part – is when all of the yeasts are having sex, and it’s sweaty and nasty, and it just smells like sex , but once it’s all done, they go off and do all of the work and eat,” Widman explains, chuckling and apologizing for the crass metaphor. “Then, after a few days, you start letting it warm up and do all of its work.”
Later, after fermentation has completed, Ocelot lets the beer condition for almost two weeks in a brite tank.
“With everything we’re throwing at it, with the high alcohol and the hops, if we released it the day it was technically ready, it’d be kind of a mess,” Widman admits. “It would be all over the place. You’d get too any different characters – this hop or that hop or all the booze or the malt. By letting it, condition for that long, it all kind of melds back together.”
“It just needs to chill out for a second,” McCarthy adds. “IPAs should be drank fresh, but there is a point where it’s too fresh, as well.”
The common thread connecting these procedures? Well, beyond research and general knowhow, it’s time. It takes six weeks to produce this beer. Its production is a luxury that not a lot of breweries can afford – or, they simply choose to take a shortcut. None of this is not lost on an industry vet like McCarthy.
“This is pretty unusual,” he observes. “At Cap City, we were rushing out beers left and right, because we had a couple locations, and if we were without the Kolsch, the world would end. And Brau is just designed to make a bunch of beer and get it out the door. They never really stop there. This is a nice welcome break for me, especially at 43-years old. It’s nice to not drive to work thinking, ‘Is the distributor waiting for me already?'”
The brew log for this year’s Talking Backwards records its name officially with an appended “V.2.”
This indicates that it’s the second batch of the beer, but also that it’s not entirely the same recipe.
“We felt like it was a hair sweet and tried to dial it in a little more this time,” says McCarthy, noting that the proportion of Pilsen malt to Marris Otter has been tweaked a few percentages. “It wasn’t overly sweet, but it was that on the borderline for us.”
Widman has adjusted the hopping, too. The varietals have remained the same: Citra and Simcoe in the whirlpool, and those two hops plus Mosaic in dry-hop.
“Simcoe is great because of its pininess, and its ability to stick to the malt bill, and its resiny feel and flavor,” Widman explains. “Citra was chosen because of how aromatic and citrusy it is. And in the dry-hop, we put just a touch of Mosaic, which boosts the aroma. Mosaic is kind of a monster when it comes to aroma: Too much of it can get a little oniony and garlicky, but a little bit of it boosts the other hops around.”
Last year, Ocelot double dry-hopped the beer. For V.2, it’s giving the beer a massive but single dry-hop, and reallocating some of those hops to the earlier whirlpool.
“It’s same hops and the same amounts, but we thought that shifting more hops to the whirlpool would make the flavor stick a little bit better,” Widman shares. “Sometimes, when you over dry-hop, you get a little more vegetable, grassy aromas out of it, and that’s what we were trying to knock down from last year.”
There aren’t many breweries that will pick apart their beers on the record – let alone the one that has garnered them the most attention. Yet, in the dozen or so conversations I’ve had with Widman and McCarthy, they’ll always readily admit when and where and how a beer didn’t live up to their expectations.
“Adrien is his own toughest critic when it comes to Ocelot’s beers,” Gonnerman observes. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Adrien, what do you think of this new beer coming out?’ And he’ll be like, ‘It didn’t really turn out like I hoped it would. It’s not bad, but I didn’t like this, this, this, and this about it.’”
The beer director laughs.
“But if Adrien says that he likes something, and he’s been drinking it a lot at the brewery?” Gonnerman continues. “Well, then you know it turned out damn good.”
“We know what we intend a beer to be from the initial design, and when the finished beer doesn’t meet our expectations, we scratch our heads and say, ‘What went wrong? What could we have done different?’” Widman shares. “It could be the recipe, the procedures, the ingredients, or a lot of other things. But I need to figure out why. That’s the way my mind works. Then I need to put that information into the next beer.”
Last Thursday, I checked in with Widman to see how Talking Backwards was looking.
“I’ve been tasting it from the brite tank, and it’s pretty damn good right now,” he shares matter of factly. “I’m very, very happy with how it’s tasting.”
Fans of Ocelot should rejoice: That’s as effusive as the brewery’s owner gets.
Of course, there are bound to be some that compare V.2 to the original with dissatisfaction. That’s just part of the business.
“Someone could drink a beer six years ago, and you could never make it again, but as soon as you do, they’ll go, ‘This isn’t as good as the first batch,’” McCarthy maligns good-naturedly. “It’s like, ‘C’mon, you couldn’t tell what you ate for lunch last week, but somehow your palate recall is down to the minutiae of this beer?’”
Widman seems less concerned about it.
“One of the beauties of making a beer once or twice a year is that nobody is going to remember the exact flavor profile of the one they had last year,” the owner shares. “We’re going to get people online who are like, ‘It was hoppier last year!’ or ‘It was better last year!’ That just happens. Peoples’ palates change. I can’t do anything about that. The only thing I can do is make it the way we want, and if we like it, we think that other people will, too.”
Ocelot’s beer-geek-in-chief pauses for a moment.
“That’s what we live by. We think that there are enough people who like what we do to support us, to keep us alive. There are also people who don’t like what we do, and that’s cool. I don’t have enough beer to give them anyway.”