By Philip Runco.
Photos by Clarissa Villondo.
Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is The Adventures of Audrey, a collaboration between Aslin Beer Co. and Meridian Pint. The hazy pale ale was brewed with oats, wheat, and Pilsen malt, then generously hopped with Simcoe and Citra. The beer will be served at Aslin’s anniversary party on September 24.
There are beeps and boops and dings. There’s the theme music to Super Mario Bros. There’s the sound of a cash register opening. Or maybe that’s a wind chime. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the cellphones of Aslin co-founders Andrew Kelley and Kai Leszkowicz produce a variety of sounds, and they do so with great frequency.
This is the sound of opportunity – of new hop availabilities, of collaboration updates, of press requests.
This is the sound of hustle.
“We’re constantly on our phones,” Kelley tells me, slumped against a concrete wall in the narrow hallway behind Aslin Beer Co. on a Thursday afternoon.
“There’s no downtime,” adds Leszkowicz, the blue brim of his Aslin hat shooting straight up into the air. “People ask, ‘How much are you working?’ Well, I’m working 24/7. I’d be surprised if my wife doesn’t hammer my computer one night when I’m not paying attention to her.”
Much of the last 52 weeks have been a scramble for these two. The Herndon brewery’s first year has been wildly successful by most any metric – on-premise sales, online buzz, print accolades – but the fervency of the response was certainly not anticipated.
If it had been, perhaps the brewery might have opened with a bigger brewhouse. As things stand now, Aslin produces beer on a two-barrel system that’s about the same size as the pilot systems other DC-area breweries use for recipe formulation. To state the obvious, it’s far from ideal. But Kelley, Leszkowicz, and a third partner, Richard Thompson, function within their constraints, brewing in 19-hour marathons – batch after batch after batch after batch – to fill the brewery’s collection of four-barrel fermentation tanks. Twice a week. Every week.
Sacrificing two days of every seven to the brew gods means making the other five count, whether it’s monitoring message boards for hops, sourcing other ingredients, cleaning kegs, developing recipes, taking meetings, or anything else that might fall into the bucket of “errands.” How long are these days?
“Awful,” Leszkowicz shoots back. “Is that a length of time?”
On the bright side, the brewery is producing beers that a certain subsection of people desperately want. Chief among those beers are the brewery’s IPAs and Double IPAs, which are brewed in what has come to be called the “New England style.” To varying degrees, the hallmark of these hop-forwards ales is that they pack a tremendous amount of aroma, tropical and citrus flavors, and not a whole lot of bitterness into liquids that are hazy to opaque in clarity.
Aslin currently produces 16 of these New England-style IPAs and DIPAs on a rotating basis, and they have one additional thing in common: With the rarest of exceptions, you can only purchase them at Aslin. The same can be said for the brewery’s collection of goses, Berliner Weises, and stouts. If you want anything Aslin produces, you’ll probably need to travel to its cozy, 2,200-square-foot facility in Fairfax County. And that’s the way the brewery likes it.
One of those exceptions came in late May when Meridian Pint poured three Aslin beers at a Savor week event. It’s still the only time Aslin has flowed from taps within the District, but that’ll change on Thursday when Meridian Pint serves The Adventures of Audrey, a hazy and hoppy pale ale that Aslin brewed in collaboration with the revered Columbia Heights beer bar.
On the eve of the brewery’s first anniversary, the collaboration is a meaningful signpost for how far Aslin has come – one that’s even more remarkable when you consider where it started.
The story of Aslin Beer Co. begins familiarly enough.
You’ve probably heard something like this before: two friends, a homebrew kit, and a hobby turned obsession.
In the case of Kelley and Leszkowicz, they were brothers-in-law, or at least they would eventually be. At the time, seven years ago, Kelley was working as a management consultant. Leszkowicz was a police officer. Over the course of four years, the two went from homebrewing in Leszkowicz’s basement once a month to doing so four times in one weekend.
They liked what they were producing. So did everyone else.
“We had friends and family ordering a crap-ton of a beer for their pig roasts and family gatherings and graduations parties,” Kelley remembers.
Encouraged, they started raising money from those same people. However, plans for a 10-barrel brewhouse with five ten-barrel fermenters eventually shrank to something on a lesser scale.
“We were young, and we didn’t have much capital,” Kelley recalls. “We were like, ‘Let just start small and have minimal investment.’”
They decided against hiring a brewmaster, too, even though an experienced hand would have gone a long way towards assuaging banks and potentially freeing up more capital for a bigger system.
“We wanted control,” explains Kelley, who was 28 at the time. “We knew what we wanted to do. We knew where we wanted to take the brewery. Why not do it ourselves?”
Before they could take the brewery anywhere, though, they had to figure out where to locate it. More than cost or market saturation considerations, the search for a “community atmosphere” is what Aslin say led it Herndon.
“In Northern Virginia and the DC metro area, you can really lose the sense of community with all of the transplants,” Kelley explains. “Look at the demographics of NFL teams: You have Redskins fans, but you also have Cowboys fans and Patriots fans and Dolphins fans and Packers fan. All of these counties didn’t have the identity that you see in, say, Boston. There are no Yankees fans in Boston; they’re outcasts if they are. Or if you go to a town in Connecticut, there’s a small town identity. We felt Herndon being a town was a starting point for that.”
Still, surely locating its brewery in a small, nondescript storefront inside a slightly larger, nondescript business park had to give the Aslin co-founders some pause, right?
“No, it didn’t,” Kelley tells me. “We always had the same mindset: If you build it, they will come.”
They did indeed come – at least, not from far away. Aslin was a new brewery in a town without any others, and as is often the case, nearby residents were excited by the sudden appearance of locally produced beer. But if you happened to visit Aslin in September or October of last year, you would have observed a different type of brewery than what it is today. Simply put, the Aslin of 2015 was a much more conventional brewery. It planned to offer year-round flagships, and those flagships included a West Coast IPA, a lime Kolsch, a witbier, and a rye Pale Ale.
“We went to the standard start-up brewery tours, and they would say, ‘Oh, yeah, we have a brown ale, an amber, a Pilsner, an English IPA, a West Coast IPA – one beer for every type of beer drinker’” Kelley says. “Then, we went to meet with distributors, and they said, ‘You should stick to flagships.’ We didn’t have any experience, so our first two round of beers, we did flagships twice.”
It wasn’t until the middle of November that Aslin began to reconsider the strategy.
“We had a lot of traction because we were a new brewery, but on the inside, we were arguing, like, ‘What are really good recipes that we have? How do we make them better? What need helps?’” Leszkowicz recalls. “That’s when we started transitioning away from flagships beers and flights. We were like, ‘We don’t want to do that. We just want to do what we like, and that’s what’s going to bring people.”
Among Aslin’s initial offerings. there was one beer in particular that both patrons and brewers were equally enamored by: a 9.5% New England-style Double IPA called Mind the Hop.
In craft beer circles these days, few things are more divisive than New England-style IPAs.
The smooth, hop-loaded ales don’t just taste juicy, they can quite literally look like juice. They’re often cloudy and turbid, colored opaque shades of light brown or dark orange instead of the clear IPAs that have preceded them historically.
A number of things contribute to this clarity (or lack thereof). The aggressive hoping regimes that have become de riguer with IPAs can lend any unfiltered beer a hazy quality. The same can be said for the use of high-protein grains like unmalted wheat or flaked oats, which contribute a softer mouthfeel to a beer. But the main culprit in New England-style IPA haze is the use of English ale yeast strains that have low flocculence rates.
To get nerdy for a moment: During the fermentation process, yeast turns sugar into alcohol, CO2, and flavor compounds, and once it has exhausted itself, the remaining yeast clumps together and drops to the bottom of the tank, leaving behind a clear beer. The last part is called flocculation. If a yeast has a low flocculence rate, that means not all of it leaves the party – it just stays hanging in suspension, and clouding up the beer by doing so.
For brewers of New England-style IPAs, this is a desirable quality, not necessarily for the visual component, but because of how the leftover yeast interacts with a beer’s hop flavors.
“A low-flocculent yeast will bind with the leftover hop acids – they just stick to each other,” Leszkowicz explains. “As a result, you end up getting this tropical, fruity flavor from the hops right on top of what the cell of that yeast has in there, which is generally a peachy ester. They play well together. That’s something you don’t get with filtration or a medium- to high-flocculent yeast, like with what you see in West Coast IPAs.”
Even in America, where the craft brewing revolution has been distinguished by innovation and the rejection of old-world conventions, this technique has turned heads. At the very least, it’s a break from almost a century of brewing history.
“Since the repeal of prohibition, clear beer has been the expectation, regardless of the style” says Mike Stein, a beer historian and the president of Lost Lagers. “There’s not really any precedence for this. I don’t want to call it a paradigm shift, but it certainly seems like more and more brewers are picking up on this style of IPA.”
When pictures of murky New England-style IPAs began circulating the internet, many assumed their appearance was a flaw – the product of poor protocols, insufficient fermentation times, or just bad recipes.
“I associate hazy beer with technically inferior or sloppily produced beer,” shares DC Beer Editor Bill DeBaun. “Clarity is one of the five characteristics I learned about when I first got into beer… Beers that look like trub or milkshakes are an affront to that aesthetic expectation. [With] Witbiers, my expectation is that they’ll be hazy, but with most other styles, the better the clarity, the ‘cleaner’ the beer, and the more I think a brewery took the time to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”
Within the brewing community, these beers have created a rift. 3 Stars Brewing co-founder Dave Coleman says it was on full display during a recent trip to San Diego for Modern Times’ Festival of Dankness.
“You had all of the best IPA brewers in the country gathered in one place, and the underlying conversation history was just ‘haze versus bright, bright beer versus juice.’ I couldn’t believe how much time we spent talking about it,” he recalls. “There were a lot of West Coast people that were like, ‘Fuck your East Coast juice.’ There were people wearing shirts that said, ‘Don’t haze me, bro.’”
Coleman remains ambivalent on the subject, though he does note that the online popularity of New England-style IPA producers like Trillium, Other Half, and Tree House are having an effect on consumer perception.
“I don’t care if a beer is hazy or not. How does it taste? If it tastes great, and it’s hazy, cool. If it tastes great, and it’s bright, cool,” he says. “But the fact is that there are consumers that do care, and they pull up a bright beer and say, ‘That’s no double IPA! That looks like a lager!’ It’s kind of silly, but when the market talks, the people have to listen.”
Some brewers are less forgiving. While several declined to speak on the record for this story, one head brewer at a prominent DC-area operation commented on the condition of anonymity.
“I don’t get the trend,” he maligned. “I’ll chalk it up being a little bit older and maybe more old school. I love hazy beer, but that doesn’t mean turbid. A hazy beer doesn’t look like yeast. That’s just bad beer to me. That type of beer is only good if you can’t get it. I haven’t seen someone open up a 20- or 30-barrel brewhouse and produce a plethora of it. There’s a ten-day shelf life on that beer. After a week to a week-and-a-half, it goes downhill.”
Stein attributes the split to a generational divide. According to the historian, master BJCP judges – the people who decide style guidelines – are old enough to remember the first wave of craft brewing in the late 1960s, and the principal of clarity is so ingrained that it’s hard to imagine their ever completely accepting the New England-style IPA. Millennials are another story, though.
“If you look at Aslin or Night Shift or Trillium, the majority of folks standing in line are millennials,” he observes. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not going to find a grey-haired grandma and grandpa who love this stuff and don’t give a shit what it looks like because the taste and the smell are amazing.”
“There are definitely some brewers – especially the old school ones – who’ll say, ‘Beer should not look like this. This goes against everything I’ve been taught and everything I’ve brewed,” Meridian Pint Beer Director Jace Gonnerman tells me, holding a glass of Trillium’s Fort Point Pale Ale up to the light. “But I think you’ll only see more of it.”
You’ll see more of it because regardless of where breweries stand on New England-style IPAs, consumers are flocking to them. Take a look at Beer Advocate’s Top 250 Beers list and it’s overrun by the style. In fact, you’ll find two Aslin offerings on there: Master of Karate Double IPA and Orange Starfish IPA.
That’s ostensibly a reflection of the top 250 beers of all time.
“Aslin has had tremendous success. It’s good to be a brewery that seizes on success,” Stein says. “The irony for me, a beer historian who loves all of these extinct styles, lies in the reality that a lot of them went extinct because they weren’t popular. It’s simple: If you’re going to give your customers what they want, then you’ll have success. Don’t overthink it.”
Aslin’s breakthrough beer, the Double IPA Mind the Hop, was almost scrapped entirely at one point.
As a homebrew recipe, the beer had been a headache. Kelley and Leszkowicz had wanted one New England-style IPA on their menu, but they couldn’t quite stick the landing brewing in the heat of Leszkowicz’s basement the summer before Aslin opened. The English ale yeast was leaving the beer underattenuated and too sweet. Grains like flaked oat were overwhelming the beer, even at levels as low as 10%. They lacked proper controls for water ratios and temperatures.
But when Aslin scaled the recipe to its new system, Mind the Hop began to fall into place. It wasn’t perfect but it was workable. One of the keys to recipe development was realizing the power of subtraction.
“The guys at Penn Druid gave us a really good analogy: Sometimes when you want more of something to come through, it’s not about adding more – it’s about taking something else away,” Leszkowicz shares. “They said, ‘If we want more bass in our songs, we don’t just add more bass; we take some treble out.’ That’s what we had to do with our recipes.”
As homebrewers without any commercial experience, Kelley and Leszkowicz relied on research, and then applying what it learned through trial and error. Research came most often in the form of homebrew discussion boards and academic white papers on things like hopping regimes and temperature adjustments. Sometimes, it came from more unlikely places.
“When I went away on a family vacation in November, while we were making this transition away from flagships, I was sending these guys e-mails about all of the coffee places I was visiting and what they were doing with certain ingredients at different times, temperatures, and exposures,” Leszkowicz remembers. “I said, ‘Look, this sounds similar to what we’re doing. There’s got to be an application for it.’”
When the brewer returned, he set up a regiment to try those techniques out.
“From there, we found a process that’s been tried and true and has been giving our beers this impressive flavor profile,” Leszkowicz continues. “We’ve opened our eyes to how other industries and other food processing people do things, and what we can find an application for.”
Aslin had locked in a technique for producing its spin on a New England-style IPA.
“One thing we stress is mouthfeel,” Kelley says. “We want our double IPAs to have big, stout-like mouthfeels. A lot of people like that creaminess in their double IPAs. We try to translate to the single IPAs, too – it’s a little harder, but we’re working on it.”
Of course, like other IPAs of their ilk, Aslin’s offerings are fruit-forward. It’s a source of pride within the brewery, which goes so far as to sell “juice bomb” t-shirts.
“A lot of people have a big place in their hearts for juicy things, but you don’t find dynamic tropical and citrusy flavors in a lot of beers,” Leszkowicz shares. “That’s why Ballast Point killed it with Grapefruit Sculpin. Nobody had thought of that before, and they caught a lot of attention with it, but we’re doing the same thing without any additives. We’re taking an ingredient like Centennial or Cascade or Columbus hops, and we’re just manipulating their use in the process to get a flavor out of them that the industry hasn’t been doing for 20 years.”
Like a lot of young breweries producing New England-style IPAs, Aslin has occasionally been accused on certain online forums of using a more unconventional additive: flour. The logic goes that these breweries, in attempt to give their beers the hop-saturated appearance of a juice bomb, use flour as a crutch or shortcut. It’s a subject that Kelley brings up unprovoked.
“Haters gonna hate, man,” the typically reserved Aslin co-founder says. “People are saying we’re using flour in our beer. You know what I’d say to them? Fuck off, because you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. That may not be politically correct but it’s like, ‘You know what: Come brew a beer with us and we’ll show you how we brew beer. We’re an open book.'”
On the broader subject of some old school brewers’ and craft beer drinkers’ reticence towards New England-style IPAs, Aslin is similarly defiant, albeit more diplomatically so.
“Who are they to say what an IPA should taste or look like?” Kelley poses rhetorically. “We’re not saying, ‘This is how an IPA should look.’ And why does it matter? In some people’s eyes, New England IPAs look nice, and they taste great and smell awesome.”
Leszkowicz observes an analog in the first wave of the craft brewing revolution.
“Go back to when Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada were coming through with their pale ale, and people were talking about how disgustingly bitter it was,” he shares. “They said it was never going to survive because it didn’t match what people were drinking at the time, like Miller and High Life and all of these crisp Pilsners. That was the point: He was doing something different and new. Yeah, it’s going to be difficult and bumpy for us, but we’re not only people doing this.”
For however many bumps Aslin has endured, the ride has been mostly a good one since the brewery began the transition to its rotating series of its cloudy, hop-forward beers. By the late winter, the demand for those beers was so high that it had to stop filling 64-ounce growlers. Then it had to invest in a crowler machine. Then it had to get rid of smaller growler fills and limit crowler purchases. And it still regularly sells out of its IPAs and Double IPAs in a few hours.
Before the lines formed, though, Aslin had started to gain a glowing reputation online. And one influential beer director was taking notice.
Jace Gonnerman has an encyclopedic mind when it comes to beer.
Ask him about a saison he tried once eight months ago, and he’ll rattle off the characteristics of the yeast strain and the beer’s color and whether or not he was impressed. Ask him about an IPA and rest assured he’ll be able to tell you the hop profile. Ask him about the local coffee stout that most people haven’t tried and he’ll remark that he was surprised by how full it was for such a low-ABV beer.
“My brain has always worked like that,” he tells me one afternoon at Meridian Pint. “I remember a lot of things. I remember a lot of facts.”
It’s hard to picture the thirty-year-old Gonnerman as something other than a craft beer aficionado. It’s difficult to imagine the word “effervescent” not being part of his vocabulary.
But five-and-a-half years ago, he was just a dude bartending at the Columbia Heights sports bar Lou’s without a clue about what was coming out of its taps.
“I drank beer through college,” Gonnerman tells me. “I was always a Budweiser guy. I would occasionally venture out but not far. Sierra Nevada Pale was way too much for me.”
Working at Lou’s exposed Gonnerman to some craft beer staples, like Great Lake’s Dortmunder Ale, Bell’s Two Hearted, and Goose Island’s Sofie. These would be a gateway to a new profession.
“I wanted to know what I was talking about, so I started doing some research, figuring out what these beers were, the styles,” he remembers. “And then it snowballed in a big way. It went quick. Once I decided it was something I wanted to do, I went after it.”
A year later, he started bartending at Smoke & Barrel, and was soon enough running their beer program. He was a quick study, and when the original core of Smoke & Barrel’s sister restaurant Meridian Pint – beer director Sam Fitz, assistant general manager Rachel Fitz, and cellarman Tim Prendergast – all left in the summer of 2014, Gonnerman filled the void. When a third restaurant, Brookland Pint, opened a few months later, he suddenly found himself overseeing one of the DC’s area most important beer programs.
You’d think at this point that Gonnerman would be able to sit back and enjoy the status of his position. After all, what brewery doesn’t want to sell its beer at Meridian Pint, one of the area’s premier beer bars? What distributor wouldn’t pay him a house call?
And yet Gonnerman has remained indefatigable in his pursuit of understanding the craft beer market. Maybe that’s a product of increased competition from the steady tide of new beer bars. Maybe it’s a result of craft beer consumers unquenchable desire for the new, rare, and exclusive. Maybe he just wants to be the best at his job.
Whatever the motivation, he’s not relying on others to bring beers or information to him. He’s seeking it out.
“I monitor the social aspects of beer quite a bit – the Untappds and the Beer Advocates – because it really is the best way to stay current on what people are buzzing about,” Gonnerman says. “In some situation, like when a place is new or small, that’s about the only information you can find from a standpoint of reviewing the beers.”
Towards the beginning of 2016, Gonnerman started noticing that a new name kept popping up in those forums.
“I was seeing a lot of praise and recognition for this brewery in Herndon that I had never heard of,” the beer directors remembers. “I kind of wondered how it was possible, so I just shot an email to Andrew basically saying, ‘Hey, I just wanted introduce myself. I’ve been hearing really nice things about your beer. I wanted to find out a little more.”
It was not an unwelcome solicitation.
“As beer nerds, we were familiar with Meridian Pint,” Kelley says.
Aslin told the beer director that its operation was too small to send beer to market, but a connection had been established regardless. Not long after, Gonnerman headed to out to brewery to hang out, try the beer, and get to know the guys.
“They had a very clear mindset that was like: This is what we want to do, this is the kind of IPA that we want to make, this is what we like drinking, this is what we want to focus on,” Gonnerman says. “People are looking for that kind of beer in a big way, and they’re really the only brewery doing it on a regular basis.”
At Ocelot’s anniversary party in April, Aslin agreed to send some beer to Meridian Pint for Savor week.
Eventually, someone floated the idea of a collaboration.
There are three steps to collaborating with Aslin.
“First, we have a bottle share,” Leszkowicz says. “Then we say, ‘You want to make a beer?’ And then we force you to tell us what you want.”
When Leszkowicz and Kelley put Gonnerman on the spot, he didn’t hesitate. He already had something in mind.
“We were going to do something in their kind of classic IPA style,” the beer director shares. “We definitely weren’t going to make something clear; we wanted to stay true to their signature. I was like, ‘I want to brew a hoppy, hazy pale ale inspired by Tired Hands’ HopHands.’”
“We basically let him tell us what he wanted, and then we designed the recipe based on our brewhouse and what attributes he was looking for,” Kelley says. “He wanted a hazy pale ale, so we went back and looked at some hazy pale recipes that we had developed. We let him tell us what grains he wanted, what color the beer he wanted, what hops he wanted, what yeast he wanted. Really, it’s Jace’s beer.”
Compared to more adventurous collaborations with other breweries lately – like a coconut and vanilla Imperial IPA with Heist Brewing, or a coffee and chocolate Blonde Ale with RAR – this pale ale is a simple one. The grist is mix of Pilsen malt, wheat, and oats. There’s a touch of sugar to boost the ABV, but it sits comfortably at 5.7%, a sweet spot for Gonnerman.
“I like beers in that vein, because when I’m hanging out for an event I tend to have more beers than I originally planned to,” he admits. “If that’s something that’s 5.5% or 6%, instead of 8% or 9%, it helps a lot.”
For the hop profile, Gonnerman opted for the time-tested one-two of Simcoe and Citra, possibly his favorite combination of varietals.
“Jace wanted it to show up in Meridian and for people to say, ‘I’m not afraid to try this beer, because it’s in the ABV range that I like. Yeah, it says hoppy, but it also says pale, so I know it’s not going to be aggressive,’” Leszkowicz shares. “He has to think about the customer that are coming to Meridian.”
The beer is hazy, but has a distinctly yellow glow instead of Aslin’s more usual orange or brown.
“It’s going to cater very specifically to that beer aficionado that is trading for Trillium and Other Half, and loves this kind of beer,” Gonnerman shares. “We’re only getting two half-barrels of it, and I expect to sell that exceptionally quickly.”
That’s not a whole lot of beer, but unlike, say, Meridian Pint’s Lost Rhino collaboration, Meridian (Don’t Forget The Umlaut) Kölsch, it’s not a beer that’s meant to be a permanent staple. Different collaboration have different motivations. Like January’s collaboration with Ocelot, the Triple IPA Talking Backwards, this is a beer made to generate some some buzz for the two parties.
“I think this beer is a win for both of us,” Gonnerman shares. “Meridian Pint has a beer that’s made with a brewery that people are very excited about, that is not available in DC, that is exclusive to us. It’s good for Aslin, too, because I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that we’re somewhere that they would want to be. And they’re getting very prominently exposed and highlighted when we put this on tap. Not that they really need it the exposure at this point, but there could still be people who haven’t heard of them and say, ‘Hey, let’s go out to Herndon on a Saturday. It’s only 45 minutes away.”
Aslin let the beer director coin his beer, too. Gonnerman opted to name his baby as a tribute to another, far more literal one: Audrey, his two-month old daughter. They’re calling the hoppy pale ale The Adventures of Audrey.
“It’s great, man,” Leszkowicz tells me, taking his first sip of the final product. “A lot of orange. A little lemony. I’m really surprised. I was expecting it to be a little more floral based on how much Simcoe we used. Bringing it off the vessel, it had so much dankness to it. I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be really danky for a pale.’ But it definitely fell off.”
“It’s exactly what I expected,” Kelley counters. “It’s a pretty color. I think it’s more bitter than most of our beers. It’s a bit drier. It’s more of the Trillium style of New England pale ale. Ours tend to have a little bit more sweetness to them.”
I ask if they’ll reproduce The Adventures of Audrey. Kelley is noncommittal. At this point, he’s learned not to make promises about anything.
In many ways, Aslin has been a brewery in transition since its first week open, but there are nevertheless some especially significant changes on the horizon.
It has ordered a custom-built brewhouse from Germany, which will quadruple its batch sizes to 8.5 barrels and provide much needed relief for the three-man operation. That beer will ferment in four additional 17-barrel tanks that are also custom built to capitalize on the strength of their facility – its height. Aslin views these measures as a stopgap, though, not necessarily the end goal. It likely won’t be long before the brewery has outgrown this particular business park.
“We’re still looking for another space,” Kelley admits. “But hopefully this will be able to meet the demand for a short period of time. There will be some apex but we don’t really know where that is.”
The Aslin co-founders are conscious of the tricky balancing act of increasing production while maintaining the “hype” around their beer and its releases.
“Once we max out our system, hopefully we realize that we still have that shortfall demand and we can expand even more,” Kelley continues, sounding very much like someone with a background in consulting.
Interestingly, the two exhibit little concern about sourcing the hops necessary to scale up the production of their IPAs and Double IPAs, which are often saturated with pricey varietals. Then, as now, the solution is just a little hustle.
“There are plenty of hops out there to be used,” Kelley says. “People have over-contracted. You just have to not be afraid to ask. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no, and you have to come up with a new beer. It’s not too bad.”
Recipes both new and old will be coming in new packaging soon, too: large-form bottles. The sizes will vary on the style – a likely breakdown is 750 mL stouts, 500 mL IPAs, and 375 mL sours and barrel-aged beer – but all will come with original art courtesy Mike Van Hall’s Committee on Opprobriations.
Much like the 2-barrel brewhouse, the crowler filling station has grossly over-performed its design.
“That machine is designed to do maybe 100 crowlers a day, and we’re putting a thousand cans through it every two days,” Leszkowicz explains. “Plus, putting beer in a bottle looks way sexier than a giant 32-ounce can. There’s some kind of elegance to it.”
But even though, Aslin is making the move to bottles, don’t expect them to show up in your local grocery store anytime soon.
“We change our mind every other day about our approach to operating this brewery, but one thing is certain: Distribution is not a priority for us right now,” the former police officer continues.
Like the breweries whose New England-style IPAs they’ve strived to match in quality – Treehouse, Trillium, Hill Farmstead – Aslin is eschewing traditional distribution in favor of “consumer-based distribution.” That means it only wants to sell beer out of the brewery, and after those bottles leaves the facility, it’s up to consumer to distribute them to other consumers through trades or gifts or whatever.
“That’s the only real organic way that we can grow this business without looking like whores,” Leszkowicz says. “We don’t want to go to commercials and go on TV during football games and tell people that the big dudes who make Pilsen lagers are idiots.”
Still, Aslin is conscious of the fact it has some ways to go in raising its profile among the broad swatch of craft beer drinkers.
“I think we have the beer nerd market down,” Kelley shares. “A lot of people do trade for our beer. They know who we are. But a lot of people don’t know who we are, especially in the DC area. We’re still tapping into the market. That’s where putting a beer on at Meridian Pint will help us. The room for growth is enormous, and we feel like we can grow through the taproom and just word of mouth. It started with the 100 people that came to our opening and it’s just exponentially multiplied since then. Hopefully, we get a point where it is like Treehouse or Trillium or Hill Farmstead or the Alchemist, and Northern Virginia is a beer tourist destination.”
There is a lot of ambition housed within these 2,200-square feet, and Aslin isn’t stopping there.
“If this can grow, we want to go to the point where we can bring in more employees from this town and say, ‘We employ 100 or 200 people from Herndon,'” says Leszkowicz. “Hopefully, it’ll become one of those things where people are like, ’I’m gonna go to Herndon High and then go off to school to study brewing so I can work at the town brewery.’”