Hellbender Brewing has a long, complicated history with kölsch.
The traditional German style – a light, crisp ale fermented at cool lager temperatures – was one of the earliest beers that co-founders Ben Evans and Patrick Mullane homebrewed together, years before they set up shop in D.C.’s Riggs Park neighborhood. That kölsch became the recipe that the duo would eventually bring to investor meetings, hoping to woo deep pockets with their technical prowess.
“Kölsch is a craft beer stripped down to the bones,” Mullane, a former Senate staffer, once told me. “It’s light in color. There are not a lot of hops. There’s not a lot of wheat. If there are any off-flavors or inconsistencies even the most novice beer drinking is going to pick up on it, so you can not make any mistake. Where you have a little room for error with a maltier beer or an IPA, you don’t with kölsch.”
Hellbender’s kölsch would be on the menu when the brewery opened in the fall of 2014, and its name sought to honor that simplicity: Bare Bones.
“We wanted a beer that true craft beer drinker could have a few of – a true session beer,” Evans has said of the 5% ABV brew. “But we also wanted a beer that somebody who considers Banquet Beer a step up would appreciate and enjoy.”
Bare Bones was the first Hellbender beer I tried, and the experience was revelatory: It was dry and quenching, complimented by the yeast’s subtle fruitiness and a citrusy zip from whirlpool additions of Sterling (a hybrid of the Czech noble hop Saaz and the Pacific Northwest varietal Cascade) and Centennial.
But as good as Bare Bones was, the beer would become a headache for Evans. Hellbender’s head brewer couldn’t get the beer to clarify. And while other breweries have recently taken to fermenting hazy IPAs with kölsch yeast strains, a proper kölsch should not be hazy. So, Hellbender purchased a lenticular filter – something that helped produce a clear beer, but also introduced a bottleneck into the production schedule, in addition to stripping away some of the ale’s flavor.
As other beers picked up in popularity, Hellbender made a difficult call: The brewery stopped making arguably its best beer. For almost a year, Bare Bones would lie dormant, but during that time, Evans says he went “back to the drawing board,” playing around with yeast strains that could replicate the flavor he loved while also dropping bright.
“We finally settled on something, started scaling up slightly, and the new kölsch was born,” the microbiologist-turned-brewer shares. “It’s really what I always wanted the kölsch to taste like.”
There would be other changes to Bare Bones. Evans substituted a pilsner malt base for two-row barely, and he upped the wheat and Munich malt, which enhanced the beer’s slight biscuity note. He tweaked the approach to hopping, shifting most of the hops to the whirlpool. He took a beer that looks classic on paper and gave it a modern twist.
“There have been a constant series of little of adjustments to this beer since the day that we opened,” says Evans. “The old kölsch wasn’t too different, but it seems like a primitive version of what we’ve got now. At the end of the day, it’s really light, crisp, 25 IBU, very crushable beer. It’s my go-to shift beer in the summertime after a long day of brewing.”
Now, for the first time, other DMV residents will be able to enjoy in a post-work Bare Bones from the comfort of their own homes. Today, three-and-a-half years after opening, Hellbender will release its first cans: Ignite IPA, Double Chazzwazzer Double IPA, and the kölsch that started it all, disappeared, and then came back better than ever.
As with Bare Bones, Hellbender has traveled a winding road to get to this point. The brewery endured an agonizing series of setbacks prior to opening, and more recently went through a nasty – though ultimately unprecedentedly triumphant – divorce with its distributor. Three-a-half-years is probably later than Hellbender would have hoped to get its beer into cans, but in addition to the benefits of financial prudence, there is a silver lining here: The extra time allowed the brewery to further hone its recipes and processes. Ignite IPA, a beer that will be available in cans year round like Bare Bones, is another example of this.
First introduced a tad over two years ago, Ignite was envisioned as an East Coast IPA – a somewhat nebulous sub-style that marries West Coast varietals and hopping techniques with the sturdy malt backbone of an English IPA – that would showcase a history lesson of trendy hops: the classic Nugget, the more modern and beloved Centennial, and the next-generation varietal Equinox. In the time since then, Equinox has been rebranded as Ekuanot, and Ignite has gone through a metamorphosis of its own.
“I think it was a very good IPA to begin, but it jumped levels pretty quickly,” says Evans. “Then it took some to get it perfectly right. It’s only been in the last month or so where I felt like I didn’t want to change anything about it.”
The Ignite that went into cans on Tuesday morning is a lighter, more aromatic beer than earlier iterations. The grist initially contained a charge of CaraMunich – a drum-roasted caramel malt that brought a richness to the beer – but it’s been replaced with honey malt, which leaves behind less saccharine notes of, well, honey.
“Despite our beers being really dry, we’re trying to get a lot of flavor from the ingredients coming through,” Evans explains. “Just because a beer is dry doesn’t mean it has to finish watery.”
Ignite’s aroma has been boosted by new brewing techniques Evans picked up from conversations with other brewers, like rousing hops during dry-hopping, as well as adjusting the quantities during that process. (As you might imagine, this has involved the addition of more hops.) The head brewer has also introduced new varietals into the mix, most notably Citra. In its current make, Ignite receives Centennial, Columbus, and Nugget additions during the boil and whirlpool, then a heavy dry-hop of mostly Citra and Eukanot.
“We’ve got quite a bit of hops in there for a flagship IPA,” says Evans. “We wanted to keep more of the old school, slightly citrusy, slightly dank hop character from the boil, but then incorporate a lot of new school hop aromas into it. Overall, the beer started out a little more malty and resiny, and it eventually got a little bit drier and a lot more aromatic and crisp and citrusy.”
Pronounced aromatics play an important role in the third Hellbender beer debuting in cans today, Double Chazzwazzer, the imperial version of the brewery’s Galaxy IPA. Like Bare Bones, the original version stretches back to the Evans and Mullane homebrew days, when the two were ecstatic just to get their hands on the pungent, highly sought-after Australian varietal, regardless of the crop’s quality.
“Holy crap, the difference between the Galaxy we get now sourcing through our guys in Oregon versus what we got back then,” Evans reminisces. “We didn’t even know the possibilities. When you open up a bag of Galaxy, it’s like tropical fruit punch. Every other hop smells bland by comparison.”
Chazzwazzer has made recurring appearances at Hellbender through the years, but its imperial big brother is a more recent addition to the brewery’s line-up.
Brewed only once before, Double Chazzwazzer is boozier at 8.5% ABV, but it’s a smoother beer. A reflection of Evans experimentation with double IPAs over the past year, the beer is “hop bursted” – meaning, all of its IBUs come from whirlpool additions, resulting in a faintly bitter brew. It’s also brewed with copious additions of flaked oats and wheat for a fuller, silkier body. (Like all Hellbender beers, however, it is not hazy – a point of pride for Evans.) Still, in this beer, grain plays a secondary role to Galaxy hops, which are balanced with the citrusy American varietal Citra.
“We wanted this beer to smell like we just opened a bag of Galaxy,” Evans shares. “We went with nuts with the Galaxy in dry-hopping. That was the goal: to go completely overboard.”
On the inaugural run of Hellbender cans, Double Chazzwazzer occupies the wild card slot. For the moment, the brewery is utilizing the services of a mobile canning company, and it plans to package Bare Bones, Ignite, and a third one-off each run. For the next run in three weeks, Evans says the brewery is leaning towards Agosto, a rotating-hop farmhouse session IPA. (This entry in the series will be hopped with El Dorado and Galaxy.)
Further down the line, the brewery has a number of beers it would like to see hits shelves around the area by the end of the summer: its oat pale; a Norwegian farmhouse ale; even a sour ale made tart with a lactic-acid-producing yeast strain. Of course, the brewery also hopes to have familiar favorites like Red Line red ale and Southern Torrent Saison in aluminum receptacles in due time.
The brewery will have more latitude to indulge in canning such one-offs once it has its own canning line up and running – a goal for later this year. A Hellbender canning line will also mean less logistical juggling, less trying to synchronize the brew schedule for three beers with the availability of an outside contractor.
“We needed to get the cold room packed for a week and a half of sales while we got everything ready for the canning runs,” Evans shares, sounding exhausted. “Everything is down to the wire.”
A few days later, canning commenced more or less without a hitch, and the next chapter for Hellbender brewing began.
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