Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Hotel Amarillo, a 6.5% New England-style IPA hopped with Amarillo, Mosaic, and Falconer’s Flight, and brewed by DC Brau in collaboration with Pizzeria Paradiso and homebrewer Tim Ryan.
Jeff Hancock is sweating. Not profusely, but enough for the moisture to congeal across the middle of his Brau Pils t-shirt, a Pangea of perspiration adrift in aqua fabric.
It’s the first Thursday in June, and the humidity is precociously in late-July form – a condition that can be felt acutely on DC Brau’s production floor. It’s also a brew day for Hancock, which explains why he’s currently atop a brewhouse in that dank warehouse space, scribbling in his brew log, pores open for business.
Mornings like these are something of a treat for the DC Brau co-founder. As brewmaster, Hancock has a portfolio of responsibilities that includes recipe development, quality control, oversight of the production schedule, and sourcing raw ingredients. He is upper management of an eight-year-old company, mostly removed from the physical task of brewing, and that’s been the case for a while now.
However, things changed slightly when DC Brau commissioned a German-manufactured, highly automated, 30-barrel CRAFT-STAR brewhouse in late 2017. The new equipment replaced an original 15-barrel system, but rather than sell that supplanted equipment, DC Brau opted to keep it operational for limited releases. Hancock figured it could also serve as a backstop, in case the larger system suffered a mechanical problem. But it wasn’t long before the brewery realized the latter idea wasn’t quite feasible.
“The German brewhouse is such a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that the recipes were turning out totally different – in a better way,” says Hancock. “We quickly realized if we do pilsner over there versus pilsner over here, they’re going to taste like two completely different beers.”
With the original brewhouse effectively removed from flagship production, there hasn’t been a real need to train younger brewers on it. So, when the time comes to fire up the 15-barrel system – something that happens approximately every other week – Hancock is typically the one operating it. This feels fitting: No one knows it better.
“If anything gets brewed on there, I touch it,” he shares. “I kind of like it – it gets me out of the office a little more. It’s definitely a change. I mean, if you’re doing a business right, you sort of pace yourself out of a job, so it’s nice to get back on the brewhouse and sweat a little bit.”
For the moment, Hancock has taken a break from the brewhouse to sit with me in DC Brau’s air-conditioned, sticker-splattered tasting room. Still, his focus remains partially directed at his phone, where’s he’s programmed a bevy of alarms. Unlike the new brewhouse, which automatically counts down between tasks, the 15-barrel brewhouse is entirely reliant on manual calculation and labor.
“I’ll always have a soft spot for it since it was our first system,” Hancock says. “It’s basically my baby now.”
The beers Hancock has produced on the system over the past year and a half can primarily be divided into two categories. The first is one-off batches of au current and experimental styles meant to generate hype and sell through quickly: a fruited IPL, a 15.5% ABV bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout, a farmhouse IPA, an IPA fermented with an expressive Norwegian yeast strain. (Hancock seems flummoxed by consumer thirst for limited releases, but that’s another story.) The other is collaborations with or “private labels” for area restaurants and bars.
These include brews like Tuk Tuk (a Tiger Beer-inspired rice lager brewed for Maketto), Doctor Dubbel (a Trappist-style ale for Granville Moore’s), Full Count (his take of an American light lager for All Purpose), and the recently released Sea You at the Bottom (a farmhouse ale brewed with Skipjack oysters for The Salt Line).
Today’s brew marks another entry in the latter series: a New England-style IPA called Hotel Amarillo. Aside from a few kegs reserved for the brewery’s taproom, all 15 barrels of this 6.5% ale will be divided among the five locations of the DC area’s venerable Pizzeria Paradiso. As you might expect, the restaurant group’s Executive Beverage Director Drew McCormick and her second-in-command Erin Gilbert, the two who spearheaded this project, are sitting with us in the taproom, here, in part, to perform the ceremonial function of brew day documentation.
This isn’t the first entry in the partnership between these two modern day institutions. Each December, Pizzeria Paradiso produces a “brewer’s grain crust” utilizing spent grain from DC Brau, with proceeds donated to local charity Bread for the City. Less formally, Ruth Gresser’s craft-focused mini-empire has supported the brewery since it opened in 2011. Even before then, Hancock fondly recalls patronizing the Georgetown location’s Birreria Paradiso during the company’s planning stages, noting that he and co-founder Brandon Skall chose the influential basement beer bar as the site to woo a group of future investors.
There’s another party to this collaboration, though, who’s he’s soon to arrive: Tim Ryan.
Ryan has never produced a beer at a production brewery. He’s never curated a draft list at a bar. He’s an expat of the financial sector who writes young adult fiction and, occasionally, consults for the Air Force.
He’s also a homebrewer, and Hotel Amarillo is his recipe.
On July 1, Pizzeria Paradiso tapped kegs of Hotel Amarillo at four of its locations. (The fifth, in Old Town Alexandria, was slightly delayed by distribution hurdles.) The timing couldn’t have been better: July 1 marked the start of the restaurant group’s JulyPA, an annual two-week celebration of all things IPA. Now in its tenth year, JulyPA is the most iconic event on the Pizzeria Paradiso calendar. That it would dovetail with the final product of the 1st Annual Pizzeria Paradiso Homebrew Competition feels like a carefully orchestrated bit of planning.
In reality, much of it can be contributed to good fortune.
McCormick began brainstorming the idea of a homebrew competition back in the October. To hone the concept and eventually assist in engaging the area’s homebrewing community, she reached out to the gregarious Mike Stein – noted beer historian, co-founder of Lost Lagers, and a member of the DC Homebrewers Club’s Outreach Committee.
The two talked through a variety of styles – saison, lagers, stouts. But like many people discussing what to brew these days, they settled on pale ale and IPAs, styles McCormick knew she could move in quantity.
Such brass tacks mattered because Pizzeria Paradiso’s competition wouldn’t just end in a trophy. The winner would brew a full batch of their recipe at an area brewery, and McCormick and her team would then be responsible for selling it. (It should be noted that McCormick is hardly beholden to hops. She’s perhaps the area’s most prominent proponent of gruits – a category of beer defined by its absence of hops – and her first collaboration as steward of the Pizzeria Paradiso beer program was a gruit with Denizens Brewing.)
“We didn’t want to put anything too weird out there,” says McCormick. “IPAs and pale ales are what’s popular now. They’re something we want to drink fresh and can advertise as such. And when we landed there, it felt like the right decision to approach Brau about making the beer. We knew it would be good fit.”
For many in the area, DC Brau is synonymous with hops. The brewery entered the world with a hoppy pale ale. Its other flagships are an old school Pacific Northwest IPA, a hoppy pilsner, and, as of this year, a hazy IPA. Hancock has long embraced the title of “hophead.”
Just as importantly, DC Brau has also long embraced the homebrewing community. It hosts an internal homebrew competition every year, with a different “secret ingredient” that has to be incorporated into each recipe, à la “Iron Chef”. (It also employs Stein as an Official Brewery Tour Guide and Historian.)
“It’s important to give buy-in to the homebrewers,” says Hancock. “Back in the day, a lot of people didn’t give them credence as far as being tastemakers and influencers, but that’s changed. The homebrew scene is so big in DC, and it has been in Virginia and Maryland for such a long time.”
Pizzeria Paradiso and DC Brau came together to define the parameters of the competition. Entries had to be between 4.0% and 7.0% ABV. (McCormick didn’t want a triple IPA she’d have to serve in a snifter.) And IPAs would have to be hopped with varietals in the brewery’s existing arsenal, which included Pacific Northwest crops like Amarillo, Mosaic, Falconer’s Flight, and the classic Centennial. A handful of European cultivars – such as Saaz, Tettnang, and Hallertau Tradition – were also on the table, but their desirability in an IPA is somewhat limited.
Towards the end of winter, Pizzeria Paradiso put out the call to the DC Homebrewers Club and other related groups: The competition would be held on April 27.
“We thought, ‘If we can get 10 or 15 entrees, that would be great for the first year,’” recalls McCormick. “Then it was like, ‘Oh my god, we have 40!’”
Those 40 entries would sorted through by a group of six judges: Gilbert, Gresser (or “Mama Ruth,” as Pizzeria Paradiso staff calls her), Hancock, Jeanne Burns (a member of the DC Homebrewers Club and a BJCP-certified judge), Matt Humbard (co-founder of the forthcoming Patent Brewing and formerly of Handsome Beer), and Sarah Jane Curran (host of the podcast Beer Me! and former general manager of ChurchKey).
“We wanted to include all parties involved in the judging process,” notes McCormick. “We wanted to make sure that Brau liked the beer.”
The group split into two teams, each tasting through 20 beers. From these corrals, an elite eight advanced to a final round of judging.
“It was pretty easy to choose the top four from each group,” says Gilbert. “And then we kind of narrowed it down to three. There was some discussion on that, and some people disagreed, but Tim Ryan’s beer was the clear winner. Afterwards, when were all together, comparing our notes, Mama Ruth said, ‘This is pretty cool – you’ve been all been doing this a lot longer than I have, and I’m kind on the same page as you.’”
Ryan’s beer, dubbed Hotel Amarillo in tribute to a Caroline Spence song of the same name, was a 6.5% New England-style IPA. For judges, its balance and quaffability pushed it past other contenders.
“It was almost unanimous as to the top three beers,” shares Humbard. “Hotel Amarillo was more balanced than the others. It had a great citrus aroma, with a mild bitterness supported by an appropriate body. The beer also had a mild sweetness that gave it the slight edge over the other front-runners. It was a complete beer. And we arrived at a complete consensus quickly.”
Hancock echoes this feedback in a broader context
“I think one thing that lacks in the newer hazy styles is balance,” says the brewmaster. “Sometimes after you drink one, all you can really taste is hop resin. This is one that I could drink a lot of. The aroma was great, which is really hard to do on a homebrew level, just because there are so many variables you don’t have control over. For him to execute it in the way he did was just really impressive.”
For Tim Ryan, homebrewing has always been a hobby with a dash of necessity.
The local picked up the habit not long after coming of legal drinking age in the early ‘90s, when the area’s beer scene was far from the oasis it has become.
“Back then, if you went into a bar and saw Sam Adams on tap, you thought you had hit the lottery,” he remembers. “It was not easy to find good beer.”
Rather than rely on others for beer, Ryan started making his own in plastic buckets. It was pretty good, he notes proudly, but given the resources at his disposal, it was always intrinsically homebrew.
He continued churning out beer like this for years, but then he “got busy with life” and put the hobby aside. By that point, he had discovered the historic Brickskeller, conveniently located a short walk from his Dupont office. He was also a regular at the neighborhood’s original Pizzeria Paradiso, which carried classics like Chimay but was some time away from boasting the beer program Thor Cheston began building in the 2003.
It was only a year or so ago that Ryan rediscovered homebrewing. In part, this was because the aspiring writer wanted to break up the monotony of staring at a computer all day. But there was another, more specific goal: He wanted to learn how to make New England-style IPAs.
These were the beers that Ryan had fallen in love with through friends living in Boston, from breweries like The Alchemist, Trillium, and Treehouse.
“I couldn’t find anything like that down here,” says Ryan. “I went to Total Wine and asked if they had any New England IPAs. The guy looked at me like I was speaking another language. For me, it was kind of back to the original idea of why people got into homebrewing back in the day. I couldn’t find New England IPAs, so I really wanted to learn how to make them.”
As Ryan dove back into homebrewing, he was surprised to find how drastically resources – online and IRL – had progressed while he was away. Equipment and available ingredients had improved, and YouTube and various forums made them easier to utilize.
The brewing science of New England-style IPAs proved just as surprising. The style flipped on its head many of the IPA conventions he had learned in the ’90s.
In the past, IPAs had been aggressively bitter – the result of long, 90-minute boils with copious hop additions. Now, not only were boils barely 30 minutes, but all of the hop additions had been transferred to the whirlpool, when the wort is cooling, thus maximizing the hops’ aroma and flavor contributions while minimizing the bitterness they leach.
“It kind of blew my mind,” says Ryan. “There was a huge learning curve.”
Something else to relearn was the water chemistry of New England-style IPAs, where calcium chloride is typically added to boost its presence over sulfates. (The opposite is true for West Coast IPAs.) To many this may read like small print, but it goes a long way towards explaining the “soft” mouthfeel of these beers, in conjunction with their incorporation of protein-rich adjuncts like oats and wheat.
An e-mail about the Pizzeria Paradiso Homebrew Competition crossed Ryan’s computer screen as he was growing more confident in producing these IPAs. On a whim, he tells me, he decided to enter.
Scrolling through the recipe limitations, one hop caught his eye: Amarillo. He had never brewed with the hop, but he knew it had an “orange juicy quality,” and he decided to make an IPA with a “massive amount” of it.
First, though, he constructed a grist of primarily 2-row malted barley, plus approximately 25% flaked oats and malted wheat. This wort received hefty whirlpool additions of Amarillo, then more Amarillo in the dry-hop, where it was joined by Mosaic and Falconer’s Flight for “a bit more complexity.”
“I was pleased with how the beer came out,” he says. “I didn’t taste any off-flavors or anything. But I didn’t think I was going to win.”
This feeling didn’t change on April 27, either. After judging had concluded – but before winners were contacted – Ryan got to taste leftovers from the 40 other entries.
“There were some really amazing beers,” he recalls. “After that, I was definitely less confident.”
But any fears were misplaced. Not long after the competition, Ryan received an e-mail letting him know Hotel Amarillo had won. A week later, he received a separate e-mail from Hancock.
“I wanted get in the recipe, check it out, get a feel for it, start doing my internal calculations,” the brewmaster says. “I saw it and I was like, ‘This is going to be such a breeze to brew.’ Sometimes when I think you’re learning about beer – and I fell victim to this, too – there are so many different combinations of malts, hops, and yeast that you tend to overblow things. This beer had two malts and two adjuncts, not six malts and six adjuncts and six hops. That’s not to say you can’t make a good beer with that many components, but they can muddle and cancel out aspects of the recipe. Tim’s recipe was very straightforward, which I liked.”
It is worth noting that Pizzeria Paradiso’s inaugural competition coming on the heels of Ryan’s personal homebrew renaissance isn’t the only piece of kismet here. Hotel Amarillo’s recipe also crossed Hancock’s desk at a time when the brewery had only recently embraced the hazy IPA.
In March, DC Brau reshuffled its flagship line-up. The Citizen, a Belgian pale that had garnered a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival, was out. In its place: Joint Resolution, a new hazy IPA. (More than an informal descriptor, hazy IPA was officially recognized as a distinct style by the Brewers Association in 2018.)
Before its release, Hancock had been leaning into slightly hazier territory with the most recent iteration of Alpha Domina Mellis (unfiltered and brewed with flaked oats and wheat) and Sugar Leaf (a sessionable IPA similarly fermented with American ale yeast). But Joint Resolution marked a proper entry into the style with adjuncts, a derivative of the Conan yeast popularized by Vermont brewers, and a cloudy appearance untouched by filters.
“I’ll be honest, I was definitely a late adopter to the hazy style,” says Hancock. “I thought it just a messy style – people covering up mistakes and fermentation flaws. But as with most beer styles, you just have to have the one that makes sense to you.”
The beer that opened the brewmaster’s mind to hazy IPAs was Solace’s Partly Cloudy.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is what this style can be,’” shares the brewmaster. “Up to that point, I’d have a hazy IPA, and it would have a green hue from so much hop particulate. I’d be like, ‘This is not pleasant to drink.’ So, I had Partly Cloudy, and it kind of turned the corner for me.”
Turning the corner with Joint Resolution took months on months of pilot batches, particularly when it came to selecting the right aroma hops. (“I’d find random people in the office and be like, ‘Hey, smell this. What do you think?’” Hancock remembers. “These IPAs are such aroma-driven beverages.”) Ultimately, he settled on a mix of predominantly Amarillo, Simcoe, and Michigan-grown Copper.
“It’s a fun hop,” Hancock says of Amarillo. “I wouldn’t call it new school – it’s been around for a little while, ahead of all the New Zealand and Australian varieties and some newer American hops like Idaho 7 and El Dorado. It’s got a nice, subtle fruit character – it’s not an in-your-face hop. I liken it to Hawaiian Punch. With the hazies, it’s less about herbal, piney, dank character – it’s all about those fruity, punchy, jammy notes.”
In line with Ryan’s original recipe, Hancock employed all the Amarillo in Hotel Amarillo’s whirlpool, and calculated a 3.5-pounds-per-barrel dry-hop of Amarillo, Mosaic, and Falconer’s Flight.
“What I was really impressed with was how faithful Jeff remained to my recipe,” says Ryan, who turned over his detailed notes to the brewmaster. “He only made one or two changes because of their equipment and ingredients.”
The most significant change was substituting DC Brau’s house New England-style IPA yeast strain (supplied by Jasper Yeast) for Ryan’s London Ale III. Another alteration came at the homebrewer’s suggestion.
“Tim gave me feedback on the recipe,” says Hancock. “He was like, ‘It was a little too dark for my taste. I’d reduce the Caramel 10.’ So, I was like, ‘Cool, we’ll make that adjustment on this recipe.’ Hopefully it comes out the way he likes it.”
Ryan didn’t have to wait long to find out. The turnaround between the homebrew competition and Hotel Amarillo’s release would be just nine weeks.
“I was very motivated to get this out at the beginning of JulyPA,” says Hancock, who kegged Hotel Amarillo last Thursday. “The beer tasted great – it would sell just fine any time of the year – but we might as well capture the moment.”
Ryan, meanwhile, would likely have been thrilled with the experience regardless of when it occurred.
“This is the coolest thing,” he tells me. “Having DC Brau scale up your recipe – that’s a homebrewer’s dream right there. I’ve been on 100 brewery tours in my life but you never really get a chance to be there while they’re brewing. You know, I got to throw in the hops. I got to pepper Jeff with questions while he was brewing my beer on his original kettle at his brewery. It’s a special, special thing for someone like me who just likes to drink and brew beer. To have that opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
The involvement of Pizzeria Paradiso – a restaurant he’s patronized for almost three decades – only makes it more meaningful. Ryan now lives in Alexandria, where’s been able to call the Old Town location his “main beer stop” since it opened in October 2010.
“I am a regular – that’s where I go out for beer more often than not,” he says. “They’ve got 12 taps, and every time you go, it’s like Christmas morning. I’m going to be super excited when they release Hotel Amarillo and put my name on their menu. I told Drew that I’m going to steal one and frame it and put it up on my wall.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.