Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Lean on Me, a 9.1% double IPA hopped with Citra and Motueka. The beer was produced by Ocelot Brewing in collaboration with Aslin Beer Co., Barreled Souls, Charles Towne Fermentory, Civil Society, Dancing Gnome, Finback Brewery, RAR Brewing, and Triple Crossing.
“It’s so interesting – collabing these days,” Basil Lee muses, wryly, leaning literally against a bar and figuratively into that nonexistent word: collabing. “It really is. It’s funny.”
A co-founder of New York City’s Finback, Basil remembers the old days, some distant four years ago, when he and his partner Kevin Stafford fumbled their way through their initial collaborations with other breweries.
“At the time, it was like, ‘What do we do? What’s this all about?’” he reminisces. “I remember having a conversation with people, and it was almost like, ‘Should we split the costs? I don’t know.’ It was a serious discussion. Now we’ve obviously worked out those details. It’s like, ‘No, no, of course not.’”
Collaborations – defined as two or more breweries coming together in name and with some degree of coordination to produce a new beer at one facility – have a relatively well-established history in modern American craft beer, one that extends beyond Finback’s near half decade of existence. (While hardly the first collaboration, the progenitor of these joint endeavors is often recognized as Collaboration Not Litigation, a blend of boozy Belgian ales released in 2006 by two titans, California’s Russian River and Colorado’s Avery.) But the last five years have seen a seemingly exponential rise in the amount of collaborations making their way to market.
This can partly be explained by changes within the industry: There are more breweries than ever before, and many were founded with (or later adopted) a business model that incorporates a heavy dose of one-off, limited releases. With a built-in marketing angle – two breweries collide! – and an implicit aura of limitedness, collaborations are an easy sell to consumers. And they generate more than just can sales.
“Everyone jokes that you do collaborations for the Instagram photos,” says Matthew Mills of Maine’s Barreled Souls. “The marketing is obviously part of it – we’re all pretty small breweries, and you get to expose your name to new people, potentially outside of your market. But I think a huge part is hanging out and discussing ideas and sharing your passion for beer. Every collab, I feel rejuvenated and reinvigorated – a little hungover, too.”
Inside of breweries, the word “collab” can cover nearly every part of speech: verb, noun, adjective. You collab on a collab – perhaps a collab IPA. In fact, it can feel as if an entire culture has developed around these beers. Central to that culture is a particular pattern: Breweries of a certain pedigree attend invitational beer festivals, make friends with other breweries, and soon enough they’re hosting one another for a brew day.
“You just hit it off with some people,” says Stafford, the other half of Finback. “Some of it has to do with whether or not their beer is good. I’m not necessarily going to hang out with people that make bad beer.”
On this particular day, Stafford is hanging out with Ocelot Brewing. The same goes for Mills and his business cohort Chris Schofield. Finback and Barreled Souls are two of eight breweries that have joined with the Virginia operation to produce a collaborative double IPA called Lean on Me. For weeks, everyone within Ocelot has been referring to it as simply as “the megacollab.”
The roots of the megacollab lie in one of those invitational beer festivals: Aslin Beer Company’s anniversary party. The DC area’s buzziest brewery, Aslin is a prolific collaborator and the trafficker of zeitgeist-riding hop bombs and various adjunct-spiked ales. Its September birthday fete has become one of the fall’s premiere beer events, simultaneously larger and more exclusive each passing year. For the 2018 edition, the Herndon operation would tap over a hundred other buzzy breweries from across the country to pour their beer. And as is natural for a brewery hosting an event like that, Aslin wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass to collaborate with a few of its visiting friends.
Ocelot founder Adrien Widman didn’t want to, either. A month or so before the party, he picked up the phone and called Aslin cofounder Andrew Kelley. (Located on opposite sides of Dulles Airport, Ocelot and Aslin are close acquaintances. Since the latter brewery hasn’t operated a taproom in almost two years, it’s not uncommon to find a member of the Aslin team throwing back a beer in Ocelot’s warehouse space.)
“I was like, ‘I know you’ve got a bunch of breweries coming into town. Who are you not doing collabs with? I want to reach out to the people I know,’” recalls Widman. “Drew started rattling off names – this brewery and that brewery and this other brewery and so on. I was like, ‘Fuck, I love all those guys. I can’t just pick one.’”
Instead of picking one, he picked seven: Finback, Barreled Souls, Charleston’s Charles Towne Fermentory, South Florida’s Civil Society,Pittsburgh’s Dancing Gnome, Maryland’s RAR Brewing, and Richmond’s Triple Crossing. And, of course, it would only be proper to include Aslin, bringing the total to eight.
A former IT consultant with a bit of a traditionalist streak, Widman reached out to each brewery the old-fashioned way.
“Usually people e-mail or text, especially nowadays, so when Adrien called I was like, ‘I hope something’s not wrong,’” Lee tells me. “He said, ‘I want to talk to you about something.’ I was like, ‘OK… what do you want to talk about? Is it something serious?’ He said he had an idea for a beer, yada yada yada, and asked if we would be into it. It was like, ‘Of course!’”
“We like to collab – we’re a little slutty in that regard,” jokes Stafford. “It’s true. We get around.”
Eight phone calls later, the megacollab had been set in motion.
But something didn’t feel right to Widman.
“I was sitting here thinking, ‘This isn’t fair,’” the Ocelot founder says. “I was like, ‘I can’t use these guys’ names for my own monetary benefit.”
So, on August 20, Widman sent an e-mail to eight collaborators.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the opportunity and decided (with all of your permission) that I would like to can 12bbls of the probably 25bbl yield and donate all can proceeds to a charity,” the message read. “I don’t think it would be right to use your awesome brands and not do something good with it.”
Widman wrote that he wanted to call the beer Lean on Me, and in the spirit of that name, he wanted to give all those four-pack proceeds to a mental health nonprofit.
Then came an admission: “This is also close to my heart as I suffer greatly from depression.”
With this, the megacollab, a double IPA with a silly nickname, took on much more significance.
What Widman’s collaborators didn’t know was that the decision had been inspired by a recent and particularly brutal depressive episode.
The burly yet soft-spoken brewer shared this with me outside the Heurich House a day later. He said he wanted to talk about his depression. Lean on Me wasn’t just about raising money for mental health, it was about raising awareness – letting people know that they’re not alone.
And there was no more powerful way to do this than to tell his own story.
“I’m going to explode my brain on you,” Adrien Widman warns me. “I’m just going to sit here and abstractly ramble about stupid stuff, and if it’s worth it to you to do anything with it, go ahead. But I’m not embarrassed by any of this. I want everybody to know.”
It’s a humid Thursday evening in late August, a few weeks before the megacollab brew day, and I’ve come to Ocelot for what will be the first of two lengthy on-the-record conversations with Widman. We’re in the brewery’s upstairs office, where an Ocelot can, bottle, or crowler decorates almost every available surface. Widman is wearing what is essentially his uniform: a charcoal grey Ocelot t-shirt, baggy basketball shorts, and athletic sneakers. It is rare not to find him in this combination of garments. He says he sweats too much for pants.
We’re sitting here – me on a cream couch, him a black office chair – to discuss Widman’s depression. “The darkness” or “the dark place,” he sometimes calls it.
Widman can trace his first recognition of the darkness to when he was 14. His mom found him with a kitchen knife.
“In my mind, I had processed everything that could happen the way my life was going, and it wouldn’t be worth it,” he admits. “I didn’t think I’d find day-to-day happiness – at least not enough to overcome the squashing of what life makes me feel on a daily basis.”
Widman would grow up to be an engineer, but he always had an engineer’s mind. He would overanalyze every situation, focusing increasingly on what could go wrong, until he had sunk to a place where couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. It always led him to the same question: What’s the point?
He began taking antidepressants, which mitigated his lows but also stunted his highs. Thirty years later, it’s a tradeoff he continues to make.
“The medication is a buffer,” he says. “Without it, the highs are super high, but the lows are intolerable. Every once in a while, I think, ‘OK, I got this,’ and I lay off the meds. And I fall deep. And I stay low for a long time. It’s very bad.”
Even on a good day, Widman can’t escape a feeling of numbness. He calls his depression a “constant, steady stream of not being able to be happy – of not being able to experience joy the way other people do.” To some degree, he’s made peace with this. After decades of being told he isn’t normal, Widman says he’s learned to embrace his feelings instead of fighting them, to try to channel them towards the creative side of Ocelot.
There are unquestionably positives in Widman’s life: he has a supportive wife, Laura, and two children. He owns a commercially successful, widely adored brewery. He recognizes those things. They make his day-to-day better. But they exist essentially outside of his depression.
“When I tell people that I’m depressed, their first reaction is almost always to point out the good things in my life and say, ‘What do you have to be depressed about? Why don’t you realize everything is cool?’” Widman shares. “That’s not how it works. You can have the best life ever, with nothing to complain about, and still feel this way.”
His more intense depressive episodes come in waves. At this point, Widman estimates he’s experienced somewhere near a thousand. All he can do is wait for each to pass.
“I know when I’m going through one,” Widman says. “I know when I’m in a bad place. But I know that I won’t be in the bad place soon if I stick it out.”
This is easier said than done. Episodes can be all consuming. And while friends may encourage Widman to reach out and talk through what he’s feeling, he’s unlikely to do it.
“People like me already feel like they’re a burden on their friends and loved ones,” he says. “If I called you and said, ‘I’m struggling,’ there’s no question you would be there, but I would have to accept the fact that I’m ruining your night, and that’s the last thing I want to do.”
However, the Ocelot founder is not impervious to the comfort of others.
“The best thing you can do for me when I’m in a bad place is to just sit next to me,” he shares. “You don’t have to pull anything out. You don’t have to talk to me. Just be like, ‘Hey, want to watch a stupid fucking movie together? OK, we’re going to sit on a couch for eight hours.’ That’s the most helpful thing.”
A few weeks early, Widman went through one of his most severe episodes in recent memory. At the brewery late one night, in the darkest corner of his mind, he texted Laura several messages that concerned her.
“She called, and I didn’t answer, and she called, and I didn’t answer, over and over,” he remembers. “The sixth time, I answered, and I was just hyperventilating. I was done. And she was like, ‘Just breathe with me. Just breathe. Breathe.’ I put the phone up to my ear and she just kept saying, ‘Breathe.’ She stayed on the phone with me for eight hours while I slept. I woke up the next day, and I was out of the phase.”
Widman speaks about his depression in a flat, matter-of-fact manner, but on this story some emotions bleeds through.
“My wife… I don’t believe in god, but god bless her,” he tells me. “She’s seen me through these phases so many times.”
It was in the immediate aftermath of this episode that Widman, energized with sense of purpose and clarity, decided to donate proceeds of the megacollab to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. In order to so, he cold-called the nonprofit organization and navigate its automated main line.
“They had, like, five options, and none of the options were ‘I want to donate money to you,’” he shares with a laugh. “So, I was randomly hitting ‘accounting’ and ‘marketing’ and whatever until somebody transferred me to the right person. And they called me back, and they were awesome, and then it all made sense.”
Unsurprisingly, the eight collaborating breweries supported this charitable pivot. Moreover, about half of them would share their own stories of being touched by depression.
“As soon I sent this out, I got a massive response back,” Widman says. “Guys were like, ‘This hits home.’ Whether it’s their mom, brother, best friend, or they themselves, they believe in it. I got responses back that made me cry.”
Ultimately, as with Ocelot’s Hope – a benefit for Widman’s former employer, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – Lean on Me is less about the donation than raising awareness and getting out a message.
“The message is that there are a lot of people that go through this and are hiding it or have difficulties expressing it or are struggling with it,” Widman says. “And every day is a struggle for them, no matter what. Every day they look for the light at the end of the tunnel, and it doesn’t come. That’s depression in a nutshell.”
There’s another similarity between Lean on Me and Hope: While Widman is usually content to brew the beers that he wants to drink, when it comes to a beer that seeks to draw attention to a charitable cause, he wants to create a buzz and he wants it to sell quickly. For Lean on Me, that meant producing a 9.1% double IPA – the kind of beer he’s normally reluctant to make, even if that makes Ocelot an outlier in the current craft beer landscape.
Adrien Widman built Ocelot Brewing to be a place where people came to drink beer.
On its face, this is a wholly innocuous statement. After all, what brewery doesn’t want people to consume its wares in its tasting room? Nevertheless, if you want to understand the decisions Ocelot makes, from the beers it brews to how they’re distributed, it can not be understated: Everything leads back to the tasting room.
“When I started this brewery, it was for one reason: to be the best place possible,” Widman tells me. “What I did not expect is that 50% of the clientele that keeps us afloat are people that aren’t beer nerds. They don’t give a shit. They just like being here. They like being a part of something.”
Peel back the sentimental veneer and you’ll find plenty of business savvy underneath. A brewery makes more money when consumers buy packaged beer directly from it. A brewery makes even more money when those consumers pull up a stool at the bar and drink that beer by the pint. For Ocelot, its profit is approximately 600% higher on a glass sold in its tasting room versus one served at an outside bar. Thus, financially, it behooves a small brewery like Ocelot (which is on pace to produce 1800 barrels this year) to prioritize its taproom.
Widman has carried this logic close to its logical extreme. From the beginning, he individually picked the accounts Ocelot would send beer to and still communicates with them directly, avoiding the type of relationship with a distributor where he would be obligated to provide certain amounts of beer for that distributor to divvy up. This provides flexibility. As Ocelot sold more beer out of its taproom, it reduced the number of accounts it sent beer to. That number may continue shrinking, too. Only a few kegs of its newest IPA, Kingdom Half Mine, will leave the brewery after the tasting room recently ran dry of IPA for almost a week – a near-cataclysmic event in Widman’s eyes.
Of course, the hop-forward style is nearly synonymous with Ocelot. The “Ocelot IPA” is in itself a genre amongst local craft beer drinkers: pungent, clean, typically light bodied, devoid of crystal malts or the residual yeast character that often bogs down the style.
In its first three-and-a-half years of business, Ocelot has produced around 75 unique IPAs. In large part, this is because Widman himself loves to drink them. His favorite Ocelot beer at any given moment is likely to be the newest IPA. But IPAs are also what fly within Ocelot. In fact, talking with Widman, it can often seem that the biggest barometer of an IPA’s success isn’t his personal satisfaction or some Untappd rating – it’s how fast the IPA sells in the tasting room.
What doesn’t sell in the tasting room, by contrast, are double IPAs, the boozier, hoppier renditions of the style.
“People will come in, drink one double IPA, then they’ll switch right to an IPA or a lower-alcohol stout,” Widman observes. “You can’t drink six double IPAs. You get too drunk too fast. If I go to another brewery and they have a double IPA, do I want to try it? Sure. Do I want to sit there and drink a bunch? Nope. You physically can’t.”
In 2017, Ocelot brewed a double IPA just seven times. Compared with other breweries renowned for their hoppy offerings – like collaborators Triple Crossing, Aslin, RAR, and Finback – that number is astonishingly low. This divergence can be explained largely by the fact that the other breweries have been focused on selling their beer in cans.
While few people – at breweries, bars, or anywhere beer is served – want to drink glass after glass double IPA, they show up in droves for double IPA can releases.
“Double IPAs are popular because people want to take then home, where they’re comfortable getting drunk,” says Widman. “Or they want to trade it to somebody else. There are plenty of places that sell a lot of cans, and in half the cases, those cans are sent somewhere else.”
But Ocelot’s approach towards double IPAs began to shift slightly when the brewery began canning beer in February. Its first release in an aluminum receptacle was Talking Backwards, an annual triple IPA brewed in collaboration with Meridian Pint. Big Cat, a double IPA brewed with The Veil, followed shortly after. Yet it would three months before Ocelot would brew another double IPA. The ambivalence towards producing the style appears slow to shake off.
“Every time I release an IPA in a can, Matt Tarpey from The Veil – one of my great friends in the industry – texts me, ‘Where’s your double IPA?’” Widman says. “Because he knows that double IPAs in cans sell.”
On a trip to the brewery in late September, Widman pointed out to me that Fading Beauty – an old Ocelot double IPA recipe recently given a makeover by Head Brewer Jack Snyder – was “selling like hotcakes” in cans while incrementally moving on draft.
“We have a lot of friends in the industry who tell us that we’re crazy for not doing more double IPAs,” shares Snyder, who took the reins from former Head Brewer Mike McCarthy in July. “Let’s be honest, we’re out here kind of in the middle of nowhere. I think people see a value-added bonus in getting something that’s in that 8% range as opposed a well-made 6.5% IPA. And I think that factors into people’s negotiation of whether it’s worth the trip. I don’t take that personally.”
Snyder says that Ocelot is trying to get double IPAs into rotation more steadily. To wit, the stellar, all-Citra double IPA Lucky You returns this week after an initial release in May. But it will be interesting to see how the brewery manages the tension between the tasting room focus and the popularity of double IPAs with traders and non-regulars. (Indeed, the entire industry is struggling with this quandary.)
For 2018, a trend within Ocelot has been to brew the style for special occasions, collaborations or otherwise: Big Cat, a three-year-anniversary triple IPA, the Triple Crossing collab Seek & Destroy, and now Lean on Me.
“Double IPAs are a can seller, and Lean on Me is for charity,” explains Widman. “IPAs can be great – we love them – but this is for charity, and we want to give that money to the ADAA as quickly as possible.”
While double IPAs may sell quickly, they take longer to maturate than standard IPAs. Lean on Me was released on October 19, a full five weeks after the brew day – and one week later than initially planned. At 9.1% and hopped with copious amount of Citra and Motueka, it’s a potent brew, and it needed the extra time to mellow out. Engineering Lean on Me with the proper balance to begin with is another challenge prevalent of the style.
“The market really sought out double IPAs because it was like, ‘Here’s a punch in your face of hoppy, easy-drinking, high-alcohol beer,'”says Widman. “But to find the balance in a double IPA is really hard. You’re kind of forced to lean one way or the other. If you have too much alcohol, you have to balance it off with something else, and then you have to balance it with something else, and then you have to balance it with something else. I’m always looking for a larger beer that’s still properly balanced. It’s an ongoing fight.”
There’s no one, single way a collaboration beer takes shape.
“Collaborations really run the gamut,” Finback’s Basil Lee tells me during the Lean on Me brew day. “Some people are really involved; they really want to talk about what we want to brew and how we want to brew it. Other conversations are much more relaxed, like, ‘Let’s do this type of beer with this hop, and you figure out the rest.’ We’re very flexible.”
If there is one general rule, though, it’s that the hosting brewery takes the lead. Usually, that means proposing the beer style and floating the initial recipe.
“It’s almost like, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking. Does anyone disagree?’” says Barreled Souls’ Chris Schofield, who on the drive to Northern Virginia made a detour in New Jersey to collaborate with Magnify Brewing.
The more breweries that are involved in a collaboration, the less likely participants are to leave their fingerprints on the recipe. With its blockbuster list of participants, the megacollab was never going to meld nine brewery’s individual styles.
“If everyone had their thoughts on making this beer, we would have been fighting all day,” says Widman, who is always quick to admit that the presumed creative synthesis of any collaboration is vastly overblown. “At the end of the day, it’s just beer. I sent them the recipe, and they were like, ‘Yeah, man, this sounds good.’”
In other words, Lean on Me is an Ocelot double IPA. As this year has proven, however, while there may be commonalities between Ocelot’s double IPAs, there is no prototype. Lucky You is not Uber Home is not Seek & Destroy.
“They’re all very different iterations of a double IPA,” observes Snyder. “The grist for Lucky You is very simple: Pils and oats. And then you have something like Seek & Destroy, which was a very complicated grist of 2-row and English pale malt and some Vienna. When we’re making double IPAs, we could use the same yeast and the same grist and switch up the hops on a rotation, and I’m sure that would do very well for us, but I think it’s more interesting to give different interpretations of what a double IPA can be.”
Brewed over two days, Lean on Me began with Pilsner malt and “a lot of oat product,” according to the brewer. At almost 1800 pounds of grain, its the largest grist the brewery has utilized for a double IPA. Added at Snyder’s suggestion, the malted oats – long kernels that aren’t pregelatinized – contribute a persistent haze, while the flaked oats lend to a smooth, silky mouthfeel.
To dry out the beer, Ocelot added the simple sugar dextrose and rice – also a highly fermentable sugar, but one that can slightly accentuate bitterness. The latter adjunct made its way into the recipe after Charles Towne Fermentory brewer Justin Slotnick told Widman he always wanted to utilize it in an IPA. (Ocelot had never used rice in one of its own IPAs, but last winter it collaborated with San Diego’s Pizza Port Brewing on All of My Tomorrows – a double IPA brewed with the grain as a tribute to former Pizza Port brewer Yiga Miyashiro and his beer Man-Baby.)
But neither rice nor dextrose would dry out Lean on Me completely. In addition to its generous oat content, the megacollab was fermented with Ocelot’s House Ale 3 yeast, the brewery’s least attenuative ale strain.
“It’ll leave some more sugars behind, which should contribute to the effect that we want – sort of a big, juicy double IPA,” Snyder tells me while mashing in. “It’s our least predictable yeast strain, but it can predictably finish higher than the others.”
Ocelot’s House Ale 3 is an iteration of the Conan strain, a yeast that likely originated in England before being popularized in several notable Vermont IPAs, notably Heady Topper. Its an expressive yeast that leaves behind fruity aromatics and flavors. As the name indicates, it is also one of three ale yeasts the brewery regularly uses, although this too is beginning to change. Snyder says Ocelot’s House Ale 1, a traditional and clean-finishing Chico strain that once fermented all of Ocelot’s IPAs, is now being phased out of rotation.
“I think we’re in the process of overhauling our IPA program,” the head brewer explains. “It’s a lot to balance three different ale strains with a program like ours. And everyone’s tastes are kind of evolving. Ocelot’s IPAs have gotten a little less dry. I’ve also upped the dry-hopping ratios, and the water chemistry changes we’ve made have made a huge difference.”
From the whirlpool to the dry-hop, Lean on Me was hopped with the orangey Pacific Northwest varietal Citra and New Zealand’s Motueka.
“Adrien and I went back and forth on whether we wanted to use three varieties or two, and he was fond of trying Citra and Motueka, which is a combination that we’ve never tried here,” says Snyder. “We’ve had success blending Motueka with other American hops. It should give you that undercurrent of lime – sometimes it’s mojito, sometimes it’s really clear unadulterated lime citrus.”
If there an antecedent for Lean on Me, it’s the brewery’s Thought Control, a similarly light-bodied IPA that showcases Motueka with Comet – an orangey hop that Snyder considers “a poor man’s Citra.” But while that beer clocks in at a sessionable (by Widman’s standards) 7.2%, Lean on Me is much more of a treat at 9.1%.
“Brewing this beer is a challenge,” says Snyder. “Most of these softer double IPAs stay in the 8% range for a reason. You’re dealing with more alcohol in solution, and the fermentation has to be monitored, and you’ve got to catch it at the right time in terms of temperature. If you start it too warm and it gets too aggressive, then it can end up an aggressively boozy hop bomb that’s just a mess, which is not what we’re looking for.”
Unlike Thought Control, however, Lean on Me will likely make but one appearance in Ocelot’s tasting room. Cans of the beer have already sold out, and only four kegs will see distribution.
Designed by in-house artist David Kammerdeiner, those cans came draped in the names of the nine participating breweries, each presented in bright, funky letters as if on a festival poster from the late ‘60s. That’s the entire design: their names. It’s only in small print to side that “Lean on Me” appears.
Widman explains the concept to me late one Tuesday night in Ocelot’s tasting room, long after the tasting room staff has cleaned up and gone home. Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning” plays softly from the sound system.
“Their names are literally going to sell this beer, not ours,” he tells me. “We’re leaning on them – our friends.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
Revisit other recent Freshly Tapped profiles on Atlas Brew Works’ Solidarity Pilsner, Allagash’s Little Brett, Perennial’s Prodigal, Old Bust Head’s Table Talk, Right Proper’s Ravaged by Wolves, Bluejacket and Ocelot’s Mixed Up / Torn Down, Old Ox’s FestivALE, Port City’s Colossal 7, and 3 Stars Brewing’s ’90s hip-hop car culture series.