The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Today, our beer is Ocelot Brewing’s Sunnyside Dweller, a 5.1% dry-hopped pilsner.
Ocelot Brewing’s IPAs invariably appear straw pale yellow. They possess prickly bitter backbones. And, as with other Ocelot beers, their recipes are not to be rebrewed with any regularity – if more than once at all.
Three years and 11 months ago, Mike McCarthy sat in a dim corner of Alexandria’s Rustico and explained these things to me. At the time, he was Ocelot’s head brewer, and, at the time, everything he was saying rang true.
Opened in spring 2015 by IT-consultant-turned-homebrewer Adrien Widman, Ocelot made its name with a parade of one-and-done San Diego-esque IPAs – focused “on hops, not balance” – along with thick, high-gravity imperial stouts, Scotch ales, and barleywines. (As its original website declared: “We like big beers and we cannot lie!”)
The Dulles brewery’s eschewal of flagships was partly attributable to business savvy. Widman understood that consumers’ interests were fleeting, and familiarity bred… well, not contempt, but perhaps disinterest. “If we had Home full time, you’d get tired of it … you’d drink it less and less,” he had told The Washington Post a few months earlier. “If you get it twice a year, you’ll drink the shit out of it.”
But like almost everything within Ocelot, this model was also a reflection of its founder’s personal preferences.
“I get tired of my own beer, too,” Widman has admitted. “We make a batch, and by the time it’s gone, we’re onto the next one. If I’m tired of a beer after a month, I don’t want to see it year round.”
There’s an exception to this rule, though – a beer that Widman has never tired of drinking. A beer that would eventually become the closest thing Ocelot has to a core offering. This beer hadn’t attained that status on July 12, 2016, but it was well on its way.
“We have a pilsner about to come out again called Sunnyside Dweller,” McCarthy told me that evening. “We’re on our third batch of it in seven months. We talk about Ocelot not repeating beers, but it’s our dirty little secret. It’s a hoppy lager, but it’s a pilsner and it’s clean. A lot of people are like, ‘That’s the best beer you make.’”
That batch of hoppy lager would be tapped in Ocelot’s high-ceilinged tasting room on August 4, Three weeks later, a keg of the already “staff favorite” was shipped to Denver for competition in the Great American Beer Festival. Then, on an early October morning, Sunnyside Dweller would be awarded the gold medal in the Kellerbier or Zwickelbier category – an honor bestowed upon Russian River Brewing and its STS Pils the previous year.
Later that day, elsewhere within the Colorado Convention Center, McCarthy and Widman’s brother Sebastian were working Ocelot’s booth, pouring Sunnyside Dweller, when they were approached by Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, owners of the iconic California brewery.
“They walked right up, cups in hand, and said, ‘We just wanted to taste the beer that won,’” remembers McCarthy. “We happened to be at the very end of a keg that had been tapped for a long time, so we asked one the beer runners to go gets us a fresh keg, and they were gracious enough to stand there and wait. And then Vinnie enjoyed it. He said good job. It was cool that they would take the time to do that.”
At the 2017 edition of the industry gathering, the Cilurzos proved less patient.
“I was walking past Russian River, carrying a bunch of bottles, and Vinnie stops me and says, ‘Is that Sunnyside you got there?’” recalls Widman. “ I said yeah, and he says, ‘I’ll be taking a bottle of that, thank you.’”
That year, Ocelot had opted to enter Sunnyside Dweller as a German-style pilsner rather than a kellerbier. Yes, it was hoppy, unfiltered, and quite hazy while young, but no one within the brewery thought of it as a Franconian kellerbier. In fact, Ocelot had introduced the beer as a “German Pils” in November 2015. So, why not see how it would score in that category?
But despite Sunnyside Dweller’s growing reputation among brewers, it did not fare as well in competition.
“The judges knocked the shit out of it,” says Widman. “It’s not clear. The nose is too hoppy. It just doesn’t fit into a pilsner category. Which is fine – we don’t really give a fuck.”
Indifference aside, this does beg the question: What exactly is Sunnyside Dweller?
In truth, it wasn’t conceived as any kind of a rigorously true-to-style beer. A few months earlier, McCarthy had merely suggested brewing a pale lager as a counterprogramming measure of sorts.
“We needed something that was clean and crisp to contrast all the bigger beers we were doing – you know, My Only Friend, big stouts, IPAs,” says McCarthy. “We needed a beer to round things out. And like a lot of brewers, I love drinking lagers. I love pils, I love helles, and on and on.”
Prior to joining Ocelot, McCarthy had been a lager-loving professional brewer for over a dozen years. Eight of them had been spent as executive brewer for local brewpub chain Capital City – an opportunity that allowed him the freedom to make “anything and everything” he wanted. It was there that he developed an unfiltered German pilsner recipe that would serve as the jumping off point for Sunnyside Dweller.
“100% Mike’s idea, 100% Mike’s recipe,” Widman says of the beer’s origins. “He knew what we were about at Ocelot, and he had a desire to create a beer to fit both that and what he wanted in a pilsner. And he nailed it.”
According to Jack Snyder, Ocelot’s current head brewer, the recipe for Sunnyside Dweller hasn’t significantly changed since that first brew. Like most Ocelot IPAs at the time, its grist is almost entirely Briess Pilsen malt, an American two-row barley with diastatic power that Snyder likens to rocket fuel. On its own, it produces extraordinarily light-colored, often dry beers, so to introduce “an essence of maltiness,” McCarthy also added a dash of Vienna and Carapils malts to the mix.
“It’s not a classic German pilsner, which is usually just pilsner malt,” explains McCarthy. “If I had my way, I would have decocted it, not because malts aren’t modified enough these days – you just get a different beer when you boil mash and there’s maillard reaction and caramelization. But our base malt worked really well for us in our IPAs, and I figured the other malts would add a little more color and little more body without being decocted.”
This grist is mashed with unadulterated Loudoun County tap water. In this regard, it is the only Ocelot beer not buffered with salt additions. Profiling as somewhat neutral, the local H2O’s character falls somewhere between the water found in Germany’s primary spheres of pilsner production: the north (where the water is “hard” and thus accentuates bitterness) and Bavaria (whose comparatively “soft” water contributes to a more mellow hop character).
But if its wort exists in a Germanic no man’s land, Sunnyside Dweller decidedly shifts towards the north not long after it enters the kettle. There, early in the boil, it receives a big charge of Magnum, a high-alpha German bittering hop. 30 minutes later, there’s another sizable German hop addition, this time in the form of Spalter Select. Finally, in the last 10 minutes, Spalter Select is once more tossed in, now for aromatic effect. All in all, it’s 60 minutes of contact time with German noble hops.
“Sunnyside doesn’t have a riding bitterness, but it’s one of those pilsners with a bit more of a hop bite,” says Snyder, who calls the beer a “pseudo north German pils.” “There’s not really a whole lot of malt character to distract from that noble hop character, and I think that was the intent from the beginning.”
In many ways, the light and crisp Sunnyside Dweller is a vehicle to showcase Spalter Select, a hop that McCarthy grew enamored with while at Capital City. Derived from the old school German cultivars Hallertauer Mittelfrüh and Spalt Spalter, Spalter Select was first commercially planted in 1993. It’s therefore not a traditional German varietal, but it’s also not one of the next-generation cultivars like Hüll Melon, Mandarina Bavaria, or Hallertau Blanc that brought the vibrantly citrusy and tropical fruit flavors of new world hops to German soil over the past decade.
“There’s a citrusy lemon quality to it,” observes McCarthy, “but not overly so – you still get that super nice, classic herbal flavor.”
Spalter Select’s aromatic presence is amplified towards the end of fermentation, when Sunnyside Dweller is dry-hopped. At 3/4 pounds per barrel, it’s a subtle dry-hop, but it’s another deviation from a classic north German pilsner. While those beers can be quite hoppy – look no further than Bluejacket’s unapologetically bitter rendition of the style, Love Cats – they were not historically dry-hopped. Moreover, until 2012, the Reinheitsgebot purity laws expressly forbade adding hops during or after fermentation.
“I wanted to introduce a little more German hop character,” explains McCarthy. “Certainly, I was not the first person to dry-hop a pilsner.”
Indeed, the decision to dry-hop Sunnyside Dweller was partly inspired by McCarthy’s love of Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils, a pilsner that’s also bittered with Magnum and hopped with Spalter Select, then finished on the cold side with the newer German varietal Saphir. First brewed in 2012, it’s one of the most influential American beers of the past decade – a blueprint for countless hoppy lagers that followed.
But while Pivo Pils’ malts and yeast are German as well, Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson has long said his own inspiration was an Italian beer: Birrifico Italiano’s Tipopils Crafted by Lombardy brewer Agostino Arioli almost 25 years ago, Tipopils is credited with introducing the concept of a German-style lager dry-hopped with Europe’s floral, spicy noble varietals.
This idea spread through the Italian craft beer scene and, eventually, to Paso Robles. From there, Pivo Pils would open the eyes of brewers like McCarthy who, consciously or not, extended the legacy of Tipopils.
At the time, no one had a coined a name for these technically off-style beers. Then, in the fall of 2017, Oxbow Brewing introduced Luppolo, an unfiltered dry-hopped pale lager that the Maine brewery dubbed an “Italian-style pilsner” in tribute to Tipopils and its Italian contemporaries, like Birrificio del Ducato’s Viaemilia. The name stuck, and in the proceeding years, Italian-style pilsners have grown more and more popular in American craft beer.
“Italian pilsners are all the rage,” says McCarthy, who happens to be drinking Schilling Beer’s Birra Alpinista as we talk over the phone. “Back then, I didn’t really even know about that subset of lagers. I had never even tried Tipopils. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Sunnyside Dweller is an Italian-style pilsner.’”
As Jeff Alworth wrote recently, however, it’s more than dry-hopping that distinguishes Tipopils and other tried-and-true Italian-style pilsners from its German brethren.
“That’s a big part of the picture, but there are a couple other elements that need to be present,” argues the author, who spent time with Arioli for his 2017 book Secrets of Master Brewers. “Increasingly, I’m encountering examples that are too thin and lacking in malt character; beers that are overly bitter and top-heavy with hops. They lack the softness and complexity of Tipopils – elements that are central to the ‘Italianness’ of the style.”
With its pale yellow hue and assertive bitterness, Sunnyside Dweller is not likely to be mistaken for Tipopils in a blind tasting. But that was never the point. As Snyder sees it, in retrospect, Ocelot’s pilsner grafted the “dry-hopped vibrance” of an Italian-style pilsner onto “the canvas of a north German pilsner.”
As if to underscore the point, Snyder set about making a veritable Italian-style pilsner earlier this year. He started with a base of Beztmalz pilsen malt, a German-grown two-row barley that’s less modified and kilned slightly higher than its Briess equivalent, and thus brings more color, body, and maltiness to a pilsner. And while Tipopils is dry-hopped with Spalter Select, Snyder avoided the hop that defines Sunnyside Dweller in favor of three other German cultivars: Saphir, Hallertau Mittelfrüh, and Tettnang.
“I wanted to get away from that bouquet of lemon and herbs,” the brewer explains. “I wanted something different, something that had had a little more perceived orange citrus, a little spice, a little resin, a little earth.”
These hops were introduced later in the brew to reduce the bitterness they contribute. And, in contrast to Sunnyside Dweller, which is dry-hopped at the end of fermentation, Snyder opted to dry-hop his Italian-style pilsner – cheekily named Italics – after over a month of conditioning, an effort to intensify the varietals’ distinct perfume.
“At its barest, most face value, Italics is strikingly different from most pilsners that we do,” he says. “That’s been a project since I took over: leave Sunnyside unaltered and build other options around it.”
Employed by Ocelot since January 2017, Snyder assumed the head brewer role in July the following year, when McCarthy left to open his own venture Vibrissa Beer in Winchester. Snyder speaks softly, with an academic thoughtfulness – not unexpected for someone who holds a Masters in creative writing from George Mason University – but he’s brought radical changes to Ocelot.
Once defined by those pale, dry, San Diego-esque IPAs, the brewery’s IPA program has become arguably the region’s most diverse. In addition to juggling three different house ale strains, Snyder has created or revised dozens upon dozens of IPA recipes so that most have their own unique grists of pale malts and often wheats and oats. And while it’s attracted less attention, he’s also turned Ocelot into one of the area’s premier lager breweries.
“Adrien tends to drink IPAs more, but he’s never bristled at expanding the lager program,” says Snyder. “As Mike was transitioning out, Adrien and I talked at length about wanting to grow our offerings and keep pushing on different things. If you looked at Ocelot’s beers, especially at the beginning, there was a boldness that you had to be on board with. Our password for the public Wi-Fi is still ilikebigbeers, but he has allowed the brewery to evolve outside that in a lot of ways.”
Snyder posited that Ocelot’s tasting room draft board had a tendency to become oversaturated with IPAs, and that inevitably the newest IPAs would cannibalize sales of the older ones. On the cost side, lagers required a longer production runway, but their ingredients were less expensive, and their yields were higher, and their flavors held together longer. And Snyder believed that patrons, like brewers, were increasingly interested in more sessionable, approachable, drier beers. In the end, he successfully pitched Widman on dedicating two of its seven 30-barrel fermentation tanks to lager production.
In the ensuing two years, Snyder has introduced an additional pair of regularly recurring lagers in the form of Helles Awaits and the Hüll Melon dry-hopped pilsner Lamp. His inaugural lager was a one-off called Olé – the brewery’s first pilsner since Sunnyside Dweller – and his most recent is the forthcoming Bohemian-style pilsner Rhapsodic. He’s overseen collaborative efforts to produce a Franconian-style kellerbier, a pale lager brewed with flaked maize, and a session India Pale Lager inspired by the IPA Home. (Full disclosure: I was a participant in the formulation of the IPL.) He’s even overhauled the recipes for Ocelot’s festbier Witching Hour and the Baltic porter Powers of Observation, a bronze medal winner at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. All the while, though, one lager has remained more or less constant, both in formulation and availability.
“I haven’t changed anything about Sunnyside aside from a few small procedural things that would largely go unnoticed,” says Snyder. “That was out of respect to Mike, who made a beer that’s so beloved. Why mess with something that’s been successful? I would rather brew a new lager that tries to achieve a different thing, especially in the context of Ocelot’s model, where we have the luxury to experiment, to roll new stuff out, to either tweak beers or abandon them.”
In an ironic twist, the main thing preventing Ocelot from producing more new lagers is the popularity of the pilsner that put the brewery’s lager program on the map.
“Given how long lagers take, it’s easy for the schedule to get eaten up by Sunnyside,” Snyder explains. “Because you know I have to get Sunnyside in the tank every few weeks. We’ve committed the tank space and the time and energy to producing a lager beer year round. Not everyone is doing that, and not everyone has to do that, but I think people appreciate that we have it on regularly.”
At this point, Sunnyside Dweller has been produced more than any other Ocelot beer. Widman estimates that the pilsner is on tap in the tasting room 90% of the time. And even when it’s not on the chalkboard, there’s always a keg reserved for staff. On a similar note, Ocelot regularly lugs a case of the Sunnyside Dweller to beer festivals – just for the drinking pleasure of fellow brewers
“Everyone is pouring double IPAs and imperial stouts, which is what customers want to drink,” says Widman. “In the back, we just want to chug pilsners. And now if I don’t bring Sunnyside, they want to jump me. They’re like, ‘What the fuck?”
“Sunnyside is definitely the go-to shift beer for most of us,” adds Snyder. “It’s definitely near and dear to our hearts.”
When the beer was first tapped, McCarthy says the response on the other side of the bar was positive, though not necessarily emphatic. Ocelot has long been a meeting ground for the beer industry – brewers, sales reps, and owners from other breweries can almost always be found congregating there – and the crisp, clean Sunnyside Dweller immediately struck a chord with that collection of experienced palates. For the other brewery regulars, it was a slower burn.
“Even today, people like lagers, but they don’t make the same kind of noise as IPAs or whatnot,” McCarthy tells me. “People seemed to enjoy it, there was great feedback, but it took a little time before people were asking, ‘When is Sunnyside coming back? How long until it’s back?’ Then we started getting people messaging and e-mailing us about when it would be back because they wanted growlers.”
While Ocelot had rebrewed one or two beers in its first year, Sunnyside Dweller’s initial four-and-a-half-month turnaround was by far the quickest something had reappeared in the tasting. The next batch came four months after that. And by the fourth batch, the window had shortened to two-and-a-half months.
“We don’t repeat beers was very much a mantra in the beginning – it was all about new stuff, all the time – but when Sunnyside came out it was a ‘never say never’ kind of thing,” observes McCarthy, “People just really, really wanted it. The customer reaction was undeniable. It’s something we didn’t get sick of, either. You’d drink the new fresh IPAs, and then finish off with Sunnyside. Pilsner has been around a long time for a reason, you know? There’s something super important about drinkability.”
When Ocelot has let kegs of the Sunnyside Dweller leave the brewery – something it does rather parsimoniously – the pilsner has been greeted with similar fanfare.
“Sunnyside crushed pretty much from the day we put it on tap,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for the Meridian Pint restaurant group. “It definitely falls into the Pivo style, where it’s a bit more brash and flavor forward than your standard lager, especially with the dry hopping, and that really helped it stand out. But it’s still so crisp and clean. Anytime we can have a keg on, it’s a top-three seller that week.”
Snyder describes the beer’s local following as “kinda cultish.”
“Looking at our in-house numbers, Sunnyside is always up there, which is a little surprising given how popular our IPAs are,” the brewer shares. “There are Sunnyside diehards, and it’s interesting to talk with them when a new lager comes out and get feedback. I think we’re pushing them to get outside their familiarity – which is one pale lager – and try others. I think that’s the gateway to being able to detect nuance, and I just think there’s joy in that. But I’m not going to tell anybody what they have to appreciate; that’s nonsense.”
Like the vast majority of Ocelot’s beers, Sunnyside Dweller’s name is drawn from a song lyric. Typically, those songs come from Widman’s favorite rock bands: Wilco, Phish, The National, The Doors. But the Sunnyside Dweller reference is a much deeper cut. It’s a callback to The Circle Six, a West Virginia band fronted by Steve Rubin. In the late ’90s, Rubin attended West Virginia University, where he was friends with both Widman and McCarthy.
“Adrien and I weren’t super close back then, but we knew each other,” says McCarthy. “At one point, we lived across the street. And Sunnyside was a neighborhood of Morgantown – a famous neighborhood, the couch-burning neighborhood. That’s where it all went down.”
Widman calls Ocelot a West Virginia University bar. There’s a WVU flag displayed prominently in the tasting room, which has hosted official football tailgates for area alumni. It feels appropriate that the brewery’s only near-permanent fixture would be named in honor of the college. Designed by David Kammerdiener, Sunnyside Dweller’s blue and gold can label art nods to the WVU logo and has, in turn, made its way onto t-shirts and pilsner glasses.
“Sunnyside has turned into its own little brand in a way,” observes McCarthy.
Like any good brand, Sunnyside Dweller has now been cross-branded. In May, Ocelot released Yachtside Party Dweller, a collaboration with Charles Town Fermentory. Conceptually, it’s an amalgam of Sunnyside Dweller and the South Carolina brewery’s light American lager Yacht Party.
“It’s a neat mash-up of the two,” says Snyder. “Adam [Goodwin] and I worked pretty closely on the beer. It required me to learn a lot about how they approach Yacht Party.”
Yachtside Party Dweller’s grist combines Sunnyside Dweller’s base of Briess Pilsen malt with Yacht Party’s flaked rice and flaked maize – though, at about half the rate that Charles Town Fermentory uses the adjuncts. Of course, the 4.7% lager is hopped with Spalter Select.
“The profile of Spalter Select is essential to Sunnyside,” adds Snyder. “The predominant character, when it’s at its best, is that bright lemon character.”
However, the brewer made a concerted effort to peel back Sunnyside Dweller’s bitterness. To achieve a “softer presentation,” he introduced hops later in the boil. Then, in a move that distances it further from an Italian-style pilsner, he opted not to dry-hop the beer.
“The concept of Yacht Party is definitely much more of an American lager,” Snyder explains, “so we wanted to hybridize that with a north German essence and just make a balanced American lager that’s a little less adjunct-forward and captures the pungency that Sunnyside can have.”
Unlike Yachtside Party Dweller – which Ocelot is hoping to rebrew annually – and Helles Awaits, two lagers that taste essentially the same on the day they’re kegged as they will two months down the road, Sunnyside Dweller is a beer with pungency that wanes over time. It evolves.
“Early on, the beer is hoppy, but unlike an IPA that gets out of balance with time, a less-hoppy Sunnyside is still drinkable and enjoyable,” says McCarthy. “It just doesn’t have that upfront hop kick to it.”
Since January, McCarthy has been consulting full-time for Purcellville’s Adroit Theory, improving their processes and helping plan an expansion. The experienced brewer is still working towards opening Vibrissa Beer. After weathering a few setbacks, the brewery has found a new location in Winchester and is in possession of a bright, shiny German brewhouse. Once it’s up and running, rest assured there will be a dry-hopped German pilsner brewed on the system.
“We’re going to make something similar, but I’m not going to make Sunnyside,” he shares. “I lived there, you know what I mean? I made a beer at Ocelot, it was successful, and I’m leaving it there. I’ll make something in the vein of an Italian pilsner, and then I’ll use my Spalter Select in a helles lager or something else. There are so many other things I’d like to do with a pilsner, but I’m really proud of Sunnyside. I love everything about it: the WVU reference, the way it came out, the way people reacted to it, the logo on the can. Everything was just really good. I’ll make a different beer, and it’ll be fine.”
McCarthy is not concerned that the Sunnyside Dweller “exists in a lot of in between,” to borrow Snyder’s turn of phrase.
“The fact that it doesn’t fall perfectly within style comes second place to the fact that it’s just a really enjoyable crisp drinkable beer,” says McCarthy. “I certainly like brewing to style, but good beer is good beer. It doesn’t have to be what history says it should be. There are plenty of great beers that don’t fit their style to exactly what it says on the paper, and it doesn’t make a difference.”
Here, the brewer and his old boss are simpatico.
“People are still confused,” says Widman. “They’re like, ‘Sunnyside is a pilsner… but it won for kellerbier. What is it?’ I’m like, ‘It could be the same thing if you want it to be.’”
The founder shrugs.
“Sunnyside is Sunnyside.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.