Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Denizens Brewing Company’s PGC Premium, an American light lager brewed Weyermann malts and flaked rice.
Five years ago, Jeff Ramirez christened a new brewhouse in a new facility with a new beer.
Well, technically, it wasn’t a new brewhouse. It was new to Denizens Brewing Company, but like everything inside the Silver Spring brewery – the other equipment, the kegs, the tables and chairs – the 20-year-old system had previously lived another life elsewhere. Oklahoma, to be specific. And Vermont before that.
The same could said for the property itself, a two-level building situated on the southern edge of the Maryland community, just a quarter mile from the DC border. Built as a American Instrument Company manufacturing plant in the 1930s, it became an incubator for failed hospitality concepts throughout the 1990s and 2000s: a Mexican restaurant, several different nightclubs, a sports bar dubiously called Babe’s.
Of course, any beer produced on Denizens’ hand-me-down brewhouse in this possibly cursed building would have been new to some degree. To that point, the brewery had yet to produce a commercial batch of beer.
But when it finally did, in June 2014, the beer Ramirez and fellow co-founders Julie Verratti and Emily Bruno chose to brew was a meaningful one: Southside Rye IPA, a 7.2% flagship named in honor of their new home in South Silver Spring.
This June, a half-decade later, Ramirez found himself in a similar situation, charged with christening a new brewhouse in a new facility with a new beer.
Except this time, he didn’t have to fix the boiler’s level sensors and pumps because corrosion had set in following months of inactivity. This time, the brewhouse was actually new – a 30-barrel, partially automated, sterling piece of equipment.
The building that housed it was new, as well. Brand new. Free from the ghosts of nightclubs past. Built for Denizens, to its specifications, in Riverdale Park, Maryland.
Ramirez tells me the property was a pile of dirt when they got here. It’s not an exaggeration, either. Concrete had yet to be poured when the brewery took possession of the space in October 2018.
“We didn’t have to brew it first – it’s a seasonal,” says Ramirez, who’s been playing catch-up on flagship production after a month-long hiatus in canning. “But it felt like the right thing to do.”
Most of this 30-barrel batch went into cans adorned with a regal amphibian and, in large print, the phrase “Always the Same, Always Premium” – a reference to the county’s motto Semper Eadem. Ever the same.
These words could also be applied to the typical consumer’s beer consumption. While a significant portion of craft beer has become infatuated with hazy IPA, pastry stouts, and kettle sours, the preferred beverage of most drinkers is ever the same: light lager.
“More and more people over the past decade are choosing independent craft beer, but if you look at the data, most people tend to stick with the Budweisers and the Coors,” observes Verratti. “They’re choosing light lagers. There aren’t a lot of independent craft beer versions of that style, but there’s a huge market for it. So, why wouldn’t we make it? Budweiser makes more money than all of craft beer combined.”
While the co-founder says PGC Premium wasn’t inspired by any particular brand, it joins a number of notable craft iterations of light lagers, often explicitly introduced to target macro drinkers, including Night Shift’s Night Lite, Founders’ Solid Gold, and Burial’s Innertube.
These beers are low in alcohol, typically clocking in at 4.5% ABV or lower. They’re brewed with corn or rice to lighten their body. They’re crisp and refreshing. And they’re usually priced lower than the rest of a craft brewery’s catalog to compete with macro brands. In the case of PGC Premium, it’s $9.99 per six-pack.
According to Verratti, who oversees sales as Denizens’ Chief Brand Officer, that cost is essentially subsidized by a slimmer profit margin on the brewery’s end. It’s part of a calculation that PGC Premium could serve as a gateway to the rest of Denizens’ offerings.
“If we sold PGC Premium completely according to our cost of goods – how we’d normally do it – we’d have to charge more,” she shares. “But I feel like this beer could really get our name out there. I think that people will enjoy this. I think it will have high velocity on the shelves. That’s why we chose that price point. We’re not going to lose money, but the margins are going to be pretty thin on this. Our margins are better on other brands, though, so it’s a trade-off.”
Premium American Lager sits atop the totem pole of American light lagers. Below it, the Standard American Lager (see: Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller High Life, “Bud Heavy”) and below that the Lite American Lager (e.g., Miller Lite, Sam Adams Light, Bud Light). At each level up, the lagers are a tad boozier, use a lower percent of adjuncts (namely, corn, rice, or sugar), and thus possess more body.
At 4.1% ABV, PGC Premium technically falls outside the BJCP guidelines for a premium lager (that would be 4.6 – 6.0%), but the beer earns that adjective – and its price tag to the brewery – in imported German malt.
For most of his beers, Ramirez utilizes a 2-row barley from Minnesota’s Rahr Malting. Others, like the flagship Czech-style Pilsner Born Bohemian, feature a blend of that functional malt and richer Weyermann malt from Bamberg – the former lightening the latter’s flavors.
But PGC Premium’s grist – or the roughly 90% that isn’t flaked rice – is exclusively Weyermann Pilsner and Munch malts.
“We use a fancy pilsner malt in it,” says Ramirez, a big smile across his face, as is often the case. “From my experience in the industry, Weyermann has always made a premium product for to work with.”
Wherever he’s worked, the New Jersey native has relished lager production. He started at Iron Hill, brewing both of the Delaware-headquartered chain’s Helles recipes, then headed to Mountain Sun in Boulder – a bastion for IBUs.
“Colorado was not a big lagerhead area,” he remembers. “It was all about IPA. But I made them let me to brew lagers.”
At Denizens, he’s faced no such resistance to lager. In addition to Born Bohemian and the spring seasonal Macadocious Maibock, Ramirez has churned out takes on Schwarzbier, hoppy Schwarzbier, Dunkel, Keller Pils, Mexican-style Vienna Lager, Dark Czech Lager, Indian Pale Lager, and California Common.
In other words, Denizens patrons have not suffered for a refreshing lager.
I ask Ramirez to explain their appeal, queuing up what I assume will be a soliloquy on simplicity and tradition and how flaws have nowhere to hide in a lager.
“The worst way I can explain it is that I like to drink,” he says, only slightly in jest. “They’re clean and sessionable. I think a lot of brewers only drink lagers. When you make alcohol for a living, you can’t be drinking high-alcohol stuff all the time.”
From Ramirez’s perspective, the decision to brew PGC Premium – and he gamely takes full credit for the initial idea – was hardly a data-driven decision. It was just part of his larger exploration of bottom-fermenting yeast.
“Over the last five years, we’ve made a lot of lagers,” says the head brewer, “but the one thing we haven’t done is make a Premium American Lager – or a lot of American lager, in general.”
While the incorporation of adjuncts is a defining characteristic of American light lagers, it was somewhat paradoxically in Germany that Ramirez first warmed to using them.
Almost a decade ago, the brewer traveled to Munich for the last 5 weeks of the Siebel Institute’s 12-week WBA International Diploma in Brewing Technology program. Ramirez remembers that the technical aspects of the program weren’t especially insightful – after all, he had already been brewing professionally for a few years – but hearing the German brewers discuss ingredients and the microbiology of recipe formulation was eye-opening.
“We were talking about how lager was made traditionally, and they were like, ‘We don’t do it here, but we recommend using an adjunct like rice or corn for palatability,’” he says. “That’s the word they used – palatability, whatever that means. Basically, corn and rice and even sugar lighten up a lager. They boost alcohol while drying the beer out. As long as an adjunct isn’t the main component, it can make product better when that’s the goal.”
There’s a long history of corn and rice in lager production in the U.S. As Wise Acre Brewing points out in a tidy explainer on the subject, German immigrants are believed to have first used rice to help recreate their homeland’s clear and bubbly lagers, which were difficult to produce with solely American-grown 6-row barley. Nevertheless, as the craft beer movement took root in the 1990s and 2000s, many brewers looked down on those “naughty ingredients” because of their association with industrial macro lagers and the (misplaced) belief that they were invariably cheaper ingredients than malt.
This demonization has slowly but surely begun crumbling in recent years. More and more breweries have embraced the utility of corn and rice, as well as their place in both U.S. beer and agricultural history. (Locally, this drum has been beaten loudly by Black Narrows Brewing founder Josh Chapman, in addition to Lost Lagers beer historian Mike Stein.)
Prior to PGC Premium, Ramirez wasn’t unpracticed in the adjunct lager arts. In 2010, he produced a Pre-Prohibition Pilsner at Mountain Sun, and he faintly recalls attempting to clone Coors Banquet Beer as a homebrewer before that.
Both beers featured corn, but that wasn’t an adjunct he sought include in the new Premium American Lager, largely because Weyermann malt contains a precursor for dimethyl sulfide – an off-flavor that tastes like canned corn to some people. (Ramirez tastes SpaghettiOs.) Like all off-flavors, dimethyl sulfide can be driven off, but introducing a corn flavor in the form of actual corn to this particular beer felt like a potential headache. So, the head brewer opted for flaked rice, which accounts for a little less than 10% of the grist.
Ramirez hopped PGC Premium with the European varietal Styrian Golding, a choice that’s consistent with the traditional American light lagers. It lends the beer a mix of noble, floral, spicy, even slightly citrusy characteristics. That said, neither the style nor this particular beer are particularly hop-forward, so those notes won’t bowl over drinkers.
And, in one of the last stages of producing the beer, Ramirez fermented it with Denizens’ house lager strain, which also chews through the sugars of Born Bohemian and the Mexican-style Vienna Lager Buena Onda.
“Simply put, we made a Munich Helles recipe with rice using a Bohemian strain,” he tells me, cutting to the tl;dr chase. “That’s it.”
Ramirez essentially piloted PGC Premium in Silver Spring last summer as a limited release timed to coincide with Denizens’ announcement of the Riverdale Park location. Returning to the recipe ten months later, the brewer didn’t make any alterations to his proportions or techniques, but the lager nevertheless turned out slightly different.
“I feel like it tasted a little maltier last year,” he observes, sipping a pint on the production floor with Verratti and me.
“It did,” she concurs. “This has a little cleaner finish, which I prefer. I like crisper, cleaner.”
This modest change can be attributed to the efficiencies of the new brewing system. As DC Brau has discussed from its own experience, scaling up existing recipes on bigger, more modern systems has an effect on the final products, though these differences are unlikely to be perceived by the average consumer.
Such has been the case with Denizens core brands Southside Rye, Born Bohemian, Lowest Lord ESB, and Third Party Tripel. And it’s the new normal: Going forward, each of these beers will be produced exclusively in Riverdale Park – double brewed on the 30-barrel system to fill one of the facility’s five 60-barrel fermenters.
The location will also produce seasonals like PGC Premium and Macadocious Maibock, in addition to a handful of popular one-offs like Cool Breeze Oatmeal Stout, Blanc Yeah! Saison, and Boho Chic, a delectable Bohemian-style Pilsner. (Riverdale Park has two horizontal tanks, which are ideal for lagers and come closest to duplicating the fermentation character of Silver Spring’s open fermenters.)
On the whole, however, Denizens will be streamlining its portfolio in Prince George’s County with an eye towards getting cans of key brands on more shelves.
“We’ve produced over 100 beers since we’ve opened,” Verratti says. “We’re tightening the amount of different beers we make, and then we’re making higher volume of the ones we think will move. I don’t think you’re going to be seeing any brand new beers coming out of us for a while.”
By extension of this logic, Denizens doesn’t have any interest in entering the current rat race of monthly (or even weekly) one-off can releases.
“No one has time to hit up 25 different breweries on a Saturday when they’re all doing can releases,” the co-founder quips. “It’s not special anymore. Everyone keeps doing the same thing.”
The original Silver Spring location – officially rebranded the Barrel House & Beer Garden – will continue producing beer under the watch of Lead Brewer Dave Vogelpohl. With the canning line migrating to Riverdale Park, these offerings will be draft only and include more niche seasonals, all sour and wild ales, and the hop-bursted, juicy IPA Animal, which Ramirez wants to keep fresh by only brewing 15 barrels at a time. While a small portion of this output will go into distribution, the larger goal is serving the Silver Spring and Riverdale Park taprooms.
This has always been the plan for Denizens – or at least since it realized it couldn’t satiate the demand for both distribution and on-premise sales, and thus started looking for a larger production facility two years ago. Verratti characterizes the initial search as “casual,” but it quickly intensified when a Riverdale Park development landlord invited the brewery to come look at the space in August 2017. After months of negotiation, Denizens signed a lease last March and started construction by November.
In building out the space, each of the three founders had certain features in mind. Verratti wanted better access to distribution and more cold storage. (If she’s being honest, though, her favorite feature is an office with a door that locks.) After five years in a cramped space, Ramirez wanted to be able to brew, package, and perform cellar work – all at the same time.
“I wanted the same thing [as Silver Spring], but, you know, more efficiently,” he tells me. “We can do every single thing here.”
Ramirez is splitting time between both facilities. In Riverdale Park, he’s assisted by Head Brewer Ryan Harvey – a 22-year veteran of the brewing community – and Tim Fothergill, a Lab and Packaging Manager who joined Denizens from 3 Stars.
“Having that level of professionalism to work with and get stuff done – it’s killer ,” he says. “This is the biggest system I’ve ever worked on, but it’s all the same processes.”
The day I’m visiting Riverdale Park – the last Wednesday in June – marks the first weekday in over a month that Denizens hasn’t been brewing there. Ramirez and his team have been furiously trying to fill that cold storage room, in part to make up for a month’s break in canning, in part to prepare for an expansion of its distribution. (Expect an announcement from the brewery on the latter subject in the coming weeks.)
On the following Monday, Ramirez will be rebrewing PGC Premium – this time, a full 60-barrel batch. Verratti is ready to see the lager the beer in stores across Maryland and DC.
“From a sales perspective, I’m just really excited to get this in the market,” she shares. “This is the perfect beer to put in cans. When Jeff suggested the name and concept for this beer, I said, ‘Absolutely, make that. We can sell the shit out of this.’”
Despite naming the lager in tribute to Denizens’ new neighborhood and its residents, Ramirez admits to not being particularly familiar with Prince George’s County prior to the Riverdale Park expansion
“The most I knew about Prince George’s County was Wale,” the brewer says. “When I was in college, my friend used to bring me mixtapes – that’s how I discovered Wale, and that’s pretty much all I knew about this county.”
Verratti likens Riverdale Park to the fictional community of “The Andy Griffith Show”.
“I like describing it as Mayberry but diverse,” the Chief Beer Officer tells me. “It’s a town. Everybody knows each other. We’ve only been here for a few months but I feel like I know all the faces.”
Despite this familiarity, Verratti says Denizens has had to work harder than expected to let the community know that they are indeed open for business and that, as in Silver Spring, the taproom has a fully functional kitchen cooking up fresh, unfrozen ingredients. Understandably, after investing so much in the new facility, the co-founders are anxious for it to yield dividends.
“I feel even more pressure with this one – mostly because I don’t have a day job anymore,” Verratti shares. “When we opened Silver Spring, I was still working part time. It was like, ‘Well, at least I know my mortgage has been paid.’ Now, it’s like, ‘Well, gotta sell some beer.’”
Denizens is hoping that PGC Premium will resonate not just because it’s a higher-quality alternative to macro light lagers, but also because it’s made in the consumer’s backyard.
“The vast majority of what’s brewed and consumed in the U.S. is American light lagers and premium imports,” Verratti says. “So, we have a Mexican Vienna lager and now we have PGC Premium. We’re just trying to make a locally manufactured beer in the style of what most people who drink beer are trying to drink. It’s literally made right here in Riverdale Park.”
Scanning social media the other day, the co-founder found encouragement that this idea was getting through to the county’s residents.
“We had someone tweet a picture of a PGC Premium can at us, and he was like, ‘This beer is awesome. I’m so proud it was made in my hometown,’” Verratti recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, you just made my day.’ Because we’re so proud, too. I feel like I’m getting a little emotional just talking about it.”
She’s not joking. Verratti’s eyes have welled up.
“It takes so much to open a business,” she continues, unsuccessfully fighting back tears. “It’s really cool to have that type of support. It makes me so proud.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.
Revisit other recent Freshly Tapped profiles on DC Brau and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Hotel Amarillo, Allagash’s Darling Ruby, Atlas Brew Works’ The Precious One, Port City’s Colossal 8, Ocelot’s Lean on Me, and Perennial’s Prodigal.