It is not my intention to keep bringing up the Maine Beer Company thing.
“It’s OK,” Mark Fulton assures me, a good-natured but distinct resignation in his voice, “I get it a lot.”
It’s just… the bottles.
To this, the head brewer of Reason Beer has to smile.
“Yeah, that one’s kind of on the nose, isn’t it?”
Here’s the thing about the bottles: Even as aluminum cans become increasingly de rigueur in craft beer, Fulton and his two Reason Beer partners still love the size of a half-liter glass vessel. That’s especially the case when it comes to lower-alcohol beer, which just so happens to be Reason Beer’s forte.
“It’s a good volume of product,” explains the brewer. “You can sit down, drink the whole thing by yourself, and be like, ‘Right on.’ At the same time, it’s also enough that if you split a bottle with somebody, there’s actually a decent amount of beer.”
Almost two years ago, when the Charlottesville brewery was still in its planning stages, the Reason Beer team headed to the Craft Brewers Conference with the intent of purchasing a bottling machine and lining up the inventory to run through it. On the latter front, the three would narrow their 500 mL options down to ten or so designs. The only problem was that they were almost all logistically impractical.
“As soon as we started drilling down on those bottles, the supplier would be like, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool one. We get, like, three pallets of it a year,’” Fulton recalls. “And we were like, ‘Well, that would work right now, but we’re trying to design this thing for the longer game.’”
The one half-liter bottle that was readily available, easily scalable, and intangibly appealing had a slender design with a silhouette that slowly and elegantly bends from its base, up the neck, to the top.
Fulton was not unfamiliar with this bottle: It’s the same one used by Maine Beer Company, the widely adored but scantly distributed New England brewery where he served as head brewer prior to co-founding Reason Beer.
“We really wanted to use that volume, and we have to be able to guarantee the supply of bottles three or four years down the road, so we ended up having to go with the same fucking bottles that Maine Beer uses,” the brewer says. “I take a lot of licks on it. It’s fine. It’s only fair.”
If Fulton sounds mildly exasperated, perhaps it’s because he’s spent the past few years trying to walk a very fine line. On one hand, the Charlottesville native is implementing the lessons learned brewing at and literally building Maine Beer Company, and his affiliation with that revered brewery has certainly opened doors for Reason Beer. At the same time, Fulton is consciously starting his own thing, in his hometown, making ales that his old brewery either hasn’t attempted (an old-world grisette, an American blonde) or has essentially abandoned (the black IPA), with a particular focus.
In other words, Fulton is not trying to simply replicate Maine Beer Company south of the Mason-Dixon.
Of course, this is all inside baseball to a certain degree. The average person walking into Reason Beer doesn’t see its fridge, glowing bright and stocked top to bottom with meticulously positioned bottles, and think of Lunch or Dinner. It just sees beer, packaged with a sleek and minimal design, their monolexical names – Pale, Saison, Black, Blonde – printed on stocky white paper labels.
“I wanted something that stripped away any kind of embellishment or over-the-top visual qualities to be something that’s just very pure, very clean, very straightforward,” says co-founder J. Patrick Adair, the man responsible for all of Reason Beer’s design work. “In that sense, I definitely took a cue from the beer: We really let the flavor and the aroma shine through, without a lot of bitterness or booze added on top. In general, we wanted to see if we could make a brewery that really stood upon the quality and the creativity of the beer itself.”
From the beer to the packaging to the people who engineer both, there’s a quiet confidence that carries across Reason Beer. Nothing about how the company presents itself jumps up and down, screaming for your attention. Everything is balanced, nuanced, and, well, perfectly reasonable.
“It’s kind of a reflection of our personalities,” Fulton says. “The names happened organically: As the styles started coming into focus during the development process, it just seemed fitting. We had brainstormed names for a while, but we never really got anywhere, never really found anything that we loved. And it’s a total quagmire to name alcohol right now – you have to check anything against every alcoholic beverage, not just beer, and the way that intellectual property works in this country, you have to defend it or lose it, so everyone is super jumpy. But you cannot copyright ‘name of brewery’ plus ‘style of beer.’”
It makes sense.
However, while the three co-founders of Reason Beer share a proclivity for reasoned sensibility, they do not share responsibilities. Fulton, the only of the three to currently reside in the Charlottesville area, handles the beer: its recipe development, its brewing, its day-to-day care, every single day. A set designer on the west coast, Adair is responsible for marketing and design. And the third piece of the puzzle, Jeff Raileanu, handles the business side of the operation.
“I’m comfortable with lawyers and spreadsheets, so that’s kind of my role, besides pouring some beer here on the weekends,” the Alexandria-based antitrust economist tells me, standing behind the tasting room bar on a Friday in early November. “We each have these unique skill sets that we’ve brought together, and we’ve come back home to launch what we think is some of the best beer you can make.”
The story of Reason Beer is indeed one of homecoming. It starts with Fulton’s desire to be closer to his family, but its roots stretch through decades of friendship.
Like many pubescent boys, J. Patrick Adair and Mark Fulton were brought together by video games. The two first began socializing during middle school, huddling around Fulton’s computer to chainsaw space demons in the gory sci-fi romp DOOM. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Adair’s relationship with Raileanu developed along a more civilized course of cutthroat competition.
“If I got a 95 on a test, Jeff was the guy that got a 96,” Adair says. “It was a good-natured rivalry. We were both kind of nerdy, so we developed a bit of a simpatico around that.”
The three grew up doing typical suburban kid things together: ski trips, camping, biking. Adair and Raileanu attended Albemarle High School – an institution just one mile down the street from where Reason Beer stands today – while Fulton, a year older, graduated from nearby Charlottesville High School. Afterwards, Raileanu headed to Duke University, but Adair and Fulton didn’t stray far from home, enrolling at the University of Virginia.
“We all ended up shooting off in different directions,” Adair says. “It was kind of the beer thing that kept us in touch so much.”
Inspired in part by a revelatory pint of Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale, the future set designer started homebrewing in the basement of his college apartment in the early 2000s. Into this hobby he would draw Raileanu, who made trips up from Durham to brew with his childhood friend.
“We made some remarkably terrible beers, but we had a lot of fun doing it, and we started getting the passion,” recalls Adair. “I like to say that at one point I taught Mark everything he knew about brewing, but he quickly surpassed me in that regard.”
Such an education would occur in Pittsburgh, where Fulton and Adair moved together a few years after college – Adair for theater school at Carnegie Melon, Fulton for a change of scenery. Fulton had spent the previous handful of years as an accountant in Charlottesville, and though he would return to his hometown to resume bookkeeping a year later, he would bring a newfound interest in homebrewing back with him.
Coincidently, the town’s sleepy craft beer scene was in the midst of an awakening. In 2005, Starr Hill had moved from its modest brewpub location on Main Street to a proper production facility in the country. Two years later, the idyllic Blue Mountain Brewery opened, and Devils Backbone’s “basecamp” one year behind it. Near the end of 2012, Champion Brewing would join the fray as well, but by that point, Fulton was long gone.
After a few years of increasingly obsessive homebrewing and the completion of some Siebel Institute courses, Fulton “turned pro” in 2010, landing a five-week apprenticeship and then a full-time job with southern Maine brewpub chain Sebago Brewing. At the company’s Gorham production facility – just outside of Portland – he would learn the ropes of professional brewing for two years.
“It was an excellent first experience because they were at that point making a lot of moves towards quality and kind of revamping some older recipes,” Fulton recalls. “Sebago had formed back in 1998, and all of a sudden they were seeing these new guys coming in and stealing their thunder, so they were changing it up a little bit.”
One of the breweries disrupting the Portland craft beer ecosystem was Maine Beer Company. Founded by brothers Dan and David Kleban in 2009, it was one of the country’s first true nano breweries, amassing a cult following with only a one-barrel brewhouse – something smaller than most brewery’s pilot systems. Or, at least the company started that way. Fueled by the early success of hoppy but clean and well-balanced ales like Peeper and Zoe, Maine Beer Company would expand to a more traditional 15-barrel brewhouse and add a 30-barrel fermenter by the spring of 2011.
It was around this time that Adair paid a visit to Maine, where Fulton shepherded him around the crackling scene. Naturally, this included a stop at industrial park that housed Maine Beer Co.
“We went through and tasted everything they made, and I was like, ‘Wow. This is pushing an envelope in a totally different direction for craft. It’s doing subtlety, it’s doing carefully balanced flavors, the hoppiness is treated in such a conscientious way,’” he says. “I was floored.”
Six months later, as Fulton and his wife were mulling a return to Virginia, the brewer received an offer to be Maine Beer Company’s second full-time employee. After two years executing other brewers’ recipes, here Fulton would get to flex his creativity on a production scale – and in essentially a flat structure.
“There weren’t really job titles at that point; whether it was brewing or packaging, we all kind of did the same thing,” Fulton recalls. “There were the owners, and then they hired Kevin [Glessing], and then eleven months later they hired me and another guy from Allagash. It wasn’t really until we made the move to the new facility at Freeport that things kind of fell into a hierarchy.”
It was in 2013 that Maine Beer Company relocated from Portland, up I-295 and along the Casco Bay, to the town of Freeport, where the company had built a new production brewery. This move – and the planning that went into it – would be an invaluable component of Fulton’s New England learning experience.
“When I started at Maine Beer Company, it was a production brewery, but it was a dodgy operation in a lot of ways,” Fulton says. “There was a lot of holding everything together with bubblegum, trying to make it work until the next week. To then be able to help conceive of a plan, design, and execute a custom-built facility gave me a lot of information that I needed to know for Reason. I basically got to build a brewery on someone else’s dime. They had a lot more dimes than we had, though, I can tell you that.”
Fulton would assume myriad other responsibilities during nearly four years at Maine Beer Company. He ran the brewery’s pilot program and oversaw its recipe development for several years, shaping beers like the citrusy IPA Another One, its darker counterpoint Weez, and arguably the brewery’s most coveted beer: a double IPA called Dinner. As time passed, his role grew further within the company, and by early 2015, he had ascended to Director of Brewery Operations, supervising the entirety of brewing and packaging.
“Mark knows a thing or two about making really high quality beers,” observes Raileanu. “He’s had quite a bit of practice.”
Along the way, Fulton also became a father, and with his family in Charlottesville and his wife’s not far away in Richmond, the brewer began to feel the gravitational pull of Virginia.
So, in 2016, Fulton returned to Charlottesville and summarily became the sole full-time employee of Reason Beer.
It was a new beginning, in a sense, but it was also the culmination of three years of discussions and planning.
The production floor of Reason Beer is a bit grungy, buckets and hoses and trash bags strewn about, and Mark Fulton is feeling a bit self-conscious about it.
“Just know that if you came back tomorrow, it would be pristine,” says the head brewer, clad like a good company man in a brewery hat and snug Reason Beer t-shirt. “It’s usually not nearly as messy in here, but that’s kind of nature of what happens when you’re brewing stuff.”
Fulton is in the midst of brewing a fresh batch of Reason Black – his first full-scale production of the sessionable hoppy black ale. At this point in the company’s history, such brew days are not a regular occurrence within the warehouse space. Fulton brews on a formidable 30-barrel system, but with a single 60-barrel fermenter and one accompanying brite tank, he only uses the brewhouse every few weeks.
The sight is slightly comical: Two giant stainless steel tanks, one conical and the other flat, side by side in a sea of grey floor, white walls, and empty space. But what the Reason Beer co-founders see is room for growth and the means to achieve it quickly.
“It was less about starting with one tank and more about starting with the last brewhouse we’ll ever need,” Fulton says of the set-up. “When the demand says that we need more capacity, we’re not going to be in the situation that a lot of brewers find themselves in, saying, ‘God, why did we get the seven-barrel system?’ It’s not like you can just switch it. Well, you can, but it basically costs the same as starting a brewery. Everything you see now is something that we want to use for many years to come.”
This was one of many lessons Fulton factored into designing Reason Beer. By the time he left Maine Beer Company, the brewery was running its 15-barrel brewhouse a grueling four times a day just to try to meet demand. (The brewery recently installed a system quadruple that size.) In contrast, Reason Beer is well positioned with its robust brewhouse and a floor plan that accounts for the addition of nine more 60-barrel fermentation tanks. Much like those bottles, it’s all about the long game.
Finding a property with the ceiling height, floor space, and waterlines to accommodate this vision was no easy task. Without a significant industrial history, Charlottesville lacks the affordable warehouse and old factory spaces that many craft beer incubators do.
“Our real estate agent would say, ‘If you want to go into Richmond, I’ll have you into a place tomorrow, and it’ll be a lot less expensive than Charlottesville,” Raileanu recalls. “But this was really the place we knew we belonged. Charlottesville is too close to our hearts. We weren’t going to do it somewhere else.”
The three had begun discussing the possibility of opening a brewery in Charlottesville as far back as 2014, but conversations intensified a year later when Fulton informed his friends that he was committed to moving closer to family.
“Mark knew he wanted to be in Virginia, but he didn’t want to do the same thing that he had been doing at Maine,” Adair shares. “I don’t think he wanted to become a shift brewer at another brewery and work his way up again. He learned so much from the experience there, and he’d started to develop some ideas about new flavors and new directions he wanted to explore, and the best way to do that was to kickoff something new. So, when he started planning his move, that’s when we started kicking around the idea, like, ‘Well, maybe we could do something on our own. Maybe we could get a little interest together and start a brewery in Charlottesville.’”
“Charlottesville is home for me, and also for Jeff and Patrick,” adds Fulton. “It also has all of the things that support craft beverage: It’s a college town, it has a great restaurant scene, it’s got a foodie-focused population. It seemed like a really good call to come back and be a part of something that’s getting bigger and bigger.”
But after nine months space hunting, the trio was growing disheartened with the realities of their plan. Then, they caught a break with a former wine distribution warehouse.
“It was dumb luck,” says Raileanu. “This space became available right when we felt like we were not going to find what we were looking for. As we took the tour, the three of us were like, ‘Maybe this will work.’ As soon as the landlord wasn’t around, though, it was like, ‘We need to put an offer in one this immediately.’”
Located off of Route 29, near its intersection with Hydraulic Road and not far from the university, this nondescript industrial park building is home to a bevy of local businesses, from hi-tech and brand management companies to second-hand furniture and plumbing supply purveyors. (In an achingly apt twist, Raileanu’s father worked in the building back in the ‘80s, too.) Once the location was secure, Fulton began finalizing the design of his brewery, applying the engineering lessons from the Freeport expansion.
“From a standpoint of functionality, I’ve obviously modeled a lot of what we do here based off of what we did at Maine Beer, just because it worked really well there,” he says. “A lot of it is about knowing the pitfalls and avoiding as many as you can, and then knowingly jumping into the ones that you have to.”
One area where the founders hoped to avoid any boondoggles altogether was its minimal tasting room, which Adair was charged with shaping on a conservative budget. The set designer sourced recycled materials for the project, like wood for its bar from a deconstructed barn in Fluvanna County, and stainless steel that matched the tanks in the brewery.
“We tried to be really conscientious about not just being influenced by the materials that go into the beer but actually using them,” he shares. “If the materials that go into making beer are barrel wood and stainless steel, then that should be what our tasting room looks like.”
While tasting rooms can be significant sources of revenue for budding breweries and many focus their efforts towards on-premise sales, it isn’t a priority for Reason Beer.
“This tasting room is a lot of fun for us, but it’s kind of a bonus,” says Raileanu. “The goal has always been to be more of a production brewery. Most of the beer is going out the backdoor, and that’s where the money is coming from.”
“When it comes to the focus of our buildout, the money goes into the quality of the beer,” adds Adair.” If we had an extra dollar to spend, I would tell Mark, ‘I’d rather spend this dollar on getting the best possible equipment for the beer than spending another dollar on a piece of decoration.”
In terms of equipment, there’s a much smaller piece joining the custom-made brewhouse and twin tanks on the production floor: the one-barrel system Fulton uses to pilot his recipes.
This is the engine that drives Reason Beer.
There are brewers who like to play it fast and loose, producing a stream of one-off beers based on a combination of intuition and whimsy. And then, at the very opposite end of the spectrum, there is Mark Fulton.
“He’s a very focused individual,” says Adair, chatting with me over the phone from California. “He’ll conceive of an idea in his head, whether that’s a plan for him personally or the flavor and look of a finished beer, and then he’ll work and work and work to make it perfect. I think we brewed maybe 30 test batches of Blonde before he was satisfied with the balance of the beer. That’s Mark.”
“Iterative” is the word that Fulton uses when describing his approach to recipe development. It’s the idea that the repetition of something will yield results successively closer to the desired outcome. For Fulton, this means brewing a new recipe again and again – making slight alterations each time to its hopping schedule, grist, or a procedural variable – until it’s exactly right. Only then will he consider putting his brewery’s name on a beer and sharing it with the wider public.
“The way that I iterate on recipe development, they’re baby steps each time,” the brewer explains. “I like the method of it. I enjoy taking those steps. It’s relaxing. But it matters. Being iterative matters. The process of development matters. I feel like a lot of breweries are like, ‘We’ll just throw something together, and if it’s bad then we won’t make it again.’ That’s not really my approach. I’ve had people in tasting room tell me, ‘It’s remarkable: All of these beers are really good.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I hope so.’ I’ve never really bought the argument of oh, it’s a just a test batch. Well, then dump it out and make something else. Make it better.”
After Fulton returned to Virginia in early 2016, it wasn’t long before he embarked on the journey of developing Reason Beer’s four core offerings from scratch. Over the first year, he would brew close to 30 batches at his house, and once the company acquired its production space, he would produce another 40 in half the time. The course each beer took – that is to say, the number of iterations – varied according to the difficulty of the style, Fulton’s familiarly with it, and how closely he stuck the landing on the first brew.
The lightest hued of the four beers, Reason Saison came together surprisingly swiftly. Technically a grisette – a low-alcohol farmhouse ale brewed with malted wheat and noticeably hopped – the pale-yellow beer is driven by an assertive (but not overwhelmingly estery) yeast character and complimented by a hint American hop character on its back end.
“I had a vision of what I wanted to make, but I called the others guys up, just to have a conversation about what they envisioned, and without leading them at all, they basically described the same thing,” Fulton says. “From there, I probably brewed three or four test batches, but when I did the first one, it was like, ‘Damn, this is pretty much what we were all talking about.’ Still, I thought, ‘Let me try a couple of different other things, just to see if we like something else better.’ In the end, we basically went back to the first one.”
The development of Reason Pale was similarly painless. A 5% pale ale showcasing the next-generation German varietal Mandarina Bavaria, it’s a beer that’s “very wheelhouse-y” for Fulton, and it’s the most likely to evoke what he produced at Maine Beer Company: high on hop flavor but low in bitterness, with a refined malt character and a crisp finish that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Every element of Reason Pale works together.
“It’s just about knowing the proportions,” the brewer says of crafting the brew. “I came up with the actual ingredients – the hop combination and the malts – but if you want a beer that has this amount of hop flavor and that level of bitterness, it’s largely just a construction decision.”
Black IPAs are another style where Fulton is fluent. At Maine Beer Company, he developed two such beers, Beer III and Weez, the latter of which was named after his pet, a rescue cat whose breathing is afflicted by feline herpes.
“Dark, hoppy beers are kind of a thing that I’ve been doing,” Fulton shares. “They’re a fun challenge from a development standpoint. It’s almost like making two beers at the same time: You’re basically making a stout-ish black beer, and you’re also making a hoppy beer. Both of those types of beers come with an assertive nature, so the trick is to find a way to make them not fight each other. You need them to be balanced – you don’t want them to be all hops, like an IPA that looks black, and you don’t it to just be a stout that you can taste hops in.”
As a core offering, there are safer bets than a black IPA. The style was in vogue at the turn of the decade, but many of the landmark examples of it – including Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack, Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous, and even Weez – have been discontinued. Nevertheless, Fulton felt confident in Reason Black, a beer he jokingly dubs “Son of Weez.”
“Everyone gave up on black IPAs because they don’t really sell well,” he tells me. “Too many people jumped on the style, and there wasn’t enough of a market for everyone, so then everyone got out of it. We knew that. But it’s a style that all three of us really enjoy. Obviously, we want to stay in business, but we’re also doing beers that we want to do. We were like, ‘Worst case scenario, we’ll have it in the taproom, and we’ll drink it.’”
The fact that Fulton is transferring 1000 gallons of Reason Black into a fermentation tank as we talk speaks to how to the degree that scenario did not unfold. Brewed with flaked barely for a slightly creamy mouthfeel, and generously hopped with Mandarina Bavaria, Centennial, Cascade, and Simcoe cryo hops, the 5% beer was an immediate hit.
“Though the first three or four weeks of the tasting room being open, it was our number one or two seller every single day,” Fulton says. “We were having a call with our distributor a few months ago, and they asked us what was doing well in the tasting room. We said, ‘You’re not going to believe us, but Black.’ They said, ‘Cool, well, let’s do a 30-barrel batch of Black.’ So, we shipped that to them a month ago, and the entire run sold out in, like, six days or something. It’s kind of a surprise, which is cool, because we love that beer.”
The beer for which Fulton’s affection glows brightest, however, is Reason Blonde – a 4% American blonde ale brewed with a mix of Old World and New World hops.
“That’s probably the one I’m most proud of, to be honest; that was the hardest to make,” he says. “To do 4% is hard. To do that level of balance in 4% is even harder. You can’t have one little off thing. There’s nowhere to hide. With a double IPA or a stout, if you’re off a little bit batch to batch, no one’s ever going to know, but that beer is delicate enough that something off will ruin it. I probably did more test batches of Blonde than I did for the other three flagships combined. “
One challenge was striking the right balance of flaked oats – too far in one direction and a beer evokes oatmeal, too far in the other and it’s unsatisfyingly thin. Another challenge was the developing its blend of hops, half of which are European (German Hallertauer Tradition) and the other ha;f Pacific Northwestern (Amarillo and Cascade). It’s an inspired and unusual combination of varietals.
“You have Hallertauer, which is a very understated but ubiquitous hops in German beers, and then Amarillo, which is not quite a Simcoe-sized baseball bat but is very assertive, and then Cascade, which is a classic,” Fulton explains. “The challenge was finding a way for them to work together while each doing their own thing.”
Reason Blonde boasts an immediately evident citrusy character – a frequent surprise for patrons mistakenly thinking it will be the tamest offering in the tasting room – but like the rest of the Charlottesville brewery’s beers, it eschews bitterness, finishes clean, and is incredibly easy to throw back.
“We’re looking to make complex, nuanced beers that are still balanced,” Raileanu says. “The ABV levels are going to be maybe on the lower end for the styles. The hops are going to be really well interpreted. Our core beers are not going to make you wasted, and they’re not going to wreck your palate.”
“Balance” isn’t a word that will set the hearts of internet haze seekers aflutter, but Reason is brewing with a different audience in mind.
Forty-five minutes into our conversation, Fulton has a query for me: Who are you again?
“I’m actually not sure,” he continues. “Like, what are you here for?”
It’s telling that the brewer has been speaking at length to a complete stranger with a recording device without giving the situation a second thought: Reason Beer may have opened just this summer, but there hasn’t been much of a learning curve.
“It probably won’t surprise you to hear that a lot of people wanted to write about Maine Beer,” the brewer says. “Half the time, there was someone with a camera or an interview person hanging around, so I kind of got used to it. It was like, ‘Well, I’m going to work, and I’ll talk, but I’m going to keep working.’”
Reason Beer’s launch projected a similarly nonchalant confidence. In July, the brewery’s distributor – Specialty Beverage of Richmond – began sending its beer across the entirety of the state, reaching almost 250 restaurants, bars, and bottle shops. (The brewery occasionally self-distributes to a few select DC bars, as well.)
“We had kind of a ‘go big or go home’ philosophy,” Raileanu shares. “It’s sort of backwards from the way a lot of craft breweries work these days, where they start with the tasting room set-up, producing beer in smaller quantities. We just started ripping through large batches, getting that out into the market, visiting bars and restaurants that we enjoy, getting tips on other places to check out, taking samples, hitting the pavement, and selling the beer. Some of it was hard work, some it was Mark’s reputation leading the way.”
When you’re a new brewery, being able to use “former head brewer of Maine Beer Company” as a calling card doesn’t hurt.
“That distinction certainly gets your foot in the door,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for DC’s Meridian Pint. “It means that places such as myself and the Paradisos and other craft beer bars are going to give you a shot based off of nothing more than your resume.”
“If you’re brewing at Maine Beer Company or Hill Farmstead on a daily basis and you’re making that kind of beer, then you have an idea of their processes, and that immediately piques the interest,” the beer director continues. “Of course, the beer still has to follow through, too. In the case of Reason, it definitely did.”
“The amazing thing is that Reason’s beer has stood up to that reputation and then some,” adds Pizzeria Paradiso beer director Drew McCormick. “Everything I’ve had has been clean and balanced and easy to drink and just so good. Even with the naming, the labeling, and the choreographed releases, it all feels so methodical. There really is a reason behind everything that they’re doing.”
One of Reason’s core calculations is there’s an insufficiently quenched thirst for clean, balanced, easy-to-drink beers.
“We saw a real space in the market for beers that maybe appeal to a broader audience, not just beer geeks who will chase down all of those over-the-top things,” Raileanu shares. “That’s kind of what’s guided us.”
Think of it as counter-programming.
“Our goal is to carve out our own niche,” says Fulton. “We’ve got so many great breweries around here doing so many great IPAs and, big, hoppy styles. Let them have that. It’s like, ‘You guys, take that market, we’re going to try and max out this other market.”
Do beer directors also see fertile ground for sessionable, more-approachable beers? Well, it depends.
“I think there’s a place in the market for them when they’re brewed as well as Reason’s,” says Gonnerman. “It was pretty obvious from having early batches that they know what they’re doing. Everything is super clean but packed full of flavor. They keep you interested.”
“Sometimes people just want something that’s light and easy to drink,” observes McCormick. “You can’t drink a 10% IPA every day. And there’s something to be said for a brewery saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. It’s going to be delicious. It’s going to be consistent.’ Maybe a 5% pale ale doesn’t jump off the page, but once you try it, it’s something you come back for.”
Thus far, plenty of people have been coming back for Reason Pale. It’s the beer that’s most dramatically taken off for the brewery, particularly in retail accounts.
“One of our philosophies is to make beer that smells as good as it tastes, tastes as good as it looks, and looks as good as it smells – I mean, all aspects of sensory,” says Raileanu. “We enjoy some of those cloudier styles of New England IPAs, but when you look at the color of Pale, it’s just a beautiful thing.”
Mark Fulton spends a lot of time alone these days.
As the sole full-time employee of Reason Beer, he can usually be found on the production floor of his brewery, babysitting a big batch of core beer, tweaking pilot brews of potentially future ones, or working on a special project, like a recently released version of the grisette aged in white wine barrels and bottle conditioned with the wild yeast Brettanomyces.
I ask if ever he feel like Matt Damon in “The Martian”.
“It’s good,” the brewer says with a chuckle. “It can be challenging, especially with Patrick being in California, but I get to see Jeff on the weekends. Our core focuses almost don’t overlap at all, though, which is part of the reason why the partnership has worked well from the beginning. We’re all pretty good at what we do.”
While Reason Beer’s offerings are Fulton’s babies, he did rely on feedback from his partners when dialing them in.
“They’re rudimentary homebrewers, but they’re very good beer tasters,” Fulton shares. “They have a better palate than your typical ‘I drink beer’ kind of person. It also helped, largely by chance, that a lot of our vision was similar.”
Since Reason Beer’s tasting room opened in September, he’s had a larger cast of tasters to help inform his process.
“We get a bunch of repeat customers, so a bunch of people have had all three batches of IPA and have opinions on it and how it’s going,” the brewer continues, “I’ve never really dealt with that. If you asked me a year ago about iterating a recipe with those sort of comments, I would have said, ‘I don’t want to do that. That sounds awful.’ But it’s actually been really cool.”
Hopped entirely with pelletized lupulin powder, Reason IPA is a favorite among the Reason Beer co-founders.
“That’s the beer that we, the three business partners, probably drink the most,” Raileanu says. “Pale is a nice, hoppy beer, and we had kind of convinced ourselves that it’s basically an IPA, but when we went to make an actual IPA… very different. Pale has a nice, rounded malt character, whereas the IPA is a hop-delivery vehicle. It’s still a nice, clean, smooth finish, but the hops in there are, like, next-level shit. You can quote us on that.”
On second thought, he would like some confirmation from Fulton, who is chatting up some customers in the tasting room at the moment.
“Mark, we can call the hops in the IPA next-level shit, right?”
Speaking with me in November, the brewer is close to satisfied with where the IPA stands in development process, but that doesn’t mean Reason Beer plans to send it into distribution any time soon.
“It’ll go out of house someday, I’m sure,” Fulton says. “But Pale is taking off statewide, and if we also drop an IPA in there, it’s going to kill Pale. And, frankly, it’ll be just another IPA in a sea of IPAs. I’d way rather be known for the best pale ale in the state.”
Another beer currently working its way through the brewer’s iterative process is a hoppy red ale brewed exclusively with New Zealand hops.
“New Zealand hops are usually big on stone fruit, fig, maybe citrus, but spicy, so I thought it would be fun to do a hoppy red using them,” he explains. “Our other hoppy beers are kind of citrus-forward, so this won’t have the same obvious citrus character.”
To better familiarize himself with Southern Hemisphere varietals, Fulton has been single-hopping red ales (thus far, he’s gotten to Wakatu and Rakau), before ultimately developing a beer utilizing a blend of them. This beer will be called, of course, Reason Red.
By the time that happens, perhaps he’ll have some more company around the brewery.
“I’ve got some commitments that I need to stick to out here, but relocation to Charlottesville or someplace nearby is definitely coming up for me this year,” says Adair, who’s set design work covers award shows, reality competitions, cooking programs, and anything else without a script. “Every time I see a new Instagram post from the tasting room, it’s like, ‘Ahh, I wish I was there.’ Every day, I wake up and I think, ‘Can I get to Virginia for a couple days this month? Can I make another trip out there?’”
In contrast, Raileanu is at peace with his dual professional life.
“I really love what I do in DC, so I’m not looking to leave that anytime soon,” he says, bucking any tropes of the day-job blues. “It makes for a lot of back and forth, but I love Charlottesville, too. As for the start-up grind, you know, there’s a cool adrenaline rush that comes with that. It’s a lot of fun to lose a little bit of sleep when you’re seeing your product get out in the market.”
One thing is for sure: With the quality of the brews and the set-up of its production facility, Reason Beer has positioned itself to see more and more of that product in the market.
Craft beer drinkers know where Fulton has been and where he is now; the most exciting thing will be where he takes them next.
Photos by Philip Runco. Photo editing by Clarissa Villondo.