Recap: DC HOPFEST 2016
phil runco | May 17, 2016 | 11:30AM |

By Philip Runco. Photos by Indie Love’s Kevin Kim.

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‘Tis the season for beer festivals.

Spring Bock Fest. The Maryland Craft Beer Festival. DC HOPFEST.

This isn’t a roll call of all this month’s beer events. This was one Saturday in May.

Hell, even Vigilante’s Black & Red Block Party that afternoon had special coffee casks of Port City Porter.

Was it just chance that so many events fell on the same day? Sure. But it’s also worth observing, yet again, that there have never been more options for craft beer drinkers both new and old in and around the District.

Of course, with so many events and only so much disposable income, it’s more important for festivals to distinguish themselves.

In its second year, DC HOPFEST is doing an outstanding job of doing just that.

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Organized and hosted by Hellbender Brewing Company, DC HOPFEST drew together seventeen breweries from across DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As it names subtly indicates, HOPFEST leaned towards hop-forward offerings, IPAs in particular. Then again, if you’ve been to any generic beer festival in past few years, you probably tasted more IPAs than anything else. People like IPAs, and breweries like selling beer, so festival line-ups end up with their fair share of bitter.

Where HOPFEST sets itself apart is in its curation. Hellbender co-founder Patrick Mullane encouraged breweries to bring rarities, one-offs, and limited releases, and most of them brought their A game. Calvert Brewing Company poured its massively floral Double Amber, which had previously only been available in its tasting room. Lost Rhino shared Bretty McBrettface, a wild (literally and figuratively) pale ale fermented with six strains of Brett. Adroit Theory brewed a special honeydew melon version of its white IPA White Noise just for HOPFEST. Same goes for Hellbender’s first Double IPA, Resinous Evil. (I spoke to a number of the breweries about these beers in our HOPFEST preview.)

I’ll say this about the line-up: DC Brau was serving On the Wings of Armageddon, and Port City was dishing out Maniacal, and I didn’t drink either. Those are two of the best beers made within the Beltway bar none. But with so many new beers and generous pours of each, stomach space becomes a precious commodity.

For some, a $50 price of admission might have felt a little stiff on first blush. After an hour of tasting these beers, it felt like a steal.

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A big part of the reason why breweries brought their best was the cause: HOPFEST benefited the DC Brewers’ Guild.

That also explains why so many of those breweries’ co-founders and head brewers came out to pour their beers and cheer on the fundraiser: 3 Stars’ Mike McGarvey (and lead brewer Nathan Rice); Atlas Brew Works’ Justin Cox; Right Proper’s Thor and Leah Cheston; Lost Rhino’s Favio Garcia, making the trip from Virginia; and, obviously, Hellbender’s Patrick Mullane and his brewery’s jack-of-all-trades, Giancarlo D’Orazio. (Several of these brewers serve on the board of directors.)

The rest of the guild was on site, too, selling more than a few “enthusiast memberships” to attendees. At $75, the Imperial level (beer jokes!) gets you a t-shirt and 10% off beer purchases i breweries, which seems like an A-OK deal to me. Such donations go towards supporting the non-profit organization, which aims to “highlight DC’s local craft beer producers by strengthening the voices of our individual businesses, heightening consumer awareness and pride for locally made craft beer, and implementing programs that increase the visibility and sustainability of our businesses all while honoring the rich brewing history of the District.”

The DC Brewers Guild recently assumed control of DC Beer Week, and moved the eight-day series of events from the doldrums of August to the last week of September, when more people will presumably not be on vacation. Smart thinking.

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As you may well have read or experienced for yourself, Saturday’s weather was a mix of gorgeousness and trash. It was sunny and serene on minute, and then the heavens opened to release a biblical amount of rain and wind.

Thankfully, the event proved adaptable to either extreme. When the sun was shining, the new patio at Hellbender allowed attendees to soak it up. When the weather turned, they could come back inside to brewery’s production floor, where the jockey boxes were set up to dispense beer. After hearing a friend’s story about the storm wreaking havoc on Mad Fox’s Spring Bock Fest that afternoon, I was smugly satisfied with my choice of beer events.

Also: Hosting a festival on the production floor of a brewery is fun! There was a DJ on top of the brewhouse! You could ogle the grungy barrels and glimmering kegs! More festivals inside breweries, please! (It helps when a brewery keeps its place as spit-shined clean as Hellbender does.)

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HOPFEST was a good opportunity to catch-up with a few of the local breweries in attendance.

Atlas Brew Works’ CEO Justin Cox shared that his brewery’s new tasting room is only a few weeks from opening. Its bar will be set up with 20 draft lines. That’s a lot of lines. Atlas currently has enough beers to fill about half them, but the brewery also recently purchased a new pilot system, which will allow its team to brew experimental batches and serve them to visitors.

The brewery’s HOPFEST offering, Ponzi IPA, will be a staple. Notably, though, the recipe for the flagship was recently tweaked under the guidance of Atlas brewer – and “resident hophead” – Sam Puffenbarger. So, if you tried a can on Ponzi when it was released in six-packs at the beginning of last month, pick up another because you’ll find a slightly different hop profile. (Fear not, Mandarina Bavaria remains the star.)

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There’s a whole lot happening at 3 Stars, too.

Lead brewer Nathan Rice was pouring the brewery’s Double IPA, Two to the Dome, at the festival. The beer has been a fairly steady presence in 3 Stars’ offerings since it opened, but as you may remember from our March Tap Takeover Update, a new version of Two to the Dome was released in February, and it is an entirely different beer. It’s drier. It’s lighter in color. It’s more hop-forward. According to Rice, this makeover was one that took over seven months (!) to perfect.

Head brewer Mike McGarvey said that 3 Stars’ plans to can Two to the Dome in the immediate future. With the purchase of a can labler at the Craft Brewers Conference a little over a week ago, canned releases just got a lot easier for McGarvey and his team. Evidence of this was on display at the brewery the night before when 3 Stars released #ultrafresh, its other new Double IPA. Unlike Two to the Dome, though, the recipe for #ultrafresh isn’t locked in: The brewery will release the beer with a rotating hop profile. (After picking up a four-pack after HOPFEST, I’m happy to report that the inaugural #ultrafresh is very good.)

But talking to McGarvey and Rice, the two brewers had more than Double IPAs on the mind: Both were most excited about the sours and wild ales that have been growing in the brewery’s Funkerdome. In a few weeks, 3 Star will be releasing its collaboration with RAR Brewing, a Brett IPA. And according to McGarvey, there are about eight different sours waiting to see release behind it. 3 Stars has even gone as far as to procure a separate bottling line for them.

And perhaps my favorite tidbit on 3 Stars’ sour ambitions: The brewery plans to pour its rye Berliner Weisse, Dissonance, at an upcoming Washington Nationals homestand. If you want a good signpost for where DC craft beer is in 2016, there it is. Berliner Weisse at the ballpark.

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And, lastly, a word about Hellbender.

If you haven’t visited the host of HOPFEST lately, you’re missing out on some truly fantastic stuff.

We explored the beers of Patrick Mullane and Ben Evans in our Hellbender Tap Takeover, but a recent trip introduced me to its bourbon barrel-aged Scottish Wee Heavy Ale, and a nitro version of its North x Northeast Coffee Stout steeped on Ecuadorian cacao nibs and shells. You’re not going to find these beers anywhere except its tasting room. Go to the tasting room. They are worth it.

Plus, the brewery recently tweaked the dry hop of its new flagship IPA, Ignite, to wonderful results. (It’s added Mosaic and Columbus to the mix.)

HOPFEST or otherwise, Hellbender is not a bad place to end up on a Saturday afternoon.

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