Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is the 2019 Rescue Ale, a collaboration between Solace Brewing and Lost Dog Café. Hopped with Mosaic and Amarillo, the 7% IPA was brewed to benefit the nonprofit Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation.
When Matthew Sisk opened Alexandria’s Lost Dog Café almost five years ago, he had two dependents – both human, neither canine.
This struck Sisk as mildly problematic. In joining the family of Lost Dog Cafés (now up to five locations), he was becoming part of an enterprise rooted in love and stewardship for animals. Founded as Gourmet Pizza Deli in 1985, the original Lost Dog Café became the Lost Dog Café in 1999, when co-owners Pam McAlwee and Ross Underwood decided to formally lean into the animal rescue efforts that had organically become part of their restaurant’s mission.
“Both of the original owners are huge animal lovers,” explains Sisk. “As an offshoot, they were taking calls about lost dogs and rescuing on the side.”
Two years later, they started the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, a nonprofit to help homeless pets through rescue and adoption.
The Lost Dog Cafés that have opened since then – South Arlington in 2009, McLean in 2011, Dunn Loring in 2013, and Sisk’s spot in Alexandria – are technically franchises. It should be noted, however, that this is not an investment opportunity open to anyone. The first three locations are operated by a quartet of Lost Dog Café alumni. Sisk, meanwhile, bartended at the Lost Dog Cafés’ sister restaurant, The Stray Cat, for a decade prior to moving into ownership. He’s also McAlwee’s third cousin.
Or maybe it’s second cousin once removed – he’s not entirely sure.
Regardless of familial relations, all Lost Dog Cafés support the work of the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation. In fact, a provision in their franchise agreements requires each location to donate a percentage of their proceeds to the nonprofit. Still, at the outset of opening the Alexandria location in early 2015, Sisk wondered if he needed to take that commitment to its logical next level.
“I said to Pam, ‘I guess I need to get a dog now,’” he remembers.
This idea would not be greeted as warmly as expected.
“She just looked at me and said, ‘You work 90 hours a week, and you have two small kids. I wouldn’t adopt a dog from the rescue to someone in your position, and I’m not going to give you one just because you’re an owner,’” Sisk continues. “I was like, ‘Fair enough. Way to keep your standards.’”
To state the obvious, the business of pets is no trivial matter in the extended Lost Dog Café universe.
And while the stakes aren’t nearly as high, the same can be said when it comes to beer.
The pack of Lost Dog Cafés constitutes one of the area’s most formidable beverage programs. With five locations, plus The Stray Cat, the group controls nearly 140 taps, and it uses them to showcase the best of local craft, in addition to pedigreed regional and national breweries. (Alexandria, in particular, focuses heavily on one-offs and limited releases.) Additionally, the restaurants function as bottle shops, offering cans and bottles to-go.
It was through this avenue that Sisk found a different means of amplifying his commitment to the group’s cause: Rescue Ale, an annual collaboration beer to benefit the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation.
Timed to coincide with and raise awareness for Adopt-a-Dog Month, the inaugural Rescue Ale arrived in October 2017. A citrusy rye India Pale Ale – a subgenre of IPA Sisk is fond of – it was produced at another Alexandria institution: Port City Brewing.
“The original Rescue Ale was definitely my baby,” says Sisk, who worked closely with former Port City sales rep Nick Anderson on the project. “My thoughts was to use the beer to reinforce the connection between the restaurants and the rescue, and how we help support their cause. That’s something we do financially every year, every day. It’s why we’re here.”
The beer was an unqualified success. Across its six properties, the group sold over 50 barrels of beer, pint after pint, in less than 45 days. The following year, one of the other Lost Dog Cafés took the lead, pairing with Chantilly’s Ono Brewing for a hazy IPA. In 2019, responsibility for the project returned to Sisk.
The Lost Dog Café owner, who served as the location’s beer buyer for its first three-and-a-half years, didn’t have to look far to find a new partner. Mike Arms, a co-founder of Solace Brewing, formerly lived in Alexandria and has been a regular at the restaurant. Sisk was also well familiar with the beer produced by the Dulles brewery.
“I’ve never had a Solace beer that I didn’t like, and I’ve never had a Solace beer that didn’t sell,” he shares. “If we bring in a sixtel, it’s probably gone in two days; half barrels are gone in a week. When you have 25 other beers on draft, that’s a pretty quick turnaround. So, we try to grab a release every time they send one out.”
More of than not, such releases tend to be IPA. Since opening in the summer of 2017, Solace has regularly produced a range of styles – lagers, fruited kettle sours, barrel-aged stouts, even a witbier – but IPAs have powered the brewery’s considerable growth. And for good reason: With flagships like Partly Cloudy and Suns Out Hops Out, along with the occasional limited release, Solace has firmly situated amongst the DMV’s premiere manufacturers of hoppy ales.
A throughline cuts across these brews. They’re generally quite low in bitterness, although never completely devoid of a slight prickly backbone. They eschew caramel malts that can turn an IPA’s complexion orange or amber and leave behind residual sweetness. They’re indebted to the clean, bright flavors of new school West Coast IPAs, but also incorporate elements of New England’s take on the style – namely, the use of flaked oats and wheat as adjuncts, and fermentation with a blend of English and American ale yeasts.
Most of all – and, importantly, in concert with the aforementioned attributes – these beers are constructed to showcase the fruity aromas and flavors of modern hops. A Solace IPA makes its presence known to your olfactory senses before you’ve even lifted it to your face.
“IPAs are what we do best,” says Drew Wiles, a Solace co-founder, in addition to its head brewer. “We make the beers that we want to drink ourselves – and that’s usually what we want to drink.”
The particular IPA that Wiles drinks most frequently – his go-to, if you will – is Partly Cloudy. In that respect, he’s not alone. Introduced almost two years ago, the 7.5% hazy IPA has been one of the biggest hits released by a local brewery in recent memory. It competes in quality with IPAs from other hop heavies like Ocelot, Bluejacket, and Aslin, but while those breweries specialize entirely in one-off or rotating releases and only sell cans out of their taprooms, Solace has sought to make Partly Cloudy readily available and easy to find. And with the area’s bigger breweries slow to embrace hazy IPA or simply unable execute them at the highest level, Solace was – and remains – happy to fill the void in the market. (Notably, DC Brau finally entered the fray this spring with Joint Resolution… a beer Brewmaster Jeff Hancock says was inspired by Partly Cloudy.)
“There was really no master plan,” explains Wiles, a former cell and molecular biology major who proudly identifies as “a process guy.” “We had no idea it would become a flagship. It was just like: This beer is awesome, it’s a popular style, we’ve been getting great feedback, we love it, let’s brew it again. Partly Cloudy is just very consistent, whereas a lot of these hazy IPAs are getting rushed through the tank by some other breweries. We want to cellar beers appropriately. Being able to make that style of beer consistently is really cool.”
“Partly Cloudy is an awesome beer,” adds Sisk. “It’s a force in the market for a reason.”
To meet demand for Partly Cloudy, Solace has dedicated significant tank space to the Citra and El Dorado-hopped IPA. In 2019, it will account for a whopping 60% of the brewery’s production. This number is likely to come down to around 40% in 2020, but that’s mostly on account of expanded capacity. The brewery is currently up to seven 80-barrel fermenters, in addition to a 60-barrel tank and several 40s.
The brewery was designed for such expansion. Wiles and his partners initially sought a space that would accommodate a slow and steady addition of tanks. At 16,000 square feet and with four loading docks, the Dulles property certainly fits the bill.
“When we built this place, we didn’t want Solace to be a small brewpub or something,” says Wiles, who’s genial and projects an even-keeled calm. “We decided put a little faith into it, build it bigger than most people do when they’re starting out. We built a reinforced sloped floor, and we’ve just been plopping tanks down on it ever since. I oversized our chiller, I oversized our boiler, I oversized the air compressor, I oversized all of our utilities with the hope and the prayer that we would be able to grow into it. Now, if this business grows, we don’t have to knock down a wall and put in more infrastructure.”
Solace’s growth has enabled it to widen its portfolio of offerings. With the 80-barrel tanks essentially dedicated to Partly Cloudy, Suns Out Hops Out, and Crazy Pils (a lager recently elevated to the core line-up), the 40-barrel fermenters have been freed up for “experimental” one-offs.
To wit, on the Friday morning in mid-October that I visit, Solace brewer Mike Beyers is in the process of making whirlpool additions of Comet and Vict Secret to a forthcoming Kveik IPA. A nearby tank holds the raspberry and blackberry iteration of the brewery’s evolving fruited kettle sour series, It’s Electric. And the 2019 Rescue Ale is coming out of a brite tank and running through the in-house canning line, which is being operated by Mike Day, who everyone calls “Charlie” (as in Charlie Day) to minimize the confusion surrounding Solace’s excessive population of Mikes.
“We make so much Partly Cloudy, it’s nice to make something else,” admits Wiles. “When we do a one-off beer, it’s like, ‘Alright, we get to taste a little different beer today!’ But we actually have some cellar space now. For a while, we were like, ‘Man, we gotta brew this and this and this to keep up with kegs and cans.’”
In addition to Solace’s IPA prowess, its canning capabilities made the brewery a very attractive partner for Lost Dog Café. While previous Rescue Ales had been limited to draft, collaborating with the Dulles brewery opened up the restaurant group’s second avenue of sales as a bottle shop. Nevertheless, Sisk hoped to craft a hoppy brew tailored slightly more to session drinking than can sales. (Consumers often gravitate towards higher ABVs when making to-go purchases.)
“We didn’t want to do a DIPA, even though a DIPA might sell better in cans,” he tells me. “We move a lot of draft, so we like to have a beer that you can have two, maybe three of, instead of those 9%-ers where you’re one and done.”
When it came to other details of the 7% IPA’s construction, Sisk deferred to Solace’s expertise. (“I think I’m good at selling beer, and I’m good at telling you what I like, but I’m not a brewer,” he shates.) The brewery opted to showcase two popular, pricey American hops: Mosaic (a complex varietal possessing a mélange of berry, orange, and pine characteristics) and Amarillo (which radiates orange blossom notes).
“It’s not really rocket science – it’s more art,” says Wiles, who credits Lead Brewer Bridgette Turner and co-founding Director of Operations Jon Humerick with driving the conversation around Solace’s recipes. “It’s just about what we want to try, and what hop combo we think will taste good.”
Wiles, Turner, and Humerick cut their teeth together at Beltway Brewing, where they produced not only the Sterling brewery’s in-house beers but also a more significant number of contract brews for undersized or nomadic operations like Grimm Artisan Ales. When the opportunity to brew a beer for the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation presented itself a half decade later, they didn’t need much convincing.
“Bridget calls herself dog crazy,” says Wiles. “She’s constantly fostering dogs and then trying to find a home for them. With Rescue Ale, she was like, ‘These are my two passions at a crossroads: beer and rescuing pups.’”
It’s not an uncommon sight to see one of Turner’s dogs playing with CFO Mike Arms’ in the tasting room. The two are brothers. Turner had fostered both and was able to keep them within the Solace family. It’s still hard to tell them apart.
And then there’s Nula – Solace’s “OG rescue dog,” to quote Wiles. The head brewer’s then-girlfriend (now-wife) Brittany adopted the dog four years ago, when Nula was just three months old. At the time, Brittany had recently graduated from physical therapy school and moved down to Macon, Georgia. Wiles would visit four to five days at a time, and when Brittany would go to work, he would stay home and focus on opening Solace – business planning, making calls, pricing out equipment, waiting for various and countless approvals. A lonely task, but Nula would keep him company.
Wiles, Arms, and Turner had initially all sent pictures of their dogs to Solace’s graphic designer, Joshua Hoffman. The idea was for the Rescue Ale label to democratically feature all of the brewery’s dogs. But in application that ended up being a little crowded for Hoffman’s liking .
“Mike texted me and said, ‘We’re just gonna put Nula on the can,’” recalls Wiles. “I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not pushing that… but I won’t complain if it’s just my pup on the can.’ It’s kinda fitting, though: Nula was the OG. She was here through the construction of Solace, before they rescued the other pups.”
So, in the end, Nula was given her close-up. Hoffman converted a photo – snapped of the slightly shy, black and white dog anticipating a treat – into a drawing and then colored it in a swirl of vibrant shades. And not only did hat image go onto 150 cases worth of cans, it was printed on some 600 t-shirts, available at the brewery and across all Lost Dog Café locations.
“Between my family and my whole wife’s side of the family, we ordered a bunch,” says Wiles. “Everyone is going to have a Nula t-shirt!”
Like the beer, a portion of proceeds from the shirt’s sale will benefit the Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, which now both operates a kennel in Falls Church and the Lost Dog & Cat Ranch on 63 acres of land in Fauquier County.
Sisk, whose dry humor is a hallmark of the Lost Dog Alexandria Twitter account, has come to our conversation with a kicker to this story already mind.
“It’ll definitely be one of the top three Rescue Ales that we’ve collaborated on,” he says, and I can practically hear his smile on the other end of the phone.
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 Denizens’ PGC Premium, The Heurich House’s Senate Beer, 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.