It’s June’s final Thursday morning, and kölsch is vigorously fermenting inside 444 West Broad Street. Some things don’t change. For most of the past decade, this Falls Church retail space housed Mad Fox Brewing, a brewpub perhaps best known for owner Bill Madden’s award-winning kölsch. But it’s not Kellerbier Kölsch that’s currently blowing off so much krausen that the yeasty foam is overflowing from a white bucket and oozing across the dark red production floor. It’s a kölsch called Burst and Bloom, and a handful of weeks from now the German-style ale will join the initial wave of offerings from Solace Brewing, the new occupants of the old Mad Fox. Some things do change.
This is now Solace Outpost. Gone are the original bar and backbar, each constructed from dark wood and evocative of an upscale, if staid, pub, like much of the previous decor. In their place is something sleek, modern, and industrial: clean lines, a mix of reclaimed wood and stainless steel, exposed iron, lightbulbs dangling from faux wood beams. Available beers are displayed on LED screens, which alternate between offerings brewed here in Falls Church and those produced at the brewery’s Sterling production facility. The dining room has been converted into a game room with pop-a-shots and arcade consoles. Green walls are still green, but neon green rather than forest green. The two cask systems, laboriously installed by Madden and Mad Fox alumnus Charlie Buettner, have been removed.
“I mean, we don’t do cask ales, and we don’t plan on doing any in the future,” explains Jon Humerick, Solace’s director of operations, with a hint of sheepishness. “You know us – we’re IPA heavy.”
Bearded and burly, Humerick is one of the brewery’s three co-founders, alongside Head Brewer Drew Wiles and Director of Finance Mike Arms. And he’s not wrong. Since Solace opened in the summer of 2017, it hasn’t been ESB that’s fueled the Sterling operation’s considerable growth. It’s been Partly Cloudy, the best local hazy IPA that can be found easily year round. It’s been the flavorful session IPA Sun’s Out Hops Out and, on the other end of the spectrum, the double IPA Lucy Juicy. And it’s been a string of limited-release IPAs, which, like those flagships, often stylistically bridge West Coast IPA (and its clean, bright flavors) with New England-style IPA (and its estery yeasts, peeled-back bitterness, and incorporation of adjuncts like oats and wheat).
“IPAs are what we do best,” Wiles told me in October. “We make the beers that we want to drink ourselves – and that’s usually what we want to drink.”
Outwardly, Solace has appeared well positioned to meet the reciprocated interest in its IPAs. The Sterling production space – all 16,000 square feet of it – was chosen and then built out to accommodate relatively seamless expansion. Accordingly, Solace has grown to house seven 80-barrel fermenters, one 60-barrel tank and several 40s without having to knock down one wall. In fact, Wiles explained that he even “oversized” all of Solace’s utilities “with the hope and the prayer that we would be able to grow into it.”
As it turns out, that hope may have been a bit conservative.
“Our 20-barrel brewhouse is keeping up, but we’re starting to feel the effects of the demand,” admits Humerick. “It’s getting to the point where we need a larger space to really crank out significant volume.”
With that motivation, Solace set out to find a second, larger space last year, one closer to DC but still within Virginia. Alexandria (where Herndon’s Aslin Beer Co. opened a new production facility in 2019) and Arlington were targets. The goal wasn’t to just expand capacity, it was to “capture more of the market east,” per Humerick, with a second tasting room that was a shorter drive for District denizens. (On a good day, Sterling is a 45-minute trip from downtown.)
But these plans shifted in autumn when Humerick was approached by Ian Hilton of the H2 Collective, the prolific restaurant group behind properties like The Brixton, American Ice Co., and Chez Billy. Hilton asked if Solace would be interested in looking at the old Mad Fox, which had sat vacant since the brewpub closed on July 21. The two sides soon toured the space and saw everything to be in good order, from the kitchen to the production floor. At this point, Humerick suggested bringing another party into the deal: BlackFinn Ameripub. Solace had been working with that group’s co-founder Steven Ryan on potentially both installing a food concept at the Sterling brewery and partnering on a brewpub elsewhere.
“Steve and Ian have been friends for a while and have always wanted to do something together, so it kind of perfectly worked out for the three groups to come together on this location,” shares Humerick. “They would be responsible for the food, and we would be responsible for the beer. We’re not restaurant guys, and they’re not brewery guys.”
By the middle of January, the three parties had signed a lease, announced the forthcoming Solace Outpost, and started construction shortly thereafter. After cycling through a few different food concepts – most notably a mix of in-house butchered meats and fried chicken that would have been called Cattle & Coup – they settled on Sauced, which Humerick succinctly summarizes as “pies, thighs, and fries.”
The “pies” are bar pie, a style of thin-crust pizza originating from the Northeast that comes in a single-serving size and is traditionally topped with just mozzarella, red sauce, and hot oil. At Solace Outpost, this regional specialty will also come in a dozen other, less-minimal options. (The decision to roll pizza into the concept was largely the product of utilizing the space’s existing wood-fired oven.) The “thighs” are free-range buttermilk-brined chicken thighs, fried then served with an array of dipping sauces. And the “fries” are… well, fries, but piled high and available as poutine or smothered with bacon and Crazy Pils beer cheese.
All food is ordered directly from the bar. Solace and its partners wanted to create a casual environment, and removed the hostess stand and booth seating along those lines. More generally, Humerick says the vision was for 9000-square-foot space (which has an indoor capacity of 317) to match the “visuals and feel” of the Sterling brewery.
“They really wanted the design to mirror our brand since it’s our brand on the front door,” he explains. “When we sat down, it was like, ‘Let’s make this look and feel like another Solace brewing.’”
Solace Outpost offers liquor (mostly from local distilleries, like Catoctin Creek and MurLarkey) and wine (including Paradise Springs, which is owned by Wiles family). Beer cocktails will be coming soon, but don’t expect them or any of these other potent potables to overcrowd the menu.
“We want to focus on the beer,” says Humerick. “This is a second brewery for Solace. Yes, there is food. Yes, there is a full-service bar. But we want the beer to be in the forefront.”
Most of that beer will be produced on the old Mad Fox system, which includes a 15-barrel brewhouse, six 30-barrel fermenters, and a 30-barrel brite tank. As far as brewpubs go, it’s a significant infrastructure.
“Before the brewpub idea was introduced, it was really about production for us; we wanted another facility similar to Sterling where we could scale even larger,” says Humerick. “When Mad Fox came along, we said, ‘We can still do a pretty significant volume out of this facility, enough to satisfy the majority of the onsite consumption, and then supplement it with the core beers coming from Sterling. That frees up a lot of our smaller tanks in Loudoun [County] if we have to do more core beer production in some of our 40-barrel fermenters.”
None of the beers brewed at Solace Outpost will leave the brewery in cans. Likewise, the only kegs exiting the Falls Church facility will be headed to Solace’s Sterling location, where the company is permitted to transfer beer under Virginia law. To-go options are limited to growler fills of Solace Outpost offerings and four-packs of beer canned in Loudoun County.
Production of Solace Outpost’s beer is the province of Sam Puffenbarger. A former program director for a non-profit environmental association, he brings to Solace five years of professional brewing experience spread across four very different breweries.
First came Atlas Brew Works, where Puffenbarger broke into the industry and advanced quickly to brewing at a time when the Ivy City operation’s organization was in flux. As essentially half of the production team, he was able to do a little bit of everything, including recipe formulation. By the time he departed in the summer of 2016, he had reformulated flagship IPA Ponzi and authored the recipe for a one-off called Dance of Days. An immediate hit, it’s now a high-performing flagship for Atlas. There are worse parting gifts for a brewer to leave behind.
From there, Puffenbarger headed to DC Brau, where he learned how to run a cellar effectively and to brew on a scale five times larger, at least in terms of total output. Of course, that scale would be dwarfed by his next destination, Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing, which churns out a monstrous 190,000 barrels annually. At seven months, this stop was relatively short and grueling, occasionally involving overnight shifts. The big takeaway was about the importance of quality control. It was not about unlocking the secrets of Prima Pils.
“Going into Victory, I thought I was going to learn about lagers all the time,” Puffenbarger shares. “I think we brewed Prima three times maybe – because they’re, like, 2,000-barrel tanks. We brewed Golden Monkey and Sour Monkey 70% of the time. That was every day: Golden Monkey and Sour Monkey.”
The brewer’s lager education would instead come over the past two years, after he joined Port City and could soak up Head Brewer Jonathan Reeves’ wealth of knowledge on lagering techniques and lager history. Ultimately, his time at the Alexandria brewery came down to sanctity of good processes.
“You learn stuff everywhere,” Puffenbarger shares. “But I had done production [brewing] for so long, I wanted to do something different. I was tired of shift work. Victory was 24/7, and then I came to Port City and it was still until midnight some days.”
Understandably, he jumped at the opportunity to apply for the lead brewer position at Solace Outpost. Not only was Puffenbarger a fan of Solace’s beer, he had become friends with Wiles and the Sterling location’s former lead brewer Bridgette Turner through the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, for which Puffenbarger serves as co-chair of the Mid-Atlantic’s Technical Committee.
“When Sam’s resume came in, Wiley was like, ‘Dude, you’re never going to believe who applied,’” recalls Humerick. “I didn’t know Sam, but Drew told me about all the MBAA stuff, and how Sam had always wanted a pub job, and how it was perfect. I was like, ‘OK… so hire him? Do you really have to talk to us about it? Let’s do it.”
At Solace Outpost, Puffenbarger takes over a brewhouse that’s as big as DC Brau’s during his tenure there. As to be expected, it is not quite state of the art. Puffenbarger can only brew on it once daily because there’s not enough hot water to do so twice. Everything is manual, which means no automated rakes to help discharge spent grain. It’s just Puffenbarger and a shovel.
Currently, that shovel is the closest thing he has to a colleague. While Puffenbarger is in close contact with Wiles and Humerick, the Solace Outpost production team is an army of one. But the lead brewer is hopeful to find someone on the brewpub service staff who is interested in learning to brew or, at the least, looking to earn some extra hours cleaning tanks.
“When I interviewed with Drew, he was like, ‘Are you going to be able to work by yourself?’” says Puffenbarger. “Because I’ve always had a team, even if it was just [Daniel] Vilarrubi and me at Atlas. It is certainly different coming in for eight hours and not seeing anybody. For the first month, it was just me and the contractors out here. But it’s all good – the creativity trumps loneliness.”
The brewer has a dry sense of humor, and he’s laughing as finishes saying this last bit, either because he’s partly joking or because he recognizes how dramatic it sounds.
The creative component is undeniable, though. When Puffenbarger began brewing at Solace Outpost in May, he was given the brewpub’s inaugural five recipes: two IPAs, a double IPA, a kettle sour, and the hoppy brown ale Beer:30, an old Solace brew that Humerick started developing back in his days at Beltway Brewing. But after producing those beers – all of which are currently on tap at Solace Outpost – Puffenbarger began drafting his own recipes and sending them to Wiles and the Solace brew team for input. On the day I visit the Falls Church brewpub, two of those recipes are in tank, and Puffenbarger has sent an additional seven over that morning.
“This is like a Choose Your Own Adventure,” Puffenbarger says of the new freedom. He then adds, only partly kidding: “We’ll do three IPAs, and then sprinkle something else in, and then three more IPAs. That’s what Solace is about, right?”
His first “something else” is the forthcoming kölsch, which Puffenbarger gave a modern twist with late additions of the citrusy German hop Mandarina Bavaria. A reference to Cursive’s 2001 EP, Burst and Bloom is also indicative that Solace (whose offerings frequently reflect an affection for ‘90s hip-hop, pop culture, and dad puns) are letting their new lead brewer (a heavy metal, punk, and turn-of-the-century emo aficionado) suggest names for his beers.
“We wanted something lower ABV; we’re aiming for 4.8%,” Puffenbarger says of Burst and Bloom, noting that in Solace Outpost’s first week open, the brewery’s core lager Crazy Pils has been its best seller. “It’s a slightly different style – not a lot of people have it.”
I ask if brewing kölsch was a tribute to the space’s history.
“I think it was in the back of my head,” he answers. “Hopefully, I don’t disappoint Bill Madden. If it’s good, maybe we’ll keep it on year round.”
The initial IPAs brewed at Solace Outpost were instructive for Puffenbarger. Despite a half decade of professional brewing, he hadn’t worked somewhere producing new school hazy IPAs, which have unique grain bills and water chemistry. After the opening trio, though, he felt he had the hang of it.
“Sam’s been doing awesome,” says Humerick. “He fits in really well with our team and our vision of what we want for the beer.”
The inaugural beer to roll through Solace Outpost’s system is named Waiting Patiently. Hopped with Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Blanc, the IPA calls back to the very first Solace beer produced anywhere, Patiently Waiting, an IPL dry-hopped with those same varietals (and brewed in collaboration with Ocelot).
“The name was perfect,” says Humerick. “Flip the words because now it’s an IPA, but it’s also a reflection of how we’ve been waiting patiently to get this place open.”
Solace Outpost was initially supposed to host a grand opening on May 1. Then, in March, COVID-19 hit. The buildout screeched to a halt, and Puffenbarger, who had already given notice to Port City, would be furloughed for almost two months. But by the end of April, the general contractor returned, finishing the space so Solace could hit the ground running when restrictions on bars and breweries were lifted in May.
Still, when Solace Outpost opened its doors to the public two weeks ago, it was hardly the “grand opening” once envisioned. Under Phase Two of Virginia’s reopening, the space has been limited to 150 people inside, plus another 90 outside, where it has benches and tables. And yesterday, as Solace Outpost prepared to enter Phase Three on July 1, Governor Ralph Northam announced that current restrictions would not be eased on bars and restaurants.
Humerick remains optimistic about Solace Outpost’s reception in Falls Church, both from locals and as a magnet for DC drinkers.
“I think this is a great up-and-coming area,” he shares. “The times that I had come here, when it was still Mad Fox, it was always popping. The surrounding community and people who live in Falls Church have been messaging us constantly – asking when we’re opening, when they can come in, when they can see it.”
The opening of Solace Outpost does not alleviate the brewery’s desire for a second production facility. Solace’s beer can be found throughout Northern Virginia and DC, but it has signed with Hop and Wine for most of Virginia’s remaining territory. Just before COVID-19 closed bars and restaurants, the distributor had begun shipping Solace to Richmond. Last week, they opened Charlottesville, with Chesapeake and Tidewater region coming later this year. Humerick says Solace is considering expanding its distribution footprint wider, perhaps down into North Carolina or north through Maryland, where the brewery had only half-heartedly sent beer in the past without much of a marketing campaign.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Solace is sending more IPA to retail than ever before. The closure of bars and restaurants – and the subsequent evaporation of keg distribution – forced Solace, like almost all breweries, to pivot aggressively to grocery stores, which conversely experienced a spike in sales during the pandemic. The competition for shelf space in grocery stores can be fierce among craft breweries, and even as bars and restaurants open back up, Solace is reticent to cede its victories. And that will mean making more beer.
“Once you get that shelf space, you don’t really want to give it up,” says Humerick, who notes 15-packs of Sun’s Out Hops Out will be a more common sight across area retailers. “We want to maintain that shelf space and keep beers moving through grocery. That was huge for us when bars and restaurants shut down.”
However, the existence of Solace Outpost does drastically reduce the chances that another Solace production facility will be situated in closer proximity to DC. For all intents and purposes, the brewpub satisfies the company’s perceived need for a more easterly presence.
“Looking for a larger production facility is still on our radar, but we’ve talked about keeping it in Loudoun,” Humerick shares. “We’ve also talked about taking it somewhere that land and real estate are cheaper, where we could build a much larger scale production facility.”
In other words, Solace Outpost isn’t the end goal of the brewery’s ambitions. It’s just the beginning.
“We want to be a real regional player,” says Humerick, the smile on his face brighter than his pink floral Solace baseball cap.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.