Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
When Daniel Vilarrubi interviewed at Atlas Brew Works a little over four years ago, the tasting room was a sad sight. In truth, even calling it a tasting room is generous. It was more of a corner – a portion of the production floor that had been partitioned off for a few stools, high-top tables, and a large, slightly crooked wooden bar constructed mostly by founder Justin Cox. Just 50 or so feet away from that bar stood the brewery’s squat fermentation tanks, and the only thing separating them from patrons on any given Saturday was a single strip of plastic caution tape, which drunken guests would gleefully duck under, trudging through the production floor en route to the bathroom.
It was a far cry from the sleek and modern tasting room the brewery would unveil in the summer of 2016. The space had a mere four draft lines. The current one has 20.
But Vilarrubi saw all he needed to on those four lines. It was less about the brewery’s flagship rye pale ale Rowdy – Vilarubbi was and remains less than enamored with hoppy beers – and more about the remaining trio of complimentary offerings: District Common, The 1500 South Cap Lager, and Home Rule. A California Common, a Helles-esque lager, and an India Pale Lager. Three lagers. Three lagers out of a possible four beers.
“I thought that was the coolest shit ever,” the scruffy brewer remembers. “It was a big reason why I started working at Atlas.”
Vilarrubi loved lagers – clean, crisp, refreshing beers that ferment at cool temperatures with bottom-fermenting yeast. For as long as he’s loved beer, he’s loved lagers.
“I’m sure everyone started out drinking lagers,”muses Vilarrubi, sitting in the new taproom on an early August evening. “Nobody kicked off their drinking career with an IPA. It was more likely a Miller Lite or something.”
Despite once being dismissed by self-consciously macho breweries like Stone as “fizzy yellow beer,” lagers are a labor of love. While ales ferment quickly at warmer temperatures with yeasts that throw off fruity and spicy notes, lagers ferment at cooler temperatures, then condition in tanks for weeks or even months to further smooth out. What’s left in the end is a purer distillation of hop and malt – an oftentimes daunting canvas that leaves a brewer’s technical mistakes nowhere to hide.
In Atlas Brew Works, Vilarrubi had found the one production brewery in DC’s burgeoning craft beer scene willing to dedicate a significant portion of its tank space to lagers. Doing so meant producing less ale, and therefore less beer in total. (Generally speaking, you can produce ales twice as fast as lagers.)
“For up-and-coming breweries, it usually makes no sense to have a flagship lager in the beginning,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for influential Columbia Heights bar Meridian Pint. “There’s too much demand at first, they’re too small, they needed to push too much beer into the market.”
To hear Cox explain it, Atlas Brew Works’ lager-heavy line-up was hardly the product of a strategic masterplan. After all, the hop-forward Rowdy was the brewery’s primary focus. District Common was developed more as a counterpoint to Rowdy – an approachable “patio beer” that would appeal to Bud Light drinkers and craft beer nerds alike. 1500, meanwhile, came from the brewery’s partnership with Nationals Park. Atlas Brew Works had pitched three concepts to the craft-savvy stadium for an exclusive beer: a session lager, a witbier, and an extra pale ale. The stadium did not choose the witbier. Later, when the time arrived to make a warm-weather seasonal, Atlas already had lager yeast around the brewery, so founding head brewer Will Durgin decided to make Home Rule an IPL.
“We got a year in and we looked back, and we had five beers and three of them were lagers,” Cox remembers. “All of a sudden, we were a lager brewery. I can’t say that it was on purpose. We weren’t thinking about ale vs. lager. We were thinking about what kinds of flavor profiles we wanted and approachability. It just sort of evolved that way.”
In the four years that have passed since then, Vilarrubi has ascended to the position of head brewer at Atlas. Outside of the Ivy City brewery, meanwhile, local craft lager production – and consumption – has spiked. DC Brau unveiled its Brau Pils in 2015, and after a few years of struggling to find tank space for the beer, the brewery now produces it regularly and is even sending it to Sweden. Last year, Port City unveiled a year-round Lager Series, adding to its already deep portfolios of lagers, like the flagship Czech-style Downright Pilsner and popular Märzen and California Common seasonals. In the Navy Yard, Director of Brewing Operations Ro Guenzel has introduced traditional German lagers to compliment Bluejacket’s new school hoppy lagers. Even at 3 Stars – where co-founder Dave Coleman once famously maligned, “Pilsner and Kölsch and lager? God, fucking boredom,” – you can find Pilsner and Kölsch and lager.
“I think it’s been happening gradually for a while, but there’s been an upswing in craft lagers recently,” observes Gonnerman. “As far as DC breweries go, Atlas certainly got on them early. At a time when other breweries were making maybe one, Atlas was making 1500 for Nats Park, District Common, and the hoppy lager Home Rule, which has always been a favorite of mine. They were on that path before a lot of the other local breweries were.”
The demands of lager production – particularly in the summer, when Atlas Brew Works is cranking out 1500 and Home Rule – is a big reason why the brewery had yet to host a “Solidarity brew.” On a Solidarity brew day, all of the city’s breweries (plus a few inside-the-Beltway operations like Denizens and Port City) gather to brew as beer in honor of DC Beer Week. It’s been a tradition since 2013.
“It really comes down to who is able to do it,” explains Cox, chatting with me next to the Atlas jockey box at Sunday’s inaugural Lager Fest. “We’re all relatively new breweries, and we’re all strained on resources and capacity. Atlas wanted to do it last year, but we just didn’t have the tank space, we didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the manpower to get it done. This year we did, and I’m super excited about it.”
In producing the 2018 Solidarity beer, Atlas Brew Works became the last of the traditional production breweries to do so. (Bluejacket, which could be considered more a production-brewpub hybrid, has yet to host the brew day.) The preceding beers have all been the product of collaborative recipe formulation, but they’ve also played to the strengths and specialties of the breweries actually making the beer. DC Brau, the resident hopheads, made a session IPA in 2014. A year later, Hellbender produced a saison with a high proportion of wheat that its system is uniquely designed to handle. Then 3 Stars offered its take on the grisette – a younger sibling of sorts to its best-selling Peppercorn Saison. And last year Right Proper fashioned a Brett IPA with its house mixed culture of wild yeast and bacteria.
“We don’t want to push something unfamiliar on someone,” says Barrett Lauer. “We want something that’s going to fall into their realm of relativity.”
A fourteen-year veteran of DC’s District ChopHouse, Lauer has taken part in every Solidarity brew since 2010, when Capital City, the Gordon Biersch on 9th Street, and his own District ChopHouse each produced versions of the first Solidarity beer Alt Together Now. Almost a decade later, he carries the institutional knowledge of the Solidarity beer with him. He also serves as an emissary between the DC Beer Week planning committee and the host brewery, and helps coordinate the donation of raw materials used to make the beer. By and large, he is the constant.
In a sense, a Solidarity brew begins each spring when Lauer gathers area brewers at the District ChopHouse to begin planing out the recipe. Typically, the only thing decided up until this point is who will host the brew. Lauer says the story was no different this year.
“We were talking about what type of beer would work well in August, and how we had yet to make a lager for the Solidarity,” recalls the brewer, speaking over the phone from a family vacation in Ocean City. “Then the conversation just quickly focused on lagers and how well that would work and how drinkable it would be. People really liked the idea of taking a Pilsner and using more current hops to give it a little more flavor and zing.”
What Lauer is not telling me is that this outcome – the selection of a Pilsner, the first Solidarity lager – was something of a foregone conclusion. Vilarrubi and Lauer had actually met weeks earlier to discuss what Atlas hoped to make for the Solidarity beer this year.
“In the past, the big brewers meeting has gotten pretty muddled,” Vilarrubi shares. “After a few drinks, everyone has pretty strong opinions. So Barret was like, ‘If we talk about it beforehand, we can steer everyone in the direction we want.’”
The two wanted to make something light. The Atlas head brewer had appreciated Right Proper’s Solidarity Brett IPA, but he also thought it appealed to a somewhat niche audience. He wanted to expand the base of people who would order this year’s Solidarity. The two settled on a Pilsner, a style that Vilarrubi has always wanted to make. True, Atlas had recently rebranded the Home Rule as a “hoppy pils,” but Vilarrubi had something more traditional in mind.
“I went into the brewers meeting thinking more of a Czech-style Pilsner – a bit bitterer, more hops,” he shares. “People pretty much put the kibosh on that immediately. To their credit, we are talking about August. I was thinking about this in March or April. Lower bitterness and lower hops is nicer in the summer. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a collaboration. It’s on us to sell, but it’s not much of a collaboration if I don’t listen to other people.”
Vilarrubi also had something boozier in mind. Not an imperial Pilsner by any means, but perhaps something in the 6% ABV range. Here again, he would cede to the wisdom of his peers. They talked him down to 5%.
“There’s always an easy way to be like, ‘Let me get crazy with this beer,’” says Vilarrubi. “But the whole idea of a Pilsner is don’t get crazy. When I order a Pilsner, I’m not looking for someone doing some wild shit. If see a Pilsner, I think, ‘How well do they do a Pilsner?’”
The brewers would settle on more of a German-style Pilsner – a crisper, drier, lighter counterpart to the Czech Pilsner with a relatively restrained hop character. If there was a modicum of craziness to be had, it was in the selection of hops: Huell Melon and Hallertau Blanc, two new-school German varietals that echo the vibrancy of American Pacific Northwest hops.
“We wanted to bring in German hops but not necessarily old school German hops like Hallertau Tradition or anything like that,” says Vilarrubi. “Both Huell Melon and Hallertau Blanc have softer flavor profiles. They’re a bit different from your noble characteristics.”
German noble hops tend to be flowery or spicy, but as its name lets on, Huell Melon lets off a distinct melon flavor, along with berry and herbal notes. Hallertau Blanc’s moniker is equally instructive: The varietal is evocative of white wine and tropical fruit.
“As much as we admire old school Pilsners, we thought the public would clamor a little more for this beer with these hops than if we went with Saaz or traditional Hallertauer,” Lauer shares. “We wanted to make it a little juicier. It’s more citrusy; you get a lot more melon from it. If I look at a recipe and my mouth doesn’t matter, then we need to rethink it.”
While these varietals are often used by progressive breweries to bomb out hazy IPAs, Atlas Brew Works used them sparingly, lightly kettle hopping the beer and later applying a delicate dry-hop. In between those applications, Vilarrubi fermented the Pilsner with the brewery’s house lager yeast, a California Common strain rumored to be derived from Anchor Brewing’s iconic rendition of the style, Anchor Steam.
It’s a mildly unconventional choice of a yeast strain for a Pilsner. California Commons – or “steam beers” – are fermented with a lager yeast that performs better at warmer temperatures than your typical lager strain. California brewers discovered this out of necessity in the mid-1800s, when the state was flooded with European immigrants and their accompanying taste for lager beer. Local brewers were equipped with bottom-fermenting lager yeast, but without a sufficient supply of ice, they were forced to ferment their beer at warmer temperatures like an ale. Thus, a rare thoroughly American style was born.
“German immigrants still made everything to recipe, they still used their lager yeast, but they were fermenting at high temperatures, and the yeast threw off these weird, fruity flavors,” Vilarrubi explains. “Over time, the yeast mutated into a strain that could handle high temperatures easily, but it still ferments cold. Our house yeast still ferments cold. It’s versatile. Some of the other DC brewers were super concerned that it wouldn’t ferment this beer at a lower temperature, but everything comes out super clean with it.”
Atlas Brew works uses this strain in all of its lagers: the Common, the Helles, the IPL. A few years ago, Vilarrubi even used it on an 8.5% Doppelbock – a true test of its fortitude. The brewer knows the strain, he knows how it behaves, and he didn’t want any surprises with the onus of the Solidarity brew on his shoulders.
“It is definitely possible to brew a Pilsner with the Common strain,” says Jasper Akerboom, whose Jasper Yeast donated the yeast for this brew, in addition to regularly providing Atlas Brew Works with it. “The yeast obliviously traveled to the United States, and found its way to California, and ended up being used in a very different way. In the process, it’s gained a little bit of a different characteristic than the run-of-the-mill Carlsburg lager yeast that most breweries use for their Pilsners, but that’s actually kind of neat. It’s a strain that’s more American now than German or Czech or European. There’s a certain nuttiness to the strain that especially manifests itself at higher temperatures. I’m really curious to see if it comes through in this beer.”
A day later, Akerboom has tasted the Pilsner and follows up with me: “It definitely has the yeast character we talked about. I really like it. Dan and his team did such a good job.”
The 20-barrel batch of Solidarity Pilsner was split between kegs and, for the first time in the history of the Solidarity beer, 12oz cans. (Artist Andy Sides, who designed the label for last year’s Solidarity Brett IPA bottles, again handled the packaging.)
“We’re heading into our tenth year, and coincidentally enough, tenth anniversary is aluminum,” notes Lauer. “It was just serendipitous that it just fell together.”
There’s a broader thread of serendipity running through Solidarity Pilsner: It feels only fitting that the responsibility of brewing the annual collaboration beer finally fell to Atlas Brew Works, the city’s first modern production brewery to get fully behind lagers, at a time when craft lagers are more popular than ever.
“I think this beer reflects where the market is going,” says Gonnerman. “If this was five or six years ago, I don’t think the reception from the public would have been nearly as strong as it’s going to be this year. It reflects the growth and movement towards craft lager within beer as a whole.”
The craft lager revival has been more of a steady drip than a deluge. Esquire made note of it back in 2014. “Make room, hoppy IPA. Pilsener is the buzzy new craft beer,” read the headline of a Fritz Hahn article last May. “[T]he latter half of this decade has seen the rise of what would have once been total anathema: craft pilsners and light lagers,” wrote Kate Bernot in an insightful piece on The Takeout a few month ago.
But while area brewers can all see the trend emerging – as evidenced by their increased production of lagers – everyone has a slightly different theory as to why it is.
“You take a few steps forward, but you’re always going to go back to your roots,” says Lauer. “Pilsner is one of the roots of beer just being consumed and enjoyed, and not necessarily being talked about or rated on the internet. It’s not about whales and hoppy beers or how much alcohol. Sometimes you just need to drink something enjoyable.”
Gonnerman sees it as a necessary response to the maximalism that’s come to define certain styles.
“For a long time, there were various arm races in beer,” the Meridian Pint beer director observes. “There was a push to make the most bitter, bombastic IPA in the West Coast style. The same thing happened with fruited sours. With New England-style IPAs it’s been about who can use the biggest dry-hop. Those things are fun – I enjoy trying them – but they’re not necessarily something that I’m going to sit down and drink over the course of a session. I think some of the people who have been in this for a while, who have seen trends and styles come and go, they’re looking for something that’s still delicious and decidedly craft, something that has some hop character and some bitterness but is balanced, crisp, and refreshing, something that they can drink several pints of in a sitting, something that has complexity as well as nuance. That’s what’s driving it to a large extent.”
As for Vilarrubi, well, he’s less inclined to wax poetic.
“We talk about the resurgence of lagers but Bud Light was always the biggest brand in America,” the Atlas Brew Works head brewer tells me. “It was Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light. Lagers were always huge. It’s that craft is just starting to latch on. Folks who like to support local breweries didn’t necessarily dislike lagers; they just weren’t readily available in craft form. Within our circles we’re seeing a resurgence of lagers but I don’t think they ever went away. The way to bring in the Miller Lite and Bud Light drinkers is to make a Pilsner. That’s obviously what they like. You can make it a little different, you can make it taste better maybe, and hopefully you can bring some new folks in. It’s a good space for craft beer.”
As you might expect, president of Lost Lagers Mike Stein is enthused about the milestone of the first Solidarity lager – and appreciates the spirit behind it.
“I’m incredibly exited to see Pilsner become the Solidarity beer for 2018,” the historian says. “It suggests a maturing of the beer market and the brewers who serve us their wares. We can debate stylistically about how many malts or hops should be in Pilsner, but what matters is that all of the brewers who participated were heard and came together. It’s often easier to brew solo and say screw the feedback, but as a person who constantly brews collaboratively, I know the exuberance I feel when a group effort is brought successfully into the beer world. I’m going to crush this Pilsner, then continue crushing the ChopHouse’s Cheque Please, Downright Pilsner, and Brau Pils.”
Vilarrubi hopes to someday introduce another lager to that discussion: an Atlas Czech-style lager. He may also scale up a recent hit off the pilot system, Night Vision, a style of Czech dark lager called Tmavé.
“I would love if half our board was lagers,” the brewer says with a grin.
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 Allagash’s Little Brett, Perennial’s Prodigal, Old Bust Head’s Table Talk, Right Proper’s Ravaged by Wolves, Bluejacket and Ocelot’s Mixed Up / Torn Down, Old Ox’s FestivALE, Port City’s Colossal 7, and 3 Stars Brewing’s ’90s hip-hop car culture series.