Tap Takeover is a series that explores the inspiration, recipes, and stories behind a brewery’s beers.
Today, we focus on four upcoming releases from Aslin Beer Company: Astro Zombie, Dunley Place, Johann the Mango Thief, and Macarooned.
Five months ago, Aslin Beer Company celebrated its first birthday.
At the time, the only way to take beer out of the Herndon brewery and into your home was via a crowler – a 32-oz sealed tin vessel that looks like a regular aluminum can on steroids. If you wanted one of these, you’d have to wait in line for two to three hours on a Thursday afternoon or Saturday morning, when Aslin released an allotment of each new batch of beer. If you couldn’t make a release, well, better luck next time, because the crowlers would likely be gone in short time – taken into other nearby homes, or perhaps put into boxes and mailed around the country by enterprising beer traders.
Aslin’s beer was scarce, in part, because those batches were never more than four barrels. Four barrels is not a ton of beer, but four barrels was the capacity of each Aslin fermentation tank. And to fill just one of those diminutive tanks, it still had to brew each beer twice on a two-barrel brewhouse. (To put these numbers in perspective, a brewery like Ocelot brews 30-barrel batches on a 15-barrel brewhouse.) To meet skyrocketing demand, Aslin’s brew days warped into 19-hour marathons.
Five months ago, when I stood in a hallway with co-founders Andrew Kelley and Kai Leszkowicz, they sounded ground down by that pace. Aslin had spent 2016 riding the lightning – big buzz, steady sales, a huge spotlight – and though they remained energized, the toll was evident in their glassy eyes. This wasn’t sustainable.
Thankfully, a lot has changed over the past five months.
At the end of last week, many of the production constraints Aslin faced were largely alleviated – at least temporarily. Though it remains situated in a snug 2,200-square-foot facility, Aslin closed 2016 with a newly installed, German-made, 8.5-barrel brewhouse. The bigger batches will go into new 17-barrel tanks, four of which are already up and running. A pair of brite tanks are on the way in February, too. All told, Aslin’s output is primed to spike five to six times over.
Meanwhile, the majority of liquid from this shiny, new system will be packaged in shiny, new large-form bottles. Where before crowlers were differentiated by either a small sticker or the stroke of a Sharpie, each bottle of Aslin beer will come bearing a unique label from Mike Van Hall, the artist and designer best known for his provocative work with Stillwater Artisanal. And since Aslin’s rotating portfolio of beers exceeds three dozen, that means over 35 different labels have been commissioned, conceived, and finalized. The first six of those were released two weeks ago. The next four arrive this Thursday.
Taken together, the expansion and swift, thorough move into packaging – all done while essentially functioning as a brewpub – is a striking feat of coordination. Or, as Kelley deadpans with typical understatement and business-speak: “It’s been a planning exercise.”
None of this should come as a surprise. Back in August, he and Leszkowicz previewed all of it in an online conversation with vloggers Craft Beer Nation. Not long after, someone posted that video on the online forum Beer Advocative. There, a gentleman by the name of Beernuts, responded with thoughtful but succinct consideration befitting the scale of undertaking: “I don’t want to watch a 30-minute video, did they say why they were going with bottles instead of cans?”
For better or worse – and we all know it’s probably the latter – this has been a pattern with Aslin: No matter what it does to improve the quality or quantity of its beer, there’s always at least one incredulous commenter.
And this matters, because despite the internet norm, Aslin reads the comments.
The issue of the day boils down to one dollar and twenty-five cents.
It’s the third Monday in December, and Aslin’s first bottle release is just around the corner. The slate of six beers chosen for the occasion is intended to create a big splash. Logically, it includes Master of Karate, Aslin’s most popular iteration of the trendy and somewhat divisive style that’s garnered the brewery its most attention: the hazy, aromatic, juicy, New England-style double IPA. Unsurprisingly, that beer is joined by four more versions of the style, including A Small Town in Ontario (a fan favorite amongst the less boozy IPAs) and Johann Gets a Broat (one of several fruit-and-vanilla “smoothie” spins of its breakthrough double IPA Mind the Hop). Rounding out the set is a 10% imperial stout brewed with maple syrup and cocoa.
Aslin may pride itself on making top-notch goses and saisons but the brewery knows what butters its bread.
First dibs on these bottles goes to the brewery’s Mug Club, a $250-per-year society that, among other perks, allows members advance access to releases. (Membership is full for next year, but there’s a wait list for 2018 enrollment.) To facilitate purchases of the releases – and allow Mug Clubbers to circumnavigate any lines – Aslin has set up a pre-sale system through Eventbrite. It’s a nice thought, but each bottle sale is considered a ticket and therefore subject to the Eventbrite’s $1.25 tax. For customer’s maxing out with 18 bottle purchases, those fees are stacking up to $23, and that’s currently causing a ruckus on Aslin’s social media.
“People are freaking out about service fees,” maligns Kelley as he scrolls through his computer. He doesn’t quite understand what the fuss is about. “The whole point is that we want to eliminate lines and make it easier to pick up your beers. How do you value your time? I know that I value my time at more than $25 for three hours.”
Sitting at a table in the brewery’s taproom, Leszkowicz is primed to parse this logic.
“Let me play devil’s advocate here,” he starts. “If I’m buying $200 worth of beer, why should I have to pay any fees? Aslin should pay them for me.”
Kelley seems resigned to constant stream of hubbub.
“It’s always going to be this way,” the former consultant tells me. “As with any business, not everyone is going to be happy. Is it bad press? Probably not. All press is good press.”
Whether it’s good press or not, Aslin moves bottle sales to its website the next day, and reimburses the Eventbrite service fees with in-house credit. The brewery will swallow a modest loss to maintain goodwill with its diehards.
“Our community is tough to please, but the more I’ve been here, the more I like that,” says Richard Thompson, the brewery’s third co-founder and brewer. “They want a good quality, and they’re willing to speak up if they’re not happy with something. They’re not just going along, saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong!’”
There was similar grumbling when Aslin announced that it would put its beer into bottles (which Aslin can better control) and not cans (which are cheaper to ship for beer traders). There was more grumbling when the brewery opted to stop filling crowlers while its new fermenters were being installed. All in all, it’s enough to make being the hot, new brewery sound like a total drag.
“If you can’t tell, there’s a little bit of frustration on our end,” Leszkowicz tells me. “We constantly feel that pressure from our consumer base. And they’re extremely important to us, but it doesn’t seem to be a two-way street. A lot of people just keep trying to find another thing to push our buttons about.”
But if Aslin’s fans show occasional signs of discontent, their wallets tell a different story. All of the 3,600 large-form bottles originally prepared for the release are snatched up during the pre-sale. An additional 340 made available for walk-up sale go quickly, too.
In fact, Aslin’s attempts to mitigate lines with pre-sale purchases fails because a large portion of Mug Club members show up prior to when the brewery opens at 3:00 on Thursday afternoon. They could have waited until later on Thursday or come any point on Friday, but they want these bottles in their hands as soon as possible. They want to be first.
“There were, like, 300 people in line,” Kelley tells me a few days later. “We could have sold ten times more bottles if we had them.”
Soon, Aslin will have a lot more beer to satiate those lines – and that’s not just because of the new brewhouse. Last week, the brewery announced that it would no longer function as a taproom. It would instead sell all of its beer to-go. (More on what exactly happened later.)
How this move pans out remains to be seen. But if they’re trying to make a product that people will continue to want in their hands, they’ve found a good partner with Van Hall.
Before he tried the beer, Mike Van Hall heard the noise.
“A lot of people were talking about all of the attention that Aslin was getting on beer forums,” the DC-based artist recalls. “But I had never ran into them at an event, and I certainly didn’t have any of their beers.”
This is how many were introduced in Aslin this year: the talk about the talk. When a small Herndon brewery ends up with multiple beers on online hype barometer Beer Advocate’s Top 250 Beers list, people in the industry take notice. And when that brewery sells beer almost exclusively out of its taproom, you’re not likely to stumble upon it by happenstance.
Van Hall would try Aslin’s beers for the first time in April, when the brewery invited him out to Herndon to talk about label art. The designer had come to the co-founders’ attention when Aslin brand ambassador Jeff Scott put a can of DC Brau’s Pink Pallet Jack in front of them.
“We were already talking the style of designs we wanted, and then we saw that can, and it was like, ‘That’s exactly what we’re looking for,’” Kelley says.
“We wanted something that was modern yet had an ability to reference trends that people find interesting, like in pop culture,” Leszkowicz adds.
A former attorney and self-trained artist, Van Hall has become the de facto creative director for Stillwater Artisanal, in addition to occasionally producing work for breweries like DC Brau and Vanish. He operates under the name The Committee on Opprobriations, and The Committee on Opprobriations doesn’t rush into any projects.
“I really only work with friends,” Van Hall says. “If you call me up, I have to get to know you before I’ll work with you.”
Van Hall’s work is hard to pin down. It can draw inspiration from minimalism and modernism, or it can head in an entirely different direction. It can be playful or “poison gas.” It’s guided by a set of rules, many of which are about things that Van Hall won’t do, like give life to mean-spirited jokes or scantily clad women or gory skulls. It doesn’t spell things out for the audience, but it’s not insular, either. It leaves the door ajar.
At a time when many breweries place a premium on brand recognition and most design firms favor systematic color variations on a single template, Van Hall recognizes that his approach is far from universal.
“For some people, what I offer is just not for them,” he admits. “Some people don’t get why I do things a certain way. I don’t default to having a front to the packaging. A brewery’s logo might not on the front of the label if it doesn’t serve a purpose. A lot of people are like, ‘We love our logo! We want it everywhere!’ Well, OK, then you’re going to have to find someone else.”
So, Van Hall sat down with Kelley and Thompson to talk about branding and beer and New England-style IPAs.
“I asked them about people giving Aslin a hard time because they do well with a trendy style of beer,” Van Hall shares. “Their explanation was that the New England IPAs weren’t the only thing that they were doing, and if they got people to pay attention to them and to try their other stuff and to realize that they like that too, then that’s a successful approach to the beer business. I totally agree with that. I too am skeptical of trendy beer companies, but I could see that’s not what those guys are about. They were telling me things that made me interested in helping do what I can do to make them successful. And the fact that they approach Aslin as a family operation only further endeared them.”
It didn’t hurt that the beer was excellent. One IPA in particular blew him away: Astro Zombie.
“It was amazing – this fragrant juice-bomb,” Van says. “That flavor was not already in the beer I knew well. All of the sudden, the hype that Aslin had proved itself to be worthwhile, which made me want to work with them more.”
Generally speaking, Aslin’s IPAs are variations on a theme. Its methodology – the procedures, the hopping rates, the temperatures – remain mostly consistent, while the particulars of the recipe are altered.
“We have different malt bills for pretty much every IPA that we make,” Thompson explains. “We don’t have a standard malt bill and then just change the hops. We try to match each malt bill with an IPA’s hops.”
In the case of Astro Zombie, the grist is composed of flaked wheat, Simpson’s Golden Naked Oats, 2-Row barley, and just enough 60L caramel malt to provide a tint of coloring. The hop profile, meanwhile, weds Australia’s tropical Galaxy varietal with the domestic Amarillo.
“Amarillo is a hop that tends to pair well with other hops,” Thompason says. “It boosts and moves both hops’ flavors into a really good area.”
The name is a nod to two of Leszkowicz’s loves: punk rock and the campy science fiction movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Where do those two things meet? Back in 1982, one of his favorite bands, the Misfits, recorded a song called “Astro Zombies”, which essentially summarizes the plot of a 1968 sci-fi flick called “The Astro-Zombies”.
“I love all of that all of that campy B film bullshit – the tin robots and laser guns and zombies,” says Leszkowicz, lifting his shirt to reveal a belt stitched with zombie illustrations.
And what does any of this have to do with a 6.2% IPA? Well, “astro” generally refers to stars and celestial bodies and the… galaxy.
“Like a lot of our names, Astro Zombie is more or a less a nod to an ingredient, plus a pop cultural reference,” Leszkowicz says.
“We stretch a lot,” Kelley jokes.
The challenge for Van Hall in designing the label for Astro Zombie was taking a literal reference (with an associated aesthetic) and trying to draw something interesting.
“I don’t like to do straightforward, commonly used visual tropes, if I can avoid it,” he says. “What are you going to do with a zombie? You’re going to draw a zombie with its skin falling off and whatever. I didn’t want to do that. So, instead, I focused on the brain, and I tried to make a face out of the brain. And then, just playing around with it, I made it into a fun spaceman brain guy.”
For extra pizzazz, the label is pressed on a foil imprint that flashes when it interacts with light.
“I don’t generally do this kind of stuff, so it was nice when they liked my approach,” Van Hall says. “With Astro Zombie, I started to learn about Aslin’s willingness to experiment with the visuals of the brand and to do what’s right for the individual beer without worrying about being overly consistent. I think that’s right place to be in the beer world. And it’s the right place to be for Aslin with the way that they’re approaching their business and their fans.”
There is always a way to improve something at Aslin.
Spend some time with the brewery’s co-founders, and it becomes abundantly clear how relentlessly they’re in pursuit of how exactly to do so. White papers, TED Talks, online forum discussions, a visit to coffee roasting facility or another brewery – whatever the source of information, any tidbit is potentially applicable to its operations.
“If we’re not doing physical brewery work – if I’m at home doing yard work, or it’s baby time – I’ve got one ear bud in and I’m listening to a 1000 different podcasts,” Leszkowicz says. “My attention is constantly split.”
All breweries want to make a better product, of course, but Aslin’s co-founders can sound more like tech start-up entrepreneurs in explaining their approach – and how they view the brewery, more generally.
“We are transitioning Aslin Beer Company to being more of a lifestyle brand,” Kelley tells me at one point, referencing a Simon Sinek lecture. “We ask ourselves: Why are we doing this? What problem are we trying to solve? And what are we going to use to try to solve that problem? We want to grow Aslin into a larger entity, whether it’s just beer or not.”
The products outside out of “just beer” could include Aslin coffee, Aslin distilled spirits, and Aslin bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. (That last one, inspired by a recent trip to Miami’s J. Wakefield Brewing, is already a work in progress.) What’s the unifying thread?
“It’s quality consumables, and the environment around those products,” explains Kelley. “It’s community. It’s the experience that you have with our brand, and then taking that to another level by buying a bottle from us, and then sharing it with someone else.”
“Aslin is part of our life,” Leszkowicz adds. “This is what we do. This is how we live. These are the things that we enjoy, and we want to share them with you guys because we think we found a way of doing it that’s better or unique or just damn good.”
It’s worth remembering here that when Aslin opened in September of 2015, it had planned to function as a more standard brewery, with year-round flagships that included a West Coast IPA, a lime Kolsch, a witbier, and a rye Pale Ale. Within a few months, it had discarded that model completely to further the pursue the energy it tapped with its first New England-style IPA, Mind the Hop.
Even now, an Aslin beer is never quite final. One change to one beer’s recipe may ripple across the entirety of the brewery’s portfolio.
“We’re constantly trying to improve all of our recipes,” Thompson shares. “We want someone to come in and order a beer, and for it to be the best beer they’ve ever had from us.”
As an example, take Dunley Place, a double IPA hopped with Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy.
The beer was developed around the same time as Astro Zombie, and thus bears a similarity in its malt bill. (Instead of 2-Row, though, it’s brewed with Marris Otter.) Aslin wanted this grist to showcase Nelson Sauvin, a New Zealand-grown hop that possesses a uniquely fruity, white grape character. The problem with the first batch of Dunley Place was that Galaxy hogged the spotlight.
“Galaxy is this danky, really aggressive hop,” Leszkowicz says. “When we brewed this beer following our standard dry-hopping procedure, the grain bill sat on Galaxy more, which kind of subdued Nelson’s role.”
There was room for improvement. “We thought it was an OK beer, but it wasn’t spectacular,” notes Thompson.
The brewer suggested double dry-hopping Dunley Place.
“Richard basically said, ‘Let’s hop the shit out of this beer and see what happens,’” Leszkowicz shares. “Once we did that, we realized that it needed more mouthfeel, so we upped the flaked wheat malt. And, boom, on the second round of the double dry-hopped version, we were like, ‘Fuck yeah, this is the beer.’ And we haven’t turned back.”
The new double dry-hopping procedure was then applied to other Aslin beers, like the IPA Neutrino.
“The new Neutrino just blew our minds on the first run,” Leszkowicz says. “It was like, ‘Now we know these beers need a little more hop value, a little more play, and they’ve developed into these crazy beers – all because of our weird attention to detail and constantly changing things.’”
Dunley Place has since gone on to become one of Aslin’s most sought-after beers. Thompson attributes its appeal to the interaction of Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin.
“There’s just something about those two hops together,” the brewer explains. “If you take Galaxy alone, it can be on the earthy or funky side – that marijuana-esque thing. Meanwhile, you can sort of miss the tropical aspects of Nelson, but Galaxy boosts that. They complement each other well.”
Like Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy is a Southern Hemisphere hop. The versatile, tropical varietal is grown exclusively in Australia. Coincidentally, the wives of Kelley and Leszkowicz are also of Australian origin: The two sisters grew up in Sydney. The name of their childhood street? Dunley Place.
Starting with a name of such personal and specific significance created an interesting quandary for Van Hall.
“That kind of name is really hard because Dunley Place has no meaning to anyone besides them,” he shares. “So, I had nowhere to start. On the other hand, that’s great, because I get to make the meaning.”
Seeking to explore the Australian connection, he developed a label that translates the country’s majestic, open horizon via a color gradient graphic.
“I started thinking, ‘How did I interpret Australia?’” he remembers. “As I was doing that, I kept wanting to use a gradient, because that’s kind of the visual language that all of the New England IPA guys use. I wanted push it a little bit, though, and make it our own. All of that resulted in developing what I imagined the colors of a lovely Australian sunset would be.”
The Dunley Place label stands out for Van Hall among his work for Aslin.
“Dunley Place was different because I felt like it was just me interpreting what they were saying purely,” he shares. “I wasn’t relying on direct input or little hooks of things that they were interested in. We have the good working relationship in the sense that they do their thing, I do my thing, it comes together, and it works. That doesn’t always happen. Believe me.”
Before there was an Aslin Beer Co., Kai Leszkowicz was a police officer in Houston. In that line of work, he came to expect the unexpected.
“Every day, literally, someone does something that surprises you,” he remembers. “When you think you’ve seen it all, you definitely have not.”
He kept a journal during this time, documenting the wilder happenings he encountered. One day at the brewery, he opened it up for his partners. Amongst the stories was the record of a 911 call from a man who was convinced that his cousin Johann was breaking into his house, stealing his mangoes, and replacing them with rotten strawberries.
Later, Aslin would memorialize this alleged fruit vandal with a series of beers: Johann the Mango Thief, Johann Buys a Broat, The Passion of Johann, the forthcoming Johann Versus the Volcano.
The tropical theme stems from the combination of fruit and vanilla used in each Double IPA. These beers are all variants of Mind the Hop, the New England-style IPA that put Aslin on the map locally.
“It’s the beer that really started that fire for us,” Leszkowicz says. “But instead of calling this ‘Mind the Hop with Peach,’ now it’s a series. We’re just rebranding stuff that people already know, and trying to provide imagery to it. So, if Mind the Hop is fruited, it’s a Johann.”
These spins on Mind the Hop draw loose inspiration from two other breweries. The first is Ballast Point, whose Grapefruit Sculpin fueled Aslin’s build-out in the summer of 2015. Aslin wasn’t interested in recreating that particular combination, though.
“We were like, ‘Instead of doing grapefruit – because it’s acidic, and IPAs are already acidic – why don’t we play to something that balances that side out?’” remembers Leszkowicz. “Peach was the first thing that popped into our mind as a flavor that could play towards the hop profile that we like, and then mellow the beer so it doesn’t have a super acidic value. It creates an interesting dichotomy.”
Peach and subsequent fruits have complimented Mind the Hop’s sole flavor and aroma hop: Citra. The introduction of vanilla, meanwhile, amplifies the fruitiness of both. Here, Aslin drew inspiration from Tired Hands and Omnipollo’s Milkshake IPA, which utilizes milk sugar to create a creamy, hop-forward ale.
“We were like, ‘This is a good beer, but this is not how we would want to do it,’” Kelley recalls. “Our IPAs already have that creaminess, so we didn’t need milk sugar. And, personally, I think a Johann is closer to a smoothie than milkshake.”
“We also use a shit ton of purée, so it actually does have a smoothie element to it,” Leszkowicz adds. “When we go to the bottom of these kegs and we’re pulling it off, it goes from being beer to being that fruit purée that we added. It’s really thick.”
Johann the Mango Thief, a double IPA brewed with mango and vanilla, marks the first in the series of labels – even if bottles of Johann Buys a Broat were released a few weeks ago. With these labels, Van Hall wants to tell a story, though he’s elusive about where it’s going.
“Johann is going to be around a lot, and he’s going to be doing different things, so I thought, ‘Let’s use that to our advantage and tell a story that’s specific to those labels,’” the artist shares. “It’s going to be like a comic strip. Everything is going to become very clear, but I’ll stick to the mystery of Johann for now.”
For Johann the Mango Thief, Van Hall wanted to capture the unusual shape of mango trees and its drooping vines. And since he doesn’t like to draw faces, he casts Johann in the shadows.
“I like these because they’re totally different from anything else I’ve done with beer labels,” he shares. “They’re fun to do with the colors, especially.”
On a deeper level, the Johann series is another attempt to capture the spirit of Aslin’s co-founders.
“These guys have a lot of references that they use,” the designer shares. “They use them as almost a second language. The challenge for me is that if I know where an inside joke comes from, I don’t want to be too explicit about it on the label. I don’t like to do explicit labels. I like to do mysterious labels. I don’t want to put the joke right in front of you. I want to make you thing about it.”
By pulling the story of Johann from his law enforcement past, Leszkowicz is hoping to make a statement of his own.
“It seems funny at first, but when you have time to break down, it’s a commentary our perception of people with mental disease,” the co-founder shares. “It’s a two-take look at the world: This is how you perceive it, and this is another person’s reality. There is a deep, underlying issue that we make into a joke. I have a very dark sense of humor.”
A handful of Aslin’s recipes are vestiges of the rough-and-rumble world of Faceoffs.
Faceoffs were how Leszkowicz, Kelley, and Thompson challenged themselves during their homebrew days: head-to-head competitions that pitted one brewer against another in producing a particular style.
Once Aslin was up and running, the best of these recipes were scaled up to the production system. Some didn’t translate. Others did. One such success was an imperial stout called Deceiver.
“We had done a stout Faceoff series, and it was Drew versus me,” Leszkowicz recalls. “My stout was Deceiver, and his was some shit that we don’t do now.”
The 10% imperial stout is built on a malt bill rich with soft roasted notes, strong chocolate flavors, and a hint of natural vanilla. And just as the Aslin co-founders did when they were still brewing in the proverbial basement, they’ve used Deceiver as a jumping-off point for a number of variants.
There’s a chocolate and marshmallow version called S’More Sout. There’s the maple syrup twist Cocoa Mapalm. There’s the spiced Mexican Hot Chocolate. And there’s Macarooned.
“We went on a rampage with all of the variants,” Leszkowicz says. “When the brewery first opened, we were pulling off gallons of Deceiver, filling mason jars, and doing the same ratios of the additions.”
Macarooned is brewed with the addition of toasted flaked coconut, and as the name suggests, it recalls the flavor of a chocolate macaroon. (As a homebrew, it was originally dubbed Macaruined, because the booziness could wreak havoc on your day, but Aslin scaled back the punniness.) Like the rest of the Deceiver variants, Macarooned bears Thompson’s mark most.
“The stouts are Richard’s domain,” Leszkowicz says. “He really knows the ratios and what elements of what ingredients work best played against the Deceiver series.”
Thompson attributes his interest, in part, to his interest in cooking, which he picked up from his mother and grandmother.
“I have flavor profiles that I like to put together,” he shares. “And I love a good coconut stout. I’ve had a bunch of bad ones, too, where the coconut tastes like suntan lotion. I thought that toasting the coconut first would add a lot – and help us avoid the suntan lotion thing. Now, Macarooned is pretty much everything that I would want out a coconut stout, with the exception of it being bourbon barrel-aged, which we’ll get to someday.”
Thompson also made his voice heard during the conception of Macarooned’s label design.
“Richard has a very artistic mind,” Van Hall shares. “I really like talking about art with him. He can articulate issues in a way that’s rare. During our initial conversations, we were talking about Bauhaus stuff and the stouts all going that minimal route.”
“The hard part of going the minimal route is: How do you build meaning into it?” Van Hall explains. “Modernism has meaning. It’s not just a circle or a shape. There’s a reason it’s a circle or a shape, and you do your best to convey that with the lightest touch possible.”
Following Cocoa Mapalm, Macarooned is the second his minimal stout series.
“If you look at it, it looks like two halves of a circle, but it kind of looks like a macaroon, too, you know?” he shares. “I hate to say that out loud and be explicit about it, but to me, that’s a Bauhaus macaroon…. which I’m sure they would make awesomely.”
For Van Hall, that minimalism mirrors the stouts’ constuctions, even if they clock in at double digit ABV.
“They’re stouts with a lot of flavor that are just done with a lighter touch,” the artist observes. “They’re drinkable stouts – not over-the-top stuff.”
When I met with Aslin two weeks ago, its trajectory appeared set for the foreseeable future. The brewery would release bottles every other week, and split the remainder of a batch between the taproom and then growler fills (once the bottles had sold out).
But when a Fairfax County fire marshal showed up during the Thursday bottle release, all of that changed. The issue? There was a discrepancy between the taproom occupancy levels set by the town and the county, and Aslin was held the lower standard.
It seems like a tedious, bureaucratic dispute – and, to some degree, it certainly is – but it also touches on a larger and long-festering dispute between Aslin and the town of Herndon.
To get into the nitty gritty for a moment, Aslin built its taproom with the expectation that 80 people could fit into it at once. However, the brewery says that certain zoning requirements were changed (or not explained to them) during its build-out, thus restricting them to 49 patrons when Aslin opened. For a brewery that seeks to sell essentially of its beer on premise, that’s a significant gap.
Now, Aslin could make certain changes to the facility to get up to 80, but it doesn’t believe the benefits outweigh those costs. The brewery also believes it shouldn’t have to comply with any those new codes in the first place.
“We should have been grandfathered into certain codes that they didn’t tell us about when we were building out, when we could have 80 right off the bat,” Kelley explains. “It’s this cat-and-mouse game that we’ve been playing with Herndon. We feel like they haven’t given us the support that we would have liked. We haven’t gotten the support that any other local community would have given.”
There are also issues with a neighbor who repeatedly calls the police, fire marshal, and building inspectors on Aslin. Given the brewery’s proximity to the future Herndon stop ofthe Metro’s silver line, Aslin sits on valuable land – something that such a neighbor might like to snatch up should they leave. Here, again, Kelley thinks Herndon has not helped Aslin.
“Our neighbor has basically bullied us, and there has been no support,” he shares. “Herndon has told us that there’s nothing they can do. Realistically, there is stuff they can do. They just chose not to exercise any options. So, that kind of put a sour taste in our mouths. There’s just this old money bullshit – you gotta pay to play. And we’re not into that. There’s easily a better home out there for us. We were like, ‘You know what? We have to get out of here.’”
Last Wednesday, Aslin made that sentiment public. To the shock of its fans, the brewery made the announcement that they would be looking to leave Herndon. In the meantime, a Facebook post stated, it would close the taproom and sell all of its beer to-go. That may be the real story here.
Kelley likens Aslin’s new to-go model to one that Massachusetts’s Tree House Brewing employs. It’s a shift in strategy that he admits carries risk.
“I think that we can be successful under the Tree House model, but there is an unknown,” the co-founder shares. “I don’t know how the DC-area market will react to it. What if people don’t continue to line up like they have been? Then, we’re forced to distribute, then we see smaller margins, and then our growth is slowed down, because we’ve lost the margins of people coming into the tasting room. If it is successful, and we continue to keep selling out – which I think we should be able to do – then we’re not going to be in a total rush to move.”
To meet the new production capacity, Aslin is already exploring alternate packaging – namely, mobile canning. While not ideal, this option may have become more palatable after the brewery was forced to stay through the night two Wednesdays ago to finish bottling for its first release. Even with a state of the art filler, bottling is a laborious task.
As for the move itself, it’s something that Aslin has been mulling for several months now.
“We’ve been looking at building another production facility and building this business,” Leszkowicz told me before all of this transpired. “I’m pushing these guys about sustainability, reusability, more green. In fact, I’ve made a list of requirements. I would like a water retention pond. I want solar power. I want reusability. We have to think about we affect our community. We know we use a lot of water. We know that there are problems that exist and have existed. People have solutions for them, and we need to finds way to instill them in the business.”
If all of this activity wasn’t enough, Aslin also recently launched a sour program.
To keep the bugs away from their clean beer, the brewery is renting 600-square feet at Beltway Brewing in Sterling, Virginia, and has already filled it with a number of wine barrels and one foedre (an oversized oak vessel). In February, its extra four-barrel fermentation tanks will head there, too.
As of last week, its first beer – a sour ale brewed with twelves strains of Brett, Lacto, and Pedio – started fermenting in the foedre. Then, utilizing the Solera method that leaves a little bit of each beer behind in the foedre, Aslin will brew a mixed culture saison, followed by a Brett IPA. All of these recipes will be executed Beltway’s team, much like it contract brews for Grimm Artisanal Ales.
To say the least, it’s a big investment for Aslin – and a leap into the unknown.
“We’re working our butts off for this kind of stuff,” Leszkowicz tells me. “The scary part is that it’s a huge investment for an unknown. Six months or a year from now, it could be complete shit. That’s just the reality of making beer.”
In Kelley’s eyes, the reward is worth that risk.
“If we can execute with these beers like we have on the others, it’ll be a huge game changer for us,” he shares. “It’ll really differentiate us in this market.”
For past year, that’s not something Aslin has had much trouble doing.