In a corner of Justin Cox’s office, its branches puncturing the yawning tabs of empty beer cans, stands a fake plastic tree.
“That’s our Christmas tree in captivity,” the Atlas Brew Works CEO says with boyish amusement.
A full five weeks have lapsed since the holiday, but neither Cox nor his Atlas partner Will Durgin seem particularly fazed by the passage of time.
In a way, this sad little synthetic evergreen is a perfect fit for its surroundings. Cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes are everywhere. Empty Tupperware and industrial drying equipment sprinkle the floor. An open ladder leads the way to the portion of the ceiling that’s missing a panel. A microwave sits on top of an end table overflowing with envelopes.
It’s less an office than 300 square-feet of swirling negative feng shui energy.
But this is where Cox has helmed Atlas since November, when the brewery acquired some additional space adjacent to his old “office,” which was essentially a drywall-framed box. This is where he answers the calls that come in on the Ivy City brewery’s main line. This is where he responds to every e-mail sent to Atlas’ generic e-mail address. This is where he sits in front of a collapsible plastic desk, wearing a puffy black jacket, because it’s the middle of winter and there’s no heating in the warehouse space.
On the plus side, his desk faces a window that looks out onto the brewery’s production floor, where for the past year and a half, Atlas has made unerringly great beer – many would argue the best in DC.
Nearby, taped to the side of a filing cabinet, is a flyer for “Puppies & Pints”, an adoption drive organized with the Washington Humane Society last May. Every event that Atlas holds benefits a local charity, but the selection of beneficiaries rubs up against one of its founders’ guiding principles.
“We try to keep our political views out of things,” Cox says. “Everyone can agree on puppies.”
“Cox and I don’t even like to talk a lot about politics,” Durgin explains. “That’s mainly because we have differing opinions, but it’s also not healthy for any business in DC.”
The two have known each other for over a decade, stretching back to when they met as undergraduates at Vanderbilt University, and this is one of the instances where that longtime friendship shines through. There’s understanding and acceptance if not necessarily agreement. It’s oddly reminiscent of a marriage.
“I don’t think that you get to know someone any better than when you start a business with them – other than maybe my wife,” Cox observes.
“I sometimes feel like you’re my wife,” Durgin interjects. He turns to me, eyes bulging in faux panic: “Wait, can we cut that out?”
The chief brewer at Atlas has a low, hollowed out voice and a dry sense of humor. He’s slightly disheveled with long hair that’s pulled back and loops out from behind his ears. His LinkedIn profile says that he enjoys “traveling great distances to see Phish shows,” which seems about right.
Cox, meanwhile, is somewhat of a straight-laced foil. His posture is impeccable. His demeanor is chipper. He appears beamed from some wholesome 1960s family sitcom save for his full but well-kept beard.
They are not the most logical of pairings. It makes sense that the seeds of their friendship were sown in college – a time when most of us are more interested in finding common ground with strangers than self-selecting our mirror images. It makes more sense that those seeds were watered with beer.
“Those days are kind of hazy,” he says of their Vanderbilt years. “We were drinking a lot of Natty Light.”
He does recall the two bonding while enrolled in a material sciences class together. “We would study for tests with beer – rewarding ourselves for each section that we got through. In retrospect, that might not be the most effective method of studying.”
It’s only appropriate that beer, no matter what the grade, would help bring Cox and Durgin together, but midway through their junior years, the two would split paths – a divergence that would turn out to be elliptical in nature.
Durgin transferred to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where he would complete a major in biology and continue studies in a graduate program. He started homebrewing in his free time, driven less alchemical curiosity than commonsense thrift. “I didn’t that I’d be able to make all of these cool, crazy, weird beers,” he says. “I just realized that I could make beer for 50 cents a pop.”
A fortuitous Applied Biosciences field trip brought him to the Wachusett Brewing Company, an operation founded by three WPI alumni. “I asked them, ‘You think that I could this professionally?'” Durgin remembers. “And they were like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re probably pretty overqualified.’”
Encouraged, Durgin chased his interest to the West Coast, where he attended the UC Davis Brewing School, and then landed a position at Santa Barbara’s Telegraph Brewing Company, a brewery specializing in “weird, esoteric Belgian ales.” A few years later, he would travel up the shoreline to Portland regional powerhouse Pyramid. The two breweries would help mold his approach to brewing – one that emphasizes uncluttered recipes and flavor.
Atlas is both an application of Durgin’s philosophy and the continuation of his life’s work: “Brewing is the only full-time job that I’ve ever had.”
Cox, meanwhile, stayed the course at Vanderbilt and moved to DC upon graduation. “I chased a girl up here, who I married, so it worked out,” he says proudly. “She also bought me my first homebrewing kit, which she probably regretted later.”
The self-described beer nerd was hooked on homebrewing immediately. It’s how he would spend his free time while attending George Mason Law School and then completing a fellowship with the federal government. It became what he wished he could be doing instead of those things. “Every homebrewer’s dream is to open a brewery or a bar,” he says. “I really didn’t like my job, and It got to point where I thought, ‘If I don’t give this a shot, I’m going to be angry at myself when I’m older.”
Cox began developing a business plan, and would lean on Durgin’s growing expertise while doing so. Part of a close-knit group of friends, the two had kept in touch over the years, catching up at bachelor parties and weddings. Now he was relying on him for technical advice on equipment and economies of scale. “There is a massive jump from homebrewing to commercial brewing,” Cox says. “The basics are the same, but it’s a whole different ball game.”
Durgin told Cox that if he was serious, he should come out to Santa Barbara and shadow him at Telegraph. “I said, ‘You can hang out in the brewery and see what it’s like day to day,’” Durgin recalls. “I was still pretty green in the industry, but he worked with me for a week, and we sorta hammered out a vision for what would eventually become Atlas.”
Cox’s vision went through several iterations. While working through the numbers of a small scale barrel-and-a half system, Durgin told Cox that anything less than ten times that wouldn’t be worth his time or money. Cox scaled his plans up to a 20 barrel system. Eventually, there was once final point of escalation, the CEO remembers: “As we got further along in the business planning process, I finally convinced Will to move back East and start Atlas with me.”
Cox started raising capital for Atlas in December of 2011 and was done by the following May. Despite the high price tag of Atlas’ brand new, stainless steel tanks, the Atlas CEO breezes past over process: “It was relatively easy. Any time that you approach someone and you’re like, ‘Hey, I want to do something with beer,’ they’ll usually talk to you, because it’s kind of cool. There’s some cache to beer.”
Finding a space to put those tanks proved more difficult. Atlas had five potential warehouse locations fall through before it arrived at its current home in front of an abandoned railway bed in Ivy City. “It was a really frustrating process,” Cox vents. “We kept trying to give people money, and they didn’t want to take it.”
There’s an arms race in craft beer, Atlas will tell you.
Everyone wants to make the hoppiest beer. Or they want to spike the alcohol content laughably high. Or they want to brew the darkest beer imaginable.
“The problem is that they take one facet of a very complex system and run with it,” Cox says.
What initially spoke to Durgin about Cox’s homebrew recipes – the beers that would eventually become Atlas flagships Rowdy and District Common – is that they opted out of that arms race altogether.
“A lot of homrbewers tend to develop ‘kitchen sink recipes,’” Durgin explains. “They think that the way to get a more nuanced, complex beer is to just throw all kinds of different shit in there. That really couldn’t be further from the truth.”
What Durgin carried away from his time at Telegraph and Pyramid is that all you need to create a stunning beer are malt, hops, and yeast. “Yeast makes thousands of different flavor components by itself,” the brewer continues. “What you need to do is to keep it simple and let what you want to highlight shine through.”
In other words: There’s a difference between complexity and sophistication. “Rowdy definitely has a lot of hop character and a lot of rye in it,” Durgin says of Atlas’ rye ale. “But it’s not a club-you-over-the head beer.”
“Our philosophy is much more about balance and nuance than running away with one particular flavor,” Cox states.
Durgin views the arms race through a larger cultural lens: “Trying to have the most of something is a very American thing to do.”
The irony, however, is that clean flavors make Cox and Durgin’s job significantly harder – or, at the least, more stressful.
“Some people associate the complexity of a beer with quality, but making a crisp lager like District Common, there’s no room for error.” Cox observes. “If there’s any flaw in the beer, it’ll shine right through. There aren’t any overwhelming flavors to hide it.”
Durgin says that with exception of sours, clean lagers are the most difficult beer to make. Myriad miscalculations can tarnish a beer like District Common or Atlas’ 1500 South Cap Lager: Inability to “achieve a vigorous boil,” exposure to spoilage organisms, oxidation.
“Any mistakes that a brewer makes get amplified in a delicate beer,” Durgin says. “It terrifies me, but I love it when it comes out perfect.”
In the year and a half since Atlas began producing beer, Cox and Durgin been unflaggingly methodical in their decision-making.
As a start-up brewery, Atlas is not in position to throw darts at pet projects or half-baked experiments, nor are Cox and Durgin inclined to do so. If the two are diverting production capacity away from flagships Rowdy and District Common, it better be for something well worthwhile.
“We want to make things that interest and excite us,” Durgin says. “But at the end of the day, we make beer for our customers and not necessarily for us.”
A major part of Atlas’ calculus is surveying the DC beer landscape and pinpointing where the market’s gaps overlap with the brewery’s tastes. Complicating the matter, however, is that Atlas has chosen to set up shop in the wild, wild west of beer importations laws.
“It is so easy for breweries to distribute in DC, which is great for the consumer, because it has resulted in a diversity of selection that’s really unparalleled,” Durgin explains. “But it makes it difficult for a local manufacturer, because we have to work a lot harder to distinguish ourselves.”
Instead of fretting over the availability of seemingly everything from everywhere, though, Atlas pays closest attention to what the other area production breweries are cooking up. “We know what DC Brau and Port City and 3 Stars and Flying Dog are making,” Durgin says. “At the end of the day, when someone is buying a local beer, we want to offer them something that nobody else is.”
You might imagine that such an ecosystem would foster a cutthroat mentality, but Cox insists that isn’t so. “It’s completely friendly,” he says. “We’re all competitors, of course, but we’re also all friends. We look at it as being the DC breweries versus, first, the Budweisers and Millers of the world, and then also the other craft breweries. We’re trying to build our own scene here.”
Durgin’s competitive streaks peaks out slightly more: “I’d say that it’s a very friendly rivalry. There’s a lot of good-natured competition.”
“I do get jealous,” he admits. “Especially when someone buys a cool-ass truck with a DJ booth and eight draft lines. I wish that we had a cool-ass truck.”
Another way that Cox and Durgin have sought to distinguish Atlas is with its eye-catching packaging. It may sound trivial, but the bushy tail is important.
“You go to the Harris Teeter, and there are 100 different craft beer options,” Cox explains. “At some level, subconscious or consciously, there’s a draw to branding. Hopefully, the liquid backs it up.”
Atlas’ logo and much of its labeling incorporate hallmarks of the steampunk aesthetic: exposed gears, sketch-like drawings, retro-classicism, an antiquated vision of the future. It’s suds via Franz Lang.
“The steampunk theme is a reflection of brewing being a combination of art and science,” Cox says of the design. “As much science goes into it, there’s still some magic in letting the yeast do its thing.”
Atlas developed the art with Gretchen Cobaugh at Bates Creative in Silver Spring. “She’s a self-described Victorian enthusiast,” Cox says. “Her natural proclivity melded perfectly with what we were going for.”
Durgin doesn’t downplay the importance of the presentation either.
“In DC, where so much of our customer base are young professionals, what kind of drink you order and what it looks like is almost like what kind of car you drive,” he observes. “People base their image around what kind of beer they order just as much as the kinds of clothes they buy.”
And if that’s the case, Durgin says, “It really helps to have some sexy packaging.”
That sexy packaging has been on a much wider display since December, when Atlas began canning Rowdy and District Common – its first beers to be available outside of draft and large bottle formats.
The move comes with a cost, of course: The Atlas heads don’t complain about much, but the process of getting beer into an aluminum container is unabashedly maligned. “Our canning days are brutal,” Durgin laments. “They generally run about fifteen or sixteen hours.”
The marathon duration is attributable in part to Atlas’ reliance – for now – on a mobile canning service, which takes three hours just to set up. Based on the number of empty cans in their storage area, Cox and Durgin have a more than a few more long days ahead of them.
Still, Cox is thrilled to have Atlas’ cans beginning to proliferate around town.
“It’s cool not only because we couldn’t serve draft beer in grocery stores, but a lot of bars that have Rowdy on tap will bring Common in as a can,” he says. “And as the weather gets better, people will able to take them so many places that you can’t take glass bottles or growlers.”
Aging in dozens of barrels in Ivy City at this very moment is something else meant to differentiate Atlas, and it’s more than a little funky.
Cox and Durgin have set about making arguably the most difficult, and certainly the most hazardous, style of beer: the sour.
“Will and I love sour beers,” Cox shares. “We wanted to get into making our own as soon as we could, but it just takes a long, long time.”
The length of time is not only long – it’s also somewhat indeterminable. A sour is ready when it’s ready, and that’s beyond Atlas’ control.
All brewing is uncontrollable to a certain degree, of course. That’s what Cox is referring to when talks about the alchemy of brewing and the magic of yeast “doing its thing.”
“We work in a business where we’re reliant on a live organism to do a lot of the heavy lifting for us, and it doesn’t always behave the way the you want it to,” Durgin says. “We’re always at the mercy of our brewers’ yeast.”
If yeast is the tempestuous star of the show, Durgin’s job is making sure that it’s happy. This is where the bioscience background of the brewer comes out: Yeast is serially reused from batch to batch of a certain beer, and in between every batch, Durgin puts a sample of it under a microscope to literally count the number of cells on the grid. Later, at three seperate stages of the brewing process, he analyzes the beer to see if spoilage organisms have corrupted the liquid.
“One of the most stressful parts of my job is to open up the incubator and look at those slides,” Durgin says. “That’s when I see if our beer is clean or if we have a problem.”
Cox estimates that the two spend most of its time trying to keep spoilage organisms out of their brewery.
In making sours, it purposefully brings them right in.
A sour beer is dependent on two spoilage organisms. The first is wild yeast, which gives beer a level of “funkiness.” The other is lactic acid bacteria, which provides the sour taste.
Atlas already has a beer in the market that uses half of that souring combination: La Saison de Brett, a version of its La Saison des Fêtes that’s been aged for a year in wine barrels with the wild yeast brettanomyces.
“Brettanomyces is a genus of yeast that’s found on fruit commonly in orchards,” explains Durgin, who cut his teeth on sours while working at Telegraph. “It gives the beer a very distinctive barnyard, horse blanket aroma, which doesn’t sound very appealing when I say it, but it certainly smells and tastes very good.”
But it’s the other ale currently aging in wine barrels – a Flanders Red – that will constitute Atlas’ full-blown entry into the sour arena, making it the first production brewery in DC to do so. (Local brewpubs Blue Jacket and Right Proper are producing sours.)
Durgin estimates that the beer will take 18 to 24 months to reach fruition. “I really have no idea how long it’s going to take,” he admits. “It depends on how quickly the spoilage organisms work on the material. We’re at the mercy of the lactic acid bacteria.”
The lactic acid bacteria, meanwhile, is at mercy of the weather. The spoiling organism acts faster in warmer temperatures, but the brewery isn’t heated, so it will slow with DC’s winter chill.
Cox and Durgin are surprisingly zen about both the waiting and open timeline.
“This is one of those reasons why it’s awesome to have a partner like Justin,” Durgin says. “I can spend all of this money on barrels and shit, and not even give him a date on when we’re going to see some cash from it, and he’s totally cool with it.”
“It’s a trust thing,” Cox says of that leeway. “It’s something that comes when you’ve known someone for a long time.”
Cox says that he and Durgin are rarely not on the same page.
“We have a similar vision for some of the exciting things that we want to do,” he continues. “There’s a belief, like, ‘It may take two years for this beer to come out, but when it does, it’s going to be fantastic, so let’s do it. It’ll pay off when it pays off.’”
Thus far, plenty else has paid off for Atlas.
“We’re in a good spot,” Cox says. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but our trajectory says that we’re going to get there.”
Last year, Atlas produced 2500 barrels of beer – a number that the brewery plans to double with the assistance of two additional fermentation vessels and a conditioning tank coming this spring. It hopes to expand its geographical footprint in the coming months with move into a second market, although Durgin won’t say which one.
Additionally, the brewer hints that a “secret project” of his may be running through Atlas’ vessels later this year: a third year-round flagship to join Rowdy and District Common. “Nothing is for certain, but we’re hoping to release that beer in late summer or fall,” Durgin intimates carefully.
“It’ll probably have a fairly generous hop bill,” he shares when pressed for details.
“You’re such a tease,” Cox quips.
But for two longtime friends, recipe development and the production floor can be far from the day-to-day realities of running a brewery. Atlas employs a pair of brewers who operate the brewhouse and handle the production of beer, which means that everything else – the tedious grunt work – often falls to the Atlas co-founders.
“The act of producing the liquid is only about 10% of our actual job around here,” Durgin says. “There’s a whole hell of a lot of cleaning that has to get done. There’s filling kegs. There’s cellar work transfers. We’re still very manual. I’ll fill in and support wherever I can, but I have to do supply chain and scheduling and all kinds of other shit that keeps me away from the production floor.”
This is the life of the brewer-entrepreneur. “I try to get my ass out of here at least one day a week, but frequently that’s not possible.”
Cox’s outlook is a mix of realism of optimism.
“Any new business is tough, especially a capital-intensive one in a competitive industry,” he says. “But we’re confident in what we’re doing and the response that we’ve had from people.”
“People seem to really like our beer,” he adds, flashing his Theodore Cleaver smile.
Every beer has a story. Atlas Brew Works shares the stories of its brews below.
Atlas’ flagship beer, Rowdy, is represented by the sketch of motorcycle design – one said to be found in an old garage of English racing legend Mike “The Bike” Hailwood. The iconography is fitting: Not only Rowdy is meant to be a tad rebellious, but of all the beers that Atlas makes, it has traveled the longest road.
The brew is one of Cox’s earliest creations, a homebrew recipe that he tweaked for eight years prior to founding Atlas.
“It started as a hoppy red ale and gradually morphed into close to what it is now,” Cox says. “Then Will took it and darkened it, and changed the hop profile a bit.”
What exactly Rowdy grew up to become has been some matter of debate.
“We called it a ‘rye pale ale’ when we first launched, and that ended up confusing a lot of people,” Cox recalls. “Everyone liked the beer, but their preconception was that it would pale and super hop-focused. Rowdy is a lot more complex than that.”
Atlas says that Port City head brewer Jonathan Reeves likens Rowdy to his Monumental IPA. “He considers both simple, clean IPAs,” Cox remarks. “Clearly, Rowdy isn’t pale, because we use a significant amount of red malt and a handful of black malt to give it a rich color, but you could probably call it an IPA.”
The headache that comes with trying to label a beer’s style is a common ailment across Atlas’ portfolio.
“Styles are weird, because they’re so fluid,” Durgin says. “It’s difficult categorizing your beers when you have so many that put a spin on a classic style. People have certain expectations, which might not conform with my expectation.”
For now, Atlas has settled on calling Rowdy a “hop-forward rye ale.”
Durgin further adds the signifier “American” to indicate that it’s made with domestic hops – in this case, the centennial and zythos varieties, which bring grapefruit and pine characteristics, respectively.
Still, the star of the show is likely the 200 pounds of malted rye, which adds a spicy peppery note, as it does with bread or whiskey.
As for calling it “Rowdy” to begin with, Cox says that it was meant to convey “a playful name for an aggressive beer.”
“I hated that name,” Durgin cracks. “Everybody liked it except me. But I’ve come around to it.”
It’s not hard to imagine Cox sticking to his guns on that on that point.
“Rowdy is a beer that I’ve invested a lot time and heart in,” he says.
District Common was conceived as the mild-mannered compliment to Rowdy.
“When I started getting serious about opening a commercial brewery, I knew that I needed something that was the opposite of Rowdy,” Cox recalls. “I wanted something that would appeal to people who aren’t necessarily into big hops or more aggressive flavors.”
In search of something that would be clean, crisp, and “nice on the patio,” Cox settled on the California Common, a style of lager that is, ironically, not especially common. It developed on the West Coast in the late 1800s and was subsequently dubbed Steam Beer. However, in a historical twist, Anchor Brewing trademarked the term Steam Beer in 1981, and since it has hairpin trigger when it comes to the nfringement of its intellectual property, other brewers have since taken to calling it next best thing: California Common.
This sort of trivia that might go over well at a party, which is exactly where Atlas envisions its District Common being right at home.
“I like to think that you could bring a keg of District Common to a barbeque and it would appeal to both your Bud Light drinkers and your craft beer guys,” Durgin shares. “The Bud Light drinkers aren’t going to get overwhelmed with any kid of bitterness or hop character. The craft beer guys are going to get some subtle malt and a little bit of noble hops.”
Durgin utters a universal truth: “Everybody likes a good patio beer, you know?”
If Atlas envisions itself a craft brewery executing clean and simple recipes, NSFW – the third beer that it launched with – is the exception to the rule.
“NSFW probably goes against everything that we’ve said,” Cox says. “But that was also the point of it.”
The point was to be flashy. The point was to make a beer with a robust ABV and flavor profile.
“We wanted to have something that showed off our extreme taste chops a bit,” Cox explains. “Rowdy and Common were meant to be more sessionable. We wanted a beer that would be a little more diesel and knock your socks off.”
It’s safe to say that it accomplished such an agenda this 9.2% ABV Imperial Black IPA.
“It’s an homage to my time in the Northwest,” Durgin says of his creation. “It was inspired by a beer that I made at Pyramid called Discord, which was probably my favorite beer in the Pyramid line-up. I took some ideas from that beer, stuck them in my back pocket, and put them into NSFW.”
Although there is some disagreement over who first brewed Black IPA, the Pacific Northwest made the style its own as the Cascadian Dark Ale. In fact, that’s how Atlas first billed NSFW, but according to Durgin, there was one problem: “Nobody knew what the fuck a Cascadian Dark Ale was.”
Regardless of what you call it, NSFW is a hit – easily the most requested beer in the tasting room, according to Atlas.
Unfortunately, NSFW is also is a very tough beer to make. “It puts a strain on our equipment. It puts a strain on the yeast. It puts a strain on our brewers,” Durgin explains. “It just puts a strain on everything.”
As a result, Atlas must be “fairly judicious” when scheduling to brew NSFW. “I’m not going to run out of Rowdy stock just so we can have some NSFW out there,” Durgin says. “I would love to make it, but we need to make sure that we’re taking care of Rowdy and District Common before we start getting fancy.”
Atlas says that it will likely be April – when it will have the three additional tanks – before it has room to breathe and this tricky beer is safe to brew again.
For the past seven months, two brewers handled the bulk of the production at Atlas. Both are named Dan.
Dan Bedford is a soft-spoken English native who came to Atlas from Flying Dog Brewery. Dan Vilarrubi is a scruffy local who’s only previous industry gig was at Franklins Brewery in Hyattsville.
Durgin further paints the contrast: “Bedford is the tall, skinny English one. The other Dan looks like John Snow – when you meet him, just tell him that he knows nothing.”
Bedford was working the production floor on the first day of brewing at Atlas, so when the time came to develop a fourth beer last winter, Durgin and Cox sought his input.
“We wanted to get Dan involved in the creative side of things right off the bat,” Cox recalls. “He sat down and formulated the concept for the recipe, and then worked with Will on the details.”
“It was the winter season, when a lot of people produce very heavy, dark beers to keep people warm,” says Bedford, skeptically looking at my recording device every two or three seconds. “We wanted to do something slightly different, but still kind of boozy and little spicy. I asked my wife what she wanted to drink, and she said, ‘I want to drink saison.’”
What Bedford ending up developing was Saison des Fêtes, a 7.2% ABV saison that he says “tweaks the common take on the style and pushes the boundaries a little bit.”
Abbey malt – which adds a raisiny, chewy profile – and black malt combine to give the beer a darker hue. That’s by design, according to Durgin: “We wanted a color that would let people know that this a rich, indulgent beer.”
Saison des Fêtes doesn’t bear much resemblance to more prevalent saisons, like the white and spicy standard-bearer Saison Dupont. “Traditionally, everyone thinks of a Saison as being 5% [ABV], yellow, and fizzy,” Cox says. “But the saison category is so wide, and we kind of did the opposite of that.”
Understandably, Durgin says Atlas’ spin on the style initially confused in the market: “We got e-mails from bars being like, ‘What the fuck is this? This isn’t a saison.'”
“So I had to take them to school,” he continues, laughing. “You never tell bar managers that they’re wrong, but you want to show them why you think it’s a saison.”
Atlas says that the determinant factor of a saison is the yeast. Understandably then, this was the one element of the recipe where Durgin was particular: He requested that Bedford incoporate the house yeast from Telegraph. Atlas’ head brewer is coy about what exactly that particular strain of yeast is, but he notes that it ferments at a very high temperature, which creates a bouquet of esters and fruity compounds on the nose.
How does that alchemy play out? “We get a lot of people asking what spice we put into this beer,” Cox says. “There are zero. All of that character is from the yeast.”
After I visited the brewery a few weeks ago, Bedford left Atlas to pursue other endeavors. (Sam Puffenbarger, who has worked in the tasting room since the early days, has transitioned to full-time cellerman.)
But even in Bedoford’s absence, his wife’s request lives on.
1500 South Cap is an address and a lager, but the latter could have easily been something else entirely.
Last year, Atlas approached the Washington Nationals with the idea of making a beer exclusively for the franchise. Nationals Park had been making a push to include more and more local food and beer vendors, and Atlas was wisely seeking to get a piece of the action.
Like anyone coming with a well-prepared pitch, Atlas brought options: a session lager, a witbier, and an extra pale ale.
The Nationals opted for the lager.
“All three would have been viable options, but I think it was the best choice,” Cox says. “It’s a light, easy-drinking lager. If you’re sitting in the ballpark in August, it’s a refreshing beer.”
Atlas initially called the brew a Helles Lager, a nod to the classic Munich style developed in the mid-1800s as a competitor to the Czech Pilsner. But although the beer is crisp and bright like a Helles Lager, it’s also unfiltered, which technically disqualifies it from the classification.
The 1500 South Lager isn’t alone in this regard: All of Atlas’ beers are unfiltered.
Historically, beers have been filtered or left unfiltered according to their style and the associated presentation. “For some beers, it’s appropriate to be unfiltered and hazy, like wits and heffs,” Durgin explains. “With other beers, that’s traditionally inappropriate, like most lagers.”
Filtered beer has an extended shelf life too, which is a big reason why macro breweries and some major craft do it, according to Durgin. “You don’t want your beer developing congealed chunks of protein inside the bottle, which I’ve seen plenty of times, even from very well-respected breweries.”
Given its size, Atlas deemed the laborious and expensive process an unnecessary luxury. Instead, Durgin works with yeast strains that allow him to achieve a level of brightness without filtering. (To get technical: There are differences in how and when yeast strains clump together and drop out of suspension – that is, “flocculate.” Flocculation produces haze.)
There are additional downsides to filtering, Durgin says. “Filtering strips out a lot of the flavor compounds in beer. It is also notoriously foam negative, so it can really hurt your head retention.”
The chief brewer senses the tide turning on the subject. “People are putting less value on the clear appearance of beer,” Durgin says. “I think that’s a good thing.”
Still, such a sea change doesn’t mean that Atlas can call 1500 South Cap a Helles Lager.
“The Germans are all about rules,” Durgin laments.
Atlas ran into more roadblocks in naming the beer.
“We wanted to call it Natitude Lager or something like that, but Major League Baseball put the kibosh on that pretty quickly,” Cox remembers. “1500 South Cap – the address of the stadium – was the next iteration.”
Professional sports is all about rules too, after all.
Atlas bristles at the “seasonal” descriptor.
“Seasonals are another arms race,” Cox gripes.
“Everybody is trying to be the first dude to have their pumpkin beer on the shelf,” Durgin jokes. “It’s a little annoying.”
The two says that the arms race has progressed to the point where they go to fall tastings in August and find brewers are already pouring winter beers.
“So, I don’t really like the word ‘seasonal,’” Cox remarks. “But that’s exactly what Home Rule is. Certain flavor profiles lend themselves to certain types of weather, and it’s a spring beer.”
Home Rule is an Indian Pale Lager – a “made-up style,” by Atlas’ own admission. The beer was inspired in part from a desire to use a southern hemisphere hop, which tend to have a more tropical, fruity profile. Durgin settled on New Zealand’s Waimea variety because of its tart, citrus-oriented taste, which he thought work well with a pilsner malt.
“It’s a total Durgin beer,” Durgin says. “It’s one malt and one hop, and that’s it. It’s super simple.”
The beer goes down shockingly easy for its 5.8% ABV. “Home Rule is deceptive,” Durgin observes. “You think it’s going to be, like, a 4.8% beer, and then you have three and you’re totally drunk.”
The beer crept up DC residents from March to August last year, when Atlas finally ran dry, making it a dual-seasonal in its own way. The brewery plans to begin brewing Home Rule again soon, in preparation for warmer weather to come.
And although Atlas has kept politics out of it business, it makes an exception when it comes to one issue according to Durgin: “One thing that Atlas certainly stands behind is DC self-governance. That’s why we chose the name Home Rule.”
What does that have to do with a seasonal – but not “seasonal” – Indian Pale Lager?
“We just liked the name,” Cox says, laughing. “We shoehorned that one in there.”
When Atlas embarked on its sour program, the brewery didn’t mess around: It purchased seventeen French oak barrels from Middleburg’s Boxwood Estate Winery, one of the region’s most respected makers of Bordeaux-style red wine.
“Wine barrels don’t get certain people nearly as excited as bourbon barrels, but they do really well with Belgian beers,” Durgin says. “I also find that wine barrels aren’t something that a lot of people are using, so we can fill a niche that’s being ignored.”
But Atlas’ plan for using Boxwood’s barrels took a detour after it received them.
Before filling the vessels, Atlas tested them for wild yeast and spoilage organisms – lovingly referred to as “bugs.” Bugs are what you add to beer to sour it, and once bugs go into a barrel, they don’t come out.
“They’re in the wood,” Cox explains. “That barrel is sour for the rest of its life.”
To Atlas’ surprise, however, the oak tested free for bugs, so Cox and Durgin decided to do a “clean run” with the barrels before they “soured them up.”
To fill the vessels, Atlas brewed a Belgian strong ale – a cousin of its Saison D’Fete in a way, using the same Telegraph yeast and the aromatic Abbey and red malts.
Then, Durgin and Cox waited, checking on the beer every month or two to see how flavors were progressing. (Each barrel ages beer differently.)
Eleven months later, the copperish liquid came out as Town & Country, a darker red brew that pulled red wine and oak character from the barrels. “The barrels did a number on it,” Cox remarks.
Town & Country has continued to mature even since then. “It was really hot when we first bottled it – there was a lot of wine and alcohol,” Cox recalls. “It’s mellowed out in subsequent months.”
Since the recovery of beer is diminished during the barrel-aging process, Atlas held onto most of Town & Country, bottling it 750mL bottles rather than sending kegs to market.
All in all, Town & Country is the product of a long process, but it’s still something that Cox can simplify in typical Atlas fashion: “That beer is all about the malt, the wine barrel, and the yeast.”
Atlas plans to make Town & Country again down the road – just not with those barrels.
They sleep with the bugs.
Durgin was thwarted in an initial attempt to name his Pumpernickel Stout.
“I wanted to call this The Devil’s Fart,” he says, mildly dejected. “That idea got eighty-sixed.”
Cox shakes his head: “No one wants a fart in their mouth.”
“The entomology of pumpernickel actually means ‘the devil’s fart,’” Durgin explains. “It’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true.”
Sadly, Atlas went with a less inspired name, but one that also doesn’t hide intentions of its unconventional stout, which combines malted rye and blackstrap molasses to approximate the aroma of pumpernickel bread, and, to a lesser extent, its flavor. “It would have been weird to call it something else, and then put ‘Pumpernickel Stout’ underneath it,” Cox says.
Released a few weeks into the new year, the 6.7% ABV brew is made for the cold. “We wanted to do a beer in late winter that’ll keep people warm and get them back home after a night at the bar,” Durgin says. “It’s a big, rich beer. “
Cox echoes the appeal of stouts in the winter months: “There’s something comforting about the flavor profile and the roastiness when it’s snowing outside.”
“And you’re drinking something which is jet black, which pretty cool,” Durgin jokes. “What else do you consume that’s completely black?”
Stouts and porters cast a spell on those who favor the dark arts to Durgin: “People who love black beer love black beer. It has a super dedicated following.”
In fact, the brewers say that it in its first year, it constantly had to answer the question of when it would make one.
Now those people have their stout.
And they don’t have to be reminded that they’re wafting the devil’s fart.
La Saison De Brett – Atlas’ foray into wild beer – is an example of what can happens when stray barrels sit around a brewery.
In late 2013, after pouring Town & Country into its Boxwood wine barrels, Atlas realized that it had four vessels to spare.
“We were sitting around, thinking about we could do with them,” Durgin remembers. “Finally, we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s just throw some Saison des Fêtes in there with some brettanomyces, and we’ll release it next winter.”
So into the oak containers went Atlas’ dark saison and the wild yeast that’s colloquially referred to as “Brett,” which had an entire year to work its funky magic.
The result? “It’s become a whole new beast,” says Bedford, the original saison’s architect. “But we can’t take any credit for it: The barrels did all of the work.”
Durgin is a fan as well. “It’s my favorite beer that we make,” he says. “But I really like Belgian and Brett beers.”
Like Atlas’ other barrel-aged beers, most of Saison De Brett’s yield ended up in 750 mL bottles.
“It’s just a classy, beautiful package,” Cox says of the bottling. “We’re going up against wine people with that. We’re trying to give them a nice substitute in the beer world.”
Atlas will do the same at the end of this year: In those same barrels, Brettanomyces is currently going to work on the 2014 Saison des Fêtes.
Sometimes a little overordering goes a long way.
Some hungry swine are partly responsible for Atlas’ Anniversary Farmhouse.
Let’s take a step back.
The biggest byproduct of the brewing process is “spent grain.” Spent grain is what remains of malted cereal grains after its sugars and proteins have been extracted. There’s a lot of the byproduct – roughly a pound per every six-pack of beer – and it’s useless to a brewer. But it makes excellent animal feed, so breweries often provide their leftovers to nearby farms. Farms get free animal feed, and breweries get waste disposed for them: It’s a win-win. (It’s also been called foam-to-farm, which is adorable.)
Early on, Atlas linked up Maryland’s Rockland Farms, which began feeding the brewery’s spent grain to its pigs.
A year later, as Atlas approached its first anniversary, Cox and Durgin began thinking about making a special beer to commemorate the occasion. The two knew they wanted to do was use a local ingredient. In fact, that’s the whole idea behind the Atlas Anniversary Ale: Each year, it will brew a new, limited release with a different local ingredient.
Atlas picked up the phone and called Rockland farm manager Greg Glen. “We asked Greg what he had fresh,” Cox recalls. “He said that he had peaches.”
The brewery drew up a recipe to go with the sweet fruit: An American farmhouse ale made with Belgian yeast and a mix of American and French. “Then Greg brought us the peaches from the farm, and we chopped them up and put them into a muslin bag in the whirlpool after our boil,” Cox says.
Most of the subtly fruity batch went to market, but Atlas saved a portion of it for a Lairds Apple Brandy barrel gifted to the brewery by Jack Rose Saloon. According to Cox, the bar had given Atlas one piece of guidance: “They had just told us to do something cool with it.”
That vessel of Anniversary Farmhouse aged for four months, until it was unveiled at Jack Rose just a few weeks ago. Get there soon enough and may still be able to enjoy a glass of it.