Brandon Skall doesn’t want to wear his medals.
“I don’t know,” the generously tattooed CEO of DC Brau says, a diplomatic skepticism in his voice. “You don’t think that would be a little… braggy?”
These ten medallions hang somewhat unceremoniously from adhesive hooks in the brewery’s tasting room. They’re not likely to draw your attention amidst the sensory overload of the snug space, where stickers and t-shirts and every other kind of beer paraphernalia leave little concrete wall exposed. But the industry awards are recognition that since the spring of 2011, DC Brau has been doing something very right.
Still, Skall would prefer to leave them right where they are. He respectfully passes on the suggestion of incorporating them into a photo shoot. After four years of running DC Brau alongside co-founder Jeff Hancock – and a career in beverage marketing and sales preceding that – Skall has learned a thing or two about optics.
So it goes across the entirety of what DC Brau says and does: It may be the city’s dominant producer of craft beer, with a production capacity and distribution range that dwarfs other breweries, but Skall and Hancock have no intention of rubbing anybody’s nose in it.
“We just want to be synonymous with beer in Washington, DC,” Skall will say – a statement that syncs up with his oft-repeated goal of becoming the district’s “go-to brewery.” “When people think of DC beer, we want people to think of DC Brau.”
The humble nonchalance exhibited by the two belies the long road that has brought them to this point. To get here, DC Brau has fought assumptions about the beer that it makes and where it’s brewed and how it’s served. It has changed laws and challenged the interpretation of others. And week after week, it has overseen the production of beer during the day, and then gone out to be the face of the brand at night.
Hancock, whose broad frame and furious hair make him look like a conquering viking, keeps it all in perspective: “If you had asked me six or seven years ago whether I would someday be the co-owner of my own brewery, I would have laughed and said, ‘No F-ing way.’”
An original tin from the Christian Heurich Brewing Company rests above Brandon Skall’s desk. The circular sign advertises three of the defunct brewery’s brands – the Maerzen, the Senate, and the Heurich’s Lager – and touts having been awarded “for purity and excellence” in Paris at beginning of the 20th century.
Skall purchased the advertising relic at a brewery collectors’ show around the time that when he and Hancock were building out DC Brau. “I had to splurge a little bit, but it spoke to me,” he says. “It should probably be in some sort of protected, UV light sensitive case.”
As has been frequently cited, when DC Brau began brewing beer less than a quarter of mile from the Maryland border in 2011, it became DC’s first production brewery since the Heurich Brewing Co. shuttered its operations 55 years ago.
Even though other production breweries have since opened inside the city – with more are on the way – the pioneer status is still something DC Brau relishes.
Beyond the historical and symbolic significance, there was also the tangible business benefit to being first. “Everyone has cold feet starting a business, but the fact that there was literally no competition in our hometown was a big factor,” Hancock says. “It was like, ‘If we can get first to market, and we have good beer, we’ll definitely have a leg up on everyone.’”
At the same time, Heurich’s failure lingered in the back of Skall’s mind during the initial planning stages. “The big worry was that this was what Gary Heurich tried to a number of years ago in Foggy Bottom, and he ended up throwing in the towel, because he said that the people of DC just didn’t care to support a local brewery.”
But DC Brau was hedging its bet on two trends that it saw emerging in the city. One was that after years of a few spots like the Brickskeller and the Reef carrying DC’s craft beer market, bars were beginning to invest in their beer programs. The other was a resurgence of local pride, as evidenced by the sudden proliferation of DC flags and matching tattoos across town.
There were signs of encouragement along the way, too. When an investor asked DC Brau to get letters of support from area restaurants – essentially nonbinding pledges to purchase the brewery’s product – they accrued thirty signatures within a week.
The real “aha moment” came on DC Brau’s opening night at Meredian Pint. “I remember being so nervous going into it, thinking, ‘What if people don’t come? What if nobody really cares about this?’” Skall recalls. “And then the line was around the block.”
DC Brau sold fifteen kegs that night – an amount that averaged out to four pints per minute. “There was a good feeling of confidence that came out of that,” Skall notes.
It was only three years earlier that he had met Hancock at house party.
At the time, the former Flying Dog brewer was preparing to leave the area. The product of Olney, Maryland – “a little town in Montgomery County that only really got put on the map when we got our first McDonalds” – couldn’t find work in the DMV.
Skall, meanwhile, had spent his adult life in wine and spirit distribution, but had grown “completely bored” with the racket. While the American University graduate had assumed that he would open a restaurant someday, he had recently begun plotting a transition to beer.
“We were introduced by a friend who was like, ‘Brandon, you want to open a brewery. Jeff, you’re a brewer. You guys need to get together and talk,’” Skall remembers. “The very next day, Jeff came over to my house. I showed him the plans that I had written down so far. He brought a couple of beers that he had made. That was the first moment of thinking, ‘This could really work.’”
Last week, DC Brau rolled out a collaboration with Colorado craft brewing powerhouse Oskar Blues: Smells Like Freedom, a double IPA with a hop profile designed to resemble cannabis. The joint effort – no pun intended – is a high profile look for DC Brau, one that will gin up press and get their name in front of new drinkers.
It’s just the latest example of DC Brau playing well with others. Over its four years, the brewery has collaborated more than a dozen times with other beer makers.
“It’s a fun excuse to visit another brewery and see how they do it,” Skall explains. “You’ll brew a beer there, and then they’ll come back to your facility, and along the way, you exchange tips and advice. With Oskar Blues, we got to see their level of scale, and where we could potentially be in twenty years.”
With each partnership, DC Brau takes something away and maybe leaves something behind. “Every brewery is a little bit different,” Skall tells me. “They’re all set up differently. They all have a different culture.”
A significant component of DC Brau’s culture is its hop-forward approach to beer. Much of the brewery’s primary production is devoted to two hoppy flagships – the Public pale ale and the Corruption IPA. Its most coveted beer is a pallet-wrecking double IPA called On The Wings Of Armageddon. Even its holiday release is a double IPA, albeit one brewed with wildflower honey. There’s little wonder why Skall and Hancock have developed a reputation as “the hop guys” in DC.
“I feel like we almost fell into that,” Skall says. “The whole first month that we were in operation, we only made one beer, which was the Public. It was a brand new system, and instead of brewing four or five different beers from the start, we wanted to focus on getting one beer exactly right “
The problem – to the degree that popularity is a problem – was that people couldn’t get enough it: “The pale ale got so much traction that for the longest time, we couldn’t shake the reputation of just being the Public guys.”
Being pigeonholed as “the hop guys” nettles Skall. He points to the nearly one hundred different beers that DC Brau has released in various quantities as proof of its production diversity. But he also acknowledges that as a fledgling brewery, DC Brau needed to “keep the wheel turning,” which meant producing ales that would turn over quickly. “It’s only a recent luxury that we’re able to brew more lagers,” he adds.
Hancock, in contrast, seems happy to be meeting the demand. “People can’t get enough hops these days,“ he states matter of factly.
The brewer says that he was initially turned off by the taste of hops, until one day, “a circuit flipped.” Now, pale ales are the yardstick by which he initially judges breweries.
“Typically, any craft brewery worth their salt makes a pale ale,” Hancock shares. “When I’m traveling and I don’t know a brand, I’ll have a pale first, and I’ll measure it to decide whether I order another beer from that brewery.”
For many breweries, the vessels in which beer comes served can be nearly as defining as the liquid itself.
Long necks, cans, large format bottles, draft-only: Each has a certain association.
For DC Brau, it was always about cans.
“There wasn’t even any discussion,” Skall recollects. “When we were in that brainstorming, pipe dream phase, we were like, ‘Well, obviously we’re going to be a canned brewery.’”
Coming from Flying Dog, Hancock had witnessed the fickleness of the glass-bottling gods. Between filling a bottle, crowning it, affixing a neck label, and adding two more on the body, there was ample opportunity for mayhem. “There would be days when the labeler or the crowner would mess up, and we quickly accumulated so much waste,” he says. ”From a production standpoint, canning was less moving parts.”
“It did prove harder than we might have thought,” Skall interjects.
“But the label is already there!” Hancock says with a chuckle. “It’s the old ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ adage.”
There are other perks to cans, and DC Brau will tell you all about them. They’re better for the environment. Their opacity is better for the beer. They’re lighter. They’re easier to transport. Their production line takes up significantly less space.
“Plus, we both like the idea of putting really good beer in cans,” Skall says. “Cans are sexy. Look at it in your hand. It fits so perfectly. You crack it open, and there’s just something physical about it.”
This is not the first time that Skall has given this pitch. DC Brau was hardly the first craft brewery to can its beer, but the decision to do so still put Skall and Hancock in the position of having to rebuff the old assumption that classy beer comes in a classy glass.
“It’s much more acceptable now,” Skall says. “But the breweries that were doing this three or four years ago fought a lot of the preconceived notions about beer in cans.”
While he says the market is approaching a critical mass on the packaging, those preconceived notions remain entrenched in certain places. “There are still restaurants that won’t serve our beer because it’s in a can,” Skall continues. “They say, ‘Well, if it was in a bottle, we would put it on.’”
Understandably, a kinship has developed between breweries that can. It’s one of the reasons that Skall and Hancock initially bonded with Oskar Blues, one of the earliest major craft breweries to can.
“We both had to fight against the grain,” Skall says. “There’s a sense of pride among canned breweries that have been doing this.”
He reminisces about attending Sun King’s annual Canvitational Fest for the first time. Printed on the event’s t-shirts: Canned Beer Mafia.
Despite this zealotry for aluminum, though, DC Brau does recognize that the lifeblood of the brewery is on-premise consumption – in other words, patrons ordering pints on draft in bars and restaurants.
“That’s how we built our brand,” Hancock says. “You get the demand up, and then people want to find your beer in a retail store.”
The problem is when the demand skyrockets past the supply, which is something that happened to DC Brau more than a few times during its early going. The brewery simply couldn’t make beer fast enough. And what happens when a Public or Citizen tap runs dry without more of the same to replace it?
“You would think that the world had just ended based on the calls that we get.” Skall says. “And I can understand: If you put a beer on a list, you expect it to be there. It’s catastrophic when it runs out, because you have an empty line and you can’t just put something else on.”
Without enough beer, Hancock and Skall were often left scrambling – searching for kegs of something comparable, dispensing apology swag like t-shirts and glassware. “We were constantly saying sorry to accounts,” Skall remembers. “That is not a good feeling.”
It also put DC Brau in a vulnerable position given the competitiveness of the space. “If one beer can’t fill a tap, there are always twenty others completely ready to swoop in and take its place,” Hancock explains. “And once you lose those placements, it’s very hard to get them back.”
Fortunately, DC Brau says it didn’t lose many taps during that bumpy period. This wasn’t purely by chance: The brewery prioritized on-premise development, even pausing the canning line at times to do so. It was also lucky that the shortages came at a time when other local breweries were just ramping up.
But with DC craft beer market becoming increasingly crowded each season, DC Brau has put itself in the position of never having to apologize.
DC Brau’s expansion has been piecemeal but sprawling in scope nonetheless.
Hancock and Skall began production with six 30-barrel tanks. A little over a year later, they doubled production with three new 60-barrel tanks. And with addition of six more 60-barrell over the course 2013 and the proceeding year, it had doubled production yet again by the end of last summer.
To put these numbers in perspective, a barrel equates to roughly 31 gallons of liquid. DC Brau’s 1020-barrel capacity translates to a whole lot of beer. To be even more specific: The brewery projects to produce almost a half million gallons in 2015.
Does all of the extra capacity mean that DC Brau can finally feel at ease, knowing that its flagships won’t run dry anywhere?
Hancock takes a second to ponder the question.
“Yeah,” he answers with a relieved smile. “For the first time since we’ve opened, I can comfortably say that.”
The most recent addition have also allowed DC Brau to devote tank space to what the brewer calls “fun stuff” – collaborations, one-offs, more time-intensive styles.
“You can’t be entirely about your flagships,” he explains. “The fun stuff is what drives a lot of business to us. And those little experiments are typically where the beers that we regularly brew are born.”
For four years, DC Brau has sought to walk the line between producing consistent, broadly appealing flagships and more boutique specialty beers. “Doing both is a pretty tricky thing to pull off,” says Skall, who cites Goose Island as an example of a brewery that has successfully done so. ”You want to make the beers that you want to drink, but you also want make things that other people like.”
Since reaching its current capacity in August, DC Brau has produced a succession of lagers: an Oktoberfest, a schawtzbier, and soon, its fourth flagship, the pilsner Brau Pils. The fermentation process for these traditional European styles lasts two to three times longer than most of DC Brau’s previous offerings.
“We love ales, but one of the reason that we were making so many of them was that we needed to flip the tanks,” Skall says. “Now we’re able throw a beer in a tank for six weeks and it’s not going to kill us. We’re not going to sit there thinking, ‘We need this tank back so we can make more Public.’”
Of course, production of the flagships is still its focus – and its strength.
“The only aspect where we have an advantage over our competitors locally is that they don’t have the production capability that we do,” Hancock says. “That allows us to penetrate way more, in much more quantity.”
“We produce a considerable amount of beer,” Skall adds. “It’s put us in the place of being the beer that can be all around DC.”
DC Brau’s beer is also all around the neighboring states of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The brewery has been in all three of these areas for over a year now, and for at least the remainder of 2015, those are the only places it plans to focus. “We’re just going to continue diving deep into these markets,” Skall explains. “The expansion has allowed us to build a base of loyal East Coast drinkers.”
But the brewery’s decision to focus on its backyard doesn’t mean that other markets haven’t come calling: In the age of online beer “communities” and user-generated reviews, it has never been easier for a good beer to generate buzz.
Hancock estimates that DC Brau has received distribution inquiries from almost every single U.S. state – plus overseas territories, to boot. “If we had the capacity, we could probably supply all 50 states,” he says. “But for us, we just want to reach our fingers out and become a dominant mid-Atlantic brewery. We want to make DC Brau a destination.”
There’s a trade-off that comes with a vast distribution network: The wider it stretches, the less that the people who make a beer can represent their product.
“Having somebody on the ground is a necessity; otherwise, you get lost in the shuffle,” Skall shares. “We go out all of the time. We’re at bars. When there’s a big event in Philly, Jeff or I can go and work it.”
That sort of omnipresence doesn’t come without cost, though.
For four years, Skall and Hancock have been men about town.
If there was a DC Brau dinner at Graffiato, they were there, by the exposed kitchen, explaining their half of the pairings and raffling mesh hats. If there was a “History and Hops” event at the Heurich House, they were working the firkin of St. Joseph’s Tripel in the basement. If there was a craft beer festival, they were shaking hands at the table.
This is the life of craft brewers: Not only do they make beer all day, but they’re out at night, talking to people about those brews, putting a neighborly face to their local product. It’s an essential part of the business, and one that the two take seriously.
“When you meet someone in a bar and you tell them about your beer, there’s nothing like it,” Skall says. “That person will remember that beer the way that you explained it to them for days and months and years to come.”
Hancock nods: “That never gets old for me.”
The two look back on whirlwind of DC Brau’s earliest years with a certain wonder. “When we first started, it was just the two of us,” Skall recalls “We were here all the time, doing everything, and then we were going out, promoting the brand until 1:00 in the morning, and then we were doing it all again the next day. I don’t know how we got through that.”
“Lots of coffee,” Hancock dryly chimes in.
It’s easy to imagine Skall sliding into the public role – his prior vocation, beverage distribution, trades in schmoozing and personable small talk. Hancock, in contrast, came from a position behind the scenes. “I was used to being the brewer,” he says. “I want to go off in the corner and do my calculations, and I don’t want anyone to bother me.”
Thrust into a spotlight, Hancock was forced to adjust. He credits Skall for providing cues, but ultimately, he says that he just had to get over any insecurities.
“It’s intimidating to go around and talk to people. I was like, ‘Everyone is going to hang on every word that I say, and if I say something grammatically incorrect, I’m going to get called out,’” he remembers. “But you start doing these beer dinners, and you realize that no one speaks perfect English all of the time. I stopped being hard on myself. It’s all about being confident, and I’m talking about a subject matter that I’m super passionate about.”
The larger the brewery gets, however, the more equipment there is to manage, the more markets there are to nurture, and the more that Skall and Hancock are pulled in competing directions. Plus, the initial rush of a double work life has long since worn off.
“There comes a point where you have to figure out what your role is going to be,” Skall says. “It’s hard to run a business competently if you’re expected to be out at bars every night drinking with people.”
One way that two have sought to ease the load is with the hire of a full-time representative in the DC market. Hancock, meanwhile, has developed a trick of his own for navigating the social engagement grind – a “placebo effect,” he calls it.
“Having something in my hand makes me feel less socially awkward, but I’m not really good at nursing beers. I get a can and I drink it,” he admits. “So, I’ll often go to the bathroom numerous times over the course of a night and fill the can up with water. No one knows the difference, and I’m maintaining functionality.”
Since starting DC Brau, the lives of its co-founders have changed. Skall and his wife had a son, and this week, welcomed a new daughter.
“It used to be all fun and games, but I cannot be at bars every night until last call and expect to be a part of my kid’s life,” he shares. “When one of these beer weeks happens, I get depressed. I’m like, ‘I haven’t seen my son in four days. I’m gone before he wakes up, and I’m back after he’s asleep.’”
“We still want to be as involved with what’s happening in the market,” Skall continues. “But we’re starting to move onto the rest of our lives.”
The landline in the brewery rings. Skall eyes the phone.
“It’s after business hours,” Hancock playfully admonishes the anonymous caller.
“It’s my wife,” Skall shoots back.
“Well,” his partner says. “That’s an exception.”
Above a pair of black filing cabinets in DC Brau’s office, crudely stuck to the wall with blue painter’s tape, are some nondescript pieces of paper – a letter, some due dates for tax returns, a notice of compliance.
“Dear Mr. Skall,” one reads. “The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board agrees with your assessment that… your establishment is permitted to sell beer in reusable growlers to consumers…”
Despite its unpolished presentation, this document is a source of pride for the DC Brau: It’s one of several instances in which Skall and Hancock challenged a system of regulations that disadvantaged breweries in DC and won.
As the first brewery in the city since the 1950s, DC Brau was confronted with laws that hadn’t been updated in five decades – laws that hadn’t contemplated a craft brewery model where customers would want to visit production facilities and consume beer on site.
“All of the laws were so outdated and antiquated that it made it really hard for us to do business,” Skall recalls.
The first challenge was a local ordinance that prevented DC Brau from serving samples of beer.
“We saw that as ridiculous,” says Skall, still getting fired up on the topic. “How were we going to compete with breweries in Maryland and Virginia, where people could come in, taste a little bit, and figure out what they like?”
So, before DC Brau even opened its doors, it hired a lawyer to help draft a revision to the law. Then it started knocking on doors in City Hall.
“We had to develop relationships and educate council members,” Skall shares. “We had to say, ‘Hey, this is a business that is going to be up-and-coming for years to come, so it would behoove you to play nice with us.’”
Skall and Hancock foster no ill will towards the city’s government. In their view, the laws predated city council members’ service, and absent DC’s brewing renaissance, the restrictions would have surely remained off the lawmakers’ radars. “When you explain a problem, there’s usually not a lot of opposition,” Skall observes. “They’re interested in updating the law.”
Updating the law is exactly what the DC government did with the Tasting Act of 2011, legislation that lifted the sample restrictions. Approved a month after DC Brau began producing beer, it was a huge victory for the brewery.
“When we opened, we were able to bring people into DC Brau,” Skall says. “A crucial part of any brewery’s success is developing a relationship and bond with the people. If you can’t let people taste your beer, that’s not going to happen.”
Still, such lobbying success didn’t come cheap, the CEO admits: “We spent a lot of our start-up capital doing that.”
Understandably, DC Brau was hesitant to engage in another reform effort when it was told that it couldn’t sell growlers. Instead, Skall and Hancock took a hard look at the law, and noticed that it allowed for the sale of sealed glass bottles. They wrote the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and informed the board that they viewed the sale of a 64-ounce growler – sealed with a plastic ring and heat gun – as compliant with the law.
“It was almost like civil disobedience,” Skall says. “We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this. We hope that you guys will reconsider. And we’re going start doing it as of this date.’”
“It was nice that the law didn’t specify the size of the bottle,” Hancock adds. “That was the loophole.”
Within three weeks, DC Brau received a letter that expressed agreement with its legal interpretation, and because Skall had run out of picture frames, he taped it to the wall.
If the CEO has his way, more pieces of paper will be joining it there.
“I’m insistent on changing some other laws that will allow us to do things that people can do in other states,” Skall says. “I want to revamp the three-tier system.”
That’s a lofty agenda item, but his focus is narrowly carved: DC Brau wants to open a smaller facility downtown, somewhere it can brew beer on-premise and serve food – in other words, a brewpub. “We’re sort of stuck in the corner up here,” Skall says. “We desperately want to have a face downtown or near it. That’s our next step.”
The problem DC Brau faces is that it can’t own more than one liquor license, and operating a brewpub requires a different license than what it currently possess. Under DC law, the brewery can’t even sell its beer to a distributor and then purchase it back for sale.
DC Brau’s legal counsel has suggested putting the brewpub in the names of the co-owners’ wives. It’s an idea that irks Skall.
“I don’t see why we should have to put our business in somebody else’s name to legally circumvent the law,” he says. “We want to do it correctly and transparently. I intend to invest a lot of time and effort into fixing the system.”
Regardless of the outcome, the effect that DC Brau’s unwillingness to accept the status quo has already had on DC’s brewing landscape is undeniable.
“DC Brau has been instrumental in laying the legal foundation for local production breweries,” says Will Durgin, head brewer at DC’s Atlas Brew Works. “The simple fact we can sell beer to the general public is largely thanks to initial steps that they took.”
“Something had to be done. Someone needed to get the law changed. We were just the first one here,” Skall observes. “What it ended up doing was laying the groundwork for a really fertile brewing scene here.”
Craft brewers talk a lot about the “spirit” of the industry. They describe how supportive everyone is. They say that there’s an “us versus them” mentality in opposition to the macro brewing giants.
It all sounds like seriously hippie dippy stuff, but Skall discusses the mentality in a way that cuts through any natural skepticism.
“Let’s say there’s a bar that decides to carry one craft beer,” he explains. “Next thing you know, people are asking for it, so they start to carry two, and then it’s three, and then it’s: ‘Well, we’re going to do all craft beer, and we’re going to make sure that half of them are local.’”
This is a transition that Skall has seen occurring more and more across town. Restaurants plan to carry one local beer, and all of a sudden, it’s eight. Whether it’s DC Brau or Atlas Brew Works or 3 Stars Brewing Co. that gets a foot in the door is inconsequential: Everyone is coming in.
“The more of us that are here, the more market share that we can develop, and out of that, the more DC Brau grows,” Skall says. “We’re compatriots in the battle to gain craft beer market percentage.”
This explains in part why DC Brau has been such a leader in the area. When Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing was in its start-up phase, it offered advice. When 3 Stars was getting off the ground, Skall lent it his business plan and offering documents.
“DC is a such a young craft market,” Skall says. “For years and years and years, it was dominated by Bud and Miller, but now the drinker around here is becoming super educated.”
That’s not to say that the entrance of new brewers into the market wasn’t the cause some anxiety for DC Brau.
“When other breweries started opening up their growler hours, were we a little nervous that people might not come to ours as much? Sure,” Skall admits. “But what we found was the exact opposite. All of sudden, there’s a brewery tour. All of a sudden, visiting the breweries became such a part of everybody’s life.”
It’s no surprise that Hancock and Skall are so well-regarded within their city.
“Being the first production brewery since Heurich, DC Brau pretty much invented DC brewery culture,” says Atlas’ Durgin. “They’ve done more than anyone to shape our community.”
“Plus,” he adds. “They make good beer.”
Every beer has a story. DC Brau shares the stories of its brews below.
DC Brau calls the Public, its first flagship beer, a mix of strategy and passion.
“The strategy was that we needed a beer that going to turn around quickly, and a beer that would appeal to a lot of palates,” Skall shares. “But it was also a beer that pushed the envelope. We were not interested in having a flagship beer that just sort of faded into the woodwork.”
The envelope pushing came in the beer’s bitterness, which is measured in International Bitterness Units. Pale ales typically fall between 25 and 35 IBUs. The Public clocks in at 40.
“40 is pushing it for a pale ale, but there’s a little bleed,” Hancock says. “That’s where we resonate.”
This is the case across all of DC Brau’s hoppier offerings. Its IPA, the Corruption, has double IPA levels of bitterness. Meanwhile, DC Brau’s actual double IPA, On the Wings of Armageddon, falls between 90 and 100 IBUs. “The human palate can process 120 IBU at the very maximum,” Hancock says with a satisfied grin.
The initial user reviews claimed the Public was too hoppy to be a pale ale. “But you look at reviews now, and they say, ‘Oh this beer’s not hoppy enough,’” Skall says. “It shows you the evolution of the American drinking pallet, at least in the microcosm of DC.”
The Public was nevertheless designed to be an easy drinker. The Chico yeast – made famous by Sierra Nevada – allows the malt to balance the Cascade and Centential hop profile.
“I’m a brewer with a short attention span,” Hancock shares. “I’m always hot on whatever season we have coming out, and then once it’s out, I’m on to the next thing. But as far as flagships go, I drink the Public night and day.”
He’s not alone: The Public is DC Brau’s most popular flagship.
The name of a DC Brau beer usually falls on one end of a spectrum or the other.
According to Skall, it’s a reflection of the town’s duplicity.
“On one side, you have Washington, DC, the political hub,” he explains. “On the other, you have the Black Cat and 9:30 Club – historical musical venues – and the people that go to those, and the people who open restaurants and bars here, and the people who work in them. Jeff and I grew up going to clubs, raves, and bars in DC.”
The latter side inspired beer names that reference rock bands (El Hefe Speaks, Ghoul’s Night Out) or could pass easily as the names for heavy metal acts (Cimmerian, On the Wings of Armageddon, Alpha Domina Mellis).
But it’s the former side –Washington’s political identity –that most strongly strikes a chord in Skall these days, especially as a taxpaying small business owner in DC. It’s the side that inspired the Citizen.
“The Citizen was an important name for us,” he says. “The rights of being a citizen are different in DC than anywhere else.”
If you’re wondering where DC Brau is coming from, take a look at one of its cans. A factoid on the Citizen points out that DC couldn’t vote in presidential elections until the 1960s. Smells Like Freedom – a beer concocted in part as a response to proposition 71 – says, “Votes Should Count.”
“Statehood is a huge push of ours,” says Hancock. “We’ll push it until we get it.”
As what all of this has to do with a Belgian style pale ale, well, just roll with it.
“The Citizen is loosely modeled off the triples of Belgian, which are very light and yeast-forward beers,” Hancock says of his brew. “Belgians definitely display that yeast character before anything else.”
The “pale” refers only to the color and doesn’t carry any of the flavor associations that comes with American pale ales. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hoppy,” Hancock explains. “I think sometimes that throws people off when they go to drink it.”
The Citizen is a crowd pleaser, regardless. “I always used to tout this as a crossover beer,” Hancock continues. “If we’re going to try to pull away a Miller Lite or a Budweiser drinker, I would typically go with it.”
The beer took home a silver medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. Skall says that such awards don’t make or break a beer, but the recognition is nice.
Hancock agrees: “It definitely doesn’t suck coming back home with those.”
An ill-fated trip to the West Coast instigated the Corruption.
When Skall and Hanacock were in the brewery’s planning stages, the two flew out to Seattle to look at a piece of equipment. The hardware turned out to be a “complete bust,” but the trip wasn’t in vain.
“We had the rest of the day to drink around town, so we got to try a lot of beer in that 24 hours window,” Hancock remembers. “There was one beer from a brewery called Maritime Pacific that really left an impression on us, so we went and made Corruption as an homage to the Pacific Northwest.”
Hancock calls the Corruption his Pacific Northwest IPA – the unrecognized cousin of the West Coast IPA. “I mainly see the difference in the malt profile,” he says of the two related styles. “Pacific Northwest IPAs, in my opinion, have a more prominent malt presence, while ‘West Coast’ or ‘California Style’ IPA’s have a restrained or lighter malt profile that allows the hops to be more pronounced and dominant. Both styles showcase hops in their own right.”
The Corruption is brewed with a single hop variety. According to the brewer, single-hopping illuminates the particular characteristics of its one hop. “It’s simple but pure.”
The plan had initially been to use Citra, a prized hop variety developed in the last decade. The problem: Skall and Hanock couldn’t get their hands on it. “When we actually started talking to hop purveyors, they laughed at us,” Skall says.
Instead, DC Brau turned to the Columbus, which known for its “very dank, resinous taste,” according to Hancock. It’s also thought of solely as a bittering hop.
“When we first put it out there, people were like, ‘Are you nuts?’” Skall says. “Not a lot of people use it for aroma and finishing and dry-hopping.”
But it was precisely because of that reaction that DC Brau was encouraged to use the hop. “It’s hard to differentiate your brand in an already flooded market, and we knew that Columbus was not a popular variety,” Skall observes. “So we went for it.”
When the first shipment arrived, though, DC Brau began to question it decision. “Brandon got a little apprehensive, because when we opened a fresh box of hops and put it in, it almost took on a burnt rubber nose,” Hancock remembers. “We were both a little like, ‘All right, well, hopefully this will fade by the time we package it.’”
The beer did turn out as they hoped, but not without a few adjustments: Hancock backed off dry-hopping, and he kept the bittering hops in the way that they were.
“To get to a good beer, sometimes you have bumps along the way,” he says. “It takes a little bit of sticking your neck out there.”
It’s the first Tuesday in March that I’m standing in DC Brau’s tasting room with Skall and Hancock. The next morning, the two will begin production of their fourth flagship, Brau Pils.
Much like its name, Brau Pils is not a beer with many surprises in store. “It’s basically going to be a German pilsner,” Hancock says. “But it’s a little hoppier than most pilsners.”
Of course, as brewers will often tell you, a simple lager recipe doesn’t mean an easy brewing process.
“Making a lager means putting your technical prowess out there,” Hancock explains. “If there’s something bad or off about the beer, it’s going to come through very transparently. That’s not something that a lot of people understand. They say, ‘Oh, it’s German. It’s boring. It’s a lager.’ But not a lot of people make them for a reason: It’s because they’re very difficult to make.”
Skall and Hancock developed the lighter offering in part to fill the void left by The Tradition, a golden ale brewed specifically for local MLS soccer club for D.C. United. The summer seasonal – a “reverse-engineered tailgate beer,” per Hancock – is on an indefinite hiatus after Skall says DC Brau was “unable to reach an agreement” with the franchise for the upcoming season.
“That’s not to say that we won’t do it again in future years,” the CEO remarks. “It was fun, because everyone does know us as a hop house, but it’s like, ‘Hey, we can also do light lagers and other types of beers that aren’t so hop-forward.”
For Hancock, that’s a style of beer he finds himself coming back to often. “I’m not gonna lie,” he admits. “You drink a lot of hoppy beers and it can tax the pallet.”
For what he calls “everyday drinkers,” he leans on German lager styles, like dunkels, schwarzbiers, and pilners.
“Those are beers that don’t tax the pallet,” the brewer says. “They make you want to go back for that next sip.”
DC Brau may have made a name on hoppy beers, but the second style it ever produced was far from one.
“Three weeks into brewing, we were so tired of the pale ale,” Skall recalls. “We wanted to do something different, and we loved Jeff’s porter recipe.”
Hancock’s Penn Quarter Porter is a chocolaty English robust porter that skews from tradition only in substituting the American Chico yeast in place of a more typical English strain. The brewer says that the beer has some “meat on it,” but at a modest 5% ABV, Penn Quarter Porter – or “PQP,” as DC Brau calls it – isn’t designed to be a belly buster: “Everyone thinks that darker beers are somehow more filling or stronger, so we’re trying to dispel that myth.”
DC Brau’s porter was inspired by two others: Great Lakes’ popular Edmund Fitzgerald and the defunct Wild Goose Porter. It’s the latter beer that has ties to Hancock’s own brewing history, albeit somewhat convolutedly.
Founded in the late ‘80s, Wild Goose brewed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland until 1997, when the company was purchased by Frederick Brewing Company, who continued producing Wild Goose at its own state of the art brewery across the bay. Almost a decade later, though, Frederick Brewing Company was purchased by Colorado’s Flying Dog Brewery, who also kept producing Wild Goose’s line of beers. That wouldn’t last long, though: In a year’s time, Flying Dog had relocated all of its operation to Maryland, and by 2010, the brewery no longer had the capacity to manufacture Wild Goose.
Hancock would be a beneficiary of the tumult in Frederick.
The brewer had made the jump to beer in 2001, leaving his father’s home-improvement company to apprentice at Franklins Restaurant and Brewery. It was two years of menial work – washing kegs, lifting grain bags, cleaning out tanks – but it got his foot in the industry’s door. From there, he would serve as brewer’s assistant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then work briefly at a North Carolina brewery.
Looking to return to the area, he found Flying Dog at a time when they were desperate for seasoned brewers. “They didn’t have access to a lot of experienced people,” Hancock says. “They were turning over so quickly that they were literally bringing in people off the street, like, ‘Oh, you like beer? Want to work?’”
With five years under his belt, Hancock was an attractive hire – so much so that the brewery let him circumvent the traditional line of succession altogether.
“Everyone starts out low at a brewery. You work your way up from cleaning kegs to growler hours to cellaring, and then maybe something opens in the brewhouse,” Hancock explains. “I was able to jump in at the brewhouse. You normally don’t go right to the top.”
At Flying Dog, Hancock brewed one of the last batches of Wild Goose Porter. “I liked it because it was specifically a robust porter,” he remembers. “At that time, there weren’t a whole lot of robust porters in the market. The beer had a great body with an amazing malty aroma, highlighted by the traditional Ringwood yeast that was used to brew it.”
Since founding his own brewery, Hancock has continued brewing his version of the porter. The beer has evolved into an unofficial flagship of the DC Brau. “It still says limited release on the can, but it’s not limited,” Hancock shares, laughing. “It’s available in quantity.”
Penn Quarter Porter is also a favorite for aging projects at DC Brau. While the brewery has aged a number of its beers in creative ways – IPA in gin barrels; scotch ale in maple syrup vessels – it estimates that roughly four out of every five barrel creations have used a Penn Quarter base. “The darker malts can hold up to it,” Hancock explains.
Doomsday prophecies spark irrational, desperate behavior.
The same goes for the DC Brau beer inspired by one, On the Wings of Armageddon.
“We’ve had people drive as far as Ohio on a single Saturday to buy this beer,” Hancocks says. “It’s very flattering. It’s even better when we still have some for them.”
The double IPA is the brewery’s most sought-after beer. It has a cult following, much like the beer it was inspired by: Russian River’s Pliny the Elder.
“Anyone who loves IPAs knows what Pliny the Elder is and the impact that beer has had on the movement as a whole,” Hancock explains. “We kinda wanted to do our own version.”
At the same time, DC Brau also knew that it wanted to make a beer tied to the Mayans’ December 2012 end of the world prophecy. Recognizing that it had yet to make a double IPA, Skall and Hancock rolled the two ideas into one.
Lying around the brewery, according to Skall, was Falconer’s Flight, a citrusy blend of seven hop varieties that had initially been part of the Public recipe. “We had always liked its profile, and with a lot of these new hops, if you can get your foot in on a contracting level before they take off, you’re in a much better position,” Skall says. “So, we took a leap on it.”
The name spun off from the hop too. “We were all sitting around in here like a think tank,” Skall recalls. “We were like, ‘Wings, wings, wings of…’”
They initially settled on Wings of the Apocalypse, but right before DC Brau announced it, Lost Rhino put out its Apocalyptic Ale, so “Apocalypse” was tweaked to “Armageddon.”
“The premise was that the Wings of Armageddon would be this angel of death type of figure flying over a scorched earth,” Hancock shares, caught up in his origin story. “I guess it’s looking for any remaining people that were living and kill them off properly.”
The beer is all about a proper finish too. “It’s made to leave a lasting impression,” the brewer says. “We put a lot of the bitterness on the back end, because with a lot of these IPAs, you get so much up front that it almost shocks your mouth.”
Each year since 2012, the brewery has relaunched the bear with an elaborate ritualistic party at Churchkey. In 2013, it held an costume soiree with “Eyes Wide Shut” masks and music. Last year, the inspiration was “Apocalypto”, with a bar back painted in blue and dressed in grain bags, who sacrificed with a bomber of frigid beer on the bar.
The costumes for the first party – cheap monk robes and skeleton masks express ordered off Amazon – are immortalized on the can, designed by Rob Shortly
“I told him that we wanted something that a 7th grader would have scribbled onto his desk while listening to heavy metal,” Skall says. “He pretty much hit it out of the park.”
Cans of the beer are sold only out of the Northeast brewery’s location, save a minimal number of cases go to more distant markets.
“We kind of deliberately keep the supply a little bit under the demand,” Hancock admits. “It’s just to keep that hype and following.”
For a brewery founded by a pair of DJs, DC Brau unsurprisingly has a culture intertwined with music.
On the production floor, bright tanks are labeled with names like Steamy Nicks and Steamy Ray Vaughn.
In the tasting room, stickers from venues and bands are scattered amongst the hundreds of adhesive brewery logos plastered everywhere – on walls, on doors, on desks.
A massive boombox sits on the shared table between Skall and Hancock’s workspaces. Propped atop it is a painting with the familiar skull and roses of the Grateful Dead.
“We’re pretty much a fan of everything,” says Hancock, who can often be found at area metal shows. He adds one qualifier, though: “Everything except new country and dub step.”
Wearing a t-shirt of local hardcore act Loud Boyz, Skall nods approvingly: “Those are two genres that we stay away from.”
It’s not uncommon for DC Brau to work references to the bands that it loves into its product line.
There’s Ghouls Night Out, a quadrupel ale that pays homage to a Misfits song of the same name. “We all like the Misfits, except for Chris [Graham], our production manager,” Skall says of the iconic New Jersey horror punks. “He hates the Misfits. Loves metal; hates the Misfits.”
There’s Taster’s Choice, a coffee Doppelbock made in collaboration with Colorado’s Ska Brewing and DC musical institution, The Pietasters. “When I was in junior high school, I used to go see the Pietasters play all the time – at churches in Virginia, at the Bayou, at the old 9:30 Club,” Skall remembers. “One of the most fun thing for me is that we get to do events with these guys now. It blows my mind. We’ve come together through beer.”
And there’s El Hefe Speaks.
The brewery’s original summer seasonal is a traditional German style Hefeweizen, brewed with an even split of malted barley and malted wheat. It’s highly carbonated and a modest 4.8% ABV, which Hancock says makes the cloudy, unfiltered brew a perfect fit for warmer weather: “It’s definitely made to go down easy.”
The beer was also DC Brau’s first collaboration: It was developed with John Solomon and Chris Frashier, two former Old Dominion brewers who would go on to open Solly’s U Street Tavern.
In addition to beer, Solomon and Hancock share a passion for hard-edged stoner rock outfit Clutch. “They’re a very popular band these days,” Hancock says. “But they were big before I even came of drinking age.”
In August of 1993, the Frederick, Maryland band recorded a track called, “El Jefe Speaks”. (Opening line: “Like a fly to doo doo / You need me like a bird needs wings.”) Eighteen years later, DC Brau would name their Hefeweizen El Hefe Speaks after it.
And much like Skall and the Pietasters, beer would bring Hancock and his longtime object of affection together in Richmond.
“We actually got to meet Clutch,” Skall shares. “Jeff was having a full-on school girl moment.”
“It was awesome. I was able to step on the tour bus and get a shot with Neil [Fallon], the lead singer, holding the can and giving the seal of approval,” Hancock recalls. “I had the biggest shit-eating grin.”
There is technically no such thing as the Stone of Arbroath.
The Drosten Stone – depicted in green on the can of DC Brau’s Scotch ale – is a 9th century slab of rock carved with the images of mythical animals and a text that has proven inconclusively decipherable for many centuries. And it was located close to Arbroath, Scotland.
Hairsplitting aside, what does the chiseled relic have to do with DC Brau’s beer?
“We were just looking for cool stuff from Scotland, and we came across that on the Internet,” Skall admits.
The Scotch ale’s recipe is a relic in its own right: Along with Penn Quarter Porter, the Stone of Arbroath is one of two recipes to carry over from Hancock’s homebrewing days. When DC Brau first produced the ale in 2012, it was limited to draft and 22-ounce bombers, along with a few limited barrel-aging projects.
Then it was shelved. As with a lot of beers made by the brewery during that time, there wasn’t the capacity to keep making it.
But the Stone of Arbroath would not be forgotten.
“It was just a beer that we all remembered,” says Skall, who considers Scotch ales an underappreciated style . “We kept talking about, like, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be so awesome to put Stone into a can?’”
Two years later, noticing the lack of winter seasonal to compliment summer staples El Hefe Speaks and the Tradition, Hancock dusted off the wee heavy recipe. A few tweaks were in order. He added more caramel malts, and dialed back the previously dominant brown malt. And he increased the ABV by a full percent to 8% – not that you would notice on the smooth beer.
“That’s a fun little game that I like to play as brewer,” Hancock shares, a smile cracking below his mustache. “I like to see how well I can mask alcohol.”
The cooler that the brewery ferments its beer, Hancock says, the more alcohol that it can sneak by from an initial sensory perspective.
What hasn’t gone unnoticed is the beer’s name: The Arbroath Herold – established in 1838 – recently reached out to DC Brau for an interview.
Smells Like Freedom presented a challenge to DC Brau and Oskar Blues: How closely can you make a beer smell like marijuana?
It’s not as far-flung an idea as you might initially think.
“Hops and cannabis are kissing cousins,” Hancock says. “If the same sticky glands that give bitterness aromas to hops had a slightly different molecular structure, they would inebriate you just like weed.”
“A lot of really hop-forward beers have that cannabis character to them aromatically,” Skall adds. “’Cannabis’ is an actual descriptor when assessing certain varieties of hops.”
The seeds of the collaboration were planted during Oskar Blues visit to DC for the Craft Brewers Conference in 2013. “They all came out to the brewery for Saturday growler hours the week of the conference,” Skall remembers. “They were all really excited about our brewery, the growth that we had experienced, and the fact that we were a can brewery.”
The affection was mutual: DC Brau has always held Oskar Blues’ beers in high esteem. “I remember my first Dale’s Pale,” Skall says. “It was chewy. It was meaty. It was unapologetically hops in your face. It was all of the stuff that I was thought was cool.”
“Dales Pale Ale is what we used to pound when we were first brainstorming DC Brau,” Hancock adds.
The two breweries would continue talk of a collaboration at the following year’s CBC in Denver, but it was at last October’s Great American Beer Festival that they decided to make it happen. The choice of what to brew was obvious. “They’re very hop-forward, and we’re very hop-forward, so doing an IPA was kind of no-brainer,” Hancock says. “And as much as the market is saturated with IPAs, this was going to be a little different than the rest.”
The initial step in engineering Smells Like Freedom came from DC Brau production manager Chris Graham, who developed the malt side of the brew. Then breweries discussed the hop schedule – the “fun side of the collaboration,” according to Hancock.
“Because of its size and stature, Oskar Blues has access to a lot of experimental varieties of hops,” Skall says. “So there definitely are some hop flavors here that haven’t been out in the market very much.”
Both breweries produced batches of the one-time release for their own markets. DC Brau canned 700 cases, which it doesn’t expect to last long. “It’s going to be here, and then it’s going to evaporate,” says Skall.
The can’s striking swirl of color was developed by Graham Jackson, a local artist and friend of the brewery. “We wanted to step outside our normal look with this, because it was a more high profile collaboration,” Skall explains. “We wanted to differentiate it from the rest of our product line a little bit.”
As previously mentioned, the words “Votes Should Count” are scrawled across the top of the can. With its most high profile collaboration, DC Brau has chosen to champion DC statehood. This is the sort of engagement that earned the brewery DC Vote’s Raising the Bar award last year.
“We thought that this was a really good platform to let the world know exactly what it means to live in the District of Columbia,” Skall says. “People just don’t know.”
The CEO continues: “When we decided to brew Smells Like Freedom, it was more or less deciding to bring awareness to the act that DC still has no independent control of its votes and how they’re allocated in Congress. We’re not necessarily advocating for the legalization of marijuana, but we’re all consenting adults. We should be able to make our individual choices to smoke or not to smoke.”
When DC Brau completed its most recent expansion in August, at the top of its wish list was a “quintessential Oktoberfest.”
“Now that we have the tank space and the time, it’s fun to experiment with some of the styles that we haven’t been able to make but have always admired and enjoyed drinking,” Skall says. “We wanted to do an Oktoberfest for a long time, just because of the idea of brewing tradition meeting new brewing equipment, skills, and ideas. It’s one of the oldest brew styles out there.”
Oktoberfests were traditionally made to be harvest beers. They were brewed in spring, lagered all summer, and released in September. “We obviously don’t lager ours for five months, but it’s otherwise no different,” Hancock shares. “It’s a nice, roasty, biscuity…”
He trails off. “God, what else? My Cicerone training is failing me!”
DC Brau released the beer in the middle of September last year, but with more time to plan in 2015, hopes to have it out earlier.
“I don’t think we’re planning on changing the recipe,” Skall shares. “We liked how it turned out.”
Jeff Hancock has been meaning to get back into skateboarding.
It’s just not as easy as it used to be.
“At this point, my muscles don’t hold the memory,” he says. “If I go out and skate really hard, I can’t walk properly for a week.”
Hancock estimates that he’s skateboarded for two-thirds of his life. He fondly remembers skating down in Freedom Plaza as a teenager, then cruising up to Fort Reno for a free show.
Skall has similar memories. “I grew up a skate rat,” he says. “I never got too good at it, but I was always pushing around the city on a skateboard.”
DC Brau’s collaboration with Stillwater Artisanal Ales, NATAS, nods to that past.
The beer is a “Belgianized” version of Penn Quarter Porter – a favorite of Stillwater brewmaster Ben Strumke. He and Hancock took the recipe for the robust porter, and switched out the yeast and malts for European varieties. They also added Belgian and candy sugar, which cranked the alcohol content from 5 percent to 7.5.
But the whole time DC Brau and Stillwater were working on the beer, a name for it escaped them. One would come to them during a drunken late evening.
“When Brian would come to town in those days, my house was sort of the bachelor pad, especially if my wife was away. We would work a mutual event together, then go back to my house, stay up late, and play music,” Skall remembers. “I had a Natas skateboard on the wall. And he was like, ‘Oh you guys like Natas?’ And we were both like, ‘Yeah! He’s the shit!’ That’s where it all came from.”
More than just a tribute to skateboarding legend Natas Kaupas, the name is also a play on Belgian strong ales, which traditionally have satanic monikers like Lucifer and Duvel. “We had this a dark beer, which is the opposite of a Belgian strong ale,” Skall continues. “Well, Natas’ name is Satan backwards.”
The devilishly brewed beer has been made twice since its initial run.
To paraphrase John Darnielle: Hail NATAS.
The partial roll call of releases on DC Brau’s website tells the story of a restless and adventurous brewery: oatmeal stout, Polish grätzer, American cream ale, farmhouse IPA, West Coast red, English mild, Belgian Christmas ale. With almost a hundred different beers brewed in less than four years, it’s not surprising that they gave up on updating that list at some point.
It’s worth noting, however, that these are often just one-off releases. According to Skall, in most cases, a recipe is developed quickly, a batch is brewed, and once the kegs have been kicked, that’s the end of a beer’s story.
“We’ll just get bored and want to make something new,” he explains. “There’s never even a pilot batch. We haven’t piloted something since we were planning the brewery.”
Cimmerian Schwarzbier is a fine example of that approach.
“Jeff wrote the recipe in, like, less than a day,” Shall remembers. “And then it was like, ‘All right, let’s just brew it.’”
Cimmerian is Hancock’s “no frills” take on the traditional German black lager. “They’re referred to as the black pilsners,” Hancock says of the style. “Even though they’re dark, they’re not heavy in body.”
Seeking to reflect that dual nature, Hancock settled on a reference plucked from Greek mythology: Cimmerians are the people caught in the purgatorial realm between the living and the dead.
“Conan was a Cimmerian too,” Hancock adds dryly, referring to the fictional tribe of barbarians in Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction, famously portrayed in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1982 film, “Conan the Barbarian”.
“The Conan thing was such a bonus,” Skall jokes.
DC Brau brewed one 60-barrel batch of Cimmerian Schwarzbier, using dehusked chocolate malt and an Augustiner yeast that’s “a little more forgiving with lager temperatures,” according to Hancock.
Both Skall and Hancock love how it turned out; they each sip a full pint while we talk. But the credits are soon to roll “Fin” on the beer.
“We have no intention of bringing it back,” Hancock says. “Unless there’s some insane grassroots movement to do so.”
The sword has been set in the stone, DC.
Appropriately enough for a beer released on Halloween each year, Ghoul’s Night Out has a sweet tooth.
The “big, bad quadrupel” is fermented with local honey from Burnside Farms, the Haymarket, Virginia farm is renowned for its wildflowers. It’s a three generations deep family business, currently run by Michael Dawley, who has a relationship with Skall relationship that, oddly enough, is a product of the latter’s more active DJing days.
“Every year for the fourth of July, he would have this huge party out there. That’s where I met him,” Skall remembers “It was this beautiful farm sitting on acres and acres of land. There was a natural stage that they had already built. And he had all of these bees.”
The bees are necessary to pollinate the wild flowers. Meanwhile, the honey that they produced is provided raw to DC Brau – an important distinction for the occasional input.
“A lot of times when honey is added to a beer, brewers are using a refined honey, which ferments away the same way that straight sugar does,” Skall explains. “It doesn’t leave a lot of character behind.”
In contrast, Burnside Farms’ “unfiltered, straight-up honey” has impurities, which leave remnants of honey behind. “It’s almost a sense of terroir,” says Skall, his wine background peeking through. “You’re left with this little taste in the beer that reminds you what the honey was like.”
Ghouls Night Out – as with its counterpart, Alpha Domina Mellis – was brewed specifically as a vehicle for the honey, Skall says. “We wanted to do something big and Belgian and dark and fruit-forward.”
If you missed on the 10.5% ABV beer’s initial fall run, keep your eyes peeled in the coming months.
“It does well with barrel-aging,” Skall says. “There are always a few that creep out six months later.”
Alpha Domina Millis hits taps in December, the peak of spice season, but it’s neither a Christmas ale nor a winter warmer: It’s a double IPA fermented with the rest of Burnside Farms’ wildflower honey.
Is the holidays an unconventional time to roll out a double IPA?
“It’s always a good time for a double IPA,” Skall shoots back. “It’s like champagne.”
This particular double IPA has a nomadic hop profile. It’s essentially DC Brau’s Sunday Italian dinner: The leftovers from other meals brought together to make something new and delicious.
“With the special projects that we do – like Smells Like Freedom – we often end up with these experimental variety of hops left over, so we try to not let them go to waste.” Hancock explains. “Alpha Domina Mellis is a fun kitchen-sink beer.”
DC Brau has brewed two different versions of the beer. Last year, the batch included Citra, Centennial, Amarillo, Cascade, Columbus, and Mosaic hops. How the third will turn out is anyone’s guess, though Hancock seems to think it will include leftovers from the aforementioned Oskar Blues collaboration.
For Skall, however, the star remains the honey. He calls Alpha Domina Mellis his favorite DC Brau beer of 2014. “There’s a really nice play between the sweetness of the honey and the bitterness of the hop and the sweetness of the malt.”
Additional contributions by Matt Mansfield.