For over four years, DC Brau’s tasting room doubled as the office of Jeff Hancock and Brandon Skall.
The co-founders’ desks sat adjacent to each other along the right wall of the snug space. If the two were both at their work stations on a particular day, the distance between them was literally an arm’s length. If anyone stopped by the brewery for a pint of Public or a coveted six-pack of On the Wings of Armageddon, their notes, records, and belongings were in full view.
Intentionally or not, there was a message here: Hancock and Skall may have started DC’s most successful brewery but they weren’t removed from the ordinary, cramped, noisy bustle of its daily operation. They were immersed in it.
Nine months ago, that view changed when they moved across the driveway to a newly built out, polished office space. The ceilings are high. The walls are bright. There’s a conference room. There are floor-to-ceiling windows for light to flood through. There are four individual offices. Skall refers to them as the “executive office area.”
There’s a message here, too: DC Brau is growing up.
When I visit the space on the first day of April, it’s riddled with the signs of vigorous planning. A dry erase board has the layout for a large gathering, spaces designated for a stage, an artist lounge, a VIP tap room. Posters for the event and designs for new merchandise decorate the area.
Behind a desk in one of the executive offices is a countdown calendar.
It reads: “15 DAYS UNTIL THE 5TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY!!”
DC Brau opened in April of 2011. As has been well documented – and as the brewery is right to proudly note – it was the city’s first production brewery since the Heurich Brewing Co. shuttered 56 years ago.
In and of itself, this was an achievement of fundraising and law changing and general grit. But what’s more remarkable is how in the five years since, DC Brau has never eased the reins. Over the course of a half decade, it has maintained an annual growth rate of over 30%, expanding its output from 1,600 barrels in year one to an anticipated 17,500 in 2016.
“When we first started, I thought we’d be at this point in maybe ten or fifteen years,” says Hancock, DC Brau’s brewmaster. “We’ve been growing every year with no signs of slowing down.”
“It’s definitely been scary at times,” adds Skall. “We have taken a few risks, but they’ve paid off.”
This Saturday, DC Brau will celebrate these five years of success with a festival in the parking lot behind its Bladensburg Road production facility. The company has always thrown itself a big birthday party – formerly dubbed Brau Stomp – but this year is something different.
For starters, the brewery broke the piggy bank on the musical line-up, recruiting a eclectic mix of metal, hardcore, and stoner rock acts from Austin (The Sword), Norway (Kvelertak), Miami (Torche), Philadelphia (Serpent Throne), and its own backyard (Loud Boyz). If entertainment at breweries is ailed by a plague of white dude strumming acoustic guitars, this concert is the antidote.
But the big ticket item on the afternoon is what will be pouring from the taps: five new beers, each brewed especially for the fifth anniversary, each made in collaboration with one of the country’s most celebrated and respected breweries.
This is the story of those beers and the relationships behind them.
When DC Brau set about developing its fifth anniversary collaboration series, the first thing that Hancock and Skall did was develop a wishlist of possible partners.
“We had a pretty substantial list of about 30 potential breweries that we whittled down to the five,” says Hancock. “It was definitely not without anguish.”
In the end, there was Perennial Artisan Ales, the Belgian-heavy St. Louis brewery founded by Goose Island and Half Acre alum Phil Wymore and his wife Emily. There was Austin Beerworks, a Texas brewery similarly focused on hop-forward ales and traditional lagers, and operated by two former colleagues of Hancock. There was Indiana’s Sun King Brewery, another purveyor of hop-heavy beers and a leader in the canned beer movement. There was Cigar City Brewing, the Tampa Bay brewery renowned for producing one of the country’s best imperial stouts, in addition to a deep well of acclaimed offerings. And there was Port City Brewing, the Alexandria operation just thirteen miles away that won Small Brewery of the Year at 2015’s Great American Beer Festival.
“We figure some of them wouldn’t be able to do it, but everyone was down from the start,” says Skall. “That was not something we anticipated.”
From there, Hancock and Chris Graham – DC Brau’s production manager – opened a dialogue with each of the other breweries, trying to pin down beer styles and then the nitty gritty of recipe development.
“Jeff basically said, ‘Hey, what styles do you want to do? No sour stuff,'” says Will Golden, head brewer at Austin Beerworks. “That was basically his only rule for the whole thing.”
“Once Jeff had his recipes and I had mine, I went to town on sourcing the raw materials, getting everything scheduled, sourcing all of the yeast,” Graham shares. “Jeff and Brandon are going through massive anxiety right now because the party is coming up, but the anxiety for me was back in January, when it was like, ‘We need to get all of these ingredients! We need to finalize all these recipes!’ Now I’m like, ‘Pssh, beer’s in tank, tasting great, let’s go.'”
The beers would make their way into their respective tanks over the course of a few days in February, when all of the collaborating breweries – with the exception of Perennial – visited DC Brau to make the beers on its system.
Together, these efforts have produced a full spectrum of beers: a saison steeped on hibiscus and rose hips (Pink Pallet Jack); an India Pale Lager brewed with three fruit purees (Celestial Garden); a rye double IPA (Ripa the Dipa); a traditional dunkel (Zehn von Zehn); and a massive milk chocolate imperial stout (The Wise and the Lovely).
“This was a great experience for us because we got to make beer with a lot of our friends, who five years ago we didn’t even know,” says Skall. “Through this journey of the last five years, we’ve developed what I think are going to be some lifelong friendships.”
“A common thread in a lot of the collaborative projects that happen in craft beer is relationships,” says Perennial’s Phil Wymore. “It’s a people industry.”
“I just can’t wait to shotgun a The Wise and the Lovely,” Graham tells me.
The production manager is having a beer with some of his DC Brau colleagues in the tasting room late on a Friday afternoon.
“I’m into it,” Skall shoots back.
Graham, who has been with DC Brau since it started brewing, has a soft-spoken, almost bookish demeanor. “That would be the highest alcohol shotgun,” he states objectively.
Skall concurs: “It’s higher than Wings.”
On the Wings of Armageddon, DC Brau’s prized imperial IPA, clocks in at 9.2% alcohol. This is no match for imperial stout The Wise and the Lovely, the brewery’s collaboration with Cigar City. It hits 10.0%.
“We’ve shotgunned a Wings,” Graham tells me.
“Oh yeah,” adds Skall. “The first time we canned Wings was back when we were still shotgunning everything we could.”
They proceed to examine the merits of which beer would be easier to consume as quickly as possible. On one hand, Graham notes, the carbonation of the imperial stout is going to be lower. On the other, it’s a much heavier beer.
“That’s just going to go right to your stomach,” he shares. “I’m envisioning, like, ‘Super Troopers’, where the guy chugs maple syrup and afterwards goes into sugar shock.”
“It’ll be like chugging a milkshake,” Skall says.
Discerning craft beer consumers will have a chance to experiment for themselves when DC Brau releases six-packs of the collaboration series in the coming weeks. Each pack will contain one of the each five collaboration beers. Filling out that sixth ring of the six-pack? One can of On the Wings of Armageddon.
“At the end of the day, we want this to be a thank you to everyone that has supported this brewery the whole time, and putting Wings in there seems like the right thing to do,” Skall says. “It seems like it would make people the happiest.”
The brewery plans to can thirty barrels of each collaboration beer, which works out to roughly 1800 cases. Of those, 500 will remain for sale in the brewery. The rest will go to market in DC, Virginia, and Maryland.
When we speak, those numbers are still very much in the air because the beer is still fermenting. The quantity of six-packs produced will be limited by which beer suffers the most loss during brewing. (This will assuredly be either the rye double IPA or the imperial stout.) Regardless of how much goes to neighborhood bottle shops, though, this collaboration series will be a wildly hot commodity.
“I don’t anticipate it’ll be around very long,” says Skall. “We’re also pricing it at a very fair price. The idea is that it’s really a celebration of five years, a celebration of the relationships. We want this to be something that’s approachable on the shelf.”
“We’re not in it to gouge people for every cent that they’re worth,” Hancock adds. “It’s nice being a brewery owner – you don’t ever have to worry about buying beer. But if I did, and I was seeing $25 or $30 six-packs, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m not even looking at that.”
There is change afoot at DC Brau, and as is often the case, it involves expansion.
In November, the brewery plans to take possession of a new 30-barrel brewhouse. After five years of adding fermentation tanks, DC Brau has reached the limit of what it can produce on its current 15-barrel system.
“Our goals get pretty aggressive once the new brewhouse is installed, but that probably won’t be operational until the end of the next year,” says Skall, who adds that the brewery won’t be in a rush to install the system. “We have the luxury to take our time. When you’re opening up, you’re under the gun to get things going, because you’re spending all of this money and you’re waiting for money to start coming in.”
Once it’s up and running, the new German brewhouse will be almost fully automated, which will cut labor costs in half and allow DC Brau to improve upon the quality of its beer.
“We’ll be growing in a controlled, strategic manner,” Skall adds. “Every year, there’s been a bottleneck somewhere, whether it’s been in packaging or, usually, in fermentation. Finally, we’re at a place where work production that bottleneck is. This brewhouse will alleviate that, but then we’ll be back to the same old growing pains of fermentation space and a packaging line with a higher throughput. It’ll be a continual growth process for the next couple of years.”
While some breweries may sell an old brewhouse to help recoup the cost of a new one, DC Brau plans to keep the 15-barrel system operational. “For us, it’s a combination of the anticipation that we’ll need the barrelage, and the mobility of having a small system that we can brew pilot-style batches on, where the brewers can experiment with their recipes, and we can create some smaller-batch product that we can distribute just out of the brewery perhaps,” says Skall.
Its three primary flagships, the Public, the Corruption, and the Citizen – which, combined, still account for almost 90% of DC Brau’s production – will move to the new system. The one beer it plans to continue making regularly on the small system is On the Wings of Armageddon. Another plan for that beer: After six-packs were a brewery exclusive for years, Skall says it hopes to release the beer to market a few times quarterly.
As usual, whether or not DC Brau is able to do this will depend on production constraints. The same goes for how much Brau Pils it’ll be able to put on shelves.
“Brau Pils is making up a lot more of our total sales mix than we thought it would, but with that said, we still have to give importance to our flagships,” Hancock shares. “Unfortunately, not everyone is going to be able to get it, and hopefully everyone is gracious and understands that. That’s just how it is.”
In the grand scheme of things, there are worse scenarios a brewery can face than not being able to make enough of a popular beer.
“It’s a great problem to have, obviously,” says Skall. “It’s not something to complain about. But it still causes stress in the moment.”
For now, at five-years old, DC Brau is planning for the future – even if it doesn’t exactly what it’ll look like.
“Where we go from here is hard to say,” Skall continues. “All of our initial planning is out the window.”
“We always get asked where we see ourselves in twenty years,” says Hancock. “It’s like, ‘Where do I even see myself in a year?'”
Every beer has a story.
DC Brau and its collaborators share the stories of their brews below.
It’s not hard to figure out why Jeff Hancock and Will Golden would get along. Both grew up immersed in DC’s hardcore scenes. Both have a penchant for brewing hop-forward ales while maintaining an appreciation for traditional European lagers. Both are straight talkers.
This is the case now, and it was the case in 2007 when the two overlapped at Flying Dog in Frederick, Maryland. At the time, Golden was a holdover from the Frederick Brewing Company. Over the course of four years, he had worked his way from cellarman to lead brewer, which made him responsible for “scheduling, spanking the bad brewers, and making sure that everything got done properly.”
Hancock was a new hire, returning to the area after stints at brewpubs in Michigan and North Carolina. “Jeff came in as a brewer with some experience,” Golden remembers. “He had worked for some pretty cool breweries, like Natty Green’s and Ann Arbor Brewing – places that I have a good deal of respect for. It was an easy friendship.”
“Will and I had a lot of interests in common,” Hancock recalls. “He liked heavy metal; I liked heavy metal. We obviously both liked beer. He was a very knowledgeable guy and just someone cool to work for.”
A few months later, Golden would take off to assume control at Fredrick’s Barley & Hops brewpub. A little further down the road, he would move again, to Texas. There, he would start Austin Beerworks with Adam DeBower – another Flying Dog alum who also had worked closely with Hancock.
As fate would have it, this venture would open within a month of DC Brau in 2011.
In the time before and after these openings, the two breweries would rely on each other. “We would trade e-mails,” Hancock recalls. “When you’re opening up a brewery, there are so many questions that you have. We definitely went back and forth, sharing what we were doing.”
“Jeff is such an easy guy to talk to, and he’s very smart,” says Golden. “There’s a lot that people can learn from him just by listening.”
Almost five years later, Hancock still sees a connection between what the two breweries are doing. “They’re kind of similar to us. They’re doing pretty traditional styles, just executed really well, with little twists on top of it,” he says. “And they like to have fun and do goofy stuff, too.”
When Hancock reached out to Austin Beerwork to collaborate, the two settled on a style that combined their two interests of, in Golden’s words, “hop-forward stuff and really cool lager beers” – the India Pale Lager.
An emerging style – not even recognized by the Brewers Association currently – India Pale Lagers combine a lager’s yeast with the generous hopping of an American IPA. It’s something that sounds unusual on paper but its gradually winning over brewers and craft beer drinkers alike. Case in point: Will Golden.
“In the beginning, when I had other brewers talking about stuff like that, I honestly thought I would hate it,” he remembers. “I thought lagers had their place, and putting American hops in them in large quantities wasn’t really part of it.”
That stance changed a year ago, when Austin Beerworks – at the behest of another brewer – made an IPL for its fourth anniversary called Griddlebone.
“It was light and crisp, but the type of malt that we used gave it enough backbone to support those hops,” he recalls. “It was just an amazing, 7.5% crush-able IPL, and one of the few beers over the past five years that I’ve truly been blown away by. So, that flavor profile has been jammed in my brain since.”
When Golden suggested making an IPL, Hancock was not a hard sell. The DC Brau head brewer has been a fan of the style since trying one from Massachusetts’s Jack’s Abby. “I loved the hybridizing of the two styles,” Hancock shares. ”I thought it was a cool concept. Everyone thinks of lagers as very bland, traditional beers that have no flavor, and that’s completely not the case.”
This won’t be DC Brau’s first foray into IPL either. Last October, it brewed one called Magic Number in collaboration with UNION Craft and Stillwater Artisan Ales for Baltimore Beer Week. But, as the name of this collaboration with Austin Beerworks hints, there’s an additional wrinkle with Celestial Garden.
“We’re starting to experiment with a blood orange IPA here in Austin so I floated the idea of adding a fruit puree to beer,” Golden shares. “I thought Jeff was going to shoot it down, but he was like, ‘No, that sounds awesome, let’s do it.’ I threw out apricots, then he threw out tangerines and peaches, and then I shot him back an e-mail that said, ‘Let’s just do all three.'”
These organic apricot, tangerine, and peach purees accentuate the fruity notes of Celestial Garden’s hop varieties: Columbus, Citra, Simcoe, and Amarillo. (The latter two are the primary aroma hops.)
“It was an easy one to put together,” Golden says in retrospect. “If collaborations are tough to do, the flavor of the beer will probably show that.”
The Austin brewer has yet to taste the final product but he’s feeling pretty confident after the brew day at DC Brau.
“The beer has this really amazing kind of floral quality with some citrus and pine from the Simcoe, and kind of a hoppy backbone,” he observes. “I tasted the wort the day after we brewed it and I would have already drank it out of the tank the way it was.”
Golden is hopeful that he’ll be able to land a few sixtels of Celestial Garden in Texas, even if the state prohibits Austin Beerworks from selling it.
“We’ll probably put it on in the taproom and have a little party and just give it away,” he says.
The brewer pauses for a moment.
“Or we’ll just drink it all ourselves,” he adds, laughing. “That’ll probably be what happens.”
For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of industrial spaces, a pallet jack is essentially a compact forklift. The two-pronged hydrologic tool is used to raise heavy or cumbersome pallets just far enough off the ground to move them elsewhere. As you might imagine, these things come in handy when you have to relocate something like a stack of two thousand aluminum cans. They come in a variety of colors, too. In the case of St. Louis’ Perennial Artisan Ales, it’s pink.
“When you’re doing a brewery expansion you have all of these tough contractors around all the time and they always need to borrow your stuff,” explains Perennial Co-Founder and Brewmaster Phil Wymore, with a laugh. “I just thought it would be funny if they had to use a pink pallet jack. You know? I wanted to challenge them a little bit.”
A few summers ago, Wymore found out that Perennial wasn’t alone in this inspired irreverence.
The brewer was in Philadelphia for the city’s beer week, and late one night, he found himself at a bar with Hancock, Skall, and Cigar City’s Justin Clark. This was neither the first nor last time the four would find themselves in this situation.
“It’s always debaucherous late night hangs with Phil and Justin when we’re in Philly,” says Skall. “They definitely know how to hang onto a few cold ones after an event.”
“We have a similar sense of humor and a wider outlook on things than some people do,” shares Wymour. “A lot of our relationship is more based on shenanigans than anything serious.”
On this particular evening, the conversation turned to sourcing supplies and equipment, and flipping through his phone, Wymore proudly produced a picture of his new pink pallet jack for the guys to see.
“I said, ‘I’m obsessed with the color pink! We have a pink pallet jack, too,” Hancock remembers.
According to DC Brau’s head brewer, most of DC Brau’s beers have started with a good name and been built back from there. Pink Pallet Jack was no different. “It was just one of those drunken moments when you come up with an amazing beer name,” he says.
Skall nods: “It was like, ‘Dude. We. Need. To. Do. Pink. Pallet. Jack. Beer.”
Almost two years later, a saison called Pink Pallet Jack has entered the world. And true to the name, it’s pink.
To achieve the desired color, the breweries steeped the 6.5% saison on hibiscus and rose hips. Although Hancock was familiar with the ingredients from a few miscellaneous casks, he leaned on Wymore’s expertise in translating them to a much larger batch.
“I knew that was the way to get pink into a beer, while also getting good flavors and not adding anything unnatural to the beer,” the Perennial brewmaster says. (Perennial makes a tropical tea Berliner Weisse called Hopfentea that’s steeped in hibiscus and rose hips, in addition to mango, papaya, lemongrass, and orange peel.)
“Phil gave us a baseline quantity to start out with,” Hancock remembers. “It turns out that we ended up using three times as much because it didn’t have that nice grapefruity, pinkish hue – it kind of looked muddled.”
But after six pounds of rose hips, 18 pounds of hibiscus, and a trip through the centrifuge, DC Brau and Perennial had their bright pink beer.
Well before achieving that desired color, though, the two breweries had to choose a yeast strain – a defining factor for any saison. In the end, they didn’t settle for just one.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Hey, if we’re going to make this beer, why don’t we make this a truly collaborative thing where we both contribute yeast strains?” Wymore remembers.
Perennial brought to the table a yeast strain derived from Brasserie Dupont, producer of the quintessential Saison Dupont. Meanwhile, DC Brau opted for a strain it had previously used in the hoppy farmhouse ale Middle Name Danger, a collaboration with Baltimore gypsy brewers Stillwater Artisanal Ales. And then a yeast bank combined the two to make the DC Brau & Perennial Farmhouse Ale / Saison Blend.
“The interplay of the two different strains is a unique expression,” says Wymore, who has been conducting similar experimentation at Perennial in recent years. “Maybe one strain is more dominant than the other, but it definitely tastes different than if you had used just one.”
“Symbolically, it was a cool idea,” Skall adds. “Something from us, something from them, literally mixed together.”
Pink Pallet Jack will only be the third saison that DC Brau has produced. “We’re kind of known for being a hop-forward brewery. I mean, three of our four flagships are hoppy beers,” Hancock says of the paucity. “It’s not to say that we couldn’t brew a saison and have success with it, but I feel like there are good commercial examples in the market, so we leave saisons to other local producers.”
Wymore, on the other hand, has a well-established pedigree with saisons via Perennial offerings like Saison de Lis, Regalia, and Meriweather. It’s a style that the brewmaster is drawn to, in part, because of its open-endedness.
“With a lot of beer categories, you know what you’re going to get, whether it’s an Altbier or a pale ale or a dry stout. But when somebody says saison, it can mean hundreds – if not thousands – of different expressions. It’s a way wider range,” the Perennial brewmaster shares. “You can make a thousand different porters, but they all kind of taste the same. There are no rules with a saison. They can be very dark. They can be very light. You can add whatever kind of adjunct you want to them.”
“There’s a lot of expression through the style, as long as it’s well-made,” he continues. “There are a lot of saisons that I drink and think, ‘Man, they should have fermented that at a higher temperature. It didn’t ferment out all the way. It’s too sweet.’ A saison should be dry, no matter what.”
Skall thinks that the two breweries have hit that mark with Pink Pallet Jack.
“It’s light and delicious. It’s a perfect spring beer,” the DC Brau co-founder says. Then he adds, smiling, “And it’s pink.”
But let’s take a step back for a moment. Jeff Hancock, the towering metal head, is “obsessed with the color pink”? That is surely not something that a lot of people would guess.
“Yeah, they probably would not,” he says with a chuckle.
Where does this obsession come from?
“I don’t know. It just speaks to me,” Hancock shares. “A lot of people associate pink with woman or girls, but I like pink. Dudes can like pink! I guess that’s the message here.”
According to Clay Robinson, we’re already there.
“The battle is over,” says the co-founder of Sun King Brewery. “Canning accounts for only 10% of the craft beer market, but people are finally recognizing it as a viable package.”
The Indiana brewery was far from the first craft brewery to can its beer, but since Sun King began putting its Sun Light Cream Ale into aluminum receptacles in 2010, it has been a vocal proponent of the practice.
“When we started canning, the people in our home market told us we were crazy,” Robinson remembers. “The early adopters of the can movement had to preach the gospel and fight the good fight.”
One of the ways some breweries helped preach the gospel was by organizing open-air revivals otherwise known as canned beer festivals. A prominent example is Burning Can, a gathering – now held in multiple cities – first organized in 2009 by Oskar Blues. (The Colorado-based craft beer powerhouse has quite notably been canning for almost 14 years.)
Back in 2012, Robinson found himself at SunTan Brewing’s AmeriCAN festival in Scottsdale, Arizona. Here, in the desert, is where he would meet DC Brau’s Chris Graham. The timing would prove to be fortuitous as Sun King was in the process of organizing its own CANvitational festival in Indianapolis.
“We were looking for breweries to come hang out, and I tried DC Brau’s beers and talked with Chris, and he was a super nice guy,” Robinson says. “I was like, ‘I’d love for you guys to come to Indiana. I know you don’t sell beer there, but you’re out here in Arizona, where you also don’t sell beer.”
The trip to Indiana that autumn left a strong impression on Skall, who admired the brewery’s organization, thoughtfulness, and treatment of staff. “As peers, Sun King was someone that we looked up to,” the CEO says. “We thought, ‘These guys are doing everything right.’”
As with most canning breweries, Sun King and DC Brau felt connected in the fight against negative consumer perceptions of canned beer. “There’s a special kinship with the people who have been doing it for a bit,” says Robinson. “There’s a similar experience point. We’ve both said, ‘People just don’t get it, but we’re still going to do it.’”
There’s also a kinship over the headache of canning beer. “Everyone has gone through the frustration with the same canning lines, and outgrowing them, and dealing with the micro-cannery market and how that operates,” Skall shares. “There’s an instant bond there.”
In the years since the two breweries met, the tide has begun to turn on canned beer, especially as the largest craft breweries have turned to the receptacles. “Once the big dogs started to click off – once Sierra [Nevada] started canning, and then New Belgium started doing it, and then Sam Adams fell – you got that established thing,” Robinson says. “It was like, ‘This is real.’”
During that time, Robinson would occasionally find himself in DC for various reasons – Savor, the 2013 Craft Brewers Conferencem the Brewers Association Capitol Hill Climb. (He served as president of the Brewers of Indiana Guild for a stretch.) “Whenever I was in town, I made sure to go hang out at Brau, spend those times with those guys and gals,” he says. “Whenever we’re together, I feel like I’m with some old friends that I’ve known forever.”
In light of this bond, Robinson says collaborating with DC Brau for its fifth anniversary was a “no-brainer.”
The beer that dialogue produced, Ripa the Dipa, also was the product of little hand wringing.
“My partner Dave [Colt] and I love the spicy characteristic of rye in beers,” says Robinson. “Dave proposed making a double rye IPA, and half-jokingly suggested calling Ripa the Dipa, and there was immediately some laughter from Brau. They were just like, ‘Ripa the Dipa! Let’s do it!’”
Sun King’s “house” – or flagship – pale ale Osiris contains rye, but Dipa the Ripa marks DC Brau’s first foray into using the grain. “We hadn’t even played around with it in a small proportion,” Hancock says. “But one of the more notable beers that I drink a lot is Rowdy from Atlas. And, obviously, we’re no strangers to rye whiskey.”
Graham and Colt – Sun King’s co-founder and head brewer – fleshed out the recipe from there. Notably, they opted to use three types of rye: Simpsons crystal rye from the U.K., Weyermann rye from Germany, and Briess flaked rye from Wisconsin.
It was the English addition that got Graham the most excited. “I’ve been dying to use that for a while,” the production manager says of the Simpsons malt. “It really lends a small touch of caramel biscuit with the added spiciness.”
Combined with Canadian Pale Malt, these three varieties of rye add contribute to a complexity that’s often missing from rye beers. “You have a lot of breweries out there who will make a beer with rye, but they’ll probably use just one type of rye malt from one supplier,” Hancock says.
Of course, Ripa the Dipa is a double IPA, which means that hopheads will immediately look to what hops were used in its brewing. DC Brau and Sun King have a few surprises here, too.
In addition to staples Columbus and Centennial, two less familiar names pop up in Ripa the Dipa’s recipe: Idaho #7 and Kohatu.
True to its name, Idaho #7 was grown in Idaho by Oregon’s Crosby Hops Farms. Hancock only recently came across the new variety via a house call from a supplier, but he liked it enough to feature it in Ripa the Dipa as the primary aroma hop.
“It’s definitely on the danker side,” explains Hancock. “You have a lot of hops out there that have specific pine or woody or earthy characteristics, and other ones that are complete tropical fruit bombs, but this one has a nice herbal, resiny character. For me, it was reminiscent of Columbus, which is a hop we use quite frequently.”
Kohutu, meanwhile, comes to DC from New Zealand, and like a lot of the prized Southern Hemisphere hops, it brings a tropical fruitiness to the table. “That one took a little bit of extra time to hunt down and procure,” says Hancock. “With both of these hops, you don’t see a whole lot of people using them, so it’s another way to make this beer that much more unique and special.”
“With the name Ripa the Dipa, I envisioned a fun Jack the Ripper, very lurchy character,” Hancock says. “Kelly has this very unique signature where the guys have big heads and big shoulders, and it kind of tapers down to very small legs and lower torso. The label is no different. It looks like this shady ringleader of a circus with creepy long fingers. It’s perfect.”
If you’re going to make an imperial stout, there aren’t many people you’d want to collaborate with more than Wayne Wambles.
Wambles is the brewmaster at Tampa Bay’s Cigar City, where he produces one of the craft beer’s most sought-after commodities: Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout.
Hunaphu’s is a decadent, pitch-black imperial stour aged on cocoa nibs, cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla beans, and ancho and pasilla chilies. The 11% beer is so popular that Cigar City has built a festival around the one day that bottles of it are for sale. One year, Cigar City prematurely ran out of bottles on Hunahpu’s Day, and the police had to be called in to remove protesting patrons. So, yeah, people are pretty serious about Hunahpu’s.
Of course, DC Brau is no stranger to the dark arts. It offers a flagship robust porter, Penn Quarter Porter, and has brewed an oatmeal stout and a Baltic porter in the past.
“We love dark beers,” says Hancock. “But with Cigar City being known for Hunahpu’s, Chris [Graham] and I were like, ‘We should lean on them. Maybe we’ll get some insight into why their stouts are so delicious.'”
According to Wambles, the key to brewing an imperial stout is maintaining some degree of balance.
“I don’t want to give away too much about my approach, but it is really about trying to develop complexity without knocking the beer out of balance,” Wambles shares, seagulls squawking in the background. “Usually, the big things are the way the malt bill is laid out and how the mash is conducted, because it’s important to get respectable attenuation. Otherwise, you just get this big malt sweetness, and that won’t allow the roasted components to come through. At the same time, if you go down too far with an aggressive malt bill, then the beer is going to end up astringent, ashy, or burnt from too much dark malt. There’s a real balancing act.”
Wambles and Graham sought to thread that needle as they went back and forth on the recipe for their collaboration, The Wise and the Lovely.
“What they came up with was this insanely malty, complex imperial stout,” Hancock says. “Then we decided to throw lactose in there to give it a fuller body, and then cocoa nibs for a fun aroma that plays with all those nice roasty notes.”
Graham says the objective simple: “We thought, ‘How can we make this to taste like you’re biting into dark chocolate?’”
At 10%, the milk chocolate imperial stout would be the biggest beer that DC Brau has attempted to brew.
“This one gave us by far the most anxiety, because it was such a big beer,” Hancock admits. “And to get to 10%, we did things we’ve never done before.”
The difficulty started with the beer’s malt bill. Hancock says one of the biggest lessons he gleaned from Wambles was the importance of an imperial stout’s malt complexity.
“If you look at a very traditional stout recipe, the primary specialty malt is a roasted barely; it literally gives it that roasted characteristic,” he explains. “But you can use variously kilned and modified malts, all the way from a light caramel color to a dark toffee to a brown. And, essentially, if you’re using a lot of different malts to get the same result, you add a lot of different complexity.”
To capture the desired complexity for The Wise and the Lovely, Cigar City and DC Brau utilized six different malts, which was a cause for concern within the DC brewery. “We were very nervous about getting a stuck mash,” Skall admits. “That’s the most amount of malt we’ve ever had in there.”
In the end, the breweries avoided a malt traffic jam. “We pushed new limits in the brewhouse,” Hancock observes. “We now know the capacity of our small little mashtuns.”
After the grains had been mashed, the breweries made another complicating decision: making The Wise and the Lovely a “first runnings beer.”
Typically in the brewing process, after the grains and water have been mashed, resulting in a sugar-rich wort, a brewery pulls off the first charge of highly concentrated liquid. Then, it runs hot water over the remaining grains to get the last of the residual sugar. With a “first runnings beer,” the brewery skips that second step, so each mash results in significantly less liquid.
Here’s how that plays out: On DC Brau’s current system, a normal mash results in 500 gallons, but with The Wise and the Lovely, it only pulled 250 gallons. To attain 2000 gallons, therefore, it had to go through eight labor-intensive mashes over the course of two days.
Then came the addition of lactose – or milk sugar. In general, lactose helps round the roasted malt character of the stout, taking off the edges of dark malts with its residual sweetness. But because lactose is unfermentable – meaning, yeast can’t convert it to alcohol – brewers have to be careful of how much caramel malt goes into a beer. “If you jack up your caramel malt levels and also have a pretty aggressive lactose level, then you’re probably going to end up something that’s sweeter than you wanted regardless of how well the beer attenuates,” Wambles examples.
Here again, DC Brau would trust the Cigar City brewmaster’s expertise.
“That guy is such a wealth of knowledge. He knows his ingredients like the back of his hand,” Graham says. “When we were talking about lactose, he was just like, ‘I would go with X amount.’ I read it back and I was like, ‘I’m a little concerned about the quantity of lactose we’re going to put into this. It’s already a beer that’s going to be finishing pretty high in terminal gravity.’ He was just like, ‘Aw, no, I wouldn’t worry about that.’ I think I literally said, ‘In Wayne we trust,’ and just went with it, and it worked out.”
On top of those 300 pounds of lactose, DC Brau would procure 60 pounds of cocoa nibs from next-door neighbor Harper Macaw. The “bean-to-bar” chocolate manufacturer made the brewery thirteen different blends of its three types of raw beans, all of which are sourced from northeastern Brazil. After several rounds of cold distillation blind tasting, DC Brau settled on winning blend, which it would steep The Wise and the Lovely on for almost six days.
While Wambles was only in town for two days, he kept in close contact during fermentation, which can be perilous for such a high-ABV stout.
“When you’re dealing with a big beer like this, you’re going to get into desirable flavors that you want, but there’s always the chance of getting undesirable characteristics,” Hancock explains. “Yeast doesn’t typically do well in anything above 10% because it becomes a toxic environment. If you get a stuck fermentation, the risk is ending up with an unpleasant amount of residual sugar.”
I ask Hancock if he’s glad he’ll never have to produce this beer again.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “Definitely.”
Following the overall trend, DC Brau struggled to come up with a name for its imperial stout.
“We didn’t want to do something really over-the-top metal-y and dark, because that’s the motif with a lot of dark stouts,” Skall shares. “And we’ve already got Wings going.”
One day researching possible names, he came across a poem called “Dirge Without Music” by American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay. Within it, one line leapt out: “So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.”
Skall popped into Hancock’s office and floated those last few words as a possible name for the collaboration.
“I said, ‘Dude, that’s the one,’” the brewmaster recalls. “We knew right away.”
While everyone within DC Brau has his or her own guess for which collaboration will be go fastest at the anniversary party, Hancock is putting his money on The Wise and the Lovely.
“For the record, I think this is going to be one of the more popular beers,” he says. “You don’t taste the 10%, If I didn’t know any better. I’d put this maybe around 6%. It’s going to put a lot of people out of commission early.”
Into the darkness they’ll go, the wise and the lovely.
In DC Brau’s tasting room, amidst the sea of paraphernalia and stickers, is a photograph of Jeff Hancock and Port City head brewer Jonathan Reeves arm-wrestling in the middle of the H Street bar Little Miss Whiskey’s. Standing between them are Brandon Skall and Port City owner Bill Butcher, goading on their respective interests. Everyone’s hair is shorter, and they all look just a little bit younger, which makes sense: The image is over five-years old. It was taken before either Port City or DC Brau had commenced operations.
When I ask Skall why, amongst all of the possible breweries from across the country that DC Brau could collaborate with, it chose an Alexandria brewery just thirteen miles away, the first thing he does is tell me about that picture.
“Our story is the same,” he says, leaning in. “We opened at the same time. We’ve experienced the past five years together. Collaborating with Port City was a perfect fit for what the brotherhood of brewing beer is all about.”
Port City began brewing in February of 2011, and two months later, DC Brau would follow suit. The companies were linked as the first two breweries in decades to commercially produce beer within the beltway, and even as other breweries as opened up shop, they’ve remained linked as two most successful ones. They are the two area breweries who for five years have near constantly been in the (mostly) enviable position of not being able produce beer fast enough.
“We do feel a kinship with them. They have had many of the same challenges that we have had in starting up a small brewery,” Butcher shares. “During construction, we would share information with each other on fitting out our breweries, and we shared some of the same contractors as well. Ultimately, it has helped us to have them in the market with us. They are focused on quality, as are we, and I think we push each other to continually improve our beer quality.”
While the two breweries have taken a different approach to their offerings – DC Brau leaning towards slightly edgy, hop-forward flagships; Port City favoring a more traditional line-up of clean, superficially unflashy beers – Hancock draws a connection between him and his Alexandria counterpart.
“Jonathan is similar to me,” he shares. “He’s worked at a lot of places and under a bunch of different people, and he’s pretty much brewed most beers that can be brewed. We were going to go do something very traditional right out of the gate with this collaboration.”
After some initial discussion, the two narrowed their choices to two traditional options: an ESB and a dunkel. Ultimately, the breweries opted for the latter.
“Port City brews amazing lagers, and much like the Cigar City collab, I figured I could lean on Jonathan and get some insight into how he approaches lager production and his brewing techniques,” says Hancock.
As many brewers are quick to tell you, lager production is a chance to showcase their chops.
“Brewing a lager requires a lot of skill; not that brewing a nice IPA doesn’t, but with a lager, you typically don’t have a dominant hop profile, so if there’s any weird off flavors, they stand out,” Hancock says. “Lager yeast throws off different flavors than ale yeast, and it behaves differently. It’s a little more temperamental than your ale yeast.”
A 5.5% malty lager was right up Hancock’s alley as a drinker, too.
“These days, I’m kind of into stuff under 6%, personally, just so I can be more cognizant when I’m talking to people at events,” the brewermaster admits. “When we decided on a dunkel, I was definitely very, very happy.”
Another reason to make the Bavarian beer hall staple: Not a lot of other breweries in the U.S. are. “You can’t really find domestically produced dunkel beer,” Hancock observes.
Or maybe it’s that American breweries often produce dunkels that fall well short of the German standouts.
“A lot of the time when people make lagers, they end up tasting like Beck’s Dark or another German mega-brewery lager,” says Reeves. “We wanted to make one that’s distinct, with some complexity and depth to it. Hopefully, we succeeded.”
Working with Hancock and Graham, Reeves helped develop a recipe for a hop-forward (but still within style) dunkel that utilizes six types of Weyermann malt.
“Jeff didn’t save any expense in terms of the malt we used,” the Port City head brewer says. “All of the ingredients are German, which surprised me. It’s great that he’s doing that.”
“My ethos is that if we can find the right ingredients, and they’re available, why not use them?” Hancock shares. “If we’re trying to recreate a traditional German style, then let’s use German malt, German yeast, German hops – everything except that good German water.”
“Overrated,” Graham pipes in from across the room.
Hancock laughs: “Overrated.”
The Weyermann malts? Appropriately rated.
“They don’t cut any corners,” Reeves says of manufacturer. “They take a little more time to make the malt, which results in more complexity. Plus, there’s the terroir of where they grow it.”
The breweries used three types of Munich malt to get the right color for the dunkel – something they could have achieved with a small quantity of darker malt, but at the cost of a rich copper flavor.
Elsewhere in the production of the lager, Hancock and Graham would pick techniques from Reeves, just as they had hoped. The Port City brewer showed them that the dark chocolate Carafa III malts don’t have to be milled before going into the mash. He counseled them to space the addition of hops equally throughout the boil to avoid a prominent bitterness. He advised them to use two types of brewing salts to adjust the liquid’s pH when Hancock would have normally used one.
Of course, there was some spirited debate elsewhere, which is to be expected when two head brewers with such experience come together. Specifically, Hancock and Reeves didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on the equation and method to reach the right bitterness for the dunkel.
“We went back and forth a little bit on that,” Hancock remembers. “I didn’t want to split hairs with him, so eventually I was like, ‘I’ll definitely shave back some of the numbers.’ Jonathan is a very technically minded brewer. I like to consider myself technically minded too, but there are definitely varying degrees within that.”
DC Brau was careful to schedule the brew day so to allow the dunkel a full five weeks of lager fermentation.
“We definitely gave this beer its time in tank,” Hancock says. “I’ll be curious to see how it tastes three or four months out, if there’s some still around. If we do our job right, there won’t be.”
For now, though, the DC Brau brewer is happy with the end product.
“This is actually my personal favorite of the five collaborations,” he tells me. “I love the extreme beers and the direction that a lot of beers are going in this climate, but I also love super traditional styles.”
The breweries call their dunkel Zehn von Zehn, a name that translates from German to “ten by ten.” It’s a reference to Washington, DC’s original ten mile by ten mile border, which included parts of Alexandria.
Notably, Zehn von Zehn is Port City’s first collaboration with another brewery. It’s easy to read significance in that, though Butcher mostly shrugs it off.
“We are at a point now where we have a bit more head space than we have had in the past,” the Port City founder says. “We have been very focused on building our brand in the market, and trying to keep up with demand. We are in a good place now and we have a bit more availability to work on fun side projects such as this.”
Still, it has to be nice for two breweries with such deep ties to finally make a beer together.
“We are great friends, and have been since the beginning,” Butcher says. “It has been fun watching their small brewery grow and thrive alongside our small brewery. We celebrate each other’s successes, and we are big fans of theirs, and we like to drink their beer.”
That’s a sentiment that Skall doesn’t disagree with: “Even though Brau and Port City are different businesses, it’s really been a partnership in this local thing together.”