Pity the lager.
It may be the most consumed beer on the planet, but in the world of craft brewing, where the weirdest and loudest and hoppiest flavors often get the most attention, the lager gets short shrift. Indeed, if it feels like the entire craft beer movement has been underscored by an attitude of “this ain’t your daddy’s beer,” the lager may be the epitome of pop’s outdated suds. It is Budweiser and Busch Light and Miller Genuine Draft. It is over, man.
“The American style of lager ruined the idea of lagers for people,” says Hayes Humphreys, COO of Devils Backbone Brewing. “People don’t think that a lager can be flavorful and complex and interesting. They think that lagers have to be pale and straw and bubbly and boring.”
Instead, it’s ales – heavily hopped India Pale Ales, in particular – that are coveted instead. The big breweries don’t make ales, so logic would imply that they must be the trickier beverage to produce. This is part of the reason that ales are the sexy choice for beer connoisseurs. You’ve probably heard of hop-heads. Ever heard of lager-heads?
“The truth is that lagers are a lot harder to make,” Humphreys says. “They require patience. They take a longer time to condition after fermentation. A typical lager takes us five weeks to make, whereas a typical ale takes three weeks. If you’re a small craft brewery, and you’re just starting out, and you’re tight on funds and want to get production going, you want to make ales. You can turn-and-burn an IPA real quick.”
Aggressively hopped beers are also more forgiving, Humphreys explains. “Because there are a lot more hops in ales, they can cover up some issues. If you rush a beer and maybe it’s not as perfect as you’d like, it’s still going to taste like hops. But lagers are much more naked in their flavors. You can’t cover up off-flavors. You really have to make a lager well or it’s not going to taste good. That need for perfection is another reason you don’t see as many lagers out there.”
Talking with someone from Devils Backbone, you get the feeling that the brewery was founded with the mission to correct that misconception. The truth isn’t that far off.
Years ago, future Devils Backbone owner Steve Crandall took a ski trip in the Alps. The Weihenstephaner flowed and Crandall fell in love. He fell in love with Bavarian style Hefeweizen, and the idea of opening his own brewpub, one that would similarly make Germanic style lagers, expect at the base of the ski slope in native Virginia. So he went out and bought a German-engineered system, and when he realized the enormity of the task at hand, he put out a call for a brewmaster. Jason Oliver answered.
Oliver had made beer in and around DC for fifteen years. At the time, he was running the operation at the downtown Gordon Biersch – a purveyor of very traditional, and perhaps staid, Germanic beers. Oliver saw a system that he was familiar with – one that’s particularly uncommon for smaller brewpubs. Of equal importance, he saw the potential to run loose creatively. “Our philosophy has always been to let the brewers do what they do,” Humphreys says. “We don’t really want to influence them. We just the take the good work that they do and figure out how to get it out to consumers.”
Devils Backbone opened in 2008. Not long after, the brewpub started entering national competitions – the big ones. Then it started winning national competition awards – again, the big ones. In 2010, the brewery won “Best Small Brewpub” at the World Beer Cup. Reading this success as a sign that it was doing something right, Devils Backbone built a new facility in Lexington, Virginia and began bottling and distributing beer at the beginning of 2012. Its capacity at the time was 12,000 barrels per year. “Our original business plan was to get to 30,000 barrels over the next ten years. We thought it would be a very slow ramp up,” Humphrey recalls. “But, literally, from the moment we started production, it was clear that we were going to need to grow a lot faster than that. The demand has just been crazy.”
By the beginning of May, Devils Backbone will have a capacity of 60,000 barrels annually. It’s also building a packing hall to get its beer on trucks faster. During this time of expansion, it has been the winningnest brewery at the Great American Beer Festival.
Perhaps there’s hope for the lager after all.
Tonight, the brewery takes over all 38 taps at the area’s three Pizzeria Paradiso locations: Dupont, Old Town, and Georgetown tonight. We asked Humphreys to walk us through Devil’s Backbone’s offerings – both the staples and the more exotic. See the very bottom for a breakdown of where you can find particular beers tonight.
“Vienna Lager is our workhorse. It’s our bestseller. It’s a two-time gold medal winner at World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival. It’s a very traditional Germanic style lager with a nice ruby brown color and a little bit of tasty caramel flavor that comes naturally through the malt. It’s a clean, dry, easy-drinking beer – a great example of how lager can be flavorful and simple at the same time.
Our brewer, our founder, and I are all big history buffs, and there some very cool stories in the history of brewing Vienna Lagers. Germans had been brewing lagers for a very long time, but they didn’t necessarily know that they were brewing lagers. Vienna Lagers were one of the first lagers that they brewed intentionally. What happened was that the guys up at Carlsburg in Denmark were the first ones to really isolate scientifically the lager yeast strain – it’s genetically different from the ale yeast strain. Someone working there at the time, [Anton] Dreher, thought, ‘Hey, man, this looks promising’ and stole the yeast strain from his bosses and brought it down to Vienna, where he was from originally, and started brewing with it [in 1840]. It was maybe the second type of lager ever brewed.”
“Eight-Point IPA is our West Coast style IPA. IPAs are obviously on fire right now.
The name originates from something Jason experienced on the first day of brewing [at Devils Backbone]. He had come to us from Gordon Biersch, and in doing so, he left a very comfortable, kinda predictable corporate job to take a risk on this little brewpub in Nelson County, Virginia – which is essentially the middle of nowhere – with a guy who really wanted to start a brewery, but didn’t really knwo a whole lot more than that. He helped get our operation set up and running, and then on the first day of brewing, he was going to make an IPA. That morning, he walked outside of his house on Wintergreen Mountain and in his yard were these two young eight-point bucks. They were just standing there in the middle of yard. It was that perfect moment where they had their heads up in the air and their antlers were sticking out. They just looked like the very proud animals that they are. And Jason thought, ‘Man, that’s brash. You’re just standing there in the middle of my front yard.’ He sort of felt in tune with them. He’s thinking, ‘I just left my comfortable job, came down here to the middle of nowhere, and it’s all on my shoulders to make this work. I’m feeling brash as well.’ And since the first beer that he brewed was the IPA, he dubbed it Eight-Point.”
“This is my favorite beer that we’re making year-round. Schwarzbier – literally, ‘black beer’ – is the style of beer as well as its name, though we misspell it Schwartz Bier. It’s a delicious beer if you like dark beers – it’s got all of the dark beer flavors but with a light-body.
Schwartz Bier is our homage to the earliest brewing traditions. The style’s history stretches back to the early days of brewing – a thousand or so years ago. They didn’t know how to mash back then. They didn’t understand the hot water concept, but they basically understood how to roast. What they would do was make essentially a bread, and then they would get the bread wet. By cooking the grain and then getting it wet, they essentially accomplished the same thing as mashing. And since all they could use back then to cook the bread was an open fire, it burned the bread, which resulted in this very roasted, black beer. That’s essentially the same thing we have today. Obviously, it’s been refined, and we go about the brewing in a different way, but the flavors are all the same – you have these nice, dark roasted flavors, and it’s all result of how you cook the malt.”
“This is a new one for us, and it is the antitheses of Schwarzbier. Our Pear Lager is a modern take on lagers. It follows in the path of our thinking, ‘What else can we do to make lagers interesting to people? How can we play with lagers?’ As we’ve discussed, so much of what’s happening in the craft beer world is messing around with ales, but with our focus, we thought, ‘Why don’t we start doing the same thing with lagers?’
Our lager yeast naturally has an apple note to it, so we wanted to do something to highlight and emphasize that. Jason thought, ‘Well, pear is a really nice, subtle flavor,’ so he created this lager that has just a little bit of pear juice added to it. It resulted in this very simple, basic lager with a nice little burst of pear flavor and a really dry, crisp finish. It’s not especially sweet or fruity. We call it Pear Lager because we’re not very creative with our names. It’s kind of the first step in what I think will be us playing with lagers more often. Thursday [at Pizza Paradiso] will be one of the first opportunities to try it, but Pear Lager will be a year-round production for us going forward.”
“Dark Abby is a Belgian dubbel that has some interesting spices to it. It’s a fairly traditional style dubbel, but it’s called Dark Abby because it’s a darker dubbel. We think of Abby as a person – she’s the goth, moody looking woman on the package – but obviously the style of the beer was made in abbeys back in Belgium. We have Abby the person, but abbey is a beer style essentially. It’s a great beer for a cold day.”
“Our 16-Point IPA officially releases in stores on Friday. Obviously, the name is a play off of our Eight-Point – it’s an imperial IPA. It’s a much bigger beer, with an ABV of about 9%, and muchos, muchos hops.
The challenge with making an imperial IPA is adding the hops while keeping it balanced, because what make’s it a bigger, bitter beer is that there are more hops in it. It’s easy to throw more hops in a beer, but the trick is backing it up with malt, which is why they tend to be more alcoholic. And it needs to be the right kinds of hops, so that you’re not just ripping you palate apart.”
“BetaMax is another imperial IPA that we’re messing around with. The hops contain two types of acids: alphas and betas. Alpha acids contribute bitterness to a beer during the boil, and thus are the most commonly discussed acid. Beta acids create bitterness over time, through oxidation and the breakdown of the alpha acids. Hoppy beers generally don’t age well because Alphas break down. This means that Beta-heavy beers age better, albeit a bit unpredictably. In BetaMax, we’ve attempted to create a beer the features the beta acids along with the alpha acids.
There’s a lot of stuff that comes out of the brewpub where I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re making this now?’ It’s the mad scientists’ workshop. They kinda do whatever they want there and we see how it goes. We treat the brewpub as our pilot brewery. That’s where our brewmaster spends most of his time.”
“Kilt Flasher is a traditional scotch wee heavy ale. There are heavy toffee notes, and just a hint of peat. I think you get more toffee, chocolate malty sweetness from our scotch as compared to most ,which are peat heavy.”
“Smokehaus is a traditional Rauchbier. Smoked beers are made with smoked malt. This as close as you’re going to get to a bacon-flavored beer. It’s got this nice, smoky flavor to it. It’s fairly moderately ABV’ed beer. We get the malt from our supplier in Bamberg, Germany. They have a really nice smoked malt.”
Berliner Metro Weiss
“This beer won a gold medal two years ago at the Great American Beer Festival and a silver last year. Not to sound like a broken record, but this another really interesting Germanic-stye lager. Berliner Weiss is a tart. We sour the mash with a little bit of bacteria called lactobacillus. I really like sour beers, but Berliner Weiss is more of tart. It’ll definitely pucker your lips up, but it’s not going to be super sour. Tartness is mild, but really nice for sour beer enthusiasts. The beer is named after a band called Berliner Metro that Jason is a really big fan of.
There’s definitely a swell of support for sours. They’re very hard to make, and they’re risky, because you have to introduce, in one way or another, some bacteria or some other types of yeast into the brewery. There’s always a danger there of infecting your entire brewery by accident. That holds sours back from becoming hugely widespread. But more and more people are getting involved with them, and putting in the equipment that they need to make them. We’re seeing growth in that style and will continue to see growth there.”
Flor de Luna
“I’ve really been digging this beer. It’s a Belgian golden ale fermented with some jasmine. I only had my first jasmine beer this fall, but it’s a nice beer flavor. It’s very subtle – you get a green tea flavor from it. I had it in an IPA and it compliments hops really well, but it’s also really nice in this Belgian golden because you get the fruitness of the yeast with the hint of that green tea flavor. It’s only being served in the brewpub right now, but I’m already trying to figure out how to find a spot to put it into our regular line-up.”
“Turbo Panther is our Schwartz Bier on ‘roids. Jason describes this as a Delaware-style Schwarz bock. It’s essentially a big, dark malt liquor – high end, of course. Jason is pretty jazzed up about it.”
PIZZERIA PARADISO TAP BREAKDOWN
Dupont: Vienna Lager; Eight-Point IPA; Schwartz Bier; Pear Lager; Dark Abby; BetaMax; Smokehaus; Kilt Flasher; Gold Leaf Lager (“A Hellas style lager, and our most award winning beer”); Vulcan (“Our first attempt at a Flemish sour style ale”); Holiday Cheer (“A spiced winter warmer style ale”); Mile Post 5 (“A brown ale brewed to celebrate our 5th birthday); Quad (Belgian-inspired strong ale made in with Blue Mountain Brewery)
Georgetown: Vienna Lager; Eight-Point IPA; Schwartz Bier; Pear Lager; Dark Abby; Sixteen-Point IPA; Flor de Luna; Turbo Panther; Berliner Weiss; Wedding Ring (“Rye ale brewed to celebrate the wedding of Aaron Reilly, our pilot brewer at basecamp”); Sugar Plum (“Rich, dark fruit flavors – that naturally come from Munich malt – blend with plum juice to form an atypical fruit beer”).
Alexandria: Vienna Lager; Eight-Point IPA; Schwartz Bier; Pear Lager; Dark Abby; Gold Leaf Lager; BetaMax; Flor di Luna; Quad; Berliner Weiss; Vulcan; Mile Post 5; Sugar Plum; Wedding Ring.