An odd odor hangs in the moist August air in and around Helbender Brewing Company, and it’s making Ben Evans a little self-conscious.
“If it smells funky, it’s usually not,” he assures me. “Just so you know.”
Usually, there’s a guy that pick ups the brewery’s spent grain. Usually, he’ll haul this leftover malt to his farm. Usually, on that Prince George’s County farm, his pigs will feast on it.
But today, for the first time since Hellbender officially opened in November of 2014, this guy, who is also a cop, has missed the pick-up, and so Evans and Mullane have been lugging the grain out behind the brewery themselves – yet another physical and less than glamorous chore for the Hellbender co-founders.
“It’s been a busy week of washing and kegging,” admits Evans, who’s fighting a bout of hay fever induced by a morning trip to a nearby peach orchard, to boot. The head brewer has a hulking frame and buzzed head. He used to be a wrestler, which comes as no surprise. “We lift a lot of kegs. Whether they’re 160 or 40 pounds will completely change your day.”
Draped over Evans’ sturdy base is a dark blue and light grey brewer’s shirt. Much like Hellbender’s beer, it’s a modern twist on the traditional – in this case, the typical Dickey’s garment. You know the type: oversized, stiff, quaintly out of time like a relic from a 1950s body shop or bowling alley. In contrast, Hellbender’s are a slimmer fit, stitched with performance fabric and mesh. They were originally designed for the pit crews of car racing teams.
“The bigger shirts are like parachutes,” Evans says. “Back there, you’re going to be dragging on stuff.”
Back there, on the production floor, is where Evans spends most of the daylight hours, accompanied by Giancarlo D’Orazio – a brewer who doubles as Hellbender’s in-house mechanic, carpenter, plumber, and general jack-of-all-trades. Mullane, meanwhile, handles the front of the house: the finances, the event coordination, the website, the social media. The three receive occasional help with cleaning, packaging, and sales, but as far as full-time employees go, this is the entire team. Hellbender’s kölsch is called Bare Bones and the aptness is palpable.
Nevertheless, the Riggs Park brewery has come a long way in the five years since Evans and Patrick began planning to open it. The same can be said of DC’s entire brewing scene, though, and that growth has occasionally complicated those initial plans.
This is the story of what it takes to open and operate a brewery in the thick of the craft boom. This is the story of what can happen when forces both bureaucratic and structural align to hamstring a new business. This is the story of advanced technology and forsaken beer styles and wheat content percentages. But first and foremost, this is the story of a scientist and a political operative who took a very big risk.
A little over five years ago, on a Tuesday in the middle of fall, Patrick Mullane invited a woman over to his basement apartment for dinner. She worked a few blocks from him, and the two had frequented the same bars for a decade, but as is often the case these days, they had met online. This was their third date. Mullane didn’t know it at the time, but he would marry this woman someday. What he did know was that she was walking into an environment that was less a living space than a repository of Rube Goldberg contraptions.
Twelve pilot fermenters decorated the rooms and hallways of the residence. To get to its bathroom, you had to wade across these buckets of bubbling liquid. And within one of them was a freshly brewed batch of kölsch, an ale that emits an intense sulfur smell during primary fermentation. Regardless of whether love was in the air, the aromatics of rotten eggs undisputedly were.
“My apartment smelled like a 750-square fart,” Mullane recalls. “The whole night I kept telling her, ‘I’m sorry, that wasn’t me.’”
Fortunately for Mullane, she was able to find the humor in this madcap experimentation.
The subsequent date, however, was a different story.
On the next visit, Mullane had just concocted a batch of Hefeweizen, a German wheat beer that undergoes a vigorous, foamy, even violent fermentation on account of its feisty yeast strain. And in the middle of dinner, this tempestuous liquid decided to make its presence known.
“The blow-off tube clogged, and the top blew off the fermenter with an explosion that sounded like a shotgun and covered my wall [with beer] like blood splatter in a Quentin Tarantino film,” he remembers. “She didn’t think that was as funny as the Kölsch.”
This sort of situation isn’t one that anyone – Mullane included – could have imagined for him a decade earlier.
Hellbender’s co-founder doesn’t come off as the reckless type. There’s a tattoo that peaks out from under one of his shirt sleeves, but he’s otherwise relatively squeaky clean. His beard is kempt. His voice never rises any louder than needed. His reflections and observations come in a measured series of staccato bursts – ten to twenty words in rapid succession, followed by brief pause, followed by ten to twenty more, followed by another break, and so on. It’s as if each block of thought is individually processed and cleared before delivery. There’s a restless energy about him. He is always “on,” paying attention to what you’re saying but also everything else in the room, and somehow shortchanging neither.
If you’ve ever spent time on Capitol Hill, this is the kind of person – methodical, cerebral, with a slow boiling intensity – who thrives in its halls and meeting rooms, and that’s exactly where he spent twelve years of his professional career.
Mullane grew up in North Stonington, Connecticut, “a little farm town on the Rhode Island border.” His father was the mayor, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Mullane developed an interest in politics early in life. After graduating from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with a degree in poli-sci, he moved to D.C. to attend George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. “The plan was to come and go, to head back to New England, but then I didn’t want to do that,” he shares. “I liked it here.”
After a stint in the world of nonprofits – “do-good kind of stuff,” he calls it – Mullane realized the Hill was where he wanted to be. But even though he possessed a freshly minted master’s degree, getting a foot in the door meant handling constituent casework for barely enough to cover rent. To make ends meet, he started bartending at the former Adams Morgan oasis Toledo Lounge. It might have begun with something as basic a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but this was where he would embark on an exploration of craft beer. One thing led to another, and Mullane was homebrewing in what little spare time he had. And after back problems forced him to move from the bar to the kitchen, things began to escalate.
“Working in a commercial kitchen, you get all of these fun toys to play with on a large scale,” Mullane says. “It got me comfortable with that kind of equipment. When you look at homebrewing, it can be intimidating. You need big vessels. You’re boiling 20 to 25 gallons at a time. You can’t really do it on your stove top. I definitely screwed up a lot of stuff, just like every other homebrewer, but it definitely emboldened me to jump in.”
It was during this time, in the summer of 2007, that he began crossing paths with someone who shared his borderline obsession – a recent DC transplant whose girlfriend played on Mullane’s softball team. His name was Ben Evans.
“One night, Patrick brought one of his earlier homebrews to a party,” Evans remembers. “We immediately ended up talking in the corner about beer for I don’t even know how long.”
Evans had moved to the area to conduct clinical research in neuroscience at University of Maryland. His own interest in brewing had sharpened the summer before, working at a craft beer bar in Delaware. One of the guys on his rugby team in the blue hen state was the head brewer at Wilmington’s Iron Hill Brewery, and he started inviting Evans to shadow him on brew days. This is where Evans would begin learning the ropes of production brewing.
“What’s kind of cool is that homebrewing and production brewing require a similar amount of time,” Evans says. “You can’t cheat time with a larger system. You’re just making a lot more beer.”
Evans and Patrick were fast friends. “We realized quickly that we had pretty similar tastes,” Evans remarks.
The two started homebrewing together – something they continued doing for almost four years before entertaining the idea of starting a brewery. “We were dead set on making good beer, but it was just a hobby,” Evans recalls. “We were brewing for fun.”
Mullane and Evans were developing recipes that would form the core of Hellbender’s offerings years later – a saison, a nut brown ale, a red ale, that kölsch. In doing so, they found themselves on the other side of the homebrew looking glass.
“Homebrewing starts with only a couple hundred bucks, but if you stick with it, you end up building some crazy contraption for your brew system and customizing it for how you like to do things,” Mullane shares. “You spend a ton of money, you rig everything yourself, you do all kinds of different things. It quickly adds up.”
“It got pretty crazy for both of us,” Evans remembers. “I had a large kegerator at my apartment that my wife didn’t particularly like because, for about a year, its beeping would wake us up two or three times a night.”
When Evans moved from Silver Spring to snugger DC confines, Mullane’s apartment became ground zero for their collective experimentation.
By the time Mullane went on that third date with his now-wife, homebrewing was more than just a hobby.
“Ben and I had already talked about starting Hellbender, so it was on the horizon,” he says. “That made everything easier to explain than me saying, ‘Hey, I’m just a weird guy who lives in a basement with no natural light.’”
If you’re trying to convince someone to give you money to start a brewery, you need three things: a philosophy, a business plan, and plenty of beer.
And if you’re two homebrewers making the jump to commercial production, that last component is even more essential.
“There is a lot of beer at those investor meetings,” Mullane says. “You have to prove to people that you can make something sound.”
When Mullane and Evans began raising the capital for Hellbender, the latter’s experience both in microbiology laboratories and at Wilmington’s Iron Hill Brewery was comforting to prospective investors, but the two couldn’t just claim to know how to brew a production-quality kölsch – they had to brew one. And they had to do it in Mullane’s apartment. Repeatedly.
“We had to make sure that everything was the exact same each time,” Evans remembers. “If we went to a new meeting with a skunked beer or if we had pitched the yeast wrong, it would have raised some eyebrows. Luckily, we kept everything pretty stringently aligned.”
The beer also aligned with the bigger picture of Hellbender’s brewing philosophy.
“We both prefer more traditional styles of beer, but we like to riff off them,” Evans explains.
The brewery has a strong respect for European brewing traditions but it sees little purpose in replicating them. “We love those beers, but we also know that those countries still make great versions of them, and they import them here,” Mullane adds. “We wanted to do something that was traditional but was adapted slightly for the American palate.”
For Evans and Mullane, consideration of American palate often calls for a little more alcohol and bit stronger hop presence, but not enough to tip the scales towards something off-balanced.
“We love doing the big and crazy stuff – stuff that’s so hoppy you can’t have a second one, or so alcoholic it might not be safe to have another– but, ultimately, you’re just ordering the one beer,” Mullane shares. “We want to make beers that folks are happy to order over and over again. Some folks will consider those ‘session beers’ and say, ‘There’s not a lot of flavor.’ We disagree with that. You can make full-flavored beers that aren’t high alcohol or have a crazy amount of bitterness. We saw that the craft brewing market was going to the extreme and leaving behind this widening hole of traditional session beers in its wake.”
Another unifying quality of Hellbender’s beers: A lack of residual sugar. Residual sugar can be a crutch in craft brewing – lending a perceived thickness and body to any beer – but it’s one that co-founders want to avoid.
“We like a beer that’s dry and quenching regardless of the alcohol percentage,” Evans explains. “We always want the emphasis and flavor to come from the specialty malts or hops or the yeast. I never like it if a flavor characteristic of a beer is its sweetness.”
All in all, it’s not a bad pitch.
The investors thought the same: By the end of January 2012, the Hellbender Brewing Company had reached its fundraising goal. Within five months, it had secured the requisite additional loans from a financial institution.
But before any of these meetings could occur, Evans and Mullane had to sell the idea of Hellbender to those even more invested in the prospective brewery’s success: their families. Starting Hellbender meant walking away from well-established career tracks, graduate degrees, and financial certainty.
“I was a scientist with a day job when I started homebrewing. It was a hobby. It wasn’t necessarily going to go anywhere,” Evans says. “But because brewing was such an obsessive hobby, my girlfriend – now wife – didn’t really question it when I started telling her it was what I was going to do. She was very supportive from the get-go.”
I ask Evans what his parents made of the decision. His tone turns solemn.
“I didn’t tell my mom and dad for a long time,” he shares. “I was terrified. I had to gone to school for neuroscience and now I’m trying to start a brewery.”
It wasn’t until Hellbender’s business plan was fully in order that he approached his parents about the decision.
“The big surprise was that when I told them, they were like, ‘That’s awesome,’” he remembers. “They started coming down all the time when we were trying to get this place ready – prepping for painting, trying to get the tasting room set up, helping out. It was nice, because it was such a scary moment for me.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Mullane had come a long way from constituent case work. He had developed a specialization in transportation issues – “If it didn’t have wheels or wings, I had nothing to do with it,” he quips – and used that expertise in the offices of high ranking remembers in both chambers. Still, after twelve years, it wasn’t an environment he was heartbroken about leaving behind.
“By that point, I was so burnt out,” Mullane shares. “The climate had gotten so bitter; it wasn’t like when I started. I wasn’t terribly happy.”
For those closest to him, this displeasure was evident – and, equally, so was the passion behind Hellbender.
“My wife and my family understood that if I was this excited, they would back me,” he continues. “Now, if you had told our wives, ‘Hey, there’s going to be sixteen months of delays where you’re going to be the sole breadwinner,” then they might have had a different view on things.”
Mullane lets loose a weary, knowing laugh.
Word of the Hellbender Brewing Company began picking up traction midway through 2012.
Most notably, there was a short write-up in the Washington Post, sparked by Hellbender’s participation at the National Zoo’s Brew at the Zoo fundraiser that July. At the time, Evans and Mullane were still pouring their homebrews– they had yet to acquired a brewhouse or sign the lease on a space – but they optimistically projected to be on the market by January or February of the following year.
Soon enough, Hellbender was being included among the handful of “coming soon” breweries – Right Proper, Atlas Brew Works, Bluejacket – that in 2013 were primed to follow the first local wave of DC brewery opening.
Then, 2013 came and went. Most of the next year did, too. It wasn’t until November of 2014 that Hellbender was officially in the business of making beer.
“It took us a while to get open,” Evans says, still sounding exasperated by the whole ordeal. “That was not easy.”
It wasn’t easy, and it’s still not easy. Hellbender’s delayed opening isn’t something the brewery got to shrug off when it opened. It’s still feeling the consequences.
So what happened?
Hellbender secured its current Riggs Park location in the winter of 2013. Finding a space suitable for a brewery is tricky business: The ceiling can’t be too low, the loading dock can’t be too small, the zoning has to be right. Evans visited at least fifteen properties before he found the right one. The fact that it was just a ten-minute walk north from the Ft. Totten metro station – a nexus of both the green and red lines – was a happy coincidence.
The next step was attaining a building permit. As many DC breweries have discovered, that’s easier said than done, because after decades of dormancy in DC’s production brewing landscape, the city’s regulations are woefully out of date. The most glaring of these is the Health Department’s insistence that a brewery with a tasting room adhere to the codes for a restaurant. And even if breweries invest in resources to educate the city government of its inconsistencies, Hellbender says that turnover is such that they rarely deal with the same person.
“Someone has to relearn everything every single time a new brewery tries to open,” Mullane shares. “Most of the folks I talked with hadn’t dealt with any of the previous breweries. They’re starting from scratch.”
As detailed by WAMU, Hellbender was forced to coat it’s floor with epoxy resin – a $35,000 investment – even if it didn’t see any tangible benefit. It had to comply with kitchen regulations, such as the installation of a mop sink that it would never use. It ran into issues with the steam pressure settings of its boiler. And with each snag, Hellbender was a little further away from ealizing its dream.
“It seemed like infinite delays,” Mullane remembers. “They just kept getting tacked on and tacked on and tacked on.”
All the while, Hellbender was paying rent and utilities for the property, plus the interest on its loans, without any revenue coming in. “We got bled dry,” Mullane says.
As a result, Hellbender had to go back to investors for another round of funds. Add some more time on for that.
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2014 that Hellbender was able to begin construction of the brewery.
Ten months had passed.
As if things couldn’t get worse, just as Hellbender was nearing production, it ran into another snag. The details of the story are Byzantine – basically, the brewery’s boiler was coded for a different region than its skid, state non-compete clauses prevented anyone from being able to fix this, and the company that made these things should have known it would be issue – but the end result was another four-month delay and an additional $30,000 up in the thin air.
The two co-founders had quit their jobs to start Hellbender. To pick up some form of income, Mullane worked at a wine and cheese shop. Evans coached wrestling. Both had saved up some money, but it was their spouses who shouldered the brunt of the financial responsibility during this stretch.
Looking back on it, Hellbender accepts a cut of the responsibility for the agonizing march to its launch.
“Some of it was us being rookies. Some of it was the city. Some of it was our equipment providers. It was just a comedy of errors,” Mullane says. “And it cost us – time and time again.”
In the end, Hellbender opened well behind the eight ball.
“We’re digging our way out,” Mullane admits. “We thought we’d open with a really nice cushion, which would give us time to bring our product to the market, and to build up sales and accounts and all of that stuff, but at the end of the process, we didn’t have any money left.”
“We’ve got our head above water,” he told me in August. “Everything’s picking up now.”
But the consequences of the delay were more than financial. Whether Hellbender knew it or not, the ground beneath them had been moving.
There’s a way this is supposed to work.
You open a brewery, you introduce a few year-round beers, you devote the majority of your production capacity and marketing muscle to those “flagships,” you establish your brand, and then, gradually, you build out your portfolio of offerings.
Sure, you don’t have to go this route – local craft breweries like Ocelot and Adriot Theory have rejected the flagship model altogether – but it’s one that has long been considered both conventional and viable.
With the boom of craft breweries both within DC and outside of it, though, that may be changing – and quickly so.
“There are so many craft brewers out there right now,” Mullane says. “The demand for craft beer is going up, but there are more breweries getting in than the demand.”
As a result, the competition for tap lines at craft beer bars is more competitive than ever, particularly in DC, where lax distribution laws make it easy for outside breweries to enter the market. And at many of these bars, the name of the game is variety. If you visit a bar like Meridian Pint on a Monday and come back a week later, there’s a good chance all 25 of its draft lines have changed.
“Five years ago, a craft brewery could get a tap, hang onto it for months, and continue to sell that bar beer week after week,” Mullane shares. “Now, we’ve had bars tell us, ‘You were our best-selling beer this week. We’ll see if we can bring you back next month.’”
Hellbender ran into this reality head-on after opening.
“A lot of bar managers kept asking us what the flavor of the week was rather than about our flagships,” Evans says. “And if a beer isn’t interesting to them, it’s not going to make it market, and nobody else is ever going to taste it.”
This wasn’t something Hellbender had planned for, but who can blame them? It seemingly defied the market principles.
“Normally, in a wholesale business, if your product sells well, retailers will generally keep it on for a long period time – until something changes or something better comes along,” Mullane continues. “It’s strange. We’re a wholesaler, but we have to behave like a retailer.”
A wholesaler sells in large quantities. When DC Brau opened in 2011, it couldn’t make enough of the Public to satisfy its accounts. In the current craft-saturated climate, it’s increasingly hard for a new brewery to launch and sell large quantities of a single beer within a limited distribution footprint. Hellbender’s solution, therefore, was to produce more styles of beer, albeit at a lesser quantity. This, Mullane told me in August, was how Hellbender was “adjusting to the breakdown of the flagship model.”
“We have to experiment and keep inventing new stuff,” he said. “Because bars are constantly changing what they offer on draft, we have to be offering more beers than we would have a few years ago. We have to play this constantly changing game of roulette. We have to be hustling, adapting, changing on the fly, until we’ve been around long enough and built up a reputation where we can finally drive home and establish a couple of brands, and then use those as the tent poles of our company.”
A significant challenge for Hellbender was achieving this diversity with two primary fermenters.
Hellbender had opened with a line-up of three flagships (Red Line Ale, Bare Bones Kölsch, and Eft IPA), with three seasonal offerings on deck – a hefeweizen, a saison, and a pumpkin ale. But relatively quickly, the brewery had phased out the Eft IPA, which would be replaced by series of smaller batch IPAs, which were brewed alongside new seasonals (notably a smoked nut brown ale and a coffee stout), which had to be scheduled with consideration to other one-offs.
In other words, Hellbender produced a lot of different beers in its first 16 months. That’s a hard thing to do for a young brewery with limited tank space.
Back at Hellbender a month ago, the co-founders tell me they might have bitten off more than they could chew.
“We had some production hiccups,” Mullane admits. “We have only two fermenters back there. We can brew up to twice a week, but we were brewing five different beers.”
“We ended up juggling a lot of stuff,” Evans adds.
Those hiccups included some missed deliveries and a few supply shortages. Of course, these are growing pains that every young brewery experiences in its early years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t make necessary adjustments, both minor and major, which is exactly what Hellbender is in the midst of doing.
Hellbender’s most significant recalibration will be a new emphasis on its Southern Torrent Saison. Originally designated a summer seasonal, the beer has become the brewery’s runaway bestseller. In response, Mullane and Evans will be shifting capacity away from its Bare Bones Kölsch and Red Line Ale to ensure saison production runs like clockwork.
“We chose to streamline things this year with the kölsch and the saison,” Mullane explains. “We can’t run with both of them, so we’re pushing the saison, and we’ll bring the kölsch back when we have a little more capacity. As for the Red Line, it has just naturally became a fall and winter beer.”
Hellbender also has to make sure it has the tank space for Ignite IPA, a hoppy year-round offering introduced this week after months of experimentation and refinement.
And the brewery is optimistic that by the end of the summer, you’ll be able to purchase six-packs of Ignite IPA – along with Red Line Ale and Southern Torrent Saison – at grocery stores around town. (On Hellbender’s current filtration system, Bare Bones Kölsch isn’t quite ready for prime time on account of slight visual inconsistencies.)
“Canning will be a big thing for us,” Mullane says. “Folks want to be able to buy you in stores, and while bars only have a limited number of draft lines, they can always find ways to sneak an extra case of a different brewery onto your menu. That’ll be a game charger for us, as it is for any brewery.”
The move to individual packaging is a both a big investment and a headache, particularly when it comes to cold storage. More importantly, there’s no forgiveness for even minor inconsistencies batch-to-batch. “You have to have everything in place,” Mullane says. “That’s why local breweries wait a while to do it.”
Unlike other local breweries, though, Hellbender has something that aids in its production of beer – a secret weapon of sorts.
Evans runs his hand over a four-legged piece of equipment on the production floor. It looks a little like a hi-tech loom, with royal blue sides that pop in a sea of silver tanks bathed and neon lighting.
“This is our pride and joy,” the head brewer purrs.
This much is already evident: Hellbender’s production floor appears laid out to show off this sleek slab of machinery. It is front and center and unencumbered, like an organ set before the many pipes of a mighty tabernacle.
This is Hellbender’s Meura 2001 mash filter, and if you had one, you’d show it off, too.
To explain why, we’re going to have to get into the weeds of brewing for a moment.
In one of the first steps of the brewing process, malted grains – be they oats, rye, or any number of traditional malts – are milled. This is a fancy way of saying they’re cut up and rolled into smaller fragments that resemble steel-cut oats. The malted grain is then combined – or “mashed” – with hot water, which activates the malt’s enzymes, converts its starches to sugar, and creates a sweet tea-like liquid called wort. Subsequently, the wort is drained and filtered using a lauter tun, a traditional vessel that acts like an oversized colander, catching the grain that didn’t dissolve before the wort’s impurities are boiled off.
During the milling, it’s important that a brewery not cut the grain too finely. The grains’ husks must be left intact so that they can form a “filter bed” during lautering. For a filter bed to work, the wort must be able to move through the vessel and escape out the bottom. And without those husks intact, the grain will congeal to form essentially a doughy pancake, which jams the liquid from filtering out. Brewers call that a stuck mash.
“It basically turns into wet cement,” Evans explains. “It clogs up your brewhouse to the point where you can’t go anywhere further.”
This is a reality that brewers had to grapple with for hundreds and hundreds of years. Then, 125 years ago, a Belgian company devised a new technology to filter their beer – an alternative to the lauter tun. This mash-filter system employs a series of filter plates, which are capable of filtering a grain that’s been milled far more finely than the typical husk-intact, steel cut oat consistency. Utilizing this system, a brewery can deploy a hammer mill to reduce its grain to something that resembles bread flour. In turn, that finer mill increases the surface area of the grain, which means the enzymes can convert more of its starch to sugar. This more efficient conversion means that a brewery can use less grain to harness the desired levels of sugar. It also means that a brewery isn’t bound to grains that have husks.
But while this technology has been utilized in Belgian breweries for over a century, it’s only now reaching the United States. The change occurred when the Belgian brewing equipment company Meura shrank the massive system to something ten to twenty times smaller – a size that makes the system more tangible for the American craft brewer.
Evans stumbled across technology during the early planning stages of Hellbender. “I was looking for any type of way to increase our sustainability within the brewery,” he remembers. “I was trying to figure out more efficient ways to do lighting, to save electricity, and to use less water in the day-to-day process.”
A post to the Brewers Association eventually put him touch with the Alaskan Brewing Company, which used a larger version of the Meura system. Evans quickly realized the desirability of the technology, and then in a stroke of good luck, discovered Meura was entering the U.S. market with a smaller scale that it could actually afford. Hellbender made the decision to become the second brewery in the United States to acquire this system.
The mash filter came with a heftier price tag than a traditional system, but it will save Hellbender money in the long run.
“The two things we’re using the most of in the brewing process are grain and water, and when you cut those down by a cumulative 35% per batch, that’s huge,” Evans explains. “Water is not as big of a cost issue in this part of the country, but it adds up. And from a financial standpoint, using 15% less grain really adds up over the course of the year. The system pays for itself in a couple of years. Obviously, the more you’re brewing, the more you’re saving.”
The focus on sustainability is a significant part of Hellbender’s identity. Evans entered the brewing industry with a background in biology and conservationism. Mullane, meanwhile, had worked for moderate Republican members of Congress, which meant that Democrats in search of a conservative cosponsor often approached him on different green initiatives and alternate energy proposals.
“That gave me an appreciation for conservation and – I’m a little bit of a nerd – clean energy technology,” he explains. “Most of the stuff that you’re funding from the Congressional perspective is a bunch of B.S. It’s technology that isn’t ready for prime time or while well-intentioned isn’t going to work. So, when you come across a legitimate piece of technology that’s only a little bit more expensive and it actually does a job of significant savings in water and energy and ingredient input, that’s amazing.”
“This mash-filter is just good technology at work,” he adds. “That’s a rarity. This is an exception to the rule.”
Beyond the efficiencies, the Meura system enables Hellbender to flout the standard conventions of malt bills.
Look no further than Hellbender’s collaboration with the Ashburn brewery, a dunkelweiss made with a 90% wheat malt bill. In the world of craft brewing, that is an astronomically high percentage of wheat – a husk-less grain.
“A brewery normally has to work their ass off to get to 40%,” Mullane notes. “And that’s with a lot of finessing and finagling and risk.”
It’s about more than just running up the score. The higher utilization of wheat produces a majestic beer. “You get flavors that are very different; they’re extremely outspoken,” Akerboom says in his thick Dutch accent. “It’s not just a wheat beer: It’s a wheat beer that contains twice the amount of wheat that you would normally get. Those flavors are really strong. That’s something that we could never do.”
The system is the envy of many within DC’s craft brewing scene.
“Hellbender’s use of a mash-filter system allows them to make some really unique beers,” says Atlas Brew Work CEO Justin Cox, “pushing the limits of alternate malted grains that just aren’t possible in a traditional mashtun.”
Before Hellbender Brewing Company was Hellbender Brewing Company, when it was unnamed idea, its co-founders went digging through a catalogue of reptiles and amphibians indigenous to the region.
This slithery subsection of vertebrates has long been an interest of Evans.
“I was always obsessed with reptiles and ambibians growing up,” Evans says. “It’s kind of why I got into the whole science thing in college.”
The brewery wanted to have a name tied to the region without being “obviously local,” and it struck gold with the Hellbender salamander.
Everything about the species of giant salamander aligned with the brewery’s vision. It’s endemic to the Eastern United States, so it fit the geographic profile. It’s an endangered species, so it aligned with Hellbender’s focus on sustainability. And it’s just a cool name.
“In the end, Hellbender sounds kind of badass,” Evans shares with a big grin.
But there were times in the brewery’s early going when naming itself after an endangered species might have scanned as morbidly ironic. Between the delays, production hiccups, and the slow collapse of the flagship model, Hellbender has traversed some tough terrain.
“Ben will never admit to being concerned about anything, but there were times when we were sitting here saying, ‘God, it cannot go on like this,’” Evans shares, citing a two-month stretch in at the start of 2015 where it sold roughly 25 kegs.
With the surging popularity of its saison leading the way, Hellbender has come out the other side. This winter, after an arduous screening process, it landed draft lines across the entirety of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group – the kind of steady, locked-in accounts that can sustain a new brewery.
“In general, sales have really, really picked up,” Mullane says. “We got into some good spots where they were just burning through keg after keg after keg all winter long.”
It’s hard not to root for this brewery. Between Mullane and Evans, there is not one ounce of bullshit. On the whole, they’re content to let their beer do the talking.
“Hellbender is a great addition to the DC brewing scene,” says Atlas’ Cox. “We hope to see them continue to grow.”
“They’re just a really good group of guys,” adds Akerboom, who has collaborated Hellbender four times now. “It’s really fun to work with them. Their beer is great, and we’re happy to see them do well.”
Every beer has a story.
Hellbender Brewing Company shares the stories of its brews below.
But before we get there, let’s take a trip to Europe.
That’s what Hellbender did a few summers back, when Evans and Mullane traveled to Belgium on the dime of brewing equipment manufacturer Meura. The two had recently made the first payment on their prized mash filter, so the Belgian company flew them across the Atlantic to brew on its pilot system, observe breweries using it on a larger scale, and pick everyone’s brains.
In the end, the co-founders went through what amounted to a foreign immersion program at some of Belgium’s best breweries: De Koninck, Rodenbach, De Ranke. They brought back a few souvenirs, too – twelve bottles of Belgium’s finest saisons, to be specific. And within each of these bottles something was alive: yeast.
To take a step back, the vast majority of Belgian ales are bottle-conditioned. This means that rather than carbonate a beer with CO2 after primary fermentation, a brewery will leave its yeast in suspension – or add a little more yeast or sugar to it – when the beer is bottled. Within the bottle, the yeast continues to consume the sugar in the liquid, producing more alcohol and its own CO2. Eventually, the yeast goes dormant and settles at the bottom of the bottle, leaving behind a naturally fizzy beer.
“The yeast is usually dead – or close to it – if the beer is old or high alcohol,” Evans explains. “But if you can get a beer that’s fresh, close to where it was bottled, you can take that yeast and grow it up, and then it’s yours.”
Enter those twelve bottles.
For years, Evans and Mullane had been homebrewing a traditional Belgian saison– dry, fruity, aromatic, a little spicy. Much of any saison’s character derives from its yeast, though, and the pair was left slightly unsatisfied by the strain it had procured through commercial channels. And on that trip to Europe, they fell in love with the house strain from De Ranke, so they brought it back with them.
The challenge was getting it out of a bottle.
This is where a background in neurosciene comes in handy. Evans called up a close friend whose job as a microbiologist allowed him access to lab space and deep freezers. Together, they would attempt to extract a yeast sample, streak it across a plate, and “grow it up” with sugar water. If a large enough amount of yeast accumulated, they would set it in a viscous compound and place it in a freezer set to -80 degrees Celsius.
They went 5 for 12. Hellbender had its own Belgian yeast strain.
“You basically Cryofreeze it,” Evans says. “It’s dormant for, like, hundreds of years. You take a pinhead of it whenever you want to start a culture. If you know what you’re doing, you can have a lifetime supply of yeast.”
Earlier this year, Hellbender gave a hat tip to the yeast’s origins with a black saison collaboration with Denizens called De Ranke Donk, but the real showcase for the strain is its Southern Torrent Saison.
The 5.5% ABV farmhouse ale is a delight, shaped by Hellbender’s decision to ferment the beer at an uncharacteristically low temperature. According to Evans, this method brings out the yeast’s “floral and funky aromas.”
“At higher temperatures, we got a lot more banana, ester flavors, whereas we got more spicy and phenolic at the lower temperatures,” Mullane explains. “We like a little bit of that fruitiness, so we found a balance. We wanted to keep the recipe simple and focus on that.”
This restraint has resonated within the area’s craft beer community.
“That’s my favorite Hellbender beer, for sure,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director at Meridian Pint “It’s on the lighter side. It’s nice and crisp and dry and drinkable, but with really nice yeasty characters. It’s just a very well-composed, flavorful, refreshing beer. It’s basically everything that I look for in a saison.”
For Lost Rhino’s Jasper Akerboom, it’s the Hellbender yeast that steals the show, and considering he’s a microbiologist with the Twitter handle @JasperYeast, that opinion means carries some weight.
“It’s a very rustic, very farmhouse-like strain,” the beer scientist explains. “If you have a light beer with some wheat in it, it really brightens it up. It’s so refreshing. It’s just a beautiful beer.”
The American craft beer movement has a complicated history with ales the shade of red.
First came the amber ale. As Jeff Alworth outlines in The Beer Bible, the style emerged in the in early 1980s as a slightly modified take on the English bitter (or “ESB”).
“Brewed for balance, early examples were maltier and sweeter than pale ales – an approachable yet robust style for the new craft drinker,” Alworth writes. “The word ‘amber’ seemed a less confusing description for the American market, and it allowed breweries to soup up their interpretations.”
These beers were typically brewed with crystal or caramel malt, which resulted in a liquid sweet with residual sugar.
Not far behind the amber ale came the red ale. Red ales often didn’t look all that dissimilar from amber ales, but they were drier and lighter, largely because they avoid sweeter grains in favor of Vienna and Munich malts. As a result of the reduced malt presence, these beers often showcased their hops.
During the late 1980s and through the ’90s, during the micro-brewery boom, the popularity of amber ales exploded. Logically, some good breweries made their versions of the style to meet the demand. But so did a lot of mediocre ones.
Subsequently, when the micro-brewery bubble burst before the turn of the century, a lot of people were left with bad taste in their mouth from subpar ambers and red ales.
“During the first craft beer explosion, red ales and ambers were usually malty and sweet. There just wasn’t a whole lot of complexity and flavor,” Mullane says. “People got bored of them very quickly, and the market went completely away from them.”
In recent years, red ales have experienced the early stages of a revival, but they’ve veered further away from their origins towards more boozier and hoppier territory.
“You’ve seen red ales come back, but it’s with people saying, ‘It’s a Belgian red’ or ‘It’s a double red’ or ‘It’s a barrel-something red,’” Mulane continues. “No one is making something 5% to 6% ABV and trying to make it complex and flavorful. We saw a big hole there and we wanted to hit it hard.”
Hellbender hit that hole with Red Line, a 6% American red ale that combines citrusy hops with a pleasant malt complexity.
The beer draws inspiration from beyond the current landscape of American red ales – even Hellbender is shrewd enough not to come right out and admit that in its presentation.
“Patrick and I have both had some really great ESBs, but we’ve seen time and time again that calling a beer an ESB or an Amber turns people off. They think it’s too generic,” Evans says. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t super dark or light and hoppy. The marriage of American malt and hops with British yeast was a no-brainer for us, and ‘American red ale’ sounded great to us.”
It sounded great to Hellbender’s patrons, too.
“Right off the bat, it was a big seller for us. People were like, ‘Wow, this is unique!’’ Mullane says. “Well, the style has been around for a while, it’s just that folks have forsaken it.”
Hellbender opened during a November, though, and once the seasons changed, it learned a valuable lesson in the fickleness of beer consumers.
“We thought that Red Line was a pretty good year-round drinker. It was outselling everything two to one. And then the weather warmed up then it just dropped,” Mullane says. “Staring in April, people drink with their eyes, and if it’s darker than a piece of straw, they’re not going to order it. We knew that, but we didn’t expect it to that extent.”
Accordingly, Hellbender ended downshifing production of Red Line – something it plans with the red ale whenever people start drinking with their eyes.
Of course, come September, when the leaves turn red, so will Hellbender’s taps.
This week, Hellbender debuts a new flagship – a responsibly boozy (6.5% ABV), respectably bitter (67 IBUs), tropically fruity India Pale Ale. It’s called Ignite IPA.
“We’re having a little fun with the fire mythology around the Hellbender salamander,” Mullane says of the alliterative name.
But before there was Ignite, there was Eft, and to understand the new flagship IPA, you have to understand the one that flamed out before it.
In the big picture, to say that IPAs are popular would be a massive understatement.
“IPA is the number one selling style of craft beer. The fact is that people want hops,” observes Meridian Pint’s Gonnerman. “It’s not something that everyone develops a taste for, but for those who do, they crave it.”
Both curious palates and dyed-in-the-wool hopheads alike have driven IPAs to a nearly 30% market share in overall craft beer sales. “They just sell. It’s insane,” remarks Mullane. “You go into a bar, and if you see ten taps, six of them are IPAs.”
For Hellbender, launching a brewery with a year-round IPA was more than a no-brainer – it was a necessity. “If you don’t come out blazing with a good IPA, a lot of folks are going to write you off,” Mullane says. “In the past, that was generally how you cut your teeth.”
While the popularity of IPAs steadily climbs, though, consumer preference within the style has hardly remained static. Perhaps the biggest trend is the increasing demand for drier, lighter IPAs that showcase hops whose flavor summon more tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and stonefruit. In turn, these new hop varieties – developed in Washington’s Yakima Valley and the cooler corners of Australia and New Zealand – have supplanted those used in the more traditional, pungently piney West Coast IPAs that helped fuel the ongoing craft beer revolution. For example, a hop like Columbus may have been all the rage a dozen years ago but now it’s “old school.” So it goes with humulus lupulus.
The trend did not go unnoticed by Hellbender, but rather than fall in line, it crafted an IPA, Eft, with the idea that it might act as effective counter-programming.
“Eft was really heavily piney with citrusy, grapefruity flavors,” Evans explains. “We were seeing the shift to more tropical fruit flavors but we thought we were doing something different than most breweries in the area.”
The reality was hard learned.
“There’s a reason why people aren’t making those kind of IPAs,” Evans continues. “They aren’t selling as well. With IPAs, it’ a matter of what’s in and what’s not.”
Eft didn’t catch on. No matter how good the IPA tasted, Hellbender was too late.
“We missed the wagon on the West Coast IPAs,” Mullane adds. “That style falling off pretty much completely was a surprise to us.”
Faced with a set of tough facts – namely, Hellbender’s inability to get Eft past bar managers and the cost of sourcing the beer’s hops – the brewery made the tough decision to phase out the IPA relatively early on.
And it didn’t rush back to recipe development for a replacement, either.
“We went a long time without an IPA on the menu, and everyone kept asking, ‘Do you an IPA? What’s your hoppiest beer?’” Mullane shares. “But we wanted to take our time before we jumped back in and made another. We had to fight the voice that was telling us, ‘We need an IPA. We need an IPA.’”
Hellbender eventually filled the void – and began “building [its] IPA credentials,” according to Mullane – with a series of limited-run, hop-forward beers. There was Ella KPA, a pale ale that combined the kölsch yeast strain with the titular Australian hop, Ella. There was Chazzwazzer – yes, a Simpsons reference – an IPA with a light malt backbone that showcased another Australian hop, Galaxy. And there was Scorched IPA, a black IPA brewed with the popular Simcoe hop and spruce (!).
But there’s a key difference between these IPAs and a flagship, and it comes down to the amount of hops that Hellbender must secure to brew each of them.
Simply put, a brewery the size of Hellbender is towards the bottom of the hop totem pole.
A brewery like Flying Dog, producing over 100,000 barrels of beer annually, makes a yearly pilgrimage to Yakima Valley. There, it enters into multi-year contracts with hop growers – both for the hops it needs (for current recipes) and experimental hops it might need (for future recipes). “Farmers are going to put in the group what they already know is sold,” CEO Jim Caruso told me in July. “We’re telling them to plant these hops, because whether we need them or not, we’re buying them.”
“The large guys have so much of a say about what goes on with these hop companies, because they’re buying so many hops,” Evans says. “When you get to a certain size, they’ll let you go through their experimental fields and try different hops that don’t have names yet, and if you like them and you order enough of them, you can name them yourself. I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait ‘til that happens with us.’”
For now, though, Hellbender relies almost exclusively on a family-owned Oregon farm for its hops. This farm partners with other hop farms in countries around the world – Germany, Australia, New Zealand – but what it imports is beyond Hellbender’s control.
“I’ll call them up for the standard order for our regular beers, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you guys have that’s new and interesting?’” Evans explains. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘We’ve got this or that from Australia and New Zealand.’ I’ll look it up; find out the flavor profile. A lot of the time, they’ll give me a one or two pound bag of them for free so we can try a little test batch. If we like it, I’ll get on the phone immediately and say, ‘How much do you have?’”
“Half the time, those flavor profile descriptions don’t make any sense,” Mullane interjects wryly. “I swear to God, they just use the Google translator from German for some of them.”
Whether or not their descriptions are lost in translation, these hops are often proprietary, which means the companies that develop them can choose to sell the vast majority of their harvest to just the largest buyers and charge a steep premium to anyone else.
The irony is that a brewery of Hellbender’s size doesn’t even need much of a hop. To put things in perspective, a larger craft brewery will order thousands of pounds of a hop like Galaxy. Hellbender’s is slightly less. “Our big order is, like, 44 pounds, and we’re lucky to even get that.” Evans told me in August. “We have enough Galaxy for two 40-keg batches of Chazzwazer, and then we might not get our hands on this hop for a year.”
“As small guys, we’re at the back end of the list,” Mullane adds. “The larger the brewery you are, the more consistent of a customer you are. We order every few months. The guys who order every month in large quantities, they’re going to snap it all up. We just try to get our hands on what’s left.”
The challenge, therefore, in Hellbender’s development of a new flagship IPA wasn’t just in arriving on a flavor profile Evans and Mullane liked – it was in securing enough hops to consistently replicate it.
First, though, Hellbender had to find the right hops to showcase. Experimenting with samples from its hop provider, Evans fell in love with a relatively new Pacific Northwest variety called Equinox. Introduced in 2012, Equinox was initially referred to as HBC-366, an indication that it was developed by the Hop Breeding Company – the same group that brought craft beer some of its most sought-after hops, most notably Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe.
“Equinox hops are really complex, but they have some very specific tropical fruit and citrus character, and along with a little bit of resin,” Evans shares. “It’s what brewers describe as dank, I guess.”
Looking to familiarize itself, Hellbender brewed a few small batches of single-hopped IPAs with Equinox, and the response in the tasting room was effusive. Encouraged, the two continued building the recipe, finally settling on one that combines an Equinox finish with a base of standard-bearer hops Nugget and Centennial. The final Ignite has a light amber hue – a reflection of the brewery’s decision to mix some CaraMunich Malt in with the typical Crystal Malt.
Evans sees the beer that bridges the past and the present of hop cultivation. “We’ve got Nugget, which was the big hop twenty years ago. We’ve got Centeniel. And then we’ve got the newest hop in the U.S.,” he explains. “A couple of real classics and then the new player in the game.”
Over the past year, Hellbender has spent the resources to make sure it has enough Equinox to keep this team in the game, but using the hop in the first place is a calculated risk.
“If Equinox blows up and we don’t have enough hops to keep making it, then we’re in trouble, because it’s a unique hop,” Evans admits. “I don’t think there’s anything like it. If we ran out of Equinox, all of the sudden the IPA would taste radically different or we would have to stop making it.”
In such a scenario, Hellbender would likely have to turn to the secondary market, where other breweries unload their excess hops at a higher cost.
“In the end, we’ll probably be able to find it,” Evans says. “But we’ll pay a pretty price for it.”
Ultimately, this is a price that Hellbender would be willing to pay for a runaway IPA.
“It would be a good problem to have,” Mullane says. “It’s a lot better than not having that problem.”
One effect of the craft boom is that beer styles once forgotten, shortchanged, or pigeonholed as regional curiosities are being revitalized and introduced to a new generation of consumers.
The explanation for it is simple: If a brewery wants to differentiate itself, it helps to make something different.
“It used to be ‘go big on the hop or the alcohol or go home,’ and everything else didn’t get a whole lot of respect. Now, there are thousands and thousand of craft breweries, and we can’t all go in the same direction,” Mullane says. “The industry is backfilling. Everything is is back on the table.”
Everything is indeed back on the table. And when the Hellbender co-founders first started homebrewing together, Evans brought his early recipe for an out-of-vogue style to that table: kölsch.
Kölsch is a traditional German beer most associated with the city of Cologne, where its origins were set in motion by a 17th century city ordinance that outlawed the use of bottom-fermenting yeast. The style has the distinction of falling somewhere between an ale and a lager. On one hand, the kölsch yeast strain is top-fermenting, which technically makes it an ale. On the other, the beer is cold fermented and aged much like a lager. It looks like one, too – a pilsner, in particular. It’s pale and gold, and if you taste test them, you’ll find similarly a clean, crisp beers.
The distinction between kölsches and pilsners becomes even more blurred in their American adaptations, which have tweaked the malt and hop properties. Ultimately, though, it comes down to their yeast strains.
“With a pilsner, the yeast is very clean, very dry; it’s not going to produce a whole lot of ester character or fruitiness. All it does is produce the alcohol,” Evans explains. “The kölsch yeast is going to produce very small amount of ester characters, so it’s going to have more of a yeasty nose to it, which is going to meld with the malt and the hops. There’s a little more complexity to a kölsch. Not take anything away from the pilsner – it’s just different.”
Hellbender’s Bare Bones Kölsch sits at 5% ABV, a smidge high for the style. There’s also a little extra hopping, not for a exaggerated hop flavor or bitterness, Evans explains, but so it can stand up to American food more than a traditional kölsch.
Even with that additional hopping, though, there’s nowhere to hide when brewing a kölsch. Much like a pilsner, a kölsch is intended to showcase of a brewer’s technique.
“Kölsch is a craft beer stripped down to the bones. It’s light in color. There are not a lot of hops. There’s not a lot of wheat. If there are any off flavors or inconsistencies, even the most novice beer drinking is going to pick up on it, so you can not make any mistake,” Mullane says. “Where you have a little room for error with a maltier beer or an IPA, you don’t with kölsch. It’s a little scary coming out with a beer like this, but it was something that we were passionate about.”
“The kölsch is about our appreciation of the process and showing off what we can do,” Evans adds. “Any time I walk into a brewery, I’ll usually want to try their lightest beer. It’s not necessarily the beer that I want to have, but if there is any flaw, it will shine right through. The water had to be just right. Every temperature you hit throughout the process – both in the mash and all the way through fermentation – has to be just right, or you’re going to have some off-flavors.”
Hellbender had used Evans’ kölsch recipe to help lure investors, but the brewery would tweak once it made the jump to the production scale: Out was 100% Czech Saaz hops, in was the American-grown Sterling hop – a hybrid of Saaz, Cascade, and a few other things. Not only was the switch more cost effective and consistent with the big picture goal of using domestic ingredients wherever possible, it also introduced a slight citrus flavor to funky Saaz hops.
For Evans, Bare Bones Kölsch aims for simpler goal than a citrus finish: He just trying to make an ale that anyone can feel comfortable throwing back.
“We wanted a beer that true craft beer drinker could have a few of – a true session beer,” he tells me. “But we also wanted a beer one that somebody who considers Banquet Beer a step up would appreciate and enjoy.”
“It’s an awesome beer,” says Dave Delaplaine, beer director at Roofers Union. “It’s clean, it’s crisp, it’s exactly what you’d want from a kölsch.”
Mud-devil. Alleghany alligator. Snot otter.
European settlers did not struggle to coin colorful names for the hellbender salamander.
A less vivid colloquialism focused on the creature’s size: Grampus. The word traces its entomology to the Latin term for “fat fish” (crassus picis) and the English word “grand.” If you’re trying to describe a two-foot water dragon, it certainly fits.
And if you’re going to call a beer Grampus, it better be a big one – and maybe a little bit slippery, too.
“Grampus is surprisingly smooth for something that’s 6.4% alcohol,” Evans tells me. “It’s a beer I can have a few of before I realize that I’ve had a few too many.”
As with most of Hellbender’s beers, the recipe is one that Evans has been playing with for almost a decade. Built on a mix of British pale chocolate and brown malts, the beer has resisted easy categorization from the beginning. “I’ve always called it a nut brown, but it really borders more on a porter,” Evans continues. “It’s got such a smooth, milk chocolaty flavor.”
The complexity of Grampus’ flavor profile took on an additional wrinkle after one trip to Virginia’s Copper Fox Distillery. It’s a trek that Evans had made a few times – his best friend is the brother-in-law of the distillery’s owner – but this time around, Hellbender had recently took possession of its brewery, so he was focused on more than Copper Fox’s drinkable products – at least in part.
“Ben really went down there for the free whisky,” Mullane cracks. “But he came back with some smoked malt, too.”
Hellbender had decided to mix applewood- and cherrywood-smoke malts to the grain bill of its nut brown ale. “They add more of a fruity, campfire smokiness to the beer, as opposed to the bacon flavor you get out of the beachwood smoked malts that are commercially available,” Evans explains. “It’s subtler. You’re adding a little more, but you’re getting a more complex smoke flavor.”
Grampus is hopped with Cluster and Willamette, but just enough to shine through, Evans says. After all, the malts are the star of the show.
“Ben may not approve of this analogy, but a lot of people tell us it’s like s’mores in a glass,” Mullane shares. “You get the chocolate and the smoke, and it just handles it really well. I absolutely love it in the fall and the winter. “
In this regard, Mullane is not alone. Hellbender’s first winter, the brewery produced just six for the tasting room, where it received a “wildly popular” reception. “People were asking about it for months afterwards,” Evans me in August. “We still get people asking if it’s coming out again.”
This past September, Hellbender produced a full batch. The outcome? “It sold out almost immediately,” Evans laughs.
More recently, it brewed another large batch, but most of it went to local distillery that’s turning it into whiskey. Chances are that you’ll have to wait another six months for the Grampus to come out from under it’s rock.
And that’s probably for the best.
“For me, this beer is Fall in a glass,” Evans has said. “Best of all, there’s no pumpkin.”
You can barrel age coffee beans and then let them condition with beer, like 3 Stars. You can turn ground coffee into slurry, pump it into the beer, then use a centrifuge what’s unabsorbed out. Or you can just make some cold brew.
Hellbender traveled the least fussy route to brewing its North x Northeast, an English oatmeal stout made with Compass Coffee’s medium roast Cardinal blend.
Here’s how the process works. Hellbender brews some stout and lets it go through most all of primary fermentation. Then, they cop some of their preferred Compass’ blend, ground fresh off the roaster, and cold brews it over night. The next day, when the stout is being transferred from primary fermentation to a brite tank, Hellbender adds the concentrated cold brew in a fine mesh bag. Voilà. A coffee stout is born.
The mistake that some brewers make is trying to add the coffee too soon. If you add it to the wort, post-boil, you risk ending up with something astringent. If you add it during primary fermentation, the release of carbon dioxide can mute the aromatic qualities of the coffee.
“We get all of the flavor and aroma of the coffee without all of the extra bitterness,” Evans says of his process. “If you do hot side brewing with the coffee, you get extra bitterness. The hops and the dark malt have enough bitterness as is.”
If a brewery does screw that up that balance, it can often hide behind the high alcohol content or residual sugar of its beer. Coffee stouts often clock in at 8% or 9% alcohol. As you might expect, this was not how Hellbender approached its 5.1% ABV North x Northeast.
“It’s a dry oatmeal stout, basically. It’s got very low residual sugar, so it’s so not super sweet, but the oats give it a little bit more body. It doesn’t taste thin,” Evans says. “We wanted something that had some body to it, but you could drink a couple of them and not be totally drunk or full. We were really just going for something that tasted like cold brew coffee.”
That’s a difficult line to walk according to Meridian Pint beer director Jace Gonnerman.
“When you’re introducing that strong of a flavor to that light of a beer, there’s definitely room for any kind of unpleasant flavors to come through, but there was none of that,” he says. “There’s a deep, rich coffee flavor; some nice, bigger than 5% mouthfeel; and then the roasted, chocolaty character of the malt played super well with the coffee addition. That beer was a pretty nice surprise.”
Originally the recipe of Hellbender’s other brewer Giancarlo D’Orazio, North x Northeast essentially supplanted the brewery’s original late fall seasonal, Pitchfork Pumpkin Ale, after being “wildly popular” the autumn before.
“The markets been a little saturated with pumpkin beer lately,” Evans says.
But a 5.1%, full-bodied oatmeal coffee stout?
There are slightly less of those around.
One beer is a traditional German weissber where darker malts meet the recipe for hefeweizen. The other is more off the grid than Jason Bourne.
Yet take a closer look and this par of one-off collaborations shares a good deal in common: a healthy wheat foundation, an open fermentation process, and an exchange of ideas with a kindred brewery.
It’s not hard to figure out why Evans might get along with Lost Rhino’s Jasper Akerboom. Both formerly worked in neuroscience. (“I didn’t like brains,” Akerboom deadpans.) Both have an appreciation for mild beer styles. And according to Akerboom, both approach brewing “in a very scientific way.”
“It’s not just like, ‘Oh we’re just going to follow the recipe,'” he shares. “No, there’s a desire to understand what’s going on in the brewing process, and to have an experimental flair – to not be afraid to do something different.”
The two breweries certainly proved that last bit with Hell’s Horn, a hazy 8.2% ABV, 80 IBU beer that they dubbed an Imperial IPL.
Brewed at Hellbender in late winter this year, Hell’s Horn combined Lost Rhino’s house Czech lager strain with a 70% wheat malt bill from the DC brewery. It was open-fermented in a tank that Lost Rhino indefinitely loaned to Hellbender back when it opened. And in the end, it was dry-hopped with Equinox and Mosaic hops, which lend the beer tropical, fruity characteristics reminiscent of fruit punch.
If this sounds kind of crazy, it is.
“There’s a lot going on. It’s pretty wild,” Evans says. “We would never be able to enter that beer into any contests.”
They’d probably have a better chance with the Dunkelweisse.
Released last spring, the sessionable dark ale also brought together Hellbender’s mash filter prowess (hitting a standing personal record of 90%) and a Lost Rhino yeast strain (this time for its hefeweizen).
The high wheat content brings more a few things to the beer. First, the wheat’s proteins beef up the beer’s body despite the paucity of residual sugar. That lends a richer mouthfeel, too. Then, it in the finish, it leaves a refreshing hint of tartness.
Meanwhile, open fermentation allows the yeast to reach its full potential.
“Yeast is a microorganism. It breathes just like us. It need access to oxygen, especially in the beginning of fermentation, to promote cell growth,” explains Akerboom. “Now, imagine if you have a conical fermeneter – a good old, fermentation tank with a pointy bottom. Yeast can do its job in there, but there’s no real access to oxygen. It works, but the aromas and the flavors are not as nice, because the yeast is under more stress than if it were in an open fermenter.“
“When you have a zero-pressure fermentation and you’ve got a lot of oxygen initially, you get tenfold the yeast character,” Evans adds. “You end up with more of a full-bodied, aromatic beer.”
Evans downplays the difficulty of making the dunkelweisse, and leaves the door open for Hellbender bringing it back someday. It would be a savvy move: The dark ale was one of the brewery’s fastest selling limited-run beers.
But even if it doesn’t these two collaborations aren’t resurrected, they serve as a tidy example of Hellbender’s range.
“On one hand, you have this American approach to brewing where you throw the guide book in the trash and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to do whatever we feel like,'” Akerboom says. “And then on the other hand, there’s a big admiration for a more European respect of brewing traditions. Certain things just work very well, and a Dunkel is, of course, a very classic style.”
“Sometimes, you shouldn’t mess with something,” the beer scientist continues. “You don’t want to put hot sauce on everything.”
Additional technical assistance provided by Edward Grant.
Additional contributions by Sarah Grantham.