In front of Jason Oliver is a shiny wood table carefully decorated with plastic pitchers and glass sippy cups. With a tidy goatee, black flat cap, and sturdy glasses, he projects a professorial air. Today, he’s in Columbia Heights to lecture about beer and, as usual, Devils Backbone is on the syllabus.
Oliver is the brewmaster at the central Virginia brewery, which in the world of craft beer also makes him its most sought-after spokesman. Last week, he was doing something similar in Raleigh, North Carolina. The week before that, it was Asheville and Charlotte. In a few days, he’ll be in Scotland. After that, it’s off to Durango, Colorado, for a collaboration with Ska Brewing Company.
For the moment, though, he’s here at Meridian Pint to discuss five collaborations with five different breweries. Together, these five new beers – plus Devils Backbone’s popular Vienna Lager – make up the bounty of its 2016 Adventure Collaboration Sampler Pack, the recently released second installment of the brewery’s cross-pollinated twelve-pack.
The collaborations run the gamut in strength and ambition, from a 3.8% session India Pale Lager to a 10.5% imperial stout with an ingredient from all seven continents. (Those two beers are also, respectively, the lightest and heaviest beers that Devils Backbone has ever brewed on a production scale.) The geographic make-up of the collaborators is just as diverse: Minneapolis (Surly), Indianapolis (Sun King), Asheville (Wicked Weed), Charlotte (NoDa), and even Melbourne, Australia (Thunder Road).
But over the course of just two weeks late last year, they all traveled to Lexington to brew with Oliver and his team.
This sentiment is true for most all collaborations, but not all collaborations are brewed on a 120-barrel brewhouse. And after expanding yet again last year, that’s the scale upon which Devils Backbone is now brewing.
“This was just 120 barrels, shoot-from-the-hip, let’s go,” the brewer recalls. “In total, there are 360 barrels of each collaboration. That’s a lot of beer. I think they all stand on their own, and I wouldn’t say we lucked out because we put a lot of work into it each one, but at the same time, we were brewing 120 barrels of things we’ve never been brewed before.”
Growth has been a constant narrative for Devils Backbone over the past few years. In 2015, it brewed 48,000 barrels. This year, it’s shooting for 68,000.
“It’s challenging, because we never thought we’d be at this stage this early in the game,” Oliver admits. “It’s been almost a constant state of building and construction.”
On one side, the brewmaster recalls meeting Surly’s Todd Haug at Chicago’s Real Ale Festival back in 2001. In another instance, he had traveled to Melbourne’s Thunder Road on a sort of foreign exchange brewer’s program.
Meanwhile, Wicked Weed and Sun King are newer friends, breweries that Oliver met in Asheville as a particpant of Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America. (As part of the project, six regions – all composed of six breweries – each collaborated on one beer, which will be gathered and released together as a twelve-pack this summer. Devils Backbone’s region, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, brewed a “very lean, hoppy pale ale” inspired by ingredients available during the Colonial period. “This is what happens when you have six breweries in a room together,” Oliver notes dryly.)
The brewmaster says that collaboration is part of Devils Backbone’s general approach: “We internally collaborate for all of our beers, essentially. There’s always that internal collaboration: here are the ingredients we have, here’s what we want to work with, how are we going to get it done?”
“It’s just been bam, bam, bam,” Oliver sighs. “One thing after another.”
He pauses to notice the silver lining: “But it beats working for a living.”
Session IPL + NoDa Brewing
Nine years ago, on a visit to San Francisco, before a road trip to Humboldt, Oliver had an epiphany.
He had stopped by the 21st Amendment Brewery, when perusing the typical offerings – an IPA, a double IPA, a pale ale – he landed on their Bitter American, a session IPA or “NorCal bitter” ale.
“It was my first inkling of something like that,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to do an American bitter.’”
Not long after, Oliver would make the jump to Devils Backbone, where he brewed his own session IPA, the single-hopped Four Point. That beer would only be the beginning of Oliver’s adventures in low-alcohol ales and lagers.
“I wanted to get as low as I can,” he tells me. “That’s my trend: I want to get low.”
There are particular challenges to making such a beer, though.
“You have to make sure it’s not astringently thin or harsh. You’re not going to have a lot of malt balance, so how do you get a good hop character without being too bitter? You don’t want it to be lop-sided,” he shares. “Using oats is a good technique – it gives a beer a little slickness. There are other little tricks, too, but I like to keep a couple of them up my sleeve.”
Devils Backbone collaboration with Charlotte, North Carolina’s NoDa Brewing Company is Oliver’s latest experiment in understated ABV.
Brewing a session India Pale Lager, however, was initially the idea of NoDa head brewer Chad Henderson. “I had already brewed a session IPL as part of a local collaboration, but then Chad brought it up and I was like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just do it,’” Oliver recalls. “They do a lot of hoppy beers. We do a lot of lagers. So, we took a hoppy beer and blended it with a lager to make a session-strength hoppy lager.”
The recipe for the 3.8% beer utilizes one malt, Vienna malt, which lends the beer a deep golden hue. Oats are used for that aforementioned “slickness.” And the hop-forward character comes from Simcoe and Azacca hops, the latter of which was new to Oliver. “I’ve never used Azaca before,” he shares. “Once again, these collaborations are an excuse to use different ingredients.”
Oliver has since tweaked the recipe of the easy-drinking Session IPL at the Devils Backbone brewpub, taking it all the way down to 3.3%. And he’ll go even lower in a few weeks, when he collaborates with Colorado’s Ska Brewing on a 2.9% hoppy lager brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops.
“I think the low end is cool,” the brewmaster shares. “A lot of session IPAs tend to be 4.5% or 4.8%, which is getting up to normal beer strength. But if you can get closer to 4%, I mean, that’s the ultimate. That used to be what 18 year-old kids could drink back in the day.”
“But what you’re drinking has to be cool,” he adds. “You have to want to drink it.”
Double Pacific Ale + Thunder Road Brewing
Like a lot of cultural and culinary permutations, Australian beer has developed to its own beat.
Take the Pacific ale, a loose style of unfiltered, hoppy wheat ale made with the fruitier hops of Australia and New Zealand.
“Australia has a big history of these slightly rustic ales,” Oliver observes, pointing to standard-bearer Coopers. “The Pacific ale has more hops than a typical wheat ale, but it’s not an IPA or pale ale.”
Oliver first immersed himself in the beers of the content three years ago, when he traveled to Melbourne to brew with Thunder Road Brewing. And just last year, he would trek over again to work with the brewery.
“They’re old friends of mine,” Oliver says. “Now they got to come brew with us.”
For its Thunder Road collaboration, Devils Backbone took the Australia’s brewery’s 4.4% Pacific and turned up the volume.
“We took almost exactly what they already do and just doubled it,” Oliver shares. “We took their recipe and multiplied it by two.”
The 8.4% Double Pacific Ale is hopped exclusively with the North Victoria and Tasmania’s prized Galaxy hops. And while the breweries quadrupled the amount used during the dry hop for their new version, the malt and strength of the beer take all of the bitterness off. What’s left behind is unabashed fruitiness.
“The pineapple really screams in this beer,” the brewmaster observes. “Normally, I get more mango from the beers we brew with Galaxy, but the pineapple is pretty apparent here.”
Oliver sees the two versions as a neat reflection of the two country’s beer cultures.
“Think about it: You’re in Australia, and it’s warm out, and you have this nice, hoppy wheat ale,” he says. “Over here… supersized.”
Devils Backbone had made coffee stouts and porters at its Outpost brewpub for many years, but brewing it on a 120-barrel system is a different animal.
“At the brew pub, you can add the coffee by hand,” Oliver shares. “We’ve never done coffee on a large scale.”
Brewing with coffee poses some challenges.
“The key to coffee is not to let it sit around for long, because it’s going to get bitter and harsh,” the brewmaster shares. “So, you need to find a way to separate it from the batch.”
This was the quandary facing Devils Backbone as it collaborated with Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Company on the double brown ale Risen.
The breweries had dumped 100 pounds of fine espresso ground coffee into a vessel, made it into a slurry, then pumped it into their beer for two days. Then the question became how to get it out. Normally, Devils Backbone uses cold extraction, but that wouldn’t work on this scale.
Surly head brewer Todd Haug had an idea: Use a centrifuge.
Oliver was hesitant.
“A centrifuge is almost a million dollar piece of equipment; you don’t want to break it by doing something new,” the brewmaster recalls. “This was a technique that we’d never done. But Todd has similar equipment, so we gave it a shot.”
As you might have guessed, this story does indeed have a happy ending.
But even before the addition of coffee, Risen had a coffee character on account of its brown and chocolate malts – the coffee just enhanced it, and perhaps thinned out the sweetness of 8.4% beer.
The idea for Risen originated with Haug, who had initially suggested making an imperial mild. Oliver worried that an “imperial mild” might seem oxymoronic to the general public, so he countered with a double brown, although he admits the distinction is academic: “We essentially took a brown or mild grist, kicked it up, fermented it on oak, and then added coffee at the end.”
The method of oak fermentation was another new approach courtesy of Surly: Haug suggested using honeycomb oak cubes, which were added directly to fermentation to allow for maximum exposure. The result is a beer with subtle vanilla notes.
The experience of making Risen – particularly with regard to the centrifuge – has left Oliver charged up.
“This has opened our eyes to new possibilities,” he shares. “Until you know you can do it, you might be too cautious to try. A lot of our equipment is made in Germany, and even though the Germans make a lot of equipment for craft brewers, sometimes it’s hard to get past the mindset of twelve Plato, five percent Pilsner beer, even though you’re like, ‘No, I want it bigger.’”
“This is a great example of learning from each other – utilizing new ingredients or using ingredients in a new manner,” the brewmaster continues. “We’ve brewed things for years at brewpub, but it’s it’s time to scale it up, and now we know it can handle it.”
Seven Summits + Wicked Weed Brewing
Wicked Weed founders Walt and Luke Dickinson like to climb, and for their collaboration with Devils Backbone, they wanted to pay tribute to the rugged, outdoors pastime.
The pitch: Use an ingredient from every continent as homage to the highest summit on each.
Of course, Dogfish Head famously did something very similar for its Pangea ale, which gave Oliver pause.
“I was a little hesitant, because it has been done,” he remembers, “but the challenge still appealed to me.”
The base of the complex collaboration would be an imperial stout. From there, the two breweries would travel around the world, metaphorically at least.
Black rye bread – specially made to avoid the inclusion of caraway seeds – was added to the mash to honor Europe’s Elbrus summit. Pink Himalayan sea salt was procured for Asia’s Mount Everest. Wattle seeds were air mailed from Australia for its Mt. Kosciuszko. (“That was really expensive,” Oliver laments.) And add to those add coconut (South America’s Aconcagua), cocoa (Africa’s Kilimanjaro), blue-green Algae (Antartica’s Vinson), and good old American Oak (North America’s Denali).
“This beer is just off the charts. It was a challenge not only finding these ingredients, but also utilizing them,” Oliver remembers. “We don’t want to break the system, and we want to get those ingredients in and out of the system in a sanitary matter.”
If the exotic ingredients weren’t enough to distinguish the imperial stout, the 10.5% beer is also the strongest Devils Backbone has produced.
“What’s fun about working with other brewers is that it can give you an excuse to do something that normally you wouldn’t do yourself or it can take you out of your comfort zone,” Oliver says. “This beer was probably a little bit of both.”
Another State of Kind + Sun King Brewing
Despite a resurgence in recent years, the cream ale is still somewhat undervalued in the craft beer community. Or maybe it’s just misunderstood.
“A lot of people don’t know what to make of a cream ale,” Oliver observes. “Either they know what a cream ale is and they don’t want one, or they think it has cream in it. So, there are two things going against it.”
But Oliver sees the style as embedded in the U.S. brewing tradition. “It’s the American kolsch in many ways,” he says. “I think people should have a go-to beer: A beer you can start with or finish with. There’s nothing wrong with a pounder.”
Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewing Company is a leader in this particular brand of pounder, so the style was a natural starting point for their collaboration, Another State of Kind.
“It was like, ‘Let’s take this idea of cream ale and kick it up a notch,’” Oliver explains. “We essentially blended elements of a double IPA with a cream ale, and the beer ended up with a really creamy texture but a hoppy frame.”
The recipe for the 6.8% “double dank cream-style ale” is built on pilsner malt, liberal amounts of Simcoe and Columbus hops, and, typical for the style, flaked corn, which lightens the body much like sugar does in many West Coast IPAs.
“In many ways, the result is kind of a San Diego IPA,” the brewmaster says. “It’s a good ale that drinks like a lager but has a little bit of fruitiness.”
The breweries used the the neutral Chico yeast strain popularized by Sierra Nevada, which is only appropriate given the two breweries met at the Asheville-via-California brewery’s Beer Camp Across America. (Another State of Kind wasn’t lagered but Oliver says “it got plenty of time in the tank.”)
The name, astute music fans might observe, is a reference to early 80s punk documentary “Another State of Mind”, which chronicles Social Distortion’s ill-fated tour.
“The guys at Sun King are music lovers – not necessarily punk music – but I threw out this name,” Oliver shares. “There’s no real reference other than that.”
Additional contributions by Edward Grant.