A Rising Tide of Craft Beer

In the Nation’s Capital & the South’s...
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With all the frothy excitement swirling around the country’s brewing landscape these days, it can be easy to forget that not very long ago, good beer didn’t have it so good.

Just 30-some-odd years back American beer teetered on the edge of becoming simply a fizzy yellow commodity, treated like so much industrial cotton or corn. And even now, with the beer renaissance in full bloom, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Just ask beer lovers in the nation’s capital. Since the Old Dominion Brewing Company was sold and moved to Delaware in 2009, the Washington, D.C., area has been lacking even a single production brewery. Georgia beer drinkers can empathize with the hard times, having fought to lift a 6 percent A.B.V. cap in 2004. But in D.C. and down South, a new day is dawning, as The Beer Connoisseur witnessed first-hand late last year when it celebrated its first anniversary at parties near Washington and in Atlanta. The events gave the magazine an opportunity to highlight gains that good beer has made in the cities as of late by introducing some craft brewing newcomers.

The first of the two celebrations (shown above) was held at the popular new Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church, Va., an airy space whose entrance is crowned by a cluster of gleaming stainless steel 30-barrel fermenters. Opened last summer by Bill Madden, an icon of the local brewing scene, and Rick Garvin, an expert homebrewer and one of the magazine’s master beer judges, the brewpub has fast gained a loyal following thanks to its range of world-class beers and locally sourced gourmet cuisine.

Bill Madden in the brewhouse at Mad Fox.Bill Madden in the brewhouse at Mad Fox.

Madden is a product of the University of California, Davis’s renowned brewing school, having graduated in 1995. With the ink on his Master Brewer diploma still wet, he headed across the country to work for Washington’s Capitol City Brewing Company, which he helped grow from a single brewpub to the five now spread around the area. More recently, he put his expertise to work opening brewpubs for the Founders Restaurant and Brewing Company and Vintage 50 Restaurant and Brew Lounge chains. With Mad Fox, Madden finally has a brewhouse to call his own. “I’m still walking in a dream,” he says. “This is really fantastic.”

There’s plenty of that heady excitement to go around in Washington these days. “We’re just happy that we were one of the first on this next wave that’s coming through the D.C. metropolitan area,” Madden says, referring to the more than half dozen new breweries already up and running or steadily working toward mashing in.

The newcomers include D.C. Brau, Chocolate City Brewing Company, 3 Stars Brewing and Baying Hound Aleworks, who were all on hand that day to take part in The Beer Connoisseur’s anniversary party. Others working to bring local beer back to Washington include Washingtonian’s Brewing Company, Port City Brewing Company, Black Squirrel Brewing and the long-planned Lost Rhino Brewing, whose owners/brewers, Matt Hagerman and Favio Garcia, met while working at Old Dominion and later, after the brewery was sold, managed to purchase its custom brewhouse. “Now we’re getting closer to actually putting it together,” Garcia said late last year.

Lost Rhino will be in an Ashburn, Va., warehouse just about a mile and a half from Old Dominion’s former home. It is shooting to begin selling beer this spring and hopes to have a restaurant in place around the end of the year. By now, though, Garcia knows that timelines can be as unstable as a vial of yeast.

“Last year about this time we were supposed to have beer in the spring, so who knows?” he says.

D.C. Brau, founded by Washington-area natives Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock, is also pushing to start filling its tanks soon, hoping to begin selling by late March or early April. Its space, a warehouse in northeast D.C. that was once used to store newspapers awaiting delivery, is ready and waiting for a 15-barrel brewhouse to arrive from China. Skall, who formerly worked in wine distribution, and Hancock, a brewer who honed his skills locally and in Michigan, spent months rehabbing the old warehouse themselves. They plan to start with a crisp American-style pale ale called the Public, which will be sold in cans, as well as a Belgian-style pale, the Citizen, and an IPA, the Corruption.

Not far from D.C. Brau in an old stonecutting mill is the home of Chocolate City Brewing, named for the Washington-centric Parliament album. Founders Ben Matz and Jay Irizarry started brewing together in 2007, and now their “pipe dream,” as Matz – who worked with Hancock of D.C. Brau at Flying Dog in Frederick, Md. – calls the ambitious plan, is well on its way to fruition. They’ll start, hopefully by no later than May, says Matz, with a big yet balanced IPA and then move on to a pre-Prohibition pilsner and an ESB.

Surprisingly, Matz and Irizarry found out about the other area breweries-to-be only somewhat recently. “Strangely enough,” he says, “the brewery fairy came down one day and said, ‘You should open a brewery, and you should open a brewery, and you should open a brewery.’

“I’m glad we’re not the only ones,” he adds. “The brewing world is very collaborative.”

Plans for 3 Stars Brewing, also nearby in the District, are a bit further behind some of its burgeoning brethren, but Mike McGarvey is confident that there’s plenty of room for him and his brewing partner, Dave Coleman, to grab a share of the growing market. “I’ve seen the interest in craft here exploding in the last couple of years,” says McGarvey. They’re shooting for a late summer launch, and in the meantime are perfecting recipes in a “homebrew lab” at his house.

The only new local brewery actually selling beer when the Mad Fox party took place was Baying Hound Aleworks, a nano-brewery started by Paul Rinehart in a 1,350-square-foot, Rockville, Md., warehouse. “It’s homebrewing on a larger scale,” says Rinehart of the tiny operation, which kicked off last fall and now includes help from a co-brewer, Lindsay Miller. Baying hound bottles all their beers – just a pale ale and a porter for now – by hand using a bottling system intended for wine, but the painstakingly small-scale setup does have its advantages, Rinehart says. By avoiding a large initial brewhouse investment, the brewery has able to “travel down the proof of concept idea.

“If two barrels works well I can easily expand to four because the equipment is not expensive.”

Cabot Boyd of Washingtonian’s Brewing Company has also gone the D.I.Y. route. His Fort Washington, Md., nano-brewery takes up a Quonset hut and turns out just one ale, a Belgian-style tripel. Monumental Tripel, as its called, ages for four months before it hits shelves, which Boyd says results in a handcrafted, “homebrew at the grocery store” character. He expects his first bottles to go on sale before long.

Add all this up and you have a beer scene in bloom like never before. What exactly led to such rapid growth?

“D.C. is a very expensive place to do business,” says Garvin of Mad Fox. When the economic downturn arrived, he says, it dropped real estate prices by roughly 25 percent in the area, presenting a completely new opportunity to upstart brewers. Now, beer lovers all around the capital are poised to savor the rewards of that silver lining for years to come.

 

A FEW NIGHTS AFTER the Mad Fox party, more than 200 beer lovers crammed into the new Deckard’s American Tavern in Midtown Atlanta to keep the anniversary celebration rolling. Samples of brews from The Beer Connoisseur’s first-annual Beers of the Year list – including Avery Out of Bounds stout, Hanssens Oude Kriek and Lagunitas Hop Stoopid – were poured as the crowd noshed dishes from the restaurant’s New England-inspired menu.

Georgia’s beer scene has come a long way since the days when the hard ABV cap stifled imperial stouts and left Belgians stuck at the state line, but with the population of the Atlanta metro area swelling to about 5.5 million, it’s clear that the supply of local beer from SweetWater, Terrapin and Atlanta Brewing Company is hardly meeting demand. Recently, a few new brewers have answered the craft call, and a couple of those were featured that night at the anniversary party.

Jailhouse Brewing takes its name from the 1920s brick hooskow in Hampton, Ga., about 30 miles south of Atlanta, that houses it. Started by longtime homebrewer Glenn Golden, the brewery sold its first kegs in late 2009 and currently turns out a wheat, an IPA and a roasty, coffee-ish stout on a 15-barrel system. Getting Jailhouse up and running presented challenges that clearly illustrate why it is now only the fourth production brewery in the state.

“The licensing process is nightmarish,” Golden says. “We literally waited eight months for our license,” during which time, Golden says, he was forced to take a leap of faith and move ahead with setting up the brewery. But along with those challenges comes a great deal of potential.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” he says. “It’s allowed us to get our name out there without having to compete aggressively with 10 other breweries of our size, or what have you.”

Another option is contract brewing, which was how Terrapin Beer Co. went about laying a foundation for its wild popularity years before building its own brewery in Athens, Ga. Wild Heaven Craft Beers is also heading down that road, making a name for itself with bold ales like a Belgian golden called Invocation and an imperial brown dubbed Ode to Mercy that are currently brewed at Greenville, South Carolina’s Thomas Creek Brewery. Wild Heaven’s founder, Nick Purdy, who also started the music magazine Paste, attributes the company’s early success to its ambitious brews, whose recipes were developed by Eric Johnson, the owner of Athens’s popular Trappeze Pub.

“Wild Heaven does not exist to put out Wild Heaven Pale,” says Purdy. “The world does not need us to do that.”

Recently Purdy signed a lease on a warehouse in the Atlanta area that should be turning out Wild Heaven beers by the middle of next year.

O’Dempsey’s, another new brewer going the contract route, went in a different direction at its outset, producing an easy drinking Irish red ale, and has since added an American-style IPA. Its founder, Randy Dempsey, says he eventually plans to add a big Russian imperial stout. The beers are brewed at Atlanta Brewing Company, Georgia’s oldest brewery, and Dempsey has jumped in to help Atlanta Brewing and others officially form the nonprofit Georgia Craft Brewers Guild to advocate on behalf of the state’s brewers. It’s a long overdue move, he says.

Dempsey calls dealing with some of the state liquor control board’s many restrictions “the frightening side” of the brewing business. “It’s almost paralyzing,” he says. “Like ‘What can I and what can’t I do?”

Bob Sandage, who is opening a brewpub in a historic mansion near downtown Atlanta called the Wrecking Bar, also knows from experience what Georgia brewers are up against. “I usually joke around to some of my friends, saying ‘Georgia’s just come out of Prohibition,’” since 2004, says Sandage, the president of Final Gravity, a large local homebrew club.

Despite the recent mini-boom, “there’s a long way to go here in Georgia,” he adds. But from the looks of things, it’s only a matter of time until Georgia reaches the craft beer Promised Land.

-- By Nick Kaye

(Top two photos by Charles C. Cook.)