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Like politics, all brewing is local.
But mirroring the people surrounding it, the D.C. area’s brewing scene is replete with a burgeoning worldliness, housing a number of young breweries that are forwarding the art of fermentables to innovative places.
Any beer connoisseur who has ever sat down at Churchkey, Rustico, or The Partisan can likely wax poetic about those bars’ commitment to hunting down and serving the world’s finest Belgian lambics.
These days, when beer director Greg Engert wants to procure such a beverage, he merely has to stroll on down to his brewery and make one.
About a month ago, the team at Bluejacket—Engert, along with brewers Bobby Bump, Josh Chapman, and Owen Miller—were able to begin brewing on their very own coolship, inaugurating the sparkling Navy Yard facility into an elite collective of American brewers like Allagash, Crooked Stave, Jester King and Russian River, who have harnessed the device to create some of the most sought-after beers in the country.
“The coolship is really introducing elements from the wild, and gives a sense of airborne terroir that literally could not be replicated elsewhere,” Engert says.
The coolship itself—a long, flat, uncovered vessel that allows for the cooling of boiling-hot unfermented beer, called wort, at air temperature and including “spontaneous” atmospheric elements—is but one of Bluejacket’s impressive armory of brewing implements. (The brewery has already utilized open and horizontal fermentation to produce stand-outs over the course of around 2,600 barrels in its first year of operation.) But it’s certainly one of the, well, coolest.
The first batch off the coolship is a conventional lambic, “a simple beer with a lot of unmalted wheat and little hop” as Engert describes it, that responded well to the conditions and was then moved to age in oak wine barrels. But Engert and his team plan to use the vessel to brew blends, fruit ales, and creatively dry hopped beers.
Of course, the local commitment to shiny metal brewing toys has been fermenting underneath local beers for years. At Port City Brewing Company, a not-so-secret weapon powers many of their most popular beers, like Monumental IPA, Essential Pale Ale, and Downright Pilsner: the HOPZOOKA.
The patent-pending device is basically a pressurized chute that enables hops to be pumped into the tank without allowing extra oxygen to enter. Oxygen is a critical component in brewing—without it, the yeast used won’t be properly nourished—but controlling its effects on flavor once fermentation starts can be challenging. This quality control is especially important for brewers like those at Port City, who pride themselves on consistently producing traditional styles rapidly, and in large volumes.
D.C. brewers are also expanding their scope of innovation beyond mere implements and tools, considering complete brewing systems that are rarely seen on these shores, let alone locally. Consider Hellbender, which only began regularly distributing to bars last month, but whose 2nd Street NE brewery is already one of the most environmentally sustainable in the country.
“It started out just trying to find something that was more efficient in the brewhouse,” says Hellbender co-founder and president Ben Evans. “Once I realized what this system could do, I just couldn’t think about getting anything else.”
Hellbender’s approach stems from a brewing process that has been relatively common in Belgium since the late 19th century, but is new to both the District and the United States. While most American brewers break grains into small pieces the size of an oat to prepare them for brewing, Hellbender uses a hammer mill to ground it into a powder. When hot water is added to create the mash, more of the enzymes in the powder are free to break down starch into sugar—meaning Hellbender can use about 15 percent less grain and about 30 percent less water in every batch. The system was costly to install, but has already proved valuable, especially as Evans and his co-founder, Patrick Mullane, were seeking financing.
“The savings in grain and water, and knowing it was more efficient,” says Evans, the system “[will be] paid for itself in a few years. The system actually helped us get up and running.”
But even Hellbender—which also sources its hops from a farm Evans planted, participates in a partnership with American University to reuse its spent grain, and works with Casey Trees to populate green spaces in Riggs Park—admits that these new tactics only matter if they are in service of the most important job a brewer has.
“A lot of times, we’re really trying to push the ideas, in a fun way,” Evans says. “But in the end, all that matters is: ‘does it taste good?’”