Get our free newsletter
On a screened-in back porch attached to the best brewery in D.C. you’ve never heard of, Nathan Zeender is unlacing a sack of barley.
“Feel free to eat a kernel,” says Zeender, 35, popping one into his mouth. “It’s good. Right where it should be—sort of sweet, Grape-Nutty.” Bees crisscross a yard filled with vegetable beds and herbs, drawn to honey Zeender recently extracted from a hive he tends at the nearby Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. Like the rosemary, dandelions, and spruce trees outside, the honey sometimes perfumes Zeender’s thoughtfully crafted concoctions.
An urban farmstead on the outside and bohemian oasis on the inside, Zeender’s Brookland home is filled with vintage posters, rough-hewn wood furniture, books on “radical brewing” and surrealist art, and a laid-back vibe that matches his name (pronunciation: zen-der). In the basement, four beers are on tap, including a caramel-colored, German-style kellerbier and a dark, smoky Baltic porter. Lurking nearby are four enormous oak barrels, which harbor wild yeasts and bacteria that work slowly for months—sometimes years—to ferment tart, nearly winelike ales inspired by the sour beers of Belgium.
This isn’t a professional brewery. But Zeender’s homebrews, especially the unusual barrel-aged beers he’s best known for, easily rival the wares of any brewery or brewpub in the District—and often surpass them.
Joshua Hubner, the president of the DC Homebrewers Club, calls Zeender’s beers “fantastic.” Steve Frazier, head brewer at Baltimore’s The Brewer’s Art, compares Zeender to his friend Brian Strumke, the ex-homebrewer who founded Stillwater Artisanal Ales—a white-hot brand that some beer lovers rank among the most innovative in the country. “Nathan’s beers are on a par with what Brian was doing prior to going professional,” Frazier says. In a 2010 Washington Post article, Greg Kitsock wrote that Zeender’s beers were like nothing he had ever tasted, adding, “I can imagine beer geeks queuing up to pay $50 or more a case.” Still, Kitsock suspected that Zeender, who’d spent years maintaining databases for D.C. nonprofits, might never brew professionally.
Now, Zeender is going pro. Beginning sometime next year, he’ll be the head brewer at the new Right Proper Brewing Company. (The partners are in the final stages of fundraising, just launched an Indiegogo campaign, and are close to signing a lease, probably in Shaw.) An artisanal brewpub with an eye toward the avant-garde, Right Proper is an unprecedented development in a city whose young production breweries—which only make beer, in contrast to brewpubs, which also serve food—have focused on pale ales, straightforward Belgian ales, and other fairly standard styles. Meanwhile, D.C.’s three existing brewpubs, all at least a decade old, offer variations on the same location (downtown), menu (Cobb salad, Ahi tuna, dip), and solid but predictable beers (mostly tried-and-true German and American varieties). For all its recent growth, D.C.’s brewing scene is still relatively conservative.
But Right Proper could nudge the city’s beer landscape in a radical new direction. A craftsman whose peers often refer to him as an artist, Zeender wants to use his new platform to explore a more cerebral approach to brewing, trying out atypical ideas that would be harder to implement at a large production facility or an old-school brewpub.
For at least a few more months, however, Zeender is still a homebrewer. In his backyard, I help him dump several varieties of malted barley into a mill, a metal funnel attached to two thin cylinders that he spins with a power drill, depositing crushed grain into a Home Depot bucket below. It then goes into a long, 165-quart fishing cooler—the “mash tun,” in brewer-speak. Tomorrow, he’ll add hot water and start the mash, the step that converts starches and sugars into a sweet, fermentable barley tea. Eventually—and here’s the part Hubner says makes Zeender different from almost every other homebrewer in D.C.—he’ll fill a 53-gallon oak barrel in his basement, blending in a smaller batch of the same beer that he’s been souring since May.
“I call it a vin de céréale,” Zeender says. “French for ‘barley wine.’” He adds that it’s a rebrew of a beer named Mallarmé that he first made several years ago, his take on a sour red ale he once tried in Belgium.
He hands me his iPhone. An old, elfin Frenchman peers out from the screen. “Stéphane Mallarmé,” Zeender says. “Symbolist poet. Not that I read a lot of poetry, but especially as a teenager it struck my fancy.”
The comment is classic Zeender: intelligent but self-effacing and entirely sincere. He doesn’t always christen his beers, but he did once name a funky farmhouse ale after the 1963 Billy Wilder film Irma la Douce and an obscure German adambier after “one of the loudest, sludgiest” songs he’s ever heard, by the “Japanese noisecult band” Les Rallizes Dénudés.
All of this speaks to the unique sensibility Zeender will bring to Right Proper. It’s one that reflects many of the current trends of craft beer—particularly an emphasis on history and artisanship—yet is unabashed in its individualism. It speaks to the increasingly blurred boundaries between homebrewers and their professional counterparts, despite the huge challenges that separate brewing amazing beer in your basement and making large volumes of it on a production schedule. And it’s a sensibility that, like Right Proper itself, could represent a milestone in the rise of craft beer in D.C.
We’ve had at least one great beer bar for decades, and craft breweries since DC Brau and Chocolate City Beer opened last year. But we don’t have a cutting-edge brewpub, much less one whose brewer names his creations after poets. “I wouldn’t say this is my art,” Zeender says. “It’s really just something that I really like doing.” Still, he adds, “Not everyone is able to brew uncompromising beers.”
New, innovative brewpubs are a rare species, not just in D.C. but nationwide. According to the Brewers Association, the country’s leading craft beer trade group, the total number of U.S. microbreweries increased from 450 in 2008 to 789 in 2011. During the same period, the number of brewpubs increased from 1,009 to 1,063. Before 2008, as microbreweries became more common, the number of brewpubs actually declined for several years. “There is a conundrum with the modern brewpub,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer. “At one time we had a dozen brewpubs in New York City, and part of what killed them is, ironically, the craft-brewing movement.”
The plight of the brewpub is often attributed to economic factors that have hammered the restaurant industry as a whole, but Oliver offers a more nuanced explanation. Whereas brewpubs traditionally survived by serving a limited lineup of house drafts alongside food that was often mediocre, Oliver argues that the rise of bars with more taps than most brewpubs—plus a wider array of styles representing the best beers from all over the world—put brewpubs at a competitive disadvantage. Suddenly, many of them had not only undistinguished food but also undistinguished beer selections. To thrive, at least outside tourist-overrun Penn Quarter, a brewpub now has to be both a great restaurant and a great brewery.
If the barriers are now higher for brewpubs, their mere establishment stands to be a lot more meaningful, not only because they’re rarer but also because they can often pursue ideas and styles that larger breweries can’t. Viewed in this light, they represent the final third of a brew-forward city’s holy trinity: trendy beer bars, trendy breweries, and trendy brewpubs. That’s how things seem to have played out in D.C., where muscular beer bars have been followed by pride-inspiring homegrown breweries, which will soon share the market with D.C.’s first artful brewpub—a sign of a beer scene approaching adulthood.
In the beginning, you might say, God created the heavens and the Brickskeller. Though mocked for its unreliable inventory as it declined and finally shuttered in 2010, after opening in 1957 it achieved a sort of metaphysical supremacy: It wasn’t only the best beer bar in the District but one of the best in the country. Fittingly, the city’s current beer boom also began with a beer bar: Georgetown’s Birreria Paradiso, which opened in the basement of Pizzeria Paradiso in 2006.
It was there, long before Nathan Zeender decided to brew professionally, that the vision for Right Proper began to take shape in the mind of the man who would eventually hire him. Birreria Paradiso was developed by a manager named Thor Cheston—a 2001 Georgetown University graduate who abandoned plans to become a doctor and instead fell in love with another sort of medicine, Belgian beer—and it helped pioneer the combination of rotating draft lines and numerous bottles, often coupled with good food, that would soon spread across town.
But Cheston jumped ship only six months into his tenure to help open a new Belgian restaurant in Philadelphia. He remembers a difficult talk with Paradiso’s owner about his decision to leave. “This isn’t it,” he recalls saying. “I want to move back to D.C.”—eventually—“because I think brewpubs could do really well here.”
For a time, Cheston considered becoming a brewer, apprenticing with Jason Oliver, the Gordon Biersch brewmaster who went on to launch Virginia’s Devils Backbone Brewing Company. He ended up focusing on restaurant management, moving back to D.C. and overseeing the front of house at Robert Wiedmaier’s Brasserie Beck after falling out with his partners in Philly.
Meanwhile, D.C.’s beer scene kept evolving, and craft breweries emerged, each occupying a different niche. First came DC Brau, with its emphasis on American classics highlighting the resinous, pinecone-shaped flowers known as hops; then Chocolate City and its milder, malty beers; and recently 3 Stars Brewing, with its bold, high-alcohol elixirs. Also hoping to stand out from what is now a small crowd are several breweries-in-progress, ranging from Hellbender Brewing Company to Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Bluejacket, which will contain a restaurant but is not, its team insists, a brewpub, in part because of its size. For now, the only new D.C. brewpub in the works is Cheston’s. (His partner is John Snedden, of the Rocklands minichain of barbecue restaurants.)
Cheston envisions Right Proper as a neighborhood gathering place, an upscale but unpretentious brewpub akin to The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore or Philadelphia’s Standard Tap. He says it will feel rustic, with an emphasis on natural light during the day, candlelight at night, and a design that highlights pre-existing architectural elements such as brick walls and molding. Cheston has enlisted veteran D.C. chef Ris Lacoste to help find someone to oversee the kitchen. Their pick will train with Lacoste at her New American restaurant, Ris, and will work with her to develop an “inexpensive and fresh” menu featuring local ingredients—affordable enough that a meal including beer will run about $25.
The beer program, Cheston says, will consist of six constantly changing house taps, two drafts from other breweries, and corked 750-milliliter bottles. Many of these, or possibly all, will be filled with the contents of perhaps 75 to 100 on-site barrels devoted to sour and funky beers, although Cheston also plans to have at least one beer brewed and packaged offsite. (Cheston is lobbying to alter D.C. regulations so establishments with tavern licenses can fill the resealable jugs known as growlers.)
It’s a vision that cohered thanks to some homebrews one of Cheston’s early customers at Birreria Paradiso gave him a couple of years ago.
“I was floored,” Cheston says of Zeender’s beers. “They were just phenomenal, on par with the finest Flemish brown ales. And so when I talked to him about how he produced them—he did barrel-aging, he did the inoculation with wild yeast himself, he did blending—I was just like, ‘Holy shit.’”
Cheston adds, “I knew that Nathan is such a talent that if we don’t grab him and bring him on board, someone else is going to.”
Outside by the rosemary and honeybees, Zeender looks like he’s paddling a canoe across a pond covered in early morning mist.
The pond, however, is a thin stew of water and crushed barley that has filled his fishing cooler. The mist is steam that smells like fresh-baked bread. And his small wooden brewer’s paddle is keeping the slurry well-mixed and a consistent temperature throughout. “It’s right at 165, so that’s perfect,” he says, pausing to take a reading with a thermometer. He closes the lid on what will eventually be his Mallarmé and returns to the porch, waiting while the heat activates enzymes in the barley that will convert starches to easily fermentable sugars.
Zeender, who was born in Takoma Park and raised throughout the D.C. area, recalls reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a teenager. “I remember being completely entranced by it,” he says. “I think the day after I finished it, I went into our backyard, and I tore up the backyard and I put in a bean crop. Now, looking back on it, there’s a lot of holes in a book like that. But I think it sent me to some degree along a path toward being consciously self-sufficient.”
Largely an autodidact, Zeender never attended college and happened to get a job maintaining databases for WAMU, a marketable skill that led to a career working at nonprofits. He got into wine and then beer during his early- to mid-twenties—but “I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to make decent wine,” he says. The woman who is now his longtime domestic partner bought him a homebrew kit about eight years ago, and he gradually advanced from an imperial stout that smelled like nail polish remover to his first massive oak barrel, which he and several friends filled in 2008. One of those friends was Mike Tonsmeire, author of the beer blog The Mad Fermentationist and a forthcoming book about American sour beers.
Zeender and Tonsmeire were beginning journeys into the realm of wild yeasts and bacteria, and they became close collaborators, eventually stashing an apple brandy barrel and a wine barrel in Tonsmeire’s basement. (Zeender’s barrels tend to contain group projects involving him, Tonsmeire, and others, although the ideas and recipes are often “driven by Nathan,” according to one frequent participant, Tim Pohlhaus.) Zeender and Tonsmeire went on to create everything from a hoppy sour beer inspired by a release from Cantillon, the most iconic producer of the Belgian sours known as lambics, to a sour laced with Cabernet grapes, often aging fractions of a large batch with separate flavorings.
The plunge into sour beers wasn’t the only way Zeender departed from the standard homebrewer trajectory: He also avoided the clubs and competitions that are mainstays of American homebrewing culture. “One of the funny things about Nathan is he doesn’t really like other homebrewers,” Tonsmeire says. “I think he’s always regarded himself as an artisan brewer who just happens to brew in his house.”
This helps explain why Zeender, often accompanied by Tonsmeire, started visiting talented and eccentric professional brewers—people like Terry Hawbaker, then of Pennsylvania’s Bullfrog Brewery, Dann and Martha Paquette of the Boston area’s Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, and Shaun Hill of Vermont’s Hill Farmstead Brewery. He picked their brains about their techniques and inspiration, and sometimes helped them brew. “Before he goes into something, he goes and sees how someone else does it,” says Ryan Michaels, the award-winning brewer at Pennsylvania’s McKenzie Brew House, who collaborated with Zeender and Tonsmeire on a funky Belgian-style farmhouse ale. “I’d say that’s pretty unusual.”
Along the way, Zeender acquired his philosophy of beer: a desire to brew mindfully and playfully, to make soulful, balanced ales and lagers that carry the heft of history even as they contain nuances that are distinctly avant-garde. On the one hand, he admires Old World producers like Germany’s Schlenkerla, which has brewed with wood-smoked barley for at least five centuries. On the other, he takes inspiration from American mavericks like California’s Moonlight Brewing and Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, which brew beers the public has often had a hard time understanding, things like “tree beers” flavored with redwood clippings and the American sour ales Zeender specializes in.
Right Proper’s beer program will not be heavy on tree beers. Zeender wants to make beers people want to drink, and he’ll balance his less familiar barrel-aged beers with a rotating lineup of more quaffable offerings. His ideas include something light and similar to a pilsner, a pale German-influenced lager with a hint of smoke, and a low-alcohol beer packed with fruity and herbal American hops, similar to an India pale ale but with only 4 or 5 percent ABV.
Still, one reason Zeender teamed up with Cheston is a mutual understanding that he’ll run the brewery like a workshop, constantly experimenting and devoting much of his attention to the sour ales he sometimes calls “baroque beers.” The term gestures to the beers’ bold flavors and their elaborate architecture—the way individual beers, often matured with different aging techniques and in different kinds of barrels, are fragmented into smaller batches, flavored with fruits and botanicals, and then sometimes blended back together.
To be sure, Right Proper won’t be the only venue bringing this innovative approach to D.C. Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Navy Yard brewery, Bluejacket, is an even more ambitious project that will consist of a 200-plus-seat restaurant attached to a production brewery—one that hopes to sprinkle its beers all over the country. The head brewer, Megan Parisi, previously worked at Cambridge Brewing Company in Massachusetts, a brewpub that helped pioneer much of the esoteric brewing that captivates Zeender.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director Greg Engert, who is collaborating closely with Parisi on Bluejacket’s beer program, says both Right Proper and Bluejacket are “trying to push things even farther” in much the same way, with parallel devotions to sour beers, odd ingredients, and constant newness.
But Zeender notes that a brewpub environment, with its smaller batch sizes, is especially well-suited to this sort of experimentation. “On a brewpub scale, you’re probably able to get away with a lot more of that,” he says. “You can hand-sell the beer, too; you can tell the story of the beer if it’s something people aren’t used to.”
These easiest place for Zeender to experiment is, of course, his house. After letting the barley-water slurry steep in his fishing cooler, he drains the liquid, then adds more water and drains it again to extract even more flavor and sugar. Then he boils the liquid—the “wort”—atop two freestanding propane burners, adding a small amount of hops. Soon he’ll chill the wort and pour it into a barrel in his basement, so it can start fermenting. Before he does, he offers me a sip from a stemmed glass filled with a reddish liquid.
It’s the partially fermented Mallarmé he’ll soon blend with the unfermented wort. It smells like cherries and oak and tastes pleasant, lightly acidic, and tannic. “Pretty good stuff,” Zeender says. “When we sit down and do a tasting, we’ll taste the version of this that I did several years ago.” He says that before he got into beer, this wouldn’t have even seemed like beer to him—more like a young red wine.
Now, he’s counting on Cheston to help him turn it into a business.
Near the barrels in Zeender’s basement, above the modified chest freezer that refrigerates his kegs, a chalkboard decorated with a drawing of a bee and a brewer’s paddle lists the beers he currently has on tap. It also bears a quotation: “In dreams begin responsibilities,” the title of a short story by the poet and author Delmore Schwartz. The words offer an apt description of where Zeender now finds himself as he works to leap from visionary homebrewing into a brewpub career.
Even if the D.C. beer scene has evolved beyond beer bars and production breweries to the point that a brewpub like Right Proper can thrive, Zeender still faces the challenge of helping prove that nontraditional beers can be satisfying and widely accepted. But he’s already shown that avant-garde brewing doesn’t have to mean a mad-scientist approach—that it can be more about carefully tweaking tradition to arrive at rich mixtures of styles and flavors. It is this aspect of “mindfulness,” to use one of Zeender’s favorite words, that may ultimately demonstrate why Right Proper’s beers matter. They’ll taste good, but, more than most other D.C. beers, they’ll embody a single person’s purposeful creative process, rather than industry trends.
Then then there’s Zeender’s other big challenge: He has to learn to do everything that goes along with brewing professionally but has little to do with making fantastic beer in your free time.
“You have to make a great product, but you also have to run a great business, and that explains why not every great homebrewer out there is opening a business tomorrow,” the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Engert says. Cheston and Zeender, he adds, “have a step up because they have more experience when it comes to restaurants and food and management, but it’s still a tough row to hoe.” Then there’s the issue of refining Zeender’s recipes. “No matter how small-scale Right Proper’s system is going to be,” he says, “there’s going to be a lot of trial and error to get the things that have worked on a smaller scale to work on a larger level.”
Oliver, of Brooklyn Brewery, points out that focusing on sour beers professionally to the extent that Zeender will is complicated, because they take so long to mature and often don’t ferment at predictable rates, making them hard to fit into a long-term production schedule. “They have great potential, but they’re tricky,” he says. “What will be interesting is to see how he balances that funkier program with his day-to-day program.”
Cheston says he was aware of these difficulties when he considered bringing Zeender on board. “My main concern was that he did not have professional brewing experience: You can make tremendous beer at home, you can write beautiful recipes, and you can really have an artistic touch, but when it comes down to it you’re going to have to run a professional brewhouse,” he says. “It’s still a concern, but he assured me that he was willing to take that step to really get himself prepared to enter the professional brewing world.” Cheston also says Right Proper might hire a second, more experienced brewer to handle much of the everyday production and enable Zeender to devote more attention to his barrel projects.
Zeender, for his part, has already begun a series of informal apprenticeships, getting himself up to speed in recent months by brewing at The Brewer’s Art, the Texas-based Jester King Craft Brewery, and Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville. He hopes to arrange future stints in Quebec and Belgium, and when we sit down at a rustic wood table to taste his creations, he says he has stocked up on brewing textbooks that are full of details about engineering and workflow.
It’s now nighttime. As crickets echo in the garden outside, we drink one astounding beer after another, each of them better than the majority of beers I’ve had from breweries in the greater Washington area.
First up is a grisette, a light Belgian-style farmhouse ale. Then we move on to Zeender’s bready German-style kellerbier, his rich but drinkable Baltic porter, and a mysteriously aromatic and musky example of the Belgian farmhouse style known as saison. As we cover the table with bottles ranging from a sour beer laced with elderflowers to a strong Belgian tripel anointed with American hops and wild yeast, the talk turns again to Zeender’s craft.
“It’s just something I do,” he says. The statement lingers in my mind long after the beer is gone, and long after we’ve cracked one of the final bottles, the Mallarmé.
The taste is like cherries and balsamic vinegar, with a lingering complexity. It’s not the young red wine we tried earlier but one that has mellowed into middle age. It tastes like a beer named after a poet, an example of what Zeender and Right Proper will bring to the D.C. scene.
But it is also the creation of a guy who is still more homebrewer than pro—who just stumbled upon some poems as a teenager and genuinely liked them, who just brews in his basement because it’s what he likes to do, and who has not yet compromised his vision and sincerity. If D.C. is lucky, he never will.