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“This is unbelievable!” Graham MacDonald recalls thinking upon tasting his first of Matt Humbard’s homebrewed beers, a mixed-fermentation saison with Brettanomyces yeast and Nelson Sauvin hops. “It’s just as good as the best stuff you can find.”
MacDonald, then assistant general manager at Right Proper Brewing Company and formerly the beer director at 2Amys, believed there was room for more diversity in D.C.’s nascent brewing scene and wanted to do something about it. He immediately saw Humbard’s beers as an opportunity. Luckily for him, Humbard, who has been making beer for more than a decade and studiously blogging about brewing for the past two years, had similar aspirations.
Last week, only a year and a half after that fateful sip of saison, the duo started brewing commercially as Handsome Beer Company. By late September, their beers, currently contract brewed at Old Bust Head in Warrenton, Va., will be available on draft at bars and restaurants in D.C. and Maryland.
MacDonald and Humbard’s approach is intentionally different. “With each beer, it’s about how to take this one ingredient and make it special,” Humbard explains. For Humbard, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology and spent six years as a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, scientific experimentation is an integral part of the brewing process. “If I want to make a beer that showcases dandelions,” which he has, “I have that clear goal in mind,” he says. “I refine and refine, zig-zagging my way to get tighter toward the target.”
As a result, Handsome’s offerings range far afield from the standard IPA, pale ale, and stout lineup.
Take Galaxy Saison, named for the “galaxy of flavor” the beer is meant to impart, as well as the Australian hop it features. Light and very dry, the 5.9-percent-alcohol brew skillfully marries rustic Belgian yeast with the tropical and citrus flavors of Galaxy hops.
Another hopped Belgian-style beer, Medium and Message, is a 5-percent-alcohol Abbey ale with Motueka hops from New Zealand. Well-balanced, it finishes dry but has a distinct sweet flavor from its Melanoidin malt.
And finally, Strange Charm, which takes its name from two quark flavors (think subatomic particles, not cheese), is an exceptional brown ale starring Special B malt. At 6 percent alcohol, the beer is deceptively rich with a blend of nut, chocolate, dark fruit, and leather aromas and flavors.
“It’s not our objective to be the biggest brewery,” MacDonald says. “We’re just one candle in a sea of light trying to provide something unique that complements the existing beer and culinary scene.”
Given their artisanal approach and reliance on rare ingredients, Handsome beers will likely cost more than many other local brews. But Jace Gonnerman, beverage director at Meridian Pint, Brookland Pint, and Smoke and Barrel, doesn’t anticipate that will be a problem.
“You don’t just consider [alcohol by volume] when looking at the price point on beer; there are a thousand other factors that play into it,” says Gonnerman, who actively follows Humbard’s blog. “These are super well-made beers, and I’m very excited about what’s going to be coming from this guy down the line.”
Handsome Beer Company’s first three offerings will be available starting Sept. 22, with launch events scheduled for that week at Meridian Pint, Pizzeria Paradiso, and Glen’s Garden Market.
Pulaski Beer: Starting with Pulaski True American Lager, homebrewer Josh Perry, beer blogger John Fleury, and artist Peter Tsouras aim to prove that “delicious doesn’t have to be complicated.” Their first beer, contract brewed at Beltway Brewing in Sterling, Va., should be available by mid-winter. In the meantime, look for a collaboration with Right Proper in September.
National Capital Brewing Company: Information systems engineer Michael Webb and professional brewer Wes McCann are reviving the name of a pre-Prohibition D.C. brewery for their history and politics-themed brewing company. They are currently looking for a production space in Southeast where they plan to brew and serve Diamond Hefeweizen, Brumidi Honey Brown Ale, and RoP (Repeal of Prohibition) Belgian IPA as early as next summer.
Hauptstadt Brewing Company: A team led by patent lawyer Bobby Klinck plans to bring “old world tradition, new world style” to D.C. with a line-up of European-influenced brews tweaked to align with today’s American palate. With the aim of producing balanced, clean, and low-alcohol “sessionable” beers, they will start with two classic top-fermenting German styles, an alt and a Kölsch, to be contract brewed at another brewery and available sometime in 2016.
Fishbowl Brewing Company: Environmental protection specialist Andy Oetman plans to turn his homebrewing endeavors into a hyper-local, community-driven brewery, complete with captured storm water, reusable bottles, and hops grown in his supporters’ backyards. (He’s already worked with friends and co-workers to put together a “co-hoperative” of nearly 30 homes.) A permanent location is TBD, but Oetman is currently refining recipes for a dry Irish red ale, ginger saison, citrus wheat, and maple bourbon porter at his home in Near Northeast.
ANXO Cidery: Not beer, but better? D.C. will have its own cider flowing at the Basque-inspired ANXO Cidery and Pinxtos Bar in Truxton Circle by the end of the year. A team of all-stars from Meridian Pint, Boundary Road, and Big Stick, led by the sister-brother pair Rachel and Sam Fitz, will offer a range of ciders, including their own aged in a 25-hectoliter Barolo cask. Initially, it will be produced with the help of Maryland’s Millstone Cellars, but ANXO plans to begin fermenting and aging cider on site within its first year.
Photo of Graham MacDonald and Matt Humbard by Darrow Montgomery
Click here for more from our 2015 Beer Issue.