As a follow-up to the Washington City Paper Beer Issue story on craft breweries opening in D.C., The Lagerheads are posting a series of features on each brewery. First up is DC Brau.
As a wine distributor and importer in the Mid-Atlantic for six years, Brandon Skall noticed something missing from the local scene: “The whole time this gap, ever since Old Dominion moved, was staring me in the face: we need a beer from D.C. You’ve got great brewpubs downtown, so why couldn’t there be a brewery from D.C. that was production oriented?”
Then, just over two years ago, Skall learned that fellow local DJ Jeff Hancock was a professional brewer. They only knew each other by their DJ handles, Freefall and Brandon Black (aka Bran B), but arranged to meet to discuss the idea of starting a brewery. Skall brought the beginnings of a business plan and Hancock, who had brewed professionally for several breweries, most recently Flying Dog, brought the beer.
Each must have liked what the other had to offer because, since then, Skall and Hancock have worked tirelessly to get their brewery, DC Brau Brewing Company, ready for production. Preparation included hiring a legal team and brewery planning firm, homebrewing weekly to develop recipes, and raising almost $600,000 in private capital. Skall and Hancock are currently busy equipping and building out their brewspace. But the duo still find the time to update their blog and Facebook page and to go out to local bars to meet future DC Brau drinkers and share their love of craft beer. Skall handles sales and marketing as CEO, and Hancock is the president and head brewer.
DC Brau occupies a 6,600-square-foot space in an industrial mall on Bladensburg Road in Northeast D.C., just a few blocks from Eastern Avenue. The entrance, which is at the back of the building, faces the railroad tracks, a fact you are reminded of each time a MARC train roars by on its way into Maryland. Right now, the space is not much more than a vacant warehouse with a loading dock, an adjoining office area (that will eventually hold a tasting bar), a small closet and bathroom, and a dark nook that looks perfect for barrel aging.
On the day I visited, contractors were finishing a wall to separate the brewery from the storage area in the rest of the building. Skall and Hancock were waiting for equipment to be delivered. As we walked around the near-empty warehouse, they showed me a few of the pieces that had already arrived. (Brew techie bonus: This included their glycol chiller, filter, boiler, and canning line.)
DC Brau’s used canning line, which came from Roughneck Brewing Company in Alberta, Canada, is the same model that started the can revolution in craft beer. Sales reps from Cask Brewing Systems, the Canadian outfit that makes the machine, have spent the last 10 years convincing craft breweries like Oskar Blues and Sly Fox to disregard the association of cans with watered-down, metallic-tasting beer and put their flavorful, hand-crafted brews in aluminum.
DC Brau can’t start filling cans until the rest of their 15-barrel brewhouse equipment arrives in December. The duo is planning a trip to China next month to check on the system’s progress. If all goes well, Skall and Hancock will be brewing by Christmas, which means as soon as January they will be sending beer to bars, restaurants, and shops across D.C.
DC Brau will have three flagship beers, starting with Public Ale, a 5%-ABV “easy going” American Pale Ale. “Sierra Nevada [Pale Ale] was the first craft beer I had that kicked the gears in my head and made me say, ‘Hey, I could do this,'” Hancock told me. “Pale Ale is my favorite style of beer and I wanted to put enough hops there to make people that know about Pale Ales excited, but not so aggressive to the point that people who might drink a lighter beer can’t make the switch. . . So many big Pale Ale and IPA beers are so strong you can’t session them. When I get a good beer, I want to drink it until I’m blue in the face and not necessarily get drunk before that.”
Hancock and Skall are currently working on two recipes for the Public Ale, a fruity West Coast style using American hops and a “more dialed down” version with English hops. They will use the final recipe to produce another flagship, the Citizen. This Belgian-Style Pale Ale will be the Public Ale brewed with Belgian yeast to give the beer some fruit and spice characterstics. DC Brau will also make an India Pale Ale called Corruption Ale. According to an interview with NovaBeerFly, the Corruption Ale will be a “no holds barred American IPA with plenty of IBU’s and aroma to satisfy the most seasoned of IPA drinkers.”
I asked how they named their beers. Skall said, “We wanted the image of the brewery to be associated with the nation’s capital—freedom, the country, and politics in some way without taking a side. You have corruption everywhere. We felt the name fit perfectly for an IPA, for the power of hops and how they can corrupt your palate. After having a super hoppy beer everything else tastes a little funny.”
In addition to the three flagship beers, DC Brau will produce seasonal beers named after D.C. neighborhoods. They will also create limited-release specialty beers in 22-oz. bombers or 750-mL corked bottles. Skall and Hancock also have plans to work with local establishments to create private label beers like Brasserie Beck’s Antigoon, which is brewed especially for the restaurant by a small brewery in Belgium.
DC Brau beers will be sold at nearly 40 District bars, restaurants, and shops (half have signed letters of intent, half have made oral agreements), including Rock and Roll Hotel, Red Derby, Solly’s, The Looking Glass Lounge, Stoney’s, Room 11, Timor Bodega, and Whole Foods, to name a few. In their first year DC Brau hopes to produce the equivalent of 60-to-80 kegs a week, which will equal about 3,000 barrels. Their business plan has them distributing to Maryland and Virginia as soon as the market is ready and expanding to 5,000 barrels by their fifth year. Skall and Hancock ultimately aspire to sell beer throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
But for now DC Brau is keeping things local. Its founders want the identity of the company to be personal—for people to know them as well as they know their beer. “That’s a dream for us,” Skall said. “Like if somebody goes to a bar and they see a DC Brau tap, we literally want to be in the corner hearing them say to their friend, ‘Oh hey I met these guys at a bar and they were awesome. They told me all about their brewery.’ We really want to make that happen.”
This goal is part of the reason they are naming each of their seasonal beers after a D.C. neighborhood. “It’s a nod to each of the neighborhoods,” Skall said. “D.C. is starting to have a real neighborhood culture.” Hancock added, “The city is developing that way with independent businesses and each borough getting its own identity.” Outside of the city, Skall and Hancock have established a partnership with Burnside Farms in Haymarket, Virginia. They have planted hops they will use in their beer, and have arranged for the farmers to use brewery waste for animal feed, composting, and fertilization.
Skall and Hancock are looking forward to building a community with the breweries that will be operating inside the District of Columbia in the next year. “Really the end goal is what we can accomplish together,” Skall said. If we can establish that good quality local beers come from D.C., we can bring more people into the craft beer world.” He added, “I think the bottom line is that our strength, all of us, has got to be our unity. If any one of us tries to divide and conquer, it’s going to ruin it for everybody.”
So far Skall and Hancock have taken a lead in building that unity. They have served as mentors to Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey who will be opening 3 Stars Brewing Company next year. They have also reached out to neighboring brewery founders Jay Irizarry and Ben Matz of Chocolate City Beer, and hope to develop a relationship that could involve sharing shipments and supplies and even brewing beer together. “I would like to think that we’re all going to be out there just as much supporting the D.C. beer scene, doing events, trying to push the ideas of locality and freshness,” Skall said. “As the rest of the local movement through farming and agriculture and food grows, so will local beer.” We certainly hope he’s right.
For more photos of the Lagerheads’ visit to DC Brau Brewing Company, visit our album on Facebook.