Know Your Beer: DC Brau

Richard Hefter, July 09, 2013

If Washington DC is going to become a great city for beer, DC Brau could be what gets it there. As the only District-based brewery to have every qualifying beer score positive in the BeerGraphs BAR metric, co-founders Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock have established the four-year-old brewery as one of the most respected and consistent breweries in the Mid-Atlantic. Their On The Wings of Armageddon Double IPA is ranked 50th in wOBAR and 71st in BAR in the Imperial/Double IPA category with only 87 check-ins.

Other than making world-class beer every day, Brandon and Jeff have been instrumental in changing DC's  alcohol laws which were previously a hindrance to brewery start-ups in the city. Incorporated in 2009, DC became the first brewery to operate inside DC since 1956. They started production in 2011 and their beer has been kicking ass ever since.

As a writer for BeerGraphs, which uses data from Untappd to establish our beer-metrics, we are always interested in how breweries use beer rating sites. Do you use any rating sites for feedback or is mostly everyone in-house developing and refining your recipes?

Jeff Hancock: We pretty much do that in house. Once we find a recipe, the porter is one I have worked a lot on, we all get together brew a batch and do a tasting to get feedback from one another. But we haven't really reached out outside the brewery.

Brandon Skall: We look at those websites, but we don't use them really for too much critical feedback.  We are curious what people think or how they rate the beers but it's not going to influence the production of the beer. We really go off of our own palates and instincts when developing a beer. We understand some beer isn't for everyone but I'd be lying if I said I didn't check out those websites. We don't belong to any of them -- Rate Beer, Beer Advocate, or Untappd -- but we do check them out from time to time.  

I see you are canning a new batch of On The Wings of Armageddon today. When you started you made the decision to go with the canning line right off the bat instead of bottles. Was that something that you put your heads together and decided this is what we want to do?

Skall: I don't think there was any doubt in our minds to be a can brewery, but once we looked at our space it really made a lot more sense to continue with that notion because of the space restrictions and the canning line was able to do so many operations in such a small space. From the get go we decided we wanted to be a can brewery.

Hancock: Having seen numerous bottling lines in operation, each operation has its own headaches, but canning is essentially less moving parts that you have to worry about fixing, a bottle has two body labels and a cap that has to go on perfect.  You could have a crooked label that is packaged perfectly but it is unsellable.

Canning OTWOA for the July 4th Holiday Weekend

With a beer like On The Wings of Armageddon, is it cool to see people clamoring for it in trades all over the country and having an hour-long line outside the brewery on release day?

Skall: It's cool, but it is a testament just to what we do here, not just so much with the one beer, but with every product we make. That is the one beer that has the biggest cult following of all the beers we brew but we do have a lot of beers with a cult essence to them. I think if we made Wings all the time, every single week, we might not have as much pull through. But I do think it is one of the premier Double IPAs in the country and I think any time you have a beer like that you will have clamoring for it. Ours is one that I am proud to say is world-class and definitely stands up to any Double IPA in the world.

OTWOA uses Hopunion’s Falconer's Flight hop blend which is becoming less available as more breweries discover and use it. Are you worried about the supply at all?

Skall: We have a contract on it, so not too worried about it.  If we had an all Citra beer, we would be worried since we don't have a contract, but that is one of the reasons you sign a contract.  

DC Brau always seems to be working with other breweries to come up with new beers. I have seen Brainless Corruption, Middle Name Danger and Embers of the Deceased to name a few. Are you guys always experimenting with test batches, it seems like you have been cranking out the collaborations and the special releases?

Skall: Honestly, no. All that stuff comes from Jeff's head. We haven't really brewed a pilot batch since we were raising money and had a lot of time on our hands. Now, Jeff will just sit down and write a recipe.

Hancock: I have been brewing for quite a long time. It is almost like a brewer’s equivalent of that show Chopped, where you get these five random ingredients and you have to make a masterpiece out of them. I will say there are a couple beer styles that need a little bit more R&D, but for most of the specialties we do, I just have a bunch of things I reference and come up with my own version of it. As far as our collaborations go, it's fun to collaborate with other people and pull back the reins a little bit. We figured CBC was a good time, since everyone was coming in, to do some of our own things and do some with other breweries, which we did. We have a couple lined up. We are going to redo our Taster's Choice collaboration with Ska out in Durango (Co.). Beside that we really don't have a lot lined up. We're focusing in house on our core beers and our seasonals.

With a beer like Yonder Cities that you produced with Union Craft Brewing (Baltimore, MD) for the Craft Brewers Conference this year, is that something you can continue to put out at will to meet the demand?

Skall: Yeah, we brewed it a second time. We have a good working understanding with the breweries that we work with that the recipes can be brewed again by either brewery. Union can brew it up there if they wanted to. The first collaboration we did that was inter-state was the Epic Brewing (Salt Lake City, UT) collaboration which was the imperial pumpkin porter and even though we didn't brew it last year, they brewed it last year and we are both going to brew it this year. We never had a collaboration where we were really harsh or they were really harsh with setting parameters, it's just like if we want to brew this again we have the right to and if you want to brew it again they have the right to. Oliver's (Baltimore, MD) has rebrewed the Burial at Sea and that is fine.  

You just came out with a [very good] beer, the Everyday Junglist, which is your Session Pale Ale. Do you think the growing popularity of session beers is feedback from all the high ABV beers that have been so popular?

Skall: I think it was more than a trend, people went back to brewing beers that were more session-able because everyone was sick of the whole who-can-out-do-who whether that was a double IPA or a triple IPA. So, I feel like there is bit of a trend aspect to session beers but you have to remember session beers are as old as time in beer production. There might be a resurgence of them right now, but there was a time when not every beer was not 7, 8, or 9%, which is most of the history of beer.

The beer industry is pretty dynamic with lots of shifts in what people are drinking based on whatever the newest trend is. Are there any trends you have seen in the industry that you have shied away from?

Skall: There are always going to be trends this industry, we haven't brewed a Black IPA yet, but that doesn't mean we will or we won't. It's important for anyone that practices an artisan form, whether it is visual arts or culinary arts or martial arts, any artisan form, to stay away from trends. You don't want to get too immersed in them or you will find yourself becoming a trend, especially with music I think that is very relevant and I think [an industry] like this is.  I think trends come and go and as long as you are true to yourself and what you are creating, it's alright to do one or two things. But just follow your passion and even if you are doing something that falls into a trend as long as you are following your passion it's going to be good.  

Your Taster's Choice was a different kind of collaboration. You teamed up with the ska band The Pietasters (the Pietaster’s drummer works at the brewery) and released the beer at a Pietaster's show in Washington, DC. A number of your other beers have music inspired names. Does the music influence the beer or does the beer influence what type of music you relate to it?

Skall: I think music influences life and I think beer, for us especially. Others aren't so musically centered. Our life is beer so the two of them go together, influencing in both directions.  

Hancock: I think for a good portion of the beers that we've done, music does influence it. The pale we did called Everyday Junglist. Brandon and I back in the mid '90s were both playing and DJing music called Jungle which has now kind of morphed into Drum 'n' Bass. We wanted to give that a nod since we started and we figured it was a good fit for this place and time and I'll say the way our trends are going it probably will not be the last one.

Skall: Most definitely not.  A lot of the names chosen for the one-offs do have a lot to do with music, Rider was a music associated tune. Everyday Junglist is obviously music associated. Your Favorite Foreign Movie is music associated. We can go down the list. Also the under culture is music here in DC. I mean you had DC Hardcore back in the day. All the Discord stuff which has influenced everyone that you can imagine. Marvin Gay was from here, Duke Ellington was from here, Go-go was from here, John Legend was from here, really any side of the spectrum is covered. The Winstons, who made the song “Amen, Brother”, which is the most sampled break of all time, not just in Jungle music, but hip-hop, are from here. There is a lot of DC history in music that I don't know if people recognize.

What about your craft brewing influences? What was your personal gateway beer that got you started in craft beer?

Skall: Probably Sierra Nevada. It was the first time I got the hop click in my head, where I was like, oh this is incredible.  I was working at a restaurant that had Sierra on and all of a sudden it was just like, wow.

Hancock: Even before I was really even thinking about brewing, I was just getting my feet wet. I found out about a traditional German brewery from Baltimore called DeGroen's. They did a German style Doppelbock. When I was younger I had not really had a craft beer with a lot of flavor. Of course I've had my Elephant Malt Liquor, St. Ides and whatnot, but that beer spun my head in a different direction. We would go up to Baltimore for parties and we would always pregame at the Baltimore Brewing Company, which produced DeGroen's, and I would always be amazed by how many people it put on the floor in such a small quantity.

One of the things people in the city admire about DC Brau is that you started out locally and have really held to that. In regards to your distribution, is it your goal to provide to local markets exclusively before expanding geographically?

Skall: That’s the plan, have a firm stance in our backyard before we start to move out of it, we just launched Montgomery County, Maryland in the past week, which is a little bit of a change. I can't imagine going National out of this facility, really for us a firm goal is to be saturated in the Mid-Atlantic market.

Since you started, has your strategy changed at all with all the new breweries opening up in the area? It seems you have had a solid strategy since the beginning.  

Skall: Honestly, in hindsight, I don't think our strategy has changed a bit even with all the new local brewery development. Our strategy is has been the same as it has always been which is to make really good beer distributed locally and I think it would take a lot of local breweries to really rethink that strategy because the way people are drinking is really local-centric.

Do you think it supports the cause for someone to drink local even if it is below average beer?

Skall: Quality is always going to trump local. Period.

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