United, We Drink

In 2011, our nation’s capital will see something it hasn’t seen in over fifty years: a production brewery worthy to bear the District’s name. DC Brau, a venture between DC area natives Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock, plans on pumping out kegs and cans to bars and retail stores in the city within the next three months. Casual and enthusiastic, it was a pleasure to pick the brains of these entrepreneurs on the subject of beer, business and…well…more beer.

Skall and Hancock are both veterans of the beer and wine industry. Skall worked for a major national wine importer before turning to the import side of the business. The three-tier system is confusing on its best days, and having a background in distribution is an asset. Hancock has been a professional brewer for seven years now, and has a degree from the Seibel Institute of Technology, one of only a handful of academies in the country with an accredited brewing program.

Opening a brewery is quite an undertaking. The capital needed is steep, and skimping on the initial investments tends to cause short-lived dreams of self-employment. Skall and Hancock are playing it smart. They have spent the better part of the last three years researching commercial space, redefining commercial business laws in the city and attracting investors.

The last brewery to operate in the District was Heurich Brewing Company, whose factory was on the grounds where the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts now stands. It closed in 1956, after which production was moved to New York. As a result of this time gap, very little information was available on classifications and regulations regarding commercial breweries in DC. “They thought we would be carrying drums of green smoking liquid and pouring it down the drain.” Skall laughs, “Or burning soot, or asbestos on a regular basis.”

No one in DC public offices has been around long enough to know or remember the standard procedure. So with the help of a lawyer, Skall and Hancock explored the exciting world of DC regulatory agencies. Although it took some time, the brewery space was finally approved.

As it turns out, their resurfacing and navigation of alcohol production laws is helping more than just DC Brau. With the expanding market and popularity of craft beer, the Capitol is going to be seeing an influx of commercial breweries in the coming years, and some have already contacted Skall and Hancock for advice. “We’ve been doing a lot of trail blazing not just for us, but for all of the soon to open breweries” say Skall.

Of course, they were happy to help. This spirit of camaraderie has defined the modern day craft beer business. Unlike the wine industry, which can be esoteric, discriminatory and prone to wild inflation, the craft brewing industry has a strong reputation for being good-natured and diplomatic (in terms of pricing, collaborations and mutual support of one another).

Of the group of prospective operations in Washington, DC Brau aims to be the first to open. And it is more than likely to happen. They are 90 percent of the way there.

Driving up to an unimposing industrial building with a sticker on the door is pretty much par for the course when touring breweries, and DC Brau is no different. Upon entering though, you are greeted by a bold, red-and-white “tasting” room with a large, freshly lacquered wooden bar.

I put “tasting” in quotes because the team is still working on the legal issues regarding sampling beer. Once again, no one in the city has tried to do this in a long time.

Still, they have bet on its approval and as a result have an inviting entrance in which to talk about the hardware in the back. A brewery design company was hired to put together a 15-barrel system that has just arrived from China.

“It’s a hands-on system, not as automated as some others,” remarks Hancock. His smile gives him away, and you can tell he is itching to brew. Already in place is the electrical and plumbing infrastructure, boiler, cold box and of course, the canning line produced by the same company that made Dale’s Pale Ale famous.

DC Brau is going to test the marketing potential of craft beer in a can along with other east coast operations. Blue Mountain in VA, Brewers Art in Baltimore and Sly Fox in PA are just a few of the craft companies trying out cans. DC Brau will have its focus on cans and draft initially, with special seasonal releases in hand-bottled bombers.

We can expect to see three core beers to appear on shelves this year, each named fittingly after some element of the democratic system. The team has been doing test batches at home in order to hone down the malt bills and hop schedules. The Public Ale is a balanced 6-percent pale ale with a firm hop bite. The Citizen, a 7-percent Belgian-style pale ale, will utilize a De Konick yeast strain. And then there is The Corruption IPA, aimed to be a powerful West Coast IPA featuring the new and underused Citra hop variety.

When asked whether there were any plans for lagers, they did not rule out the idea. But ale production has a much quicker turn around, and Skall and Hancock aim to start pumping beer out of the facility as soon as possible.

An intriguing area of the brewery lies towards the back of the space behind an old sliding bay door. The room is about the size of a flat bed cargo truck, long and narrow. The space, actually lying underground and hanging between 45 and 55 degrees year-round, is a perfect room for prospective barrel aging.

Craft breweries without wooden barrels are becoming a minority, and DC Brau is not going to be left behind. After hanging out with Brandon and Jeff for a morning, you can tell they are going about this in the right way. Proper fundraising has allowed them to get the equipment needed to meet the initial demand, but also enough fermented space to grow organically. If it all works out for these first few years, the brewery has the option to purchase and expand to adjacent space.

What truly grabbed my attention when first reading about DC Brau was its brand identity. The logo mixes early 20th century Russian constructivist typography with American patriotic imagery, with the colors, red and white, leaning both ways. A striking design and logo is so important, and not all new breweries pull it off.

In a few months I hope to pop a can of DC Brau in my apartment, the first package of beer coming out of our nations capital in over 50 years.

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