New Columbia Distillers is turning DC Brau into … something

John Uselton of New Columbia Distillers with two cans of DC Brau, which were poured into the still behind him. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)
John Uselton of New Columbia Distillers with two cans of DC Brau, which were poured into the still behind him. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

Peer inside the bubbling copper still at New Columbia Distillers' Ivy City facility and you expect to see a mash of winter wheat being turned into some lovely Green Hat Gin. But on Thursday, the elixir cooking away was beer. DC Brau beer, to be exact, being distilled into, well, something.

When the seasons change, explains DC Brau co-founder Brandon Skall, his brewery's canning line acts up. In the last week, roughly 65 cases of canned beer were sealed while only half or two-thirds full. "It's perfect beer, but the cans are just too shallow to go to the market," Skall says. The brewery staff prepared to get rid of the beer, but "it breaks my heart to just dump it down the drain," Skall says.

Then he had a brainstorm. "I'd heard about people who distilled with beer, so I called John [Uselton, the owner of New Columbia Distillers] and asked him if we could do something with it."

Uselton is used to making gin. He had never distilled using beer as a base instead of a grain mash, but he was intrigued. So on Thursday morning, the DC Brau crew brought over the spare beer – about 65 percent Corruption IPA, with the rest a mix of El Hefe Speaks! hefeweizen and Public Pale Ale – and cracked the hundreds of cans open by hand, pouring them into New Columbia's copper still. After hours of running through the column still, Uselton and his partner and father-in-law, Michael Lowe, had a clear, potent white dog spirit. Checking in at 160 proof, it's hot and fiery, but with a noticeable beer flavor of toasted malt and soft caramel. ("I get some of that biscuit character from the Corruption," Skall says.)

The New Columbia distillers expects to eventually produce around 15 gallons of the DC Brau spirit, although they haven't figured out what they're going to do with it. After it's blended, it may become an unaged white whiskey, or it may be put into oak barrels and aged like an eau de vie, which means it wouldn't be ready for anywhere from 4 to 10 months.

"Right now, I'm trying to figure out how this gets classified," Lowe says. "We probably can't call it a whiskey because there are hops in it. It might be more of a malt whiskey, but it depends on what proof it is."

Whatever form the spirit takes, the key point is that there's not a lot of it, and it may only make it to a few bars down the road. But that's fine with Uselton, who sees this creation as a grand experiment. "That's part of the fun of this. You can make a little bit and see how good it is and see what people think of it. If they like it, you can make more the next time."

Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
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