“I’m a bug collector,” Terry Hawbaker says, referring to the wild yeasts and bacteria swarming in the two oak barrels in his Alexandria storefront. At 39, with a divot in his forehead from a recent bike accident and a love of punk-inflected rock-and-roll, he has been maturing his sour beer since September, tasting it as it slowly grows tarter, funkier and more complex.
It’s the brewing equivalent of a baker’s sourdough starter. Colonizing barrels of unfermented beer, the bugs will work their slow alchemy over months and years, enabling Hawbaker’s Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse to make creative “wild ales” that connoisseurs will sniff and savor.
His own rise to fame, however, is likely to be quicker: Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse, he says, just signed a major distribution deal. It could transform the startup into a shrine for beer geeks practically overnight.
The brewery, which also will specialize in Hawbaker’s avant-garde riffs on saisons and other European farmhouse styles, wasn’t created with such grand ambitions. Last summer, when it took over the former strip-mall home of Shenandoah Brewing, near the Van Dorn Street Metro station, it was intended to be primarily a place where the partners behind the Philadelphia restaurant the Farmers’ Cabinet would brew house beers to accompany dishes such as roasted marrow bones and duck confit sandwiches.
But three weeks ago, according to Hawbaker, the brewery agreed to a distribution contract that will place its beer in 35 states and Europe in the coming months. Production will be tiny by industry standards: only about 50 barrels per month at first, or roughly 1,500 gallons. Still, for a brewery that hardly exists — Hawbaker has brewed only a handful of test batches, on equipment left behind by Shenandoah — such a deal is unusual.
This rapid expansion is largely a bet on Hawbaker’s talent. He previously spent seven years at central Pennsylvania’s Bullfrog Brewery, where his beers — especially sour ales like his Beekeeper, aged for 21 / 2 years in cabernet sauvignon barrels — acquired a cult following and were honored with medals at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival. Now, with the Farmers’ Cabinet team backing him and providing a guaranteed market for much of his output, Hawbaker has even more freedom to brew what he loves.
Hawbaker calls Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse an “urban farmhouse brewery,” a label that captures both the rustic realities of his brewing setup and the juxtaposition of modern flavors and farmyard funk that characterizes his beers. Fermentation temperatures will be determined by the seasons, not regulated by industrial coolants, and open fermentation vessels and oak barrels will echo the conditions found in Europe decades and centuries ago. But Hawbaker’s recipes possess an American edginess, featuring trendy, full-flavored hop varieties such as Citra and Galaxy and infusions of ingredients including pink Himalayan salt and lemon grass.
“I think I brew pretty aggressive beers, but still sort of refined,” Hawbaker says, adding that he usually avoids the high alcohol contents that characterize many “extreme beers.” The closest point of reference is probably the offbeat farmhouse ales made by Hawbaker’s friend and occasional collaborator Brian Strumke of Baltimore-based Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Nonetheless, Hawbaker’s beers don’t fit one mold. Put another way: Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse is probably the only brewery that has an entire series of ales inspired by European peasants but named after songs by Joy Division, the pioneers of the moody late-1970s musical genre known as post-punk.
One of those beers, Heart and Soul, might be the best thing ever to come out of a Washington area brew kettle. A “Belgian pale ale” laced with orange peel, lemon peel and chamomile and loaded with Citra, Galaxy and Amarillo hops, it’s a perfect marriage of West Coast India pale ale and spicy farmhouse goodness, with a huge aroma and a pithy, floral finish.
Another beer from the series, Exercise One, is a grisette, in the style of a refreshing farmhouse ale consumed by 19th-century Belgian miners, seasoned heavily with Citra and spiced lightly with peppercorns. It’s only 4.5 percent alcohol; drinking a few of them would be easy. Other pilot beers include Suburban Aberration, a strong golden farmhouse ale brewed with rose hips and wormwood, and Wabash Cannonball, a collaboration with Strumke brewed with lavender, figs and buckwheat and wildflower honeys.
Hawbaker anticipates that the first three beers he releases commercially will be his grisette, a farmhouse India pale ale and an example of the lemony German style known as Berliner weisse. More collaboration beers are on the way as well, including several with European innovators: Evil Twin Brewing, De Struise Brouwers and possibly Brasserie Fantome.
Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse plans to transform a corner of the brewery into a tasting room; there is talk of reclaimed barn wood and slate floors. But Hawbaker says that might not happen for six months or so. The bug-fermented wild ales will take even longer. When he was at Bullfrog Brewery, he aged many of his beers in barrels for 18 months or more.
Even as he’s racing to step up production, he says he doesn’t want to move too quickly.
“My main goal is to make sure that it’s done right.”
In beer, as in life, good things take time.
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @dfroms.