Craft brewery with built-in dreams


Bluejacket brewery and restaurant is taking shape at Fourth and Tingey streets SE, in the Navy Yard neighborhood, in a building where workers once built boilers for ships. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 19, 2013

From the ground floor of the future Bluejacket brewery — the 7,300 square feet that will contain the bar, restaurant and storage space — a visitor can tilt back his head and gaze into a soaring atrium. Wrapping around the emptiness is a horseshoe-shaped mezzanine. The mezzanine, in turn, is surmounted by a small third floor, like an announcer’s box at an amphitheater. Sparks flew and tools roared on a recent weekday as Megan Parisi, Bluejacket’s head brewer, led me to the top.

In this former Navy Yard building where workers once made boilers for ships, a construction crew welded the glass-and-steel skeleton of a business at once familiar and new. “All of the brewing will take place up here,” Parisi said. But the real excitement, the fermentation, will occupy the mezzanine level. There, we met Greg Engert, Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s beer director, who started talking about oak barrels, a sensory analysis and yeast propagation lab, and a whopping 19 fermentation vessels, including some that are rarely seen outside a handful of Old World breweries.

Translation: If most craft breweries are akin to spacious but modest homes, Bluejacket, when it opens in May or June, will be a small mansion with all the amenities. The quantity and variety of equipment, much more than a brewery of its size would usually have and all custom-built, will arguably make Bluejacket like no other small brewery in the country: a facility that NRG hopes will turn out a staggeringly diverse, constantly changing array of topnotch beers.

To understand why this strategy is so unusual, it is helpful to extend the real-estate analogy. Just as most home buyers differ from most property developers, most aspiring brewers don’t have NRG’s track record, management team and experience attracting outside financing. So like families on a budget, brewers start with the basics, moving into properties and improving them bit by bit.

Instead of building additions, they increase production volumes, and thus revenues and cash flow, by buying bigger brew kettles and more and larger fermentation tanks. Rather than renovating bathrooms, they replace grain mills, packaging lines or other essential equipment. Eventually they might add a wish-list item or two such as a lab, but like home fitness centers or movie theaters, expensive and specialized improvements are hard to afford and justify. Dream breweries, like dream homes, are often just that: dreams.

In addition, many brewers wouldn’t want a facility like Bluejacket’s even if they could afford it. Consider Eataly’s Birreria brewpub in New York and Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub, both of which are affiliated with well-funded enterprises yet are much less ambitious than Bluejacket will be. Standalone breweries, too, are usually planned differently for reasons other than money — reasons that become clear when you consider that building a new brewery is a study in tradeoffs.

Should the brewery make large volumes of a few flagship beers and occasional one-offs, or small volumes of many beers, many of which will only be brewed once? Should it have relatively few large, all-purpose fermentation vessels, and thus a more efficient and streamlined production process, or many small, occasionally highly specialized vessels? Should it mostly brew beers that mature (and thus generate revenue) relatively quickly, such as pale ales and India pale ales, or devote much of its production to slower-maturing beers, such as cold-fermented lagers and sour ales fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria?

In each case, most brewers choose the first, more efficient, easier option. But in each case, the Bluejacket team is choosing the second. “We believe that if we do something really special, people will notice it and want to be part of it,” says NRG founding partner Michael Babin.

He admits that a brewery consultant hired to recommend equipment is “bemused” by the group’s decisions, since the Bluejacket team ultimately rejected a more conventional setup for one that will produce less than half as much beer and cost more than twice as much money.

“But I think we’ve taken the same approach to this project as we took, very self-consciously, with Birch & Barley and ChurchKey,” he adds. That establishment’s temperature-controlled draft lines, among other features, also made consultants scoff. The approach, however — “In a perfect world, how would you build this thing?” — clearly succeeded, as demonstrated by almost any weekend attempt to get a seat at ChurchKey’s bar.

Engert notes that most breweries with Bluejacket’s maximum production volume — 5,000 barrels per year, or about 158,000 gallons — would have considerably less equipment than its 19 fermentation vessels. The assertion is perhaps a slight exaggeration, but the basic sentiment holds up when you compare Bluejacket to its most similar local competitors.

DC Brau managed to hit 5,800 barrels with only eight fermentation tanks; it now has 13 tanks and is aiming for 12,000 barrels. 3 Stars has four tanks and hopes to brew between 1,500 and 2,500 barrels in 2013. Bluejacket’s plethora of equipment, then, isn’t designed for boosting capacity — most of the tanks are small 15-barrel vessels, in contrast to DC Brau’s 30- and 60-barrel tanks. It’s designed to give the brewery a nimbleness and range of capabilities that most others lack.

The complexity of the project was on full display as head brewer Parisi and Engert walked me through their skeletal brewery. On the mezzanine level, Engert pointed to a spot where workers will install an open fermenter, a squat, lidless vessel that is said to accentuate the banana and clove aromas of traditional German hefeweizens. (Industrywide, most fermenters are fully sealed cylinders that taper to cones at the bottom, a design that is both more efficient and more sanitary.) A nearby horizontal fermenter with the chunky shape of an above-ground heating oil tank will be used for saisons and other Belgian styles, again because the shape supposedly yields superior flavor.

The fermentation space also will contain a 5-by-14-foot coolship, a shallow pan roughly one to two feet deep. Historically used to make tangy lambic beers — the large surface area permits naturally occurring airborne microorganisms to drift onto the liquid and initiate fermentation — coolships tend to be found only in Belgium and a few highly regarded American breweries, including California’s Russian River Brewing and Allagash Brewing in Maine.

Maybe even more important than Bluejacket’s specialized fermenters, though, is the overall amount of equipment. Parisi and Engert will be able to brew many beers that are slow to mature, including Pilseners and other lagers, letting the flavors develop fully without facing the usual pressure to hurry things along or avoid certain styles entirely. In Engert’s words, “I can’t emphasize enough how psyched I am to never have to rush beer.”

So what, then, will be the end result of this perfect-world brewery buildout? Once we descended from the mezzanine to the ground floor, Engert began describing a wildly ambitious beer program: 15 drafts and five cask ales at all times, plus five drafts from other breweries, along with an assortment of house beers in 375- and 750-milliliter bottles and even magnums and Jeroboams. He wants to implement the same sort of constant rotation that is a hallmark of Birch & Barley/ChurchKey and other NRG restaurants.

Bluejacket’s beers will fall into six as-yet-unnamed categories, Engert said: “These six families in beer are what I think of when I think about what I want to drink.” The first category will be “restrained, full-flavored, long-conditioned beers” such as Pilseners and American pale ales, the low-alcohol beneficiaries of Engert’s never-rush mantra. The second group will be sour beers, sometimes brewed in the coolship and sometimes containing yeast and bacteria cultured in Bluejacket’s lab.

The third category will reflect another beer-geek trend: resurrections of historic beer styles and forgotten recipes. The fourth will be Belgian-influenced farmhouse ales, “some of the beers we love the most,” Engert says. “Culinary” beers inspired by specific spices and ingredients will round out the lineup, along with a category devoted to bold, high-alcohol beers such as barleywines and imperial stouts.

The strategy undoubtedly will be difficult (some might say impossible) to execute, particularly given that Babin and Engert intend to not only sell beer on-site but distribute it locally and perhaps even nationally. But at the end of my visit, Engert seemed self-assured and relaxed, lighting a cigarette as we stood on the ground floor with Parisi, beneath the factory building’s atrium and upper levels. Nearby, a small phalanx of steel tanks was waiting to be installed.

Engert said: “If anybody ever says to me, ‘What’s craft beer to you?’ I say, ‘It’s a beverage you can taste where flavor is the top priority, without sacrificing for efficiency.’ That’s why we built this brewery the way we did.”

Fromson is a writer living in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @dfroms.

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