The Blue Ridge Mountain brewer was hosting a tap takeover that night, and the crisp, low-alcohol, draft-only English-style bitter in my hand was just right for rehydrating. Blue Mountain produces several other lighter, more refreshing beers in six-packs. Blue Mountain Lager, Kolsch 151 and Full Nelson Pale Ale have been available in Northern Virginia for years.
But it was Smack’s higher-alcohol, more complex offerings that got people talking. In April 2011, he opened a branch brewery in Arrington, Va., dubbed the Blue Mountain Barrel House, which is equipped to produce the wood-aged and experimental brews that make connoisseurs salivate. Last month, the brewery began providing the heady beers, in corked 750-milliliter bottles, to the Northern Virginia suburbs. Locals are getting their first taste of Smack’s whiskey-ish Dark Hollow and his UberPils, a pumped-up pale lager with a biscuity malt character and pleasant herbal hoppiness that’s alarmingly drinkable for its 7.6 percent alcohol.
Blue Mountain is the only American microbrewery I’m aware of to employ the parti-gyle system on a regular basis. In this old-school English technique, the brewer uses a single batch of grain to make more than one beer. Traditionally, the first batch of sugar-rich liquid drawn from the mash tun would become a full-strength ale. The brewer would then run more water through the soggy grain, with the second run-off producing a low-alcohol table beer.
The Barrel House has two 15-barrel brew kettles to receive the contents of the 30-barrel mash tun. The piping, however, allows Smack to blend the two run-offs in varying proportions to make beers that are neither cloyingly strong nor thin and watery.
“The money saved is negligible,” admits Smack, who says he is mainly motivated by the old saw “waste not, want not.” He hates the idea of dumping a load of spent grain that still has enough residual sugar to make another batch of beer.
Thus, “every batch we do at the Barrel House has a sister beer,” says Smack. How he treats those batches after the mash guarantees the sisters won’t be mistaken for identical twins (and maybe not even distant cousins).
Dark Hollow and Local Species both start with a grain bill that’s mostly pale malt, with small percentages of specialty malts and flaked oats. The ebony-colored Dark Hollow has chocolate and roasted malts added to the base as it travels to the brew kettle. Smack adds enough hops to balance the sweetness (though not for aroma), then ferments with a yeast from McEwan’s brewery in Scotland. After a stay of 45 to 60 days in a bourbon barrel, Dark Hollow emerges as a potent but smooth imperial stout at 10 percent alcohol with notes of chocolate, raisins, vanilla and whiskey.
Local Species, a Belgian-inspired amber ale, lacks the highly roasted malt but gets a more complex hopping that adds citrus and spice. Smack ferments with a yeast from the Quebecois brewery Unibroue that contributes a light fruitiness with hints of apple and pear. Rather than freshly emptied whiskey barrels, Local Species ages in bourbon casks that were used to condition Dark Hollow. That “tones down the oak,” which might overwhelm a paler, less potent (6.6 percent alcohol) brew, notes Smack. Local Species finishes very dry and slightly tannic.
Smack extends his product line with additional tweaks. He has a Dark Hollow Reserve in the works that spent a year on wood, as well as a variant aged over coffee beans and cacao nibs. Look for those in mid-October. Later that month he’ll introduce the Washington area to Long Winter’s Nap, a “blond triple bock” measuring 12 percent alcohol.
He plans to start selling in Washington and New York in September and to fill in the gaps between as quickly as he can ramp up production. An agreement with Nelson County, Va., allows him to start building a third brewery by 2015 on the 15 acres he purchased in Arrington to construct the Barrel House. Smack plans to move production of his year-around beers there. The Barrel House will continue to make the corked bottles. The brewpub in Afton will become his “Palo Alto research station,” testing new draft recipes on his customers.
“I love the idea of having three specialized breweries,” he says. But he has no plans to become a national powerhouse. He sets a limit of about 50,000 barrels a year, well below those of the largest craft brewers. Estimating his 2012 output at 6,500 barrels, he says, “we’ve got a lot of room to grow.”
Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.