Changes a-Brewing

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Whither Old Dominion Brewing Co.?

This past spring, the Washington area's largest and longest-operating craft brewery entered a new era. Bill Muehlhauser (owner of the Annapolis-based Rams Head Tavern chain and Fordham Brewing Co.) and John Rodenhouse took over as majority owners; industry giant Anheuser-Busch became minority shareholder.

As they try to integrate Old Dominion and Fordham into a single entity called Coastal Brewing Co., the new owners have begun paring down an unwieldy product line, a move that is sure to earn the ire of beer aficionados who see their favorite brands axed.

Old Dominion is shedding several major contract brands, beers brewed for independent entrepreneurs who lack their own brewing facilities. Gone from their roster by year's end will be Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale and Pils, along with New River Pale Ale. Still another reject, Hard Times Select -- a golden lager with a nice malt/hops balance brewed expressly for the Hard Times Cafe chain -- has been picked up by Baltimore's Clipper City Brewing Co.

Bethesda schoolteacher Bob Tupper, who created the Tuppers' beers with his wife, Ellie, said Old Dominion was willing to keep making the Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale, but not the pils. Rather than brew the pils at a different facility, the Tuppers decided to shop around for a company that would handle both. "We've talked with four different brewers so far," Bob Tupper said, but as of last week, no takers.

Tupper confessed that both his beers are "a pain in the butt" to brew, tying up tanks for weeks at a time and requiring "dry-hopping" -- a messy and labor-intensive process in which whole-flower hops are added to the fermenting beer for a more delicate flavor and aroma.

The ale sold a respectable 2,500 to 3,000 barrels a year, he estimated, but the sharper, less-balanced pils did only 300 to 400 barrels. The pils, he said, might languish in the fermenters for up to 17 weeks before enough demand materialized to bottle or keg it.

"I'm very partial to the pils," says Coastal Brewing vice president Scott Zetterstrom, who actually helped formulate the recipe. "But the problem is, the brewers were the only ones drinking it!"

Zetterstrom was more vague about why Old Dominion was dropping New River Pale Ale, which like the Tuppers' brands, is an aggressively flavored beer with a complicated hopping regimen. Chad McRae, who runs New River Brewing Co. out of Atlanta, was seeking a new host brewery for 2008 and beyond.

According to Zetterstrom, Old Dominion found it difficult to move Hard Times Select through the distribution pipeline fast enough to maintain freshness standards. (Nevertheless, the brewery continues to make house beers for such local restaurants as J. Paul's and Dubliners, which offer fewer taps than the dozen Hard Times chili parlors that dot the Washington suburbs.)

Old Dominion has also drawn flak on DC-Beer, an online forum, for dumbing down the recipe for the draft version of its Oak Barrel Stout. The beer used to be aged in discarded bourbon barrels. Now, the brewery simulates the barrel conditioning by aging the beer over wood chips and vanilla beans (the same recipe as for the bottled version) -- at a loss of flavor and complexity, complain the brand's fans.

Zetterstrom contends that lower-alcohol beers such as the stout are prone to bacterial invasion when aged in used wood. These unwanted bugs can produce excessive amounts of a chemical called diacetyl, giving the beer an insipid buttered-popcorn flavor. However, Zetterstrom admits that some of Old Dominion's customers liked this flavor, and online critics have wondered whether the brewery altered the formula to save time and effort.

Critics have also been snickering at the appearance of Bud and Bud Lite bottles in the cooler at the Old Dominion pub. But Zetterstrom insists that "Anheuser-Busch does not interfere in operations at the brewery." And there is no question that the Old Dominion crew can produce memorable beers. Recently, the brewers made a superb, limited-edition porter, deep ruby-red and full of mocha flavors with licorice and herbal notes.

The problem is, the porter is available only at the brewery pub, a 40-minute drive from Washington. Will beer geeks continue to make that trek?

Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached

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