By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; E05
"I think it's really cool that you can Google 'Tupper' and the first thing that comes up is our beer, not Tupperware," says Bob Tupper, 63-year-old high school history teacher-turned-beer baron.
Last Tuesday night, Bob and his wife, Ellie, senior production editor for the American Society for Microbiology, were glad-handing customers at the Hard Times Cafe in Bethesda (their home town) and handing out logo glassware for the bar staff to fill with their eponymous Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale.
The rollout marked the beer's first appearance in more than two years. The previous batch, notes Bob, rolled off the bottling line of the Old Dominion Brewing Co. on Nov. 30, 2007. Earlier that year, the Ashburn brewery had changed hands, and the new ownership balked at brewing the Tuppers' beer because it was time-consuming and expensive.
Bob won't disagree. He and Ellie talked with two dozen breweries across several time zones before they settled on a replacement: St. George Brewing Co. in Hampton, Va. The new edition of Hop Pocket is brewed with the same ingredients and according to the same regimen as the original, Bob says. It's even fermented in the same tanks: St. George bought a half-dozen vessels from the now-defunct Old Dominion.
The bottle label for Tuppers' Hop Pocket proclaims that it's "extravagantly hopped." There are four separate additions of hop pellets in the brew kettle, then the fermenting ale sits atop a bed of hop cones for three weeks. Mt. Hood hops, an offshoot of the German Hallertau strain, impart a dry spiciness. Cascade hops, beloved of American ale brewers, lend a citrus note. Willamette hops add an earthy, herbal quality.
A leisurely six-week fermentation period (typical for a lager, unusual for an ale) allows individual flavor elements to blend and mellow. Hop Pocket is piquant enough to stand up to Hard Times' Texas chili, but a caramel malt backbone adds balance. The ale is also noteworthy in that it is kraeusened; a small amount of young, actively fermenting beer is added to a nearly finished batch. This sparks a secondary fermentation that continues in the bottle or keg, naturally carbonating the brew.
The Tuppers' serious interest in beer began in 1979 when, on a European tour, they jotted down a few notes on Henri Funk Lager (a long-defunct brand from Luxembourg) and began a personal tasting log that now numbers more than 18,500 brews. In 1985, management of the Brickskeller in the District asked the Tuppers to conduct a series of monthly beer tastings. That gig continues today, with Bob Tupper drawing on his classroom skills to shush crowds that become increasingly vocal after their 10th beer sample of the evening. (Catch him at the Brickskeller strong-beer tastings on Tuesday and Feb. 9.)
It wasn't until 1994 that the Tuppers approached the Old Dominion brew crew about formulating a special beer. "I had had a health scare that turned out to be a false alarm, and it made me concerned with what I had not done with my life," Bob says.
As Bob recalls, Jerry Bailey, then president of Old Dominion, was skeptical that the Tuppers could make any money in the beer business. But Tuppers' Hop Pocket gained a cult following. "It didn't quite pay for my daughter's four years at Swarthmore. But it came close," Bob says with a smile. The Tuppers also resolved to donate half of their profits to charity, raising $120,000 for nonprofits that aid the homeless such as Samaritan Ministries and the Reading Connection. That isn't going to change, Bob says.
What will change is the price of Hop Pocket. Get ready for some sticker shock: The 12-ounce bottles may cost in the neighborhood of $10 per four-pack. As Bob explains, St. George turns out fewer than 3,000 barrels a year (about one-tenth the volume that Old Dominion pumped out) and can't take advantage of economies of scale when buying malt and hops. "They bought tanks for us. We have to cover the costs of investment and labor."
St. George brews 10 house beers of its own: a mix of English-style ales and German-style lagers. Sales manager Conor Halfpenny admits "it's a scheduling nightmare until we get the flow going." For the time being, sales of Hop Pocket will be limited to the District and suburbs -- a fraction of its original territory, which stretched from New Jersey to Georgia. If all goes well, Bob plans to revive a companion beer, Tuppers' Hop Pocket Pils, this April. Look for it under a new name: Tuppers' Keller Pils.
There's no question that local beer connoisseurs are willing to reach deep into their wallets for brands that catch their fancy. But will they pay a premium for a beer that's not high in alcohol (Hop Pocket measures an ordinary 6 percent by volume)? That's hoppy but not strip-the-enamel-from-your-teeth hoppy like some West Coast super-IPAs? That isn't flavored with exotic ingredients such as ancho chili peppers or cacao nibs or birch syrup?
The kickoff party at the Hard Times Cafe wasn't standing-room-only, but it did draw an appreciative crowd. A sixtel of Hop Pocket (about 30 pints) was drained in a half-hour. A group of guys at the booth adjacent to mine boasted that they cut out from work early to make the event.
"I drove down to St. George twice," one of them said. "I was there Sunday and I tried to buy some."
He failed in his mission; they don't sell Hop Pocket at the brewery. But with a pitcher of the sought-after elixir in front of him that Tuesday night, he was able to wash away memories of the long dry spell.
Kitsock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.