The conventional wisdom in the brewing industry is that you need a strong flagship brand to prosper. The flagship is the beer you churn out year-round, the one on which the bulk of your sales and marketing resources are bestowed. It’s the beer that pays the bills. (Think Bud Light, Pabst, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.)
But with a new breed of drinker demanding unceasing variety, the conventional wisdom is being questioned. Adroit Theory Brewing in Purcellville intends to torpedo the idea of a flagship altogether. “I can’t imagine cranking out 5,000 barrels of the same beer,” says owner Mark Osborne. “We’ll do maybe 48 beers during the coming year.” Even when he reissues a popular beer, he plans to tweak the recipe so his output “is always fresh and new.”
His marketing plan is unconventional as well. You won’t be able to find his beers at bars or retail stores, at least initially. Osborne will sell out of the brewery tasting room (it’s in a warehouse at 404 Browning Ct.), at special events and via a beer club named the Black Heart Society.
Adroit Theory is a nanobrewery, an operation that’s tiny even by the standards of microbrewing. It’s equipped with a half-barrel Sabco brewing system and one-barrel fermenters. “I know that it’s shocking, but that’s what we’re opening up with,” laughs Osborne.
In anticipation of his soft opening on Dec. 28, he has already made 27 test brews. They include B/A/Y/S (Black as Your Soul), an imperial stout aged on chestnut; G/I/A/A (God Is an American), a double IPA conditioned on vodka-infused ash spirals; and Tenebris, a fruity, English-style barleywine that comes in gin- and bourbon-barrel-aged varieties. Possibly unique is T/P/D (The Perfect Drug), a saison seasoned with wormwood and basil. (A sample arrived in a cork-and-wire-cage bottle with a specially treated sugar cube attached. You’re supposed to place the sugar on a slotted spoon and pour the beer over it, in the manner of absinthe drinkers; the sugar dyes the beer the classic absinthe green.) So that he will have enough liquid for his debut, Osborne is contract-brewing a batch of B/A/Y/S at Beltway Brewing, a brewery-for-hire in Sterling not far from Dulles Airport. On Dec. 13, the public will be able to preview the beer during Beltway’s tasting hours, 4 to 7 p.m.
When phoned shortly before Thanksgiving, Osborne and assistant brewer Greg Skotzko were working on the formula for a “white stout.” He seemed a bit surprised to learn that the Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin is already marketing a brew called Casper White Stout, a golden ale with a coffeeish flavor.
Now that much older (Stevens Point is a 156-year-old regional brewery) and larger beermakers are targeting the market for craft beer, start-ups have to up the ante with an even broader and more imaginative portfolio.The Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Bluejacket, Washington’s newest brewery, opened in October with more than 20 house beers created by head brewer Megan Parisi. Current offerings include the Ingenue, a sour wheat ale flavored with coriander, salt and lavender; Figure 8, a malty Scotch ale brewed with figs and spices; and James & the Giant, a Belgian-style strong ale fermented with peaches.
NRG beer director Greg Engert says he’s less concerned about repeating particular beers or styles than about having a beer “for every palate and dish.” The menu he designed for another beer-centric NRG establishment, ChurchKey, divides the beer spectrum into seven basic flavor categories. Engert plans to make sure each is represented in Bluejacket’s lineup. For the “Crisp” niche (subtle, lighter, more refreshing beers), he’s got a dry-hopped Kolsch called Forbidden Planet. Down the road, he might switch over to a German-style Helles or a Pilsener.
Adroit Theory doesn’t do crisp. “When people ask, ‘What’s the lightest beer you have?’ we’re going to serve them Cannibalism,” says Osborne. It’s a milk stout, a variant of the style that’s brewed with lactose (milk sugar) for added body and sweetness. This black-as-tar brew is exceptionally creamy (and fairly strong at 7 percent alcohol), with a smooth mocha flavor and a hint of tropical fruit from the American hops.
Cannibalism is so named because Osborne and Skotzko cannibalized another beer to make it. They poured the malt and hops into kettles filled with an American light lager instead of plain tap water. “When we brewed it, it smelled like a fraternity exploded in our warehouse, but the end result was the most sessionable beer we have,” said Osborne. For future batches, he plans to ask another local brewery to donate one of its lighter beers, which will serve as “the sacrifice.”
The label is as distinctive as the beer, featuring a sinister-looking fellow about to feast on a human brain. (Hannibal Lecter, perhaps? He looks too well dressed to be your garden-variety zombie.) A bottle of the brewery’s Tenebris comes adorned with a crow, which the label identifies as an old alchemists’ motif: “It was their symbol for the blackness of despair and chaos. We see the crow as a life force so powerful it can actually live off death itself.”
Cautions Osborne: “We gravitate toward dark images. Our beer is not for everybody.”
As for the brewery’s name, Osborne says his wife found the adjective “adroit” in a thesaurus. Its meaning (“good with your hands,” “clever”) seemed to describe a brewer’s skills, “and it kind of sounded cool.” He considers it a major improvement over his original brainstorm for a name: Antithesis Brewing. Most drinkers would not have been able to pronounce that after a few of Osborne’s beers.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.