DC Brau: A duo’s vision sparks local brewing revival
By Daniel Fromson,
In a strip mall in the Northeast neighborhood of Fort Lincoln, behind a post office and the Dollar Plus Food Store, the thick perfume of freshly milled barley drifts from a 6,700-square-foot warehouse. DC Brau’s head brewer and president, Jeff Hancock, is working with two assistants among the fermentation tanks; in the tasting room, the chief executive, Brandon Skall, shows me his tattoo-contest trophies. “I also won Richmond and Philadelphia, for this arm here,” he says, meaning his left, which is dominated by a bug-eyed cartoon skeleton. “When I get into something I go all out, you know?”
Hancock’s arms are uninked, but he is similarly devoted, and it shows. In the six months since Hancock and Skall launched the District’s first production brewery since 1956, they have laid the groundwork for a D.C. brewing revival: by rewriting city regulations, helping other young breweries and creating beers that, even as DC Brau’s rivals emerge, could very well remain the best in the District.
Already, Hancock and Skall have brewed three limited releases and three year-round beers, anchored by the Public, their flagship pale ale. They have secured more than 100 accounts throughout the District and have begun an expansion that should more than double production.
But that trajectory wasn’t mapped with tattoo-like precision. It hinged on a chance encounter of two people: one with a knack for brewing but little business experience, the other with an entrepreneurial spark but little knowledge of beer.
Hancock, 34, grew up in Montgomery County and worked as a handyman and contractor before getting much of his early exposure to brewing about a decade ago at Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville. He cleaned floors, shoveled spent grain, polished the brew kettle and got paid in beer.
He also began home-brewing, and when he followed his now-wife to Michigan so she could attend graduate school, he brewed for about five years at Grizzly Peak Brewing in Ann Arbor. He received an advanced education of his own, not only in typical American styles but also in esoteric Belgian-style sour beers fermented with wild yeast. After a couple of other brewing stints, including one at Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery, Hancock returned to his contractor work. “I knew he really wanted to brew,” says his friend Nathan Zeender, a longtime home-brewer. “But I never thought that he would be starting his own company.”
Enter Brandon Skall. Born in the District and raised in McLean, Skall, 31, studied at American University before working as a wine distributor and for a wine importer. “I’d written four different business plans for restaurants that just — there was nothing special about them,” he says. Then, one day, something “just clicked. So the next day I went to the home-brew shop. I think I’d probably brewed only three or four batches when I met up with Jeff.”
The two had been acquaintances since the mid-’90s, having both spun records in the local club music scene. Their partnership was born about three years ago when they met at a house party where Skall was the DJ, and a couple of days later, the brainstorming began.
Many decisions stemmed from a mix of personal preference and business savvy. Take the brewery’s name, for instance. “First and foremost, Jeff and I are really proud of D.C.,” Skall says, but he adds that “there was a strong potential for success with a local brewery such as DC Brau that was branded around the city.” Similarly, Hancock and Skall are fans of hop-heavy beers such as pale ales and India pale ales, but those are also, Skall points out, staple beers for most American breweries. “When we did a lot of market research — by that I mean drinking a lot of beer — it’s pretty apparent that in order to be successful you have to have a very strong pale ale and a very strong IPA.”
Of course, challenges emerged. Hancock and Skall had hoped to raise $1 million in capital but made do with about $620,000. “We wanted a slightly larger brew house,” Skall says, and “there was a lot of DIY.” Then there were the regulatory hurdles, understandable given that D.C. had been without a brewery since the reelection of Eisenhower.
Liquor stores and grocery stores had long been able to hold alcohol tastings, but no tasting permit existed for breweries, so Hancock and Skall spearheaded the Brewery Manufacturer’s Tasting Permit Temporary Amendment Act of 2011, which gave brewers the right to pour tasters on premises. They also wrote to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration to seek permission to fill the to-go jugs of beer known as growlers, and got approval. “It helps just to have some money on hand that can go to purchasing more raw materials, or more growlers, or more T-shirts or what have you, ” Skall says.
In addition, the Department of Health is used to regulating restaurants, not breweries. According to Hancock, “We basically had to go in and explain, like, this is how beer is made, it’s very safe, it’s been a preferred beverage for millennia.” The city granted certain exceptions — permitting exposed piping, for example, which in restaurants is considered a hazard — but “they did also hold us to the current system,” Skall says. Hancock’s friend Zeender is less diplomatic: “They had to go to a class and learn that they had to cook chicken to 170 degrees, or whatever.”
Still, Hancock and Skall have streamlined the process for future breweries. When inspectors went to the District’s second microbrewery, Chocolate City Beer, “they had an idea, based on working with DC Brau, what they were looking at,” says Chocolate City’s Ben Matz. Last fall, Matz and his partner Jay Irizarry met with Hancock and Skall to ask for advice about city regulations. Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey of 3 Stars Brewing, who are aiming to open their D.C. facility before the end of the year, have also sought advice. “Without that feedback and help, it certainly would’ve been more challenging,” McGarvey says.
DC Brau’s progress since opening suggests that in the near term, at least, it will remain the District’s premier microbrewery. Aside from the advantages of an early start, Hancock and Skall set themselves apart with their ambition. While Chocolate City and 3 Stars are attempting to carve out niches in malty, low-alcohol beers and bold, high-alcohol beers, respectively, DC Brau is releasing a spectrum ranging from its lemony wheat beer to a collaboration with Utah’s Epic Brewing, a dark imperial porter brewed with pumpkin.
Hancock and Skall are also committed to balancing production of solid everyday beers (such as their pale ale, a malty and heavily hopped brew inspired by Sierra Nevada’s pioneering example) with experimental offerings. Their next collaboration, with beer-world rock star Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales in Baltimore, will most likely be a dark Belgian ale brewed with spruce, a nod to the juniper-flavored Finnish style known as sahti.
To be sure, DC Brau isn’t hitting its financial targets. “We’re still not really taking anywhere near what our full salaries are supposed to be,” Skall says. “But we’re growing and growing.” Scattered throughout the brewery are hints of things to come: four Catoctin Creek whiskey barrels filled with porter and Belgian ale, and an alcove containing six wine barrels.
“It’s our first batch of Public that we did, so it’s not your traditional beer that you would sour,” Hancock says. “Now the little wild yeasties are doing their number on the leftover sugars.”
“We might just throw a little together for the year anniversary,” Skall adds. “I’d like it to be ready by then, but if it’s not, there’s several more anniversaries coming up.” He pauses. “Hopefully.”