Washington's beer market is increasingly crowded, but it seems like there's always room for more local beer. Handsome Beer Co., D.C.'s newest brewing company, launches its first three beers Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at Glen's Garden Market in Dupont Circle, followed by a week of events that will take co-founders Graham MacDonald and Matt Humbard to bars in D.C., Baltimore, Frederick and Annapolis. (A full schedule is on Handsome's website.)
MacDonald and Humbard met in 2010 through mutual friends, and bonded over a love of beer. But it wasn't until 2013, when MacDonald was working as a manager at Right Proper Brewing Company, that they considered launching their own brewery. "Matt came in with a growler of his homebrew – a saison fermented with brettanomyces and dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin – and once I had that beer, it clicked into place," MacDonald says. "I thought, 'Oh my God – this could be sold.'"
How does Handsome differ from the other options on local taps? I sat down with MacDonald and Humbard at Meridian Pint – where they're hosting a party at 5 p.m. Wednesday with four beers, including a cask – to find out.
They don't have a brewery.
Handsome Beer Co. is a brewing company without its own brewery: The three Handsome beers being released this week are contract-brewed at Old Bust Head Brewery in Warrenton. "It's out of necessity," MacDonald explains. "Neither of us has millions of dollars" to invest in their own building and equipment, especially when they're a brand-new company. MacDonald says they'll be brewing at Old Bust Head "for the foreseeable future. It's a huge, beautiful facility, and they have extra capacity for us."
In short: There's no tasting room, so the best place to sample the lineup is at this week's launch parties.
They don't have an IPA. (Yet.)
One advantage of not having to recoup huge startup costs: Handsome's owners can brew beers they want, rather than the beers they think will be best-sellers.
Handsome will have three beers at first: Medium and Message, an earthy pale ale that marries Belgian malt and yeast with Moteuka hops; Galaxy Saison, a summery saison with huge tropical fruit notes; and Strange Charm, a rich, appealing brown ale with notes of leather and pitted fruit that seems tailor-made for drinking outdoors on a fall weekend. Brown ales from D.C. area breweries are rare, and this is not your typical dark beer. "It's not a porter because it doesn't have that roasty character, and it's not a Belgian brown because it doesn't have that candy sweetness," Humbard says. Instead, it's designed to highlight the characteristic flavors of Humbard's favorite malt, Special B. In every beer, "you have your malt, your yeast, and your hops," he says. "My approach is, here's a malt that I like. How far can I take this flavor without changing its character?"
Allowing certain flavors and ingredients to shine is a common theme throughout Handsome's beers. The Galaxy Saison, for example, is really about demonstrating the awesome flavors of that particular hop.
Handsome is one of the only local or regional breweries I can think of that doesn't have an IPA in its initial lineup. And when one arrives, it won't be the typical West Coast hop bomb: The IPA they're working on now is made with brettanomyces yeast for a rustic, funky flavor. Since IPA is the most popular craft beer style in America, MacDonald anticipates they're going to get questions about its lack thereof over the next week. "I don't want to say 'That's not what we do,'" he says.
"We haven't ruled anything out," Humbard adds. "If we made an IPA, it would have to showcase an ingredient that was really special, or made in an interesting way."
They don't have flagship beers.
Most breweries launch with a set lineup of key styles – maybe an amber, an IPA and a stout, which are familiar to even the newest beer fans. Handsome has none of those, at least not to begin with, and they're going to stay flexible about which beers they make going forward. "I get weird about 'flagship,'" MacDonald says. "I love all these beers, but we're not thinking about our beers in terms of flagships or a core lineup. It's more about 'What's good right now?'"
"If we had a permanent location, then flagships might make more sense: 'Come to our brewery and find these four beers,'" Humbard says. Instead, they'll gauge market reaction and adjust accordingly. If one beer isn't selling as well as they hoped, they can simply stop making it and move on to brewing batches of something else. If Humbard wants to make a dandelion saison – he homebrews one with fresh yellow flowers every year – he can drop that into the rotation.
They're not just in D.C.
Breweries traditionally establish themselves in their home market before expanding to other states or territories. Handsome is simultaneously releasing its beers throughout Maryland and Washington, with Virginia to come. Because they're contract brewing in Virginia, "I feel like we're more regional in a way, rather than from a specific neighborhood," MacDonald says. (For the record, MacDonald lives in Northwest D.C. and Humbard lives in Hyattsville.)
Handsome inked a deal with Maryland-based distributors Legends Limited earlier this year, and is leveraging that to build relationships with beer bars across the state, as well as in D.C. They don't expect to be in every bar right now – they're only making 30-barrel batches at a time at Old Bust Head, and their contract-brewing situation means "the beers have to be at a certain price point, which rules out a $6 16-ounce" pour, MacDonald says. (He adds later that he thinks Handsome's beers will likely sell for $7 to $8 in most bars, which he calls "mid-range for the market.") As an aside, they'll be a bit cheaper at the launch party at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle on Thursday, Sept. 24, where all three draft beers and a special cask will be half-price from 5 to 7 p.m.