The craft beer business is booming, and lucky for us new local breweries seem to be popping up in the DC area by the second. We had the opportunity to sit down with the masterminds behind the District’s first packaging brewery, DC Brau’s CEO & Co-founder Brandon Skall and Co-Founder & Head Brewer Jeff Hancock to gain insight into the art of craft brewing, their secrets to success, and, most importantly, the best bars in DC!
• What drew you to brewing?
Brandon: The excitement of creating something. The first time I homebrewed I was immediately attracted to the process and the final product.
Jeff: I have always enjoyed working with my hands and the process of working with raw materials and turning them into a finished, tangible good -- preferably consumable. I also had a high affinity for craft beer at the time, which was around 2001. I was really enjoying Baltimore Brewing Companies DeGroen's line of lager beers, which was a huge influence.
• When did you know you wanted to make brewing a career? How did you get started?
Brandon: I had always had a strong entrepreneurial itch. My professional background was in beverage sales and marketing, and I had spent eight years whole-selling wine and spirits. As soon as I fell in love with homebrewing, I knew I had found something that was worth striving to build a business around. My partner Jeff, a trained professional brewer, was the final piece to the puzzle. With his technical know how and my ability to plan, market, and sell, I felt we had a good chance of making it.
Jeff: I was a Home Improvements Contractor at the time and was looking for a change of pace. Brewing was similarly conceptual for me. My first apprenticeship was at Franklin’s Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville, MD. I got the job by making myself available at 5am on brew days. There were allegedly many skilled home brewers who wanted the gig, but were unable to work the early hours.
• Do the two of you carry out different roles within the brewery?
Brandon: Yes, Jeff heads up the production team and overseas the making of our beer. He is responsible for recipe development and over all plant maintenance. I manage the business, marketing, distribution, sales teams and packaging breakdowns of the brewery. It is very important to have a partner you can trust because there are so many moving parts to a business like this.
• Describe the process of developing a new recipe
Brandon: Usually Jeff, our production manager Chris Graham, and I will all sit down and come up with a style we want to brew. Then, Jeff will spend a few hours formulating a recipe. After that, we order the necessary ingredients and brew it.
Up until very recently, everything we brewed was done without a formal test batch. We just secured a pilot system, which will allow Jeff and the production team to play with the recipes in smaller batches before going into large-scale production.
• How would you describe DC Brau beers as a whole?
Brandon: Fresh, innovative, award-winning, socially-conscious, local brews.
• What goes into branding your various beers/what vibe do you want the DC Brau brand to give off?
Brandon: Washington, DC is like a two-headed coin. One side is the political facet; the people who come to town to be involved with what is happening on the Hill. Politics and politicians are a major part of our identity. The people who live and work here permanently make up the reverse side of the coin. They work in the bars, restaurants, clubs, retail shops, and every other local business in our great city. We aim to reflect this same duplicitous nature with our branding. On one side, we have the core line up of Public, Corruption and Citizen. These brands speak to the political nature of our town. On the other side, we have our one-offs – with names like “On the Wings of Armageddon” and “Solar Abyss” – that speak to the creative side of DC.
I think branding is important because it provides a way for people to connect to what you do. Our challenge is being broad enough to attract a large percentage of the market while still being true to ourself. I am proud to think we have accomplished that at Brau.
• What’s one secret to success in the craft beer industry?
Brandon: Honesty and hard work are the backbone to any successful business, and brewing is no different. Be honest with yourself about what your limitations are, and where you may need help to achieve your goals. Be honest with your customers. Brewing is a tremendous amount of hard work, and so is selling and marketing your product. Be ready for long hours, physical labor and mental exhaustion.
Jeff: Be honest with yourself. Just because you can brew 5 gallons of delicious beer at home doesn't mean you will be able to brew 500 gallons of delicious beer. Learning how to brew with hands-on experience and having a formal education are both invaluable tools, but brewing is similar to being a journeyman for a plumbing or electrical career, you really need at least 4-5 years of hands-on experience under a skilled brewmaster. Brew and believe in the beer you want to drink and others will follow.
• What went into designing your brewery?
Brandon: We used an industry professional to design and build our brewery. We did much of the work ourselves, but we left things like electric and gas to the professionals.
Jeff: A lot of sleepless nights dreaming about endless brewery layouts and finding the right people to implement our vision. LIke Brandon said, we did a lot of the minor plumbing and cosmetic work ourselves and hired tradesman for all of our industrial needs which were quite substantial.
• Why did you decide to open your brewery in DC?
Brandon: Both Jeff and I grew up in and around DC. The first concert I ever went to was at the 930 Club on F Street. I spent my adolescent weekends skateboarding around downtown. DC is our home and we couldn’t understand why our home, the capital of our country, didn’t have its own packaging brewing identity.
Jeff: DC is all I know having grown up in the area, and I couldn't imagine opening up a business anywhere else. Too much pride for DC!
• How would you describe the current craft beer market and culture in DC?
Brandon: Electric! DC is energized with a passion for craft beer. New breweries are opening and more businesses are focusing on developing great craft beer programs. Hands down, DC is one of the best craft beer markets in the country.
• How do you see the brand expanding in the future?
Brandon: We plan to continue to expand our production and geographic footprint. Hopefully you will see more one-off beers from us and we will be able to distribute more beer outside of Washington, DC.
• Top 5 must-visit DC bars?
1. Boundary Stone - One of our top accounts. A quintessential neighborhood bar, family owned and operated, with a passion for local beer and great whiskey. You will always find Corruption on draft and at least one owner behind the bar. Make sure you try the award-winning wings on their menu.
2. Old Ebbitt Grille – A historic culinary institution in DC and our number one on-premise account. OEG is the flagship of the famous Clyde’s Group. Their commitment to local produce and local beer make them stand out amongst the other large capacity restaurants in DC’s downtown tourism district.
3. Meridian Pint – The first place to ever pour our beer. We had our launch party here and made history by pouring through 15 kegs in one night of the same beer. You can always find at least one Brau on draft here.
4. Nationals Park – There is nothing better than a local brew while watching your baseball team win!
5. Solly’s – A well-known and respected dive bar in DC. John “Solly” Solomon, a former brewer and local celebrity, founded this haunt many years ago. Even though it has been through an expansion and many years of growth, it has managed to remain the same. There are always multiple Braus available in can on their list.
Interview by Caitlin Moore