For Jay Irizarry and Ben Matz, Chocolate City Beer revolves around two important themes. First, they’ve got a beer that surprised them from the first taste. Second, they genuinely want to be a part of the budding DC craft beer community. These two things come together to form the backbone of their plan and vision for Chocolate City Beer, which should have beer on-tap in some DC neighborhoods by spring 2011.
I was able to meet up with Jay and Ben, two guys who met while working at Chef Geoff’s downtown and share a common love of craft beer, to talk to them about their new project and how it fits into the growing-and-getting-larger DC production brewery scene. Two other members comprise the Chocolate City team: Brian Flanagan, who is a major financial sponsor, and Don Parker, who is leading the business plan.
“The IPA is damn good. Dogfish Head, Avery, Stone, Lagunitas, put ours right up there in that line-up,” says head brewer Ben Matz. A very bold statement. He describes the brew as as slightly toned down double IPA with “subtle lemon and tropical mango.” Folks have asked the duo if there is fruit in the beer, but they gleefully deny it and cite the hop schedule for the tropical aromas to the beer. Still, Ben says, “It’s not a hop bomb; it’s sessionable, approachable, and easy to drink.” Ben, who cut his teeth brewing at both Wild Goose Brewery and stayed there through that brewery’s acquisition by Flying Dog, and then moved on to brew at Gordon Biersch, says he was “Stunned…trying that beer for the first time. I would’ve bought it.” They’re betting others will buy it, too, and that’s why this beer, named the Big Chair IPA after the Anacostia landmark, will be their flagship offering.
They’ll be brewing out of a building just south of Catholic University that once produced stones that went toward creating the basilica. They found a Goldilocks-style building that met code, already had cement channels in the floor, and wasn’t too gigantic. In other words, it was just right for them. They’ll even be growing hops on the east side of the building. They didn’t need a huge space because Chocolate City will be a nanobrewery. This is a category that is nebulously defined but generally involves smaller outputs than microbreweries. Ben will be brewing on a 3.5BBL kettle, which translates to 7 kegs per batch. The brewery will have six fermenters, and they’re hoping to put out about 30 (not 7, as a I previously wrote) kegs a week.
The brewery is situated right next to a well-traveled bike path which will have cyclists going past all the time. Ben and Jay are exploring the option of doing growler fills directly from the brewery. They also envision a weekend party when they’re ready to do a grand opening to do production. Ben and Jay see the brewery as more than just a place from which beer will issue; to this pair, the brewery will be a destination that will welcome people by to try out Chocolate City Beer. This speaks to a bigger theme, says Jay. “The real meat of this has been carried forward by wanting to be involved in the community.” Jay, who is the events coordinator and a manager at the Wonderland Ballroom, speaks to this concept a lot and says that one of the best things about starting the brewery is that he and his business partners will be an “actual part of the DC community.”
They’re not sure what their second beer will be at this point. They’re still tweaking the recipes for an ESB and an Altbier. There’s time, though, because they are that confident in the Big Chair as a flagship. Jay notes, “As long as the beer comes out quality, you can do whatever you want to do. Get established. Once your name is out there and the quality is solid and repeatable, we can prove to DC and say, ‘hey, we can make beer.’ Then we can move up gradually and really do the fun stuff.” After they gradually upgrade their equipment, they’ll be able to produce some “geek out” beers and get a little crazy.
Because they’ll be brewing on a small scale, they won’t have the ability to distribute their beers outside of DC, at least not at first. “The response in DC has been good,” says Jay, “It’s going to keep us relatively inside DC. The beer distribution will be from neighborhood to neighborhood.” Their beer will be in “strategically placed venues through contacts and networks.”
So why D.C. and why now with all these production breweries? “It’s the way this town works. Either nothing happens, or a lot of things happen. It’s how D.C. works,” says Jay, who goes on to cite the rash of food trucks as a similar example. Chocolate City didn’t know that DC Brau, 3 Stars Brewing, Port City Brewing, or Black Squirrel brewing were in the works. They started Chocolate City independent of knowing about all of these other upcoming production breweries. Still, “there’s no problem fitting four breweries in the District. Each has its own personality.”
What will Chocolate City’s personality become in the city? It’s hard to say. My guess? Their brand will give off a laidback, but still ambitious, vibe. Laidback because that’s how Jay and Ben seem; two guys who are perfectly comfortable talking in the backyard homebrewing a beer. After all, that’s where this journey started for them. Ambitious because they’ve got a beer they believe in, a location that is coincidentally perfect for brewing, and a network of connections in a budding beer town whose community they genuinely want to be a part of. Be on the lookout for Ben, Jay, and the Big Chair IPA from Chocolate City, all soon-to-be mainstays in the DC beer scene.
Thanks to Jay and Ben for meeting with me, leave any questions or comments for them in our comments section!