Many craft beer fans in the DC area have heard of Devils Backbone Brewing Company and know that this relatively young brewery has won some awards, but they don’t know much beyond that. Opened in 2008, this Virginia brewery is located at the base of Wintergreen Resort in Nelson County, approximately 45 minutes southwest of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Brewery owner Steve Crandall, who also owns and operates a custom home building company in Nelson County “discovered and fell in love with hefeweizen…during a ski trip to the Alps” and eventually began making plans to open a brewery. Part of this process was placing an ad on ProBrewer.com seeking a brewmaster. Enter Jason Oliver, a Howard County, Maryland native and graduate of the UC Davis Master Brewers Program who had gained experience brewing at Oliver Breweries (no relation), Virginia Beverage Company, Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., and Gordon Biersch Brewery (DC). Oliver was hired as brewmaster, started making beer, and the brewery opened its doors in 2008. The awards started coming in shortly after Devils Backbone opened. The brewery was awarded two Gold medals and two Bronze medals at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival as well as one Gold medal, three Bronze medals, and the Brewers Association World Beer Cup Champion Brewery and Brewmaster (Small Brewpub category) at the 2010 World Beer Cup.
I recently had the pleasure of touring the brewpub with Brewmaster Jason Oliver and learning more about Devils Backbone’s soon-to-open bottling facility in Lexington, Virginia. I also got a chance to tour this new facility with Nate Olewine, Lead Brewer at the Lexington facility.
According to Oliver, the original plan was to open the brewpub and see how far it would go. “We always wanted to expand beyond the brewpub and get our beer into the wider local market,” he said. Since opening, both the popularity of the brewery and demand for its brews have grown. The next natural step for this brewpub was to bottle its beers. Oliver and Crandall made the decision to build a bottling facility and wanted to base it in Nelson County where the brewpub sits. Unfortunately, the county’s waste-water infrastructure was deemed unsuitable for the needs of a brewing and bottling facility. Their search led them 45 miles southwest to Lexington in Rockbridge County. They built a brewing and bottling facility and are set to ship beginning in early March.
The brewpub in Nelson County, known as the Basecamp, is an 8.5 bbl system with an annual capacity of 900 bbl/year. According to Oliver, the new production facility in Lexington, known as the Outpost, is “a 30 bbl brewhouse with an annual capacity (with the fermenters we have now) of up to 12,000 bbls which is quite a lot of annual capacity to start with. We also have room to grow; I think we could probably get up to 30,000 bbls in the existing building as we add tanks.”
This is a computerized brewhouse manufactured by the German company ROLEC that allows for even further precision and flexibility. “It’s a pretty well-engineered system; the same type (of) system that Victory, Lagunitas, Stone, and Brooklyn” have, notes Oliver. According to the ROLEC website, Devils Backbone recently installed “Complete brewery equipment for a capacity of 12,000 bbl (14,000 hl) per year. Including malt plant, 3 vessel Brewhouse 30 bbl (35 hl) per brew, CCT cellar, utility systems, automation system beraBREW V11”
The Basecamp will primarily brew seasonal and experimental beers for the brewpub and occasional distribution to some craft beer bars. Among other things that caught my eye was what Oliver and Assistant Brewer Aaron Reilly refer to as the “funk tanks.” These are smaller fermentation tanks, featuring images of Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords, that are used to produce sour, tart, and funky beers like the brewery’s popular Berliner Metro Weiss. Once the Basecamp moves the production of year-round beers to the Lexington Outpost, it will free up one of their 8.5 bbl fermenters as a dedicated funk tank. On a personal note, I’m hoping for a “Most Beautiful Gueuze (In the Room)” or possibly a “Business Time Bret(t) Saison.”
The Outpost will focus on brewing the year-round and seasonal beers that are to be bottled and kegged for distribution to the Basecamp, restaurants, bars, and retail stores. The year-round bottled beers (for now) are the Vienna Lager and the Eight Point IPA. Oliver decided what two beers to debut with by examining which beers were most popular in their brewpub as well as by drawing on his knowledge of metropolitan and suburban areas where they would soon distribute. Devils Backbone will eventually add more year-round beers to their lineup, but they will wait and see which seasonal offerings gain traction with consumers. “We’ll see which seasonals sell and see what makes sense to us,” explained Oliver.
Seasonal beers will appear in kegs, 12 oz bottles, and occasional 22 oz bombers. There are currently four seasonals that have been set for production in the coming months: Belgian Congo Pale Ale (a historical “what-if?” beer… what if Belgium sent beer to their colony in the Congo, but hopped it in the manner of Pale Ales being sent from Great Britain to their colonies in India?), Azrael (Belgian-style strong golden ale), Turbo Cougar (helles bock), and Trail Angel (the beer formerly known as Wintergreen Weiss, a Bavarian-style hefeweizen). In the future, Oliver and Lead Brewer Nate Olewine hope to produce around ten seasonal offerings per year.
As for the rollout, they expect to be on retail shelves by early March in their current distribution areas. Bottles can found in Verona (Staunton), Winchester, and Charlottesville areas via Virginia Eagle Distributing, Richmond, Petersburg, and Hopewell via Brown Distributing, Lynchburg and the surrounding area via Century Beverage, and Roanoke and the surrounding area via PA Short Distributing.
But what about DC? Is Devils Backbone Beltway-bound? Oliver said that they are close to making their selection of a distributor for the northern Virginia area and hope to have trucks packed with bottles and kegs of delicious beer rolling up I-66 sometime this summer. Things are still up in the air for DC and Maryland. Although Oliver hopes to begin distributing to DC by the late summer, it could easily be later in 2012 until Devils Backbone makes their District debut. Maryland will likely have to wait until after an assessment of the DC and NoVA rollout is made.
I really enjoyed chatting with Oliver and noticed that the conversation occasionally drifted away from the nuts and bolts of brewing, expansion, and distribution and towards discussions of inspiration. I discovered that this history major (with a philosophy minor) likes “to think about the cultural aspects of beer… It’s neat how things evolve.”
It became clear that Oliver realizes that beers (and their styles) are made by people and these people are impacted and changed by the events in their lives and the world around them. A study of, and appreciation for, history as well as the present helps one to understand where their beer has come from and where it can go.
For the present, it looks like Devils Backbone beer is going to the DC area, and from there… who knows? Maybe they’ll keep making history with their award-winning beers.