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The Best Mid-Atlantic Brewery You’ve Never Heard Of

Matt “Heff” Heffernan is the Tavernkeeper at the Smoke and Barrel and writes about beer and food pairings at @BeerPairing.

Our region scored just one gold medal at this year’s World Beer Cup. It wasn’t an offering from the well-established Flying Dog, Clipper City, or Dogfish Head breweries. It wasn’t any of our new, beloved breweries located within the District, or their also fledgling cousins just over the Potomac. It certainly wasn’t from any of the corporate brewpub chains located in the area. No, this best-in-category showing was from little known Devils Backbone Brewing Company, out of Roseland, Virginia. You’ve probably only heard of them since their NoVa launch about a month ago, or if you’ve vacationed at Central Virginia’s Wintergreen resort since they opened their doors nearby in 2008. They took home the trophy for their Vienna Lager.

For the majority of craft beer aficionados, the style is not exactly exciting. It is often appreciated more for the interesting historical anecdotes surrounding it, than its flavor. The brews are crisp, with a light noble hop characteristic, and display a touch of malt sweetness. The slightly elevated level of residual malt sugar offers more balance than many other bottom fermented categories. However, don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity of this beer, or allow yourself to discount this achievement as a result. It is much harder to win a category with milder flavors and very minor differences between entries, than to be victorious with a full arsenal of big flavoring agents and aromatics at your disposal. This triumph by Brewmaster Jason Oliver and crew is a significant one. It was achieved with nuance.

The World Beer Cup Gold is one of the most prestigious honors in brewing. Conducted by the Brewer’s Association, a trade organization that represents over 1400 independent American breweries and the same people behind SAVOR, the cup is endorsed by nearly everybody that matters in the realm of international beer. Its 95 categories receive entries from as many as 150 breweries. This year’s Vienna Lager category had 41 entries, which is remarkable for a style that was nearly dead until a couple decades ago. The WBC website describes a Gold placement as: “A world class beer that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance.” Judging takes place over two days divided into two sessions a piece, in which the most sophisticated palates in the industry blindly taste dozens of beers, and only give awards when the criteria for excellence are met.

Having just opened a new 30 barrel facility this past December, creating a huge jump in capacity, Devils Backbone will be rolling out their beers for regular distribution in the District next week. Meridian Pint will be pouring the award-winning Vienna Lager alongside Belgian Congo Pale Ale, and a cask of India Pale Lager on Saturday afternoon for their Drink Local event. Smoke & Barrel will be part of their official DC Launch party, on Monday June 11, when we pour Riley’s Red, Congo Belgo IPA, 8 Point IPA, Gold Leaf Lager, Vienna Lager, Weiss, Haze, IPA, Milk Stout, Bavarian Dark, and Pear Witt.

As much as DC has become a very beer savvy town, there are still plenty of macro lager drinkers around. With its mild, sessionable flavor, don’t be surprised if you see them starting to trade up to DB’s superior Vienna Lager, as it makes its way to the tap towers at your neighborhood spots.

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