The beer press erupted when it came out on Monday that DC would soon be home to another brewery: Atlas Brew Works. Given the projected start date of the first quarter of 2013, those of us who cover the suds scene were flabbergasted that we hadn’t previously caught wind of the project. But that’s just how the founders, Will Durgin and Justin Cox, wanted it. They intentionally avoided publicity until they secured a lease, at which point they felt “sure this was going to happen.” Besides, they say, “we were looking to make a big impact.”
I met up with Cox and Durgin at Smith Commons the day after they issued their press release. When I arrived (admittedly, a few minutes late – thanks, rush hour), they were already seated at the bar. Both seemed stunned at the buzz they’d generated. “We’re thrilled with the response so far,” said Durgin.
The pair first spoke about opening a brewery together four years ago when Cox, then a DC resident and avid homebrewer, visited Durgin in California. They met while attending Vanderbilt, but went their different ways after graduating: Cox left his native Tennessee to come to DC, while Durgin, who grew up in Massachusetts, went on to study brewing at UC Davis. When Cox came out to visit, Durgin was working for the Telegraph Brewing Company of Santa Barbara, a fact not lost on Cox, who pitched the idea of opening up a brewery in the District. They decided to let it rest for the time being. Cox returned to Washington, where he finished his JD at George Mason and obtained a Presidential Management Fellowship. He continued homebrewing, polishing recipes and accruing awards. Meanwhile, Durgin went on to become head brewer at Telegraph, then move to Portland, Oregon to brew at Pyramid.
The two kept in touch and eventually decided to make a go of it. They began raising funds from friends and family; when they hit their target in mid-May, the hunt for a suitable space was on. In July, Cox left his government job to devote all his time to the set-up. Durgin stayed on at Pyramid, keeping their plans quiet until they were sure that Atlas would come to fruition. Cox quietly worked the ground game, while Durgin got a lay of the land by following the local beer scene and “lurking on Twitter.” As the launch grew more and more certain, they took a big leap and bought their vessels…before securing a space; shortly thereafter, and with much relief, they signed a lease on their Ivy City brewery. All systems were go.
Durgin arrived on the East Coast on Halloween and the two began making all of the requisite acquisitions. They picked up a boiler from another brewery that had outgrown it, purchased a forklift from Baltimore County, and secured cooperage from Durgin’s supportive former employers at Pyramid.
With their 20-bbl brewhouse set to be delivered in January, most of the equipment is now squared away, so the pair has shifted its focus to the brewery itself. Because the space was new-build, there’s little needed in the way of alteration – just installing some drains, plumbing, and getting the floor pitch right for drainage. The open, rectangular footprint will allow for the optimal arrangement of vessels and a good deal of growth, a feature both founders clearly appreciate. After seeing and working in many different breweries that outgrew awkward spaces, Durgin finds it “so exciting to plan a brewery floorplan just like I like it.”
That floorplan doesn’t currently include a bottling or canning line because Atlas will start out draft-only. Cox and Durgin believe that Atlas beers to be enjoyed communally and that the best way to ensure this type of drinking is by keeping it in bars for the time being (save for small release and test batches to be poured in a brewery tasting room). In this respect, they follow the lead of two of DC’s extant breweries, 3 Stars and Chocolate City.
And then there’s permitting. DCRA is not known to be the fastest moving agency, but the guys are confident that, with all of the other pieces in place, they can devote enough time to paperwork to stay on track; Durgin cites Cox’s legal experience, as well as his time in the government, as a particularly valuable asset on this front.
Once they’re up and running, the guys will share responsibility for writing recipes, with Durgin running the brewhouse and Cox handling CEO duties. To start, they plan on releasing two beers: Rowdy, a pale ale that Cox developed over years and calls his “baby”, and District Common, a California common. The astute reader will notice that these two styles require different yeasts. Maintaining different cultures can be a costly and onerous task for a young brewery, but Cox and Durgin are unfazed. Durgin’s experience has instilled a fierce commitment to sanitation: “writing a good recipe is important,” he tells me, “but the real test is keeping a clean brewery and strong, healthy yeast.”
It’s clear from the night’s orders (3 Stars Pandemic Porter, Flying Dog St. Eadman, Ommegang Duvel Rustica, Goose Island BCS) and the breweries they cite as favorites (Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Firestone Walker) that they appreciate boldness as much as balance. Once they’ve established their two more approachable flagships, Durgin and Cox plan to broaden their roster to more challenging styles, including sour and barrel-aged beers, which they believe DC’s beer drinkers are ready and clamoring for. I got the distinct impression that they had some tricks up their sleeve, but for that we’ll have to wait until the kettles at Atlas Brew Works are fired for the first time.
With their anticipated opening mere months away – and with the word about Atlas finally out – Durgin and Cox are sure to be increasingly swamped under, but if you happen to see them around town, be sure to welcome Atlas to what is quickly becoming one of the country’s best beer towns.