There’s a joke shared by brewers throughout the United States that asks “What does today’s craft beer drinker want?” The answer? Whatever’s not on the menu! The joke pokes fun at the fickle nature of today’s beer drinker, but what does today’s beer drinker really want? Something kaleidoscopic. Something ever-changing. Something well made. All of which is exactly what Ocelot Brewing Company is doing.
I sat down with Adrien Widman, owner and founder, and Mike McCarthy, brewer, to discuss their unique business model and Ocelot’s ever-changing lineup of ales and lagers. Their drafts truly are kaleidoscopic: no beer is being brewed more than twice a year.
While McCarthy has been brewing for several years in and around the DC area, most recently with DC Brau before joining Ocelot, Adrien cut his teeth on beer from the San Diego area, where his brother, Sebastian, lives. “He brought me to the brewpubs and bars there, and I couldn’t find that stuff back here. He introduced me to Alesmith, Alpine, Pizza Port, and, more recently, Societe,” says Adrien, who, like so many, wanted what he couldn’t find. He and McCarthy started to brew hop-forward ales that are quite pale when compared to the hue of so many amber-colored pale ales and IPAs now on the market. “We like the San Diego style, not the India Caramel Ale style, so we’re emphasizing that it’s a west coast IPA,” says Widman.
The duo have both designed beers that were either “all Mike” or “all Adrien,” though they say that the overwhelming majority are collaborations. “We look at our materials and say ‘what do we got tomorrow?’ We’ll sit down, and we’ll crank out a recipe,” says McCarthy. “I truly believe some of these beers are more procedural than recipe-driven, and you know what not to use in certain styles.”
“We have very similar palates in beer: IPAs and big beers; we’re not big fans of adjuncts aside from coffee, cocoa, or vanilla,” says McCarthy. “We don’t have any plans to brew spiced, smoked, chile or pumpkin beers.” He also notes that none of their beers are brewed with rice or corn, and there are no plans to do so.
We asked Widman and McCarthy what they make of those who say Ocelot’s focus is big, strong beers? “Damn straight,” replies Widman. Founder, brewer, and the growing Ocelot fan base are all very pleased with how their strong and hoppy beers have turned out. McCarthy explains, “A lot of that high-gravity perception is left over from the first few months where everything was 6-10% ABV. It’s residual from when we’d opened up and had seven beers on tap and all were over 7% ABV.” Widman adds, “Coming out of the gate we had a Russian Imperial Stout, 7 IPAs and a sour.”
At the time of my visit, Ocelot had 16 beers on draft, five of which were under 6%.
- Locollaboration (amber ale brewed at Old Ox Brewing Company with the rest of Loudoun County’s brewers)
- Witching Hour (Oktoberfest)
- Ella (American pale ale)
- Weird Creatures (raspberry saison)
- Sunnyside Dweller (pilsner)
Several of the beers stood out, but the “Sunnyside Dweller,” a 5.5% pilsner with a remarkably light straw color that is hopped exclusively with German varieties was exquisitely brewed. Magnum and Spalter Select are used in the boil, and the beer is then dry-hopped with Spalter Select. It is truly an exquisite pilsner: light, clean, refreshing, and with a remarkable smack of hops that is soft and floral and snappy without using Saaz.
Also impressive were “From the Top” and “From the Bottom.” These two beers were brewed identically, but the former was fermented with ale yeast and the latter with lager yeast. This will perhaps be the only beer brewed identically from Ocelot, but of course the final products are different. From the Top tasted a touch more bitter than From the Bottom, and From the Top presents drier; the ale is 7.2 %, but the IPL borrows a page from a Czech brewer’s playbook and leaves a tad of residual sweetness and a fuller body at 6.8%. This kind of attention to fermentation is becoming commonplace at Ocelot. Widman mentions that his bartenders will ask patrons ordering these beers, “Do you want it blind or not blind?” and people are starting to say “I want it blind” in order to see if they can tell the difference between the two.
Ocelot also offers mystery beers to their guests. “We’ll do a mystery tap, and we tell them what the ABV is, and then they’ll have a glass,” says Widman. “Part of the whole secret tap is a result of watching too many people go to a beer festival and [check into] their beer on Untappd before they’ve even sipped it.” Additionally, Widman wants to “[bring] people back to drinking a beer without preconceptions and expectations.”
Those preconceptions and expectations are challenged by Ocelot’s model of not brewing a beer more than twice per year, which is certainly unusual among craft breweries who often become well-known for their core line-ups (think Two Hearted for Bell’s or Fat Tire for New Belgium). “Instead of ‘Embrace the Loss’ [(an individual beer)] being the brand 10 years later, the brand is Ocelot, and if you come here, you’re bound to find a beer you like,” says Widman. “We’re brewing what we like to drink,” says McCarthy, commenting on the two brewers’ similar tastes.
“We have nine hop-forward beers on right now, and sure enough if someone says, ‘Well I just want that one beer,’ they won’t get it, but if you like our IPAs, you’re going to find at least two of those nine that float your boat, even with different hop combinations,” says McCarthy. “Seeing locals now come in and say, ‘Give me what’s new,’ or ask, ‘What’s fresh?’ is a great feeling.”
“If you come here you’ll find a beer you like,” reiterates McCarthy. That certainly seems to be the case asOcelot’s popularity and respectability grow. Loudoun County has seen rapid growth (in both population and breweries) in recent years, and the county is aiming to be the most inviting area for brewers in Virginia at the same time that the Old Dominion is striving to be the most hospitable state to breweries. Despite that, some brewpubs and breweries have had to make concessions to patrons.
“Brewing for the masses is a different model, and while we realize [their choice to not re-brew] may alienate some people and narrow our market, it allows us to be true to what we want to brew,” explains McCarthy, noting that his amber lager was a labor of love, not a product for the sake of popularity. “Mike killed it with the Oktoberfest, and we only sent one barrel to market,” Widman gushes. “The rest was served in house.”
Ocelot can’t control consumers, but they certainly control the beers they are producing and its packaging. This is their aim for their next move: bottling. All of their beers to-date have been kegged, but that will soon change. The brewery has a two head bottle filler on order, and their barrel-aged beers are likely to be the first bottled. The Russian imperial stout will be bottled out of Heaven Hill barrels, and the barleywine will come from Woodford Reserve barrels. Following these beers will be IPAs that have received overwhelmingly positive reviews both in DC and Loudoun County. In order to keep their sterling reputation that emphasizes freshness, McCarthy explains, “Each batch of IPA will be for sale in 500mL bottles, but only at the brewery.”
When I spoke to Ocelot they had just launched in Winchester, Fredericksburg, and Virginia Beach. They believe their next market expansion will be Richmond, to which they will look to start sending kegs in the New Year. As for what to expect in DC, Ocelot says they are looking to hold accounts accountable for serving the IPAs fresh, but “Jace Gonnerman, Greg Engert, and Nahem Simon don’t want to serve old IPAs so the more knowledgeable beer directors like them out there, the better,” says McCarthy. “Mike will keg Thursday, Hop and Wine will come Monday, and you’ll have it on draft Tuesday,” says Widman. With such a quick turnaround time Ocelot is improving the quality of Virginia beer both in Loudoun County and the District; just be sure to enjoy it thoroughly when you find something you like because who knows when you’ll see it again.