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Hear from Leon Harris, Brewer at Woodbridge’s Comic Book-Themed Heroic Aleworks

Heroic Aleworks is a production brewery set to open as early as next month in Woodbridge, VA. The comic-book themed brewery is the brainchild of co-founders Jon Groner and Tim Hoke, both U.S. Army veterans. The pair formed the Prince William Brewers Guild and decided to take their passion for beer (gained through the famed Siebel Institute’s short course and the beers of Germany, respectively) and turn it into a real-life project fueled by a four vessel, 15BBL system. The brewery sounds like a beer geek’s heaven (emphasis on beer and geek), as it will host cosplay events, D&D nights, trivia, and comic book releases.

Groner and Hoke brought on brewer Leon Harris (a U.S. Air Force veteran himself) who has had brewing stints at the District Chophouse and Capitol City Brewing Company. Heroic has an IndieGoGo (that ends Friday) that gives beer fans a chance to get involved with perks at all price points (with Beer for Life at the top). I had the chance to chat with Leon via email, and what follows below is a transcript lightly edited for clarity.

Let's start at the beginning. How did you, Jon, and Tim meet?

Tim, Jon, and I actually met at Forge Brew Works at their anniversary party. Rory Ricks, the head brewer at the time, introduced us, and Tim started telling me about the brewery they were opening. He told me about the comic book theme and all of the things that he wanted to accomplish, which really resonated with me. So not really thinking that much would come out of it, I gave Tim and Jon my card and let them know if they needed anything brewing-wise, to give me a call. A few weeks went by, and Tim sent me a text message asking me if I was interested in talking about coming over. We negotiated terms and here we are!

What about your collective vision for a brewery makes you think you can fill a niche and be successful?

I think the comic book concept is something unique and different, and since there isn't anyone in our area doing that sort of thing, I think that there's a huge market for it. Woodbridge has some great comic book stores and is starting to become a hub for craft beer as well. I think the two go hand in hand. The comic book scene and role playing games are really big, not only in Woodbridge, but anywhere you go. So it only makes sense that you can find all of that under one roof at Heroic Aleworks.

The area's beer scene is getting very crowded. How will your beer and brand stand out?

Our beer and brand will stand out in a number of ways. First, we will have five core beers with their own backstory. The breweries I've come to love and enjoy have a similar thing, but no one has a legit storyline like we will. Our core beers are our superheroes, and they protect the world as we know it against the forces of evil (our seasonal beers). The really cool thing is that the people will get to decide on whether the "bad guy" will live or die based on sales and comment cards.

Explain the comic book lineup a little for me. All of these beers are comic book characters, and their story will play out in actual comic books from national and local artists? How often will the comic books be released? What does that system look like, and how did you come up with it?

The comic book lineup is, again, something that sets us apart from everyone else. All of our beers will have a character that goes along with it. We will have a full-fledged comic book that pits our good guys vs. our bad guys, which in this case will be our seasonal beers. Another thing that will set us apart is the swag that we sell. Everyone sells the proverbial t-shirt, hoodie, hat, etc. We plan on selling more than just that. One of our investors, Jen Thorpe, makes custom jewelry and cigar holders from bomber bottles of beers.

You've got some interesting beer styles here. Dubbel, in particular, isn't something that we see all that often as a flagship. How did you decide what would be in the lineup?

With the Dubbel, we decided to go with that because it’s different from what everyone else is doing. It’s a smooth, balanced, and drinkable beer, and that's why we decided to put into the core beer lineup. What separates us from the rest for this particular beer is that we add in our house-made candy sugar, which allows us to customize the color. This is just one thing that separates us from the rest of the beer community. Our Dubbel tastes really good, and I think that it gives the people a different option than what they are used to. Of course we have our Kölsch and IPAs and Porters, but everyone does that. We want to stand out from the crowd and give people a different option.

You need $700,000 for the brewery, but the Indiegogo is looking to raise $40K. Is this to get the word out there and get some folks engaged with the brewery? Seeding the field for some diehard beer fans?

Seeding the field is a great analogy, and that's exactly what our point was. We want to build something that will have people talking. The seed money was from our investors and covered all of our basic construction costs. But we didn't want to just build something where the people don't have a say in it. The Indiegogo campaign was designed as a way for our customers to really feel like they helped build out the tap room. The goal of this is to have the customer feel like they have invested in their own brewery and were able to help make this amazing place possible. When our customers walk in the door, they are immediately immersed into a different type of world where not only can you get a pint of some really great beers, but it is encouraged to dress up like a Viking or like the Green Lantern. We will have Dungeons and Dragon tournaments along with other board and role playing games. We will also have a free arcade for people to enjoy. Heroic Aleworks will be the place to go.

What did you learn from your time at Capitol City that you'll bring to Heroic? Both in terms of beer and in terms of running a brewery.

I have learned to brew beer from some of the best brewers, in my opinion, in my area, from Barrett Lauer (District Chophouse), Kristi Griner (Capitol City Brewing), Matt Ryan (Mad Fox), and Chris Jacques (Ornery). I think that with the level of pride I take in each and every beer, the level of knowledge I've gained throughout the years, and the backing of my crew, we will produce some of the best beers in Woodbridge and abroad.

Capitol City taught me a lot of things. Kristi Griner, Matt Ryan, and Ferdinand McAdoo taught me to be a better brewer in their own ways. Kristi was always kind and patient with me and encouraged me to think outside of the box. She taught me to have some pride in the beers that we make. Matt taught me about efficiency. He taught me how to properly clean a fermenter and a serving tank. He taught me the logistics of a brewery. I think Matt was my toughest critic because he wanted things done a very specific way, and if it wasn't like that, then it wasn't right. That really resonated with me, and now I feel that whenever I clean a fermenter or a tank of any sort that I need to be very vigilant on making sure that it’s clean. Ferdinand taught me not only the technical side of things, such as the liquoring back equation, but also how to have fun with the beer. That it’s not all serious business and that since I was still brand new to the beer scene, as long as I learned from my mistakes and tried not to do them again, everything would be fine.

What can you tell us about Dr. Enigma? There are so many variables with IPA, can you give us a more specific description of what it will look like?

Dr. Enigma is our lead guy. He's our leader out of the five. Woodbridge is a hub for IPAs, and it only made sense that we make him our leader. Not to give out the recipe, but one of the hops we will use is Warrior. This will give us a clean and mild bittering profile without blowing out your pallet. We want this beer to be clean and flavorful without being overpowering.

Where are you in the brewery planning process? Do you have a location yet? Will you be a production brewery, brewpub, mostly taproom?

We are almost done setting up the brewery and the tap room, and we should be brewing in the next few weeks! Our goal is to be open by late October/early November. Another thing that I think sets us apart from a lot of other breweries is that we did a lot of the work ourselves. We had to cut out some concrete that wasn't stable enough to hold our fermenters when they are full, and we hauled that out piece by piece. We put together our huge cold room as well. When I say our blood, sweat, and tears are into this place, believe me that it is! We will be a production brewery. We aren't officially open yet, but we already have a few restaurants and bars who have committed to selling our beers.

What is the one thing you really hope area beer fans know about Heroic after this interview?

One of the main things I hope people take away from this interview is that we are unique and different than anyone else in our area. Tim, Jon, and I are more than just committed to making great beers. When people think of craft beer in Woodbridge, we want them to think about how great their experience was at Heroic Aleworks.

Thanks to Leon for taking the time to chat. Visit their Indiegogo page if you’re inclined to support them, and be on the lookout for the opening announcement, hopefully in a few weeks!

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