Even casual observers of the DC metro area’s beer scene have surely noticed that there’s a lot of brewery action going on in Loudoun County. Loudoun County, which has made a conscious effort to attract and promote craft breweries, even going so far as to start a LoCo Ale Trail is currently home to stalwarts like Adroit Theory, Lost Rhino, and Ocelot Brewing as well as relative newcomers like Solace Brewing Company and Vanish Beer. Add another name to the 25-deep list maintained by Loudoun County and welcome Rocket Frog Brewing Company [Facebook].
months years [Ed. Note: My bad.] of planning, the brewery, located at 22560 Glenn Dr., Suite 103 in Sterling is slated to open early next year. To find out more, we reached out to co-founders Richard and David Hartogs via email. Savvy readers may recognize Richard as the voice of the Better Beer Authority beer review podcast and running the Beer Head Meetup group (and also, to our dismay at the time, the winner of a pair of SAVOR tickets from us after just two clues a few years back!). Below are Richard’s responses, lightly edited for clarity and length. We’ll have more in the run-up to their opening. In the meantime, mark your maps and get ready for yet another beer option in the Commonwealth.
First of all, what is a Rocket Frog?
It is an unfortunate amphibian who got too close to the blast-off radius of a rocket launch on Wallops Island, Virginia, and was propelled to the heavens. The name is based on a famous NASA photo of a frog photo-bombing their launch of the LADEE Rocket at Wallops Island in September 2013. At first it was a joke, but it turned out to be a great story and has really resonated with a lot of people. The company that built the rocket, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is only one mile from our brewery; we’ve been in touch with some of the staff who worked on this project, and they are thrilled.
Let's get some of the logistics out of the way: where's your location, what's the status of the brewery, how big will the brewhouse be, and will you be draft-only or packaging too?
We are located in Sterling, VA, in the eastern part of Loudoun County. Basically near the end of one of Dulles Airport's runways and about 1/10th of a mile from the W&O Bike Trail.
We have a custom 15 barrel (BBL) brewhouse from Specific Mechanical out of Victoria, BC. We’ll start with four 30BBL fermenters and one 15BBL fermenter for sour beers, such as Berlinerweiss and Goses. We’ll have some 30BBL brite tanks as well. We also have a 1/2BBL Sabco system that we are using for test batches now and will bring that to the brewery as well.
The plan is to start sending kegs out almost immediately with plans to start canning within a few months of opening, using mobile canning.
We will probably hand-bottle some of our bigger barrel-aged beers and special beers for our Launch Pad Club members toward the end of our first year.
You've been an active part of the DC beer scene for years. What made you finally want to make the leap to own a brewery?
David started this project over a year before I got involved. He completed an online certificate program on the Business of Craft Beer through Portland State University. He took his vision and realized there was real potential for a successful business. As my career running the family educational television distribution company was coming to an end, I was thinking of a career in craft beer. Around the same time, David needed a new business partner, and the rest is history. Being identical twins has really helped as we have complete trust and confidence in each other. David has the full support and backing of his wife, Jenn, who is also a majority partner. On a less serious note, I'm still dumbfounded that I will be making my livelihood through beer.
Who will be doing the brewing?
Russell Carpenter. He has a long brewing history, but most recently was the first head brewer of a Massachusetts brewpub, True West. His wife landed a job in Fairfax, and it was great timing that we were able to bring him on board. He sent us numerous growlers and put up with some awkward questions, but somehow we convinced him join Rocket Frog. His PhD in biochemistry was a huge selling point, but the quality of the beer we sampled from him and his knowledge of professional brewing really set him apart. It also didn’t hurt that we all clicked right away. We are very picky about our beer and can honestly say that Russell is a great brewer.
What's the brewing philosophy? Any idea what the portfolio is going to look like?
We believe beer is for everyone and that we should make beer for all tastes. Our father was born in Belgium, and our oldest brother (there are four Hartogs siblings out in the wild) has been living in San Diego since 1999. We are heavily influenced by both of these great beer cultures, and you can expect to see our examples of both of these in our tasting room. David and I got our affinity for craft beer by visiting Dogfish Head since its beginning in 1995; we actually just purchased a section of their original bar that will live on in our tasting room.
Our flagships will be IPAs (of course); think clean and dry, with a bit of a hop bite at the end. Our pale ale will have somewhat of a malty backbone with subtle hoppiness on the finish. Our blonde ale will be a Belgian-style table beer that will be good for any occasion and pair well with just about any food. Russell makes amazing brown ales, and we are still deciding on what type of brown we will do initially, be it a straight-up brown ale, or a Porter, or a dry stout. At some point, we’re thinking of adding coffee variants to the brown ale; Russell and I are both coffee nerds too. Finally we’ll have a flagship kettle sour, either a gose or Berlinerweiss (and we’ll make our own house syrups for the Berlinerweiss). We will also usually have 1-2 high gravity beers such as barleywine or imperial stout as well. We plan to start our barrel-aging program as soon we can. We will have 12 tap lines and we plan to go nuts with those.
How will your brewery stand out in a crowded field? What lessons have you learned watching other locals?
It sounds so cliché, but it starts and ends with great beer. Our main focus will be on quality control from start to finish. That starts with giving our brewer, Russell Carpenter, freedom to use his analytics, science background, and brewing knowledge to make the beers we collectively want to represent the brand. He is incredibly talented, and we don’t want to get in his way. It will continue with how we serve the beer in-house from a custom draft system, to a highly reputable glass washer. Also, with a name like Rocket Frog, we have to make it a fun brand; we can’t just stop at our name and logos. We aren’t aiming to be a “lifestyle brewery,” rather we want to be a fun brewery with outstanding beer.
We’ve been studying the craft beer industry for a long time and have certainly watched and learned what to do and not to do. For example, with bottle releases, you have to make sure that you can sell your limited products in a fair and easy way. You can’t make everyone happy, but we want to make sure that our fans who work 9-5 can have access to our limited beers. If we decide to use an online merchant, we’ll make sure that the fees don’t put our beer into another income level. I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is don’t serve beer until it is ready. Like other new breweries, we will be very cash-strapped at the beginning, but we want to make sure that our beer is ready to serve when we put it on tap; we don’t want to just sell sub-par beer to make a profit. (We’ve seen some breweries tap beers that taste like unfermented wort.) We also need to be flexible: craft beer is changing faster than ever. One year it’s the battle of the session IPAs; next year, the it’s who has the sourest beers, or who can make the haziest, juiciest IPA. We need to be nimble but also stick to our core principles.
We’ve been very lucky that all the local breweries we have talked with have been awesome and given great advice. In particular, the guys from Ocelot have been tremendous with their time.
We’ve seen breweries grow too fast, and we’ve also seen breweries that expand, but not in an efficient way, so we will need to be smart about our growth plan.
From a customer service point of view, we have to make sure our taproom staff is professional, knowledgeable, and of course friendly. We plan to have all servers pass the Cicerone Certified Beer Server within six months of hiring. Nothing annoys me more when visiting a brewery if the person pouring my beer can’t tell me a few basics about the beer or brewery.
There is no public transit close to Sterling. How do you think that impacts the brewery visit experience/traffic?
There is an impact for sure, but what we have learned in our extensive research is that beer fans are willing to travel for good beer, so we have to do our part and provide something worth the effort. We've gone into a lot of the breweries at “off” times of the week, 2pm Wednesdays or noon on a Tuesday, and been surprised to see a decent amount of customers inside. We plan to have 1-2 large events per year and hope to work with some transportation companies to help people get from inside the Beltway to our facility.
Currently, the Wiehle-Reston Metro is seven miles from us. When the new Silver Line stations are up and running, the nearest station will be about three miles away. Loudoun County Transit provides a local service between Wiehle-Reston to Leesburg that stops 100 feet from our brewery, but the trip from downtown DC to Sterling using public transit is still cumbersome. We are going to be part of a cluster of breweries within a few miles of each other so it will make it more worth the while for customers to not only visit us, but visit some of the other breweries in the area and make a day of it.
We are also right off the O&D Bike Trail, which was a huge consideration when choosing this property. We’ve seen the impact of cyclists at the other local breweries and are excited to serve this crowd.
There are great upsides to being in Sterling, one of which is that Loudoun County is the most brewery-friendly county in the metro area. While we have had some zoning headaches (like everyone else), the county has helpws guide us as much as possible. They made themselves available to answer any questions we’ve had or put us in contact with the right people. Two people in particular have been extremely helpful, and we’d like to thank them: Kellie Hinkle and George Hoddinott. Loudoun is also the wealthiest county in the country, which is a good place to be. We initially tried to open a brewery in Arlington and wrangled with the county for 8 months, but it was just about impossible due to the parking restrictions and lack of available properties.
What are the best and worst parts of the DC metro area’s beer scene? How will Rocket Frog capitalize on these parts?
The DC metro area is a vastly underrated beer scene nationally. Not only do we have some of the best and largest distribution in the country, but there are a growing number of breweries here that are killing it with great beers. The DC Metro area has such a well-educated consumer base that you can’t fool them into drinking subpar beer. This also means that Rocket Frog has to come out of the gate strong from day one. With so many options, we need to wow our customers from the very beginning or we don’t have a shot.
The worst part of the DC beer scene is there are so many out-of-market options. As a brewery, we are not just sharing shelf space with other local breweries, but with hundreds of offerings from outside the DC metro area.