On Thursday ChurchKey hosts Good Word Brewing (GA) and Schilling Beer Company (NH) for a conversation, “The Return to the Classics: A Panel Discussion on Lager and Saison.” Ten dollar advance tickets guarantee a seat and your first beer. We got a chance to talk to Todd DiMatteo, Brewer and Owner of Good Word, and Jeff Cozzens, Schilling Managing Partner and Co-Founder, before the event. A lightly edited transcript follows.
DC Beer: What brings both of you to DC?
Todd: I love DC. I have made lots of friends in the area over the years and it’s always an honor to send beer to ChurchKey. To me it is without a doubt one of the best beer bars in the country. They uphold tradition and service with such reverence. This opportunity to join my friends at Schilling, Bierstadt, Blackberry Farm, and the Seed was one I am seriously excited for. We are lucky and get asked to do beer festivals and events fairly often. I will say I have been pulling back on these for several reasons. One, we are small, we produce very little beer and as any brewer will tell you, the more you sell across the bar the better. So with that in mind and knowing I have no grand plans to grow I have decided to be at fewer festivals. Sending beer when I can and if they are friends, but only going if it makes good sense to spend the travel dollars on it.
Jeff: Greg Engert and his team’s vision for beer is what brings us to DC on this trip. Greg and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group have been major catalysts for reviving public interest in lager and session beers generally, with an impact that extends far beyond DC.
Todd: With an event like this lager and saison panel, and being with my peers of which I have an immense amount of respect for, when Greg Engert and Tim Liu asked I was absolutely coming for this.
DC Beer: We’ve seen Good Word cans for retail sale in VA bottle shops before on occasion, but not DC. Are there plans to change that?
Todd: We work with Reverie here in the VA and DC area and they’re great. They connect us with the places we want our beer showcased and inform us on passionate likeminded beer shops. We send beer to them maybe 2 or 3 times a year. No plans to send more than that at this point.
DC Beer: When Schilling first arrived in the DC market, it did so with pale ales from the Resilience brand, but this market seemed to quickly hone in on Schilling lagers and I’ve heard multiple people throughout the years say that Schilling are lager specialists, even though that’s not the case. Has the Schilling sales team noted this at all? What do you make of it?
Jeff: European-inspired lagers are not only our passion, but they also constitute roughly 85% of our total production volume. We do have a considerably smaller program called Resilience that focuses on hop-forward American ales–which, interestingly, is how you know Schilling–but most of these beers are sold either out of the door at the brewery, or within New Hampshire or Vermont. We typically don’t distribute them to a wider audience beyond special occasions like this because we want our drinkers to experience these beers at their freshest.
Further, we have a small but growing wild beer project focused around our coolship [note: you can taste several of these at The Sovereign on Wednesday]. The natural environment around the brewery is incredible; while it’s taken a long time to develop, it’s been thrilling to be able to watch our special microclimate literally being sipped by the glass while guests overlook the river. These Belgian and French-inspired fermentation traditions are very meaningful to our team, even if wild ales constitute only a fraction of our overall volume.
So, it’s true: lagers are indeed our focus and passion. They comprise the vast majority of our production, but they’re far from the only style of beer that we make.
DC Beer: When Schilling was starting out, did you decoct lagers, or was that a later addition during a period of growth? Did Schilling do sensory evaluation and/or A/B testing and arrive at this or was this to honor that Central European tradition, which ties in with the theme of the ChurchKey panel?
Jeff: We did not have the ability to conduct decoction mash schedules until our 5-vessel brewhouse came online in 2018. That said, it was our desire to decoct beers from the very beginning. Decoction does indeed lend depth of flavor, but it also has very practical outcomes – runoffs are more efficient, the possible production of astringency via over-sparging is reduced, etc.
DC Beer: I’ve never seen a Good Word IPA, or a Good Word beer over 5.5% ABV–which suits me just fine–but do these things exist, and, what’s been peoples’ reactions to a portfolio that hews toward lower ABV beers?
Todd: We focus primarily on classic styles for sure, namely lager and English styles, and we have a hefeweizen and saison as house beers, but we also make IPAs, stouts and barleywines. We send little of these styles out because I am protective over that narrative and prefer to be seen through that lens. Our IPAs make it out from time to time, we make a few hazy ones, and have a house west coast IPA and pale ale we have one most of the time. Our higher gravity beers are made specifically for our private bottle club, The Well-Oiled Society. We were lucky last year and had a Rum Barrel-Aged Barleywine make it onto Craft Beer & Brewing’s 20 Best of the Editors’ picks. It was awesome because we aren’t known for those types of beers. If you come to our pub you will find 18-20 drafts and 95% of those will be 5.5% abv or lower.
DCBeer: There’s been increased discussion over the past few years of “low-proof” cocktails and a “sober-curious” movement that coincides with Good Word’s founding and growth. Have staff noticed this at all in the Public House or in sales? I was thrilled to drink a 2.9% smoked porter, by the way.
Todd: Absolutely. We have a weekly beer school that my friend Neil Callaghan conducts for staff. Neil is the Beer Manager for Brick Store Pub in Decatur, who are celebrating their 26th year this week. Also one of the best beer bars in the country. Most of our staff tends to enjoy the lower gravity beers. The best selling beers are dark mild, Pilsner, Helles and bitter. That being said if I have our hazy IPA, Never Sleep, on draft it still dominates.
DC Beer: Without spoiling your answers to Greg at ChurchKey, do you think there’s a tension between “the classics” in terms of beer styles and experimentation and boundary pushing?
Todd: I don’t think there’s any tension per se. I will say I experiment in a very calculated sort of way. I try new things from time to time; however, I am always cautious with adding new things or processes. I typically research as much as I can with what’s available online and reach out to my peers and gather their thoughts and experiences.
Jeff: Yes and no. We have a deep respect and affinity for certain styles of lagerbier that we believe require no “boundary pushing.” A great Munich-style Helles or Dunkel, for example, should be beautiful symmetries of hops, malts, yeast and water. Anything else detracts from these styles, in our view.
However, many modern German brewers aren’t opposed to playing around with dry hop schedules on a pilsner, for example. As we know, climate change in Europe (and elsewhere) is forcing a robust discussion on hop utilization. So there is progressivity and experimentation–“boundary pushing”–but we choose to do so as respectfully as possible and with a great deal of intentional, intra-team discussion. That said, you won’t see an adjunct-ed lager from Schilling. There’s a line we won’t cross.
Good Word and Schilling will be joined by Bierstadt Lagerhaus (CO), Blackberry Farm, and The Seed (NJ), with a beer list that includes the out-of-market breweries. Buy your ticket, and see you there. Still not convinced? The first 20 people to show up on Thursday will get this sweet DC Beer bag, too. Just look for the guy in the DC Beer shirt!