HIGH BRAU CEO Brandon Skall takes pride in his brewery’s local flavor. Every batch of beer the company sells is hand crafted at the factory in northwest D.C. MAIREAD REILLY/THE HOYA
HIGH BRAU CEO Brandon Skall takes pride in his brewery’s local flavor. Every batch of beer the company sells is hand crafted at the factory in northwest D.C.
MAIREAD REILLY/THE HOYA

As the first commercial brewery to operate within the District of Columbia in decades, D.C. Brau is spearheading the push to revive Washington’s beer culture while also fighting for the political issues it most emphatically supports. first and foremost among them being D.C. statehood.

Distilling Success

According to the Brewers Association, an organization of American independent brewers, there were more than 1,700 craft breweries operating nationwide in 2010. None of them were in the District, which had been suffering from a local-brew drought since Heurich Brewery closed its doors on the site of today’s Kennedy Center in 1956.

Cofounder and CEO of D.C. Brau Brandon Skall acutely felt the absence of locally brewed beer in his home city.

“It seemed just absurd that Washington, D.C., didn’t have its own craft beer identity,” he said.

Skall resolved to fill this need, and,in 2008, he decided to start his own company. Skall teamed up with experienced brewer and friend Jeff Hancock, merging his experience in the beverage marketing and sales industry with Hancock’s skills to create the D.C. Brau brand. Skall manages the business aspect while Hancock creates the product.

In addition to a tight budget — the duo had originally aimed to raise $1 million in start-up capital but settled for $620,000 —, the new business was subject to extensive building specifications and complex zoning regulations.

“Our zoning is that we’re commercial manufacturers, and we need to have CM — at least CM-1 zoning,” Skall explained. A CM-1 license in D.C. is required for all forms of light manufacturing. “Finding buildings that are CM-1 zoned downtown is pretty hard. Also, on our budget, we probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”

In addition, Skall and Hancock’s business required tall ceilings, cement floors, a loading dock and other specifications unique to their industry.

“A lot of [that] stuff [is] pretty hard to find in other parts of the city. Most of this zoning is all along the outskirts of the city, so even the other new breweries that have opened up are kind of in similar situations,” he said.

Eventually, Hancock and Skall settled on a location in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood of northeast D.C.

Even after they found a site for the brewery,  Hancock and Skall had to lobby the government to obtain a permit for the tastings they now hold on a regular basis. While laws allowing tastings in grocery and liquor stores existed, the two men fought for the Brewery Manufacturer’s Tasting Permit Temporary Amendment Act of 2011.

Finally, almost three years after beginning their partnership, Hancock and Skall sold the first batches of D.C. Brau in April 2011. A year and a half later, D.C. Brau has produced 30 different beers and is stocked in restaurants and liquor stores throughout the District and as far south as Lynchburg, Va.

Hancock and Skall make a conscious effort to incorporate local culture into their business at every opportunity. The brewroom walls feature murals created by friends and local artists, and the company’s can design features an iconic Washington image: the silhouette of the Capitol dome. The pair also works with local farmers to recycle the wet grain used in the brewing process as food for livestock and is in the process of developing a limited-edition beer that will contain entirely locally sourced ingredients.

Building community is another important component of Hancock and Skall’s business model.

“I’ve always thought of this place as a place that was built by friends, because it was,” Skall said.

The staff of D.C. Brau offers tours and tastings on weekends and is often on hand at beer launches and community events. The team also recruits volunteers to help out with the day-to-day running of the business.

“People in this industry are so excited just to come out and help and just be there. … It’s great for us, because we’re able to pay people in beer for coming to help out,” Skall said. “It helps us to run efficiently. People are happy to be a part of it, [and] we’re happy to have them.”

The Business of Beer

Each can and keg of D.C. Brau is created from start to finish in the brewery’s small warehouse space on Bladensburg Road in northeast D.C. How exactly do yeast, water, grain and hops come together to create D.C. Brau ales? Nailing down a recipe is the first order of business.

“Who knows where the idea for a beer comes from?” Skall said. “Sometimes it comes from music, sometimes it comes from another beer that we’ve had, sometimes it comes from just a feeling, a movie or something like that.”

Once they’ve decided on a style and feel for the beer, Hancock takes the lead on fine-tuning the recipe — with no room for mistakes.

“We’re a little bit different than most breweries because we don’t do any test batches here. We kind of just go for the gold,” Skall said.

But the pressure to create a tasty product on his first try isn’t usually a problem for Hancock.

“Jeff is just a beast,” Chris Graham, lead shift brewer, said.

The D.C. Brau brewing process, which takes about two to three weeks, begins with grain, water and hops. The difference in their production is in how personal their operation is.

Through boiling, the starches are broken down into sugars that can be fermented, while the hops — and sometimes other ingredients, such as herbs — add flavor and aroma to the beer. The liquid is then removed and transferred to a fermenter, where yeast is added. At D.C. Brau, the fermenting process typically lasts three to five days. Afterwards, the yeast is removed and the beer is allowed to “brighten,” explained Graham, who has worked at D.C. Brau since June 2011. Once the beer is ready for consumption, it is either pumped into kegs by hand — a rare practice — or piped into the brewery’s canning machine. At the other end of the brewroom, Graham pointed out a stack of whiskey casks from a local distillery, which D.C. Brau uses to infuse unique flavors into some of its beers.

The space is small, with each stage of the brewing process occurring footsteps away from the preceding phase. After the beer is canned, each six-pack is assembled by hand and placed on a pallet for transportation to one of D.C. Brau’s vendors.

The process is “intimate,” Graham said. “You’re in touch with the product every step of the way.”

While the procedure doesn’t vary much from beer to beer, the variety of skills and creative expertise required, for each brew keeps Graham continually challenged.

“It’s definitely kind of an amalgamation of jobs,” he said. “There’s chemistry, engineering, a really hard, blue-collar work ethic, cooking [and] culinary arts. … It’s a really amazing profession.”

The brewery’s website features a “Brau Finder,” allowing fans of the beers to find local restaurants and liquor stores that stock D.C. Brau. Near Georgetown, the brews can be found at Georgetown’s Pizzeria Paradiso as well as Breadsoda and Town Hall farther up Wisconsin Avenue.

“We like to support local business, and it is a wonderful product,” Shawn Kelley, an owner and manager at Breadsoda, wrote in an email. Breadsoda has two draft lines dedicated to D.C. Brau: one for The Corruption IPA and one for a rotating seasonal selection.

“It sells really well and is only gaining momentum with time, advertising and name recognition,” Kelley added.

When it comes to business philosophy, D.C. Brau has found another recipe for success, which starts with a simple approach.

“All it is is showing up and giving [vendors] respect,” Skall said of his mentality toward establishing business partnerships. “If you’re a product-based business and you don’t give respect to the people who sell your product, then you’ve got another thing coming. They’re the ones who enable your business to exist.”

But as the owner of a small business, Skall still experiences his share of pitfalls, as his clients have experienced.

“We haven’t been able to carry [D.C. Brau] recently because they are unable to maintain a steady supply of product,” Paul Holder (MSB ’02), owner of Town Hall, wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, with many of these upstart producers, they grow their brand before they can reliably supply the market, and they can become a nuisance to deal with.”

Skall tries his best to navigate these situations. “I’m always honest with them, I never lie,” he said. “If we have an issue, I tell them what the issue is — I tell them why they’re not going to get their beer that week or whatever.”

He believes that this transparency is essential for running his business, but he admits that they always don’t have the most fastidious business plan.

“We’re kind of a toothpicks-and-marshmallows operation sometimes,” Skall said. “So we do fly by the seat of our pants a lot.”

Fermenting a Rebellion

The arrival of D.C. Brau has catalyzed a reinvigoration of the city’s local brewery tradition. Soon after Hancock and Skall debuted their first batches in 2011, two more breweries opened in the District: Chocolate City Beer on H Street and 3 Stars Brewing Company in northwest D.C. Add the White House — which started brewing its own beers in 2011 — and D.C. may be experiencing a craft beer revolution. A recent blog post on The Washington Post’s website notes that after lacking even a single brewery at the beginning of 2011, the District now has the highest “brewery density” in the country: one brewery for every 22.8 square miles.

And though it’s still a young business, D.C. Brau has set its sights on rapid growth.

“We’re about to go through a really large expansion,” Skall said. “We’re going to almost triple our production capabilities at the end of this year.”

The brewery also hopes to acquire a license to sell its product in Maryland by the end of 2012, fully expanding its scope throughout the D.C. metro area.

Along with developing the District’s local beer identity, the company has taken up the cause of D.C. statehood and voting rights. Both District natives, Hancock and Skall advocate for D.C. to gain full representation in the Senate and the House of Representatives, rather than accepting the one non-voting delegate to the House who is currently D.C.’s lone voice on Capitol Hill. As it stands, Skall argues that D.C.’s legal status amounts to “taxation without representation.”

“When I think about how my money is spent, [the idea] that it’s not as valid as someone from another part of the country is absurd,” he said. “There’s no valid reason why this city shouldn’t have the same rights as any other city in the country.”

 The brewery has collaborated with advocacy organization D.C. Vote, which fights for full voting representation in Congress for Washingtonians, and has helped the group put on a number of events, assisting with fundraisers and raising awareness about the issue.“We’re just trying to educate people as to what it actually means and just bring a little bit of light to it,” Skall said. “[D.C. residents] didn’t even get the right to vote for president until the ’60s. … Most people either don’t know that that’s the case or just don’t understand it.”

But Skall isn’t as optimistic about winning his fight for D.C. voting rights as he is about growing his beer business.

“Just like most things, [the voting issue] is just going to get tossed back and forth, back and forth. … It’s politics,” Skall said.

According to Skall, D.C. Brau’s political advocacy is part of its identity as a local brewery.

“Being a local beer doesn’t just mean that we’ve got a picture of the Capitol on the can. It means that all the bartenders and bars in town know who we are,” Skall said. “We have an obligation to be out there and represent ourselves as a local beer both to the people who are drinking our beer and the people who are selling our beer.”

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