Pint by Pint
Business Ferments District's Beer Tradition
Published: Friday, September 21, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 21, 2012 15:09
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.
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.”