“We’re quitting our jobs, next week,” Brandon Skall tells me. I look over at his business partner, Jeff, who smiles wryly. “From here on out, it’s all DC Brau.” Maybe it’s a crazy thing to do. Starting a business in the best of times is tough, but in this economy it’s especially risky. Still, Brandon and Jeff don’t seem worried, which inspires a certain confidence.
“How do your wives feel about it?” I ask, noticing wedding rings on their fingers.
“They’re scared shitless, but they’re excited,” Jeff Hancock replies. “That’s how I knew this was a good idea.” Both men smile, lean back in their chairs and sip their beers. It’s one of the hotter days in late June and we’re sweating it out on the back porch of Little Miss Whiskey’s, talking about their start-up brewery, DC Brau.
“Want to come down stairs and see a beer we’ve been working on?” Brandon asks. We head down into the cool cellar of the bar, where they’re fermenting a small-batch brew. Jeff siphons off a shot of the wort (fermenting beer) for each of us, tastes it and then busily checks pH levels. Brandon sticks his nose in the glass, sniffs, and then takes a sip. “Wow!” he said, “that came out completely different than I thought it would!”
“Yeah, the yeast is really prominent,” Jeff replies. Turning to me, Brandon explains that the wort we’re drinking is just the essence of the beer. “It won’t be ready for a few weeks. It’ll be much better when it’s actually done. The trick is being able to taste whether the beer will turn out good or bad by drinking it in this stage.”
In many ways Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock are distinct halves of their business. Brandon is the consummate salesman; cheerful, likable and one of those people that naturally ends up the center of attention. Tattooed from shoulder to ankle and a member of Stunner of the Month, a subscriber service that sends ostentatious shades to their patrons, he’s worked in beverage sales and distribution for the last few years. He’ll be managing the sales and the business side of the brewery.
Jeff, on the other hand, will oversee the brewing. He’s mustachioed, more quiet and thoughtful, but by no means an introvert. He has a dry sense of humor and prefers one-on-one conversation to a boisterous group discussion. Jeff’s spent years in the brewing industry, working at Arbor, Grizzly Peak, and Flying Dog. He’s got the technical know-how to match Brandon’s sales ability.
Both men were born and raised in the DC suburbs and spent years DJing before they got in the alcohol business. During his time as a distributor, Brandon noticed a void where local DC beers should have been. This started him thinking about a brewery. “I’ve had the idea kicking around for about 3 years. I wrote up a business plan a while back,” he says. Jeff, who’d been working at breweries outside of the DC area, was an acquaintance of Brandon’s nearly a decade earlier. Two years ago, they were reconnected by a mutual friend who saw the potential of their shared interests. The two hit it off, rewrote Brandon’s business plan and started pitching their brewery idea to friends and investors.
In the intervening time, the two managed to raise the requisite half million dollars needed to lease a property, out-fit it and stock it with ingredients. They established the vision for their brewery as completely DC-centric, from the location of operation, it’s actually in DC, down to branding their cans with mini-essays on statehood and voting rights. Their flagship beers will all bare names appropriate for the city: Corruption Ale (an IPA), the Public (a Pale Ale), and the Citizen (a Belgian style pale). They plan to name seasonals and special releases after DC neighborhoods.
DC Brau’s DC focus extends beyond the aesthetics of the beer’s packaging. There’s also a civic side to it, too. Brandon and Jeff will can their beer, a break from industry norms, because cans are more recyclable than bottles and will significantly reduce the brewery’s carbon foot-print. They’re also distributing used barley to local farms to be used as a cattle feed or fertilizer.
After our initial meeting, Brandon and Jeff invite me to a July 4th BBQ in Arlington, where they plan to reveal some of their handiwork. Party guests are mostly former DJs and take turns spinning on turn tables set up next to the pool. Brandon and Jeff pour their beers into red party cups and pass them around for people to sample. Brandon takes to explaining the beers’ flavors and recommending the order they be drunk in. “Brown first, then the stout, then the sour,” he tells everyone. Jeff sits down next to me as I take a sip of his Gueze. It’s got almost a Parmesan nose and tightens my jaw with its tartness.
“This isn’t easy to do,” I comment to Jeff.
“Tell me about it,” he replies. “Every time I open up this [base], I’m afraid of what it’s become. Fortunately, it’s stayed pretty tame.” Sour beers are notoriously finicky. They can take years to develop and have a tendency to run wild, making for some terrible flavors. This particular strain, while creating one of the funkier sours I’ve ever tried, actually made a unique, altogether good beer.
The other two beers aren’t half bad, either. The brown ale is nutty and well balanced, with a nice, medium texture. The porter is chock full of huge flavors. Brandon brewed it with coffee beans and chocolate nubs, which imparted a strong mocha taste. It’s reminiscent of Founder’s Breakfast Stout, but maltier. It’s unlike any beer I’ve ever tried. If these beers are any indication, expect textural beers with big flavor from Brandon and Jeff.
The present is just a step along the road DC Brau. Skall and Hancock take possession of the property they’re leasing next week and will start the build-out immediately. If all goes to plan, they should be brewing by November and distributing January.
This is part 1 of a 4 part series on the founding of DC Brau. Check back over the next few months for the next installments.