Nathan Zeender of Right Proper Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Jun 2015 | Issue #101

Nathan Zeender made his bones as a homebrewer who reveled in unconventional fermentation. He propagated the dregs of wild and sour beers he enjoyed, aged batches in wine and spirit barrels, and blended the results. When Zeender traded a job in database management for a career in brewing, he decided the key to keeping his commercial efforts as unintimidating as possible lay in running his brewhouse like his basement. And that puts Right Proper, the Washington, DC, brewpub Zeender helped launch, far outside the brewing mainstream. Zeender’s 5-barrel system churns out dozens of recipes per year. Many are experimentations with new ingredients and treatments, mixed yeast cultures, and vintage kegs. Right Proper is riding the jagged edge of a brewing niche.

1. Bring home a manageable challenge
Nathan Zeender grew up with an appreciation for good food, but for the first several years after he turned 21, his drink of choice was wine, not beer. Two things turned that around. One was Birreria Paradiso, a DC beer bar that gave Zeender a crash course in Belgian styles; the other was the accessibility of homebrewing. “Beer seemed like something that was pretty doable on the home scale,” Zeender says. “Good wine is difficult to make at home. Beer was something I could do at home, it would be fun, and it would be a challenge.”

2. Find a kindred soul
Zeender’s homebrewing started off in a familiar place, with a Pale Ale kit. But he quickly became enamored with sours, wild brews and funky fermentations. Zeender hooked up with Michael Tonsmeire (now the author of American Sour Beers), and the pair filled Zeender’s basement with dozens of experimental beers. “It was nice to have a collaborator who was on the same page, and who had similar motivations,” Zeender says. “We’d reach out to brewers we respected, brew together, pick their brains clean, and build our own knowledge base. I considered my homebrewery to be a brewery. I didn’t make any distinction.”

3. Chase new horizons
Zeender ticks off plenty of domestic breweries that helped broaden his tastes, with Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River, Allagash and the Lost Abbey at the forefront. But the beers that changed his palate were Belgian classics: a Westmalle Tripel, De Dolle Oerbier Reserva and Cantillon Gueuze. After tasting them, Zeender could never just settle for a steady parade of familiar flavors. “I always had that dichotomy,” he explains. “I love well-executed clean beers, and I also really like these super aromatic, dry, mixed-fermentation beers. That was the idea when I was brewing at home. And that’s what the brewpub has turned into.”

4. Stay personal
Right Proper Brewing Company is a scaled-up version of Zeender’s basement brewery. That’s entirely by design. “I was happy with my beer being a non-commodity, and I wasn’t sure about becoming a professional brewer, because of the change in psychology. It had to be personal. Our system here is very manual, very hands-on. There’s not a lot of automation. That’s what homebrewing is. I don’t want a computer brewing our beer.”

5. Break the chains
In many ways, Right Proper was built as a reaction to DC’s corporate brewpubs that catered to tourists and conventioneers, so Zeender and his partners went out of their way to craft a neighborhood spot that embraced locals. They’ve rewarded repeat customers with a staggering variety of beers: In Right Proper’s first year, Zeender cranked out more than 70 different recipes. “We’ve been able to use the pub as a workshop space,” he says. “We make soulful beers.”

6. Grab a live one
Zeender describes Right Proper as “sort of a personal brewing project and yeast cult, under the guise of a brewpub.” The pub keeps at least four distinct yeast cultures moving around its seven fermentors; some are clean, and some are mixed with wild yeast and bacteria that go to work in open fermentors. “We let the yeast lead the way,” he says. “Yeast and bacteria, the yeast culture, is the animating life force of the beer. The other raw ingredients are static. They’re kilned or picked. That’s the exciting spiritual experience: Yeast is developing, changing, living and breathing.”

7. Pitch a big tent
Songlines, a beer Zeender describes as an “aboriginal farmhouse ale,” is a showcase for the kind of alchemy that Right Proper achieves by building recipes around yeast cultures. It brings together a rustic Belgian base of Pilsner malt, wheat and oats, with Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin hops from Australia and New Zealand, and Right Proper’s house blend of Saison yeast, Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus. “We’re always balancing against other ingredients,” Zeender says, and the bright, juicy southern hemisphere hops provide an unexpected counterpoint to the yeast culture’s earthy funk.

8. Ease it in
Playful herbal and botanical influences shine in Right Proper’s experimental Berliner Weisse series. One iteration combined elderflowers, lemon zest and Nelson Sauvin. A recent effort layered Centennial and Chinook dry hops on top of dandelion flowers and roasted dandelion roots. But whatever the ingredients, they’re meant to rise naturally and complement the Berliners’ lactic acid, rather than outshine every other ingredient in the glass. “Culinary beers that are meant to taste exactly like something are not where our interests are. If we make a beer with dandelions, it won’t be 100 pounds of them. We’re trying to take some floral character from the botanicals, but we never try to be heavy handed about it.”

9. Sing softly
The same mentality applies when Zeender is working with conventional brewer’s yeast. Raised By Wolves, a hoppy Pale Ale, is as close to a flagship as Right Proper has. It’s brewed with restraint, and balance, in mind. “We’re not interested in hop saturation, in 2 to 3 pounds per barrel of dry hopping,” Zeender says. “This is a dry-hop Pale Ale with a modest amount of dry hopping, a nice aroma in the nose. It’s soft, it’s drinkable, and it’s still intriguing. I don’t want to come off as a grumpy curmudgeon who hates IPA. I just don’t have any interest in following the hop saturation train. I like a wide swath of flavors.”