Devils Backbone Brewing Co.

From the Source by | Nov 2013 | Issue #82

Basecamp. Outpost. Those are the two halves of Devils Backbone Brewing Co., one of Virginia’s fastest-growing beermakers. In their short life span—Basecamp opened in 2008, the Outpost in 2012—Devils Backbone’s two brewhouses have garnered 23 medals at the Great American Beer Festival and five more in the World Beer Cup competition. At October’s GABF, Devils Backbone won two golds, two silvers and two bronzes; in 2012 and 2013, Basecamp was named Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. But Devils Backbone doesn’t plan on staying small for long—this year’s $5 million expansion could be the first of several.

“The Scenery is Phenomenal”
Basecamp is the brewpub in Roseland, Nelson County. It’s got a mountain lodge vibe, with a menagerie of animal heads, and a beer garden with what brewmaster Jason Oliver calls “a million-dollar view” of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (Devils Backbone, incidentally, is a nickname for the front range of the Blue Ridge Mountains, coined by a 1720 surveying party led by Thomas Jefferson’s father.)

At the brewpub, Oliver and pilot brewer/head cellarman Aaron Reilly use the 10-hectoliter brewhouse to craft limited-edition beers, such as Blue Ridge Hop Revival, a wet-hopped ale made with 180 pounds of Virginia-grown Cascade hops. They like to play around with sour brews, including a Berliner Weisse. “We have our kitchen make up unique syrups,” says Oliver. “Serrano lime, blood orange, thyme and tangerine. Why limit it to raspberry and woodruff?”

Basecamp is equipped with five 75-gallon tanks for dry-hopping and blending, which allows Oliver and Reilly to multiply the number of offerings. They’ve siphoned off portions of their Baltic Porter, Danzig, for instance, to produce a wood-aged version, as well as variants spiked with coffee and cacao nibs.

The Outpost is their production brewery in Lexington, a 45–60 minute drive from Basecamp along the Blue Ridge Parkway. (“The scenery is phenomenal—I never get sick of it,” comments Oliver.) Here, production manager Nate Olewine oversees the brewing and packaging of the company’s three flagship brands: Vienna Lager (DB’s best seller), Eight Point IPA and Schwartz Bier. Seasonals are also produced in kegs and six-packs: Ichabod Crandall, a Pumpkin Ale, was on the shelves in September, and Kilt Flasher, a Wee Heavy, was mellowing in the tanks waiting a release later this fall.

The Outpost’s tasting room is rustic but with more of an industrial feel, sporting a tin roof, a stainless-steel bar and a copper kettle behind the bar. “It really gives you a sense of community,” says Oliver. “We get locals, folks coming off I-81, tons of people carrying growlers.”

Liquid Poetry
Steve Crandall, a 57-year-old owner of a construction company, founded Devils Backbone to scratch an itch that he acquired on a skiing trip to northern Italy in 1990. He waxes poetic in recounting the incident: “I walked into a little bar serving Weihenstephan. The opaque liquid poured almost like honey. I had an epiphany as soon as it touched my lips.”

Crandall located his brewpub on a site three miles from his 700-acre farm. (He works in corn, soybeans, oats and timber; no barley or hops yet—but, he says, “That’s something I’m interested in doing.”) He purchased a four-vessel, German-made system from a defunct brewpub in Tokyo. “They had to cut it to shreds. It ended up over here in a pile of parts and pieces.”

When he advertised for a brewmaster, Crandall received responses from as far away as the Pacific island of Palau. The winning applicant, Oliver, came from a little closer: He was head brewer at the Gordon Biersch brewpub in Washington DC. A native of Howard County, Md., Oliver majored in history and philosophy in college and got interested in craft beer after visiting the newly opened Legend Brewing Co. in Richmond, Va., in 1994. He says that he chose his profession after reading a book called Unique Careers. “Brewmaster” was the final entry in the B’s: “It was alphabetized, and I read no further after seeing it,” he says.

Oliver had gained a reputation in the Baltimore-DC area not just for his proficiency in brewing, but for his beer poetry: “Barleywine, oh Barleywine, Are you a friend or foe of mine? A bittersweet memory, That becomes my morning’s enemy.”

“The equipment sold me on the project,” recalls Oliver of his decision to leave the city for the outback. “Also the chance to start something from ground zero. Most brewpubs have systems based on the English model of brewing. But with this system, I can do step mashes, decoction mashes, multiple-decoction mashes.” He aims to keep 10–12 beers on tap at the brewpub at all times. Crandall estimates that Oliver has brewed over 200 different recipes since he started his present gig.

Brewing Renaissance
Virginia hasn’t been an epicenter of brewing since the early 1800s, when former presidents Jefferson and Madison homebrewed on their estates. Today, however, the state boasts over 100 breweries either currently operating or in some stage of planning, according to information posted on the listserv DC-Beer by local enthusiast Chuck Triplett. Most are very small, with the obvious exception of the Anheuser-Busch plant in Williamsburg. Oliver expects that Devils Backbone will produce 25,000 barrels by year’s end, which would vault it into the number-one position among the Old Dominion’s craft breweries.

It should retain that distinction at least until 2015, when San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing Co. is expected to open its 100,000-barrel-a-year plant in Virginia Beach. “We’ll still be the largest Virginia-owned brewery in the state,” asserts Oliver. Crandall notes that they’ve also got a 120-barrel brewhouse scheduled for delivery in 2015.

What’s inspiring this brewing renaissance in Virginia? Crandall answers, without hesitation, “HB 604.” The bill, signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell on May 15th, 2012, allows breweries to sell beer for on-site consumption without operating a full-service restaurant. “It was a sea change,” reflects Crandall. “It improved the economy for small-scale operations—you can sell beer retail at a greater profit margin.”

Some breweries rely on food trucks to provide sustenance to their customers. The tasting room at the Outpost doesn’t host food trucks, but “we encourage patrons to bring their own pizzas, sandwiches and whatever,” says Olewine. The Outpost does sell snack food like chips and pretzels, and provides menus for a number of Lexington restaurants.

Another boon for small breweries in Virginia has been Old Dominion Mobile Canning, a company that will rent a canning line to operations too small or new to afford their own. Devils Backbone made use of their services to can its Striped Bass, an American Pale Ale, but will probably purchase its own canning equipment in the near future, says Oliver.

But that will have to wait until a $5 million expansion of the Outpost is complete. This fall, the brewery was hooking up four 240-barrel exterior fermentors; eight more tanks will arrive next spring. Construction was set to start on a new building to house the packaging lines and provide more cellar space. Once the dust clears, Crandall is projecting to double output to 50,000 barrels for 2014. And beyond that? “In our wildest dreams, it’s a 150,000-barrel operation. We never sat down to contemplate a national footprint, but who knows?”

For the time being, Devils Backbone beers are available only in Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland. But Oliver’s reputation extends well beyond. “Jason is in high demand for collaborations both in this country and abroad,” says Reilly. This past year, Oliver traveled to Australia to help formulate a slew of beers at Thunder Road Brewing Co. in Melbourne, and later journeyed to Adnams in Southwold, England, to co-brew an American Amber Ale. He also was one of three brewers who worked on the Symposium Beer for the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference in DC: a 5-percent-ABV Rye Pilsner dubbed Beggars and Thieves.

Lower-alcohol beers have occupied a lot of Oliver’s time lately. Recently, he, Reilly and Crandall teamed up to brew Spider Bite, a 4.3-percent Black Wheat IPA. Then there’s a beer he dreams of doing: “I want to do a Mexican mole session beer with cacoa nibs, ancho chiles and cinnamon in honor of my little Chihuahua named Session.” Like the dog, the beer will be “diminutive, with a bite.”

Brewhouse
Basecamp:
10-hectoliter Ziemann-Miyake system with four vessels: mash mixer (dual-purpose mash tun and brewkettle), decoction cooker, lauter tun and whirlpool
– Ten 10-hectoliter fermentors
– Two 20-hectoliter fermentors
– Eight 10-hectoliter serving tanks

Outpost:
30-bbl Rolec system with four vessels: mash tun, brewkettle, lauter tun and whirlpool.
– One 60-bbl brite tank
– One 120-bbl brite tank
– Two 60-bbl fermentors
– Twelve 120-bbl fermentors
– Four 240-bbl fermentors

What’s On Tap
Vienna Lager: This “slightly less robust version of a Märzen” (as Oliver phrases it) derives its elegant malty character from Pilsner, Vienna, Munich and German caramel malts. Hops are Northern Brewer and Saaz. 4.9% ABV
Eight Point IPA: This West Coast IPA gets its bite from a hopping of Columbus, Chinook, Cascade, Centennial and Simcoe. (Oliver also brews an imperial version called 16 point IPA and a session version called Four Point IPA.) 5.9% ABV
Ichabod Crandall: Brewed with pumpkin pure and four spices (cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and ginger), this fall seasonal has an unusually complicated malt bill (caramel wheat, honey malt, aromatic malt and caramelized oats) to duplicate the graham-crackery flavor of fresh-baked pie crust. 5.1% ABV
Spider Bite: Owner Steve Crandall’s maiden effort at brewing is a session-strength Black Wheat IPA hopped with Columbus, Bravo, Mosaic, Citra and Simcoe, with a little black pepper added to the whirlpool. 4.3% ABV