Monday, October 30, 2017

☸️ Pen Druid Alchemy

Neal and I took a drive out to Pen Druid Brewing, in Sperryville, Virginia this past weekend. It's a scenic, thirty-minute drive from my home west of Warrenton. This is one of our favorite breweries – we’ve made the trek many times – as much for the people who operate it, and those who congregate here as for the beer. The drive brings us right into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Sperryville sits at the junction of routes 211 and 522.

Pen Druid brewery

Tucked into the end of River Lane, the brewery inhabits an old cinderblock building across the road from Copper Fox Distillery. Its single, large room, seen at right, is roughly divided into ⅓ brewhouse, ⅔ taproom. Stainless steel tanks line part of the back wall, surrounded by bags of barley, hops, and barrels.

Barrels are not a standard brewing tool. I’ll discuss them below.

Against one wall of the brewhouse is the “cold room,” a walk-in refrigerator used for keg storage. These in turn feed cold, pressurized beer to the bar taps.

Various brewing accessories fill out the space.

The front ⅔ of the room is filled with picnic tables and a long, L-shaped wooden bar. A couple of bathrooms sit across the room. It’s a spartan arrangement, giving a clue to the focus at Pen Druid. It’s all about the beer.

Beer is generally made from four ingredients: barley malt, sometimes assisted by “adjuncts,” or alternate sources of sugar and flavor; water, for boiling the malt; hops, bitter floral buds that balance the sweet sugar water; and yeast, which consumes the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Today’s article focuses on the last of the four.

Most brewers rely on a narrow selection of yeast strains, and brew in sterile conditions. The alchemists at Pen Druid specialize in the use of wild Virginia yeasts, literally whatever floats through the window and lands in the open fermenter. Their fermentation also incorporates Brettanomyces yeast and naturally-occurring bacteria. These produce sour beer, an ale style challenging to the palate, but rewarding for its complex flavor. By using wild yeast strains and allowing bacteria into the wort (pronounced wert, as unfermented beer is called), there’s variation in the final result. You never know what you’ll walk into at Pen Druid, but it's always interesting.

We were on a mission to procure more than a sampling of beer Saturday. The brothers do an occasional limited bottling of their craftiest beers, this time IDA, a wild blackberry ale. The bottling is in a 750ml size, the size of a standard wine bottle. This is less beer than it appears. A 750 is about twenty-five ounces, or a pint and nine. The size and elevated alcohol content of these bottlings makes for a pleasant weekend afternoon treat.

IDA clocks in at 7% ABV (alcohol by volume). Most craft beer runs in the 4.5%-6% range. For comparison, Budweiser lager measures 3.2% ABV.

These bottlings are special for the wood or fruit on which the beer rested. Most beer makers rest their finished beer on stainless steel, and add carbonation from a tank of commercial gas. At Pen Druid the beer often rests in used wine or whiskey barrels, absorbing flavor while naturally carbonating as unfiltered yeast continues working on added “priming” sugar. IDA rested on oak for a year, then underwent “bottle conditioning,” meaning a small amount of fermentable sugar was added to the bottles before the beer. Any remaining live yeast consumed that sugar, producing additional carbonation. The bottles are sealed similar to sparkling wine.

The barrels are sourced from local wine and whiskey producers. Just across the narrow alley is Copper Fox, a distillery sporting a rustic hearth room, malting room, and hand-operated production facility. Everything is paneled in old wood plank. If you’e a whiskey fan, a visit here is a must. They also sell used whiskey barrels to local wineries and breweries, and Pen Druid uses these.

This weekend’s bottle release was scheduled to begin at noon, so we arrived early and lounged at the bar. Neal struck up a conversation with one of the brothers, and we procured tasting flights. A flight is a small sampler of each of the beers on tap. Most breweries let you select which beers you want in your flight. Pen Druid runs six taps, so we usually have a flight of everything. At four ounces each, we’re sampling about two bottles-worth of beer.

This day included the annual End of Oktoberfest festival, with a pig roast. Another Sperryville brewer, Hopkins Ordinary Aleworks, was in attendance, as were a number of food vendors. Sperryville is a small, close-knit community at the foot of the Blue Ridge, drawing in folks from all over Rappahannock County and beyond. Turnout was good – the taproom crowded up within a half-hour of our arrival. We were lucky – we had the only two flights before they stopped offering them due to crowd volume.

Array of beer samplers

Note the wide variation in finished beers, at left. Each was as unique in flavor as appearance.

Highlights: Golden Swan Blond Ale, third from left exhibits a satisfying balance of Virginia-grown barley malt, raw wheat (as an adjunct), and local hops, fermented with wild yeast strains. The finished beer is left unfiltered, hence its milky appearance. That opaqueness is spent yeast suspended in the beer.

Spiritual Nurse Amber Ale, the most approachable (easy drinking, least challenging on the palate, and generally lower alcohol content) of Pen Druid’s beers, third from right, exhibits a malty bias, meaning it was more sweet than bitter. This beer is racked (removed from the fermenter) after most of the yeast settled out, so it’s fairly transparent.

Critter, first on the left, an ale rested on wineberries after primary fermentation. The berries imparted a mildly bitter, fruity flavor.

Jupiter Double IPA, last on the right, was totally off the hook. A double IPA is extra-hopped and fermented to a higher alcohol content, in this case 8.5% ABV. Jupiter's hops provided a peppery flavor to go with Pen Druid’s signature sourness. Unique.

We secured two bottles of IDA each, which was the limit due to anticipated high demand, then adjourned to the grassy area on the bank of the Thornton River for conversation, food sampling, and quaffing a delicious altbier ale from Hopkins Ordinary Aleworks.

I’m a fan of the alt style, which translates from the German as “old.” It’s produced as an ale, but matured similar to a lager. I’ll go into more detail about the differences between those beer families in a future article, but for now the result is both richly malt-flavored and crisp, not unlike a pilsner. Those two qualities are not often found together; rich maltiness often gives way to sticky sweetness. Hopkins makes one of the best altbiers I’ve had. Though I didn’t log it in Untappd, it would have garnered five stars.

If you’re in the northern Virginia area and are looking for a unique beer-tasting experience, take a day and drive out to Sperryville in beautiful Rappahannock County. Stop in at Pen Druid Brewing, or step across the alley and visit Copper Fox Distillery. They offer small tastings of their liquors, and an ABC gift shop sells everything they make. Hopkins Ordinary Aleworks is just up the street, in the basement of Hopkins Ordinary Bed and Breakfast. They offer a wide variety of non-sour craft beer, and are worth a visit all of their own. You can’t go wrong, wherever you wind up.

#PenDruidBrewing #HopkinsOrdinaryAleworks #CopperFoxDistillery #craftbeer #wildyeast