Sympathy for the Devil
It’s gone from après-ski brewpub to household name. Richard Croasdale finds out how Devils Backbone built an empire on traditional European styles.
Monday 13 April 2020
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Take a drive – as I did – down State Route 151 through Nelson County, and you’ll find some of Virginia’s best wineries, along with breweries, cideries, distilleries and craft food producers, all within a few miles of one another. I have an itinerary to stick to, but the community around here is so strong that I could have spent days following up on all the recommendations I received.
My first port of call though is Devils Backbone, one of the state’s most established and successful craft breweries. Nestled in the rolling hills at the base of the iconic Blue Ridge Mountains, Devils Backbone sits in expansive, forested grounds. The original wood-panelled brewpub is now part of a complex of indoor and outdoor spaces that feels like a cross between a European beer garden and a classic American summer camp. This design is no accident, as brewery founders Steve and Heidi Crandall first conceived the idea of a Brewpub while traveling in Europe. They loved the après-ski culture of the Alps and wondered why the slopes in their home state of Virginia didn’t have something similar.
If the notion of American après-ski was groundbreaking at the time, so was Devil’s Backbone’s decision to focus on lagers and other traditional styles. Fortunately though, the pair were able to attract a truly world-class brewmaster, Jason Oliver, who has been running the show since the first brew.
“To be honest, what initially attracted me to the job was this equipment,” says Jason, patting his squat copper kettle. “It might not look like much, but it’s actually really nice kit. It was designed in Germany, but then built in partnership between a German brewing engineering firm, and a Japanese pharma manufacturer. Only a handful of these were built in the Pacific rim, and I only know of only four in operation around the world, two in the US. It’s fundamentally German tech, so give me lots of control over the process.
“My career has been very focused on German beer. My first job was actually at a brewery in Balitmore, which used an English Peter Austin brewing system; so, cask beers, wood-clad vessels, open fermenters.”
The setup in the brewpub has evolved since those early days, with the addition of more fermentation vessels than you would expect to see in a brewery of this size. This, Jason explains, is because he’s always insisted the lagering process can’t be rushed, and each beer needs to spend a good amount of time in-tank.
More recently, he’s also added an open-topped fermenter in its own room, as well as a wild and brett room with its own small foeder (this room is called the House of Parliament, which will really only make sense to fans of both bretted beer and George Clinton), and two large horizontal lagering tanks.
Jason acknowledges that while these luxuries allow the team to produce some great and authentic beer styles, they’re never going to be money-spinners, and may not have been viable had Devils Backbone not been acquired by AB-InBev in 2016.
“Anheuser Busch put a lot of money into both our locations,” he says. “So I kind of got this place tricked out to be my dream brewery. The open fermenter is great for English style beers, weissbiers, Belgian ales; it gives you that characteristic fruitiness that you just can’t replicate in a unitank. And the horizonal lagering tanks are a real game changer. They’re still widely used in Germany, because they create less osmotic pressure, less head pressure on the yeast. Does it make us any more money, no! But it allows us to do our craft.”
Aside from the kit, one thing that really struck me about the brewpub was the diversity of its customers. I saw local workers coming in after their shift, alongside families in for some food and out-of-towners down from the nearby Wintergreen ski slopes. The outside areas, centred around a huge fire pit, play host to a number of events throughout the year, including several music festivals, which also make use of the dedicated on-site camping areas. It’s an egalitarian, easy-going atmosphere that’s reflected in the beer itself, explains Hayes.
“Especially just now in the winter, the firepit is on, and you’ll see folks who just got done laying bricks and folks that just got done skiing, sitting together and having a beer,” says chief operating officer Hayes Humphreys. “That’s really important to us. You’ve spoken to Jason, so you know how much technical care and attention goes into brewing the beer. And if you as a drinker want to understand and appreciate that, then brilliant. But if you just want to have a great beer and hang out, that’s good too. We’ve always taken the approach that you shouldn’t have to read a book about the beer to enjoy it – drinking beer shouldn’t be work.”
In 2012, the bulk of Devils Backbone’s production shifted to a larger facility over the mountain in Lexington, in spring 2012. Such a move is nerve-wracking for any brewery, but doubly so for one brewing technically complex styles on a very specific setup. While understandable, any lingering fears were proven unfounded when Jason’s Vienna lager won two major industry awards a few months apart, the first brewed at Basecamp and the second in Lexington.
The notion of American après-ski was groundbreaking at the time
“The most important thing is to know your system and how to work with it,” says Jason. “Vienna Lager translated onto the bigger kit very smoothly, and I’m always really proud of it. The awards it’s won have been fantastic, but I was almost more proud when they revised the BJCP guidelines and listed Vienna Lager as one of the prime examples of the style. It’s the benchmark.”
Hayes: “Bavarian system designed to make 12 plato beers, perfect for lagers. We’re constantly running out of space. For the first 5 years it was 200% growth, 100% Growth, 80% wildly fast. And so we now have three buildings the beer goes a long way, 1000yard line from filtration and bright tank down to new bottling facility. Sits on top of a plateau, rolling green hills, very rural.”
Just outside the corralled Basecamp area, two large poly greenhouses have caught my eye, and I can’t help but ask about them. Hayes is keen to share, and we wander over to take a look.
“This is one of my favourite parts of the brewery,” says Hayes as we walk. “We had all this land and the farm to table movement is so big, so I asked if we could grow some of our inputs on-site. It’s evolved into a bunch of different things, from the salad greens we serve in the brewpub to ingredients for the beers. As well as allowing us to control these inputs from seed to sip, Jess is great at just throwing new stuff at us to try – it’s a real creative partnership.”
Inside Jess’s personal kingdom are rows of seedlings and full-grown plants, herbs, even some flowers. Broccoli is just putting out the last of its florets, while peas are just starting to climb. Jess moves between trestle tables loaded with propagators, preparing the next crop to be given space.
“This whole place transforms every few months for the new season. There are a number of things we’ll always have on for the brewers: perennial herbs and lemongrass, fennel and hibiscus. That tray at the end is ‘toothache plant’ – if you eat the flower bud it makes your mouth go numb and salivate like crazy. I just thought it would be cool.”
The final stop on our tour – which, to be completely honest, I’ve been eyeing up since I first spotted it – it Devils Backbone’s on-site distillery. According to Hayes, spirits had always been part of the plan, and the distilling ambitions of some of the brewing team finally tipped the balance.
Distiller Matt originally came from the brewing side of the business – where he spent five years making Vienna Lager – so brought a lot of fundamental knowledge along with the characteristically meticulous Devils Backbone approach. His focus so far has mostly been on rum and a couple of truly excellent gins (including one hopped gin, which I would usually avoid like the plague).
“I was really keen to bring some fresh thinking to distilling, use some of the beer experience I’d picked up,” says Matt. “So for example we do a fast ageing technique, where we put it in foeders just like we would a wood-aged beer, then we add French and American oak chips run oxygen through it, to extract more flavour and colour. That’s how we made the rum.
“The gin took 37 iterations before we got it right! It’s an american gin aroma, but more of the earthy London gin flavour. Our fresh hop gin is vapour infused rather than cold macerated, so you don’t get any of the bitterness, just aroma, and it sits in with there with the other botanicals.”
The distillery has also set up Devils Backbone to leap into the rapidly growing US market for ready-to-drink (RTD) canned cocktails. I was given a sneak preview at the four recipes scheduled to hit the market in the coming weeks, and can easily imagine them being a bit hit. While RTD isn’t really my scene (and, in fairness, I’m probably not their intended demographic either), these are objectively great. The ginger in the Mule is fresh-pressed from Fiji, giving it a fragrant, zingy character, the fruit in the gin and orange smash is bursting with fresh flavour, rather than the dull, lifeless concentrate you might expect. And none of them are overly sweet.
“Our experience in brewing has definitely helped us turn our spirits into RTDs,” says Matt. “So much of our business is about packaging, filtration and stability. We wanted to get as close as possible to a freshly mixed cocktail, that would keep tasting fresh on the shelf, without any of that cloying sweetness. That’s where the whole market is going.
“But I think it really comes back to what Hayes was saying earlier. We can be geeks about this stuff, doing all that complicated work at the front end so you can just enjoy the drink.”
As we’re walking back to my car, Hayes asks what else I have on my itinerary for the afternoon. I tell him about the tours I have booked in, but also mention a couple of places I was thinking about dropping into along the way. By the time we say goodbye, he’s already phoned ahead to make sure half the business along Route 151 know I’m in town.
I buckle up. It’s going to be a long day.
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