Sunday, November 13, 2011

A FIRST LOOK: Hellbender Brewing Company Breaks into D.C.'s Craft Beer Scene

Image: Hellbender

Church had let out and cars began filling Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington D.C. as I walked up to Patrick Mullane’s apartment. 

I could see water was boiling in a giant pot outside his door and NFL football sounded from the television inside. 

Patrick poked his head out and smiled.

“Perfect timing” he said. “I’m just about to pour the grains into the lautertun. I could use your help.”

I rolled up my sleeves. I wasn't expecting to do manual labor but this was a visit with one of The District’s newest breweries, Hellbender Brewing Company, and I considered it a privilege to make beer with them.

The brewery, which goes public this coming week before Thanksgiving, will be the fourth that I tallied within the capitol city's limits. 

Patrick and his business partner, Ben Evans, who've lived in D.C. for around two decades combined, began the endeavor.

Since DC Brau hit the scene earlier this year, The District has been on the threshold of a local craft beer explosion. 

Emerging from this local brew revival are other businesses like Chocolate City, and Three Stars - each attempting their own distinct beer making philosophy and style.

Hellbender's first beer release will feature three flagship products – a Kölsch (ABV 5.1%), an IPA (AVB 7.2%), and a Red Ale (ABV 6%). 

They also plan on doing seasonal brews similar to a pumpkin ale I had helped Patrick make when visiting his Northeast D.C. apartment.

Why did Hellbender choose a Kölsch style as one of their products? For one thing, there are not many Kölsch beers in this city. 

Ben and Patrick also feel like many of the products out there either miss the mark or are weak imitations of the traditional German Kölsch.

Hellbender hopes their Kölsch brew is in a category all its own. Tasting it for myself, I found it fits right into that style yet appears a little darker and comes off a little dryer than the German Kölsch

Ultimately, I feel like it's a winner and reflects these brewers' philosophy - traditional recipes realized with domestic ingredients.

As for the ales, Hellbender likes them with fruity aromas and brews them to reach universal appeal as opposed to others, which they feel are either too sweet or too watery.

Hellbender’s IPA has a forward hoppiness and not a lot of caramel malt. The layering of hops renders the beverage bitter but without the hard landing that one can get from some IPAs. 

With each sip, one gets more of a sense of how much care these guys put into their work.

Over the course of four years, Patrick and Ben have envisioned an enterprise that reflected all of those things that the two love about local craft beer.

“Our idea of success is to be in the best local beer in D.C.” Ben said. “We both really got into beer because of local, hand-crafted brew and we just want to bring that same experience to this community.”

By the time Ben and Patrick met each other, both were brewing their own beer with regular success. 

Eventually, they would get together with a sampling of their own suds, tasting and comparing what each other had done.

“We’d literally be throwing a party and, while the rest of our friends were having fun drinking our beer and getting blitzed, Ben and I would be sitting in the corner critiquing each other’s brew,” Patrick said.

I asked them if they accepted the term “craft beer” for what they were doing, they both agreed. “For us, it all just boils down to good ingredients, good practices, and good imagination,” Patrick said.

So, how did they choose "Hellbender" for the name of their brewery? 

With Chocolate City, DC Brau and Three Stars, Washingtonians don’t just simply have a local beer to drink, they also have a sense of gratification when holding a bottle or can with a namesake that relates in some way, if not ironically, to the District of Columbia.

Ben is a biologist and has always admired the Hellbender Salamander. 

Indigenous to this part of North America, the Hellbender also happens to be nearly threatened, if not endangered despite being one of the largest salamanders in the world. If nothing else, it helps bring attention to one of his favorite animals.

It also helps that "Hellbender is a pretty kick-ass name.

Ultimately, though the science never strays too far from the beer with these guys - and that's a good thing. Yeast is a living ingredient and Ben knows how to work with it.

“He is very meticulous. He’s obsessive compulsive about the health of the yeast.” Patrick said while also revealing how Ben will take the occasional sip of their yeast for quality control purposes. He's obsessed with growing and feeding the buggers.

But that's not a bad obsession to have. Waste happens when you don’t know what you’re doing. Many brewers who are just starting out rely on their own money to make beer. 

Gallons of product can be easily wasted if, say, the yeast isn't quite right.

Subsequently, what you realize is that other aspiring brewers might not have been able to bend their learning curve as easily as the guys at Hellbender have.

And the brewery's ambitions don't stop at yeast.

This past year, Ben has been growing seasonal hops on his parents’ land in upstate New York, which he hopes to use in Hellbender’s products in the near future. 

The Evans property, in fact, still contains feral hops that are over seventy years old.

It seems before the late 1920s, New York State produced a substantial amount of hops for the market. Then Prohibition came along and wiped out nearly the entire industry.

Fast forward to today and Pacific northwest states like California, Washington and Oregon dominate the hops industry in this country.

Ben’s planted ten different hops varieties amounting to a total of thirty plants. The varieties that he planted will allow him access a wide spectrum of beer styles. 

Unfortunately, the plants are still pretty young and Hellbender won’t be able to produce enough hops for harvesting until the second year.

So as D.C.'s craft beer market continues to expand there's excitement in the air. Hellbender plans on energizing the field even more with their products.

As I finished the interview, I reflected on how great this brewery will be in The District, where craft beer is gaining attention and appreciation that is long overdue.

With my next sip of beer I looked into my glass, realizing I was drinking the beer I helped Patrick brew a few months earlier. It was a tasty pumpkin ale.

"Lordy," I thought to myself, "that's good beer." 

Note: This post has been revised since its original publication 


  1. This is a great article featuring Patrick and Ben! I'm really excited to come back during some of the release weekends and partake in the festivities.

  2. Thorough and a great summary of an exciting new beer venture! Hellbender...hell yeah!

  3. Great article! I can't wait to have these guys on tap