It’s good to be the emperor. Or, if you’re Devils Backbone, one of the hottest and fastest growing breweries in the country. From its beginnings back in 2008 as the Devils Backbone Brewpub in Roseland, to launching its Outpost production facility near Lexington in 2012, and finally nabbing GABF’s Small Brewpub, Small Brewery, and Mid-Size Brewery of the Year categories in successive years, the company’s prodigious growth and accolades are matched only by its wholehearted embrace of diversity within its beer lineup. Whereas many breweries distribute a flagship series and a few seasonals, Devils Backbone pushes out four different series, each with a different focus: the Basecamp Favorites, Daypack, Trailblazer, and Peak Series to go along with Adventure Packs also featuring some of their many collaborations.
The Peak Series, according to Head Brewer Jason Oliver, “is meant to be the pinnacle of beer. They are stronger, fuller flavored, and meant to be savored in small portions like a whiskey or port. They are more reflective beers.”
For 2016, Devils Backbone saw fit to expand its Peak Series lineup for the first time in three years. Ahead of their upcoming release party for the new Kabong Triple IPA at Rustico in Arlington, VA, Jason answered a few questions for VBR on Peak Series, Kabong’s place in the Devils Backbone library, and the challenges of keeping a micro culture as the brewery reaches near unprecedented heights in the Commonwealth and beyond.
The origins of Peak Series trace all the way back to 2009, Devils Backbone’s first full year of operation at Basecamp. It wasn’t Jason nor DB’s intent to kickoff a new series at that point. “Everything goes back to Basecamp,” he recalled, “I wanted four year-round beers and 6 rotating beers on tap.” Back in what one could describe as the Middle Ages of Craft Beer, this strategy countermanded the traditional wisdom of a large library of flagships and a handful of seasonal or occasional selections. Presaging many current trends, the large offering of rotating beers encouraged experimentation.
According to Jason, Peak Series “can trace its roots to then and the first Dead Bear and Tectonic Barleywine brews.” More than 200 different brews have come out of Basecamp, but those stood out and became something closer to mainstay occasional releases over time. “People got excited, and looked forward to it, so we said let’s release it on a larger scale. These are staff favorites, but they’re also customer favorites.” With the opening of the Outpost many of these favorites could be squeezed into the production schedule, and Peak Series officially entered the lexicon back in 2013. Jason relishes the ability to segregate the tasting room and production facilities. “The beauty of the situation is having a brewpub and brewery,” he said. “Beers can take on a life of their own.”
“One thing I have never done is run out of ideas for new beers to brew. We have such a backlog of different beers yet to be brewed,” he continued. “We have a huge quiver of recipes we’ve brewed for years at Basecamp that now can be scaled up and brewed for a larger release. Before it was hard keeping up with the production to offer new beers.” New beers are a great thing, of course, but that doesn’t mean Jason or Nate Olewine, the Lead Brewer at the Outpost, lose sight of the beers that put them on the map, many of them award winners such as the Schwartzbier or Gold Leaf Lager. That balance is crucial but can at times also be precarious for a brewery still expanding to keep up with demand. “When you have a homerun like Vienna Lager, sometimes it overshadows other beers we do, so you need to get them in front of people again.”
Speaking of expansion, Devils Backbone is at it again over at the Outpost. “One reason to expand [Peak Series] is that we have undergone a major expansion at the Outpost brewery and now have capacity to enlarge our offerings,” Jason explained. Kabong is the first new Peak entry in several years as a result (joining Dead Bear, Tectonic Barleywine, 16 Point IPA, and Kilt Flasher), and Jason is as proud as a new father when describing their new Triple IPA:
In many ways, everything up to now is a culmination of everything before it. We certainly don’t want to move backwards. I’ve picked up some hopping techniques and methods from my colleagues across the country. There are hoppier beers in the world, but fewer more drinkable at this scale.
Examining those hops for a minute, especially considering Kabong weighs in at 111 IBUs and an 11.1% ABV, doesn’t leave Jason at all phased. As he explains, “Peak is about pushing the envelope. I’m not trying to break any records. Peak, for us…our beers are very approachable. Good beer can be had at 15% as well as 3%. It’s the kind of beer where you can just sit back and enjoy life.” We touched upon trends within the market from here, and as our discussion leaped back and forth, Jason described how flavor pushes his recipes, not intensity, in line with DB’s vision:
There are so many flavors out there to work with. Our recent Adventure Pack Collaboration Sampler expanded my horizons. I used ingredients I hadn’t before and used some that I had but utilizing different techniques. We certainly have used herbs, cocoa, fruits, spices, wood, and a number of other co-contributing flavors for beers. . .That said, nothing beats just “beer” flavor.
So what “beer” flavors can we expect from Kabong? Per Jason, “it’s a really good beer for a snifter. That’s what it was designed for.” And don’t be afraid of the ABV; while Kabong is Barleywine strength, “it doesn’t sit on the palate like that. It attenuates very well, coats the tongue and makes it feel very smooth. It’s meant to savor.” They designed the beer so that even with dry-hopping it multiple times a small amount of sweetness still breaks through. The outcome is more resinous, approaching the flavor profile of a beer in the 7-8% ABV range.
The release of the 2016 Peak Series, to include of course the new Kabong, comes at a time when Devils Backbone is pushing the pace. “We started the year out with a bang with our Adventure Pack Collaboration Sampler, the Daypack series Cran-Gose, and the Kabong,” Jason said, hinting at more to come. “The next Trailblazer is the Skull Crushing Ape, which will be released in March. We’re calling it a Schwarz-Weizen-Doppelbock (strong black wheat ale). We married three Germanic approaches to create something pretty neat and somewhat unusual. You get subtle cocoa notes from the black malt, some banana from the Weiss yeast, and a depth of complexity and flavor from it marrying together as a strong ale.”
To us, all those new production releases almost sounds nuts, but for this year at least, Peak Series will only be available on draught (returning to bottles next year). Jason disagrees, of course, noting, “Brewers like brewing anything new. This year we’re going to brew more beers than we ever have.” As if Base Camp, Daypack, Trailblazers, Peak Series, and Adventure Pack weren’t enough to keep the crew at both DB locations hopping, something big, unique, and thoroughly “craft beer” is also on the horizon:
While it’s refreshing to brew different beers we have other outlets to help increase the diversity. We’ve engaged in a project called the “Family Beer Project” where the whole company (everyone at both locations) were divided into 12 teams. Each team had a brewer to be the lead. Each team developed an idea for a beer and recipe which we then brewed at Basecamp. It was a great way for everyone in the company to learn a little more about what goes into a beer, strengthen the bonds of co-workers between all departments, give people creative license, and create something special. We’re going to pick four of them to go into a mixed “Family Beer” twelve pack. So many great beers were made that we may even brew some others again either at Basecamp or at Outpost for further mixed packs. We have nothing but options and no shortage of great beers to pick from.
That focus on involving the entire staff is part of a larger, essentially organic process which enables Devils Backbone to keep the feel of a small brewery even as their reach expands throughout the region. This includes newly-installed whiteboards in meeting rooms to riff on new ideas, crowdsourcing for new names, and an open ear for new directions. As Jason graciously describes the culture at DB, “it’s always been a team effort, none more so than now. I don’t think you can have a big head when you realize you work with so many great and talented co-workers who all play a part. We’ve been blessed, we’ve been lucky, but we’ve also worked very hard.”
If you’re a fan of Devils Backbone (and it’s hard not to be), the months ahead bring plenty of promise. Wednesday will be an early display of the fruits of all those labors for revelers and curious alike. Rustico was the previous scene of a Peak Series/Kabong sighting at their Novemberfest several months back, but until this week the release has been slowly making its way back to the region. We’ll be there early to live tweet the initial tasting, and the doors open to the public at 5:30pm. Stop by to chat and of course, drink some good beer!