The Road to Collaboration: Making Devils Backbone’s Adventure Pack
On the rear bumper of the Ford Fusion in front of me are three words: “Craft an adventure.”
It’s the slogan of Devils Backbone Brewing Co., and this member of the brewery’s branded fleet is bound for the production facility in Lexington, Virginia. Driving the car on this late October morning is Jennie Hatton-Baver, the brewery’s marketing director. I’m following her along the twisty roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and behind me is a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter bearing the bright, retro-inspired graphics of NoDa Brewing Co. out of Charlotte, N.C. That one’s piloted by Chad Henderson, NoDa’s head brewer, and riding with him are Jason Oliver, brewmaster at Devils Backbone Brewing Co., and Marcus Cox, senior brewer and manager at Thunder Road Brewing Co. in Melbourne, Australia.
As you might guess, there is beer to be brewed on this gray mountain morning. Specifically, beers that will be featured in Devils Backbone’s second Adventure Pack, a 12-pack sampler containing beers brewed with five other breweries: Wicked Weed Brewing from Asheville, North Carolina; Sun King Brewery from Indianapolis; Surly Brewing Co. from Minneapolis; and the aforementioned NoDa Brewing and Thunder Road Brewing Co.
But before the brewers can brew their respective collaboration beers this morning, we have to drive from Devils Backbone’s original brewpub in Roseland, Virginia, to the Outpost in Lexington. It’s a picturesque commute, with the mountain roads surrounded by trees filled with crimson and gold leaves. Rainfall makes rapids of small creeks, and pumpkin patches stretch out intermittently in the valleys.
This is fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and you suspect the drive is the reason Devils Backbone located its Outpost an hour away from Basecamp.
Of course, that’s not the real reason.
Steve and Heidi Crandall founded Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in 2008. Located in scenic Nelson County at the base of the Wintergreen Ski Resort, the original brewpub has all the trappings of the mountain lodges that dot the area: hearty wood, beautiful stonework, and a variety of wild animals stuffed and mounted on the wall.
The similarities between Basecamp and the homes in the immediate area is no coincidence: Steve Crandall was a homebuilder prior to founding the brewery, and he built many of the homes around the brewpub. (Full disclosure: the brewery allowed me to stay in one of these homes overnight prior to the brew day.)
Since opening in 2008, the brewery has received several awards. At the 2010 World Beer Cup, it was named Champion Brewery and Brewmaster in the Small Brewpub category. In 2012, the brewery was named Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival. The next year at that same festival, it received the similar title of Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. All of these “small” accolades came to an end in 2014, when Devils Backbone was named Mid-Size Brewing Company and Brew Team of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival.
Devils Backbone didn’t suddenly make the jump to mid-size thanks to an expansion at Basecamp, though there have been several at that location. Space is limited at the brewpub, and Devils Backbone needed a facility that could meet the demand it was seeing for its beers (especially the flagship Vienna Lager).
The brewery opened the Outpost in January of 2012, with its Vienna Lager and Eight Point IPA being the first beers to leave the facility. Production has increased each year, and in 2015 the brewery produced 62,000 barrels of beer at this production facility.
A row of 960-barrel fermenters towering almost six stories above the Outpost show this facility is about one thing: production. And while the automated system inside is just another day at the office for the Devils Backbone employees who have grown accustomed to it, it’s a playground for visiting brewers.
On this morning, Oliver gives his visiting brewers a brief tour before beginning the day’s brew, a session India-style pale lager with NoDa Brewing Co. For the Adventure Pack, Devils Backbone has made it a point to work with breweries it respects, and to collaborate on styles that showcase the strengths of each brewery.
The session IPL made perfect sense for both breweries. NoDa Brewing brews a variety of hop-forward styles, most notably its World Beer Cup gold medal-winning Hop, Drop ‘n Roll. Devils Backbone, on the other hand, has achieved much of its notoriety for lagers like its Vienna Lager and Schwartz Bier.
“Chad’s a master of hops, and we do really well with lagers,” says Oliver. “Let’s try to take those two segments and bring them together.”
Oliver and Henderson began discussing the collaboration beer shortly after NoDa Brewing released Par 4, a session IPA that soon became a favorite in the taproom. At 4%, the beer is only small in alcohol; it is abundantly hoppy and has a healthy body, thanks to the addition of oats.
Oliver and Henderson are using oats to add body to the 3.8% session IPL as well, plus Vienna malts and three different varieties of hops: Northern Brewer, Simcoe and Azacca. Henderson brought up boxes of that last one, of which he’s quite fond. While there’s a little something from both breweries in play, that doesn’t mean either Oliver or Henderson is entirely comfortable with it.
“We’re putting a new hop [Azacca] that we really like into it, in a style that we’ve never made before,” said Henderson. “It’s a little comfortable and a little out of comfort. Which is how all collaborations should be. You should feel comfortable and also completely alien about some things.”
For Oliver’s part, he had some concerns that the dry-hopping rate on the beer seemed excessive at first. But he trusted in Henderson’s experience with Par 4 and other IPAs.
“This is how we get better as brewers, is to try new things, to share information and actually do it,” he said. “That definitely jumped out at me as excessive, so I was like, ‘Good, let’s do it.’”
The Adventure Pack
The session IPL will not only be the lowest ABV beer in the Adventure Pack, but also the lowest ABV ever brewed at the Outpost. And the highest? That would be Seven Summits, the 10.5% imperial stout that Devils Backbone brewed with Wicked Weed Brewing from Asheville, N.C. In addition to these two beers, the Adventure Pack will also feature the brewery’s Vienna Lager and the following three beers: Another State of Kind, a “double dank cream-style ale” brewed with Sun King Brewing Co. from Indianapolis; Risen, a double brown ale brewed with coffee and oak in collaboration with Surly Brewing Co. from Minneapolis; and Double Pacific Ale, a “strong Australian-style ale” featuring Galaxy hops from Thunder Road Brewing Co.’s native Australia. The Adventure Pack will be released the week of January 18, and available in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine and the author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.”