Craft Brewers Work Hard To Get Suds To Thirsty Masses in Sweltering Heat

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Beer inside DC Brau's brewery in Washington, D.C.  needs to keep cool. For small brewers in blistering heat, shipping becomes make or break for in the beer business. (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

Hear this story in audio (with catchy music too) at WAMU

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Environmentally aware consumers choose to eat vegetables and meat produced at local farms to avoid foods hauled over long distances by tractor trailers. Buying close to home also helps the local economy. It tastes better, too ... usually. Produce is fresher if eaten the day after it's picked and sold at a local farmer's market, unlike fruits and vegetables hauled across the country on a truck.

In many cities, consumers do not have such options at their liquor store. But the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area's emerging craft beer market is now catering to their tastes.

"The less time the product has to travel the fresher it will be," says Jeff Hancock, the co-founder and head brewer at D.C. Brau, the city's first microbrewery since 1956. Hancock and co-founder Brandon Skall opened D.C. Brau last April.

As small business owners with just five full-time and six part-time employees, they face formidable tasks of coordinating the shipments of their ingredients over long distances, and then getting their finished product to the market fresh.

"One of the big issues related to transportation that we have... is making sure that the beer stays cold from the time it leaves here to the time it gets to the account," says Skall. "It's really, really important to us since our beer is unfiltered that our beer stays cold."

Keeping D.C. Brau's four flagship beers (named Corruption, Citizen, Public, and Penn Quarter Porter) cold while they are at the brewery is not a problem. Hancock and Skall lose control the moment the brews leave the brewery.

"So you want to make sure your distributor has refrigerated trucks, your distributor has a working cold box, things that are going to keep your beer the way it needs to be as it goes through that transportation stage to finally arrive at the account," says Skall.

Before D.C. Brau can brew an ounce of beer, the ingredients need to arrive on time from hundreds of miles away. Hancock orders his barley (to make malt) from the Midwest and hops from the Pacific Northwest. It takes days for shipments to get to D.C.

"We mainly get our barley out in the Midwest because of the plains out there," says Hancock. "It's great for growing barley, wheat, and rye; a lot of the grains used in brewing, and hops come from a moist climate like the Pacific Northwest. Hops take five days from Washington state."

(Ror more on Washington, D.C.'s growing microbrew industry, see the full story from WAMU)

Port City Brewing Company opened last year in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Founder Bill Butcher says, "Really, nobody has enough cold space," referring to sellers. "They will end up putting a display out of 15 to 20 cases where it is not refrigerated. That doesn't make the beer go bad. It's just not going to stay as fresh as long. We deal with it by keeping inventories short and making sure nobody buys too much that they can't sell in a very short period of time."

D.C. Brau and other brewers have to coordinate the import of ingredients over long distances.

"We search over the globe for our ingredients, and quality is the first concern," he says. "Our pilsner malt comes from Germany. The hops come from England, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest." It takes six weeks for hops ordered in Heidelberg, Germany to arrive in Alexandria.

When Butcher opened last February, he ordered what he thought would be a three-month supply of packaging, bottles, labels, and six-pack carriers, among other items. He used them up in two weeks, causing an unexpected logistical dilemma difficult for a small business to overcome, especially since there were no other microbreweries around.

"It wasn't like we could call our neighbor up and borrow some supplies," he says.

Butcher was motivated to found a brewery for the same reasons someone may only eat vegetables sold at a local farmer's market.

"It was about four years ago when we realized that we buy all of our groceries from local producers, our meat from local farmers, but the beer we were buying was coming from the west coast," he says.

Butcher's brewery lost power during the severe storm that hit the D.C. area on June 29. More than 2 million people were without electricity following the storm. Fortunately, Butcher was able to save 13,000 gallons of beer he had on the premises, thanks to a generator he snagged for the brewery. He did, however, cancel Fourth of July-related beer tastings.