|Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard
writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Check back often for the next installment of
Vince's Adventures in Beerland
The Tour by Vince Capano
Twenty- two taps, one cask ale, a bourbon barrel conditioned brew, and nary a Bud,
Coors, or Miller product in sight. This is a place for great craft beer and nothing else.
No, it’s not that pub you dream of opening after you win the lottery; it’s Old Dominion
in Ashburn, Virginia. My drink of choice on a recent lazy, summer, Saturday afternoon
was not one but everything. An intimidating task to say the least but one made much
easier by going the sampler route. An Old Dominion “sampler” consists of a group of
four beers of your own selection, each served in a four ounce glass. The math is easy:
6 groups of 4 glasses = a lot of great beer. Now before the true beer drinkers rise up in
arms against me, I did consider having a pint of everything. That however would have
meant putting a cot in the backroom and staying for a few days. Not a bad idea, but
probably against some zoning law.
Following the selection advice from Eric, the bartender/assistant brewer, I started with a
horizontal flight of pale ales, followed by groups of lagers, dark beers, and finally
assorted seasonal selections. Imagine the taste sensations in having a glass of the
renowned Tupper’s Hop Pocket along with its cask conditioned version, plus a Dominion
IPA and their West Coast Pale. This was beer heaven, for sure; it was just like being at
one big beer festival without ever having to leave your comfy bar stool (going to the
bathroom not withstanding.)
As I sipped glass number three in sample group four I noticed a crowd standing near
the rest room area. Since the group was mostly male they clearly were not waiting to
use the facility. Men never wait; the only time men will wait is for a slow bartender. As
my final flight of beers was placed in front of me I noticed that the group had gotten
even larger. A minor mystery to be sure, but since I’m not the inquisitive type I
decided to deal with it by just drinking more beer. That, for the record, is standard
procedure in such circumstances.
As I reached for another glass I heard Eric clear his throat and shout, “I have an
announcement.” My keen intuition told me he wasn’t about to tell the guy with the
beernexus.com t-shirt (guess who?) that he could have free beer the rest of the day.
It did cross my mind however that he was considering tossing out the guy with the
“Beer is for wimps” t-shirt. Nobody should be able to knock beer and get away with it,
unless, of course, they’re buying a round of pints. In that case, accept the free beer
and forget everything else. That too is standard procedure. Beer people are a forgiving
“Hello everyone, I‘m Eric and I’ll be your guide on our brewery tour which we’ll start
right now.” Ah, so that explains it. Now I had one tough decision: to tour or not to
tour, that is the question. On the do-not side was the indisputable fact that if you’ve
been on one of these brewpub tours you have, without a shred of doubt, earned the
right never to go on another. On the take-the-tour side was the fact this was a walking
tour, there was no need for a tram (keep your hands in and don’t spill any beer) to see
everything. Besides, I figured the walking would do me good. When in doubt, or after
tasting 24 different beers on a Saturday afternoon at Old Dominion, try exercise. The
only exception would be if Billy’s Boot Camp Beer was available (it only comes with the
new 18 DVD package.) Drinking that would be exercise enough.
I got in near the end of the line just as the tour group was being led through the
“Employees Only” door toward the brewing area. “Employees Only” – my goodness, I’
m now part of the really IN brewery workers crowd! This was a dream come true. After
all, who among us hasn’t played “I’m a brewer” as a kid?
Our first stop was at four taps jutting out of a side wall in a room filled with hoses,
buckets, and cardboard boxes. Eric quickly gave each of us a choice of a 10- ounce
plastic cup filled with Dominion pale ale, lager, stout, or root beer. Yes, root beer. While
I often root for (more) beer, putting them together didn’t seem right today. I instantly
selected the pale ale, which, I recalled, was glass number 3 in group 4 of flight 2 in my
tasting adventure at the bar. Ok, ok, maybe it was actually glass 4 in group 3 of flight
3. That may be wrong too: I can at least guarantee it was one of the 24 beers I had
and that it was a good one.
Eric began to push our now happier group along to the next stop, the mash tun and
kettle. Who can resist the look of a brewing kettle and mash tun? Each one is a work
of art. Sure they are. A cynic might say they’re just big metal pots that cook stuff and
eventually out comes the real work of art – the beer. Eric however was clearly not a
cynic. We were going to get an official explanation.
Eric reached near poetic proportions as he lovingly explained that the mash tun is
where the process of heating grains mixed with water activates enzyme activity which
converts starches to fermentable sugars in a process known as saccharification. He
said it all in one breath too.
Once the mashing is complete, Eric went on, the brewer must separate the mixture
now called wort, or sweetwater, from the spent grain husks. After the wort is collected
in the brew kettle it is boiled for up to two hours. “Are you with me?” Eric asked?
Those of us in the front nodded yes, not that we actually understood anything he was
talking about, but in fear he might repeat it all.
The wort is then mixed with yeast in the fermentation tanks – “ok, everybody move
along to the next room”. Lucky us, more tanks to see. As we began to walk through
two very large doors a few people lagged back, quietly edging their way toward the
taps. Hey, (Beer Joke Alert!! ) wort’s going on here? Ah, now I get it – they were
heading back to the taps for a quick refill of their tasting glasses. I guess that’s one way
to really put the beer in “beer tour.”
“You’ll like our next stop” Eric said. “It’s the cold room.” We gingerly passed through
long sheets of semi-clear plastic hanging in a large doorway into, literally, a cold room.
There, to no one’s amazement, were even more tanks. In these “bright” tanks, Eric
said, the beer aged while a secondary fermentation took place. Now that was
something everyone in our group could appreciate - if one fermentation is good, two
must be better.
Eric explained that Old Dominion only uses four ingredients in making beer – malt,
water, yeast, and hops. He was clearly in the zone as we heard him reverentially use
words like sparging, lauter tun, and decoction. Some on the tour were offended, for all
we know he could have been calling us names. Ah, but then came the magic word that
solves all problems – Hops.
Hops – more please. If you don’t know what to order in a bar just ask for the beer
with the most hops. Hopheads of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your
bitterness! There are basically two types of hop plants, Eric explained. One imparts the
bitterness that causes a crisp palate and balances the sweetness of the malts; the other
provides aroma or “the nose.” There are actually over 170 hop varieties grown in the
US, with 17 major ones, mostly grown in the Pacific Northwest. Take that you wine
lovers who brag about the 5 or 6 different types of grapes in the world.
Eric quickly ran through the names of the hop types and then, to make sure we were
at least pretending to pay attention, he brought out the hops themselves. Seven trays
of different types of hops were passed around. “Smell each one and don’t be afraid to
take a bite too” Eric intoned. Most of us smelled, few tasted. Still, we had come full
circle; we were back to a basic ingredient from the earth. I almost felt like becoming a
Eric, looked at us with the smile of a man who knew he had done his job well as he said,
“Ladies and gentlemen, our tour is now over. Any last questions?” Almost instantly a
hand went up. It was a guy in the far rear of the group. He hadn’t said a word during
the entire tour but now he spoke for all of us when he asked “Can we have more
beer?” Eric nodded and simply said, “Make it a quick one. I have to start the next tour
in 3 minutes.” No problem for me however, I had already decided to take that tour
too, only this time I was just going to stay at the first stop.