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Hear from Pale Fire's Founder about Next Week's DC Launch

It seems these days that breweries arrive into the DC market on a weekly basis to try to carve out their niche. Breweries young and old alike see the robust beer scene largely built over the last decade and think, “My beer should be there.” The newest arrival is Harrisonburg, Virginia’s Pale Fire Brewing Company. The brewery, which opened April 2015, has seen its beers appear on lists at a handful of spots in DC, notably the Pints. Salad Days, an “American saison,” has received plaudits not just from the Washington Post’s Fritz Hahn but also from the World Beer Cup (2016) and the Great American Beer Festival (2015), both of which awarded the beer a bronze.

Pale Fire recently signed a DC distribution agreement with Legends Limited and will have its launch week starting Monday, March 19. Although I’ve often taken a curmudgeonly attitude about new breweries arriving in the market (a take for a different day, probably), I’m genuinely excited about Pale Fire’s arrival. Having regular access to their Arrant IPA and Salad Days saison alone delight me, to say nothing of the rest of their portfolio. I had the chance to email with Pale FIre’s founder, Tim Brady. He answered some questions about making the choice to come to DC, the brewery’s philosophy, and the state of craft beer.

Join Tim and Pale Fire for one of their launch events next week:

What follows below is a transcript of our email conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

What's the origin story here? Lots of people like craft beer, but not a lot of people, relatively speaking, decide to make a profession out of their hobby. What got you over the hump and made you think, "Yeah, I can do this?"

I've been involved in craft beer for my entire professional career. It officially started in 2001 when I was 21. I was working as a server at a fantastic brewpub in Harrisonburg called Calhoun's Restaurant and Brewing Co. The assistant brewer at the time decided to move to Alaska, and I put my hand up and said, "I want to do that." The owner of Calhoun's, who was also the Head Brewer, basically said, "Do you like cleaning stuff?" I fibbed, said "yes!" and got the job. It ended up being the perfect learning situation. It was a two-man team, and the Head Brewer was very willing to teach me all aspects of brewing. I had that job for about eight years and ended up being involved in every aspect of the craft from recipe design, cellar side, filtering, and physical brewing. It really taught me what was needed to run a successful brewery.

From there I got a job as a sales rep for Specialty Beverage of Virginia in 2008. They're a craft-focused distribution house, and it was really fun to be working in sales as craft exploded. I learned a lot about what it took for a brand to have a successful presence in the market and how important the overall presentation is. At times I think brewers can be dismissive of the artwork and presentation. Like it shouldn't be needed since the beer should sell solely on the quality of the liquid. I understand that attitude; brewers have poured their hearts into making the best beer possible, and they don't want to think somebody just bought it because of a cool label. My job at Specialty taught me not to overlook presentation. The art sells the first six-pack, and the quality of the liquid is why folks buy the second, third, and fourth...

I "retired" from Specialty in 2013 to start seriously working on Pale Fire Brewing Co. and was blessed to find the support to open up in April 2015. So I never really had to make a decision to "take a chance" on craft beer. It's actually the opposite. If craft beer mysteriously disappeared off the face of the earth one day, I really don't know how I'd be able to support myself. It's all I've ever done.

What's the Harrisonburg beer scene like? How has it changed since you opened up? Has the community reception to your brewery been positive?

The Harrisonburg beer scene is fantastic, very supportive. We're a mountain city with a large university, and there are a lot of folks that are naturally drawn to craft. Pale Fire also benefits from the fact that Calhoun's Restaurant and Brewing Co., my former employer, laid the groundwork education-wise. Calhoun's opened in 1998, really ahead of it's time, so the city of Harrisonburg has been drinking beers like Kolsch, hoppy IPAs, and saisons for decades. It was already a savvy beer town before we opened up.

Harrisonburg is also very supportive of community-owned, independent businesses overall. The community takes real pride in its homegrown businesses, and we've felt the love since day one. I do wish more folks wanted to drink craft beer on Mondays, but I think every brewery owner with a Tap Room would say the same. : )

What's your brewing philosophy here? It seems to be pretty hop-forward. Was that always the intention, or is that the result of market demands? How much overlap is there between the beer portfolio you envisioned during planning and the beer portfolio you currently have?

The short answer is we brew the beers we want to drink. We're aware of the trends in the industry, but we don't follow them unless they happen to align with something we're excited about on our own. It has led to a lot of hop-forward beer as well as Belgian styles. We've been lucky that our tastes have proven to overlap with the public very nicely. Salad Days American Saison and Deadly Rhythm Pale Ale were our flagships in our planning stage, and they continue to lead the charge today. We've always believed in those beers and the response has been great. Arrant IPA, our Citra-hopped IPA, and Red Molly, our Irish Red, were beers we released after opening that have happily elbowed their way into year round production based on the response from the public. Between myself, our Tap Room Manager, Susan Keeler, and our Head Brewer, Ben Trumbo, we've got 35 years of being employed in the craft beer industry. I think that combined experience has allowed us to step confidently into the market.

Can you tell me more about Salad Days, your decorated American Saison? How did that beer develop? What are its influences and how has it changed at all over time?

I'm so glad you asked! I would have found a way to bring up Salad Days American Saison's medals at World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival if you hadn't! A huge honor to win at both events, especially with our flagship!

Salad Days is really special, but the story is pretty straightforward. It was something we used to pilot because we loved how the French saison yeast and Amarillo/Simcoe hops interacted. Beers like Boulevard Tank 7 and Brooklyn Sorachi Ace are beers that we love, and they served as inspiration, but we never did any research on the specific recipes behind those beers. We just made a hoppy saison from the ground up that became Salad Days. It was always such a disappointment when the Salad Days pilots ran out so, we started writing it into the plan as a year-round beer. It's still my most common shift beer.

The recipe has never changed, and we've never really considered changing it. The Amarillo and Simcoe hops are still really popular/relevant, and the accolades certainly help get attention so there's no itch to mess with it.

How has the reception been to your beers in DC? How many accounts are you in now, and what is selling best?

DC has been amazing and very welcoming. At the moment we're in about 20 spots, and our beers have really been embraced. I grew up in Arlington and have lots of friends in DC so I've really enjoyed having an excuse to come up and enjoy the city. Salad Days and Arrant IPA have gotten the most attention to this point, but really the whole portfolio has gotten a lot of love.

You just signed a distribution agreement for DC for 2018. Who did you sign with?

We are very excited to announce (in DCBeer.com, for the first time!) that Legends Limited will be our distribution partner in DC. We were really impressed with the folks at Legends. They love craft beer and get us as a brewery. Legends also has a great portfolio and reach in the city, which will make it easy for any interested parties to get our beer, which I'm obviously excited about.

DC is obviously a competitive beer market. What do you think Pale Fire brings to the DC market that other breweries aren't currently offering? Do you plan to do more events to raise the profile of your beer?

Craft beer is so much fun right now because there are so many talented and creative breweries pushing out in all directions. That makes it competitive in a sense. but it also makes us all better brewers, which is really great. I guess I could look at it as intimidating, but I really don't. There have always been other options to Pale Fire beer. and people aren't deciding to drink ours out of a lack of options. They've drank our beers and supported us because our beers are excellent and we add to the creative climate.

As far as events go, we plan to do as many as possible. We're a small company so you probably won't see us at happy hour every Friday but we love spending time in DC so we'll be around quite a bit. We do have some very cool events lined up for our launch week. I'll be at all of those and look forward to meeting folks:

Thinking about the craft beer industry now, what are its strengths and weaknesses as you see them? What is craft beer doing well and what does it need to do better to continue to grow?

I love where craft beer is right now. The industry has been able to take a legitimate spot on the national stage while holding on to the independence that make it so special in the first place.

One of the strengths that's come out of the boom in the industry is we've all put a lot of time into the science behind fermentation. Yeast ultimately makes the beer, and it's a living organism. As brewers, we're really just making yeast food. The level of knowledge today's brewers have of biology and chemistry is incredible, especially compared to when I first started 15 years ago. It shows in the quality of the beer.

If I had to pick a weakness in craft beer I'd say it's the focus on rare or one-off beers, both by brewers and the public. A brewery's core beers are the ones they've had the most time to tinker with and really perfect, but they can get overlooked today because everybody is so focused on drinking what's scarce. Not in all cases, but often enough to be troubling, those scarce beers are something the brewery hasn't put time into piloting and aren't really invested in because they don't ever plan on brewing it again. It's a complicated topic because it's also where you see a lot of creativity, and I don't want that to go away. What I'd ask of the public is that next time they line up to get a beer that's going to make for a great social media post, they also make a point to grab a pint of that brewery's flagship and savor that as well.

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Thanks to Tim for taking the time to chat, be sure to get out and meet him during launch week!
 

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