For Chris Burns, president of Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, Va., the journey toward the craft brewing industry began in 2000 when he was working in the tech industry and a buddy suggested attending a happy hour at a local pub.
Burns tried the pale ale — something he had never heard of at the time.
“I was young and naïve. I tried it and hated it,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘How could anyone drink something so bitter?’ I look back now and laugh.”
That initial taste, however bitter, started him on a journey of exploration.
“I tried everything from that point on,” Burns said. “Now I love pale ale. It’s like an old friend.”
Burns established Old Ox Brewery three years ago after he and his father — who had been home brewing as a hobby for about 12 years — realized they could turn their passion into a business.
He’s an example of a growing trend in the United States, where craft brewing is the hottest segment of the U.S. beer industry. It’s so big, in fact, that major brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev are buying up small breweries for their cachet. In the Washington, D.C., area, brewers say they haven’t been impacted by this push from “Big Beer,” however. A spokeswoman for the DC Brewers Guild said the group’s members are more focused on local growth, rather than breaking into the national or international market.
And there appears to be plenty of room to grow. The national Brewers Association reported that overall beer sales were level in 2016 but craft beer sales increased 10 percent to $23.5 billion and now make up nearly 22 percent of the $107.6 billion U.S. beer market.
The association defines craft breweries as those producing 6 million barrels or less annually, with less than 25 percent of any operation controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not a craft brewer. A majority of craft beer output also needs to come from “traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation,” excluding flavored malt beverages.
There are some 5,700 breweries in the United States, 98 percent of which are small, independent and traditional, like Old Ox. Those 5,700 have just 13 percent of the market share by volume, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association. The majority only distribute or sell in their state of origin, with some producing as little as several hundred gallons a year.
Old Ox produces 4,000 barrels per year, according to Burns, who says brewing beer “really engages both halves of your brain. You can be as creative as you want to be but you can be as scientific and detail-oriented as you care to be.”
Allison Lange, Old Ox’s head brewer, got into beer brewing as a way to marry her doctorate in biochemistry with her love of beer.
“I started getting into beer in college. We’d go to happy hours while I was in the grad school program. It kind of grew from there,” she said. “I started thinking about what we were drinking.”
Lange’s degree involved the study of yeast. She said she was fascinated by the way you could manipulate yeast to coax different flavors.
“The type of yeast you use depends on the style of beer,” she said, explaining that the strain of yeast determines whether the resulting beer is cloudy or clear.
Old Ox produces golden ale, pale ale, porter and IPAs in 930 gallon batches — 30 barrels. When they are experimenting with new flavors or seasonal brews, smaller batches are whipped up.
“Our goal is to have a nice spectrum of products that are going to appeal to most any craft beer consumer. No matter your taste, you can find a product,” Chris Burns said.
Old Ox’s latest creation is a series of sour beers under the banner Funky Face. Some are brewed with fruit. They’ve also experimented with bourbon barrels, cacao nibs, vanilla bean and locally produced coffee.
“A couple of years back around this time we tried to produce an egg nog-inspired beer. It was a huge flop,” he said. “It just didn’t taste right. The nutmeg was overpowering and the base beer was a little too thin. It was a good idea not executed properly.”
This year, Old Ox changed the formula entirely, from a golden ale to a wheat base with a higher alcohol content. The resulting beer got “rave reviews,” Burns said.
Fellow craft brewer Right Proper Brewing Co. in Washington, D.C., is also getting creative with its brews. Offerings on tap in its tasting room currently include two different varieties made with wine grapes, as well as a Berliner-style Weisse brewed with mango puree.
Co-founder Thor Cheston said the D.C. area is an exciting place to be involved in craft brewing because the population is getting younger and is more dynamic and diverse, willing to try fun, new things.
He said the key to craft brewing is its freshness — something with which the big bottlers can’t compete.
“The market is becoming more and more localized,” Cheston said. “People are paying more attention to their local beer than beers from across the country. It’s a good thing. It allows for a small guy like us to gain a foothold and be a successful business as long as we don’t have unreasonable expectations, as long as we don’t have aspirations for national distribution.”
Cheston came at craft brewing from a different angle than Burns or Lange. He worked in the restaurant industry before opening his Shaw Brewpub and Kitchen in December 2013.
“I wanted to open the brewpub first to build brand and name recognition,” he said. “I wanted to use that as a springboard to hit the ground running with a production brewery.”
Two years after opening the brewpub, Cheston opened a production facility, and now the two locations produce 3,500 barrels annually.
Cheston also said the entry of the big brewers into the craft industry has not had an impact on his operation.
“We aligned ourselves with the Brewers Association and proudly display the independent craft brewer seal on all our products,” he said. “We also take steps not to participate in events underwritten by the large breweries.”
Right Proper Brewing experienced 50 percent growth in 2016, Cheston said, and he expects to see a similar expansion next year, attributing the growth to the more educated palate of the beer drinker in the Washington area and a willingness of the population to try new things.
Kathy Rizzo, spokeswoman for the DC Brewers Guild, said brewers in the area are a tight-knit group, but there’s still plenty of room for new players, with the focus increasingly on quality control and experimentation with lower alcohol, sour varieties for summer and complex, warm flavors for colder weather.
Local brewers are also opening their venues for “fundraisers, art shows or local marketplaces,” Rizzo said. “This is becoming more common and breweries are increasingly becoming more than just places to brew or drink good beer."