Across the Bar

A series of interviews of brewers, brew staff, and customers of D.C. breweries
By Jeff Duby

Interview with Ben Evans of Hellbender Brewing Company

Jeff Duby: Ok, so for the readers out there who might not know you, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Ben Evans: Sure, I was born in D.C. and grew up in Philadelphia, went to undergrad in rural Pennsylvania, and came back and went to grad school at the university of Maryland, and I’ve been back ever since. I majored in biology and worked in neuroscience during my graduate program. I guess it’s the science background that led to the transition to brewing in a lot of ways.

JD: Now how did you get into brewing? Was it homebrewing? Formal training?

BE: Yeah, it was one of those Homer Simpson presents that my brother and I got my dad when we were in college.  It was a homebrewing kit and we got it because we figured we’d get to drink the beer when we got back from school, but we all liked it and really ended up being a family thing for a while. We ended up doing some really awful kits for a while [laughs] it really tasted off-putting, kind of like a nasty cider.  So it wasn’t long after that we started getting more advanced, getting into all grain and being more selective with our hops.  We really got the bug, our beer quality improved greatly from there. 

JD: At one point from being a homebrewer did you want to get into brewing as a professional thing?

BE: It wasn’t an overnight thing, but during the summer between undergrad and grad school I was playing rugby and one of my teammates was the head brewer at a local brewpub. He invited me to brew with him and started showing me how to brew on a 15 barrel system. I would travel up there during grad school whenever I could up in Delaware and over the course of grad school and research, I started thinking maybe I could make a run at going into brewing.

After coming back to D.C. I noticed there was a real shortage of breweries in the area. It really sparked my interest because there didn’t seem to be anyone doing what I wanted to do here. My business partner and I started kicking around the idea of opening up a brewery. This is going back six or seven years.

JD: In terms of your brewery, your system, you’ve gone for a very modern very high efficiency system. What went into that decision?

BE: At the end of the day we really wanted to focus on being as sustainable as possible. It was a little more expensive as a system, but with the savings on water and grain we knew we could pay it off faster over time.  It starts to pay for itself pretty quickly, so going for modern equipment to us was a no-brainer.

JD: What’s your brewing philosophy? What are you trying to accomplish?

BE: We brew some traditional beers, but we really like to do our own things, we like to brew our own way and try to come up with some innovative beers.  Some of my favorite things don’t fit a lot of traditional styles.  Our Redline Ale for example is probably a little hoppier than a traditional American Amber, I like our seasonals as well.  Our Grampus which is on right now is something I’ve been brewing for about ten years, and it’s something between a nut brown and a porter.  It’s kind of got its own thing going on.  We try to keep things fresh, mix things up using different hops, different barley, and different yeast strains.  Of course we want to make beers which are great, but we also want to make each one distinct as well.

JD: And for everyone out there who may not know, what is a hellbender?

BE: A hellbender is a giant salamander which is indigenous to this area and a lot of the northeastern United States. It’s a local endangered species; we went with that name because it goes along with our philosophy of sustainability and locality.  Sustainability has always been key to our philosophy and it’s given us a lot of pleasure to partner with a lot of amazing institutions like the National Zoo, the U.S. Forestry Service and Freshwaters Illustrated.  Recently we’ve been able to help by raising money through fundraisers which have contributed to the creation of an Appalachian salamander exhibit at the National Zoo.  We’ve also offered screenings of a film called The Last Dragons which is about hellbenders.  On top of that, it looks cool and sounds cool and makes a cool logo.

Jeff Duby is a homebrewer and a beer nut.