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Hellbender Brewing Has Hill Roots

Six hours before the start of the new year, the Senate was about to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff and longtime staffer Patrick Mullane was getting ready to leave the Hill for beer. It’s just that it’s taken a few months to get the kegs tapped.

Mullane and his business partner, Ben Evans, started Hellbender Brewing Co. in January, another in a growing line of respected craft breweries in Washington, D.C.

Hellbender’s first brew, Never Mind the Bollekes, is being released in collaboration with Lost Rhino Brewing Co., in Ashburn, Va. The name is a play on the Belgium beer glass, as well as the punk icon Sex Pistols album “Never Mind the Bollocks.” It will be tapped May 29 at Penn Quarter’s Iron Horse Taproom.

“Our equipment is coming, at least in part, from a manufacturer in Belgium, so we had taken a tour over there,” Mullane said. While in Belgium, the brewers drank many beers.

“One thing we really noticed is that they make a lot of [Belgium-style] ambers and pale ales that don’t get a lot of play here in the U.S. They are everywhere over there,” Mullane said. “They are just so good. A lot of flavor. It’s just nice to have a red kind of amber color. You don’t see as much of those here.”

When Evans and Mullane got back stateside, they hooked up with Lost Rhino’s co-founder, Favio Garcia.

“[Evans] was very precise in what he wanted,” Garcia said of Evans’ plan for the debut ale. The final recipe, which Garcia said was brought to life by Evans and microbiologist Jasper Akerboom, marries a pair of prominent hops from the Pacific Northwest with a Belgian yeast strain.

“There’s a lot of Willamette [hops] in there,” Garcia said, adding that a finishing touch of Sterling hops adds some earthiness to the borderline brown ale and the expressive yeast gives it a hint of fruit.

According to Garcia, the debut Hellbender brew took about a month to produce and was scheduled to be kegged (about 40 barrels’ worth) on Thursday. Hellbender will distribute 25 kegs in the city, across eight or nine bars, including Mullane’s old Hill-side haunts Lounge 201 (now 201 Bar) and Capitol Lounge. Lost Rhino will pull the rest in Ashburn.

The Scientist and the Wonk

Evans was a research scientist at the University of Maryland specializing in microbiology when he met Mullane.

“We met through … this is typical Capitol Hill,” Mullane said. “I played softball for years with his now-wife.”

The two guys started talking beer. “We just hit it off and started brewing together,” Mullane said. Some time later, Evans, a serious amateur brewer with some professional experience, was ready to try his hand at starting a craft brewery.

“[Starting a brewery] was something I was interested in, but I never honestly considered pulling the trigger on something like that, and then [Ben] brought the idea to me after he was comfortable with my ability as a brewer,” Mullane said. “I was game from the get-go.”

That was in 2010. Since then the friends/brewers/business partners have been perfecting recipes, pounding out a business plan and attracting investors, financing and all the other things that go into starting a business.

It makes sense that Evans, the scientist, is taking on the role of head brewer and Mullane, the policy wonk, is focusing more on the business side. Mullane spent his time on Capitol Hill focused exclusively on transportation policy.

“I started with Tom Petri, in the House” when the Wisconsin Republican headed the Transportation and Infrastructure Highways Subcommittee,” Mullane said. “Then I went for a short stint in the Texas Department of Transportation here in D.C. There was a big reshuffling there and I went to [then-Sen.] Kay Bailey Hutchison, [R-Texas]. I was there four years. Then I went to the [Senate] Budget Committee. There are so few transportation policy guys, so it opens doors for you.

“Everyone comes to the Hill and says ‘I want to do defense. I want to do foreign affairs,’” he continued. “[Staffers] cut their teeth on transportation policy. Then they go through an appropriations season and say, ‘Get me the hell out of here.’ Then they go to another policy area.”

Though Mullane’s craft beer education started on a college trip to Montreal — where he sampled the famous La Fin du Monde brew — it’s been his time in Washington that schooled him.

“D.C. is kind of on the forefront, at least on the East Coast, for bringing craft brews in, so it’s been great to try stuff, particularly the Belgiums,” he said. “Like at the old Brickskeller [now Bier Baron]. I used to love going there. I’d pick a country and try a random beer and then more bars like that kept popping up.”

Mullane started brewing in 2005.

“I spent five years working in Toledo Lounge in Adams Morgan and then ended up doing everything from serving to bar-backing, ended up in the kitchen. It was just fun to work with food on a big scale,” he said. Then he thought that it would all be a lot more fun if he was making “something alcoholic,” so he started teaching himself the craft of brewing.

“I liked starting with the grain and then learning how to actually create alcohol. My first batch was really, really good. It was a Belgium blonde ale,” he recalled. But, he continued, “the second batch was just really, really screwed up. I still don’t know what I did wrong.”

Over time, Mullane learned to be consistent and got better results.

Now the former staffer is a part of a growing business community.

“It is definitely a burgeoning community,” Mullane said. “DC Brau is leading the way to start a brewers guild here in D.C. We’re one of the few states with breweries without a brewers guild … or not, I guess, not a state. Still working on how to say that.”

He said the local breweries “all get along really well. The competition factor is very different from what it is on cutthroat Capitol Hill or K Street or the general business world of ‘crush your competition.’ Here it’s kind of ‘high tide raises all boats.’”

Mullane said that, globally, things are going their way.

“The beer industry is really trending toward craft beers. The big macro-beers, the Budweisers of the world, are really losing a very small amount of market share every year, a percentage point or even less than that. But it means a lot to the craft brewers,” he said. “If we can keep that trend going and keep introducing folks to good craft beer, that means there are more customers and more sales available for everyone to get a piece of and to get their brewery up and going and stable and to continue brewing for years and years and years.”

Warren Rojas contributed to this report.

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