From Vikings to the War Of 1812: An Interview with Right Proper Brewmaster Nathan Zeender on Recreating Historic Beer Styles
Editor’s note: In today’s piece, Sal Colleluori interviews Nathan Zeender, of DC’s Right Proper Brewery. Some of the techniques Zeender refers to are a bit esoteric, so check out our home brew article if you’re looking for more detail into the specifics of brewing.
The resurgence of craft beer brewing in the United States has given brewers a newfound sense of adventure in executing their craft. Some have decided to make beers that push the boundaries of taste and flavor, while others have simply attempted to recreate primary styles that have been the mainstays of European breweries for hundreds of years. However, Washington, D.C.’s nascent Right Proper Brewing Company has combined the art of beer making with a keen sense of history; their brewers simultaneously create beers that are accessible, while recreating and reconstructing historic beer styles.
Right Proper’s operation is teeming with history beyond just its beer. The brewery is located in the old pool hall of Frank Holiday, a “center of African American community” and the location where one of jazz music’s most famous musicians, Duke Ellington, would find his inspiration.
While the location no longer has any pool tables, what’s happening inside is still causing inspiration for many others. I sat down with Nathan Zeender, the homebrewer turned brewmaster of Right Proper to discuss his process, and his brewery’s re-creation of some long-forgotten historic beer styles, such as the smoky and sweet Danish ship beer to the equally delicious Lichtenhainer-style beer, a smoked sour wheat beer that quenches your thirst while enticing you to drink more.
War On The Rocks: Hey Nathan, thanks for agreeing to sit down to chat today!
Nathan Zeender: No problem.
WOTR: So tell me a little bit about how you went from homebrewing to running Right Proper.
NZ: I have been brewing beer for 8 or 9 years, with Right Proper being my first professional brewing job. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and saw brewing as another branch of the culinary arts to explore. After homebrewing for some time, I began talking with Thor [Cheston, Co-Owner and previous beer director of Brasserie Beck and Pizzeria Paradiso] and we developed a two-year plan. I discussed brewing with my partner Rachel, and started staging [pronounced stahj-ing, e.g. working as an apprentice in restaurants, typically uncompensated] around the country.
WOTR: Where did you stage?
WOTR: So was moving to a larger system from homebrewing difficult?
NZ: We’re running a five-barrel system here [Ed. note: One barrel = 31 U.S. gallons], but I wasn’t too intimidated. There were no expectations coming in — Thor never said to me, “Hey you have to brew a blonde beer or an IPA or whatever.” It was entirely up to me what I got to brew. The brewing program here is really just an outgrowth of what I was doing at home. The brewery we’re opening up in Brookland [in Northeast DC] is right across the street from my house, and that’s the neighborhood I’ve lived in for 10 years. That brewery will just be an extension of what I’ve done here [at the Shaw location].
WOTR: Moving on to some of the brewery’s historic re-creations, let’s start with the Grisette [Ed. note: Right Proper’s Grisette is named “Ornette” after the visionary Jazz musician Ornette Coleman]. Where did you get the inspiration for this style, and why has this style come back into prominence when most often brewers would just go for a saison or something like that instead?
NZ: I don’t think anyone would have known about Grisette if it weren’t for Phil Markowski’s book, “Farmhouse Ales.” You read a book like that and there’s maybe a paragraph in there about a low alcohol, refreshing wheat beer that was served to mine workers. There’s a certain amount of romance in that. You say, “well that’s interesting.” Also, I’d never call any of my beers a direct re-creation, because nobody alive actually knows what those beers tasted like, though we can divine a good idea of what they probably tasted like. We can go off of the idea of that beer — I wanted it to be a super dry and lean beer with a lot of aromatics and wheat in there with some gentle hopping. All told, a relatively simple brew.
If you go to a lot of brewpubs, their lightest beer is maybe a blonde or a kölsch or something like that but the Ornette has sort of taken on that role here. I didn’t specifically brew it for that purpose, but that’s what it’s become.
WOTR: Where does the Ornette derive its flavor?
NZ: What we’re trying to do with that beer is really get a lot of yeast-derived character. As you know, yeast is the animating life force in beer. Everything else is static. Everything else is kilned and dead and retains certain flavors. Yeast is the only thing that’s alive and transformative and that’s why it’s very exciting. It’s almost like the spirit of a beer.
Going back to my inspiration on this beer, it probably comes from a little bit of reading here and there. A line in a [Randy] Mosher book, or something in a [Stan] Hieronymus book maybe. Then I’d try a beer like Avril, [Brasserie] DuPont’s spring offering that’s around 3.5% alcohol — a saison. Of course we’re trying to keep it traditional so there’s a little wheat, we open ferment [Ed. note: open fermentation is a technique where there is no lid placed on top of the fermentation vessel during fermentation, so yeast is allowed to spill out over the top; several European brewers still primarily use this technique when brewing], we don’t temperature control, and we let it free rise. Beers like that are brewed similar to how they would have been brewed 200 years ago on a farm or in a small village.
WOTR: So Skibsøl, which is one of your Danish ship beers. Let’s talk about where you got the inspiration for that.
NZ: I first heard of that word (Skibsøl) about 5-6 years ago when I was on a trip with my buddy Mike Tonsmiere [a DC Homebrewer and author] during a collaboration on a bunch of projects. We were on the trip because we used to do a blog together, and we used the blog as leverage to meet these people working in the industry. We were on a trip up in New England (where Mike is originally from), and we stopped at a place called Redbones where they had a beer on tap called Imperial Skibsøl. This beer was a collaboration between Will Meyers (of Cambridge Brewing Company) and Anders Kissmeyer who runs Kissmeyer Brewing which is a gypsy brand in Scandinavia. At the time, Kissmeyer was also brewing in Denmark at Nørrebro Bryghus, a brewery and restaurant in Copenhagen. Kissmeyer is the first person anyone talks to when they want to talk about historic beer in the Baltics. I’m not sure whose idea it was but Kissmeyer and Meyers decided to collaborate on a Danish ship beer. It was a lager and they smoked all the malt themselves.
The beer they did together gave me inspiration to look into Skibsøl, and I discovered it’s basically a low alcohol, dark and smoky beer, probably lactic given the era it originated. My understanding is that Danish sailors would go out and take beer with them because it was safer to drink than water. If they wanted to get really loaded they would put a little akvavit in it. They kind of needed that akvavit, because without it, it was just sort of a sustaining beer — they could drink all day without getting drunk.
Supposedly, there’s one brewer on an island in Denmark somewhere that still brews this stuff, but all I’ve heard about it is that it tastes like Band-Aids and burnt rubber. It may be super authentic, but I’m not sure I’d want to drink it.
WOTR: So The Invisible City Of Bladensburg, the other ship beer, where did that come from and what’s that all about?
NZ: The name comes from a song by one of my favorite musicians, John Fahey. He was very connected to Takoma Park, MD, and he had an attachment to Sligo Creek. I loved Sligo Creek as a kid, and John took the turtle as his life’s totem and when I was younger I took the turtle as my totem as well. People branded his style of playing, fingerpicking, as “American Primitive Guitar.” We do a series here called the “American Primitive Series,” and I decided that beer would be part of our American Primitive beer series, and that we would make it using gruits instead of hops, to maintain its primitivism. I also wanted to hark back to the long history of using sacred herbs and bitters in beer.
So there’s a song that I based the name off of [Ed. note: Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible City of Bladensburg], and recently the Smithsonian put together an event highlighting the War of 1812 and the Battle of Bladensburg, which was where all the American troops were routed and the British came to DC and fired the city. I have ties to that area of P[rince] G[eorges] County, and I was approached about doing a beer for the event. So I put two and two together and figured these guys came on ships, and so I made a pale ships beer that uses a bunch of spruce tips from my yard instead of hops. We also used our house [yeast] mix culture, which is a little sour with some funky aromatics. Sailors of the day used spruce tips to ward off scurvy, and it would have been normal for sailors to consume a beer flavored in such a way.
WOTR: So whats up with the Gotland beer you all make here?
NZ: The style is actually called Gotlandsdricka, which just means it’s the drink of those who live in Gotland. Specifically, they would have been Viking raiders — real serious guys that you didn’t mess with. It’s not dissimilar to the dark, juniper beers from Scandinavia and the other Nordic regions, similar to a Sahti. Our beer is just called “Gotland,” and we made it as a collaboration with Megan Parisi, who worked at Cambridge Brewing Company and then as head brewer at Blue Jacket [another DC-based brewery]. When Megan left Blue Jacket, she wanted to brew something here with Right Proper. Megan had a hand in brewing the Skibsøl from Cambridge I mentioned earlier, and she wanted to do something similar here. So I went and got a bunch of whole juniper branches that I put under the false bottom in the mash tun, and when we Vorlaufed it infused the mash with that flavor. We also used juniper berries in the boil, in lieu of hops.
Gotland is another one of those American Primitive beers I talked about earlier. This one had berries and two different types of smoked malts, and saw some beechwood and mesquite. Also, it was really cool for me, because I got to brew this Nordic beer with the person who several years ago turned me on to Skibsøl, so it was a nice confluence of events. The idea of Gotland is that it’s a smoky, Viking beer and as it aged out, it tasted like leather and berry.
WOTR: And the last one is the Lichtenhainer? How did that come about?
NZ: That would have been just reading [Ron] Pattison years ago, on his blog. I enjoy low alcohol, lactic Berliner Weisse-style stuff. I love smoked beer. So that’s easy enough as it’s two things I enjoy. Thus, I found and brewed this style.
To find out more about Right Proper, you can visit them at RightProperBrewery.com, follow them on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, or just go visit them and taste these historic beers for yourself at 624 T Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Salvatore Colleluori is a political writer by day and a homebrewer and beer enthusiast by night. He holds a degree in Political Science from the George Washington University and enjoys reading about alcohol, history, and foreign relations. He is also an avid music lover, specifically jazz and the Grateful Dead.