True brew: Jason Oliver turns Devils Backbone into one of the nation’s best breweries

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Devils Backbone Brewmaster Jason Oliver is helping oversee the construction of a new 120-barrel brew house at the brewery’s Lexington Outpost. Photo: Jon-Phillip Sheridan. Devils Backbone Brewmaster Jason Oliver is helping oversee the construction of a new 120-barrel brew house at the brewery’s Lexington Outpost. Photo: Jon-Phillip Sheridan.

Jason Oliver wanted to make Devils Backbone a “brewer’s brewery.” That might seem like a terrible idea. Why would you want to run a brewery that appeals to such a small audience?

But in the process of running a brewery that appeals to people like him, Oliver has unwittingly—or perhaps wittingly—turned DB into a place that has something for just about everyone. Prefer a light beer that’ll remind you of your favorite domestic macrobrew? Gold Leaf Lager’s your beer. Maybe you’re a novice craft beer drinker and enjoy a Sam Adams Boston Lager now and again. DB has its Vienna Lager in bottles year round. Consider yourself a full-fledged beer geek? There’s the celebrated Schwartz Bier, the elusive Sixteen Point double IPA, the Kilt Flasher Scotch ale, the list goes on.

DB’s extensive beer list has resulted in unqualified success for Oliver and company owners Steve and Heidi Crandall. The brewery has been one of the most decorated contestants at the Great American Beer Festival over the past three years, and it’s continuously expanded, last year overtaking Starr Hill as the largest craft brewery in Virginia. Just about the only thing DB hasn’t done to this point is produce the super exclusive, large-format bottled, often barrel-aged, brews that draw national attention to the likes of Richmond’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and its Gingerbread Stout variants. But even that’s in the process of changing, as DB is building a new 120-barrel brew house at its Lexington Outpost. The expansion will not only allow the brewery to keep meeting demand for its core products, but it’ll allow Oliver to release more experimental brews in the future.

“For the über beer geek, perhaps we don’t have the flashiest offerings out there, but we’re gearing up to do that,” Oliver said. “We’re going to have more flexibility soon that we don’t have right now because we got to make the ‘donuts,’ you know?”

Just how good are Oliver’s donuts, the core beers that pay the bills? The Brewers Association seems to think they’re frickin’ Spudnuts-good. For three straight years, the association has named Devils Backbone the best brewery in the nation for its size class, which has ticked up every year. In 2012, DB won Very Small Brewing Company and Very Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the Brewers Association’s annual Great American Beer Festival. The year after that, Oliver and crew took home Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. This year’s title was for Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewing Company Brewer of the Year.

What does all that mean exactly? Chris Swersey, a Brewers Association employee who’s the competition manager at the Great American Beer Festival, said it’s pretty simple. Breweries get three points for each of their beers that earn a gold medal in each style category, two points for silver and one point for bronze. The brewery with the most points wins best brewery in its size range. This year, DB earned three points from its Schwartz Bier, two points each for its Old Virginia Dark Lager and Turbo Cougar and one point for its Alt Bier, making it the clear winner among mid-size brewers, which make somewhere in the extremely wide range of 15,000-6,000,000 barrels per year. (If there had been a tie, the winner would have been the beer maker with the most gold medals.)

Swersey warned against comparing the Brewer of the Year to the companies it bested, but for some context, other breweries in the same size range as DB this year include Stone, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada and the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams). DB’s gold medal Schwartz Bier bested the popular Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery out of Farmville, North Carolina, which won bronze in the category.

“They’ve done well over a period of time, and that is a testament to consistently great quality,” Swersey said. “They make beers that really speak to a lot of different people.”

Oliver said the ability to speak to many comes from knowing the basics. Before you start experimenting with flavors, you have to know how to produce a great base beer, he said. Champion Brewing Company owner Hunter Smith, who studied brewing under Oliver at Piedmont Virginia Community College many years ago, said that was his main take away from the man he considers his beer making mentor.

“I learned a lot about respecting the brewing process,” said Smith, who in practice has a penchant for going for bold, experimental flavors. “As strange as it may sound coming from me, [he taught me] to focus on understanding the basics before you go messing around with all kinds of bizarre things.”