Bret Kimbrough is the brewer at Vintage 50, a brewpub in Leesburg, Virginia, that sometimes seems to fly under the radar, as it were. I met up with him at the recent SpringFest in Shirlington, Virginia. He was pouring a Smokey Bluff Brown Ale.
Wanting to know more, I emailed him afterward. Kimbrough was so forthcoming, that I've posted his entire reply here (with permission).
Thanks for asking about Smokey Bluff Brown Ale. I was really flattered and pleased by the response it got at Springfest. It's based on a Northern English brown ale that we brew at Vintage 50 called Ball's Bluff, hence the name Smokey Bluff for the smoked version. It is brewed using pale ale, chocolate and crystal malt with the addition of one of my favorite roasted grains, Perla Negra from Patagonia Malting. Perla Negra is a roasted pearled barley that adds great roast flavors to beer without husk bitterness. And because it is unmalted, it really brings a boost to the mouthfeel of a beer so that it can seem bigger than it actually is. Many people are surprised when the hear that Smokey Bluff comes in under 5% ABV. As you can probably guess, the hops are barely there. I only add a very small charge at the start of the boil to give 12 IBUs. Fermentation took place on Ringwood yeast. Of course, the true star of this show is the smoked malt.
I really wanted to brew this beer after I was visited by Charlie Wise, the brewery liaison for Copper Fox Distilling [in Sperryville, Virginia], who brought samples of the various malts he had to offer. I was really impressed with the six-row malt that was smoked over apple and cherry wood. It was mild and very approachable. I thought I could use it to subtle effect to make a smoked ale with broad appeal. I also like that the barley was grown and malted here in Virginia. I like to use local products whenever I can.
Fortunately, my effort seems to have paid off. The overall remarks for the beer have been very good and I have been really excited to see many of our customers have taken a liking to it. The beer also gets used extensively in our kitchen to braise meats, make sauces and as an ingredient in marinades. Probably my favorite Smokey Bluff infused dish was the short rib chili that our chef, Amy Charney, made when the beer first hit the taps.
Festivals, especially warm-weather ones, are usually awash with India Pale Ales (IPA). Kimbrough did not bring one "Why," I wondered.
I brought the smoked beer to the Cap City Springfest for two reasons. First, as sort of an acid test to see if the beer really had the broad appeal I hoped it had, or if I was somehow kidding myself. Festivals are good for that sort of thing. Second, I have noticed over the last couple of years that dark beer tends to be scarce at fests, so I make a point of bringing a couple of darker beers with me wherever I go. This way, after swimming through the sea of IPAs that always seem to be ubiquitous at these things, the guests seem pleasantly surprised to find a change of pace with a brown ale, porter, etc. Don't get me wrong. I am not an IPA hater. I just found an unexploited fest niche and settled into it. In a business as competitive as craft beer, that's what you have to do.
I agreed. And took a second pour.
- —Bret Kimbrough began brewing professionally in 1996, after working at pubs in Kansas. In 1997, while he was serving as head brewer at the Little Apple Brewing Company, in Manhattan, Kansas, he received his diploma in brewing science and engineering from the American Brewers Guild. In 1998, while he was head brewer at Woodstock Brewing in Kingston, New York, he decided to leave brewing to attend culinary school at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. in Hyde Park, New York. After a brief (read 10 year) detour in the baking and pastry business, he returned to brewing, in November 2009, at Growlers Brew Pub, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In February 2010, he became head brewer. In February 2013, he became the head brewer at Vintage 50 Restaurant & Brew Lounge, where he brews today.
- For 14 years, Capitol City Brewing Company has organized a beer festival in the fall, the Washington, D.C. area's largest Oktoberfest. SpringFest was this Arlington, Virginia's brewpub's first-ever spring 'craft' beer festival, held outside along two blocks in the Village at Shirlington. Host brewer Kristi Mathews Griner invited over 45 breweries, many local to the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area. More pics here.