First Look: Sinistral Brewing Co. (Manassas, VA)

Before we get into the beer aspect of the newest brewery in NoVA, I want to take a few minutes to get you acquainted with just how close Sinistral came to never opening in the first place.  There’s a tenacity, passion, and courage to Blane and Stacey Perry (and their team) which not only brought them into the orbit of other nearby breweries in their time of need, but caused staffs from Heritage and The Farm to show up in the hours before their grand opening to pitch in, calm their nerves, and help kick things off with a bang.  Sinistral’s story would be heartbreaking if the Perrys had come into almost any other industry, but the Commonwealth of Brewers continues to amaze in how it’s truly a Family of Brewers.

First Look:  Sinistral Brewing Co. (Manassas, VA)
Grand Opening:  November 22, 2017
Beers on Tap:  6 (5 flagship)
Food:  No, but available to-go from next door’s Philadelphia Tavern

“Opening up a historic district is a pain in the ass,” according to Stacey.  With their building predating World War II, the remodeling and finishing touches all had to be vetted by the Manassas City Architectural Review Board, which declares as its mission to “to ensure the preservation and protection of the city’s historic districts.”  At one point, Sinistral even had to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals for something as seemingly simple as which pole and sign they wanted to put out front to mark the business.  With many breweries choosing industrial parks or even retail strips (such as nearby Heritage and BadWolf, respectively), the idea of going through the motions, permits, and fees seems like more investment than a start-up brewery needs.

“Location makes us stand out,” Assistant Brewer Celeste argues.  Stacey agrees:  “It’s all about the atmospherics.  We’re not going to say we’ve got the best beer, but nor are we just in an industrial space.”  The customers seem to agree.  Stephen Boyajian, a member of local club Downright Obsessed Homebrewers, likens their outdoor space to a backyard in LA, “kind of like Fast and the Furious…the original ones.”  A friend of the owners, Adrian Voicu, suggested that a tiki theme overtop the industrial spindles-turned-tables, umbrellas, strands of lights, and firepits would give a unique vibe.  “People don’t go to Whitlow’s [and other Arlington bars] because they’re the best,” he insisted, “but they can feel like they’re getting away and that’s a good time by itself.”

Much of that decor was by necessity, though.  Sparing some details owing to possible upcoming litigation, as Blane would put it, “we got raped and robbed…We should’ve been open back in October” before some of their investment capital disappeared.  The short version is that Sinistral is one of at least 16 breweries in the region (to include Quattro Goomba) which paid premium prices to an Ohio-based manufacturing firm for “American steel” brewing and fermentation tanks.  They paid $70,000 for the system, only to find out a few months back that after a series of delays, the company declared bankruptcy without having fulfilled the order.  As part of the details which came to light, the company had charged $62,000 in “overhead,” with plans on buying an $8,000 7-barrel system for Sinistral from a Chinese company.  Blane would be happy to get even $10,000 back, but more importantly hopes the courts eventually “castrate [the owner] like a gelding.”  As of Sinistral’s grand opening, lawyers are still investigating possible fraud.

The story could end there if Blane and Stacey were simply bitter.  As he puts it, “losing the equipment kinda broke our spirits.”  Luckily, Sinistral had already purchased a used 1-barrel system for experimental brews, as well as old outdoor equipment from Pen Druid Brewery down in Sperryville, and that allowed them to stay alive for the time being.  “It’s a way to brew beer but it’s frustrating,” according to Celeste.  Because that smaller system isn’t designed for some of the specs for Blane’s recipes, they’ve had to double brew some of their additional lineup and the outcomes aren’t always what’s expected.  An initial release, Boo-Boo APA, was intended as a piney pale ale but instead the off-balance diacetyl which resulted created a sort of butter pecan English Pale Ale; though Blane was reluctant to even serve the beer, it has been one of their most popular with early crowds.  The 1-barrel setup had other issues, though, and that’s where it pays to have friends who are brewers.

After news that Sinistral had lost their 7-barrel system, a host of area breweries – including Quattro Goomba, BadWolf, Heritage, and The Farm – offered to loan equipment, advice, and sweat to help get them through it.  Many weekends saw Blane sprinting throughout the area with his pickup truck; hoses came from Heritage, emergency backup pumps from Quattro Goomba and Badwolf, the spindles from another staff’s discarded construction equipment.  “They all wanted to see us succeed,” Celeste noted to a chorus of nods.  Bobby Burris, a former brewer at Heritage, Tin Cannon, and most recently The Farm, was in attendance for the grand opening.  “They’d have been screwed even if they’d gotten that equipment,” he detailed.  “[The brewers] at Quattro Goomba hate what little bit they got…it started breaking after only 10 brews!”

Family and friends also pitched in.  “They got us through it,” Blane said.  It was a family affair to build and paint the bar, while Stacey and Celeste poured through catalogs looking for deals for lighting.  Stacey thinks the whole trial brought creativity and thriftiness to the surface.  “Everyone said it will cost twice as much and take twice as long,” she related, “but the equipment scandal is only why it did for us.”  The wood paneling on one of the walls, for instance, is reclaimed wood from an old section of the ceiling dating back to 1940.  This allowed them to make some splurges, such as the roll-up garage windows and doors throughout which Celeste called “necessary” to bringing space to an old, narrow building.  They’re still adding fine details as they go along, such as to the 400-year old custom wood slab bartop which will require up to a dozen more layers of resin to fill in the naturally-occurring grooves.

With the opening now behind them, the gang at Sinistral is relieved and realistic.  “We want to stay open consistently for now,” Stacey comments, as their small system means they may run out of beer frequently.  “Over the medium term, we want to be a destination,” she concludes.  “We’re not interested in cramming onto store shelves or restaurant taps, though we may do some events in downtown DC from time to time.”  Their medium-term goal is to be part of the Manassas City entertainment scene – happy hours, post-dinner stops, and even private events.  One look up to the video board serving as a menu shows Blane’s ambitions, with no fewer than four “up next” items including a Winter Warmer and a NEIPA.  In addition to their five flagships, he wants to have five “batshit crazy” lines for experimentation and test beers.

Here’s a sampling of what to expect on you’re first visit:

Jackson’s Fish Taco Lager – As promised, there’s a bit of line throughout.  A bit more depth would make this similar to other adjunct lagers which frequent commercials full of beaches and bikinis.  When asked about the name, Blane replied, “because it goes great with fish tacos!”  It’s a light(er) beer for those who may not like bold craft flavors.  Over time, I’d hope to see more of the Himalayan sea salt come forward in the beer – it’d also be a great recipe to make a margarita-style Gose.

King Kamehameha Mandarin Wheat – Certainly a nose full of orange, but it’s more a surprising influx of flesh-infused oils than juice or pulp.  Pleasant overall and has promise for future iterations.

Arden’s Amber Ale – I liked the caramel nose, and the body started off right with a malty backbone.  The finish is incredibly earthy, though, with some overly piney resins.  The end result is neither sweet nor malty.

Boo-Boo APA – As Blane warned, too much diacetyl gives this a distinct buttery, nutty nose.  I eventually settled on butter pecan as the main flavor, but Stephen from DOH called it “Juicyfruit” instead.  Here’s the thing – myself and a few others really enjoyed how their turned out.  It really coats the roof of the mouth, so if you enjoy that sort of English Pale Ale flavor this one could actually have a lot of promise.  Blane makes no promises that this one will survive on the menu, as his regular Carson’s Pale Ale would replace it.

Little Gray IPA – For the homebrewers in attendance, the first runner-up.  You might shake it off as a “run of the mill” American IPA, but the hop blend has the potential to make this one of the great citrus-forward IPAs that have put Aslin, Ocelot, Veil, and others throughout the Commonwealth on the map.  It also tastes more sessionable than the ABV suggests, but that’s what Blane wants out of his beers.  Expect a floral nose and herbal finish…at least for now.

Camryn’s Poker-Faced Porter – Most in the crowd, and among the different brewing folks, called this the clear winner.  It’s light-bodied and full of flavor.  Across the rich nose you can pick out cacao, coffee, and even some nuttiness.  Great legs on the body, with almost a smidge of lactose sweetness (even though none was used, they promise).  You could almost call it a “Mocha Porter.”

The atmosphere at Sinistral, both for their soft opening a few days ago and their grand opening surrounding Thanksgiving, was lively and packed but not stifling.  The roll-up windows were truly a godsend for fresh air, and the heaters/firepit allowed the crowd to spill out onto the patio even as the sun set.  If you do stop by for a visit, Blane and Celeste are very open to feedback.  They know their current setup will change over time and the beer flavors will mature along with both their process and equipment.  As always with new breweries, we suggest checking them out now and then again in the coming months.  The location truly is superb, and you can walk there after an afternoon stroll among the shops or just before dinner nearby.  That’s what #drinklocal and #eatlocal are for, right?

Leave a Reply