Giving Yeast a Life of Its Own / by Robin Dienel

Before Nathan Zeender’s self-proclaimed “rightness of life correction” ten years ago, he was logging his workday hours in front of a computer screen. Now, he brews beer.

Nathan Zeender answers his cell phone after five rings, slightly out of breath. We had a call scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday morning to set up a time to meet later in the week, but he was up all night with his 3-year-old son, Fhinn, who was sick. He had to postpone our call due to an unforeseen morning trip to the pediatrician. It’s now 3 p.m.

“Where in the neighborhood do you live?” I tell him 10th and Jackson. His excitement is obvious. He has lived in this residential Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood for more than 10 years; on the same street, just one block from the new Right Proper Brookland Production House, where he works. Surprise—we’re accidental neighbors.

The following Tuesday, I walk the short distance to the production house, as we had arranged on the phone. A long freight train rolls noisily down the tracks down the street from the brewery, a familiar hum in Brookland since the late 1800s when the tracks were first laid through it. Row houses line the streets around it. A totem pole mural is painted on the warehouse’s brick façade, flowing into a blown-up version of the Right Proper logo split down the middle by the old building’s edge. It was a beat-up auto repair shop before Right Proper took over in 2015, and supposedly a bakery before that.

Up the cement steps and through the metal front door is the tasting room. It’s decorated by a half-finished mural of the Smithsonian National Zoo, with a dark twist: the animals are set loose from their cages and the humans become the entertainment, and lunch. Yellow Post-its adorn the rest of the walls; depicting whatever horror show the artist plans to paint next on them. Windows face into the brewery, giving the patrons a front row seat to their neighborhood production house. Above four of the windows is a long list of restaurants where Right Proper beer is on tap around the District. The bathroom door is open on the left, revealing a full-size piano across from the toilet and a sign, “Pianists must wash hands before playing.”

Zeender is standing in the back of the warehouse talking to their general manager, Elizabeth Schnettler. They’re discussing a new possible client. 

Before he was a professional brewer, Nathan spent his workdays in front of a computer screen as a database administrator for a nonprofit. Then, he says, came his self-proclaimed, “rightness of life correction,” about 10 years ago.

“My wife and I just decided that we wanted to do something else,” says Nathan Zeender. “So we came up with a multi-year plan where she went to law school to do public interest law. I was like well, while you spend the next three to four years doing that, I’m going to start building a bridge towards this brewing career.” 

Instead of climbing the ladder at a brewery, or attending a professional brewers’ school, Nathan built that bridge by studying books about the science and brewing ambitiously at home. He learned about the three main ingredients of beer: grain, hops, and his personal favorite, yeast—which is what makes beer, well, beer. It ferments the sugar to create alcohol and unleash all kinds of flavorful compounds. He slowly built up his own makeshift home brew system, did some professional beer writing, and eventually picked the brains of brewers he respected at The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore and Jester King in Austin, Texas.

Flash forward to 2013, and Nathan picks up his first job in beer as head brewer for Right Proper Brewing Company, the original brewpub that opened its doors in Washington, D.C.’s downtown Shaw neighborhood in December of that year. The demand for their beer became so high, Nathan says, that they decided to open up a second location, the Brookland Production House, to focus on their beer production and packaging operations. He now works at the Brookland location full time.

“I’ve always wanted to be some type of artist or writer, or do something with my hands. So this really was fulfilling that dream,” says Nathan about his life now. “My world has become really small.”

For example, today, he says, he dropped his oldest son at school down the street before walking to work at 8 a.m. At work he’s brewing a beer called Raised by Wolves. He named it after a play on the botanical name for hops, Humulus Lupulus, which means ground wolf. His wife, Rachel, gave birth to their second(?) son Rory on Christmas Eve, and is on maternity leave. She wasn’t feeling well this morning, so he walked his one-minute commute home to make lunch for her and hold his newborn for an hour. Now, he’s meeting with me—his new neighbor. 

Despite all the change, Nathan says his days are planned out just like a normal job would be, just with more flexibility and less boredom now.

Every night, him and his crew look at the recipe card and mill the grains needed for the next day. Last night, they crushed 800 pounds of grain to brew Raised By Wolves this morning. After brewing, he does administrative tasks, like capping of kegs and delivering them to the distributor, answering emails, hosting neighborhood events, or leading tasting tours. 

At 3 p.m., Erin Lingle and Karlos Leopold, co-owners of the newly opened tapas restaurant Nido, and one of their employees, Jasmine Andrews, walk in for a tasting tour. They already have a Right Proper beer on tap, but they are looking to expand their beer program at their restaurant located less than a mile up the street on Rhode Island Avenue. 

It’s still a new phenomenon in D.C. for restaurant owners like Lingle and Leopold to be able to head to their local beer supplier. Before microbreweries like Right Proper started to pop up around the District a few years back, macro breweries, like Anheuser-Busch based out in Missouri, owned the beer-on-tap stage. 

The D.C. Brewers Guild is a 501(c)(6) business association comprised of representatives from local breweries. They work together to educate consumers and promote their shared business interests around the District. Their efforts have played a major role in leveling the playing field for smaller breweries like Right Proper.

For example, Nathan says, right now tasting rooms and brewpubs can only be open seven days a week from 1 to 9 p.m. But there’s a law that passed by City Council, because of the brewers guild, which will allow tasting rooms to be open everyday from 8 a.m. to midnight starting in March 2016.

“Our area has been ripe for local breweries to set up shop,” says Kathy Rizzo, executive director of the D.C. Brewers Guild. “I can't say if a change in legislation has helped so much as a general consumer demand for local, craft beer.”

“Do you guys want a beer before we go on a tour?” Nathan asks Erin, Karlos and Jasmine site down at the bar.

“I want to try the Ornithology because I love birds,” Karlos jokes. Ornithology is the branch of zoology the deals with birds. Nido means nest in Spanish. Zeender and Leopold share a laugh.

“Can I try a taste of your favorite?” asks Jasmine. He pours her a sample of The Lubitsch Touch, a pale styled beer whose malt grains Nathan says were smoked over beech and cherry wood before he made them into this brew.

Jasmine’s eyes widen as she takes a sip. “Whoa! So good,” she says.

After everyone grabs a beer, Nathan leads the group into the brewery. He shows them the brew house’s 15-barrel system they built in this six thousand square foot warehouse. Each tank holds a thousand gallons of beer, three times the amount they make at the brewpub in Shaw, and exponentially more than Nathan used to privately make in his own home. After Nathan’s beer spiel, they head back into the tasting room to finish the tour up back at the bar with a few more samples and questions, like the origin of their beer names.

“‘Being There’ is Peter Sellers’last movie, so it’s kinda bittersweet,” says Nathan about their “bready, herbal, crisp,” kellerbier German styled beer he named after the film. The movie was also partly filmed in Shaw, where the original brewpub is located, in the late 1970s when the neighborhood was “at its worst.”

Eventually, after many more samples, they start to gather their things to head back up the street to Nido. They are due for a wine tasting at 4 p.m. 

“A lot of our beer is inspired by the yeast part of it”, says Nathan. “It’s what’s alive in the beer, it’s the animated life source in the beer.” He’s hastily loading the last of the tasting glasses into the dishwasher and packing up the bar to get ready to leave for the day. After this, he’s walking back over to his son’s school two blocks away to pick him up and bring him home.

“I’ve always thought of ourselves as a yeast-forward brewery, because we embrace the flavors and life force of the yeast,” he said. He turns the knob, testing it to make sure everything is locked up. “It’s a quasi spiritual art kind of thing: the idea of allowing the yeast to have a life of its own.”