Generally speaking, alcoholic beverages and putting out fires are a bad combination when attempted simultaneously. But volunteer firefighter Rich Fleischer’s Hook & Ladder Brewing Company has found a much safer way to blend the two. Based in Silver Spring, the craft brewer and his team (including his brother and business partner, Matt) are turning out kegs and cases of beers with names like Backdraft Brown, Ember Amber and Lighter while supporting burn treatment facilities in the areas where their beers are sold.
I had the opportunity to sample all of the above beers, as well as the Hook & Ladder Golden Lager, at our local Harris Teeter while shopping for Super Bowl supplies earlier this year. Although I may not be able to tell you the difference between cascade hops and two-row malt, I can certainly tell you that these craft brews made an impression. And when I heard about their “Penny in Every Pint” program, I was sold. Since then, I’ve picked up a six pack of the Backdraft Brown on several occasions, and it’s been a hit every time.
Descriptions of the Hook & Ladder brews, where to find them, and how they give back after the jump.
It’s hard to say which of the Hook & Ladder ales is the star of the show – both the Golden Ale and the Backdraft Brown have won some impressive accolades and each stands out within its own crowd. In 2001, the Golden Ale won the gold medal for the American Style Wheat category at the Great American Beer Festival, a massive annual gathering of hopheads and industry-types. The Backdraft Brown was the overall winner of the Washington Post’s “Beer Madness” taste-test in 2008, though it was defeated in the first round this year.
To my taste, the Golden Ale is just a bit too bitter to be a truly great example of a classic ale. It combines the crisp, refreshing flavor of a traditional American ale with a slight hint of citrus (an accent that brings the beer more in line with its European forebears). The flavors are smooth and the mild bite of the beer is the kind of thing that can be really satisfying in the heat of the summer. If you like your ales with a little bite, you’ll want to check this one out.
The Backdraft Brown, on the other hand, is a rich, powerful concoction with dominant notes of chocolate and coffee. It’s one of those beers that has real legs – it feels like it’s coating your throat on the way down, in very good ways. With five kinds of malt going into the recipe, you know it’s going to carry a strong roasted flavor all the way through to the moment when the customer first opens that bottle.
The Lighter makes it very easy to enjoy the delights of the Golden Ale with less to worry about later. It has that same light, wake-up-call style found in the original with only 94 calories. The softly fruity flavors that come out in the Lighter – apples, appear, coriander – make it a very easy-drinking beer that can be enjoyed on its own or with spicier dishes.
Authentic relationships have been the key to the company’s steady growth. Because Fleischer himself is a volunteer firefighter, Hook & Ladder has made it a point to develop connections with burn units and volunteer firefighters across the country, introducing them to the product and its philanthropic program. At that point, it becomes far easier to attract distributors. To date, Hook & Ladder is sold in more than twenty-five states through more than one hundred distributors.
Here in the Washington area, you can find them available in Harris Teeter and Balducci’s for retail purchase, or you can enjoy them in restaurants like Chef Geoff’s, Founding Farmers and Jaleo (naturally, RFD and the Brickskeller have them, as well).
The company has been experiencing tremendous growth since its establishment in Silver Spring in 2005 (a previous West Coast-based incarnation flamed out due to lack of capital) – so much so that the volume of beer they’re selling these days has outpaced their local production capacity. They now brew in a facility up in Rochester, New York, but corporate headquarters and the heart of their operations are still based here in the DC metro area.
These local craft brewers are committed to a philanthropic “penny in every pint” of their ales, and they have been since inception. They give $1 from the sale of every keg to local burn treatment facilities in areas where Hook & Ladder is sold; their distributors match that contribution with another dollar. Now, with case sales taking off, they’ve got an additional “quarter in every case” pledge. Together, the two programs have resulted in more than $60,000 in contributions to date.
With ongoing plans for a restaurant and brewery in the old Silver Spring Firehouse on Georgia Avenue, the Fleischers will continue to strengthen their bonds to the local community and we’ll be able to sit down and enjoy Hook & Ladder’s locally-crafted delights.