Art, style, storytelling, a guy who grows into a giant green humanoid because the world drives him crazy — comic books encapsulate some of our favorite forms of recreation — but their entertainment value also has ripple effects. Comics raise super readers, they empower writers (like these dudes) and they’ve even been known to inspire a business or two (say, a multibillion-dollar movie industry). When Tim Hoke was looking to brand his soon-to-open brewery in Woodbridge, Va., he was similarly inspired by a stack of stories that put his creative powers into super mode.
“I looked around the living room, and there was my wife’s pile of comics she hadn’t read. Then it just clicked. Heroic Aleworks,” Hoke said. “The comic book hero idea was the perfect way to give some personality to our beers and to create a narrative that would engage our customers in a way that almost no one else has done. From a marketing perspective, it gives us the ability to create bright engaging packaging that will differentiate us on the store shelves and stand out in a wall of tap handles.”
There’s Solasta (Heroic’s Kölsch recipe). She’s an Irish engineer who gets blasted with solar radiation in an accident on the International Space Station. Her color scheme is supposed to reflect the clear, bright character of the Kölsch , as well as a little known lore about the origins of the recipe for Guinness’ Harp.
“It was originally made with German kolsch yeast and British malts,” explained Hoke.
There’s Max Nix (Heroic’s British-style porter). His name is a play on the German expression Machts Nicht, which translates to “never mind.” He’s a symbiote with dark matter that became conscious in one of his experiments.
“He’s got anger management problems and a lot of regret,” notes Hoke. “Dark beer, dark character.”
The main character (surprise surprise) is IPA Doctor Enigma. He’s an alien scientist who uses his advanced tech both to help save or guide the Heroic Aleworks team members. His green suit reflects the hop character, but he’s also the balance of the team, bringing all the different members together and making them work as a unit.
“Just as our IPA is super balanced, versus being a total hop bomb,” said Hoke.
The set of super beers will be launching at the end of October, so mark your Halloween calendar and start planning your cosplay accordingly. The actual taproom and production facility will be located at 14910 Persistence Dr. in Woodbridge, Va. The super trio behind the brewery (which includes Jon Groner and Leon Harris) will brew with a 15-barrel, four-vessel production system designed by the owners and head brewer to be able to concoct everything from super brews to weird villains. As a philosophy, Heroic will be specifically specializing in European-style lagers and ales, with some focus on old world, new world, ancient and basically unknown beer styles.
“We spent a lot of time trying to think about how else, other than our marketing, we were going to differentiate ourselves with the beers,” explained Hoke. “My education into beer happened when I lived in Wurzburg, Germany, on my first tour. We had a beer delivery service from the Wurzburger Hofbrau that brought hefeweizen, dunkelweizen, crystalweizen and marzen right to our door step, literally, like milk men in the old days.
“We love a lot of the most popular craft styles and will certainly have crowd favorites, but we want to focus on really traditional and hard-to-make European styles, especially lagers. There are so few places, especially smaller nanos and the like, that don’t have the time or equipment to do lagers really well. Plenty of folks nationally do, but we want to be able to bring some of these other styles to the forefront of what we’re doing locally.”
Hoke is an Army veteran, and that’s the other shade of excellence that surrounds Heroic Aleworks. All of these guys are vets, which plays into their idea of hero beers. It’s an overall concept that is taking the brewery in all sorts of interesting directions.
“We’ve teamed up with A Sound of Thunder, a metal band that is very into comics,” said Hoke. “They did a concept album for Shadowman from Valiant, and they have two original characters, Udoroth and the Queen of Hell, that we are doing two beers for that we are simultaneously releasing with their new album in December.”
Craft beer, comics and metal music. We’re sold. We’re especially sold on the characters Heroic Aleworks has created for its first five beers. They even plan to write actual comics to tell the stories of these beer champions. For the initial art, Ian Richardson was chosen, who has done comics such as Halo: Escalation and the Noble Causes series. Richardson perfected the first logos and heroes, which are Marvel-grade material and can be enjoyed below along with a quick Q&A from Hoke.
CBB: Tim, thanks for taking the time. We’re big fans of comic books over here — especially turbonerd Chris Crowell who’s got me reading Scott Snyder’s revamp of Swamp Thing. Why do you feel comics, heroes and craft beer go together?
Hoke: For us it was a matter of being authentic with our brewery’s personality as it related to who we are and the things we’re into. There was no way the market needed another brewery named after an animal or a road, covered in reclaimed wood. We love those places, but it wasn’t us. The comic book hero idea was the perfect way to give us personality and talk about the things we love. We also thought it was a great way to engage with local artists and the broader comic book and nerd community through craft beer, by creating a nexus of things that most nerds love, comics and beer.
Every time we tell someone about the concept, their eyes always go wide and they tell us it’s the greatest idea of all time. Why hasn’t this happened before now, and when do we open? There’s also an untapped market for gamers, role players, cosplayers, and all of the rest of the communities that are just not represented in the craft beer market. And when we get right down to it, getting to write our own comics, with our own characters and without resorting to cheesy names like Captain Hops, is a real dream come true. These characters reflect the style of the beer but also stand alone as interesting heroes and villains who you want to learn more about. We’re telling a real story here, and the beers help us express that creativity.
What are some of your favorite comics?
As for me, I’m a fan of anything Jim Starlin has ever done, especially Thanos and the rest of the Marvel cosmic universe. The idea that a bad guy is only a bad guy because he’s trying to win the love of Lady Death just blew my mind. I’m also a huge fan of Saga [Turbonerd editor’s note: Sags is so good], Silver Surfer and Warlock. The cosmic stories always appealed to me more than the earth-bound heroes like Batman or Superman — alien or otherwise — because it felt more like sci-fi than just comic book stories.
I’m a Frank Herbert devotee and have the three-book Dune series Marvel did as well as every Dune novel written. While our stories start on earth, our heroes are definitely going to venture out into the galaxy to battle evil. For us, it’s about the impossible coming to life through the stories and the art. It’s not that we aren’t big readers of all of our other favorite authors like Heinlein and Asimov, but comics are just different in a big way.
My wife Kate is probably the biggest comic book fan of all of us. She wrote our first book for the Solasta back story, which we are releasing as an incentive on our crowd funding campaign, and it’s amazing. She’s really into a lot of the new feminist titles like Bitch Plant [Turbonerd editor’s note: Awesome.], Sex Criminals and the like. She’s a super fan of Kelly Sue Deconnik and Matt Fraction. But she’s been into a lot of DC stuff since she was a kid including Batman and Wonder Woman, which she still reads. As for the rest of the guys, Leon is a huge Green Lantern fan, and Jon is a massive Star Trek geek.
Sounds like you have quite a geek squad going. Let’s talk about the beer. We know you’re focusing on some traditional European-style lagers, but how diverse do you want your portfolio to be?
We want to always have a big diversity of beers, and not just focus on one region or style. We’re not going to be an IPA house or a Belgian house. We’re going to cover a lot of ground. Our first five, the Kolsch [Solasta], the English porter [Max Nix], the Red Rye [Death Blossom], the Belgian Dubbel [Mind Trappe] and our IPA [Doctor Enigma] really run the gamut of what we want to be.
We’re also going to do a series of beers we are going to call The Old Gods, highlighting some of the earliest styles of beer, such as Gruit, Sahti, Purl — Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. makes one — and of course the current trendiest of old styles, Gose. We’re also going to look to other countries’ old styles, like in Africa, where they have a lot of sorghum- and maize-based beers which changed with the introduction of the British and Dutch brewing techniques in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Smithsonian just started a beer history program, so we’d love to work with them to help bring some of these ancient ales back to life.
What’s your favorite?
The team all has different favorites, but our Red Rye is my personal go to, primarily because I love rye beers. It’s also got this gorgeous ruby color, that really shines. We are really, really, really not into cloudy beer unless it’s an aspect of the style. We believe the look of the beer absolutely influences how the beer is perceived overall. We are also introducing a double IPA, Mistress of War, that has gotten some huge reactions. Commercially, my favorite beer is probably Dale’s. I can get it almost everywhere, and it’s always great.
Great comics have great art. What did you do to ensure the art pops off of your packaging?
We spent a lot of time with our artist talking about how we wanted the look of the cover art to not just help tell a little of the character’s story, but did it specifically with the packaging in mind. Every time I went to the grocery store I’d stop in the local craft aisle and just scan across the shelves to see what stood out. We also spent a lot of time talking to vendors at CBC to find methods for printing sleeves for our cans that would not just highlight the amazing art work, but would immediately draw a customer’s eye to the cans. Color combinations, layout and narrative were at the top of our list.
Well researched. What advice would you give to any would-be craft brewers out there who want to make a similarly heroic jump and open up a commercial brewhouse?
The first and most important step we took was to reach out of the local craft community. There is no way we would be where we are if it wasn’t for the advice and support we received from other owners and brewers around northern Virginia. Everyone was so giving and open, and we hope to be able to do the same for other up-and-coming breweries in our region. Next most important is to find a way to make your brand resonate with who you are as a person, not just as a brewer or businessperson. We have encountered so many amazing people with some many cool personalities, and it’s exciting to see how that comes through in what they’re putting out there. Make your beers and your brand as unique as you are.