(Taproom Manager Graham James holding 4-packs of Aslin’s Baby Shark beer. Photo by Jefferson Evans.)
By Jefferson Evans and Chuck Triplett
Every moment is a miracle if you really think about the decisions, random chance and vagaries of fate that all have to go a specific way for any particular moment to unfold the way it does, and I find myself thinking about the unlikely miracle that is every single moment as I take a picture of an English lad named Graham James holding 4-packs of Aslin Brewing Company’s Baby Shark IPA in the Taproom he manages just five days after the Washington Nationals have completed their amazing playoff run on the way to being crowned World Series Champions, a playoff run during which the team’s players and the team’s fans all embraced the children’s song Baby Shark as the team’s unofficial anthem. I mean, really, you just can’t make this stuff up. And for the record, Aslin’s Baby Shark came along before the song of the same name rode the Nationals playoff rocket to new heights. It was just a happy happy coincidence that the good folks at Aslin were able to enjoy and take as a sign that their home in Alexandria has the blessing of the brewing gods. And the baseball gods.
Graham James was born in Nottingham, England but tells me “my mum is from Wisconsin so I have always had ties to the United States.” He spent some time studying broadcast journalism at Nottingham Trent University but didn’t feel a real calling and ended up following a young lady to the Tyson’s Corner area of Northern Virginia. A truly impact decision for Graham was applying for a job with Trader Joe’s as it becomes more and more apparent as we talk that Graham’s time with Trader Joe’s, including in the company’s management program, deeply informs his approach to managing employees and customer relations and that that positive, welcoming, supporting approach ended up dovetailing really naturally with the best aspects of the English pub experience he enjoyed prior to leaving for the states. And it speaks to his belief in and loyalty to Trader Joe’s that even today, more than 15 years since beginning his relationship with the company, he still works some hours at Trader Joe’s although his management days are a good ways behind him now.
That English pub scene left Graham with a fondness for milds, bitters, and to this day beers such as John Smith’s Extra Smooth pale ale. After arriving in America he did try some beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale but it wasn’t until 2012 or so that he had his real baptism in the American craft beer scene when a friend gave him a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. He didn’t pay that much attention to the details on the bottle as he opened it and poured it into a glass. He drank. Whoa. He called up his friend and asked “what is the story with this beer?!!?” and in short order he was a burgeoning beer nerd. Later on he discovered breweries like Hardywood and began doing some home brewing. Like many of us beer nerds he went through the I want to try everything phase, got involved with beer trading and bottle shares, and generally got deeply immersed in beer nerd culture.
Around the time Graham decided to step back from being management at Trader Joe’s, a new brewery opened not too far away. He attended the soft opening at Ocelot Brewing Company and discovered he really liked their beers and the general vibe at the brewery. Asking if they could use any help led to his pouring beers a few times a week at the taproom but that quickly led to being offered the taproom manager position. A repeating theme that occurs during my conversation with Graham is that he clearly has the stink of responsibility on him along with the reek of just generally being a good guy because multiple times he describes “falling upward into new roles” in ways he hadn’t planned. While working at Ocelot, Graham got to know Alex Doran and Afsheen Tafakor of Dominion Wine and Beer in Falls Church City and when Dominion opened their upstairs bar and restaurant, Graham took a job with Dominion. It was a busy period as he ended up working 60 to 70 hours a week between Dominion and Trader Joe’s and he realized something would have to give. And it did in the way of an unexpected job opening and an unexpected selection for that job, the job as taproom manager at the new Aslin location in Alexandria. Or maybe not so surprising given that Graham had gotten to know Aslin owners Andrew Kelley and Kai Leszkowicz during their visits to Ocelot and his visits to the original Aslin location in Herndon.
The City of Alexandria Economic Development Team actually originally approached Aslin when they heard the brewery was looking for a new home and once Andrew and Kai turned their eyes to Alexandria they settled on the Pickett Street location relatively quickly. The brewery held two soft opening events, one for industry folks and one for mug club members, but the actual opening day of July 15… just happened. No hoopla or big announcement at all but they knew the word would quickly spread and indeed by mid-afternoon of Thursday of that week they experienced a crush that wouldn’t subside for the next six weeks. It was a trial by fire but Graham tells me “all in all it was reasonably smooth” and it didn’t take long before he felt the taproom staff had come together and “we all fell into our groove.” Three weeks after opening the new location started selling cans on-sight and by early October pretty much all the beer sold at the Alexandria location, whether in can or on tap, was brewed at the Alexandria location.
The new Aslin location is open and spacious and is housed in what was an old FEMA warehouse. As even Graham will acknowledge, noise was a real problem for a while as the space had serious echo issues, but the installing of multiple huge sound panels has helped quite a bit. You will find a fair number of families their with children during the day, especially on weekends, but the brewery does have “Adult Swim” hours after 7pm which are adult only. The food is essentially handled by food trucks and just recently transitioned to a taco focused menu. While the barrel-aging and mixed fermentation programs are handled at the original location, Graham mentions that the Alexandria location has some coolships on-site and they are looking forwards to utilizing them for brewing by the end of the year. And if you look over to your left or right and happen to notice Stephen Strasburg or his agent next to you, don’t be shocked. Stephen is a fan of Aslin’s beers as it happens so lets hope, hope, hope that that is one of the special things that the Washington D.C. area has to offer that convinces Strasburg to resign with the Nationals. All that Baby Shark beer isn’t going to drink itself after all.
The Aslin Beer Company Alexandria facility is a 25,000 square foot production brewery with a 30-barrel brew house and taproom just off South Van Dorn Street at 847 S. Pickett Street. There is a decent amount of street and on-site parking. Cheers!