Lexington, Kentucky may be the land of bourbon and thoroughbreds, but there in its Warehouse Block district also sits one of the country’s more intriguing brewery concepts. Walk into Mirror Twin Brewing and it doesn’t look that different from any other hip brewpub that’s popped up in the last few years. A bar made of reclaimed pallet wood with a live edge, white ash bar top. Look up and see a chalkboard with 20 beers listed on it: New England IPAs, kettle sours, pastry stouts. It all seems normal enough—until you notice the groupings of “twin beers.”
What are those?
“The name came from the fact that I have an identical twin brother and we are mirror twins,” explains Derek DeFranco, Mirror Twin’s owner and brewer. “I always thought the concept was fascinating—a small segment in an already small population.”
While not an official scientific designation, mirror twins are said to be twins that look identical, but only if they face each other. Thus, one twin has a birthmark on her right cheek, the other on her left. DeFranco is a righty, while his brother Dustin is a southpaw, “It made us good wingers in hockey.” DeFranco even claims being a mirror twins extends to personalities traits, claiming he and his brother are complete opposites, “That whole yin and yang thing.”
The twins DeFranco grew up in Belleville, Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, very close to the Anheuser-Busch plant. Thus, DeFranco had a great appreciation for beer from the get-go; by college, he was already pursuing more interesting craft options than his buddies knocking back Nattys. He had no interest in working in the brewing business, however, and, after graduating Southern Illinois University law school he and his new wife moved to Lexington for a fresh start. Almost immediately, he noticed his next door neighbor doing something strange in the backyard.
“I thought he was frying a turkey,” explains DeFranco. “‘Hey what are you doing?’ He said he was brewing. And I asked if I could help.”
DeFranco took to the hobby immediately and, while waiting to take the Kentucky bar exam, acquired a low-level job at Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., before becoming an assistant brewer at Blue Stallion Brewing. He’d always been culinarily-inclined, working in kitchens when he was younger. He likewise had a knack for science and a strong creative nature. He was soon thinking less about a fancy law career and more about penning a business plan for his own brewery.
When I was coming up with the name of the brewery, my big thing was, in my mind, I wanted to be able to hear people say, ‘Hey let’s go have a beer at so-and-so.’”
Even with over 4,500 breweries in America by this point in time, DeFranco didn’t think he needed to have any sort of unique hook to stand out from the crowd. Lexington itself still only had four breweries as of 2015 and, with no desire to sell beer anywhere but straight from the taproom, DeFranco had no concern about competing with the regional and national big boys. Still, he explains, “When I was coming up with the name of the brewery, my big thing was, in my mind, I wanted to be able to hear people say, ‘Hey let’s go have a beer at so-and-so.’” Mirror Twin Brewing fit the so-and-so bill perfectly. At that point, it was merely a name...not a brewing philosophy, certainly not an overarching brand ethos.
“Then, one day, my wife and I were talking about my brewing, helping me try to perfect my recipes,” explains DeFranco. “What if I used these hops instead of those, I asked her? She suggested, instead, what if I used both, to see what they’d taste like side-by-side.”
A light bulb went off.
“Wow, that’s like them being twins of each other,” realized DeFranco.
From there, it just made sense for twin beers to become a major part of his brewery’s branding. Each beer duo would be exactly identical, except for one different ingredient.
DeFranco believes a big reason people love and are drawn to the culture of craft beer is due to the inherent educational component. Why does this beer taste hoppier than that one? Why is that beer darker than this one? What is causing all these flavor changes? These twin beers would teach them that.
The interesting part about making twin beers is that you can twin them at any step in the brewing process. For instance, for D’s Nutty Brown Ale, DeFranco initially had used an American chocolate malt. To twin it would mean starting off with a Belgian chocolate malt instead to create Pale Nutz. Their flagship twins, Mos’ Def and Citranomical, undergo their “twinning” in the middle of the brewing process—the former is hopped with Mosaic, the latter with Citra.
Some twins aren’t born until the very end. Like their amber ale Red Blood American whose twin, Red Bretted American, was created by being fermented with Brettanoymces yeast. Other beers are twinned even later than that—by adding different fruits, spices, or even candy like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which goes into the finished base twin Cowabunga, a milk stout.
To be fair, DeFranco isn’t exactly the first person in the history of the world to spawn twin beers—he’s just the first to name the concept. As early as 2006 Mikkeller was experimenting with an entire single hop series of beer, each offering the same base with a different varietal. In 2010 Saint Arnold’s launched their “Moveable Yeast Series,” examining how two different yeasts change the same wort. While Prairie Artisan Ales has found great success with their Funky Gold series—sour beers which are dry-hopped by different varietals. Many of these releases have proven quite popular with fans, though, admittedly, not everyone is so open to the concept.
“When we first opened, many people were nervous that every single beer would be a twin,” explains DeFranco, who notes that logistically that would be very hard to pull off due to a lack of tank space. Currently at the brewpub, five twin pairings are on tap, but there are always at least two available on their “twin draft” system that pours both beers side by side. DeFranco has even sketched out the idea of eventually patenting a new keg style, one where both twins are stored in the same keg, but come out of two taps.
It’s the same price to try both twins at the same time as it is to get a singular pint; still, DeFranco claims only about half of his customers order two beers at once. The others would prefer to see if they like one beer before trying its twin. Friendly arguments frequently abound in the taproom.
“What’s that vampire movie? That had ‘Team Edward’ and ‘Team whatever,’” asks DeFranco referring to Twilight, which he explicitly notes he hasn’t seen. “The same thing happens with the twin beers. ‘Mos’ Def is the best one easily!’ ‘No, you’re crazy, Citronomical is the best one!’ It just shows you how everyone’s taste is so different.”
DeFranco believes there’s no shortage to how often he can keep twinning things. New yeast strains are produced, new hops styles are grown, hell, the New England IPA didn’t even exists a few years back. Now it’s so popular, Mirror Twin is cranking them out—twinning them by adding different tropical fruits like papaya or mango.
Before hanging up with DeFranco, I had to ask…
If he’s the mirror twin that loves beer, what does Dustin drink? What’s the mirror opposite of a beer? A rum and coke? A vodka tonic?
“No, we both like beer,” he says, laughing. “But I’m more of an IPA guy and he’s more into dark beer.”
That whole yin and yang thing.