Welcome to a Beer Town

This week’s Craft Brewers Conference puts D.C. suds in the national spotlight

Meridian Pint’s Sam Fitz talks shop at BrewExpo America during the Craft Brewers Conference at the Washington Convention Center.
Meridian Pint’s Sam Fitz talks shop at BrewExpo America during the Craft Brewers Conference at the Washington Convention Center.

After this week, D.C.’s reputation will never be the same. When the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference comes to an end today, nobody will blink if you call us a beer town.

In just a few years, the nation’s capital has gone from having no breweries and a humble scene to having one of the most distinctive beer cultures in the country.

After the Heurich Brewery closed in 1956, making way for the Kennedy Center, there hadn’t been a brewery in the district until 2011, when DC Brau opened its doors at 3178 Bladensburg Road NE. Now there are three within the city’s limits, and two more are in the works. Since 2008, at least 11 have opened if you include certain suburbs.

The Brewers Association’s annual gathering is the Super Bowl of craft beer — a product that comes from traditional, independent breweries of a certain size. The event brings together brewers, distributors, retailers, enthusiasts and professionals of all sorts. But it isn’t held just anywhere.

“I’ve always seen CBC go down somewhere else, or read about it,” said Drew Swift, the general manager at Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights. “For us to be chosen means that people are finally recognizing the scene and giving it some respect.”

That respect is not easy to come by, especially from veteran West Coasters. “Coming from Seattle, you get quite a few eclectic styles,” said beer enthusiast Dalona Foster while visiting the soon-to-open Bluejacket brewery near Nationals Park. But “each brewery [here] has their own unique twist to offer … I’m pretty impressed.”

Many see the recent growth as just the beginning.

“It’s no accident that we chose D.C. to start our brewery up,” said Will Durgin, who formerly worked for Oregon’s Pyramid Brewery and is now the head brewer at Atlas Brew Works, which aims to open this year at 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE. “The potential here is absolutely gigantic.”

Though Baltimore and Philadelphia have traditionally been considered the front-runners as beer cities in the mid-Atlantic, the Washington area has arrived to the scene.

“It used to be that we were very much a little brother to Philly,” said Sam Fitz, the beer director at Meridian Pint. There is an argument that we’ve surpassed them as “one of, if not [the], premier East Coast beer scenes,” he said. “I can’t think of a bar that’s opened in the past two years that hasn’t opened with craft beer.”

But what makes a good beer town? It’s not just the beer. Or the breweries. What makes D.C. unique is the melange of tastes and the transcendent interest in craft beer.

“What I’m consistently impressed by is how it’s not just the beer geeks that are into the beer anymore,” said Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. “It’s everybody.”

D.C. resident Irina King happily enjoyed a New Belgium Rampant Imperial IPA at Smith Commons on Tuesday during its Masters of the Craft Beer Universe event series. “It’s amazing,” she said. “In New York, in Charleston, in the South, it’s nothing like here. People love beer here. And they appreciate the fact that it’s from D.C., it’s homegrown. It’s not a fad.”

Dan Kopman, co-founder of Schlafly Beer and a lobbyist for the Brewers Association, summed up why D.C. is a unique beer experience: There is an international community that demands imports and there are people from around the country who are interested in their hometown or regional beers. “You overlay that with new breweries starting up here in the District and it just creates this synergy of international, national, [and] local,” Kopman said on the floor of the trade show Wednesday. “You won’t get that in other cities.”

Mr. Beer Goes to Washington

Besides the size of the venue, the decision to bring this year’s Craft Brewers Conference to D.C. was also policy-related. On Tuesday, more than 200 brewery owners, CEOs and employees lobbied on Capitol Hill to gain support for new federal excise tax legislation. “The decision to come here first started getting momentum in 2009,” said Bob Pease, chief operating officer of the Brewers Association. “The vision at that time was that we would come here and we would have hundreds of our members engage in some type of advocacy effort [and] that Washington would blossom into a great craft beer community … Much of that has come to fruition.”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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