Brewery's Dominion Extends Downtown
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, February 9, 2006
Craft beer lovers in the Washington area owe a debt to Jerry Bailey and the Old Dominion Brewing Co. Bailey, who recently announced he's selling his shares in the company, opened his microbrewery in Ashburn in 1990, making him one of the pioneers of the movement. The Old Dominion Beer Festival draws dozens of breweries from across the country and across the Atlantic every summer for three days of tastings and live music.
Bailey has been a father figure to many of the brewers and brew pubs that have sprung up in recent years, offering advice on equipment and grains, helping spread the gospel of good beer. Along the way, Old Dominion has racked up plaudits, being named one of the top 20 breweries in the country by Gourmet magazine and picking up 13 medals at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival. In 2006, Old Dominion sold the equivalent of 27,000 barrels of beer.
Problem is, the brewery's distribution in Washington is often lacking. Outside of a few beer-centric bars that feature the deliciously smooth Oak Barrel Stout or high-octane Millennium Barleywine Ale, you're lucky to find much beyond the aggressively hoppy Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale, the standard Dominion Ale or Dominion Lager, or maybe Victory Amber Lager. For the past decade, the easiest way to peruse the company's offerings was to drive to Ashburn for dinner and drinks at the Old Dominion Brewpub, a sparsely decorated bar and dining room attached to the brewery.
With the opening of the Old Dominion Brewhouse at the Washington Convention Center last month, though, Old Dominion finally has a downtown showcase for its products. At least 14 are available on draft at the long, curving bar, along with the company's tasty root beer. Both of the Tuppers' Hop Pocket beers (the ale and the cloudy, smooth pilsner) sit next to each other in the forest of tap handles, alongside New River Pale Ale, Winter Brew, the Irish-Style Red Ale, Oak Barrel Stout and the Black and Tan. Note that, despite the "brewhouse" in the name, no beer is made on-site. It's all crafted in Ashburn.
Old Dominion makes private-label beers for local pubs such as the Dubliner, Murphy's and J. Paul's, which usually maintain exclusive rights to sell the product. Thankfully, some are available here, too -- I'm glad to enjoy a pint of the malty Aviator Amber Lager, created for McGarvey's Saloon in Annapolis, without having to drive to the City Dock.
A friend of mine, upon scanning the menu, said, "I had no idea that Old Dominion made so many beers." That's where the sampler comes in handy: Pick any four and they're delivered in short five-ounce glasses on a wooden tray. (If you're seated at the bar, though, I've had no trouble getting a server to pour me a shot-size taster of any beer.) Once you've found something, the prices are reasonable, too: about $4.50 for a 16-ounce pint or $5.25 for the 20-ounce imperial version.
It would have been easy for the Brewhouse to turn into a beer geek's utopia: Take 14 Old Dominion beers, add a mix of local microbrews such as Dogfish Head and Clipper City and fill the rest with exotic ales from Europe and North America. After all, the annual Old Dominion Beer Festival has drawn participants from Maine to California for a decade, so I was hoping to find a couple of hard-to-find favorites.
Silly me -- I'd forgotten I was in a convention center. Because the target audience is clearly the in-Washington-for-the-weekend crowd, the restaurant is sticking to the tried-and-true. Outside of the Old Dominion specialties, there's little here that you won't find at any mega-screen sports bar: Miller Lite, Amstel Light, Budweiser, Bass, Guinness. Yawn.
Speaking of sports bars, it's hard not to think that that's what the Brewhouse really wants to be. There are 20 high-definition flat-screen TVs posted in the bar and restaurant areas, arranged so almost every seat has a view of the action, and they're on nonstop. (I've had a friend catch me looking over his shoulder at "SportsCenter." Oops.) You'll find even more TVs in the men's and women's bathrooms. It's a loud place with plenty of bustle -- not really the spot for a quiet drink with a date.
The atmosphere and decor are odd: Refined, backlit wooden panels cover one wall in the restaurant area, while a faux-stone wall nearby is covered with framed beer memorabilia. Some nights, the default jukebox setting is smooth jazz; others feature '80s rock and metal. One night, the lights are almost fast-food bright at happy hour; on another visit, they're dimmed to comfortable levels.
It's vaguely reminiscent of an airport bar, and if you've ever flown on an international flight out of Dulles, you may be familiar with Brewhouse owner Hanny Chan's other ventures: the Old Dominion Brewing Co. bar and the former Samuel Adams Brew House, which offered a selection of the Boston Brewing Co.'s finest before turning into a Jose Cuervo tequila-themed spot.
Back at the Brewhouse, it's worth ducking out of work early for happy hour, which runs weekdays from 3:30 to 6:30 and includes $2.99 pints and a selection of half-price bar-food appetizers such as wings, nachos and quesadillas. (Non-microbrew drinkers can grab a Bud for the same price.) A tip from another friend: Having a few happy hour pints of the sweet Millennium, which checks in at almost 11 percent alcohol by volume, is an easy way to end your night early.
Because it ends so early, though, happy hour can be frustrating. Washington is not a punch-out-at-5:01-p.m. town, and I know from trying to get friends together for after-work drinks that it can be tough to get a crew assembled before 6, which means less time to enjoy the specials.
If you're with a group and you want to save a few bucks while earning curious and admiring stares from fellow patrons, there's always the beer tower, a four-foot-tall plastic cylinder that's also known as a giraffe. Filled, it holds 133 ounces of beer -- that's more than a gallon, or a little more than eight pints' worth. A server puts it on your table, and then you take care of pouring and refilling your own beer. At $26.95, it's a bargain.
One final note: Beware the hours of operation. The Brewhouse closes at 11 Sunday through Wednesday, at midnight on Thursdays and 12:30 Fridays and Saturdays. Hours may expand as business picks up, but this isn't the place to go for a nightcap. Take your time and enjoy the beers.