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Beer: Chocolate City starts small

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Jay Irizarry, one of the founders of Chocolate City Brewing, is a jack-of-all-trades. After he’s done helping his partner Ben Matz brew the beer, he delivers kegs to eight accounts in the District in a graffiti-spattered van. Then he pulls pints at the Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights, where he moonlights as a bartender.

“I don’t like to let people know I’m the brewery owner,” he says. “They give you a more guarded response that way.”

“I’m a spy,” he laughs.

Among the more interesting comments he has gotten is that his Cornerstone Copper Ale tastes like “graham crackers.”

So it does. Caramel and Munich malts lend the ale a rich, biscuity flavor. Bitter hops and a hint of burnt toast in the finish add enough of an edge to make the beer interesting without being abrasive.

In a hop-centric market, Irizarry and Matz have chosen to push malty, “sessionable” beers, none above 6 percent alcohol by volume. Their 1814 ESB, named after the year the British torched the Capitol and White House, is fuller-bodied and slightly stronger than the Cornerstone, made from 100 percent English ingredients. Cerveza Nacional is a Vienna lager-schwarzbier hybrid that straddles the line between toasty and roasty. Why the Spanish name? As Irizarry elaborates, the Vienna style died out in its native Austria but was preserved by European immigrants to Mexico.

Big Chair IPA, the brewery’s concession to hopheads, is named after an Anacostia landmark: a 191 / 2-foot-tall seat, a promotional item for a defunct furniture store that still sits at V Street and Martin Luther King Avenue SE. The brand is on hiatus: The brewers can’t get the Amarillo and Citra hops they need, explains Irizarry. “About 500 breweries opened last year, and other people have contracts locked up. We’re buying on the spot market.”

Chocolate City beers debuted in August, about four months after DC Brau won the race to become the city’s first packaging brewery in 55 years. Being second hasn’t dimmed interest; a beer premier in RFD’s backroom on Aug. 18 drew an SRO crowd that bellied up a dozen deep to sample the new hometown brews.

Chocolate City, Irizarry admits, owes its existence to serendipity. He and Matz happened to meet while they were tending bar at Chef Geoff’s downtown. Irizarry was an aspiring home-brewer. Matz was a pro who had worked as an assistant brewer for Flying Dog Brewery and Gordon Biersch. The two spent a “stress-free” year ironing out their techniques before deciding to open a business.

Through happenstance, the two came across a 41 / 2-barrel brew kettle, two fermenters and a conditioning tank that had been languishing at Mango Mike’s in Alexandria for a decade, dating to when that establishment was called the Bombay Bicycle Club. “Somebody back then thought it would be cool to brew their own,” remarked Matz.

Lastly, Irizarry’s boss at Wonderland happened to own a property that was ideal for setting up shop: an odd-shaped trapezoidal building made of grayish-red stone, about six blocks from the Brookland Metro station in Northeast. It sits on a sliver of land zoned for industrial use in a mostly residential neighborhood. Irizarry says he thinks the structure once served as a workshop for the stonecutters who hewed rock for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The building’s previous tenant, Irizarry reports, was a metalworker whose original creations appeared on the “Weapon Masters” television show.

“Chocolate City” has been a popular sobriquet for the District ever since George Clinton and the funk band Parliament released an album with that title in 1975. When Irizarry and Matz announced their intentions last year, their choice of name elicited some hostile comments. “Two white guys running a brewery named Chocolate City is ridiculous,” complained one blogger.

In fact, the brewery’s ownership is multiracial. Irizarry and Matz are white, but two other partners are black: Don Parker, who helped write the company’s business plan, and Brian Flanagan, Chocolate City’s major investor.

“We wanted to identify with neighborhood D.C. versus the nation’s capital D.C.,” Irizarry says to explain the brewery’s name. As for the brewery’s logo of bright red tap handles in the shape of a clenched fist, “We were thinking iconic images.”

Even in comparison with fellow microbrewery DC Brau, Chocolate City is small. Its 1,200-square-foot space contains few amenities for guests, apart from an old couch and a coffee table to set one’s beer on. Irizarry says he hopes to start offering growler fills by November, but he cautions that “the brewery tour will not take long.” He’d also like to invest in a small counter-pressure filler to package 22-ounce or 750-milliliter bottles.

Chocolate City poured beer at the Redskins-Giants opener on Sept. 11, albeit in the parking lot and not at a concession stand. Irizarry took along a keg of 1814 ESB for a tailgate party, alerting Chocolate City fans via Facebook and Twitter. He has no intention to sell in Maryland, however. That would mean signing on with a distributor, he said, and would involve paperwork, lawyers and expenditures.

His ambitions, for now, are modest. He’s adding two to three accounts a week to his delivery route. “We’re doing 20 barrels a week,” he says, “and we’d like to get to 40.”

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