D.C.’s once and future brewers


Martin Virga helped open Capitol City Brewing Co., and now brews his own beer at Gunpowder Falls Brewing in New Freedom, Pa. (Jacinta Ball)
December 11, 2012

Maybe brewing gets in the blood. Maybe it’s the allure of an industry that saw double-digit increases in sales and volume in the first half of 2012 and now counts more than 2,200 breweries across the country. Either way, several movers and shakers have resurfaced from the early days of craft brewing in the Washington area, hoping the public’s insatiable thirst, and maybe a little nostalgia, will enable them to resume their careers.

Martin Virga was Capitol City’s first brewer when the chain opened its initial location on H Street NW in 1992. It wasn’t the best fit. Trained at the Doemens Academy in Munich, Virga toiled in a cramped brew house that lacked the tank space for the leisurely fermentation that lager beers require. His first effort there was a compromise: a crisp, golden German-style ale called Kolsch. (It’s still a mainstay on Cap City’s menu, as tweaked by successive brewers.)

In 1997, he became a partner in Ellicott Mills Brewing, a brewpub in Ellicott City. But he cashed out in 2004 when “it became apparent that it was never going to be more than a restaurant.” In November, he opened Gunpowder Falls Brewing in New Freedom, Pa., just across the Maryland border on Interstate 83. “We’re in the middle of a cornfield,” he says. He shares his building, a large warehouse, with a machine shop and a cheerleading school.

The brewery includes a tasting room that offers food from a nearby restaurant, Juliana’s in the Village in Shrewsbury. You can buy his beers there by the pint, six-pack, case or keg. His two brands, Gunpowder Falls Pilsner and Dunkel, are also available in the Baltimore area.

Virga says his Pilsener is in the Bavarian style, full of spicy German noble hops (including the Hallertau Mittelfruh used by Sam Adams) but with more of a malt balance than the hoppier north German Pilseners. He describes his Dunkel as copper-colored, full of caramel and biscuity flavors from the specialty malt.

Both beers are modest in alcohol, around 5 percent by volume. Virga concedes that fans of higher-alcohol, more aggressively flavored brews might be disappointed: “To do a bock or a doppelbock would tie up my tank space for a year.”

Virga says he’s “champing at the bit” to extend his range throughout Maryland and into the District. The bottleneck is production. His lagers receive four weeks of aging, twice what a typical ale requires. With help from two part-time assistants, Virga turns out one 14-barrel batch per week. He doesn’t harbor sky-high ambitions.

“I just want enough volume and enough support so I can do this each day and the next,” he says. Until the brewery becomes self-sufficient, he retains his day job as a CPA: “I go to prison in the morning, from 10 to 6, and then I get work release.”

Meanwhile, the Stewart brothers — Andrew and Bill — are trying to revive their Bardo Rodeo brewpub in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington, a few blocks from the bustling Atlas District. For much of the 1990s, Bardo was a mainstay of Arlington nightlife, a funky automotive-themed bar with the back end of a Plymouth Fury jutting out of the plate-glass window. After Bill moved the brewing equipment to Rappahannock County in 1998, the watering hole morphed into a beer bar called Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse. It lost its lease and closed in 2008.

The Stewarts have secured a parcel of land at 1200 Bladensburg Rd. NE that previously was home to a barbershop, strip club and hardware store. Their plan is to build from the ground up, equipping the pub with a pit barbecue and a 500-seat beer garden. The brothers are seeking an additional $150,000 in funding via Indiegogo to use for a customized, self-serve dispensing system. The opening is planned for spring 2013.

Procuring brew gear can be a bane for startups on a budget. As Virga notes, “the market for good, used equipment just doesn’t exist anymore,” due to the proliferation of new breweries. Bill Stewart has held on to his old, well-traveled 25-barrel Bardo brewing equipment. It sits, awaiting reassembly, in three 40-foot shipping containers in Baltimore.

Bill had hoped to revive the brewery in Australia but gave up after fighting red tape for three years. After that he spent two years in India working with the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. On a trip back to the States to visit his family, he reunited with Andrew, who was on the verge of getting back into the bar business. The two decided to revive Bardo (“Rodeo” is being dropped from the name) instead. “It seemed like the right time, now that brewing is cool again,” Andrew said.

But Arlington was out as a location. “When we were running Bardo, we were paying $15,000 a month in rent,” Bill says. “That was a ton of money back then. Now it’s double or triple that.” He doubts he’ll see a lot of the old regulars in his new location, but “the people who live here go out and party, too.”

The brothers will dust off a recipe book of 20 to 25 beer styles from the Bardo days, some of which were ahead of their time. They include Dremo Tibetan Sasquatch Ale, an American strong ale similar to Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard, and James Brown Ale, a beer that was roasty and full of hops years before the term “Cascadian dark ale” was coined for such heady brews. Several Bardo beers, including Dremo, White Lightnin’ (a barley wine) and Bundaberg Ginger Beer, brought home medals from the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver in the mid-1990s.

If finances and the law permit, they would also like to outfit the brewpub with a small distillery. But they have no desire to keg or bottle for off-premise sales. The margins are higher selling it by the glassful.

“You’ve got to brew it where you drink it,” Andrew says.

Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.

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