In D.C.’s brewing renaissance, every palate wins

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the first name of the founder of Hellbender Brewing. He is Ben Evans, not Dan Evans. This version has been corrected.


The two-barrel Low Brau will specialize in wheat beers. (Nubbs Photography)
August 20 at 8:52 AM

Imagine it’s 2013, and you want to visit a brewery in the District. Will you try the nanobrewery whose single employee brews only a few beers, all of them German-style, or the monolithic brewery-restaurant hybrid across town, with 15 constantly rotating house beers on tap and 100 seats on the patio alone? What about the cozy new brewpub ensconced in a historic storefront, with its experimental farmhouse ales? Or maybe the latest large brewery to spring up in Northeast, which sets itself apart with an eclectic blend of European and American flavors?

If all goes according to plan, those four establishments will open in the District within the next year or so, complementing DC Brau, Chocolate City Beer and 3 Stars Brewing, the three that emerged last year. Welcome to the second wave of the capital’s brewing revival, an influx of breweries that will reshape the local beer scene largely because of their unprecedented diversity.

At one end of the size spectrum is Low Brau, the nanobrewery founded by design-industry professional and home-brewer Steven Sorrell, who is scouting brewery sites around Fort Totten and Brookland and hopes his tiny, two-barrel brewhouse will be operational by this summer. Sorrell grew up in Germany and, accordingly, intends to carve out a niche by focusing on refreshing German wheat beers, the sort of stuff you can imagine sipping on a porch during the summer, as he puts it.

“Even though there’s wheat beers here, they’re not the same — they don’t have that same characteristic as the ones in Germany,” he says. “The ones in Germany are smooth and clean.”

With his flagship beer, Heidi Weiss, Sorrell will replicate the fruity-spicy banana and clove aromas characteristic of Bavarian weissbiers. He also plans to launch a stronger wheat beer called Totten Bock and, eventually, a pilsener and possibly a version of the German hard cider known as apfelwein.

If Low Brau represents one extreme, the still-unnamed brewery project from Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which will probably open about a year from now near Nationals Park, embodies the other. A bold combination of brewery, brewpub and 200-plus-seat restaurant overseen by Birch & Barley/ChurchKey executive chef Kyle Bailey, it will, in the words of NRG beer director Greg Engert, “resist definition.” He says that in addition to the approximately 15 house beers on draft, there will always be several beers on tap from other breweries, as well as about five casks and a bottle list.

“We’re really looking at it as bringing the restaurant ideals of service and craftsmanship in the kitchen and marrying that with the service and craftsmanship of the beer itself,” Engert says. It will be almost like having “two kitchens sitting side by side”: NRG intends to have a pantry that will be used by both cooks and brewers, filled with locally foraged herbs, spices and other ingredients.

As for the beers themselves, Engert envisions constant experimentation and an ambitious barrel-aging and sour-beer program. He also says the brewery will team up with renowned brewers around the country to brew collaboration beers, which will help form the basis of the brewery’s distribution strategy. NRG wants to send its beer — mostly kegs and limited runs of 750-milliliter bottles — nationwide almost immediately.

For sheer hipness, though, it might be hard for NRG to top the brewpub whose working name is “Right, Proper”: a partnership between Thor Cheston, formerly of Pizzeria Paradiso and Brasserie Beck, and Nathan Zeender, a home-brewer with a knack for dry, yeasty Belgian-inspired ales and barrel-aged sour beers reminiscent of Belgian lambics.

Whereas NRG’s brewery will have a modern, glass-filled aesthetic and undoubtedly will be swamped by stadium-goers, Cheston and Zeender are aiming for an intimate neighborhood vibe inspired by the Baltimore brewpub Brewer’s Art. “Both myself and Thor have a pretty overdeveloped sense of place,” Zeender says, adding that they’ve been looking at historic buildings in and around the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest.

The beers, too, will have a “revivalist” feel, gesturing to numerous global traditions. Before the tentative opening date — a year or more from now — Zeender hopes to bulk up his recipe book by interning at breweries in Belgium, Scandinavia and Quebec and throughout the United States.

Of the four new brewing ventures, the one that most closely resembles what D.C. residents have already seen is Hellbender Brewing, which initially will focus on placing kegs in local bars, as DC Brau, Chocolate City and 3 Stars have done. Founder Ben Evans hopes to open by this summer and eventually sell cans to retailers, too.

Still, Evans, a microbiology researcher who is overseeing Hellbender with congressional staffer Patrick Mullane, says his offerings won’t taste much like the competition’s. “For instance,” he says, “rather than coming out with a pale ale, we decided to come out with a Kolsch,” a hoppy, gold-colored German ale. “I’ve been working on that for many years, and we thought that would be a more unique addition to our lineup.”

In the D.C. brewing world, that kind of thinking is now business as usual: Be good — but, maybe more important, be different.

Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.

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