Brewed awakening: D.C.’s beer scene is close to greatness
Ask brewmasters, beer writers and frequent travelers about the best “beer towns” in America, and you’ll repeatedly hear “Portland,” “Denver” and “Philadelphia.” D.C. doesn’t come up as often as it should, but that’s slowly and surely changing. Here are three reasons the Washington beer scene is on the cusp of greatness.
No. 1: “Locavore” isn’t just a dinner term
After the Christian Heurich Brewing Co. closed in 1956, Washington spent more than 50 years without a brewery inside the city limits. Then, in the past two years, the DC Brau, Chocolate City and 3 Stars production breweries opened their doors. Two more, Atlas Brew Works and Hellbender Brewing Co., plan to open later this year. Three brewpubs are on the way.
(Outside Washington, Northern Virginia is a high-growth area, too, with Port City and Lost Rhino opening in 2011, and a whole flock of new brewpubs and breweries that don’t yet distribute in the city.)
DC Brau, which recently doubled its production capacity to about 24,000 kegs per year, ranked No. 5 on the national Brewers Association list of the fastest-growing breweries in America. You can find DC Brau in about 850 bars and restaurants in Washington and Virginia, with Montgomery County to be added this summer. Chocolate City has also expanded since opening; 3 Stars, which hasn’t hit its first anniversary, is trying to keep up with demand by purchasing enough equipment to triple its output.
In a city where transplants are increasingly putting down roots, the term “local” has become a cultural signifier, beyond D.C. flag tattoos and menus at popular farm-to-table restaurants. Just notice how many cleverly designed DC Brau T-shirts you see on the streets or in bars.
“People lay claim to things in D.C.,” says 3 Stars co-owner Dave Coleman, who moved to the District from Cleveland 10 years ago. “There’s a strong sense of ownership, both people who are from here and people who move here. People who live in this town — and I mean D.C., not [official] Washington — really care about our city. People hear our beer is local, and they want to check it out.”
The proof is in the neighborhood bars. Wander into DC Reynolds in Petworth, and the 20-somethings enjoying the sun on the huge back patio are, for the most part, sipping DC Brau, Chocolate City or Lost Rhino. At cozy Boundary Stone Public House, where the Clash and the Band blast from the jukebox and the D.C. flag hangs in glass over the door, every other order seems to include the words “DC Brau” or “Port City.” And 3 Stars’ Coleman says that of his brewery’s 64 bar accounts, one of the best is the Dubliner, an Irish pub near Union Station where you’d expect Guinness and Harp to rule.
The Pug, a dimly lighted drinkers’ bar on H Street NE where cheap Natty Boh and Schlitz tallboys are served with dozens of Irish whiskeys and free baskets of cheese puffs, has given every one of its eight taps over to beers produced in D.C., Maryland and Virginia breweries.
Next to capture the hyper-local tag will be a pair of brewpubs, which should open this fall. Bluejacket, the ChurchKey team’s space near the Navy Yard, plans to offer sour ales fermented with wild yeasts, flavorful Belgian-inspired farmhouse ales, and potent barleywines left to age in wooden barrels. Right Proper Brew Pub, moving next to the Howard Theatre, also plans an experimental bent. Co-founder Thor Cheston — late of Brasserie Beck and Birreria Paradiso — says the clincher is how fresh the beer will be. “No marketing firm can compete with context, when you’re enjoying a beer that was made 20 feet from where you’re standing,” he says. “You can’t get any more local.”
No 2: Thanks to D.C. liquor laws, we have access to a more diverse selection of beers than just about anywhere in the country.
Follow D.C. beer bars and beer geeks on Twitter, and you’ll regularly see “Hyper-Rare Draft Alert” for cult beers or announcements of special tapping parties for beers that aren’t usually available in the region. The availability of so many kinds of beer on such short notice is unique to the District, making the city a hot spot for hops.
Suppose a Maryland or Virginia beer bar wants to sell a hot new release. The beer bars have to make sure it’s approved for sale in the state, call a distributor to see if it’s available in the warehouse, then arrange delivery to the bar. (This is what’s known as the three-tier system.) If a D.C. beer bar wants to bring in the same beer, it just calls the brewery or the local beer rep, orders the beer, has it delivered and pays D.C. sales tax on the purchase price of kegs or bottles. Any beer, from anywhere, can be sold here.
This gray market loophole has inspired “Smokey and the Bandit” runs by local bars: Pizzeria Paradiso beer director Greg Jasgur has driven refrigerated beer trucks home from Three Floyds (Munster, Ind.) and Captain Lawrence (Elmsford, N.Y.). The Black Squirrel bar sends trucks down South to pick up otherwise unavailable brews from North Carolina and Georgia. These are great promotional gimmicks, but they also speak to the bar owners’ devotion to craft and to letting people try something they’ve never had before.
The net effect is that D.C. beer lovers have access to Colorado IPAs, Belgian abbey ales and highly rated aged beers that wouldn’t be allowed under traditional distribution systems. Beer lovers here have the opportunity to educate their palates and find out what they like and don’t like. And the door is wide open for more craft beers to show up on local taps.
No. 3: The fever is spreading.
ChurchKey, with its focus on serving temperatures, different glasses for different beer styles, and bartenders who undergo an hour of training a day to discuss the 555 beers on the menu, deserves its status as a national trailblazer and the best beer bar in the city. Meridian Pint and Pizzeria Paradiso are also expanding minds with their ever-rotating beer menus and smart bartenders. But it’s not just about them.
Philadelphia and Denver didn’t build their reputations by having a couple of flagship bars and breweries at the top supported by a bunch of also-rans. To be a great beer city, you need to be able to find good beer all over the place. This, perhaps, is where the District has improved the most in the past five years.
In my role reviewing bars and clubs for The Washington Post, I’m out five to seven nights a week. I can say unequivocally that it is easier to find great beer than it has ever been. Some of this reflects national trends: Craft beer sales have risen by double digits each of the past four years, according to the Brewers Association, and about 500 new breweries opened in the past two.
But even beyond the big dogs and the neighborhood bars pouring neighborhood beers, craft beer has become almost inescapable. Bear Republic and Green Flash (California) flow while DJs spin funk and soul at U Street’s Dodge City. On H Street, urbane crowds lounge on couches at Smith Commons sipping IPAs from Dogfish Head and Evolution (Delaware, Maryland). Iron Horse Tap Room, home to skeeball and shuffleboard leagues and pre-gaming Washington Capitals fans, pleases taste buds with Flying Dog’s hoppy Citra IPA (Maryland) and a refreshing Kolsch from Mother Earth (North Carolina). (Of Iron Horse’s 20 taps, one is dedicated to “light beer”; the rest are crafts.) GBD sells craft beers and cask-conditioned ale in addition to fried chicken and doughnuts.
People are taking notice. John Andrade, the owner of Meridian Pint and Smoke and Barrel, played host in March to beer industry insiders from across the country during the Craft Brewers Conference. “The brewers and distributors all say D.C. is one of their biggest, most important markets,” Andrade says. “They all say that if you put your beer out there [in D.C.] and it’s good, you’re going to kill.”
ChurchKey beer director Greg Engert — named one of Food and Wine’s “Sommeliers of the Year” and a longtime innovator on the local craft beer scene — worries there could be a downside to craft beer’s rapid expansion: bar owners who cash in without understanding such basics as cleaning the tap lines. “I love the ubiquity of craft beer, but I worry about diligence,” he says. “What worries me is that a novice goes into a beer bar, tries that craft beer and says, ‘This is gross,’ and they don’t order craft beer again. There’s a responsibility to treat the product well.”
Meridian Pint’s Andrade opened his bar in 2010, with 24 taps of American microbrews. “I thought we’d do a great craft beer bar, and that would be it,” he says. As he celebrates Pint’s third anniversary, he’s seeing annual double-digit growth and repeat customers questioning the staff about the latest additions. “People are embracing what we’re doing in a way I never thought they would, to be honest with you.”
He followed up Meridian Pint with the barbecue-and-craft-beer joint Smoke and Barrel and has a third location in the works. All he’ll share is that it will be about American craft beer. “I’m all in on craft beer,” he says with a laugh. “I’m gambling on the belief that it’s going to get even bigger and consume the city. Every part of the city is going to have its own really awesome small beer joint.”
Then, truly, we can be called a great beer city. But, honestly, it feels as if we’re almost there.
Fritz Hahn is a Washington Post reporter. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.