Brewed awakening: D.C.’s beer scene is close to greatness
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 email@example.com.