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On the Town

Instating the Draft

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page WE05

AS IT HEADS TOWARD its golden anniversary, the Brickskeller Dining House & Down-Home Saloon (1523 22nd St. NW; 202-293-1885) -- known as "the Brick" to its legions of beer-quaffing fans -- has become as much of a Washington institution as the museums and monuments.

This famed tavern, located under Dupont Circle's Marifex Hotel, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the bar with the largest selection of commercially available beers."

Jonathan Boxwell and Lisa Lachenmayr at the Brickskeller, where beer is always in abundance. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Up to 110 beers per page fill the small, booklike menu, arranged alphabetically by country, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. "The last time I looked at the [inventory] spreadsheet, there were 1,032," says managing partner Dave Alexander, with about a third of those coming from the United States. Yes, the Brick stocks Miller, Bud Light and Rolling Rock, and yes, people actually order them -- though I'm not sure why, when most American bottles cost $3.50 to $5. Some imports -- especially Belgians -- climb appreciably higher, though it's easy to get a decent beer from almost any country for less than five bucks.

Downstairs, the Brickskeller doesn't look like it has changed since the day it opened. Seats at the bar are made from old barrels. Ceilings are low, and rooms are divided into a warren of small nooks and dining areas. The decor is akin to a beer museum, with cans, steins and posters advertising long-discontinued or forgotten brands mounted on the rustic brick walls.

While it's atmospheric, I've always enjoyed hanging out in the upstairs dining room, a spacious, airy space that's open only as auxiliary seating on Friday or Saturday nights, or when the Brick hosts one of its legendary beer tastings. Glowing signs for Falstaff and Senate beers hang next to rows of old cans, and groups of all sizes cluster around the tables -- staff from nearby embassies, young professionals blowing off steam, college students, beer geeks with open bottles and notebooks at the ready.

Now there's even more reason to head upstairs: The Brickskeller has embraced draft beer and televisions, adding nine new taps, for a total of 11 -- a 12th is on its way from England -- and three TV screens, and expanded hours to include Wednesdays and Thursdays.

"I've wanted to have taps in this room for 23 years," Alexander says. "I took over daily operations in 1983, and we've been very frustrated with things we couldn't do. That's why we opened [Chinatown beer bar] R.F.D., to do the things we couldn't do here -- high ceilings, TVs, lots of taps." But while Dave and his wife, Diane, have focused much of their attention on R.F.D. since it opened in 2003 -- it offers up to 40 draft beers, the most in the city, and over 300 more of the Brick's "greatest hits" in bottles -- Dave maintains that the Brickskeller is the heart and soul of their business.

So when recent refurbishments allowed them to add taps, Dave Alexander was ready. "I really got sold on the tap beers at R.F.D." The Brickskeller has offered draft beer at tastings for years, and two taps at the upstairs bar have flowed since 1990, though only on weekends.

"Two things about this room that drove me nuts: one, that it was only open two days a week, and not being able to show March Madness," Alexander says. "For years, we've been trying to educate college kids and get them to drink good beer, but we lose them when we can't get them in here to watch March Madness."

It didn't go smoothly. There were delays when the contractors didn't show up, delays when the right parts weren't available, delays when installing the gleaming Belgian draft system caused a plumbing leak that threatened the bar below -- all of which meant that the Brickskeller missed most of basketball season.

Somehow, I think the new draft lines will be more of an attraction anyway. They include singular Belgian ales like Gouden Carolus; rarities like the dense, pleasingly bitter Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout; a Washington debut for England's Double Diamond Pub Ale; and crowd-pleasing microbrews Magic Hat #9 and Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. Three beer engines sit ready to serve English cask-conditioned ales.

It's a far cry from the 36 beers available when Diane Alexander's grandparents Marie and Felix Coja opened the Brickskeller in 1957. The number of beers climbed over the years, eventually hitting 51. Alexander says it really took off in 1976: "For the bicentennial, someone said, 'You should get a beer from every state.' " It sounded like a good idea to the Cojas, but these were the days before multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns and national distribution. So the Brickskeller's owners bought a refrigerator truck and set off on a cross-country road trip to pick up beer. Alexander says they visited Coors in Golden, Colo.; picked up some Anchor Steam in San Francisco; stopped off at Seattle's Rainier Brewery; and even took a long drive up the Alaska Highway to Anchorage, where they picked up a case of Prinz Brau on the day production began. (Thankfully, Diane's family owned a restaurant in Hawaii and could send them beer from the 50th state.)

By the time Dave took over day-to-day operations in the '80s, there were more than 400 choices, mostly available in cans. Within a few years, the number had almost doubled. And when the craft brewing movement took off in the 1990s, Alexander began ordering more and more, pushing the selection over 1,000, and, he says, occasionally more than 1,200 different beers found their way into the inventory. Word began to spread around the world, and the Guinness Book of World Records came calling. When the stock was officially counted in January 2002, the total was 1,072 various brands and styles. (Alexander doesn't think they'll hold the top spot for long -- Brussels' Delirium Cafe has about 2,000 on its most recent list.)

Not just content serving beers, the Brick has hosted regular tastings since 1985, introducing Washingtonians to new beers from around the world and educating them about the history of various brands and styles with notable guests such as Dick Yuengling, the president of America's oldest brewery, or legendary British beer author Michael Jackson.

The Brickskeller also hosts programs with the Smithsonian's Resident Associates; Anchor Brewing Co. owner Fritz Maytag, who is frequently credited with starting the microbrew movement, appears there Sunday with fellow trailblazers Fred Bowman of the Portland Brewing Co. and Don Barkley of the Mendocino Brewing Co.

But the Brick also has its detractors, who complain of slow service and question how many beers are really in its vast refrigerated stockrooms. After all, they note, it's not uncommon for beer aficionados to offer a second or even third option when they order, in case the style they really want has disappeared from the shelves.

Both points are well taken. For research purposes, I met a group of friends at the Brick last Friday night. We ordered 20 beers, ranging from well-known American brews (Abita Turbodog) to English classics (Ruddles Country Ale) to obscure Ukrainian imports. Thirteen of our selections were in stock.

Alexander admits that availability can be a problem, especially when dealing with wholesalers, importers and delivery companies from abroad. Shipments from Eastern Europe or some small Belgian producers, for example, are more unreliable than Pennsylvania microbreweries or heavyweights such as Stella Artois.

(Timing is everything. I was shot down twice when I ordered Ukrainian beers. Two days earlier, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had made an appearance across the street, laying a wreath at the statue of poet Taras Shevchenko. An enterprising Brickskeller employee came up with a way to drum up business during a slow lunch hour: "We put out a big sign saying 'We have Ukrainian beer,' " Alexander laughs. "Then we see this sea of people coming in. We had the place filled in five minutes. . . . I had eight cases of Ukrainian beer in the back. . . . They were gone pretty fast.")

No one wants to be disappointed when ordering from the menu, but "you want beers to run out of stock every now and then," Alexander says, "so that you know it's not just sitting on the shelf [for months at a time]."

Still, catching up with friends after a hectic week of work and listening to the jukebox, I remembered why I enjoy coming to the Brick: It's a great place to hang out for a couple of hours, and there's always something on the menu to pique my curiosity -- even if it's a second choice.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company