WHEN IT comes to beer, brewer Dean Lake is a traditionalist. He speaks fondly of "the subtleties of Old World styles," boasting about how important it is to use tub-like "open fermenters" when making British ales, and how he always uses a strain of English Thames Valley yeast for extra authenticity.
"The first good beer I ever had was in Germany when I was 17," he explains. "I was over there as an exchange student. . . . It was a Kolsch [a soft, golden ale]. The second good beers I had were London-style brown ales, when I was visiting relatives later that summer. That's what stuck with me as reference points for good beer."
Today, almost 10 years after leaving his job as a government researcher to work for the highly regarded Old Dominion Brewing Company, Lake is in charge of his own operation: the new Thoroughbreds Grill and Brewing (50 Catoctin Cir. NE, Leesburg; 703-777-5785), where he offers seven of his own beers. "All the recipes are based on what I've liked about different beers in the past," he says. A hoppy, cloudy German Keller Pilsner has an interesting bite and will be even more satisfying in warmer weather; blackstrap molasses adds a richness to the Paddock Porter; and, in homage to his English explorations, there's a special cask-conditioned ale, served without excess carbonation from an old-fashioned hand pump. "[That] was something I wanted to do," Lake says. "It's almost a sign that you're a serious brewer."
But here's the best thing: You don't have to be a beer aficionado to enjoy going to the welcoming bar at Thoroughbreds. If you want a bottle of Budweiser or Michelob, they've got those, too, although the bartenders and servers are always ready to pour sample glasses of the house beers.
Lake admits it's odd for a small brewpub to sell products from the big-budget nationals. After all, they're household names, and some of the beer styles he brews will be unfamiliar to the general public.
"But," he says with a laugh, "you know what's really great? Those beers are a single digit [percentage] of our beer sales." Instead, the runaway bestseller is Thoroughbreds Pale Ale, a hazy, malty British beer that's not as hop-heavy as most American versions, like Sierra Nevada, and has a reasonable alcohol content of about 4 percent. You could picture yourself sipping this in some refurbished Victorian pub in London.
Thoroughbreds isn't quite that picturesque -- the grand opening was Dec. 15, and the restaurant-bar looks like it's still settling into the ground floor of this modern brick-and-glass office building, alongside Realtors, lawyers and a mortgage lender. The hardwood floor and high tables are incredibly glossy, especially when light streams through tall windows lining the walls. In a small, elevated lounge area, couches and low tables look fresh from a catalogue. Eyes are drawn to two high-definition flat-screen monitors built into shelves behind the brightly polished wooden bar, and a number of large televisions hanging from the ceiling. (As in many bars, they seem to perpetually be tuned to sporting events or ESPN.) The large restaurant area, filled with high-backed booths and a horse racing mural, is pleasant, if dull. But the star of the show is the beer, not the interior design.
Thoroughbreds' bar has become a popular hangout after work, thanks to a rotating happy hour with a selected beer offered for $2.50 from 3 to 6, Monday through Thursday. Sunday afternoons find couples enjoying a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar, tables full of jersey-wearing football fans and a good number of kids.
"That's something we recognize: Loudoun County is populated by people with families, people with children," says Lake, a father himself. "You don't want to become Chuck E. Cheese's, but you have to recognize there are a lot of professionals who want to go out to restaurants and bring their children."
Food often seems secondary at most brewpubs, but Thoroughbreds chef Jeff Rodger comes from the Rail Stop Restaurant in The Plains by way of Washington's Gabriel, and he's created a hearty menu that complements -- and frequently uses -- Lake's beers.
Lake expects to change his draft lineup often. At the moment, the featured seasonal brew is the strong, sweet Balls Bluff Barley Wine.
Its ruby color and slight fruit aroma are deceptive -- at 9 percent alcohol, it packs a bit of a punch, and is served in a snifter rather than a pint glass. Still, this is much lighter than what most American craft brewers prefer; Lake's chosen a time-honored English version that's bracing when there's a chill in the air.
While at Dominion, Lake worked on some of the brewery's best-known beers, including the award-winning Tuppers' Hop Pocket. You can find that treasure on a tap at the end of the bar, where Lake likes to offer "guest beers" from other local breweries, including Dominion and Baltimore's Clipper City Brewing Company. "I'm going to put on beers I like," Weiss says. "I believe that any brewpub benefits from getting people to drink good beer. Hey, there are enough people in Loudoun County who like good beer that this will work."
There was unpleasant news this holiday season for fans of two popular Washington bars.