Area Brew Pub Scene Is a Glass Half-Empty

Jason Oliver taps a seasonal beer at Gordon Biersch downtown.
Jason Oliver taps a seasonal beer at Gordon Biersch downtown. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Last year marked an upturn for brew pubs, restaurants that brew their own beer. Nationwide, 58 opened and 40 closed -- the lowest number of failures since 1996, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association.

But the Washington area saw the shuttering of two brew pubs -- John Harvard's Brew House downtown and Founders Restaurant and Brewing Co. in Alexandria -- in January 2006. And none opened. The demise of John Harvard's left the District with three brew pubs, a paltry total compared with Seattle's 15 and Portland, Ore.'s 23.

The last brew pub to open in the District was Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, at Ninth and F streets NW, in 2001. The Chattanooga-based chain, which specializes in German-style lagers, followed up in 2005 with a branch in Tysons Corner and last month with another in Rockville. Because brewer Jim Sobczak's beers were still fermenting when the Rockville site held its grand opening, the company trucked in five beers from its Columbus, Ohio, brew pub, including its crisp Czech Lager, roasty Schwarzbier and clovey Hefeweizen.

"There are definitely thoughts to establishing the market further," says Gordon Biersch's regional manager, Joe Cominsky. But he draws a blank when asked why more entrepreneurs aren't opening brew pubs here.

Franklin's Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville is one of the area's few brew pubs that aren't part of a regional or national chain. Owner Mike Franklin blames the high cost of rent: $40 and upwards a square foot. It's hard to justify setting aside 1,000 square feet for stainless-steel tanks when you could fill that space with tables and chairs. Franklin owns the building and operated the curio-filled general store there for a decade before adding the brewery in 2002.

On the Virginia side, you have to drive to Leesburg to find an independent brew pub, Vintage 50. "The rents are astronomical as you get closer to the city," notes brewer Bill Madden.

The area's first brew pub, Capitol City Brewing Co. on H Street NW, opened in 1992. In 2003, the restaurant sold the brewing equipment and converted the space to a private banquet room. At the Capitol City in Shirlington, brewer Mike McCarthy makes enough beer for his own needs and those of the downtown branch. (A third Capitol City near Union Station still brews on-site.) Scrapping the individual brewing operations and setting up a remote production brewery to supply all the restaurants -- something the DuClaw Brewing Co. chain in Maryland has done -- would have advantages, admits McCarthy. It would mean greater economy of scale, more consistent beer and fewer liability issues (no customers to get under the brewer's feet or risk injury). "At the end of the day, the quality of the product means more than having some pretty metal tanks around the bar," he says.

But brew pubs do have their charms. They tend to make beer in small batches, resulting in more variety and in experimental, oddball brews such as Chipotle Porter (a dark ale brewed with smoked malt and chili peppers, made by the Great American Restaurants group of Northern Virginia) and Franklin's Anarchy Ale (a hoppy, strong ale whose formula differs with every batch).

Moreover, brew pubs are the most ecologically friendly way to provide beer, asserts Christopher Mark O'Brien, author of "Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World" (New Society Publishers, 2006). Most of their beer is consumed on-site, so there's no need to process trees into labels and six-pack carriers. And you can transport the beer from tank to table without burning fossil fuel.

Meanwhile, an investor in Hook & Ladder Brewing Co. (the Silver Spring-based marketer of Golden Ale and Backdraft Brown) has purchased an abandoned firehouse at Georgia and Silver Spring avenues and plans to convert it to a brew pub by spring 2008.

Then O'Brien will get a chance to support his local brew pub. He lives just up the street.

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached

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