By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 18, 2008
It's amazing to think how far the D.C. beer scene has come in the past five years. When Chimay was introduced on draft at the Reef in April 2002, the Adams Morgan bar was one of only three establishments in the United States to offer the legendary Trappist ale, and fans dutifully lined up for a taste. But with all the boutique beer bars popping up recently, it has become easier to find Chimay than it is to find Schlitz. To stand out, some establishments are offering "exclusive" beers that can't be found anywhere else in the city, or sometimes anywhere else in the country.
Take Brasserie Beck. The Belgian restaurant is the only place in America where you can order Campus, a golden ale; Bacchus, a fruity red ale from Flanders; and Anker-Bok, a dark, malty seasonal brew. This winter the bar's beer sommelier, Bill Catron, has offered a number of limited-edition holiday brews he picked up from his contacts in Belgium. (Those connections come pretty easy for Catron, who was made a knight of the country's brewer's guild last year for his work promoting Belgian beers.)
"I never want to lose the wow factor," Catron says. "I want people to say, 'Wow, I've never seen that before!' You want people to be floored."
The jaw-dropping selection of 12 taps has helped Catron develop regulars, including Jenna Jadin, a University of Maryland graduate student who was at the bar recently drinking a tall glass of Petrus Winter Ale. She has traveled to Belgium and loves its beer, so when a friend told her about Beck, she says she was hooked. "I'm not an expert in Belgian beer, but I really like it," she says. "I like to come and try different ones every time." So far, she has sampled about a dozen drafts in five or six visits.
Across town at the Reef, assistant general manager Drew Swift pours dozens of chalices of De Koninck's spicy Winter Koninck Ale during his shifts. This is the only establishment in the city that sells the beer on draft, and during the summer, it's the only one pouring De Koninck Blond. Swift says the exclusive deal is a reward for the Reef's loyalty to the Antwerp brewery's flagship De Koninck Ale. "We've helped build the brand," he says. "We've had De Koninck on [draft] for six years, and it's never come off. And we sell more of it than any other place in D.C."
The Saloon, a quirky basement-level tavern on U Street NW, flies under the radar despite its long list of exceptional European beers. The star is clearly Urbock 23¿, which comes from Austria's Eggenberg Brewery. Signs on the wall announce a limit of one per customer, and it's served in a small wineglass instead of a full pint. Yes, it is one of the strongest beers in the world, according to the brewery, but the bar limits customers for another reason.
Owner Commy Jahanbein says that, if he's lucky, he gets 20 "baby kegs" of the Urbock from Eggenberg every year. He's merely rationing it so more customers can have a chance to try it. Good thing there are no limits on the sweet, rich Eggenberg Dunkel, which is exclusive to Saloon's draft list.
Belga Cafe sells 80 beers alongside its Belgian dishes, but to stand out, the Barracks Row restaurant decided to offer its own brew. Chef Bart Vandaele worked with the Belgian Brewery Keersmaekers to bring two beers to the market under the Belga name. The white ale is pleasant. The pilsner is a revival of a beer that Keersmaekers made between 1906 and the early '50s, formerly known as Roxy. It is reminiscent of a German lager, though a touch more bitter, and goes great with a plate of croquettes.
The beers, though exclusive in taste and availability, aren't exclusive in price. They cost about the same as more common beers on tap.
Even four-star chefs are getting into the act. Michel Richard has long offered his own wine (bottled exclusively for him by producers in France), but Central Michel Richard also pours a malty blond beer called Blusser, made by Belgium's Het Anker brewery. It is the only place in America where the beer can be found.
Central's hip crowd, though, seems more interested in wine and martinis. Some nights you can look up and down the marble bar without seeing Blusser's trademark glasses. (Tall, with a ribbed bottom, they look like something you'd sip orange juice from.) The bartenders do a good job selling Blusser to customers looking for a Budweiser, and it works; I heard one guy who asked for a light beer wind up proclaiming Blusser "the tastiest beer I've ever had."
BELGA CAFE 514 Eighth St. SE; 202-544-0100.
BRASSERIE BECK 1101 K St. NW; 202-408-1717.
CENTRAL MICHEL RICHARD 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-626-0015.
THE REEF 2446 18th St. NW; 202-518-3800.
THE SALOON 1207 U St. NW; 202-462-2640.