It's a great time to be a beer drinker in the Washington area. With the Brickskeller and Birreria Paradiso and smaller joints such as the Saloon and Tuscarora Mills, it's easier than ever to find small craft labels from across the country and across the Atlantic.
But for all the brilliant beers available, being a bar -- a community place where regulars can just drop in for a drink in a comfortable environment -- has sometimes been an afterthought. Birreria Paradiso's basement bar serves as a holding pen for diners awaiting tables at Pizzeria Paradiso upstairs, crowding out the drinkers who just wanted to sample a Flemish ale. R.F.D. Washington, which boasts a huge number of taps, is as brightly lit as a cafeteria and designed so spartanly that it lacks any atmosphere.
Rustico, a brick-oven pizzeria and bar in Alexandria, boasts a major-league selection of ales and lagers, with 30 taps and more than 250 in bottles, plus a hard-to-find hand pump pouring cask-conditioned ale, like you'd find in an English pub. But it's also a pleasant place to hang out for the evening, whether you're looking for a fancy German pilsner or just want to sip a can of the Midwest's finest while shooting the breeze with your buds.
Beer director Greg Engert spent years working and honing his palette at the Brickskeller. "That's where I gleaned all my beer knowledge," he explains. "I've come into contact with 1,500 beers in my life." He pauses and thinks. "At least."
The focus of his list at Rustico isn't showing off as much as it is education through drinking. "My intention is to incorporate all the major beer styles so we can pair them with the menu," Engert says, and he has a heck of a list at the moment, ranging from pleasant English bitter (Coniston Bluebird) to strong California IPA (Bear Republic's Hop Rod Rye) by way of German dunkelweiss, golden Belgian ales and robust porters. (Don't hold me to that, though; the list can change as many as three times a week. Take a look at the chalkboards over the bar to see a list of firkins and drafts that will be available soon.) When possible, Rustico pours a traditional version of the style alongside a newer (and often American) offering, just for comparison's sake. Take the dark German wheat beer called a weizenbock. "We have Aventinus," from the famed Bavarian brewery, Engert says, "but we also have Avery Thirteen," which is made in Colorado.
The cask-conditioned beers aren't as well-known but will have fans licking their lips in anticipation. Most beer distributors don't regularly offer the naturally carbonated beers suitable for casks, so Engert has taken matters into his own hands. "We've purchased 10 firkins just for Rustico, and we'll be sending those out all over the nation," he says. Allagash and Brooklyn breweries are sending beer soon, and Rustico plans to get exclusive casks from California's Lagunitas, Stone and North Coast breweries as well as Maine's Otter Creek. "We're trying to diversify so that you'll get a firkin from a different microbrewery every time you walk in," Engert says. A firkin of Lagunitas's famed Maximus double IPA should arrive in about two weeks.
But this isn't just the kind of beertopia where hop snobs come on a quest for the elusive Belgian Abbey Quadruple. Stop by on a Tuesday or Saturday night and you'll find plenty of folks contentedly sipping Coronas or well-mixed martinis while crowded around one of the long, high bar tables or watching basketball on the four large flat-screens that hang behind the bar.
Rustico's trying hard to avoid the neon-sign and framed-poster decor that clutters so many beer haunts. Stylish and artsy without being over-the-top, Rustico has kitschy touches, such as a large flower mosaic behind the host stand that features smashed coffee cups and twisted utensils, and large installations by local photographers.
I've still never arrived early enough to grab a spot on the cluster of low couches that surrounds a flickering gas fire. Hard-backed wooden booths are wide enough for six with winter coats, and seats at the bar and around the communal tables feel more like captain's chairs than the usual stools.
No matter which night I've stopped by, the lights are dimmed to a level I'd hope for on a romantic date. It may be great for atmosphere, but the tiny fairy candles on the tables don't really help when you're trying to read the fine print on the menu.
Speaking of menus, new chef Frank Morales has just released his first since coming from Zola. We were warned it was a work in progress by our servers, but the brick-oven pizza is better than ever, especially the version topped with duck confit, bacon, grilled onions and brie.
Okay, back to education through drinking. On the last Wednesday of the month, beer lovers come out for special themed evenings that feature exclusive beers and, as an extra incentive, brewery swag. Earlier this month, Brooklyn Brewery brought three one-night-only tasters: a cask-conditioned version of the Brooklyn Winter Ale and kegs of the brewery's richer seasonal Black Chocolate Stout and Smoked Weissbock. Staff members answered questions about the hard-to-find brews. And for every Brooklyn product purchased, customers got to take home a nifty piece of brewerania -- a logoed Brooklyn chalice for Belgian beers. Not a bad freebie.
The special promotions usually happen one Wednesday a month, but dates shift based on when the breweries can make it. On March 7, Victory Brewing Co. is sponsoring a tasting with exclusive drinks and glassware, plus an appearance by brewmaster Bill Covaleski. Naturally, there are always leftover souvenirs, so in late March, Engert is planning a special "potluck" with his stock of glasses.
Like most beer bars these days, Rustico offers beer flights -- small quartets of five-ounce tasters that provide an overview of specific styles. The cleverly named selections here include Bitter Beer Face, which is devoted to tongue-puckerlingly hopped ales such as the Avery IPA and Bell's Two Hearted Ale, or "Luke, I Am Your Father," an introduction to various dark beers and porters.
Amid all the devotion to microbrews and gourmet Belgians, this isn't a bar that's above having some fun. Check out the buckets of beer, each of which includes five bottles or cans, arranged by theme: Stroh's, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life are found in the Workingman's Lunchbox, while a Frat Party version takes you back to cheap keg parties via Natural Light, Keystone Light and Milwaukee's Best. I overheard one guy tell his buddy last weekend, "Yeah, it's a good deal -- five beers for $8!" Those quaffing $6 chalices of De Koninck might beg to differ, but that's what makes Rustico more than just a beer bar.
(A word on pricing: All this excellence doesn't come cheap. Most drafts and bottles cost $5 to $6 each, though the majority on tap can be upgraded to a 20-ounce imperial pint for an extra two bucks.) When you're ready to leave, Rustico has one advantage its D.C. rivals don't. Say you try a bottle of Ringwood's Old Thumper, a warming, fruity Yorkshire-style ale, or Scrimshaw, a sharp, dry pilsner from California's North Coast Brewing Co. The beers are fantastic, but you've never seen them at your local liquor store or supermarket. Don't worry: Thanks to Virginia's mind-bogglingly complex alcohol laws, Rustico will sell you a six-pack to go. Almost everything available in a 12-ounce bottle can head home with you for $6 to $10 a sixer -- note that this is less than the price of two beers at the bar.
Scene: A comfortably upscale neighborhood bar where beer geeks come for 30 draft beers, 250 different bottles and English-style cask-conditioned ales, and their friends can join them for a cold one after work.