Over the past six months, downtown Silver Spring has become a legitimate craft beer destination. Denizens Brewing planted the seed in 2014 and has nurtured it with years of festivals and events, but the October opening of Astro Lab and the recent arrival of Silver Branch have given the neighborhood momentum. More important, each brewery delivers a different experience, from the styles of beer on tap to the atmosphere in the outdoor seating areas.
The best way to discover it is to visit them all on an afternoon brewery crawl. The distance from Silver Branch, which is across the street from the Silver Spring Metro station, to Denizens is less than a mile on foot, with Astro Lab almost directly in the middle. Three stops for beer and no designated driver needed.
Stop 1: Silver Branch Brewing, 8401 Colesville Rd. (Entrance on Second Avenue.)
Why you’re going: Silver Branch is a bright and spacious young brewery set in the Silver Spring Metro Plaza, a sprawling 1980s office complex across Colesville Road from the Metro and MARC stations. If you didn’t know the taproom was there, you might walk past it. But climb up a flight of stairs to a paved patio and you’ll find a spacious, airy bar full of picnic-style tables, plus foosball and indoor corn hole sets. Even more biergarten tables are available in a fenced area outside.
What to drink: If you’re the kind of beer drinker whose eyes glaze over when you find eight IPAs on tap, Silver Branch will feel like a little slice of heaven. Brewer Christian Layke spent eight years at the Gordon Biersch brewpub in Rockville, and he knows his way around other styles of beer. This month, Silver Branch released Glass Castle, a note-perfect Czech-style pilsner with a bready body and a nose of floral hops. It was paired with Killer Castle, a crisp, unfiltered version that let the spicy Saaz hops shine through. (Bartenders pour the beer two different ways, depending whether you want a creamy head or not.) There are two English-style beers, pulled by hand from traditional casks — a malty ESB and lightly fruity ruby mild — plus a chocolaty stout and a crisp Belgian wit. Oh, and an IPA.
What to eat: The menu doesn’t go much beyond bar snacks: popcorn fresh from the popper and dusted with Old Bay; a loop of the dried German sausage known as landjäger; or bags of chips. But they’re perfect when you’re sipping pilsner in the sun on the patio.
Stop 2: Astro Lab Brewing, 8216 Georgia Ave.
Why you’re going: You’re going for the beer, not for the modest taproom, which is sparsely decorated with long tables and a TV, or the small patio facing Georgia Avenue. (Music fans may remember this building as the previous home of Joe’s Record Paradise.)
What to drink: Although it was founded by natives of New Zealand (head brewer Matt Cronin) and England (co-owner Emma Whelan), Astro Lab excels at a truly American style of beer: juicy, fruity IPAs. Sure, the brewery makes a pilsner (with New Zealand hops, of course), lager and saison. But the beers you’ll rate most highly — and the ones you’re likely to see at beer bars around Washington — are IPAs and DIPAs. It’s rewarding to order small four-ounce taster pours to try them next to one another, maybe the Peekaboo brewed with Columbus and Mosaic hops next to the version double-dryhopped with Simcoe hops, or trying two different double IPAs to see why one is billed as “dank.” At $2 for most tasters, it’s easy to put together a custom flight.
What to eat: In British and Kiwi fashion, the pub snacks are pies — flaky pastries filled with minced ground beef and cheddar, chicken curry, or roasted lamb and veggies — and a flaky sausage roll stuffed with beef and pork. There are also meat-and-cheese plates and, for kids, a “half-pint platter” with crackers, cheese and applesauce.
Stop 3: Denizens Brewing, 1115 East-West Hwy.
Why you’re going: By any measure, Denizens is the biggest and most important brewery in Montgomery County. It was involved in changing laws to allow breweries to self-distribute beer throughout Maryland, for example, and co-founder Julie Verratti chairs the diversity committee of the national Brewers Association. The brewery has the most popular beer garden in the county: a kid-friendly, dog-friendly space that’s home to beer festivals, birthday parties and lazy days spent hanging out and playing corn hole.
What to drink: Denizens makes beer for every taste — pilsners, Belgian tripels, rye IPAs — but if you’re familiar with the annual Make It Funky festival, which brings dozens of sour and wild ales to Silver Spring, you know where to start. The sour ChiChi gets its thirst-quenching grassy funk from aging in tequila barrels. Backyard Boogie saison picks up earthy white wine notes after lying in oak wine barrels. And Homegrown farmhouse saison uses a local yeast to bring out its complex citrus flavors. That’s not to say that Denizens doesn’t do “normal” beers — check out the tropical blast of orange in the seasonal Trainspotting pale ale — but the more unusual brews are the most rewarding.
What to eat: Denizens mixes pub-grub staples (soft pretzels with ESB beer cheese, Buffalo wings, hand-cut fries) with more adventurous fare (grilled octopus with smoked paprika aioli, crispy Brussels sprouts with blue cheese). The kitchen can be inconsistent, especially when it’s busy.