Don’t tell the frat boys downing Miller High Life or PBR in Adams Morgan, but there’s a flood of better-tasting brews out there, stuff worthy of the serious sipping and sniffing usually associated with wine. And, maybe in a nod, er, quaff to the locavore food movement, many of these beers have been produced by small, indie breweries — several of them in the D.C. area.
So the next time you have friends over for suds, maybe you’ll be pouring small-batch oyster stouts or seasonal wheat beers that were practically made in your own backyard. (At a campaign stop this week, President Obama revealed that even the White House produces homebrews.)
Craft beer tends to have more complex flavors than such mass-produced varieties as Coors and Bud. That’s because they often feature higher quality and more specialty ingredients than those used by major brewers (who tend to just stick with trad hops, barley and malt). They’re turned out in smaller batches than the big guys, and offer a wider range of tastes.
“There’s been a groundswell of interest and enthusiasm for craft beer locally,” says Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes 14th Street brewtopia ChurchKey (1137 14th St. NW; 202-567-2576). “Since we opened in 2009, it’s spread out into the mainstream. Our crowd is so diverse.”
Local breweries are also powering this hoppy revolution, including Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria and DC Brau in Northeast, both founded in the past two years. Other new Washington-area labels include 3 Stars, Bluejacket and Chocolate City (which are only available at a handful of locations for now). We are awash in new brews.
“I think D.C. looked inward and was like, ‘We need this,’ ” says Jeff Hancock, the brewer behind DC Brau. “You could get beer from everywhere else in the U.S., but we’re the nation’s capital, and we didn’t have our own brewery — the last one closed in 1956, which was a generation ago. That prompted my business partner Brandon [Skall] and I to start production.”
There’s an art to appreciating craft beer, but the biggest piece of advice? Stop and smell the hops. “Slow down, don’t drink so fast and appreciate what’s in your glass,” says Jason Camsky of Port City Brewing Company. And since we’re at the end of D.C. Beer Week (through Saturday), we’re pouring out tips on how to better sip your suds.
Beyond Pizza and Pretzels
What sort of food goes with beer? Lots of pros say anything. “If it tastes good to you, then go for it,” advises Beeradvocate.com, managed by the publishers of Beer Advocate magazine.
Still, here’s a foolproof guideline: “The complexity of your beer should match the complexity of your food,” says Kyle Griffin, a brewer at Capitol City Brewing Company’s Shirlington headquarters. So, if you’re eating a lighter meat such as chicken, open a lighter ale; more full-bodied and spicy foods go well with bolder beers such as IPAs, Griffin says.
ChurchKey’s Greg Engert takes that logic a step further. He’s devised a list of characteristics that define certain types of beers — such as “crisp,” “smoke,” “fruit & spice” and “tart & funky” — and then likes to mix and match the flavors with cuisine. “You determine the intensity [of the food], and then think about how to pair it,” Engert says. “You can harmonize and match flavors,” or do the opposite and opt for contrasting tastes.
Some foods are naturals, though, such as cheese. Carolyn Stromberg — who holds beer and cheese tastings through the Cheese Course at Seasonal Pantry (1314 9th St. NW) — favors Port City Porter paired with Comté, a French cow’s milk cheese. It’s a combo she says emphasizes the fromage’s nuttiness and the brew’s chocolate-y flavor.
Tim Prendergast, the assistant beer director at Meridian Pint (3400 11th St. NW; 202-588-1075) even likes suds with sweets, as in brownies with a raspberry fruit beer or an apple tart with an Imperial stout.
“If nothing else, the greatest thing about food and beer pairings for me … is that it narrows down the choices,” Engert says. With 1,940 craft breweries that were in business for all or part of 2011, according to the Brewers Association, that’s no small feat.
Yes, you may have heard that you don’t want too much “head” on your beer, but you heard wrong.
Embrace foam (well, don’t go shaking a bottle before you open it). As ChurchKey’s Greg Engert says, “foam acts as a net that gathers in all of the aromatic possibilities of the beer. When you pour one, you always want to make sure you get a good amount of foam. As the foam subsides, you’re going to be able to experience the aroma even more intensely.”
The Pour Decision
Always quaff craft beer from a glass. (Yes, that bottle has a Hipstamatic-worthy label, but it’s just a container for storing and transporting brews.)
Glasses help you appreciate the aroma as you drink — and about 99 percent of beer’s flavor lies in its smell, ChurchKey’s Greg Engert says. “Aroma is where you parse the nuances, where something goes from tasting sweet to tasting mildly sweet but fruity and toasty and nutty,” he says. “So if you drink something from a can or bottle, you’re robbing your nose of its duty to aromatically investigate the beer.”
And don’t use just any gulping vessel, either. (We’re looking at you, pint glass.)
“You have the $50 steak, the $100 wine, and just because I like beer, I’m supposed to drink out of a bucket?” says Matt Rutkowski, vice president of beer glass producer Spiegelau USA. “If you’re being served in a thick, chunky glass of any kind, ask them for a wine glass.” Pint glasses “are the worst thing you could put beer into,” Rutkowski says, because they’re not designed to keep the beer cool, nor at its most flavorful. The thicker the glass, the more quickly it will make the beer warm up, destroying its aromas and making it flatter.
DC Brau’s Jeff Hancock recommends using a thin tulip glass (not too different in shape from a standard wine glass) as a one-size-fits-all vessel for tasting. He even has detailed tasting instructions: “I wouldn’t fill the glass all the way up — only halfway up the bulb. You’ll get nice aromatics. Give it a good sniff, a good swirl around, take in the aroma, then taking in a bit, maybe a tablespoon’s worth, on your palate, swish it around your tongue,” and then swallow. That technique will give you a good sense of the flavor of the beer, forcing you to take your time to think about how it tastes.
To take tastes to the next level, use a glass that’s designed for the specific beverage you’re drinking (see image at top of this top of this post; these Spiegelau glasses are ordered from left to right):
These curved beauties force smaller sips of strong, dark beers and focus the aroma near the rim. A flared lip helps bring beer to the tip of the tongue, where you taste sweetness.
Varieties to try: Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout (shown, Flying Dog, Frederick, Md.); the Urban Farmhouse (3 Stars, Washington, D.C.)
Shaped like a traditional pint glass but thinner, this vessel will better showcase beer’s color and help balance hop smells.
Varieties to try: Essential Pale Ale (shown, Port City, Alexandria); the Corruption IPA (DC Brau, Washington, D.C.); 90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head, Milton, Del.)
A tall, narrow glass keeps the beer at its proper temperature and channels the hops’ bitterness and bouquet straight to your nose.
Varieties to try: Prima Pils (shown, Victory, Downingtown, Pa.); Downright Pilsner (Port City, Alexandria)
A tall glass that curves in slightly helps you catch the fruity notes of these lighter beers; the wide opening encourages froth and makes it easy to drink big gulps.
Varieties to try: the Love (shown, Starr Hill, Crozet, Va.); Witte Vos Witbier (Mad Fox, Falls Church, Va.)