A party at one of the District’s most popular breweries featuring live music, food trucks and local artists. A happy hour with 14 highly rated West Coast beers, including some rarely found in this area. A beer bar hosting a tasting of limited-release, barrel-aged sour ales. A local brewery marking the release of its latest IPA with cold beers and live music at a boutique hotel’s rooftop bar.
When the seventh annual DC Beer Week begins on Aug. 9, fans of the local craft beer scene will be looking for events like those: a chance to geek out with brewers and fellow beer lovers while sipping something entirely new. Except those four events aren’t part of DC Beer Week: They happened over the course of a few days at the end of July.
As the Washington market becomes larger and more sophisticated, new beers are arriving weekly from across the country and around the world. Tap takeovers, beer dinners and brewery-centric events have become more common. We’ve reached a point where almost every week could be DC Beer Week, so why do we need DC Beer Week itself?
“The culture is in a place where we can spend the whole week celebrating what’s great about the D.C. area,” says Chris Van Orden, a new co-chairman of the event and the co-editor of DCBeer.com, which runs the event calendar.
DC Beer Week is when that culture, with breweries popping up in Lorton and Laurel and a growing number of bars where it’s easier to find a craft beer than a Miller Lite, puts itself on a pedestal. Festivities begin on Sunday with Brewers on the Block, where at least 20 breweries from the District, Maryland and Virginia will serve beers outside Union Market while DJs spin and local restaurants offer snacks.
Other “marquee” events include Port City bringing beer to “The Beach” during an after-hours party at the National Building Museum; DC Brau’s annual all-you-can-eat crab feast at the Quarterdeck in Arlington; a beer-centric scavenger hunt through Dupont Circle bars; and ChurchKey in Logan Circle putting 55 local beers on tap and cask. (A guide to the week’s best events is at www.goingoutguide.com.)
But once you drill down past the top-tier happenings, the schedule gets a little less dynamic. There are tap takeovers with a dozen or more choices from one nearby brewery or another, a couple of brewery-vs.-brewer happy hours and, for those who really want to geek out, seminars about gray market laws and home-brewing.
Much of the schedule has a been-there, done-that vibe: A barbecue with Atlas Brew Works at the new Dew Drop Inn in Brookland sounds like a killer party any time of the year, but does it rise to the level of a DC Beer Week event? Is there a level of a DC Beer Week event? Are local drinkers so curious about Denizens Brewing that they’ll go to Jack Rose in Adams Morgan to try 12 of its beers on tap, when they could just hop on the Metro to the Silver Spring brewery?
It’s also hard to build excitement when, less than two weeks before DC Beer week begins, several major beer bars either hadn’t announced their schedules or had lineups full of “TBDs.”
To be fair, the organizers of DC Beer Week don’t plan events at individual bars, but that seems to be the crux of the problem: The schedule needs to be curated. If Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights wants to let Devils Backbone take over all 24 of its taps on Friday, no one says, “Hey, guys, Devils Backbone is putting 20 beers on tap at Jack Rose on Wednesday and pairing each of them with a different whiskey. Why don’t you reach out to a different brewery for your event?” And why is Sixpoint, a brewery from Brooklyn, hosting tap takeovers on consecutive days at Beck, Union Pub, Bier Baron and Glen’s Garden Market, and what does that have to do with the D.C. beer scene? It smacks of a sales mission.
The week suffers from two problems of timing: It’s in the middle of August, when the city is humid and sleepy. More important, it comes just two or three months after Savor, the national Brewers Association’s annual celebration of craft beer at the National Building Museum. Dozens of breweries and thousands of beer lovers come to town for Savor, which is preceded by a week of tap takeovers, happy hours and brewery meet-and-greets that generate a buzz rarely seen around DC Beer Week. Because many of the participating breweries usually don’t distribute in Washington, beer lovers plan their agendas far in advance, and there are long lines to get into events featuring Wicked Weed or Cigar City.
In contrast, says Amy Bowman, the owner of the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan, “DC Beer Week is about celebrating the core beer brands that are in D.C. day after day, with the caveat that you’ll see a lot of one-off and brewpub specials the breweries bring in for the week.” Bowman has planned some solid events, including a night of stouts starring Jester King, Founders and Epic, and a party dedicated solely to Michigan breweries, but they don’t seem much different from when she decides to serve holiday beers at a Christmas in July party. ChurchKey is hosting a pair of blowouts with California’s Ballast Point, Alpine and Green Flash beers, but the bar would have a reason to celebrate Alpine’s D.C. debut whether it occurred during DC Beer Week or not.
I wonder whether, at some point, familiarity breeds apathy. When you regularly visit 3 Stars to pick up growlers, or your after-work hangout has six local beers on tap, do you get excited about a World of Beer happy hour with a trio of not-so-rare beers from each of six Virginia and D.C. breweries?
This year’s overall schedule includes one daily marquee event supported around 10 smaller happenings. There are certainly events I want to attend — the Black Squirrel’s meet-and-greet with 11 new area breweries, the annual “Blind and Bitter” blind IPA tasting at Scion in Dupont Circle — but too many other events don’t seem to rise to aspirations Washington has for itself as a top-tier beer market. It doesn’t help our collective ego that other beer weeks across the country are exploding: Kristine Kennedy, the executive director of Philly Beer Week, says the city held “a tad over 1,000” events over 10 days in May and June, with 60 breweries and 250 venues involved in the seventh annual celebration. Highlights included street festivals, bar crawls, pop-up beer gardens and a Pinewood Derby. On the Left Coast, February’s 10-day San Francisco Beer Week included almost 800 events, with a sell-out crowd of 2,500 people at the opening gala alone.
Our local beer scene is growing by leaps and bounds, and there’s genuine enthusiasm for it. It’s good to see the camaraderie among brewers, 20 of whom joined forces to create a special DC Beer Week Beer called Red White and Gluten. “DC Beer Week is a time for brewers pulling in the same direction,” Van Orden says. “Some of the really great events have five, 10, 20 breweries. There’s no turf war. Everybody’s celebrating together.”
Those celebrations are deserved, but Washington’s beer fans also deserve a beer week that’s even livelier and more interesting than the scene in the other 51 weeks of the year.