It’s 86 degrees outside, but in the dank walkways between the towering stainless steel tanks of Atlas Brew Works, the temperature hovers somewhere between Bikram-yoga hot and Mojave Desert sweltering.
But what’s a little sweat to the dozens of mostly 20- and 30-somethings who have descended on the brewery on a recent Saturday? Beer is a widely accepted antidote to Southern summers, and the pitch-black, 9.2 percent alcohol content IPA is flowing freely.
On the weekends, Atlas and a handful of other breweries on the very edges of the District are flush with bros in Top-Siders, women in voluminous maxi dresses, new parents, cycling groups, home brewers and bachelorettes.
They camp out at picnic tables. They play cornhole.
Never mind the impenetrable din of hundreds of voices bouncing off concrete. Or the peculiar scent that we’ll just call brewing funk, the whiff of boiling wort and spent grain that together smell like last night’s skunky beer spiked with notes of barnyard.
The weekend warriors have turned the District’s breweries, and a small but growing contingent of nearby liquor distilleries, into the most hopping places to day-drink in the city.
What brings them to these seedy office parks on Bladensburg Road and West Virginia Avenue NE, to the edge of the universe, to industrial strips dotted with dollar stores and a medical supply outlet and body shops? Beer, of course. But also Uber. Bike fever and the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Boredom with the beige sameness of downtown’s rooftops and patios. Wanderlust. And sometimes, a party bus.
At Atlas, a passing tour group is relishing a momentary dip into the brewery’s frosty new refrigerator. Corey Poole, who manages the Atlas tasting room and is leading the tour, has just finished telling everyone not to touch the empty cans, which will be filled later with Rowdy Rye. Just then, someone knocks one over.
“We’re all a little bit rowdy, okay!” a slightly buzzed woman in a strappy green sundress and espadrilles hollers by way of apology. Poole clutches his glass of beer a bit tighter and loses it in a fit of laughter.
Most other days, Poole isn’t having quite this much fun. Six days a week, the District’s nascent craft breweries are production businesses, churning out thousands of barrels of brews with names such as Penn Quarter Porter and Bäre Bönes Kölsch. It’s manual labor, all bearded, tatted employees in closed-toe shoes and goggles.
Then there’s Saturday, when there are enough visitors flitting between the breweries and distilleries to prompt the bartenders to queue up ’90s playlists and start pouring.
At Atlas, which opened in late 2013, more than 600 people can roll through. And as more operations arrive here on the city’s outskirts, there’s more reason to come.
On his way out of 3 Stars, Nayan Patel, of North Bethesda, described the birthday he had ahead of him: “We’re going here, we’re going to Don something next (he probably means liqueur maker Don Ciccio & Figli), and from there, it’ll be Hellbender, and then DC Brau, Atlas, and I think we’re going to miss the two distilleries.”
Since 2008, the number of small breweries nationwide has more than doubled. But the District, with a dearth of commercially zoned spaces where brewing could take place, didn’t see much of the action until 2011.
That’s when DC Brau, with its distinctive logo — capped with the outline of the Capitol, it spoke to budding D.C. pride and the fever for all things local — set up shop out here in no man’s land.
Run by Brandon Skall and brewer Jeff Hancock, it was the District’s first free-standing commercial brewery in more than 50 years. They set up in a warehouse on Bladensburg Road NE, so close to the Maryland border you could roll a keg across the state line in five minutes flat.
In the next four years, Atlas opened on West Virgina Avenue NE, 3 Stars found a spot in a churning industrial park on Chillum Place NW, and the baby of the lot, Hellbender, landed next to some duplexes on Second Street NE. (Another brewer, Chocolate City Brewing, operated for a little over three years on Eighth Street NE before closing in December.)
From the get-go, “everyone was really worried what the neighbors and residents would think about creating an entire other class of people who could serve alcohol,” says DC Brau co-founder Skall.
The brewers argue that offering tastes of their wares is crucial to hawking their brand. They were initially allowed to offer samples and to take visitors on tours. But it wasn’t until a year ago, after the city allowed them to sell their beer by the pint like any bar, that the scene really began to pick up.
Before the law changed, “people would do their four samples, and you’d be like, ‘Hey, you want to buy a T-shirt? A growler to go or something?’ ” recalls Will Durgin, head brewer at Atlas. “We knew if we could just sell them some beer in the format and size it’s intended to be consumed — which is a pint — and get them to hang out for a little bit, then the revenue would follow.”
It’s a novel thing. It’s different than going to a bar,” offers Sam McCadney, who’s squatting at one of 3 Stars’ picnic tables with his wife and their newborn and a gaggle of friends who’ve arrived by bike. It’s like going to a beer garden, he says, “but everything is made on-site.”
The weekend culture arising around these isolated warehouses is “not a get-drunk culture,” says DC Brau’s Skall. “It’s a get-everybody-together culture.” The breweries’ drinking hours are far shorter than an average bar’s, too: They’re open just a few days a week, rarely later than 8 p.m. But the visitors, he acknowledges, are “massively important” to the city’s nascent brewing scene.
This year, with pints for sale in the tasting room, DC Brau’s revenue is up 62 percent.
“Selling a pint? That’s where I make the most profit per ounce,” Skall says.
Now, the crowds that come to see the breweries and take a tour often stay to order a flight, and then perhaps a pint. And then, frequently, another. When they’re going for $5 a pop, why not? At DC Brau on Saturdays, it’s not unusual for visitors clutching plastic cups of porter and pale ale to spill out of the tasting room into the warehouse, where there might be a band playing. It looks a lot like an average kegger in Bushwick.
The breweries are thinking up other ways to draw customers through the doors, beyond bands and bargains.
Hellbender has offered yoga on the brew pad, right next to the industrial equipment. Atlas is hoping to add a patio that would stretch onto the sidewalk (no matter that the Ivy City neighborhood does not exactly afford a picturesque view).
Ratcheting up the interest is that there are more breweries and distilleries across the board. This week, the D.C. brewers, along with those in Maryland and Virginia, are calling out to customers with D.C. Beer Week, giving the uninitiated a chance to try the goods in bars and at multicourse dinners with beer pairings. The opening bash alone featured 20 brewing operations.
In the early days of Washington brewing, beer geeks didn’t trek to the corners of the city for such quaffs as a peppercorn saison.
There were no beer geeks. Because the beer was terrible.
When physician Cornelius Coningham opened the Washington Brewery, the capital’s first brewing operation, in 1796, it and the breweries that followed churned non-potable D.C. water exclusively into ale. It was an English-style brew that was hoppy, bitter and heavy — not the ideal cooler for the humid climate in which the city’s denizens had insisted on settling. (Also, it turns out, the city mostly had a thing for whiskey, anyway.)
Beer’s fortunes turned when a wave of German immigrants in the 1850s brought their brewing ambitions and lager-style beer with them. Lager, says historian Garret Peck, the author of “Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.,” was more palatable. It was better with food.
By the end of the Civil War, fueled by the sipping habits of soldiers, there were more than two dozen breweries in and around Washington, each of which had its own social scene.
“We had huge beer gardens around the city, the biggest of which could seat a thousand people,” says Peck. That was the Alhambra Summer Garden at Fourth and E streets NE, where men and women gathered nightly for live music, dancing and sweet, golden-hued beer from the Washington Brewery. Hosting your own kegger was the easiest way for the breweries to distribute their suds, a fact that remains true to this day.
Sometimes, the brewers admit, the party gets a little out of hand. In February, after learning that customers were heading to their cars, changing clothes to disguise themselves and returning to game bartenders into giving them more free beer, DC Brau’s Skall, by all accounts a laid-back guy, announced that the brewery was nixing its free samples.
Skall ended his little missive with the following: #THISISWHYWECANTHAVENICETHINGS.
What happened to civility? That’s what Sundays are for.