Here's something to think about while you sip that local IPA or wait to get a growler filled with seasonal beer: just how quickly the area's homegrown beer scene has gone from virtually nonexistent to bursting at the seams, with production breweries and brewpubs in every county in the metropolitan region. Since Washington's DC Brau and Alexandria's Port City debuted in 2011, we've gone from having just a few regional options to a wide, intoxicating array of local craft beer.
To keep these choices from becoming overwhelming, we've pulled together this guide to our favorite local breweries, a celebration of the coolest taprooms, best outdoor patios, award-winners and interesting newcomers. You'll find answers to every possible question you have about the D.C. area's breweries . . . at least until the next one opens.
We've done the hard work. All you have to do is enjoy the beer.
Best New Brewery: Ocelot
No one in the area makes IPAs like Ocelot. The Dulles brewery, barely a year old, specializes in well-balanced, West Coast-style IPAs with a terrific amount of malt balanced by tropical juicy hops. Ocelot's IPAs are always nuanced and drinkable, whether we're talking about Home, which is full of piney citrus and mango, or the huge triple IPA Talking Backwards, with its pineapple and orange flavors and dry, bitter finish.
But try not to fall in love with Ocelot's beers, because the owners don't like brewing anything more than twice a year. "The craft beer drinker always wants something new and different," brewer Mike McCarthy says. "People are not drinking the same thing over and over." Founder Adrien Widman uses Home — recently on tap as a "reissue" — as an example: "If we had Home full time, you'd get tired of it ... you'd drink it less and less. If you get it twice a year, you'll drink the s--- out of it."
Ocelot has also earned a reputation for barrel-aged beers, such as My Only Friend imperial stout and My Sweet Virginia barleywine, both of which spent seven months in bourbon barrels. The brewery's next big project will focus on sour beers: In July, Ocelot will take over the warehouse space next door, adding 7,000 square feet to its footprint. The new facility will include tanks for beers made with Brettanomyces and large wooden barrels known as foeders. — FH
23600 Overland Dr., Dulles. 703-665-2146. ocelotbrewing.com.
Best Brewery You Probably Haven't Heard Of: Aslin
You need to check Facebook regularly if you want to try one of Aslin Brewing Company's sought-after IPAs. Some of the more popular beers, such as the Mind the Hop and Master of Karate double IPAs, stay on tap only for 24 to 72 hours.
Aslin specializes in New England-style IPAs, the juicy, cloudy, fruit-forward style that's all the rage in the beer world now but has few practitioners in this region. Aslin's versions, honed after trips to Tree House, Firefly Hollow and Hill Farmstead, can look and taste closer to fruit juice than beer, a hazy, orange-yellow liquid loaded with tropical mango and pineapple flavors, a soft, creamy mouthfeel and usually little hint of alcohol. "People come in here and have no idea they like IPAs, because they've only tried the West Coast IPAs and think it's too bitter," says co-owner Kai Leszkowicz, one of three partners in the brewery, which opened in a Herndon business park in September 2015.
The only problem is one of size: Aslin's limited production means it can brew two barrels of beer per batch. The brewery recently bought two more fermentation tanks, so they can now put on a new IPA every few days, "and that just increased the number of IPAs that have sold out," says co-founder Andrew Kelley, Leszkowicz's brother-in-law.
Although Aslin's IPAs receive most of the attention, it's unfair to overlook its other beers. Look for How Now Brown Cow, a smooth, roasty coffee milk stout made with Herndon's Weird Brothers coffee roasters, and Animal [Farm] House is a saison given a full fruity flavor after aging in sauvignon blanc barrels. "If we had the space and time, we'd have a whole line of stouts and doing more sours, other than the Berliner Weiss," says brewer Richard Thompson, Aslin's third partner.
If most people haven't heard of Aslin, that's because it rarely distributes outside the brewery: A Savor Week event at Meridian Pint on Tuesday will be the first time its beers have gone on tap in Washington. (Aslin will release a collaboration beer made with the bar later this summer.) "But people are complaining that they can't get beer here" at the brewery, Leszkowicz says, "so we can't really be sending it out." — FH
257 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. 703- 787-5766. aslinbeer.com.
Best Brewery for a Sunny Day: Denizens
The food is good and the beers are often great. But when the sun comes out, the beer garden at Denizens Brewing Co. steals the show. The patio has 24 bench-style tables, a few small gardens and umbrellas, and views of nearby buildings and rooftops in downtown Silver Spring. It's a great place to grab a beer at night, as well, illuminated by cool lights, and with live music on weekends. — JT
1115 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring. 301-557-9818. denizensbrewingco.com.
Best Brewery Taproom: 3 Stars Brewing's Urban Farmhouse
The Urban Farmhouse tasting room, which opened in November at 3 Stars Brewing Company, has vastly improved the experience of sampling beers at the 3 1/2-year-old Takoma brewery. Barstools, tables made from old barrels, and picnic tables invite visitors to hang out with a pint or tasting flight, which is more fun than standing around in the shadow of fermentation tanks and grain stacks. Ten taps replaced the temporary jockey box draft systems that were used to pour pints and fill growlers. A wall covered with pine shingles sets the tasting room off from the industrial production space. And, perhaps most important, there's air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, so customers are no longer at the mercy of the weather in a warehouselike brewery. The tasting room, which opened in November, also has allowed 3 Stars a new venue for hosting events: monthly belly dancing and yoga classes; a summer-long barbecue series with such guest chefs as Kyle Bailey (June 26); and the brewery's Artists and Artisans Summer Jam (July 24), which combines DJs, designers, food producers and other local vendors. — FH
6400 Chillum Pl. NW. 202-670-0333. 3starsbrewing.com.
Best Brewery to Bike To: Caboose
If you've spent any serious time on a bicycle in the D.C. area, you've surely pedaled right past Caboose Brewing Company. The brewery opened a year ago in Vienna, just a few feet from the 45-mile W&OD Trail, a paved path that stretches from Arlington to Purcellville. (The brewery sits a half-mile down the trail from the namesake Washington & Old Dominion Railroad caboose in Vienna's Centennial Park, near mile post 12.) Caboose has up to 12 taps pouring its beers — many with plays on railroad names, like the Car Hopper IPA and the Boxcar Brown — which taste extra refreshing after a few miles on the trail. — JT
520 Mill St. NE, Vienna. 703-865-8580. caboosebrewing.com.
Best Metro-Accessible Brewery Crawl (Green Line)
First stop: Shaw.
Right Proper Brewing Company's brewpub specializes in low-alcohol wild and sour ales (like Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne, a tart Berliner weisse), but there's almost always something available for hop heads (Range Life, a hoppy wheat ale that changes hops each batch) and those who prefer their beer darker (the roasty, robust porter Haxan). Right Proper, which opened in 2013, doesn't offer flights, but it has the next best thing: half-pours at half the price of a full glass. Grab a growler to go before getting back on the Metro.
624 T St. NW. 202-607-2337. rightproperbrewing.com.
Next stop: Gallery Place.
District Chophouse and Brewery, just a half-block from the station, often gets forgotten when discussing D.C.'s craft beer boom. Perhaps it's because the steakhouse opened in 1997 and the vibe inside is more Old Ebbitt Grill than ChurchKey. But the in-house brewery consistently churns out a rotating selection of quality brews, including the Bourbon Stout, a version of the brewery's Oatmeal Stout aged in Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels for six weeks. You'll always find nine beers on tap (a board near the bar even tells you when the kegs were tapped) and you can try four-ounce pours of each for just $10.
509 Seventh St. NW. 202-347-3434. districtchophouse.com.
Final stop: Navy Yard.
Bluejacket opened near Nationals Park in 2013 with lofty expectations. The pet project of Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director Greg Engert, Bluejacket has 20 house-made beers on tap, along with five cask ales. The draft list is constantly changing, but you can usually find two of its most popular beers on tap: the refreshing, dry-hopped kolsch Forbidden Planet, and the citrusy Lost Weekend IPA.
300 Tingey St. SE. 202-524-4862. bluejacketdc.com.
Best Brewery for Live Music: Flying Dog
Some breweries feature local bands on weekends. Flying Dog goes gonzo with a summer concert series, which has brought Of Montreal, Surfer Blood and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to play on a festival-style stage at the Frederick brewery. This year's calendar includes the Violent Femmes (June 25) and Galactic (July 30) playing on Saturday afternoons. General admission is $25 per event. There's more than music, of course: Sip rare and delicious Flying Dog beers and snack on bites from local food trucks. Only bummer: There are no public tours or tasting room hours on concert days. Tickets are available at flyingdogtix.com. — FH
4607 Wedgewood Blvd. Frederick. 301-694-7899. flyingdogbrewery.com.
Best Brewery Trophy Case: Port City
Port City Brewing Company doesn't have an actual trophy case. It has something better. "In our tasting room, we have what we call our wall of marvel, and that's where we put the awards we win," founder Bill Butcher says. And at the rate that the Alexandria brewery is going, Butcher's going to need a bigger wall. At the Great American Beer Festival alone, Port City has won eight medals since opening in 2011. That's not even counting the GABF honor Butcher is proudest of: Small Brewery of the Year, which the company won last year, along with individual medals for Optimal Wit, Monumental IPA and Port City Porter. "We weren't brewing these rare styles that are one-offs or hard to find," he says. "The beers that won the awards are the beers that we brew every day that are widely available across the region." — RG
3950 Wheeler Ave., Alexandria. 703-797-2739. portcitybrewing.com.
Best Brewery to Hit on the Way to the Beach: Burley Oak
Bryan Brushmiller and his team are making some of the most exciting beers in the Mid-Atlantic region. Secret Sauce, a hoppy yet flavorful and balanced double IPA; Sorry Chicky, a dry-hopped Berliner weisse; and Pants are Cumbersome, a beach plum sour made in collaboration with Dogfish Head. Swing by the taproom on a Friday night to have a pint, grab a growler and listen to local rock bands, or drop in on a Saturday for a free tour at 3 p.m. There are regular canned beer release events, too: Memorial Day weekend welcomes the debut of a new gose and the latest in their series of IPAs with experimental hops. — FH
10016 Old Ocean City Blvd., Berlin, Md. 443-513-4647. burleyoak.com.
Best Brewery Region: Loudoun County
People in Washington like to think they're at the epicenter of the area beer scene. Outstanding beer bars that can stand up to any on the East Coast. Distribution laws that make it possible to drink ales from just about anywhere. Festivals that attract big-name breweries and rare beers.
But if I won a chauffeured trip to the breweries of my choice this weekend, I'd tell the driver to point the car toward Loudoun County. It's not just the sheer number of breweries in Loudoun — 18, at last count — but the diversity of what they produce that makes them so interesting. There are world-class IPAs and terrific barrel-aged stouts at Ocelot in Dulles; stellar lagers and pilsners and funky brett beers at Lost Rhino in Ashburn; award-winning saisons and sours at tiny Crooked Run in Leesburg; experimental imperial IPAs and double stouts at Adroit Theory; and intriguing ales at Vanish, a farm brewery that grows and harvests its own hops. And that's just a third of the brewery options.
The problem with touring Loudoun breweries is that you're going to need a designated driver. The counter argument is that you have to visit the breweries to sample beers that rarely make it out of tasting rooms — not even to the best beer bars in D.C. And that's why Loudoun County rewards exploration. — FH
Best Nanobrewery: Crooked Run
At Leesburg's Crooked Run, three brewers create IPAs, stouts, sours and Belgian-style farmhouse ales on a three-barrel system, which is capable of producing six kegs of beer per batch. That's a minuscule amount, to be sure, but a big step up from the 1 1/2-barrel system Crooked Run used from November 2013 until February 2016. But size doesn't correlate to brewing prowess: Crooked Run took home a gold medal at the prestigious World Beer Cup in Philadelphia earlier this month with Supernatural, a pink hibiscus saison with a tart white-wine character. It should return to Crooked Run's intimate, laid-back taproom in July, says co-founder Jake Endres, and it's the perfect beer to sip on Crooked Run's small patio.
Endres and partner Lee Rogan have plans to grow: They're planning to open a 10-barrel brewery later this year, hopefully in Loudoun County. The little Leesburg nanobrewery will remain in operation, reborn to focus exclusively on sour beers. — FH
205 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg. 571-918-4446. crookedrunbrewing.com.
Best Brewery for Something Unique: Adroit Theory
As he made plans to start a brewery in Purcellville more than two years ago, Mark Osborne knew you could find taprooms pouring IPAs or blond ales at breweries throughout the region. So he and brewer Greg Skotzko set out to create something different, challenging customers to embrace their unique approach. Their first beer was B/A/Y/S (that's "black as your soul"), an imperial stout made with hazelnuts and cherries and aged on American chestnut, and it remains one of the rare beers Adroit Theory revisits; since opening in early 2014, the brewery has produced more than 400 distinct beers.
"There's a risk in doing that, sure," Osborne says. "Luckily, right off the bat, we were able to build a following."
People return to the taproom — which is scheduled to expand next month — knowing they won't likely see the beer they enjoyed on their last visit. But they're certain to find something interesting on Adroit Theory's two-page tap list: There's a smoky grilled peach and yerba mate imperial saison, for instance, and a Belgian stout called Holy Mole that's kicked up with ghost and pasilla peppers. Upcoming drafts include a beer inspired by Thai noodle soup and another made with shishito peppers. — JT
404 Browning Ct., Unit C, Purcellville. 703-722-3144. adroit-theory.com.
Best Brewery Merch: DC Brau
The pioneering brewery's tasting room stocks T-shirts for men, women and children, most bearing a variation on the D.C. flag, some designed by local artists. It has also released a startling number of limited-edition shirts over the years: burgundy-and-gold shirts honoring the Washington Redskins and shirts inspired by Iron Maiden's "The Trooper."
But DC Brau's merch goes beyond shirts: There are scarves and onesies; fitted ballcaps and cycling hats; pint glasses shaped like DC Brau cans; and zipper pulls made from spent shotgun shells. Oh, and they sell six-packs to go, too. — FH
3178 Bladensburg Rd. NE. 202-621-8890. dcbrau.com.
Best Brewery Worth a Long Drive in Maryland: RAR
If you've taken Route 50 to Ocean City, you've driven past the small historic town of Cambridge, on the banks of the Choptank River. Since fall 2013, it's been home to RAR Brewing, which has grown from a cool brewpub with live music and shuffleboard to a popular brewery that sends its hoppy Nanticoke Nectar IPA and Groove City Hefeweizen to Annapolis, the District and other spots.
The small-town vibe is great no matter when you visit, but RAR especially shines at Saturday morning release parties for its latest cans. At the festive January release party for 1st Meal breakfast stout, made with coffee and maple syrup, the bar showed 1980s cartoons on television and adult patrons showed up in footie pajamas. Keep an eye on RAR's Facebook page for news of limited-release IPAs, such as Hyde and Reaper, which are only sold in 16-ounce cans in the taproom. But hit the road early: Many beers sell out the same day they're released. — FH
504 Poplar St., Cambridge, Md. 443-225-5664. rarbrewing.com.
Best Brewery Worth a Long Drive in Virginia: Pen Druid
After spending more than a decade recording and touring the world in their psych-rock band Pontiak, the brothers Carney — Jennings, 37, Van, 36, and Lain, 33 — decided to press pause on a successful music career and launch a brewery.
Back home in Rappahannock County, the brothers rented a space in an old apple packing warehouse in Sperryville, a village on the banks of the Thornton River, and traded their instruments for tools of their new trade: jackhammers, shovels, plumbing equipment and paint brushes, eventually moving on to mash kettles, fermenters and a microscope.
And that's where Pen Druid gets really interesting. They're experimenting with wild yeasts, spontaneous fermentation, blending and barrel aging, while sourcing as many ingredients locally as they can. (They purchase malt, for instance, from the nearby Copper Fox Distillery.) And, just nine months after opening, they've developed their own yeast strain. Van, who calls what they're doing "lambic style," gets excited when he talks about the yeast. "It's blowing our minds," he says, surrounded by beer-filled wooden barrels from the distillery and nearby wineries.
It's also getting them noticed. Beer Advocate magazine chose Pen Druid as one of 33 best new breweries of 2015 and put Van on the cover.
But don't worry, Pontiak fans: The brothers get in their home studio at least once a week, and the band is working on its 11th album. They just have to find a way to make touring fit into their new line of work. — JT
7 River Lane, Sperryville, Va. 540-987-5064. pendruid.com.