Sometimes, though, all those choices can be overwhelming or intimidating to a less-experienced beer drinker. The solution is to find a beer bar with a smaller, tighter draft menu. When beer directors have only one or two dozen slots to fill with craft beer, they need to focus their selections, making sure everything that’s flowing really deserves to be there. There’s nowhere for a “just okay” IPA to hide.
The science of putting together a beer list is the same whether you’re trying to program 15 lines or 50. A small list is more of a challenge, but it also allows bars to steer customers to newer, fresher beers that they might not think to order when browsing a longer menu. We talked to some of the people who curate the D.C. area’s best beer lists about their process, and a few themes emerged.
Variety is key. Greg Engert, the beer director for the expansive Neighborhood Restaurant Group, sees both ends of the spectrum, since he’s responsible for the mammoth lists at ChurchKey and the Sovereign as well as the 18 lines at Eatbar and the dozen taps at Union Market’s Red Apron. It’s all about making sure there’s a variety of “benchmark flavor profiles that people love to drink all the time,” from pilsner to porter to IPAs.
At Galaxy Hut in Clarendon, owners Lary and Erica Hoffman “try to cover all the bases” with their 28 taps, Erica says. “We need a decent amount of dark beers, a sour, something cloudy, a brown ale. Some people are dedicated to a certain style,” rather than a beer or brewery.
Know your audience. Most serious beer bars would love to have a lineup filled with the cool and rare barrel-aged stouts, funky sours and hazy IPAs that dominate the chatter in the beer world. They also know that such a bar might not be long for this world.
“We have people coming in who are just looking for double-dry-hopped IPAs and barrel-aged sours,” says Jace Gonnerman, who programs lists at the District’s Meridian Pint, Brookland Pint and Smoke & Barrel. “We also have regulars who are in every week for an Optimal Wit, or looking to have a couple of pints and a burger.”
Being a block from Verizon Center means Brian Leonard of Free State has to do a similar balancing act with his 15 drafts, which all come from the Mid-Atlantic region. “You get Untappd guys who come in,” Leonard says, referring to the popular beer-logging app, “who say, ‘Oh, I saw there’s a rare beer on at Free State,’ ” but he also gets customers asking for a new beer from Alexandria’s Port City, or game-day crowds wondering why there’s no Bud Light. (He’s happy to steer them toward Port City’s Downright Pilsner as a substitute).
Rare is cool. Expensive is not. Packing the list with beers from small, hard-to-get producers can increase a bar’s cred, but they also tend to be more expensive than offerings from such larger-volume breweries as Lagunitas, New Belgium and Flying Dog.
“Price can differentiate a product,” Gonnerman says. “We want to make sure we’re keeping some $6, $7 pints to go with the $12 Wicked Weed barrel-aged wild ales.”
Drew McCormick, the new beer director for the three Pizzeria Paradiso restaurants, is more blunt. “We want to be accessible,” she says. “It’s amazing we get to bring in these rare beers, but if it’s not priced to be accessible, then what’s the point?”
Keep it interesting. Dry 85 in Annapolis has only 12 draft lines. Three are always filled by Lagunitas IPA, DC Brau Pils and Devils Backbone Vienna Lager, a concession to the tourists who visit the Maryland capital and might not be familiar with certain breweries or styles. But the remaining lines change often. “I’m inquisitive,” says owner Brian Bolter. “I think our customers are inquisitive about new beers. We want the beer list to be different every time you come in.”
At Galaxy Hut, Lary Hoffman says that although he tries to keep the list balanced, “we also jump on what’s newest and most interesting from the brewers that we work with.” As a result, Galaxy Hut, which has been selling craft beer since the microbrew craze of the early 1990s, has a crowd of people who come in to ask not just, “What’s the hoppiest thing you’ve got?” but also searching out the new IPA from Ocelot.
“People are interested in trying something new they haven’t seen in the grocery store,” Erica Hoffman says. “They say, ‘Oh, man, you’re the only bar I’ve seen who has this.’ ”
Make room for locals. In a 2015 Nielsen survey, 52 percent of all craft beer drinkers said a brewery being “local” was an important factor in their beer purchases; that rose to 55 percent for drinkers ages 21 to 34. Every bar surveyed for this story pushes the value of local beer. Pizzeria Paradiso has collaborated with the District’s 3 Stars and Right Proper to make house beers; Meridian Pint has released collaborations with Aslin (Herndon) and Ocelot (Dulles) already this year.
The Neighborhood Restaurant Group includes two bars with regional themes — Owen’s Ordinary in North Bethesda, where about half of the 50 drafts are from Maryland, and Red Apron Burger Bar in Dupont Circle, where much of the beer, like the beef, comes from Virginia. “I think the focus is freeing for me,” Engert says. “I have trouble finding homes for all the beers I want to pour. It spreads the love.”
At Free State, “we’re celebrating everything about the Mid-Atlantic,” from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, Leonard says. People ask why they don’t have Great Lakes beers, for example, and he’s happy to explain. “Would I like to put Kentucky Breakfast Stout on? Absolutely. But it’s not what our focus is. We have a focus we’re passionate about.”
Our “perfect” beer list
Using these guidelines, we tried to put together a well-rounded menu of just 12 draft beers. We kept it realistic — the house IPAs are not Tree House King Julius and Russian River Pliny the Younger — and used beers that can regularly be found in the Washington area.
IPA | RAR Nanticoke Nectar
The craft beer movement preaches the importance of “local,” especially when hoppy IPAs are concerned. The Cambridge, Md., brewery’s flagship IPA has balanced sweetness and malt, despite the 7.4 percent alcohol.
Session IPA | Founders All Day IPA
Every beer director stressed the importance of stocking a hoppy-yet-sessionable IPA. “It alleviates a lot of headaches on Friday nights,” says Brian Leonard of Free State. People ask for potent IPAs “and they tend to drink ’em as fast as they drink light beer.” One of the best-selling session beers in America is the solution.
Saison/Belgian Style | Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale
The champion of The Post’s 2015 Beer Madness competition is a heavyweight farmhouse ale, with peppery spice, pronounced grapefruit/citrus-hop character, and a crisp, dry body.
Witbier | Allagash White
While taps rotate daily at ChurchKey, some beers never leave its lineup. One is Allagash White, from the trailblazing Maine brewery. It’s easy to recommend to folks looking for “something like Blue Moon,” but even beer geeks know it’s exemplary for its style. “I happen to think it’s the best witbier out there and nothing compares with it,” Greg Engert says.
Lager | Devils Backbone Vienna Lager
No, it’s no longer a craft beer. But this sweet, malty, approachable Vienna Lager, the winner of gold medals at the 2015 and 2016 Great American Beer Festivals, is still featured at many bars that wouldn’t dream of tapping a mainstream lager.
Pilsner | Victory Prima Pils
Pilsner is getting hot again, and this might be the best hop-forward pils in America. The top choice in a style appreciated by beer nerds and Bud drinkers alike is perfect for this list.
Porter | Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Yes, porter. “People in the Mid-Atlantic love porter,” Engert says. “I always have a lower-ABV porter that I can put into a pint” on tap, says Meridian Pint’s Jace Gonnerman. That’s why we’ll go with this award-winning porter packed with coffee and roasted malt flavors.
Strong Dark Beer | Hardywood Raspberry Stout
Strong barrel-aged stouts are wildly popular with hardcore beer lovers, and the barrel-aging program excels at Richmond’s Hardywood Park. While best-known for the Gingerbread Stout, don’t overlook the raspberry chocolate and bourbon barrel-aged coffee stouts.
Sour Beer | Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale
A tart and briny blend of gose, Berliner weiss and kolsch, this new year-round Dogfish Head offering is both unusual and thirst-quenching. The brewery name is familiar, the flavors might not be.
Rotating IPA | Ocelot IPA
Ocelot’s fresh, balanced, super-flavorful IPAs are fixtures at Meridian Pint and Red Apron. The problem is that Ocelot doesn’t like to brew the same beer twice. This tap is for whatever they’re sending out now, such as the hazy, fruity Mi Corazon.
Rotating Whale | SingleCut Softly Spoken Magic Spells
Rare, sought-after beers are known as “whales” — objects to be hunted. A good draft list will have a least one to appease beer geeks. Double dry-hopped IPAs are huge now, and SingleCut, sold in only a few cities outside of New York, is worthy of its buzz.
Rotating Local Seasonal | Union Old Pro Gose
This tap will be kept fresh with a seasonal beer from our own backyard. It’ll start with Old Pro Gose — a tart, dry and refreshingly salty beer that local beer pros love — and then move toward other styles, like Flying Dog’s Old Bay-inspired Dead Rise Ale.
What would be on your perfect menu of 12 draft beers? Tell us in the comments.