For those who don't spend time chasing trends in the geekiest corners of the craft beer world, it's bound to raise questions: Why lager? Why spend a week focused on an oft-maligned style that is closely associated with bland, big-selling macrobrews? Why not give the people what they want — more juicy IPAs?
“Lagers have had a home in D.C. going back to [prominent German brewer] Christian Heurich in the 1800s, and we're celebrating that lager history,” says Paul Dean, the executive director of the D.C. Brewers' Guild, which puts on D.C. Beer Week.
The focus on lager dovetails nicely with the Solidarity Brew, a beer created for D.C. Beer Week annually in collaboration with an army of local brewers. This year's Solidarity beer was brewed at Atlas Brew Works; head brewer Daniel Vilarrubi worked with District ChopHouse's Barrett Lauer to narrow down the style — a 5-percent ABV German Pilsner — before other breweries added input. “Obviously, it helps that pilsners are a hot style these days,” Vilarrubi says. “Then there's also the fact that D.C. in August really calls for something light and delicious.”
While IPAs dominate the craft beer scene, representing more than a quarter of all sales across the country, an increasing number of the country's best brewers, including Founders, Victory and Bell's, have released pilsners and lagers in recent years, which have led to double-digit sales increases. Local breweries have also seen a growth in interest. Port City Brewing launched a rotating lager series last May, releasing a new batch of a different lager in its Alexandria tasting room every four to eight weeks.
For Port City head brewer Jonathan Reeves, it's a chance to experiment with one of his favorite styles. The latest release, an unfiltered Franconian Kellerbier that will be available at the Lager Fest, is “between a pale ale and a lager, and dry-hopped just a little bit,” Reeves says. “I'm trying to stay in style without blowing out the style — to make a pilsner that's as hoppy as a pilsner can be. I think people are surprised they can be more aggressive.”
DC Brau co-founder Jeff Hancock has always loved German beers, and wanted to make a pilsner when DC Brau first opened its doors in 2012. Unfortunately, he says, that had to take a back seat to the ales going into the brewery's tanks: Traditional lagers are stored and aged for weeks or months after they're fermented. Port City's best-selling Optimal Wit, for example, goes from brew kettle to bottle in about 10 days.
In 2015, Hancock finally got to release Brau Pils, a spicy, crackerlike northern German pilsner that's now DC Brau's third best-selling beer. Two months ago, DC Brau began exporting Brau Pils to Sweden, after the beer received a “near-perfect” score in the blind tasting that determines which beers are sold in the country's state-controlled liquor stores. Hancock says he appreciates that pilsners and lagers can appeal to both novice and experienced craft beer drinkers. “For someone just getting into beer, they're looking at it like, 'Oh, it's a craft Bud Light,'" Hancock explains. “But it's just a nuanced beer, with a lot of subtleties. You can't hide any mistakes with them.
“You have a lot of breweries pushing out hazy, juicy IPA, but at the end of the day, the brewers want to make something they want to drink.”
And for many of them, that's a refreshing, thirst-quenching lager. D.C. Beer Week is your chance to find out why.
Lager Fest at City Winery: For Lager Fest, which will take over the third-floor garden and rooftop deck at the Ivy City winery, D.C. breweries were asked to reach out to friends at regional breweries to see if they'd be interested in pouring lagers, pilsners or related styles: District ChopHouse invited Victory Brewing and the Brewers' Art, while 3 Stars roped in Maryland's Evolution and Manor Hill, and Virginia's new Eavesdrop Brewery. Around 30 breweries will be represented. Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. at City Winery, 1350 Okie St. NE. $40.
Liquid Integrity and Right Proper Home Brew Contest at Right Proper Brewing: To celebrate D.C. Beer Week, a group of local home-brewers were asked to make a German-style pilsner, similar to the Solidarity Brew. Their beers will be tapped for a panel of judges and the general public at Right Proper's Brookland brewery. Prizes will be awarded to the judges' favorite as well as the people's choice. Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. Right Proper Brewing, 920 Girard St. NE. All home-brew samples are free; other beers and food will be available for purchase.
Other D.C. Beer Week events to look out for:
'The Art of Beer' at Heurich House: Branding on beer cans and bottles can be just as important to consumers as the liquid inside. The graphic artists who create logos and labels for Stillwater, Aslin, DC Brau, 3 Stars and Ocelot will discuss their craft and process during a panel discussion with Phil Runco of Brightest Young Things. Beer will, of course, be available. Tuesday from 6 to 8 p.m. The event will be held in the Carriage House Gallery behind Heurich House; enter at 1921 Sunderland Pl. NW. $15.
New Maryland Breweries and Brewpubs at Meridian Pint: With all the breweries that have opened in the Free State in recent years, it can be hard to keep them straight. This takeover features beers from Black Flag (Columbia), Crooked Crab (Odenton), Cushwa (Williamsport), Mully's (Prince Frederick) and True Respite (Rockville), none of which have been tapped in D.C. before. Wednesday at 5 p.m. 3400 11th St. NW. Free.
Craft Beer Trivia at Glen's Garden Market: Think you know your DC Brau from your Denizens? Show off your big beer brain during a trivia contest at Glen's and you could win a year-long membership to the Dupont market's growler club. (Up to four people are allowed on a team, so choose your friends wisely.) Between rounds, a Beer-Lympics taste test features medal-winning beers from around the D.C. area, and all local draft beers are $4 all night. Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. 2001 S St. NW. Free.
Brewers on the Block at Union Market: This long-running festival, held outside of Union Market, features dozens of breweries from the Mid-Atlantic region; expect to find far-flung breweries, such as RAR, Pale Fire, Champion and Victory, pouring a pair of beers alongside all the usual inside-the-Beltway favorites. Unlimited pours and live music are included with admission. Aug. 25 from 5 to 9 p.m. 1309 Fifth St. NE. $55-$75.