By Greg Kitsock
Ask a knowledgeable beer drinker to tick off the nation’s great brewing cities, and it’s unlikely that Washington, D.C. will be mentioned in the same breath as modern craft-beer hot spots like Seattle, Portland, or San Diego, or even heritage brewing centers like St. Louis or Milwaukee.
But there is a tradition here that far predates some of these other metropolises. Long before our nation’s capital had a Capitol building, long before architect Pierre L’Enfant’s visions of wide avenues and marble monuments became a reality, Washington had a brewery. In 1796, a physician named Cornelius Conyngham began making ale, porter, and small beer in a stone building on B Street (present-day Constitution Avenue), near where the Vietnam Memorial stands today. But it was an era of cheap and abundant whiskey (George Washington himself operated a distillery at Mount Vernon), and Conyngham went out of business in 1811.
About the same time, an itinerant brewer with high ambitions named Joseph Coppinger sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson, urging the establishment of a national brewery in the capital, whose output would counteract the “baneful influence” of excessive spirits consumption. Jefferson wasn’t unsympathetic—he once said of beer, “I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one-third of our citizens.” Jefferson also homebrewed at Monticello. But he was old and tired and passed on the idea, replying, “I do not think it a case where a company need form itself on patriotic principles merely, because there is a sufficiency of private capital, which would embark itself in the business if there were a demand….”
Two hundred years later, a crop of new breweries is proving that there is indeed a demand, which will be in evidence as Washington, D.C. hosts the Craft Brewers Conference March 26-29. D.C. has more production breweries than brewpubs, an oddity for a large metropolitan area. They’re small, but growing.
DC Brau, the oldest and largest, pumped out 5,000 barrels in 2012 and hopes to boost production to 12,000 barrels this year. DC Brau opened two years ago on Tax Day, April 15—a date when millions of Americans traditionally can use a stiff drink. Situated at 3178-B Bladensburg Road in the far northeast corner of the city, it’s built a reputation on hoppy, American-style ales, canning a pale ale called The Public, an IPA called The Corruption, and a Belgian-style ale called The Citizen. The cans are adorned with factoids such as “In November 2000, the DC Department of Motor Vehicles began issuing license plates bearing the slogan ‘Taxation Without Representation’” (a reference to the fact that D.C. lacks a voting member in Congress).
DC Brau is one of the three co-brewers of this year’s symposium beer, a rye Pilsner formulated in tandem with The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore and Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, Va.
Chocolate City Beer at 2801 8th Street NE occupies a narrow, trapezoidal stone building that once housed stonecutters who worked on the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The tiny microbrewery has focused on malt-accented, sessionable beers, including a Vienna lager dubbed Cerveza Nacional and 1814 ESB (named after the year that British invaders torched the White House). More recently, they’ve gotten into bigger beers and bottling. “Chocolate City” is a nickname for the city popularized by a 1975 album by the funk band Parliament. The tap handles are in the shape of a clenched fist, an iconic symbol of the black power movement of the 60s.
3 Stars Brewing Co. (named after the emblem on the D.C. flag) opened at 6400 Chillum Place NW in 2012. The draft-only brewery specializes in higher-gravity, experimental brews, including Southern Belle, an imperial brown ale made with toasted pecans, and Peppercorn Saison. The brewery houses the city’s only homebrew supply shop, stocking malt and hops for the metropolitan area’s homebrew clubs including Brewers United for Real Potables and DC Homebrewers.
For a city of 630,000, Washington, D.C. is underserved by brewpubs. There are only two as of this writing, both in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood a few blocks from one another: a Gordon Biersch at 900 F Street NW, and the District ChopHouse at 509 7th Street.
Capitol City Brewing Co. at 1100 New York Avenue NW became Washington’s first brewpub in 36 years when it began pumping beer in 1992. But the restaurant later scuttled its brewing equipment to make room for an upstairs banquet room; its house beers are brewed across the Potomac in a Capitol City branch at 4001 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Va.
The Shape of Beers to Come
The high cost of real estate in the touristy parts of town has doubtlessly stymied the growth of brewpubs, coupled with their inability to sell growlers to go. On January 17, however, Mayor Vincent Gray signed an omnibus liquor bill that will finally legalize growler sales for the city’s brewpubs and bars and for liquor and grocery stores as well. Like all laws passed by the city, it must pass muster in Congress before going into effect.
Washington, D.C. is currently undergoing a brewery boom that could more than double the number of local beermakers within a year. Perhaps the most anticipated project is Greg Engert’s Bluejacket brewery, which derives its name from a slang term for sailors in the U.S. Navy. Engert is beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes Birch & Barley and its upstairs bar ChurchKey at 1337 14th Street NW. There, Engert presides over an inventory of 555 different beers, including 50 drafts and five cask offerings, and a state-of-the-art cooling system that maintains three different temperature zones for the beers.
Not content merely to hawk other people’s beers, Engert plans to open his 200-seat restaurant with a 15-barrel brewery later this spring at 4th & Tingey Streets SE, not far from the Nationals ballpark. His brewer, Megan Parisi, has been honing her skills by brewing guest beers at other breweries. (Her most recent effort, L’Intermaire, is an ale made at Dogfish Head and brewed with verjus rouge, the juice of unripe grapes.) Look for several new collaborations to premier at ChurchKey during conference week. Engert will open Bluejacket for tours, although the first brew won’t take place until later this spring.
Not far from Bluejacket’s location, Gordon Biersch was planning to open a second D.C. brewpub at 100 M Street SE in time for the conference.
Washington, D.C. is easy to navigate, a grid of lettered streets running east-west and numbered streets running north-south, crisscrossed by avenues named after the states. The city, however, is divided into four quadrants: NW, NE, SW and SE. Give the wrong geographic designation to your cabbie and you could wind up far from your destination!
John F. Kennedy once derided Washington as “a city of southern efficiency and northern charm.” However, parking enforcement can be efficient and ruthless, and your best bet for travel might be the city’s subway system, Metro. Metro encompasses 86 stations on five color-coded lines, linking D.C. proper with its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. (Check www.wmata.com for information on fares, schedules, delays, and station closures.)
With a little planning, you can organize a pub crawl around many Metro stations. Exit the Red Line to Dupont Circle and you’re within a block of The Big Hunt (1345 Connecticut Ave. NW), a friendly neighborhood dive with 31 taps, and Pizza Paradiso (2003 P Street NW), a branch of a local chain that pairs an extensive beer selection with gourmet pies (your choice of toppings includes lamb sausage, buffalo mozzarella, capers, and baby arugula in addition to the more pedestrian mushrooms and pepperoni). Scion (2100 P Street NW) offers American cuisine with an Asian accent (wasabi Caesar salad, a Kobe-and-sirloin burger) with a generous assortment of craft beers and craft-beer cocktails.
A few blocks to the north is Kramerbook & Afterwords (1517 Connecticut Ave. NW), a bookstore/café with 18 draft selections. A short walk to the south, you’ll find the Brewmaster’s Castle, a turreted Victorian mansion built by D.C. beer baron Christian Heurich in the 1890s. The sumptuous interior, with its chandelier and antique suit of armor, is open to tourists Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for a $5 fee. (See www.heurichhouse.org.) Alas, the brewery Heurich built closed in 1956 and was paved over to make way for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Trek about three blocks to the west and you’ll reach 1523 22nd Street NW, site of the iconic Brickskeller. The homey, subterranean saloon premiered in 1957, a few days after the launch of Sputnik, and gradually accumulated a beer selection that topped 1,000, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. In the 1970s owner Maurice Coja sent a refrigerated tanker truck out West to pick up brands not available locally, including a microbrew called New Albion Ale. During the 1980s and 90s, Dave Alexander (who married Maurice’s daughter Diane) pioneered the sit-down, tutored beer tasting and beer dinner here. In 2010, the Alexanders sold the restaurant to hotelier Megan Merrifield, who renamed it the Bier Baron and added a few cosmetic touches (white tablecloths, a revamped menu) while retaining the ambience and the focus on beer. She’s enhanced the live entertainment (everything from drama to burlesque) while maintaining a list of 600 beers.
The Columbia Heights station on the Green Line will give you easy access to Meridian Pint (3400 11th Street NW), with 22 taps devoted solely to American craft beer and cider, and its lower-level booths with self-service tap handles affixed to the tables. On March 29, the final evening of the conference, Meridian Pint will host Drink Local!, a beer tasting featuring 16 D.C., Maryland, and Virginia breweries, with 16 casks scattered throughout the premises and many scarce collaboration beers on tap.
At 3718 14th Street NW, a brisk walk from the Metro, you’ll reach The Red Derby, a neighborhood haunt with a basic pub-grub menu and more than 50 beers—all of them in cans.
Take a hike to the south and west and you’ll hit Adams Morgan, a multicultural neighborhood whose bars and restaurants represent almost every ethnic group. The Turkish-German themed Doner Bistro (1654 Columbia Road NW) fuses falafel and wurst with an extensive German beer list. For dessert, you can enjoy a Belgian waffle or exotic chocolates and a Belgian fruit lambic at Locolat Café (1781 Florida Avenue NW), run by the Piferoen family (paterfamilias Geert used to be executive chef at the Belgian Embassy). Also worth dropping by: The Black Squirrel (2427 18th Street NW), a multilevel taphouse with a well-chosen beer list, and Smoke & Barrel (2471 18th Street NW), whose menu combines large selections of beer and bourbon with a menu dominated by barbecue and smoked meats.
In walking distance of the conference hotel and conference center are the city brewpubs and RFD Washington (810 7th Street NW), a multitap/sports bar run by Dave Alexander’s son Josh. At 1101 K Street NW is Brasserie Beck, an upscale, Belgian-themed bistro that offers more than 100 Belgian brews from the tap or out of the bottle, including the house brand Antigoon.
If you’re in a Belgian frame of mind, also consider Belga Café (514 8th Street SE, accessible via the Eastern Market station on the Blue and Orange Lines) in the city’s Barracks Row neighborhood.
Nearby Arlington, Va. used to be part of the District of Columbia until Congress returned it to the state of Virginia in 1846. That’s why D.C. appears on maps as a diamond with a huge bite out of it. An excursion into Arlington on the Orange Line brings better-beer destinations at almost every stop. Walkable from the Court House Metro are Fire Works Pizza at 2350 Clarendon Boulevard, and the Galaxy Hut (2711 Wilson Boulevard), a hole-in-the-wall (almost literally!) dive with 20 taps, funky artwork, and live music on most Sundays and Mondays. The Clarendon station opens up in sight of Lyon Hall at 3100 N. Washington Boulevard (great sausage platter, large beer list with an emphasis on imports). The Ballston stop leads to a Rock Bottom Brewery at 4238 Wilson Boulevard; Rustico at 4075 Wilson Boulevard (also overseen by Greg Engert), as well as the World of Beer (901 N. Glebe Road), the recently opened local branch of a Tampa, Fla.-based chain.
If you’re in the mood for a hike, ride the Orange Line to the East Falls Church station and take a 20-minute walk eastward to the Westover Market at 5863 N. Washington Boulevard. Westover’s “Great Wall of Beer” features more than 1,000 selections. The market also has an onsite café and a year-round beer garden warmed by an open fire during the cold months. (The Lost Dog Café at 5876 Washington Boulevard right across the street is well worth a look also.)
Alternatively, you can hike about a mile northwest along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail to Mad Fox Brewing Co. (444 West Broad Street in Falls Church), one of the region’s best brewpubs.
One area not served by Metro (although the X2 Metrobus will take you there) is the Atlas District that runs along H Street NE a few blocks north of Union Station. Named for the refurbished Atlas Theater, this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood is home to numerous dive bars, themed pubs, and restaurants, including the Biergarten Haus (1355 H Street NE), with its spacious outdoor patio and German-dominated beer list; Granville Moore’s (1238 H Street NE), a gastropub with a lengthy Belgian and Belgian-style beer selection; and Smith Commons (1245 H Street NE), a three-story bistro with outdoor dining decks and frequent craft beer promotions.
The Beer Industry’s “Wild, Wild West”
A vast number of beer brands are available in D.C. The city is often one of the first stops for foreign breweries seeking to export their brands, and for U.S. craft breweries beginning to expand outward from their immediate markets. Washington has a well-educated, affluent population, including many federal workers, diplomats, and military personnel who hail from elsewhere and might be hankering for a taste of their hometown brews.
“Washington understands what we’re trying to do,” commented Sean Lilly Wilson of the Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C., who praised the city for its food scene as well as its beer savvy. The microbrewery (2012 output: about 2,500 barrels) is hard-pressed to satisfy its local market, but has staked out three accounts in D.C.: ChurchKey, Pizza Paradiso, and Range (celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio’s new 14,000-square-foot restaurant at 5335 Wisconsin Avenue NW).
The city has been termed “the wild, wild west” of distribution because if a beer is not readily available from a wholesaler, a retailer can, by paying a small fee to the city’s alcohol administration board, obtain an importer’s permit to obtain a stash from any out-of-state supplier. That’s why you occasionally see labels from, say, Deschutes or Surly Brewing occasionally pop up in D.C. venues, even though those breweries don’t officially market their beer here.
Beer to-go can be procured at liquor stores, groceries, convenience stores, and delis. Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits (5544 Connecticut Avenue NW) hast a vast selection that hovers somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 brands depending on the season. Situated near the border, it’s a frequent port of call for residents from Maryland’s Montgomery County, where the county is the sole legal wholesaler of alcohol and complaints frequently surface about selection, price, and freshness.
Other off-premise establishments with extensive craft selections include Rodman’s at 5100 Wisconsin Ave. NW and the similarly named De Vinos (2001 18th Street NW) and d’vines (3103 14th Street NW).
Finally, we mention one fringe benefit of the CBC’s scheduling: visitors might get to see Washington, D.C.’s famous cherry blossoms, which every spring turn the Tidal Basin into a sea of pink. This year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20 to April 14 (check www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org for a schedule of events). The blossoms themselves are unpredictable; last year’s peak bloom took place from March 20 to March 24, one of the earliest on record.
Chances are that several local brewpubs will celebrate the season with a magenta-tinged beer brewed with cherry puree. The tendency is to dismiss this as a gimmick to draw in tourists, but it’s part and parcel of a blossoming beer culture that’s enveloped our nation’s capital.
Greg Kitsock is a frequent contributor to The New Brewer and a resident of the Washington, D.C. area since the 1970s. He also writes a beer column for the Washington Post.
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