Craft Beer in Blossom: Washington, D.C. Hosts Craft Brewers Conference

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By Greg Kitsock

Note: An expanded version of this article will appear in the March/April 2017 issue of The New Brewer.

If you haven’t visited Washington, D.C. since the last Craft Brewers Conference here in 2013, you’ve got some catching up to do. A growing community of small entrepreneurs is producing a plethora of artisanal beverages in the nation’s capital these days.

As of February, the District of Columbia boasted 12 breweries, eight microdistilleries, and a cidery, along with numerous taprooms. Here’s a look at the latest news, some can’t-miss spots, and some special collaborations during the Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America® April 10-13.

Exploring D.C.

Let’s start with the neighborhood around Nationals Park in Southeast Washington, which is rapidly turning into a brewery district. The centerpiece is Bluejacket (300 Tingey St. SE), a three-level brewery/restaurant occupying a former factory that once manufactured boilers for the U.S. Navy. (The word “bluejacket” is slang for an American sailor.)

Bluejacket offers a rotating list of 20 house beers plus four cask ales. Mainstays include Forbidden Planet (a hoppy American-style Kölsch), Mexican Radio (a milk stout spiced with vanilla, cocoa, cinnamon and chili) and Lost Weekend (an IPA hopped with 100 percent Citra). Bluejacket also has a temperature-controlled barrel room where beer director Greg Engert and head brewer Josh Chapman craft wild ales with four strains of Brett as well as Pedio and Lacto bacteria. Since 2014, they’ve also been experimenting with a coolship to create spontaneously fermented ales.

Look for an assortment of collaboration brews to debut at Bluejacket during CBC, including Potential Grizzlies, a joint effort with Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert, Ariz. Engert describes it as “a mixed-fermentation farmhouse ale that’s slow fermented with a blend of yeasts, Brettanomyces strains, and bacteria for nearly three months before being hugely dry-hopped with Citra and Hallertau Blanc just prior to serving at the brewery.”

A short walk away, at 100 M St. SE, is the Navy Yard branch of the Gordon Biersch brewpub chain. Head brewer Travis Tedrow plans to serve Two Helles Bock, a collaboration with industry veteran Allen Young, whose brewing career dates back to the long-defunct Chesbay of the 1980s. Tedrow will also turn over some of his taps to special beers from five other regional Gordon Biersch locations. On April 13, the brewpub will hold a Lost Lagers Historical Beer Tasting and Presentation, featuring “pre-Prohibition lagers, Victorian porters, and beers of the early American Republic.”

Due south of the ballpark at 25 Potomac Ave. SE, a new Bardo is rising along the riverside. This is a descendant of the original Bardo Rodeo in Arlington, Va., a quirky brewpub in a defunct Oldsmobile dealership noted for its vast interior, auto parts suspended from the ceiling, and jukebox inside a sawed-off 1966 Plymouth. Brothers Bill and Andrew Stewart revived the business in D.C.’s Trinidad neighborhood in 2013, but have closed that site in preparation for the new ballpark beer garden seating 750. It’s set to open in March on a sporadic basis (weather permitting) and with more regular hours beginning in April. They’re using the original 25-barrel Bardo brewhouse plus a tank farm incorporating two new 100-barrel fermenters. Look for many of the old Bardo favorites, including Dremo Strong Ale, Marion Berry Ale, and an ESB recipe not brewed in 20 years.

Meanwhile, D.C.’s two oldest production breweries are in expansion mode. DC Brau at 3178 Bladensburg Road NE is busting down the walls to take over the former Central Union Mission next door, and installing a 30-barrel brewhouse that will “double production right out of the gate,” reports brewmaster Jeff Hancock. Look for several special collaboration brews during CBC, he adds. Yonder Cities is the second iteration of an Americanized farmhouse ale hopped with Citra and Simcoe, brewed in tandem with Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing. Conflict of Interest is an imperial Pilsner co-brewed with Wyoming’s Melvin Brewing Co. Yet unnamed are a strong adjunct lager to be brewed with 2SP Brewing Co. in Aston, Pa., and a hop-forward pale ale with Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, Calif.

Hancock, incidentally, is one of four area brewers who gathered at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md. to help Flying Dog brewmaster Ben Clark brew this year’s symposium ale. See the sidebar for more information.

Five-year-old 3 Stars Brewing Co. at 6400 Chillum Place NW is also experiencing a growth spurt, preparing to install a new 20-barrel brewhouse. Their beer lineup includes Pandemic Imperial Porter, Ghost (a white IPA), and assorted takes on the farmhouse ale style, including Peppercorn Saison and a cranberry saison called Nectar of the Bogs. The premises include a homebrew supply shop and a climate-controlled tasting room dubbed the Urban Farmhouse that adds warmth and color to the industrial setting, a former auto mechanic shop.

Hellbender Brewing Co. at 5788 2nd St. NE opened in 2014 in D.C.’s rapidly gentrifying Fort Totten neighborhood. Hellbender is named after the largest species of salamander in North America, a mini-dragon that can reach over two feet in length. Co-founder Ben Evans is a former microbiologist and neuroscientist who was fascinated by reptiles and amphibians in his youth. He and partner Patrick Mullane have a strong interest in sustainability; their brewing equipment includes a Meura mash filter that enables them to mill their grain to a flour-like consistency, increasing efficiency and reducing water and energy use.

The draft-only microbrewery serves up a citrusy Southern Torrent Saison; a crisp Bare Bones Kölsch; and a balanced Red Line Ale. The latter commemorates Metro’s Red Line; the Fort Totten station will carry you to within a few blocks of their brewery/taproom. Evans reports that he was “working out the details” for a collaboration with St. Feuillien Brewery in Le Roeulx, Belgium for a CBC week release.

A little farther out of the way is Atlas Brew Works at 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE in D.C.’s Ivy City neighborhood. Like Hellbender, this operation is committed to sustainable brewing, drawing clean power from a 67.5-kilowatt solar panel array on the roof. Atlas has three flagships available in kegs and cans: Rowdy (a rye pale ale), District Common (a California common), and Ponzi, a hop-forward IPA. On April 13, the brewery will release HaSaWoDo, a black saison, in conjunction with heavy metal night in the taproom.

The area around Atlas has become Washington’s gin, vodka, and whiskey district; after visiting the brewery you can drop by spirits producers Jos. A. Magnus & Co. (which shares the same building with Atlas); Republic Restoratives (1369 New York Ave. NE); One Eight Distilling (1135 Okie St. NE); and New Columbia Distillers (1832 Fenwick St. NE). The latter has gained a reputation for its Green Hat Gin, named for the Man in the Green Hat, a bootlegger to Congress during Prohibition.

If you want to stick to areas served by Metro (see the sidebar for more information on getting around in D.C.), you can take the Red Line to the New York Avenue Station and walk over to REI in the renovated Washington Coliseum (site of the Beatles’ first concert in the United States). Atlas and the outdoor retailer will join in hosting a product demo and charitable fundraiser on April 11, followed by an Atlas tap takeover at nearby Wunder Garten (1101 First St. NE).

Even if you spend most of your time close to the Convention Center, RFD at 810 7th St. NW in D.C.’s Chinatown has special events scheduled nearly every night of CBC week. They include a taste-off between California, Colorado, and Michigan breweries on April 10; a Lagunitas tap takeover the following evening; and a lunch with Stone Brewing, Victory Brewing, and Dogfish Head on April 12.

Branching Out

In 2013, when the CBC last convened here, Washington was woefully underrepresented by brewpubs. The only brewery/restaurants operating were the Gordon Biersch at 900 F St. NW and the District ChopHouse at 509 7th St. NW. Both are still around, but they’ve got some competition.

Besides Bluejacket and Bardo, you can get a meal and a mug at Right Proper Brewing Co. at 7th & T St. NW, across from the Shaw/Howard University Station on the Green Line. The name sounds impeccably British, but the beer offerings wander all over the map. They include Raised By Wolves, an aromatically hoppy pale ale; Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne, a dry-hopped Berliner weisse brewed with elderflowers and grapefruit peel; and Häxan, a roasty “Baltic-leaning” porter.

Partners Thor Cheston and Nathan Zeender have also established a Right Proper production brewery and tasting room at 920 Girard St. NE. Check out the colorful chalk murals on the walls and the three six-feet-high oak foeders. One of these is reserved for Baron Corvo, a mixed-fermentation beer reminiscent of Rodenbach, which brewmaster Zeender produces through the solera method of blending fresh and well-fermented beer. The facility is in walking distance of the Red Line’s Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland-Catholic University Stations.

At 1601 Rhode Island Ave. NE in D.C.’s Langdon neighborhood is The Public Option, a cozy neighborhood brewpub that aims to keep eight of its house beers on tap at all times. Its Cream Ale made with flaked maize goes down smoothly. Owner Bill Perry has a no-tipping policy; money left on the table gets donated to a local nonprofit.

Farther Afield

You won’t find any breweries in D.C.’s tony Georgetown neighborhood; if someone tried to open one, the outcry over declining property values would probably resound as far as Baltimore. But you can find good beer here. Check out The Sovereign, a Belgian-themed restaurant and bar established by Neighborhood Restaurant Group and its beer director, Greg Engert. It’s in an alley just off the bustling corner of M St. & Wisconsin Ave. NW, occupying what used to be a raucous college sports bar. The beer list features 50 drafts and more than 350 bottles. An upscale menu features such dishes as Rabbit in Kriek and Carbonnade Flamande along with the obligatory frites and mussels.

About a mile up Wisconsin Ave. in what’s sometimes called “upper Georgetown” and more correctly referred to as Glover Park, you’ll find the Mad Fox Taproom (2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW). This non-brewing outpost of Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church, Va. showcases the beers of owner/brewer Bill Madden, including cask ales, guest beers, and ciders.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, the near suburbs offer additional watering holes of note. At one end of the Red Line, a 10-minute stroll (at most) from the Silver Spring Station in Maryland is Denizens Brewing Co. (1115 East-West Highway). The microbrewery boasts a two-level taproom and spacious 200-seat beer garden. Denizens has done considerable dabbling in wild ales and beers from the wood: their inventory at press time included a Chichi Tequila Barrel-Aged Petit Sour Ale that spent four-and-a-half months in second-use barrels. They also do standard styles like Born Bohemian (a Czech Pils) and Lowest Lord (an ESB). This women- and minority-owned brewery doesn’t shy away from politics. It hosted Hillary Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, during the 2016 campaign, and released a special brew, Woman, You Nasty Beer (a porter with Mexican chocolate), for the January 21 Women’s March on Washington.

On the opposite of the Red Line, the Rock Bottom Brewery near the Bethesda, Md. Metro stop (7900 Norfolk Ave.) is still churning out beer. Farther north in Rockville, Md., 7 Locks Brewing Co. (12227 Wilkins Ave.) describes itself as “a no-frills neighborhood spot” with a taproom serving 10 house beers. One of them is the citrusy and piney Owen’s Ordinary Pale Ale. Owen’s Ordinary is also the name of a tavern at 11820 Trade St. in North Bethesda, another new venture of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. It offers 50 rotating drafts with an emphasis on Maryland microbrews.

Across the Potomac in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Va., the Heavy Seas Alehouse (1501Wilson Blvd.) spotlights the pirate-themed beers of Heavy Seas Beer in Baltimore. Arlington now has local branches of the World of Beer taphouse chain and Total Wine superstores. They’re practically across the street from one another, at 901 N. Glebe Rd. and 800 N. Glebe Rd., respectively, a short walk from the Ballston stop on the Orange and Silver Line.

Sadly, the Ballston branch of Rock Bottom Brewery has closed, but a new microbrewery, New District Brewing Co., has opened at 2709 S. Oakland St. in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood. The name commemorates the fact that Arlington used to be part of the District of Columbia. Congress in its infinite foresight retroceded the territory to the state of Virginia in 1846, figuring it would never need all that land for the federal government. New District is a short walk from Capitol City Brewing Co. at 4001 Campbell Ave., which brews beer both for itself and the original Capitol City near Metro Center in D.C.

In Alexandria, Va., Port City Brewing Co. is in an off-the-beaten-track industrial corner of the city at 3950 Wheeler Ave., but owner Bill Butcher plans to offer discount ride share codes for early-bird attendees who want to visit on the Sunday before CBC. The brewery will host a fun run, Joggers & Lagers, on Monday evening, Beer Yoga the next day, and a stand-up comedy night on Thursday, courtesy of the Power of Positive Drinking.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, you can visit Hops Grill & Brewery at 3625 Jefferson Davis Highway, the final outpost of a once-mighty brewpub chain that numbered more than 70 locations nationwide.

Set for a March opening is the Portner Brewhouse at 5770 Dow Ave. in the Modera Tempo mixed-use development. The movers and shakers behind this project are Catherine and Margaret Portner, great-great-granddaughters of Robert Portner, who prior to Prohibition operated what he boasted was the largest brewery in the South. Brewer Brian McElvaney will alternate modern styles with recreations of brands from the original Portner Brewery, including Vienna Cabinet, Hofbrau Pilsner and Tivoli (“I lov it” spelled backwards) Cream Ale. For CBC, Portner Brewhouse will welcome guest brewers Garrett Peck (author of Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.) and homebrewer/beer historians Michael Stein and Peter Jones to recreate two 18th-century beers, a strong ale and a small beer.

Finally, you can take a water taxi on the Alexandria waterfront and cross the river to the MGM National Harbor Casino in Prince George’s County, Md. that opened in December. There you can play a Colossal Bier Haus slot machine that (as of January) was advertising a maximum payoff of more than $100,000. If you lose, you can drown your sorrows at the Tap Sports Bar, which offers 48 draft selections and 26 bottles and cans. If you win, you can splurge on a liter-and-a-half bottle of Chimay Grande Reserve—only $140.

Register for the Craft Brewers Conference.

Greg Kitsock is a frequent contributor to The New Brewer and a resident of the Washington, D.C. area since the 1970s.

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