According to Michael Jackson, who introduced the term in his landmark World Guide to Beer in 1977, a world classic was the definitive example of one of 34 historical beer styles: Pilsner Urquell, Saison Dupont, Guinness Extra Stout. I tasted my first my first world classic (Anchor Steam) in 1980; it would take me five trips to Europe to tick the remaining 33. Today, BeerAdvocate lists nearly a thousand beers worthy of “world class” status. Social media–driven grade inflation? Or further evidence of a golden age of brewing?
This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Mr. Jackson’s passing and the 40th anniversary of his World Guide, which was published at a time when many of the world’s classic beer styles were either disappearing or losing their traditional character. Mr. Jackson, for example, lamented the replacement of Pilsner Urquell’s wooden fermenters with stainless steel after the collapse of communism, but continued to rate the beer as a “world classic.” Today’s beer geeks are less forgiving, rating Pilsner Urquell as merely “good” with a score of 82. Contemporary beer hunters prefer Dvanáctka, the more traditional unpasteurized, open-fermented Czech pilsner of the Kout na Šumavě brewery, which they rate as “excellent” with a score of 90.
Mr. Jackson was never a big fan of assigning scores to beers and claimed that his publisher pressured him to do the ratings to make his series of Pocket Guides more commercially viable. And yet with the passing of Mr. Jackson, no one has had the hubris to claim that Heady Topper, say, and not Pliny the Elder, is the definitive version of the American IPA style. For better or worse, today’s world classics are determined by a digital democracy on rating platforms such as BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, and Untappd. BeerAdvocate, for example, assigns “world-class” status to any beer that scores 95 or higher. Such rankings act as a kind of Dow Jones index for beer traders to determine a beer’s market value. Combine a high score with sufficient scarcity and you’ve got what fan boys call a “whale.” In a world where more than 10,000 breweries are producing in excess of 100,000 different beers, we would be lost without such data-crunching websites and their volunteer armies of dedicated beer hunters.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Jackson was an army of one, scouring the planet for good beer. He was, in fact, the ultimate ticker. At a time when there were only a few hundred American breweries, producing just three or four different beers, he was able to taste nearly all of them—assisted by a cadre of beer enthusiasts who shared his passion. I should know: I was one of them.
Chauffeur, valet, fixer, and even bodyguard, I accompanied Mr. Jackson on four beer-hunting expeditions in the late 1980s and early 1990s: through New England, the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and California coast. No brewery was too obscure, no pub too sketchy, no beer too problematic. He wanted to visit them all and taste everything. Always in search of authenticity and artisanal techniques, he expanded his list of world classics in the 1990s to include Anchor Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot, and Alaskan Smoked Porter. But as the craft-brewing revolution gained steam and his Pocket Guide descriptions became more numerous but less current, American authors began to fill in the gaps with their own regional guides. When seasonal brews exploded in the early 2000s, only the bimonthly brewspapers could keep up.
I often wonder what Mr. Jackson would have thought about our contemporary craft brewing scene. While beer styles will always be relevant, many of today’s craft beers defy categorization. As a third generation of American craft brewers increasingly blur the boundaries between traditional styles, each new beer is potentially a style unto itself, defined as much by its ABV as its historical origins.
One no longer has to cross ocean or continent to taste these world-class beers. Here in the Washington metro area, for example, we have nine beers rated 95 or higher on BeerAdvocate’s data base (the most statistically valid, in my opinion): On the Wings of Armageddon from DC Brau (95), Talking Backwards Triple IPA (96) from Ocelot, and seven brews from Aslin, including the frighteningly delicious Master of Karate (99).
Last month, DC was swimming in whalez during the recent Craft Brewers Conference, as premier breweries from around the nation shipped their finest suds to DC watering holes. ChurchKey’s “East Coast’s Finest” event featured seven world-class beers from Trillium, Other Half, The Veil, Bissell Brothers, and the Suarez Family. Meridian Pint boasted a similar bounty of cetaceans during its “IPA Fest” of 60 IPAs from 30 breweries. Had Mr. Jackson been in town, I’m sure he would have been riding shotgun in the harpooner’s boat with Ahab and Queequeg.
“No beer, only ale,” a housemaid might have whispered to a valet.
“Nuthin’ but huf-cap [strong ale] in the Queen’s buttery [liquor room],” some scullery maid must have snickered to some footman.
What we know for certain is that on June 28, 1575, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leister, sent a handwritten note to Secretary of State William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England. “There was not one drop of good drink for her,” wrote Leister “Her own [ale] here was so strong as there was no man able to drink it…. It did put her far out of temper.”
The crown employed 60 brewers in London and the provinces plus one traveling brewer to supply the court with suitable refreshments. And yet, Queen Elizabeth I was now in a grumpy mood because one of them had neglected to brew sufficient quantities of beer, the hopped, low-alcohol tipple that was replacing potent, unhopped English ale throughout the kingdom.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Leister, who was planning perhaps the most audacious marriage proposal in English history. A distant cousin but close childhood friend who knew the monarch better than anyone, Leister would soon be welcoming Elizabeth and her entourage of 31 barons and a staff of 400 to his private estate, Kenilworth Castle. He had hired two of London’s leading architects to transform the historic 10th-century fortress into a “Renaissance Palace,” hoping to impress the Queen into marrying him. The party went on for 19 days—a record for a royal visit—and included nightly banquets, concerts, and fireworks, as well as deer hunting, bear baiting, and cutting-edge theater from London’s leading playwrights, one of whom would have been able to see the fireworks from his residence in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.
Despite the spectacle and pageantry, Leister did not prevail. Since their chaste but passionate romance first blossomed 15 years earlier, Elizabeth had lavished “dear Robin” with estates, royal contracts, and numerous sinecures. By now, the Virgin Queen, aged 42 and 17 years on the throne, had famously announced to Parliament that her only husband would be the Kingdom of England. Leister, once a dashing courtier and skilled equestrian, also 42, was now bald, gimpy, and in failing health. Their romantic entanglement, always politically fraught, now seemed sad and pointless. In the end, Elizabeth rejected the final proposal from perhaps the only man she ever loved, telling him, “I will have but one mistress here and no master.”
Modern readers might be shocked to learn that Queen Elizabeth was a beer drinker. But in a pre-industrial Europe scarred by centuries of waterborne epidemics, thin, barely alcoholic “small” beer comprised the majority of liquid consumed every day by commoner and nobility alike—especially in the British Isles. In those pre-coffee, pre-tea days, virtually everyone, including good Queen Bess, started their day with a glass of beer: a neat package of hydration, nutrition, and stimulation. Juice, cereal, and coffee rolled into one convenient meal.
Elizabeth was a thoroughly modern woman and embraced the new leaner, drier “beers” from Holland that had largely replaced the potent, thick, sweet ales of her father’s time. “Only the old or the sick” still drank ale, wrote William Harrison in 1577 in his Description of England. In fact, court brewers produced a special light beer for Elizabeth that was hoppy enough to endure two months of aging before drinking. The rest of the royal household drank a one-month-old small beer. These beers probably contained between two and three percent alcohol by volume and were the forerunners of “dinner ale,” a kind of family-friendly table beer that survived into the 20th century.
Despite her enthusiasm for Dutch beer, Elizabeth was one of England’s earliest temperance advocates. She oversaw the first licensing of ale houses and introduction of the first civil penalties for public drunkenness, in which inebriants were paraded through town in a “drunkard’s cloak” (actually a barrel with holes for the head and arms). Throughout her reign, she railed against “doble-doble” beer, a malt liquor made extra strong by running the wort through a second bed of grain before fermenting. In 1560, she demanded that brewers brew as much “single” beer as the more profitable doble-doble beer, though there is little evidence that the brewers complied. She championed legislation in 1597 that restrained the excessive use of malt, though this too seemed to have little impact on her subjects’ thirst for potent beers and ales.
The Queen’s own taste for less-intoxicating brew was ultimately satisfied by former paramour Leister, who built two personal breweries for Elizabeth: one to the west of London in Sion and another at Puddle Dock, along the Thames. The Queen would never run out of beer again.
For beer drinkers, the real tragedy of Prohibition was not a 13-year absence of malt beverages but the 60 years of mediocrity that followed. The era preceding WWI and Prohibition was a Golden Age of brewing, as crisp American-made lagers, lightened by the addition of corn or rice, bested Bohemian pilsners and English pale ales for blue ribbons and gold medals at international expositions in North America as well as Europe. Post-Prohibition beer? Not so golden. The only awards American megabrewers win are for entertaining ads that divert our attention from the insipid character of the products they promote.
But don’t blame the descendants of Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch. They tried their damnedest to resurrect the robust, flavorful beers that once made Milwaukee and St. Louis famous. In fact, they may have tried a little too hard.
For nine months prior to Repeal, beer drinkers had made do with a kind of light beer authorized by the Cullen-Harrison Act of March 1933, which modified the definition of “intoxicating beverages” in the Volstead Act from 0.5% to 3.2% abw (4.0% abv). After Repeal, U.S. brewers were free to resume brewing the pre-Prohibition lagers that were nearly as hoppy and potent as today’s IPAs. Lest the public confuse the resurrected pre-Pro beer with the 3.2 post-Pro beer, the brewers attached such descriptors as “prewar strength,” “high proof,” “extra strength,” “high test” and “14 percent original extract” to the labels of the newly legal brews.
A tardy U.S. Congress, which had been caught off guard by the swift ratification of the 21st Amendment, finally acted to promote moderation and establish regulations that would curb the excesses of the saloon. Its main achievement was to abolish the old system of “tied houses” owned by or beholden to brewers, and establish a three-tier system that legally separated brewers from wholesalers from retailers. But while it was at it, Congress decided to take a whack at strong beer, the perennial whipping boy of temperance advocates and the boogeyman of abuse since the age of Queen Elizabeth I.
A House Ways and Means Committee questioned the validity of such claims as “prewar strength,” and noted that the variation of alcoholic content “has little consumer importance,” that selling beer on the basis of alcoholic content “attempts to take advantage of the ignorance of the consumer and of the psychology created by prohibition experiences.” The committee’s report concluded that the abuse of such claims had grown to such an extent since Repeal that “the prohibition of such statements is in the interest of the consumer and the promotion of fair competition.” (Sixty years later the Supreme Court would come to exactly the opposite conclusion.)
On Aug. 29, 1935, Congress incorporated the committee’s recommendations into the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. The legislation mandated the labeling of alcoholic content, or proof, for all spirits and wines with an abv greater than 14% abw (17.5% abv). However, “statements of, or statements likely to be considered as statements of, alcoholic content of malt beverages are hereby prohibited unless required by State law.” While the federal legislation failed to limit alcohol content, state legislators, especially in the South and Midwest, were more than happy to cap beer potency on their own turf. Most of these alcohol ceilings remained in effect until just the last decade or so when lawmakers realized that the craft beer boom was leaving them behind—along with the all the jobs and tax revenue it generated.
Thanks to the language of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935 and the subsequent limits on beer strength imposed by individual states, most brewers voluntarily limited alcohol content to 5% abv. Few complained. If you add the years of 2.75% “war beer” that preceded Prohibition and the nine months of 3.2 beer that followed it, nearly an entire generation of Americans had never tasted full-strength beer—much less strong beer.
Ever since the first stirrings of the craft beer renaissance, pre-Prohibition beers (generally lagers) have seemed poised to make a comeback: first in 1981, when the late mathematician and pioneering homebrewer George Fix won the best-of-show David Line Trophy at the Second Annual International Beer Competition in Phoenix for his Pre-Prohibition Pale Lager (6.25% abv); later, in 1997, when the Manayunk brewery’s Tom Ciszauskas brewed the first commercial resurrection, Harry’s Prohibition Pils; and again in 2010, when Coors’ Batch 19 (5.5%), inspired by a pre-Pro recipe, briefly focused attention on this misunderstood style. Sadly, American megabrewers’ longstanding abuse of corn as a brewing adjunct (sometimes as much as 50% of the grain bill) has turned a generation of American beer drinkers against any beer brewed with corn. As I sip from a can of Surly’s tasty corn-based #merica! all I can think is “What a shame.”
By almost any objective measure, we are living and drinking in the midst of a golden age of brewing. Whether it’s the record number of American breweries (4,269), the diversity of beer styles recognized by the Association of Brewers (151), or craft beer’s percentage of domestic sales (16%), American beer drinkers have never had it so good.
But here’s an even more significant statistic: 5.6/6.9/9.6. That’s the ABV “slash line” representing the average strength of today’s pale ales, IPAs, and double, or imperial, IPAs. I have chosen to ignore the other 148 styles because it was American pale ale, after all, that launched the craft brewing revolution nearly four decades ago; American IPA that is currently its most popular style; and double IPA that is the most powerful expression of our present obsession with hop-forward beer. Together, these three styles form the backbone of nearly every American brewery’s portfolio.
Now, compare our current slash line with the slash line of the lager era that preceded the craft brewing renaissance: 4.2/5.0/6.3 (the average ABVs for light beer, premium beer, and malt liquor, respectively). Throughout most of the 20th century, everyday beer in America ranged from cheap, or “budget,” beer, characterized by a high percentage of adjunct grains and low alcohol content (4.0–4.5% ABV), to premium beer with a lower percentage of corn grits or rice and somewhat greater strength (4.5–5.0%). When the economy was good, more people drank premium beer, while recessions increased consumption of cheap beer. But towards the end of the century, the big industrial brewers figured out how to charge a premium price for lower-gravity beer: by calling it “light” (or Lite). This may have been a golden age for the ad agencies who crafted the illusion, but by most objective measures, like competition (just 38 brewing companies in the late 1970s) and diversity (one style, two strengths), it was a historic nadir for the craft of brewing.
Things began to change in 1980 when Sierra Nevada introduced a pale ale seasoned with Cascades hops, a revolutionary new strain developed by researchers at Oregon State University. (The short-lived New Albion brewery, in 1976, was the first to use Cascades commercially.) Sierra founder Ken Grossman felt his new beer needed a greater percentage of malt—and higher ABV—to balance the exuberance of these homegrown hops. Five-point-six percent seemed about right, establishing a new benchmark for everyday beer in the U.S. that is still the standard for American pale ales.
Five years earlier, the Anchor Brewing Co. had showcased the Cascade hop with an even bigger malt base when it introduced Liberty Ale at 5.9% ABV. The first modern IPA since Prohibition, Liberty Ale set the standard for IPAs until 1994, when Vinnie Cilurzo brewed an Inaugural Ale at the Blind Pig brewery in Temecula, CA, that weighed in somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0% ABV, ushering in the age of double IPAs. Today, 7.5% is generally viewed as the dividing line between single and double IPAs.
The slash line of our current era closely resembles that of the last golden age in brewing, in Victorian England. Thanks to the widespread application of new brewing tools such as the thermometer, hydrometer, and steam engine—as well as beer-friendly tax rates and government policies—English ale was the most consistent, potent, and affordable in the world, the envy of all brewing nations (much as American craft beer is today). Most of the beer consumed in working class Victorian pubs was called “X” or four-ale (because it cost four pence a quart), later known as mild. More affluent patrons in the upstairs saloon drank “XX,” a predecessor of pale ale, or bitter. Strong beer, typically aged for a year or more, was known as “XXXX” or stock ale. At its peak, around mid-century, the slash line for X, XX, and XXXX was 6.5/8.2/10.4, according to brewing records compiled by Ronald Pattinson. By the time Congress passed the Volstead Act in the U.S., increased taxes, temperance sentiment, and a world war had reduced Britain’s slash line to 2.3/3.6/6.1. Four-ale, which by the 1910s cost four pence a pint, was not even remotely intoxicating, and Burton and stock ales were less potent than mild had once been. The strength of English ales recovered somewhat during the 1920s, but would never come close to the ABVs of the 19th century.
A higher alcohol content doesn’t necessarily make beer better—malt liquor proved that in the 1980s and 90s—but it does present the brewer with a broader canvas on which to create more vivid flavors, more dramatic contrasts, and more complex blends of flavors. During a golden age such as this one, every batch of beer has the potential to be a work of art.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
You can usually tell that a particular brewing trend has peaked when Samuel Adams brews its version. Such was the case when the Boston-based brewer released Rebel “West Coast Style” IPA in 2013. By then it had been nine years since Green Flash trademarked the term “West Coast IPA”; 13 years since Russian River brewed the definitive version (Pliny the Elder); 16 years since Stone began pushing stylistic boundaries with ever stronger, ever hoppier versions; and nearly two decades since Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo “invented” the style with his Blind Pig Inaugural Ale—widely recognized as the first double IPA.
For 20 years I’ve watched while Californians—especially those living in San Diego County—had all the fun. In the past half dozen years, though, the epicenter of brewing innovation has shifted to the East Coast. Bubbling up from the brewkettles of Vermont, a softer, gentler breed of IPA has spread throughout New England and is now trickling down into the Mid-Atlantic—close enough for a central Maryland geek like myself to taste history firsthand.
Early this spring, my friend Mike told me that Hill Farmstead taps were popping up at bars in Brooklyn and the Village. This was the closest that any Vermont beer, outside of bootlegs, had gotten to central Maryland. A road trip to the Green Mountain State would be time-consuming and expensive, but by staying with Mike in New Jersey, I could drink Vermont beer on the cheap in New York City. A pub crawl began to take shape.
Whether you call them Vermont-, New England-, or Northeastern-style IPAs, all of these beers are intensely hoppy and juicy but without the bitterness associated with many West Coast styles. Most are brewed with a percentage of wheat or oats, and nearly all of them are unfiltered and hazy—some as turbid as a milk shake.
Used to be, hazy, cloudy beer was a sign of sloppy brewing technique. Nowadays, it suggests a genius in the making such as John Kimmich, Shaun Hill, Jean Brouillet, and a growing cadre of brewers who are turning this former beer flaw into a mark of excellence. Currently, each of the top ten–rated IPAs on BeerAdvocate (all but one brewed in New England) is hazy or even turbid.
Skeptics persist, including Jason Alström, co-founder of the popular online website. In a review of Tired Hands’ murky flagship brew HopHands, he described the beer as “a muddled mess,” railing that “Milkshake beers are not a trend or acceptable with traditional or even modern styles.” He scored the beer “poor” with a rating of 64.
The BeerAdvocate community tends to disagree, rating HopHands “outstanding” with a score of 91. “Stupid delicious,” declared Beer Advocate cavedave. “Juicy as all Hell with a very low bitterness. I could drink [it] all day long,” wrote justintcoons. And from BA Kadonny, “Yes, it is super cloudy but I’m not sure why that would detract from the beer itself, I guess I don’t understand. I go mostly on taste, and this beer tasted fantastic.”
I could hardly wait to form my own opinions.
Our original plan was to meet on a Wednesday at Tired Hands in suburban Philadelphia, then, on the following day, troll the Village and Brooklyn for New England-style IPAs. But when the Blind Tiger announced a Brooklyn Brewery tap takeover for that Wednesday, we agreed to begin the pub crawl at the venerable craft beer pub and save Tired Hands for the end of the crawl.
I make the four-hour, 253-mile drive to Mike’s place in Bloomfield on the morning of April 13, 2016, leaving us enough time to catch the 1:50 pm bus to the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan. At $7.50, the bus ride is quicker—just 45 minutes—and half the cost of the Lincoln Tunnel toll for cars, and it eliminates the hassle of parking. We then take the A Train to the western edge of Greenwich Village and walk a few blocks down Bleecker Street to the pub.
Our crawl begins during the waning days of the New York presidential primary: there is electricity in the air and Bernie Sanders bumper stickers on many cars. While I marvel at the entrepreneurial hodgepodge along Bleecker Street (an artisanal butcher shop next to a women’s shoe boutique next to a café that served both lattes and craft beer), Mike spots a Heady Topper decal on the bumper of a Volkswagen Golf. Vermont’s outspoken senator seemingly locked up the beer geek vote the previous summer when he tweeted a picture of himself holding a can of Heady Topper. (Clinton had enjoyed a photo op at the little-known Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Trump is a teetotaler.)
Heady Topper (8.0% ABV), of course, is the original New England-style IPA, first brewed in 2003 in Waterbury, VT, by John Kimmich of the Alchemist. For eight years Heady was Vermont’s little secret, only available at the Alchemist brewpub. But after Kimmich started canning his brew in 2011, Heady’s reputation began to grow, eventually topping Pliny the Younger on online beer sites as the world’s highest rated IPA. Since the beer can only be purchased from a handful of outlets within 35 miles of the brewery, craft beer enthusiasts from throughout New England and the Northeast have trekked to Waterbury to wait in line, buy their quota, and take some home to share with friends. One of Mike’s Jersey buds had shared a can with him a few years ago. I was still a Heady virgin.
WAITING FOR GARRETT
We enter the Blind Tiger at 3:30, early enough to nab a couple of stools at the bar. The pub is filling up fast in anticipation of an appearance sometime after 4 pm by Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn’s head brewer, author, and editor of the James Beard Award-winning Oxford Companion to Beer.
Blind Tiger’s reputation as New York’s premier beer bar seems well earned. Hill Farmstead had made its New York debut here in late 2012, and only Tørst in Brooklyn enjoys a higher rating on BeerAdvocate. The pub is small and intimate with just 15 stools at the bar and 27 table seats. The feeling of warmth and intimacy is reinforced by a Z-shaped bar that juts into the main room, allowing patrons to make eye contact with virtually anybody in the pub. Mike nods to three or four brewers, sales reps and beer writers he recognizes. It would be hard to miss Garrett Oliver in this setting.
Of the pub’s 32 taps, nearly half offer Brooklyn beers. A half dozen beers from Jack’s Abbey, the lager specialist from Framingham, MA, were still on tap from the previous week’s tap takeover. But my attention is focused on the two faucets pouring the Hill Farmstead beers Edward and Susan.
With the possible exception of the Alchemist, perhaps no Northeastern brewery is held in higher esteem among beer enthusiasts than Hill Farmstead. Every week, fans trek up to the Hill family farm in Greensboro Bend, VT, to fill growlers with whatever beer brewer Shaun Hill has been tinkering with. Production is extremely limited, and distribution, until recently, has been restricted to Vermont.
Hill, as well as fellow Vermont brewer Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, were early fans of the Alchemist and received valuable insight and advice (and possibly their house yeast) from the Alchemist’s John Kimmich. For his part, Kimmich was trained and mentored by the late brewing legend and author Greg Noonan, who founded the pioneering Vermont Pub and Brewery in 1988. The Alchemist’s distinctive house yeast, nicknamed “Conan,” was originally brought to the U.S. from England by Noonan. Low flocculating and less attenuating than typical American strains, Conan also contributes distinctive peachy esters lacking in the flavor-neutral yeasts commonly used by West Coast brewers.
While my palate is at its freshest, I order a half-pint of Edward (5.2%), Hill Farmstead’s flagship pale ale, named after Shaun’s grandfather. As expected, I am served a rather hazy, almost turbid, beer, apricot in color. I smell lots of grapefruit and tangerine plus some distinctive tropical notes. Five varietals are used to hop Edward, and their complexity seems to grow with every sniff. This beer has traveled 325 miles from the brewery, so I’m not too surprised that the aroma doesn’t leap out at me.
Bittering a relatively slender 5.2% beer with 85 IBUs of hops sounds like madness. Until you take a sip. Bitterness, where art thou? Somehow, those 85 IBUs had been channeled into hop flavor rather than hop bitterness. This is partially a result of “hop bursting”: saving the preponderance of hops for the end of boil, the whirlpool, the hopback, and the fermentation tank. But New England brewers have added some new twists including hopping with a higher percentage of low-alpha hops. To paraphrase Miller Lite: “Great hop taste. Less bitterness.”
Edward is so hop-forward that I could have sworn I was drinking an IPA and not a 5.2% pale ale. With its low alcohol and a lush palate softened by some wheat or oats, this beer redefined sessionable for me. I could have ordered pint after pint, but Susan was calling me.
Named after Edward’s sister, Susan is a modest 6.2% IPA hopped with Citra, Simcoe, and Riwaka, a New Zealand strain. Like Edward, Susan has a fluffy, soft body and cloudy appearance. Fruity tropical flavors, especially mango, seemed more pronounced, and the overall hop intensity was bumped up a level—again without the bitterness. I had always been skeptical of Susan’s near-perfect 99 rating on BeerAdvocate. What does a near-perfect beer really taste like? Something like this, I think, draining my pint glass.
As much as I desire a refill, it is time to dive into the assortment of fine beers from Brooklyn’s oldest craft brewery. Sorachi Ace (7.2%) was my introduction to the unique lemony hop varietal from Japan. Here I have an opportunity to compare it with Brooklyn’s other Sorachi-hopped saisons: Lord Sorachi Ace (9.5%) and the just-released 1,001 Nights (5.7%). More alcohol usually translates into more flavor, but this delicate hop seems to express itself most memorably in the lower-gravity 1,001 Nights.
It is now 5 pm and still no sign of Garrett Oliver. I haven’t seen him since he won the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing at the annual Brewers Association convention in 1998, and I wonde if I will still recognize him. That would seem to be an easy task, considering that Oliver is an African-American in an industry in which people of color are hugely underrepresented. (An examination of the paucity of black brewers and consumers of craft beer recently earned New York journalist Dave Infante a 2016 James Beard Award for his article on the website Thrillist.) So when the first black guy to enter the pub all day is eagerly greeted by a group of friends, we automatically assume it is Oliver.
“Wait,” Mike cautions, “that’s not him. He looks too young.”
Besides, Oliver knows how to make an entrance. Wearing a black cape with red lining, he looked more like a magician that a brewing wizard when he strode into the tasting room of the late Manhattan Brewery in 1989. I was there for a mid-Atlantic brewery tour organized by Charlie Papazian and the Brewers Association, and Oliver had just inherited the burden of reviving the short-lived SoHo brewery on Thompson Street. The brewery failed, but Oliver soon got the chance to work his magic when he joined Brooklyn Brewery in 1994.
It’s now 5:30, and the crowd is growing restless. A brewery rep buys Mike and me a round of Brooklyn Black OPS, a tasty 10.5% Russian imperial stout on cask. We finish the afternoon big and strong with half-pints of the brewery’s Intensified Coffee Porter (11.8%) and Improved Old Fashioned, a monstrous rye beer of 12.8%. Between us, we have sampled 17 beers. It’s time to catch the bus back to New Jersey. As we walk up Bleecker Street to the subway station, we are swarmed by packs of mostly young people walking the other way.
“Maybe Garrett showed up after all,” Mike jokes.
Little did we know, but 27,000 people were converging on Washington Square Park, just a few blocks from the Blind Tiger, to hear Bernie Sanders denounce Wall Street and call for a political revolution. When Obama spoke there in 2007, he attracted just 20,000. Sadly for the Sanders campaign, many of those 27,000 are not registered Democrats and ineligible to vote in the state primary. Clinton would beat Sanders the following Tuesday by a whopping 16 points.
LOOKING FOR VITO
The next morning finds Mike and me riding the C train toward Bedford-Stuyvesant. During the 1990s, this section of Brooklyn was synonymous with urban decay, but the past decade has brought a wave of gentrification, chic eateries, $5 lattes, and $8 pints of craft beer. Our specific destination is a gourmet grocery named Mekelburgs in the Clinton Hill neighborhood just west of Bed-Stuy. It is here that Vito Forte, former proprietor of the legendary Copper Mine Pub, is rumored to have resurfaced as a cheesemonger.
For nearly a decade, the Copper Mine Pub in North Arlington, New Jersey, had served as ground zero for Jersey beer geeks, including Mike, who was fortunate enough to live just 10 minutes away. An impeccably curated beer list and the biting wit of bartender/owner Vito Forte earned the pub the only perfect 100 score in the mid-Atlantic from BeerAdvocate. But a dispute with his landlord forced Vito to shut down the watering hole last spring, leaving loyal customers such as Mike to wonder where Vito might pop up next.
Like an old-school delicatessen, Mekelburgs beckons modestly from a sub-street level space on Grand Avenue, promising “fine foods and craft beer.” A chalkboard advertises “25% off all frozen meat.” Upon entering, we encounter an impressive cured-meats counter that features such sebaceous delicacies as goat salami, duck speck, and lardo. Even more impressive is the expansive display of cheeses. I ring the service bell, hoping to summon Vito from some unseen larder. Alas, the cashier explains that Vito resigned two weeks ago and was headed to Galax, in southwestern Virginia, to study cheese-making.
Disappointed, but still very hungry and thirsty, we proceed to the bar and small dining area at the back of the store. Twenty years ago, I might have ordered an egg salad sandwich; today I must settle for a chive egg frittata “sammie” with crème fraîche on a Mazzola’s brioche roll. Mike orders a large, single-handled bowl of lentil soup, into which a smoked chubb crostino has been artfully plunged. Both “small plates” were quite tasty and surprisingly affordable at $3.75 and $9.00, respectively.
Mekelburg’s 16 taps are as arresting as anything Vito ever poured at Copper Mine, including two more selections from Hill Farmstead: Legitimacy Pale Ale (6.0%), an intensively hoppy beer for its weight, and Shirley Mae, a chuggable 4.0% porter that packs the flavor of a 5 or 6% beer. But the biggest surprise are two brews from the Brooklyn-based gypsy brewery Grimm Artisanal Ales. Liquid Crystal (6.2%), a collaboration with Staten Island’s Flagship Brewing Co., evinces a vivid floral character I’d not tasted in a saison before. Grimm’s juicy double IPA, Tesseract (8.0%), is a tropical hop bomb that punches with a velvet glove. Both beers exhibit the same saturated flavors as Hill Farmstead and share the soft, creamy mouthfeel that characterizes Northeastern style beer.
Vito’s influence, if not in body then in spirit, still lingers at Mekelburg’s. A message chalked on the blackboard in the men’s room says it all: “Love you, Vito”—Town Donkey. On our way out, our knowledgeable bartender, Jeremy, recommends we visit the newly opened Cardiff Giant before leaving Clinton Hill.
NEW YORK MADE
Barely two weeks old, Cardiff Giant is located just three blocks away in the commercial heart of Clinton Hill. This is the same predominantly black neighborhood in which Dave Infante searched in vain for African Americans drinking craft beer in his award-winning Thrillist article. We are hardly surprised to find that Cardiff Giant’s staff and clientele are 100% white.
The pub is named for one of the most celebrated hoaxes of the 19th century, which engendered the huckster credo, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Shortly after the end of the Civil War, a New York tobacconist named George Hull commissioned a sculptor to carve the likeness of a man from a 10½-foot tall block of gypsum, which he subsequently buried on his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, New York. After two workers hired to dig a well on the site discovered the petrified giant, Hull began charging people 25 cents to view it. Presented as tangible proof of the Genesis passage that giants once walked the earth, the artifact became so popular that P.T Barnum offered to buy it for his circus. When Hull spurned his offer, Barnum had a replica made. Asked by a reporter about the existence of a second Cardiff Giant, one of Hull’s financial backers, David Hannum, uttered the oft-repeated quote about gullible rubes, which was eventually attributed to Barnum himself.
Brooklyn’s Cardiff Giant is the real deal, however, “dedicated to bringing you interesting, small-batch, craft-made New York State alcohol.” Twenty taps dispense 12 beers, 5 ciders, and 3 wines from throughout the Empire State. A three-tiered price scheme allows patrons to order a small pour (8 oz.), large pour (12 or 16 oz. depending on ABV), or a “share” (one liter). Mike and I take a tour of the state with beers from breweries in Greenpoint (Cuzette), Gowanus (Threes), and Park Slope (Other Half) in Brooklyn; Queens (Finback); Oceanside (Barrier); Glen Cove (Garvies); and Long Island City (Transmitter).
After describing our itinerary, our bartender volunteers that she lives on the same street as Other Half and is frequently awakened after late shifts at the bar by beer geeks queuing up early mornings on can-release days. Despite the inconvenience, she confirms my suspicion that Other Half brews the most sought-after beer in the city. The brewery tap doesn’t open for a couple of hours, but I argue that we should get there as close to its 5 pm opening time as possible. That left just enough time to visit Tørst first.
Before Brooklyn’s Lauren and Joe Grimm or Baltimore’s Brian Strumke began producing small batches of beer at other people’s breweries, Mikkel Borg Bjergso pioneered the concept of phantom, or gypsy, brewing in his native Copenhagen. During the early years of the current decade, such Mikkeller brews as 1000 IBU IPA (9.6%) and Beer Geek Brunch Weasel (an imperial oatmeal stout [10.9%] brewed with coffee beans that have passed through the digestive track of the Asian palm civet) gave new meaning to the term “extreme beer.” In the early days, Mikkel focused on brewing the beer, while his identical twin, Jeppe, handled sales. Their partnership dissolved, however, when Mikkel opened his own bar (Mikkeller) in Copenhagen in 2010. This prompted Jeppe to leave Denmark, start Evil Twin Brewing, and move to Brooklyn where he opened his own craft beer bar, Tørst (pronounced tersht).
Flanked by a Polish grocery and a shabby beauty salon, Tørst squats anonymously behind a white brick and wood facade in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. A menu case mounted next to the entrance is the only indication that you’ve arrived at the most celebrated beer geek bar in the five boroughs.
Tørst’s interior is the epitome of rustic Danish modernism. Old barn wood covers the walls, and a slab of white marble forms the bar. Twenty-one plain steel-and-wood taps protrude from another marble surface behind the bar, above which the day’s beer list is scrawled in white marker along a room-length mirror. Patrons sip their beers, seated in Børge Mogensen chairs. It’s a brilliant bit of design that feels as cold as January in Denmark.
Despite the presence of nearly a dozen hard-to-find guest beers, I focus on Evil Twin brews. Indeed, there is no better place to sample them. A $16,000 draft system known as a flux capacitor allows each beer to be served at its ideal temperature and pressure. A half-pint of Citra Sunshine Slacker (4.5%) arrives in an elegant stemmed glass, chilled to a classic cellar temperature of 55 degrees and carbonated just enough to focus the pungent citrusy character of the hops on the back of my tongue. Even More Jesus (12%), the brewery’s definitive imperial stout, is so massive and so full of roasty, chocolate, coffee, dark fruit, and woody flavors that I begin to doubt my ability to finish the modest six-ounce serving. I persevere and we stagger out into the daylight and board a train that will take us to Other Half Brewing.
LAST TRAIN TO BROOKLYN
Our bartender at Cardiff Giant had warned us that finding the Other Half could be tricky. It got even trickier when Mike’s smart phone died after boarding the G train at the Metropolitan Ave. stop. (A flip-top–toting Neanderthal, I could offer no backup.) Cut off from the Internet and lacking paper maps or even a street address for the brewery, we are riding blind. We get off the train at the 7th Ave. station in Park Slope so I can take a leak. An enlarged prostate like mine can easily derail a pub crawl, but on this occasion it stops us from going too far south into Brooklyn. I enter the closest coffee shop/cafe and bolt for the restroom—derelict behavior that is all the more conspicuous and embarrassing in this upscale neighborhood. An angry look from the cashier prompts Mike to purchase a croissant “to go” while I relieve myself. Two beer-quaffing locals, big fans of Other Half beer, are happy to give us detailed directions to the brewery.
This time, we ride the F train and get off at the elevated Smith and 9th Sts. Station, overlooking the infamous Gowanus Canal. A century ago, this urban waterway brought prosperity to the adjoining neighborhoods of Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Sunset Park, and Park Slope. Today it is a toxic eyesore, once reputed to be a dumping ground for Mafia hitmen, and designated as a Superfund cleanup site in 2009.
We wend our way past a quarry, fuel depot, scrap metal facility, and many defunct warehouses until we come upon a McDonalds (“Look for the McDonalds. The brewery is just across the street.”) Thank god for Micky D’s. Without this landmark, you could easily walk past the brewery. Graffiti covers the exterior of what might formerly have been an automotive repair shop. The brewery’s only signage is a logo etched on the tasting room door, which, on this warm day, is propped opened and hidden from street view. I can’t imagine coming here after dark.
The entire space is barely larger than a Jiffy Lube waiting room. Seating is limited to a pair of rough tables and benches, while most patrons lean against elbow-high railings along either wall. There is no bar, per se, just an employee pouring beer from behind a service counter. A brewery cat is purring contentedly atop one of the tables as we enter.
The draft lineup is a hop lover’s dream. Nine of the 11 beers on tap are hop-centric, ranging from a Moteuka single-hop session ale (4.5%) to an 8.5% imperial IPA hopped with El Dorado, Citra, and Mosaic hops. Hop varietals are listed for each. The only two malt-accented beers are an 11% imperial stout and a 12% wheat wine. As we work our way through five small-pours (4 oz), I begin to wish this was the beginning of the crawl and not the end of it. All of the beers taste intensely hoppy but not bitter—regardless of ABV—and, despite my fatigued palate, I can still perceive each beer’s distinctive the hop profile. The lower-gravity beers impress me more than the hop bombs, but all are first rate and share many traits—haziness, soft mouthfeel, saturated hop flavor—with the Hill Farmstead beers I’d tried earlier.
Between us, we’ve tasted 27 beers on the day. The train and bus ride back to New Jersey is long but thankfully uneventful.
NOT SO TIRED
Forty-four beers over two days has taken the edge off our thirst. Mike understandably bails on Tired Hands, our Day Three destination, but since the Philly-area brewery in on my route home, I decide to soldier on.
No doubt, a good deal of the fan-boy popularity of such hop-centric breweries as Other Half is perversely related to their limited accessibility, scarcity of product, and lack of amenities. Overcoming so many obstacles makes the reward seem so much sweeter. Tired Hands, however, suffers from none of these drawbacks.
The brewery maintains two comfortable, easy-to-find tasting rooms in the Main Line town of Ardmore with easy access to the educated palates at nearby Villanova, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford colleges. The Brew Café doesn’t open till 4 pm, but serves cheese, charcuterie, and simple sandwiches at the original brewing site which opened in 2011. The Fermentaria, Tired Hands’ main production facility, features a full kitchen serving tasty victuals all day. I arrive just as lunch is being served.
Occupying the hollowed-out shell of an 85-year-old trolley repair building, the Fermentaria is aptly named. A variety of fermentation vessels—stainless steel, large vertical French oak foudres, and racks of smaller horizontal wooden barrels—surround the dining area. The brewery’s inventive graphic theme—human hands attached to undulating, snake-like arms—is integrated throughout, from an exterior pub sign to tap handles to glassware to imaginative wall art.
A dozen beers are offered in five different serving sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, pint, quart growler, half-gallon growler—the most options I’ve ever been offered. I start with a half pint of the brewery’s signature pale ale, HopHands (originally brewed to 4.8%, but according to the menu, recently boosted to 5.5%). The beer is extremely pale (4-5 SRM) and at least as hazy as the Hill Farmstead brews I’d had in New York. Tired Hands’ owner and brewer, Jean Broillet, has said he acquired the brewery’s house yeast from a “friend [Shaun Hill? Sean Lawson?] in Vermont.” Whether or not the strain is a descendant of Conan, it exhibits the same low-flocculating properties.
The flavor is amazingly bright and juicy, “intensely hopped with Simcoe, Centennial, and Amarillo,” the menu informs me. Homebrewers have a number of theories to explain the hop-saturated character of New England-style ales: extravagant dry-hopping, interaction between suspended yeast particles and hop oil, and water treatment with more chloride salts. Judging by his beers, Broillet seems to have learned a lot from his friends in Vermont.
But it’s the texture—soft and silky smooth—that makes the experience of drinking these beers so novel. “Brewed with oats,” says the menu. In fact, all seven of the hop-forward ales I would sample are brewed with oats. Secret Poncho (9.0%), an intensely dank DIPA, is brewed with “an excessive amount of oats.” (A HopHands clone recipe, popular among homebrewers, recommends a grain bill of 20% flaked oats.)
After seven short pours and one half-pint, I calculate my blood alcohol content to be approximately .06. Time to drive home. But as I finish my final sample of Alien Church IPA (7.0%), I notice a rather non-descript guy without boots, apron, or any other protective gear walking freely throughout the brewing area, consulting with numerous employees and engaging in a longer conversation with a guy who appears to be the managing brewer. I observe no swagger, but plenty of quiet respect. Though I’ve never met the guy, I’ve seen pictures of him: It’s Jean Brouillet.
He walks over to the tap tower next to where I’m sitting and pours a few ounces of beer into a glass. While tasting the beer, a server arrives to fill an order. The server is wearing a T-shirt that reads: “No Brewgods, No Brewmasters.” The juxtaposition of server and owner illustrates the meritocracy that has driven the North American brewing renaissance to such heights. Nobody cares about your credentials; just brew good beer.
So many craft brewing pioneers—Jim Koch, Garrett Oliver, Sam Calagione, Greg Koch—often seem to be showmen first, brewers second. The industry needed guys like that. Now that craft beer has gone mainstream, however, we’ll need the passion and imagination of the Brouillets, Hills, Lawsons, and Kimmiches more than ever to make the next decade as exciting and innovative as the one we’re currently enjoying.
In Part Two of this pub crawl I travel to Massachusetts, ground zero for the most extreme manifestations of New England-style IPA.
In spite of—or perhaps because of—a ludicrous regulation that forces drinkers to buy package beer by the case or pay through the nose for six-packs from a bar, Philadelphia has developed one of the richest beer cultures in the nation. You can experience it at great beer bars such as Monk’s Café and Memphis Taproom; you can taste it in the beers of Victory and Yards; and you can celebrate it during one of the longest-running and most successful Beer Weeks in the nation. Maybe Philly’s greatest beer treasures, though, are anthropologists Solomon Katz and Patrick McGovern of U-Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Much of what we know about the genesis of brewing was pieced together by these guys.
Philly Beer Week grew out of a 10-day festival known as “The Book and the Cook,” which despite its emphasis on food and wine, maintained its popularity through beer-oriented events such as an annual tutored beer tasting hosted by Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—an event I first attended in March 1992. Flanked by mummies, sarchophagi, and a sphinx, Jackson compared classic Old World beers like Guinness Stout and Pilsner Urquel with such New World alternatives as Anchor Liberty Ale and Stoudt’s Doppelbock. The Beer Hunter was at his most compelling best as his insights and observations echoed off the antiquities of the Lower Egyptian Gallery. And yet the most profound and groundbreaking remarks uttered that day came from two guys I’d never heard of.
Dr. Solomon H. Katz, a homebrewer, had famously hypothesized that early humans who abandoned hunting and gathering to farm barley and wheat were motivated by a desire to brew beer rather than to bake bread. Both brewing and baking are multistage operations: To make bread, grains must be ground into flour, mixed with water, and heated by fire—all requiring human participation and specialized tools; but two critical aspects of brewing—sprouting grain to make malt and fermenting malt to produce alcohol—can occur spontaneously. Katz argued that mankind’s first beer was produced accidentally when a bowl of gruel containing sprouted barley or wheat was exposed to wild yeasts. Fermented gruel not only tasted better (it was sweeter), but was more nutritious, with a higher percentage of B-vitamins and amino acids—a “super food,” Katz called it. The combination of mood-altering and nutritional properties, he concluded, would have been incentive enough to cause hunter-gatherers to settle down and begin cultivating grains full time.
Katz later collaborated with Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing to re-create an ancient beer based on a 4,000-year old text known as the Hymn to Ninkasi, a minor beer goddess in Sumerian mythology. More of a drinking song than a recipe, the Hymn, nevertheless, provided a key insight: Sumerian brewers added loaves of twice-baked bread, or bappir, to amp up the fermentables in the mash. I had the opportunity to taste this concoction at the 1989 Microbrewers Conference in San Francisco, sipping the porridge-like beverage through an azure-colored paper straw that resembled the lapis lazuli–encrusted reeds found in the tombs of Egyptian royalty. It tasted more like spoiled oatmeal than beer, but at 3.5% ABV, it was as buzz-worthy as light beer and twice as filling.
Unlike Katz’s scholarly speculation about the origins of beer, archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern offered hard facts. He had just returned from the Zagros Mountains in Iran where he discovered chemical evidence of the earliest wine, dating back to 5400 BC—3½ centuries before the Hymn to Ninkasi was etched onto a stone tablet. In 2003, he would recount his archaeological adventures in Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viticulture, earning him the sobriquet of the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.” But his best work was yet to come.
In 2004, McGovern analyzed a 9,000-year-old ceramic jar unearthed Jiahu, China, containing the chemical residue of the oldest alcoholic beverage yet discovered. He found evidence of fermented rice, grapes, hawthorn berries, and honey—a mixture of beer, wine, and mead, he dubbed “Neolithic grog.” Since then, several ancient sites along the Silk Road connecting the Middle East and China have yielded evidence of similar mixed drinks, often spiked with cannabis, ephedra (ecstasy), artemisia (absinthe), ergot (LSD), or poppies. The earliest alcoholic beverage makers—most likely shamans—could ill afford to err on the side of moderation and apparently threw a bit of everything into the brew pot to guarantee a mind-altering religious experience. Modern beverage-maker Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head has collaborated with McGovern on several historical recreations of Neolithic grog, and they’ll be serving up samples this May at the National Craft Brewers Conference in Philly. For devout beer geeks, a religious experience is guaranteed.
For the beer lover, 2016 is a great time to live or work in the nation’s capital. From Georgetown to Downtown, Dupont Circle to Judiciary Square, Foggy Bottom to Columbia Heights, nearly every neighborhood in DC boasts at least one good-to-excellent craft beer bar or brewery. Twenty years ago—not so much. With few exceptions, a Bass Ale, Guinness Stout, or Samuel Adams Boston Lager were as good as it got. Discovering those exceptions, though, is what made pub-crawling fun back then—and the catalyst for transforming casual drinkers like myself into hardcore geeks. While most of the pioneering beer bars of the last century have been supplanted by Starbucks or pricy condominiums, enough remain, for better or worse, to justify a pub crawl
The most pioneering beer bar in DC—if not the entire nation—was, of course, the Brickskeller. A mecca for beer can collectors in the 1970s, home to the “Largest Beer Selection in the World” in the 1980s (a claim later verified by the Guinness Book of World Records), and epicenter of craft beer culture in DC in the 1990s, the Brick laid the foundation for the city’s brewing renaissance of the next millennium. Among its many firsts—first American bar with an extensive beer list, first to tap a keg of lambic in the U.S., first to pour Samuel Adams Boston Lager in the mid-Atlantic, first to host a Michael Jackson tasting in DC, first to stage a competition between East and West Coast IPAs (Lupulin Slam)—probably none were more groundbreaking that the Brick’s first public beer tasting, led by Bob Tupper, in 1985. Over the next 25 years, nearly every influential brewer in the nation and a great many from Europe took the stage at the Brick. Never had drinking beer been more fun and educational—nor treated with greater respect.
But even the most distinguished institutions can lose some of their luster after a half century. A limited selection of draft beer was confined to the upstairs bar, and as much as one quarter of the 1000+ bottles and cans listed on the menu were unavailable at any given time, according to many observers. Following what the Washington Post called “a decade of irrelevance,” the Brickskeller closed five years ago in December 2010. Restaurant critic Tim Carmen noted that “in terms of ambiance, draft beer selections, and sheer drawing power . . . the Brick had been eclipsed by more modern beer emporiums, like ChurchKey and Brasserie Beck and Biergarten Haus.” Grief over the Brickskeller’s passing was assuaged somewhat by its reopening just one week later under a new name.
Brickskeller owners Dave and Diane Alexander had sold the subterranean tavern, the hotel upstairs, and the museum-worthy collection of breweriana to new owners, but had held on to the iconic name, brainstormed by Diane’s grandfather, Félix Coja, in 1957. “No one will ever own the Brickskeller [whose] last name is not Alexander,” Dave told former BarleyCorn and Mid-Atlantic Brewing News writer Gregg Wiggins just prior to the sale. Thus, our pub crawl of pioneering beer bars began not at the Brickskeller, but at the Bier Baron
Aside from the new name and color of the marquee, little seemed to have changed. The restrooms had enjoyed a much-needed upgrade, and it appeared that new carpeting had been laid; but the Brick’s legendary dive-bar ambiance had, for the most part, been left intact. As Scott Reitz pointed out in WAPO, “There’s a market for beer lovers who don’t like the pomp and circumstance that surrounds D.C.’s more modern and savvy beer shrines.” That certainly included me and my pub-crawling companions, Mike and his wife Kathleen.
We were seated at the dreaded “tundra table” next to the window looking out onto 22nd St. and the sliver of a park that features a monument to Ukrainian folklorist Taras Shevchenko. During winter months, frigid air normally streams through chinks in the window jamb, but orange gobs of caulking had now rendered the table semi-habitable.
I opened the three-ring binder that is the Bier Baron’s beer menu. New owners Megan and Tim Merrifield have wisely pruned the Brick’s untenable 1000+ beer list down to a manageable inventory of 600 or so bottles and cans. Smarter still is their investment in a new draft system: 24 taps upstairs, 28 downstairs. The 52 selections included many interesting brews, several unusual selections and a few I’d never sampled before, including Ballast Point’s Dorado Double IPA.
The popularity of Ballast Point’s Sculpin single IPA (7.0% ABV) helped earn its ex-homebrewing creators a billion-dollar payday when the San Diego brewery was purchased by Constellation Brands last November. No way was I going to pass up a chance to try Sculpin’s bigger brother. As expected, the brew boasted a powerful citrusy aroma with some tropical notes, mostly pineapple. Dry hopped with Crystal and Mt. Hood hops, Dorado is juicy, but not as fruit-forward as Sculpin.
I passed the beer to Mike. He took a sip and recoiled involuntarily from the massive hop bomb (10% ABV, 90 IBUs), but nodded enthusiastically while swallowing. Kathleen, however, had to force herself to get the beer down.
“That’s disgusting,” she gasped. “It’s so over the top.”
I took a sip and agreed: Dorado was so over the top, I couldn’t wait to take a second gulp. Candied orange marmalade pummeled my taste buds, giving way to a bitter, piney finish. Subsequent sips introduced new combinations and variations of flavor, each more pleasurable than the one that preceded it.
It’s been a decade since brewers Vinny Cilurzo of Russian River and Matt Brynildson of Firstone-Walker humorously coined the term “lupulin threshold shift.” They were referring to the increased tolerance among craft beer drinkers for ever more hop flavor and bitterness. (“When a ‘Double IPA’ just isn’t enough.”) As I drained my first beer of the day, I found it hard to imagine any beer offering more hop flavor and bitterness than a Ballast Point Dorado. But then again, it wasn’t even noon yet.
Nothing spurs urban renewal like a shiny new sports and entertainment arena. When the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) opened in 1997 above the Gallery Place Metro stop, it spawned a vibrant new entertainment district along 7th Street between Chinatown and Penn Quarter. All that was missing was a good beer bar, a void which Brickskeller owners Dave and Diane Alexander filled when they opened R.F.D. (short for Regional Food and Drink) in 2003. Its 30 taps were the most in DC until ChurchKey opened in 2009.
Where the Brickskeller was dank, dark, and divey, R.F.D. is an open, bright, and airy sports bar with multiple TV screens and a regular stream of Caps and Wizards fans from the Verizon Center pre-gaming and post-gaming. And yet R.F.D. still looks, feels, and tastes a lot like the Brickskeller. Mesmerizing row upon row of bottled beer fills the refrigerated cabinets behind the bar—just like at the Brickskeller. Breweriana from around the world covers the walls—just like at the Brickskeller. And many of the menu items are based on former Brickskeller recipes, though a larger kitchen at R.F.D. has allowed for an expanded menu and more attractive presentation.
The pub’s name can confuse the literal-minded. Don’t expect to find any regional foods such as Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, Virginia ham, half smokes, or anything cooked with or dipped into mumbo sauce. The “regional” in R.F.D.’s name refers to local food from regions other than the mid-Atlantic, such as wild boar salami from Utah and sweet soppressata from Missouri or Belgian steak frites and German pork schnitzel. The kitchen’s greatest strength, however, may be its cuisine de la bière, including mussels in witbier, IPA sauerkraut, cobbler with peaches simmered in gueuze, and “Bier”amisu made from framboise and stout.
Regional drink? When the bar opened in 2003, the Alexanders made a point of rotating beers from the region’s dozen or so breweries; but with 224 craft breweries now operating in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, it’s tough to keep up. Of the 35 beers on tap (plus two on cask), only six came from regional breweries. Hard to complain, though, when Stone Enjoy By DIPA (9.4) is one of them.
I was served a 9-oz tulip of Enjoy By (12-25-15), which means it was brewed on Nov. 18, 2015. It was four days after Christmas, so this would be the first time I’ve ever had one after its “enjoy by” date. But it’s also the first time I’ve ever had it on draft. How much of its hop intensity has it lost, 41 days after it was brewed?
One whiff tells me, “not much.” The nose on this beer is just humongous, full of citrusy, tropical goodness. Mango, pineapple, and peach predominate. I don’t even need to drink this beer: enjoying its aroma is pleasure enough. But I take a sip anyway.
After an initial wave of pungent fruit, piney, dank flavors emerge, finishing with a burst of spicy hop bitterness. As the beer warms, musky Simcoe hops add to the beer’s complexity. This is about as good as it gets. I slide the beer over to Kathleen, who smells it hesitantly.
“Wow, a lot going on here.” She attempts a small sip, but instantly recoils. “That tastes more like candied grapefruit than beer.”
“Exactly,” I think. Kathleen has an excellent palate, but it needs to get more exercise.
Brookland, a former “streetcar suburb” of the nation’s capital and home to such distinguished Washingtonians as Pearl Bailey, Ralph Bunche, and Marvin Gaye, was carved from the plantation of War of 1812 hero Colonel Jehiel Brooks. His mansion still stands along Monroe Avenue, and his name long graced a local watering hole abutting “Little Rome,” a complex of nearly 60 religious institutions including Catholic University, Trinity College, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception. It was an unlikely location for one of the city’s pioneering multi-taps, yet for many of its 32 years, Colonel Brooks Tavern offered the best selection of imported and American craft beer available on draft in DC.
I visited Colonel Brooks’ once, in 1991. It took me a little over an hour to make the 19-mile ride on Metro from my apartment in Merrifield, VA, but upon exiting at Brookland Station, it was just a three-minute walk to the tavern. The arrival of Metro, however, had yet to bring much prosperity to the neighborhood. Like the once comfortably middle class homes that surrounded it, the tavern’s red brick façade had seen better days: its banners were faded, the painted trim, chipped and peeling. As I looked through one of bar’s large bay windows, I could see the reflection of a young man standing behind me, staring back at me. I resisted the urge to turn around and instead walked into the tavern. He followed.
At first mesmerized by the dozen tap handles of imported and domestic beers, I finally settled on a pint of Watney’s Red Barrel and a burger. The youth who followed me in had taken a seat across the room and continued to stare at me. I had seen the look before: street-hardened and intimidating, daring you to make eye contact. I ordered another beer.
After the bartender brought me a Dominion Spring Bock I tucked a twenty spot under the plate of my half-eaten burger and walked towards the restroom as casually as possible. Once beyond the young man’s range of vision, I slipped out the bar’s side entrance and hightailed it to the Metro. I never looked back nor went back to Colonel Brooks Tavern again.
A little over ten years later, three employees of the tavern—a cook, a dishwasher, and the head chef—were killed execution-style during a botched robbery while preparing a Palm Sunday brunch. It was the beginning of the end for Colonel Brooks Tavern. Thereafter perceived as a dangerous bar, it lost money for the next decade, until owner Jim Steigman sold the property to developers. “Last call” was last heard on September 14, 2012.
Nearly four years later, we returned to the tavern’s former site. “Oh man, it was right over there,” said Mike pointing to a block of six-story apartments. Indeed, the neighborhood bore no resemblance to the Brookland I swore never to return to back in 1991. Sleek new condominiums and retail shops surround a public square with a fountain and a watch tower. Arts Walk, a passageway flanked by 27 ground-level studios, connects the Metro station to our destination: Brookland Pint.
If Colonel Brooks Tavern typified the dive-bar ethos of DC’s previous generation of beer bars, then Brookland Pint is the apotheosis of the new generation—open and airy, with USB ports along the bar and under tables, a few taps dedicated to meads and ciders, numerous gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian options, a dog-friendly patio, and an exquisitely clean unisex bathroom with separate stalls and a common hand-washing station. But like its Columbia Heights cousin Meridian Pint, the focus at Brookland Pint is on craft beer.
Two-thirds of the two dozen taps pour local beers, and all of the out-of-towners have been selected with care. I opt for a chalice of Alpine Pure Hoppiness, which at 8.0% ABV is the slenderest DIPA of the day. Where Enjoy By was supremely juicy, Pure Hoppiness lies at the dank/piney end of the hop spectrum. I slide the glass across the table towards Kathleen, who stops me with her hand.
“No way,” she says. “I can smell it from here. You might as well plunge your face into a bag of hop pellets.”
Again, her observation is spot on. Hop additions to the kettle and a specially designed hop-back further amplify this already massively dry-hopped beer, leaving me fully immersed in Humulus lupulus. I now understand why my West Coast friends so revere this San Diego classic.
THE BIG HUNT
He’s been called Mr. H Street, the godfather of U Street, the maestro of quirky theme pubs, and the bar czar of the nation’s capital. If you’ve never been to one of Joe Englert’s watering holes, you either don’t get out very much or live in the suburbs. Since opening Club Random in the late 1980s, he’s created or financed more than one bar or club a year for the past quarter century, including 15 Minutes, State of the Union, Andalusian Dog, Zig Zag, Lucky Bar, Pour House, Planet Fred, Capitol Lounge, DC9, the Argonaut, Rock & Roll Hotel, Dr. Granville Moore’s, and the Insect Club—the only place on the planet where you could wash down a plate of “mealworms Rockefeller” with a pint of IPA in the presence of a giant ant farm. Regardless of the theme or décor, you could always count on a good craft beer. With the demise of Colonel Brooks Tavern and the “retirement” of the Brickskeller, the Big Hunt, one of Englert’s earliest enterprises, is now the longest-pouring taphouse in DC and the next destination on our pub crawl.
I first met Englert in 1992, when he was negotiating his third venture, on 20th Street. The former tenant was eight months behind on rent and Englert was able to secure the lease for half the going rate. He installed a new tap tower and renamed the joint the Crow Bar (“Established 1922 – Groovy Since 1992”). As publisher of BarleyCorn, I was desperate for beer-oriented pubs to provide advertising support, and Englert was eager to connect with a growing community of beer geeks who would appreciate Crow Bars’ 12 taps. The Crow Bar remained a loyal advertiser even as it evolved into DC’s premier, perhaps only, biker bar, before making way for the Eagle Bank Building in 1998. A few months after opening the Crow Bar, Englert—always moving on to the next project—leased the building that had once housed Amdo, the second of Bill Stewart’s three Rodeos. He renamed it Strangeways, after the infamous Manchester prison and final album by the Smiths. It was even stranger than Amdo, if that’s possible: dark, dank, and populated with bizarre murals of famous bald guys—a reference, perhaps, to Englert’s toupee. Despite 22 taps and regular ads in BarleyCorn, Strangeways’ edgy concept never found much of an audience, and was succeeded by the more conventional live-music venue, Iota.
Before the year was out, though, Englert opened a third club along Connecticut Avenue, just south of Dupont Circle. Beneath a circus tent marquee, the Big Hunt welcomed customers to an alternative safari world in which humans were the hunted, their heads mounted like trophies above the bar. Dark paneling, a warren of small side rooms, and a single bathroom for both sexes earned the Big Hunt instant dive-bar cred. If the concept was a tad silly, the line-up of draft beer was dead serious. It boasted DC’s largest selection of draft beer until R.F.D. opened in 2006; its tap-takeovers and other beer-related events have been among the most interesting in town. The odds were good that I would find a monstrous hop bomb that would disgust Kathleen as much as it would delight me.
With 31 taps, the Big Hunt can afford to waste a few. If you’re going to offer bland adjunct lager, at least pour Yuengling and PBR like the Big Hunt does. The bar also offers two house beers: Big Hunt Light Ass and Bad Ass Amber, which are actually Michelob Light and Michelob Amber Bock. But the rest of taps are selected for the craft-beer lover—diverse in style with a nice mix of rarities and hot new releases. Halfway down the menu, I spot what would be my trophy beer of the evening: On the Wings of Armageddon (9.2%), an imperial IPA from DC Brau.
OTWOA is widely regarded as the king of DC imperial IPAs: its #74 ranking on BeerAdvocate is the highest of any mid-Atlantic DIPA. My only previous encounter was a cask version dry-hopped with chili peppers that was undrinkable; my second chance arrived in a 10-ounce chalice. The beer is hopped with Falconer’s Flight, a proprietary mixture of Citra, Simcoe, Sorachi Ace, and some experimental strains, named after legendary Oregon brewer Glen Hay Falconer. To this distinctive blend, the brewers at DC Brau have incorporated a candied lushness that perfectly complements the intense piney, resinous flavors of the hops. All Kathleen could do was shake her head—which was fine. This beer was too good to share.
No pub crawl of historic DC craft beer haunts would be complete without a stop at District ChopHouse and Brewery. Opened in 1996 in the former Riggs Bank building, this upscale steakhouse is the oldest continually operating brewery in the city. (Capitol City opened in 1992 but stopped brewing on site several years ago.) Brewer Barrett Lauer brews five year-around beers and two rotating seasonals and specials—including a bourbon barrel–aged version of the stout—one of which is offered from the cask, another dispensed with nitrogen. We order a round of nut brown ales, a beer Lauer first brewed on a 7-barrel Peter Austin system at Baltimore’s Wharf Rat (now Pratt Street Ale House). There, Lauer alternated 8-hour shifts with co-brewer Jason Oliver to meet growing demand at one of Charm City’s first brewpubs. After six years of brewing English-style ales, Lauer mastered lager brewing at the Baltimore Brewing Co. before coming to the ChopHouse in 2004.
The Wharf Rat was Oliver’s first brewing gig, followed by three years at the defunct Virginia Brewing Co. and 6½ years at the DC Gordon Biersch. In 2009, he helped launch Devils Backbone, one of the East Coast’s most decorated breweries. The central Virginia company has won Brewery of the Year awards (brewpub, small brewery, mid-size brewery) at the Great American Brewing Festival an unprecedented three years in a row, racking up 26 total medals in seven years.
Lauer and Oliver are among a handful of pioneering DC-area craft-brewers who learned the trade in the 1990s that are still producing award-winning beers in and around the city. Just three blocks north on 7th Street, Scott Lasater supervises brewing at the same Gordon Biersch brewpub that Oliver once brewed at. Lasater spent 11 years honing his craft at Capitol City, DC’s seminal brewpub and finishing school for many local brewers. Under executive brewer Bill Madden, Cap City nurtured some of the region’s brightest talents.
Geoff Lively joined the Cap City staff in 1998, before taking the reins at the Bethesda Rock Bottom in 2000. Under his direction, the Bethesda franchise has become one of the most successful in the 32-brewpub chain, winning 14 medals at the GABF. The formulation for Lively’s award-winning Raccoon Red has been adopted throughout the Colorado-based organization.
Another Cap City veteran, Mike McCarthy has also played a major role in elevating the quality of DC-area beer over the past 15 years. After an 11-year stint at Cap City, McCarthy joined head brewer Jeff Hancock at DC Brau, Washington’s first production brewery since the demise of the Heurich Brewery in 1956. McCarthy currently brews for Ocelot Brewing Co. in Sterling, VA. Named best new area brewery last year by the Washington Post, Ocelot’s big-beer, hop-centric philosophy eschews brewing any one beer more than twice a year.
Few brewers have done more to spread the gospel of good beer in the DC area than Bill Madden. He has opened seven brewpubs in the region, advised countless others, and is currently the CEO and Chairman of Mad Fox Brewing, now with brewpubs in Falls Church and Glover Park in the District. Mad Fox’s annual spring bock, Oktoberfest, barleywine, and cask ale festivals are major events in the region’s beer calendar. In honor of Madden, we ordered a round of Barrett Lauer’s barleywine as a nightcap and raised our glasses to the pioneering brewers and early tap houses that laid the foundation for one the best beer cities in the nation.
Weihnachtsbier. Juleøl. Bière de Noël. Winter Warmer. No matter how you spell it, nothing says “Christmas beer” like lush sweet malt, bold spices, and lots of alcohol. And no beer has ever shouted it louder than Braunschweiger mumme (pronounced MOO-muh). The biggest, baddest beer of the late Renaissance, mumme was the Bigfoot, the Ten-FIDY, the Bourbon County Brand Stout of its age, “as strong as six horses, coach and all,” according to one 18th -century drinker.
But the most remarkable feature of mumme was its viscosity. It was typically brewed from an entire quarter (nine bushels) of malt per 63-gallon hogshead, often with an additional bushel of beans and ten “new-laid eggs, not cracked or broken.” After boiling off a third of the mash, the wort reached gravities as insanely high as 1250. That’s 2½ times denser than the strongest Burton Ale more than a century later. “Mumme,” observed one 19th century wag, “had the colour and consistency of tar—a thing to be eaten with a knife and fork.”
Closely guarded, Mumme’s greatest secret was its spice bill. One recipe, preserved at the Technical Library of Freising, Germany, lists 14 ingredients, including spruce bark, birch buds, juniper berries, bay leaves, cardamom, marjoram, thyme, and St. Benedict’s thistle (Carduus benedictus). Sounds a lot like a recipe for a medieval gruit, the spice medley that preceded hops.
What mattered most, though, was mumme’s longevity: No other beer showed greater staying power. After aging in oak for two years, it could be transported to the ends of the known earth. Well before British merchants shipped stout to Russian or pale ale to India, ships from the Hanseatic League carried mumme to the East Indies, to the West Indies, and even Jerusalem. Over 300 hundred years later, renowned writer and avid drinker H.L. Menken dubbed mumme the “first export beer . . . that ushered in a golden age of beer.” Much of what we know about mumme’s heyday, though, can be traced to the first comprehensive book about brewing, published in 1573.
Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, geologist, anatomist, botanist, historian, engineer, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci may have been the original Renaissance Man. But the Germans had their guy too.
Heinrich Knaust was a poet laureate, a dramatist, a composer, a linguist, a political columnist, and an authority on 16th-century secular and ecclesiastical law. But for all his scholarly brilliance, he is best remembered for his passion for beer. Four hundred years before Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer, Knaust described 133 different beer styles he had personally tasted. Just as Jackson split the beer world into top-fermenting ales and bottom-fermenting lagers, Knaust divided Renaissance beers into white wheat beers and red barley beers. He dubbed Hamburger beer the “king of wheat beers” and beer from Danzig (now part of Poland) the “king of barley beers,” but saved his greatest praise for, “Braunschweiger Mumme . . . the most celebrated [beer] of all, named for its discoverer, Christian Mumme (1492).”
Mumme’s popularity encouraged many imitators. To reinforce the drink’s provenance with the Lower Saxony town of Braunschweig, or Brunswick, credit for its invention was ascribed to a local brewer named Christian Mumme. A book written in 1736 by Franz Ernst Brückmann further burnished Mumme’s legend and cemented Braunschweig’s reputation as the home of mumme. But Braunschweig historian and chief librarian Heinrich Mack put the Mumme myth to rest when he discovered that mumme had been brewed in Braunschweig at least 67 years before Christian Mumme “discovered” it. And when Mack could find no trace of a Christian Mumme ever having lived or brewed in Braunschweig, another colorful brewing legend bit the dust.
Like most beers of the era, Braunschweiger mumme came in two versions: Stadtmumme was a mild version brewed for the local citizenry; Schiffmumme, or “ship’s mumme,” was brewed extra strong and extra sweet for export. The export version became so popular in London that it was often referred to as English mumme. “Mum-houses” were all the rage during the English Restoration period. In 1664, the noted diarist Samuel Pepys describes a colleague, Mr. Norbert, getting hammered on the potent brew. But by the 18th century, thick, sweet beers like mumme had fallen out of favor, and only a non-alcoholic, malt-extract version, prescribed for medicinal purposes and as an energy drink, survived into the early 20th century.
The new millennium, however, has witnessed a new appreciation of this historic drink. Since 2006, an annual festival celebrating mumme takes place the first weekend in November in Braunschweig. Local restaurants serve dishes made from mumme, and the town brewery produces a moderately alcoholic (5.2%) version of the old stadtmumme more suited to modern tastes.
Not that long ago, a pub crawl was about visiting a variety of bars, meeting an assortment of women people, but drinking the same beer (or beer style) over and over. It still works that way for some folks. But for geeks like me, a good pub crawl is like a mobile beer festival: an opportunity to sample, compare, and enjoy as many beers as possible in a single day.
In my pub crawling prime during the last millennium, it was challenging enough to find just one place in the DC area with interesting beer to drink, much less a daylong procession of them. What passed for a taphouse in those days consisted of one tower with five spigots, one or two of which might be connected to craft beers—the rest dedicated BudMillerCoors products. To find any sort of variety, you had to travel to Baltimore.
In the spring of 1991, I organized a pub crawl of Fell’s Point in Baltimore for the third issue of BarleyCorn (April/May, 1991), the “brewspaper” I published during the 1990s. Within a five-block stretch along the Thames Street waterfront I found seven pubs with a total of 75 taps: Duda’s (7), The Horse You Came In On (5), Leadbetter’s (7), Bertha’s (10), Cat’s Eye Pub (12), John Steven Ltd. (10), and Wharf Rat (24). Of course, many of the spigots poured mainstream lagers, but that still left a few tap handles dedicated to craft beer. Today, you can find that many draft beers in just one taphouse, Max’s (102), on the other side of Market Square.
Except for the venerable Brickskeller, the DC area was still a good-beer wasteland. But that began to change in 1993 when Bill Stewart and his brother Andrew opened Bardo Rodeo on Wilson Blvd. in rapidly gentrifying Clarendon, Virginia. Bardo was not Bill’s first Rodeo. The success of his beer-centric Roratonga and Amdo rodeos (also in Clarendon) had helped him raise enough cash to transform a defunct Oldsmobile dealership into what former BarleyCorn writer Greg Kitsock called the “Carlsburg Cavern of brewpubs,” with 108 taps and seating for 900. Thanks to Stewart, there were now three bars with good beer within two blocks of each other. Perfect for a pub crawl.
More than 20 years later, I revisited Arlington to see how Stewart’s legacy had played out. Two former Rodeos survived into the new millennium: Amdo, now Iota, is a prime venue for alt rock and singer/songwriters; Roratonga Rodeo, now called Galaxy Hut, focuses more on craft beer with 28 taps and an unlimited variety of grilled cheese sandwiches. Bardo’s former space has been filled with condominiums. But the seeds of good beer planted by Stewart have given rise to eight craft-beer bars situated along a six-mile stretch of Wilson and Washington boulevards from Clarendon to Falls Church. Perfect for a pub crawl.
Bill Stewart and Alice Despard may have been the hippest couple in DC during the late 1980s. Guitarist and singer Despard fronted the indie band Hyaa! Her 1987 jangle-pop album, Get Yer Hyaa Hyaa’s Out was helmed by REM producer and Let’s Active front man Mitch Easter. Stewart, an MIT architecture graduate, had designed restaurants for Marriott and fire houses for Navajo tribes in New Mexico, but vowed to do something “less corporate” after a visit to Tibet in 1985. Cutting edge music and Bill’s homebrew were always plentiful at their basement apartment on Logan Circle. In January 1989, the party moved two blocks east when they opened BBQ Iguana at 11th and P streets, “in the middle of crack city,” according to Stewart.
The sparse performance space—a former elevator repair shop—was an ideal match for the DIY ethos of DC’s burgeoning hardcore punk scene. Stewart’s only significant investment was the club’s sound system. Eddie From Ohio played its first gig there. Hometown rock star Dave Grohl also performed in an early band, Scream. But there were constant issues with liquor licensing, and one morning Stewart found a hole in the wall of the club from which thieves had extracted the sound system. Stewart and Despard decided to try their luck across the river in Virginia.
Clarendon, once the commercial heart of Arlington County, had by the 1980s evolved into a cultural and business center for Vietnamese refugees known as Little Saigon. Despite the completion of the Clarendon Metro stop in 1979, rent was still cheap when Stewart and Despard signed the lease for a vacant storefront at 2711 Wilson Blvd. in 1990. The space was much smaller than BBQ Iguana, but the neighborhood was less sketchy and county authorities were more cooperative, as long as the couple booked only acoustic acts.
In October 1990, Roratonga Rodeo, a kind of psychedelic tiki bar, opened for business. (Atlases spell the largest of the Cook Islands Rarotonga, but Stewart never did anything by the book.) Outside, two large Tibetan flags flapped defiantly. The interior flaunted a South Seas ambiance that Jacques Cousteau might have conjured if given a tab of acid and several buckets of paint. But it was the bar—scrunched behind the chopped body of a ’59 Cadillac—that really got your attention. Stewart said the car had been abandoned behind the club, and rather than having it towed, he fashioned it into something useful. A deconstructed Fiat Spyder adorned Rarotonga’s façade.
I’d come for the beer, however. Rarotonga’s initial 11 draft spigots made it one of the first true taphouses in the DC area. You would have had to travel to Brookland (Colonel Brooks Tavern), Columbia (Last Chance Saloon) or Fell’s Point (Wharf Rat) to find a greater selection of draft beer. Rarotonga, however, was the first place I can remember that refused to sell BMC. Wait staff wore T-shirts that proudly read: “No Bud, No Miller, No Coors.”
As I stood in front of Galaxy Hut, 25 years later, nothing remained of the auto art, Tibetan activism, or South Seas psychedelia. But peering through the window, I could make out the silhouettes of 28 tap handles adjacent to where the grill of the vintage Cadillac had once stood, and not a one of them displayed a Bud, Miller, or Coors logo. Since Galaxy Hut did not open until 5 pm, though, I would have to begin the pub crawl up the street at Fire Works.
Fire Works is pretty much state of the art for a contemporary taphouse: a well-curated beer list (including four Belgians and a beer engine), knowledgeable staff, and a food menu that affordably complements the beer selection. Smart and comfortable with tasteful decor, it’s the kind of place Bill Stewart would have hated. “I’m the Lucifer of yuppies, cast out of yuppiedom,” he once bragged. Creature comforts were never his forte.
Stewart had a knack for turning cheap into a virtue. He paid local artists $10 an hour to transcribe their artistic visions onto the walls of his various Rodeos; paint was free. On another occasion, he purchased a “truckload” of car wheels as bases for particle board tables. Never mind that the Rubbermaid chairs ($4.50 each) were too low for the table tops, resulting in a repetitive stress injury that Washington Post writer Eve Zibart dubbed “mug elbow.”
Impossible to ignore among Fire Works’ 32 tap handles was the one for Habanero Sculpin IPA (7.0%). Despite its $15-a-sixpack price, Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA (7.0%) was once every beer geek’s go-to IPA. Just five years ago, it was the highest-ranked IPA on the Beer Advocate website. More recently, Raj, the hippest member of Big Bang’s science nerds, was filmed quaffing a bottle of Sculpin in a late-October episode of the top-rated show. Habanero Sculpin is quite a different animal.
I’ve always wondered why someone would ruin a good IPA by adding incendiary peppers. On the other hand, a truckload of hops seems the best way to balance habanero heat. At least, Sculpin opens with a pleasurable blast of mango before the inevitable fiery finish. And I was able to drink more of this one than of other high-Scoville beers, so I guess that makes Habanero Sculpin my favorite chili pepper beer.
Back in the day, Bill Stewart brewed one of the earliest chili pepper beers. His Chaco Canyon Chili Beer was a collaboration with Russell Scherer, the legendary co-founder and head brewer of Wynkoop Brewing Co, Colorado’s first brewpub. (The Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing, created shortly after Scherer’s untimely demise at the age of 38, is the highest honor a craft brewer can receive.) Collaborative brews, common today, were rare in the 1990s when Stewart was among the first to pioneer the concept. Stewart also teamed up with Scherer for Russ’ Raspberry, a popular fruit beer.
LOST DOG CAFE
Pet lovers will find that every pint tastes a little better at the Lost Dog Café, knowing that a percentage of sales supports the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, founded in 2001 and responsible for an average of 1500 abandoned-pet placements annually. Today there are five Lost Dog Cafes (and a Stray Cat Café) throughout Northern Virginia, but for this pub crawl I would be returning to the original in the Westover neighborhood along Washington Blvd.
Back in the late 1980s, when I first started coming here, the Lost Dog was a small neighborhood deli that just happened to have the best bottled beer selection in Northern Virginia. You’ll still find more than a hundred varieties to choose from, but the owners have also added a long bar and 16 rotating taps that included Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (7.0% ABV). Bell’s is hopped exclusively with Centennials, the citrusy, piney tasting hop (sometimes called “Super Cascade”) that amped up the pungency of IPAs in the early 1990s. Modern palates might find an all-Centennial beer old hat, but I can still remember the first time I drank one. Centennial IPA, a grapefruity beer Stewart first brewed in conjunction with Eric Taylor of the Anderson Valley Brewing Co., reconfigured my taste buds to sense variations in hop flavor. Hops would no longer taste “just bitter.”
Stewart’s pungent Centennial IPA was also the perfect metaphor for his personal and business life at the time: Six months after Stewart and Despard opened Roratonga Rodeo, the couple split up. Stewart lost not only custody of his son Dillon, but also ownership of the taphouse. He got his revenge by opening a taphouse with twice as many beers (22) as Roratonga on the other side of the street. Named Amdo Rodeo, it featured the same garish art, same eclectic CD jukebox, same dive bar vibe. Even its bar was fashioned from the same ’59 Cadillac whose grill framed Roratonga’s bar; only this time Stewart used the rear end of the classic auto.
Stewart named the club after the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama. Stewart’s longtime advocacy of Tibetan human rights, in fact, was more than just flag waving. He has hosted fundraisers, film festivals, and other special events on behalf of Tibet, and during a visit to Washington in 2003 by the Dalai Lama, Stewart and his son were granted a private audience with the exiled spiritual leader.
Unlike Roratonga, Amdo was focused more on beer than live music. Stewart’s initial plan was to make Amdo into a “wort pub,” trucking in sugary wort from the Dominion Brewing Co. in Virginia, then fermenting and serving it at the pub. The unwieldy scheme never panned out, though. Instead Stewart began enlisting investors for a true brewpub.
Across the street from the Lost Dog Cafe is the Westover Market, an independent, neighborhood grocery with a massive selection of bottled beer. It is the Amdo Rodeo to Lost Dog’s Roratonga. Westover’s “Wall of Beer” wraps around three sides of the store and encompasses more than a thousand different international and domestic craft brews. An opening next to the dairy products aisle leads to an intimate bar with four or five tables that leads to a beer garden.
Westover’s dozen taps may have been the fewest on the crawl, but included one of the day’s best beers. Alpine Duet (7.0%) sweetly harmonizes the orange marmalade flavors of Amarillo hops with the muskiness of Simcoes. This vibrant San Diego brew sings West Coast IPA. Back in the 1990s, though, the catchiest melodies were coming out of the Pacific Northwest. Stewart collaborated with Grant Johnson of Marin Brewing on a Chinook Pale Ale that captured the distinctive piney hop flavor so popular at the time.
Despite the great selection, Westover beer manager Devin Hicks is itching to brew his own beers. By the end of the year he’ll get his chance when he opens Sehkraft Beer Garden and Haus in Clarendon. Sehkraft—which means “vision” in German—will be a music-oriented brewpub designed around a central performance space. Former Lost Rhino brewer John Peters will helm the brewhouse.
In 1992, Bill Stewart found himself in a similar situation at Amdo: eager to brew his own beer but needing more room for a full brewhouse and fermentation tanks. Eight blocks away, at 2000 Wilson Blvd., Stewart found the space he was looking for—and then some—in a defunct Oldsmobile dealership that would become the “largest brewpub in North America” and only the second such establishment in the DC area. His first glimpse of the facility was more than a revelation, it was a vision of the bardo, an intermediate state between what Stewart once was—an aspiring artist and brewer—and what he would soon become: the “Grunge King of Clarendon,” as former BarleyCorn writer Jim Dorsch once put it.
Stewart now had a nearly acre-sized canvas to fill with his artistic visions. He commissioned nearly 20 local artists (at $10/hr. and free paint) to cover the walls with of an incongruous mix of the sacred and profane: apocalyptic murals from the Tibetan Book of the Dead juxtaposed with portraits of Elvis in his many incarnations. There was also a giant sandbox, an engine block suspended from the ceiling, and a Mr. Goodwrench hand-washing station in the men’s room that could easily be mistaken for a urinal after two or three pitchers of beer. But Bardo’s signature creation was the ’66 Plymouth Fury imbedded in the former showroom’s plate glass window. The illusion was so convincing that, during the first week, police showed up twice to take accident reports.
Three bars dispensed beer from 109 taps: one serviced a taphouse in the ex-showroom, another served a beer hall in the former service bays, and a third slaked thirsts in a beer garden that was once a parking lot. If Bardo’s food was rudimentary (mostly burritos and enchiladas), at least the menu’s descriptions were entertaining. My favorite was the Hunter Thompson Special “for the vegetarian pacifist with a gun fetish.” It comprised one black bean burrito and two flat blue corn enchiladas, served with rice and sauce.
Few brewers have done more to spread the gospel of good beer in the DC area than Bill Madden. He has opened seven brewpubs in the region, advised countless others, and is currently the CEO and Chairman of Mad Fox Brewing, now with brewpubs in Falls Church and Glover Park in the District. Mad Fox’s annual spring bock, Oktoberfest, barleywine, and cask ale festivals are major events in the region’s beer calendar. But any excuse to grab a beer at Mad Fox will suffice.
I ordered a Slobberknocker, an award-winning barleywine of 8.0% alcohol. This is one of my favorite beers, and every year Madden finishes it with a different hop strain or gruit-like ingredient and ages it in a special wine or whiskey barrel for his annual Barleywine Fest, an event I never miss if I can help it.
I thought of Bill Stewart’s first GABF medal winner: White Lightnin,’ a kick-ass 12% barleywine brewed in collaboration with an anonymous “mystery brewer from Seattle,” (later revealed to be Bill Lundeen of Portland’s Bridgeport Brewing Co.). It won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1994 and helped establish Bardo’s status as a premier brewery. In addition to the many collaborations, Bardo was also a training ground for several of the DC area’s most accomplished brewers, including Jonathan Reeves of Port City, Favio Garcia of Lost Rhino, and Bardo’s first brewer, Alan Beal, who later headed brewing operations at the former Virginia Beverage Co.
Spacebar is a Galaxy Hut spinoff transplanted into the heart of Falls Church, but the vibe is vintage Rodeo. Loud, cramped, and divey, its edgy ambiance was reminiscent of Bardo’s during its heyday. You never knew who you might run into or what might happen, but your visit would not be boring.
Scrounging up a vacant stool at the end of the bar, I attempted to wedge it into a space next to a heavily tattooed Hispanic guy and his girlfriend. Needing perhaps six inches, I asked if he could scoot down a bit. He shot me a look that said “fuck off.” As he turned his head to resume talking to his girlfriend, I thought I could make out “MS-13” (shorthand for the vicious Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha) on the back of his neck. Yikes! What had I done?
A bewildered Bardo bouncer must have asked himself the same question 22 years earlier after getting punched in the face by William Kennedy Smith, nephew and sometimes drinking buddy of the late liberal icon Ted Kennedy. The bar fight made national news and put Bardo on the DC scandal map along with Pierce Street Annex, the Vista Hotel, and Watergate. Business boomed.
I was still thirsty, though, and ordered a small pour of Clown Shoes’ 10% imperial stout Undead Party Crasher. Bursting with rich chocolate and coffee flavors, this dark beast was as over the top for its time as Bardo’s Graceland Imperial Stout had been back in 1993. That beer had been a collaboration with legendary Rogue brewer John Maier, who four years later would be the first recipient of the Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing.
I took a few sips of the Party Crasher and set the glass on the bar while I checked my email. Without looking, the gangbanger’s girlfriend reached for her purse and knocked my beer onto the floor. Fortunately the glass didn’t break. But she never offered to buy me a new one, nor say she was sorry. She didn’t even acknowledge that it happened.
Neither did I.
WORLD OF BEER
Before Bill Stewart’s Rodeos came to town, Arlington’s best beer selection could be found at Whitey’s, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall reminiscent of TV’s Cheers. The Ballston institution closed in 2003, but the neighborhood now boasts both the county’s largest taphouse and, arguably, its finest craft beer bar. With 52 taps, World of Beer has nearly twice as many selections as any other pub on the crawl. The vibe, however, is dark and noisy sports bar, which is okay with me but annoying to some craft devotees.
Also aggravating some connoisseurs is alcoholic root beer, recently touted by Fortune magazine as the “next big thing in craft beer.” While many serious taphouses have been reluctant to acknowledge these beverages as craft beer, Beer World embraces the new style, offering both Not Your Father’s Root Beer from the Illinois-based Small Town Brewery, as well as Coney Island Root Beer, brewed by a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Co. Here was an opportunity to try them side by side. Not Your Father’s, the trend-setting original, offers a more complex blend of sarsaparilla, anise/licorice, and vanilla flavors, but Coney Island’s drier interpretation left me more desirous of a refill.
Spicy, herbal beers made from plant roots are hardy new—even in the craft world. Nearly 20 years ago, Stewart brewed one of the first craft “root” beers, Bundaberg Ginger Beer, which earned Bardo its first and only gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Indeed, 1996 was an excellent year for Bardo. It was named best brewpub in the DC area by Washingtonian magazine, and its jukebox—situated under the hood of that ’66 Plymouth Fury—was voted best in the region by the discerning listeners of WHFS radio. The future looked bright; Stewart always wore shades.
Sleek yet unpretentious, Rustico, like its sister establishment, the pioneering ChurchKey in DC, represents the leading edge of today’s craft beer bars, from its chef-driven kitchen to its cicerone-worthy staff to the 40 taps and two casks impeccably selected by beer director and James Beard award–nominee Greg Engert. Its beer menu (like ChurchKey’s) limns the full spectrum of beer flavors: Fruity/Spicy (bright or dark), Malty (fruity and toffee or toasty and nutty), Roasty (soft and silky or dark and dry), Crisp (delicate, malt-accented, or subtle hoppiness) Hoppy (earthy, malty backbone, or bold, herbal, and citric), and Tart & Funky (delicate or fruity and vinous). Hop varietals and other flavorings are listed for each beer.
I selected Stone’s Double Bastard (11.0%), a strong, dark, hoppy beer that reminds me of Bardo’s Dremo Tibetan Sasquatch (8.0%). Both beers straddle the line between barleywines and DIPAs and are reminiscent of such Belgian classics as Gulden Draak and Delirium Noël. Dremo won a bronze medal at the 1997 GABF, and for many local enthusiasts, it was the best beer ever brewed at Bardo. Unlike many of his most memorable brews, Stewart never collaborated on Dremo but claimed it as his own creation.
When my brewspaper, BarleyCorn, was struggling for profitability, no local business showed me greater support than Bardo. From July 1993 to November 1996, Stewart ran 23 consecutive full-page ads for Bardo in the publication. Every ad was a tableau of provocation featuring naughty women, cowboy boots, and guns. My printer refused to print one ad that featured his naked girlfriend in an empty bathtub until I superimposed a giant hop cone over her pubic region.
Bardo’s last ad in BarleyCorn announced the filing of a $4.9 million stock offering (980,000 shares at $5.00 a share) to build a production brewery in Northern Virginia. The timing couldn’t have been worse: craft brewing’s Great Shakeout was just around the corner. As the millennium drew to a close and the health department condemned most of the premises, Stewart downsized Bardo to just the upper floor of the facility and transferred all brewing to his farm in Amissville, Virginia. In March 2000 he told the Washington Post, “Bardo was a monster that took on a life of its own. It was like the circus came to town and never left. I like running smaller places. You don’t have to play ringmaster all the time.”
Stewart named his new smaller place Ningaloo, after a reef off Australia’s west coast. A joint venture with chef Keith Palen of Perry’s, Ningaloo was an ungainly combination of fusion restaurant, pool hall, and art gallery. It quickly folded, and Stewart decamped for an extended sabbatical “down under.” His father, Bill Sr., and brother, Andrew, took over managing the space, renamed Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse.
In most ways, Dr. Dremo’s was an even better craft beer bar than Bardo. Sure, the roof leaked and the pool cues were curved, but Dremo’s 27 rotating taps were perhaps the most interesting you could find in the DC area. When it closed in January 2008, many a geek cried in his or her beer.
Roratunga Rodeo, the pioneering taphouse Bill Stewart opened with his wife, Alice Despard, in 1990, became Galaxy Hut after the couple split up and Despard took full control. Under her direction, the Hut became a premier venue for indie bands—the Strokes once played there—until she cashed out in 2005. The new owner, manager and bartender Lary Hoffman, scaled back the music and put more emphasis on craft beer. In 2012, Hoffman and his wife Erica opened Spacebar in Falls Church.
The last stop on my pub crawl, Galaxy Hut still offers a great selection of craft beer with many one-offs and hard-to-find brews. A prime example was Old Pro Gose (4.2%) from Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing Co. Tart and refreshing with a finishing salty tang, this GABF silver-medal winner is a good illustration of why a nearly forgotten sour beer style has become so popular in the last few years.
Twenty years ago, a sour beer indicated a contaminated fermentation and was quickly returned for a refund by discerning drinkers. Among the few who brewed sour beer intentionally in those days was Bill Stewart. Bardo’s Marion Berry Lambic was a mildly tart beer flavored with marionberries, a large blackberry hybrid native to Oregon. If the sour palate didn’t grab your attention, then the tap handle surely would: It depicted DC’s late “mayor for life” inhaling from a crack pipe. The onetime civil rights activist served six months in a federal prison after getting snared in a narcotics sting at the former Vista Hotel (“The bitch set me up”). His popularity and influence remained strong, though, and in 1994 Barry completed one of the greatest comebacks in recent political history when he was re-elected mayor of DC.
Nearly 15 years after its apparent demise, Bardo has pulled off a similar resurrection. In July 2013, Bill Stewart and his brother Andrew transformed a vacant lot in DC’s Trinidad neighborhood into what the website TimeOut New York ranks as one of the 22 best beer gardens in the nation. Occupying a space that once housed a barber shop and illegal basement strip club, the new Bardo DC is like a boozy adult playground with a dog park, corn hole, and outdoor movies. It also features one of the nation’s few outdoor breweries, where Bardo’s original brews, such as Dremo, Graceland, and White Lightnin,’ are slaking the thirsts of a new generation of craft beer lovers.
In March 2015, the Stewarts unveiled plans for Bardo Waterfront, a two-acre outdoor brewpub and family-friendly park along the Anacostia River at Florida Rock, just below Nationals Park. This “BeerDisneyLand” would offer the city’s largest dog park, food trucks, corn hole, square dancing, bluegrass bands, and movies projected on a screen floating in the river. Located along the Anacostia River Trail, the facility would also be accessible by a kayak or bike (with parking for up to 500 two-wheel vehicles).
The Stewarts were financing the project through the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, hoping to raise $200,000. Ten days prior to their fundraising deadline, they had raised $4,235. Obtaining an alcoholic beverage license, however, poses an even greater challenge. In a March hearing before the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Metropolitan Police Commander Jeff Brown raised numerous security issues for which the Stewarts offered only the sketchiest of solutions. Most of the objections voiced at the hearing are the same ones used to prohibit alcohol, and sometimes even dogs, from public parks across the nation.
Of course, who would have guessed you could turn an auto dealership into a nightclub? Or a vacant urban lot into a junkyard brewpub? I, for one, will never underestimate Stewart’s ability to defy logic and conventional thinking to put a pint of Dremo in my hand in the most unlikely of settings.