Category Archives: Mid-Atlantic Pub Crawl Guide

pub crawl guide to the mid-Atlantic

No Brewgods. No Brewmasters.

Congress St-2 (2)There’s something happening here,

What it is ain’t exactly clear.

—Stephen Stills

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.

TURBID TIMES

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.

DSC00499The 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.

TOPPER THIS

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.sanders (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.blind tiger

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. DSC00446The 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.DSC00444

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.

DSC00443As 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.

wash sqLittle 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.arch

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.

coppermine2For 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.

DSC00454Like 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.DSC00459 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. DSC00458Both “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. DSC00456Both beers exhibit the same saturated flavors as Hill Farmstead and share the soft, creamy mouthfeel that characterizes Northeastern style beer.

vito-again
Vito Forte, pre-cheesemonger

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.

DSC00461The 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.” DSC00462Twenty 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.

DUELING DANES

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).

DSC00466
Mike poses with a Danish pastry to let you know you have arrived at Tørst

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.

DSC00468Despite 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. DSC00467Even 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.

DSC00470
Despite Mike’s dead phone, we eventually find Other Half Brewing Co.

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. DSC00479Seating is limited to a pair of rough tables and benches, while most patrons lean against elbow-high railings along either wall. DSC00474There 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.DSC00476 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.DSC00471

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.DSC00496

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.

DSC00495Occupying 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. DSC00486The 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.

DSC00487The 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.)

NO BREWGODS

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. DSC00491The 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.DSC00489

In Part Two of this pub crawl I travel to Massachusetts, ground zero for the most extreme manifestations of New England-style IPA.

BOMBS AWAY: Big DIPA Pub Crawl of DC’s Pioneering Craft Beer Bars

tapsFor 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

brick extThe 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.brick int

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.

R.F.D.

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.rfd ext

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.

rfd intThe 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 PINT

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.

col brooks2I 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.

colonel brooks fenceA 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.

brookland extIf 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.

brookland intTwo-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.

big hunt extBefore 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.

big hunt intWith 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.

DISTRICT CHOPHOUSE

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.) chophouseBrewer 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.

The Ballad of Bardo Pub Crawl

bathtub cropNot 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. fells pt cropWithin 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.

URBAN PIONEERS

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.1990_flyer_bbq_iguana

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.

RORATONGA RODEO

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. roratungaBut 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

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Ballad of Bardo pub crawlers, from left, an unidentified member of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News staff, Karen Yankosky, Charlie Tompkey, and Steve Johnson.

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.

lost dogBack 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. amdoEven 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.

WESTOVER

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Still standing: Steve, Charlie, and George in front of the “Wall of Beer.”

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.

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Sehkraft brewer John Peters chillin’ at the Westover beer garden.

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.

BARDO

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. plymouthBut 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.

MAD FOX

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 foxMad 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

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.spacebar

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. world of beerWith 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.

RUSTICO

rustico2Sleek 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. guns-croppedMy 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.2164405216_c035700e79_b

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.

GALAXY HUT

galaxy hut4Roratunga 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. marionberryThe 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.

BARDO REDUX

facadeNearly 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.junkyard

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).riverside

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.

LAWNMOWER BEER PUB CRAWL: Keeping It Light and Making It Interesting

one foot cropped
Passing my own roadside sobriety test in the parking lot of T*Bonz.

Is it possible to drink beer all day without getting hammered? Common sense says, no way. But after a few calculations, I estimated that given an unlimited supply of palatable low-alcohol beer, enough food to soak up the alcohol, and the discipline to pace myself, it was theoretically possible to drink beer non-stop for 8–10 hours without exceeding the legal limit of .08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC). Looked good on paper, but would it work in the real world?

I chose affluent Howard County, Maryland, in which to conduct my experiment. Clustered between Columbia and Ellicott City is perhaps the best collection of suburban taphouses in the mid-Atlantic, all within an easy drive of each other. As a precaution, I harnessed social media to mobilize a safety net of friends at each pub along the crawl to throw water in my face and confiscate my keys if things went sideways.

My drinking strategy was simple: nothing stronger than 5% ABV. In an urban environment, these are called session beers; in the country, we call them lawnmower beers. Most guys I know drink BMC (BudMillerCoors) when cutting the grass, but in recent years, craft brewers have fattened their portfolios with flavorful, interesting brews no stronger than light beer. If I could keep it interesting and keep it light, I should be able to complete the crawl.

Wherever possible, I would order small pours, or samplers, instead of full pints. Following standard pub crawl protocol of one drink per stop, I’d be able to visit four pubs and drink 16 beers, but consume only four pints of alcoholic beverage. That would leave me with sufficient wiggle room to sneak in an extra pint should I find something exceptionally tasty.

For objectivity’s sake, my itinerary comprised the four craft-beer bars with the highest ratings on BeerAdvocate. I struggled to find some rationale to include the White Oak Tavern, a relatively new pub in Ellicott City that has yet to receive a BeerAdvocate review but enjoys a strong local following. But after scanning their excellent draft list, I could only find two beers with ABVs under 5%—the only time I’ve had to avoid a taphouse because its line-up wasn’t wimpy enough.

DUCK-FAT FRIES

For most of the 20th century, you could depend on a British pub for great beer and dismal food. But when an enterprising London restaurateur coined the term “gastropub” in 1991, “pub grub” was transformed into fine cuisine, and beer drinkers have been paying through the nose ever since. gastropubVictoria Gastro Pub is not the most expensive taphouse in Columbia (Frisco Taphouse and Brewery is equally pricey), but it certainly looks the part. It’s the kind of pub you would chose to impress a first date. Great beer, excellent food, casual elegance . . . what more could you want?

How about the unique tap handles that identify each brewery and beer at a glance? That creative hodgepodge of diverse shapes, colors, and materials that quickens the pulse of every beer geek, however, is anathema to Victoria’s design concept of two dozen uniform, anonymous brown spindles. To select a draft beer, patrons must navigate through a 40-page beverage menu that contains 15 pages of wines, 14 pages of bottled beers, 3 pages of cocktails and martinis, 2 pages of spirits and single malts, 1 page of coffee drinks, and, somewhere in the middle of the tome, 2 pages describing the 24 craft beers on tap.

Once located, the beer list is quite impressive, and on the day of the crawl included six beers with alcohol contents under 5%. Unlike most pubs, which serve four 4-ounce samples in a downsized fraternity paddle, Victoria offers a flight of five beers in 5-ounce portions, cradled in a wooden carousel, for $15, or three bucks apiece.DSC00153

I asked my bartender, Levi, what were the most popular low-alcohol beers at Victoria’s. “Session IPAs,” he replied. “I can be drinking those all day, and, you know, I’m good. No worries.” I agreed. Unfortunately, none of the pub’s 24 taps was connected to a session IPA.

No matter. I started with Smuttynose Hayseed, a grisette of 3.8% ABV, with a surprising volume of yeasty, clovey flavor for such a low ABV. But like most low-alcohol beers with so little malt support, it grew astringent and metallic by the end of the glass. (What follows are tasting notes. Readers impatient for details of me falling down and puking should skip ahead.) Next up was Hopfentea (4.2%) from Perennial Artisan Ales, yet another craft brewery from St. Louis. A Berliner weisse, steeped in a tropical tea blend, this would be the highest rated beer, according to BeerAdvocate, I would taste all day. Cross-country transport had apparently deadened this beer’s subtleties, for I could taste no tropical or tea notes, just a pleasing, but generic, sourness. Avalanche Amber (4.4%) is one of the oldest beers in the Breckenridge Brewery’s portfolio; they even brew a 3.2 version for Colorado grocery and convenience stores. At either strength, though, this beer is far too sweet for palates accustomed to modern IPAs. Served under a blanket of nitrogen, Breckenridge’s Vanilla Porter (4.7%) is much more drinkable and interesting, but still too sweet for me. I saved Tröegs Sunshine Pils (4.5%) for last—and for good reason. This light German-style pilsner is everything a good lawnmower beer ought to be: crisp, flavorful, and just as inviting at the end of the glass as at the beginning. Its bright, floral, lemony hop flavor never overwhelms its modest malt bill; its low ABV means never having to say no to another round.

Sunshine Pils was the perfect accompaniment to the pub’s signature bucket of duck-fat fries, sprinkled with truffle sea salt and served with a generous portion of roasted garlic aioli. The portions are so generous that I was left with half a bucket of fries and no beer to wash it down with. With some wiggle room built into my schedule, I ordered one of the house beers, brewed at its Manor Hill farm brewery. Farm Fuzz (4.9%) was a pleasant enough witbier, but lacked focus and intensity. Good lawnmower beers can be elusive. Finding one good one—out of six—was a good start.

Before leaving the pub, I calculated that the five 5-ounce samplers and one 12-ounce pour added up to two ounces of pure alcohol, elevating my approximate BAC to nearly 0.6% and eliminating any flexibility in my alcohol budget. None of my FaceBook friends had joined the crawl this early, so I performed my own sobriety check: balancing on one foot for 30 seconds. Two years ago and 15 pounds heavier, I couldn’t do this when sober. The duck-fat fries, though, seemed to have absorbed much of the beer I had consumed, and the minor buzz I was feeling had little effect on my acrobatic skills. Convinced I could pass both a field sobriety test and breathalyzer, I headed to Ellicott City to sample the 40 taps at T*Bonz.

BIKER BAR

All it takes is one Harley Davidson to turn a restaurant into a biker bar. On the day I visited T*Bonz, there were three parked out front. This was a good sign, though, since most of my FB friends are either musicians or bikers. At last I would have someone to drink with.

DSC00158Located behind a motley strip mall and hidden from the main road, T*Bonz’s facade resembles a double-wide real estate sales trailer. All patrons ascend a wheelchair-friendly ramp with two switchbacks. The interior is quite spacious, though, with nearly a score of wooden booths and a large wrap-around bar.

With 40 local and national beers on tap at T*Bonz, only Frisco offers a greater selection. I quickly identified six beers under 5% ABV and ordered samples of the four most promising. T*Bonz’s unique sampler paddle comprises four slots and a strip of slate, upon which customers write their selections in chalk—an excellent system for those with good printing skills.DSC00154

I started with Evil Twin’s Bikini Beer. It was labeled as a session IPA, but at 2.7% ABV, this was essentially a “table beer,” the kind of beverage that children in Belgium drink at lunch. It had the citrusy hop nose and mouth-coating body of a beer twice its weight. And unlike most session IPAs, it finished hoppy and herbal, not bitter and astringent. An amazing example of the brewing craft! I needed to share this beer with someone. But it was almost 2 pm, and the room was nearly empty. There were the three bikers, nursing Bud Lights; a guy wearing a tie, working on his laptop; and an elderly couple in one of the booths—all strangers and unlikely candidates to share my enthusiasm over a 2.7% table beer.

With at least six hours to go and no friends in sight, I decided to boost my alcohol absorption with another appetizer: a bowl of chili, super-sized with sour cream, grated cheese, and chopped onions.

None of my remaining samplers came remotely close to the Bikini beer. Sea Dog’s Sun Fish (4.6%) was like a Citra-hopped wheat ale: lots of orange and grapefruit, but ultimately too sweet. Peak Organic Fresh Cut (4.7%) was supposed to be a Czech-style pilsner but tasted like an India pale lager with too little malt. Oskar Blues Pinner Throwback (4.9%) is advertised as a session IPA, but a heavy hand with the habañeros made it impossible to taste the hops.

The chili was doing a good job on the alcohol. I didn’t feel at all intoxicated. More like tired. And logy. In fact, I didn’t feel like moving. I didn’t feel like thinking. I just sat on my stool watching the Patriots pound the Jets.

In my online itinerary, I had scheduled the Judge’s Bench for 3:30, but had since discovered that the popular Ellicott City watering hole didn’t open until 4 pm on Fridays. I moved my car into the shade and napped for a half hour to let the chili digest and my mind clear.

(Ironic post-crawl discovery: two friends had, in fact, lunched at T*Bonz and not seen or recognized me. Since I was sitting next to the bikers—and I kind of look like a biker—they may have simply overlooked me. For my part, I was too incapacitated by food to recognize or seek them out.)DSC00159

NEARLY BENCHED

The 0.7 ounces of alcohol I consumed at T*Bonz kept my BAC around 0.6%—street-legal and still manageable. The most serious threats to completing the crawl—bloatedness and fatigue—were fading after my nap. I arrived at the Judges Bench refreshed and thirsty for more lawnmower beer.

Cozy and unpretentious, the Judges Bench sits at the western edge of Ellicott City’s old town. Formerly a grocery adjacent to the old county courthouse, it earned its name as a cool respite for jurists during the pre-air conditioning era. Today, it bills itself as someplace “where everybody knows your name.” As the pub quickly filled with happy hour regulars, I found myself the sole stranger among the convivial clintele. But that would soon change with the arrival of “Norm.”

DSC00160The 17 taps on offer were as well selected as the ‘70s “deep track” album cuts playing comfortably in the background—and the most affordably priced of the crawl. In fact, the beer selection was almost too good for my purposes: only three (maybe two) brews weighed in at 5% or less. Victory Helles Lager (4.8%) was crisp and refreshing but seemed too sugary and sweet for the style. An upwelling of butterscotchy diacetyl dampened my enjoyment of the usually excellent Vienna Lager (labeled 4.9% on the menu, but listed at 5.2% on recent bottles) from Devils Backbone. And though pushing the boundaries of lawnmower beer potency, DuClaw’s 13-Degree Hefeweizen (5.0%), was a thirst-slaking winner, adeptly balancing banana sweetness with yeasty spice. I filled the fourth slot on my sampler with Allagash’s massive barrel-aged triple, Curieux (11.0%). Four ounces of probably the best Abbey-style triple brewed in the U.S. for just $1.50 was a bargain I could not resist.

Halfway through my samplers, a 60ish guy, dressed business casual, entered the pub and took the stool next to me. The greeting he received may not have been as theatrical as the one regularly bestowed on George Wendt’s character in Cheers, but clearly everyone knew Jim’s name. From a RateBeer cheat sheet, he ordered four small pours and began jotting down tasting notes as copious as my own. Jim soon confirmed Yeats’ quote about there being “no strangers here, only friends you have not yet met.” A kindred soul, a fellow traveler, Jim’s recollection of memorable beer fests, great pubs, and ground-breaking beers from the past 20 years coincided with much of my own personal history. It is quite possible that we stood in same line at the 1993 Great American Beer Festival, waiting for a one-ounce pour of New Glarus Raspberry Tart. With the last leg of the crawl awaiting me, I said goodbye to a new drinking buddy and headed to Frisco to join some old ones.

Thanks to the 11% Curieux, my alcohol consumption jumped 1.1 ounces, bringing the day’s total to 3.75 ounces of pure alcohol. After deducting for the amount of alcohol metabolized over five hours, my estimated BAC hovered perilously close to 0.8%. But after successfully perching on one foot for 30 seconds, my inner cop gave me a thumbs-up to complete the crawl.

BIG BURRITO

From its humble beginnings as a no-frills hole-in-the-wall, best known for serving the fattest burritos in Columbia, Frisco Taphouse has evolved into one of the best craft beer bars in the mid-Atlantic. frisco facadeSince the move to the new facility in 2010, owner Adam Carton has upscaled the food menu but still offers the “old-school” Southwestern comfort food that first attracted me to the early Frisco. In 2012, the pub began brewing his own line of PUSH beers in house; two years later saw the opening of a second Frisco (with 100 taps) in Gambrills, MD.

The Columbia Frisco’s 54 rotating taps (including two beers on cask, two on nitrogen, and usually five house beers) are chock full of rarities, one-offs, collaborations, and quirky imports. But it’s not the quantity or quality of beer that sets Frisco apart so much as the way they are displayed. A large electronic screen behind the bar lists beers alphabetically by brewery, each with its corresponding ABV. Every time a keg kicks and a new beer is added, the screen refreshes itself like an airport’s arrival/departure board. During peak weekend hours, a new beer will pop up every 4–5 minutes. Hardcore enthusiasts keep an eye on the digital display the way baseball fans watch the out-of-town scoreboard during a pennant race.big board

I arrived at the pub, a bit behind schedule, to find several pub crawlers already into their second pints. Unlike the first three stops on the crawl, Frisco does not offer samplers but will serve one beer in two glasses. By sharing with friends, I was able to try four lawnmower brews but consume only two pints of beer.

My first beer was a cask-conditioned version of Straight on ‘til Morning (3.0%), brewed in collaboration by Baltimore brewers DuClaw and Pratt Street Ale House. Gently carbonated, barely intoxicating, and deftly balanced between malt sweetness and hoppy bitterness, this pale mild was the quintessential session beer. Half a pint of PUSH’s HoCo Pale Ale (4.3%) was flavorful for its weight and easy to drink, but lacked any distinctive attributes that might tempt me to order another round. Heavy Seas Crossbones (4.5%), a session IPA, was more emphatically hopped; cask-conditioning seemed to blunt the astringent finish often found in this style, making it far more sessionable than the bottled version.

After my 17th beer of the day, I was feeling rather joyful—and a little paranoid about all the alcohol I had consumed. Time for one last appetizer. Frisco’s “haddock bites” offer an American twist (crispier, less greasy, and served in larger portions) on the English post-pub classic, fish and chips. I washed down the food with the only full pint I would drink all day.

Perhaps no beer widely available on the East Coast says “West Coast IPA” more emphatically than Ballast Point Sculpin. In fact, its extra-juicy variant, Grapefruit Sculpin, was the first beer to kick at Max’s IPA Festival this month. Retailers in Maryland typically ask—and receive—$15 a six-pack for the elixir. So I was hardly surprised to discover that the session version of Sculpin, Even Keel (3.8%) would be the most expensive beer of the crawl. Was it worth $8 a pint?

Let’s just say it was mangolicious! Even Keel delivers the same tropical fruit punch as Sculpin, but in a lighter, more streamlined body. Not only could I drink this all day, I could drink it every day. But on this particular day, one Even Keel would have to suffice. I nursed the pint for nearly an hour, drank a pint of water, and then chilled for a half hour until I could balance on one foot for 30 seconds. Road-ready, I drove home without incident, my eight-hour day of drinking at an end.

JUST SAY KNOW

Over the course of a day, I tried nearly every style of beer that can be brewed to an ABV below 5%: a Belgian-style grisette and witbier; German- and Czech-style pilsners; a Munich helles, Vienna lager, Berliner weisse, and hefeweizen; mild, pale, and wheat ales; an amber ale and a porter; and four session IPAs.

Brewing a flavorful light beer is not easy. Of the 17 beers I tried, 11 were simply too astringent, sweet, unbalanced, or insipid to merit another pour. Most lawnmower beers are, for the most part, watered-down versions of other styles and require some textural ingenuity or aggressive flavoring to make them interesting.

The gentle carbonation of cask conditioning elevated both Crossbones and the DuClaw/Pratt Street pale mild from ordinary to special. Assertive Bavarian hefeweizen yeast kept DuClaw’s 13 Degrees interesting, even with a downsized grain bill. And although Even Keel was, for me, the best beer of the crawl, Evil Twin’s Bikini beer showed that even absurdly thin-bodied beers can be rescued by skillful hopping technique. My greatest admiration, however, is reserved for Tröegs Sunshine Pils, which proved that “crisp, light, and refreshing” needn’t be a euphemism for what many beer lovers once referred to as lawnmower beer.

Despite the “successful” conclusion to this pub crawl, I would never recommend that anyone test his capacity to drink beer against his ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, as I have. The point of this exercise is demonstrate that even under the most extreme circumstances—eight hours of continual consumption—it is still possible to plan accordingly and drink responsibly.

Know your ABVs. Know your portion size. And wear a watch; there are no clocks in pubs. Simple charts like this one, http://www.brad21.org/bac_charts.html, can help you estimate your blood alcohol content according to gender and weight.

 

 

JERSEY BOYS PUB CRAWL: 25 Beers in 26 Hours

springsteenLike many Americans living along the Northeast Corridor, I have frequently traveled through  New Jersey—to New England or New York City—but rarely ventured off its highways and toll roads to take a closer look at the home turf of such Garden State icons as Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, and presidential hopeful Governor Chris Christie.sinatra But after  longtime friend and former business partner Mike Horkan moved to the state last year, I gained access to the most important ingredient for a pub crawl through New Jersey: a driver knowledgeable with the state’s congested roadways and conditioned to the gladiatorial antics of the charioteers that ply them. christie2With Mike at the wheel, I would be free to go off-turnpike to experience the real Jersey and drink its tastiest brews.

To make things more interesting, I offered to buy a beer for any of my NJ Facebook friends (3) and or bar patrons who had a Springsteen, Sinatra, or Christie anecdote to share. The Jersey Boys Pub Crawl was born.

So many bars, so little time. Ignoring Internet polls, magazine surveys, and Yelp reviews, I sought the opinions of true experts: BeerAdvocate’s online community. From their ratings I compiled a list of the best bars serving craft beer in the state and gave it to Mike to organize according to geography and traffic patterns. Not surprisingly, New Jersey’s best beer bars are clustered in the northern third of the state closest to New York City. Mike estimated that we could probably hit seven of them in the day-and-a-half allotted for the crawl.

CHRISTIE COUNTRY

We met to begin the crawl at the Tap Room, located in the Somerset Hills Hotel (exit 33, off I-78) in the leafy, bucolic community of Basking Ridge, just 8½ miles south of Christie’s residence in Mendham Township. With its manicured lawns and expansive horse farms, this was prime Republican country where any one-percenter would feel at home.

The colonial four-story hotel (“where affordable has never looked so luxurious”) looked the perfect place for a Christie fundraiser, in fact. We passed through the plush lobby and into the Tap Room, rated NJ’s #1 beer bar by beernexus.com and ranked #4 by BeerAdvocate, with a 97 (out of 100) rating. At 11:30 am, we were the first customers at the handsome U-shaped cherry-mahogany bar. tap roomTwenty plush high-back bar stools, surrounding wood paneling, and softly lit artwork along the walls spoke of casual elegance.

A whiteboard on one wall listed 20 well-chosen draft beers, including four from New Jersey, four Belgians (including Karmeleit Tripel), and two Germans. I ordered a pint of Funnel Cake cream ale (5.5% ABV) from the less-than-a-year-old Forgotten Boardwalk brewery in Cherry Hill. While not as memorable as the brewery’s name, the beer featured a sweet vanilla flavor that dried out nicely by its finish. Kane Car - DSC00147Head High IPA (6.5%) from the Kane brewery of Ocean, NJ, however, was in another league altogether. Hopped with the 5 C’s (Cascades, Centennial, Citra, Columbus, and Chinook), the hazy unfiltered beer delivered a powerful grapefruit aroma and a complex citrusy palate that quickly vanquished any preconceptions of mediocrity I might have harbored about New Jersey breweries.

As the bar filled for lunch, I began asking customers about Christie. I was told that he did a lot of town hall meetings, though none had been conducted in Basking Ridge. A 60ish guy, whose elegantly casual attire suggested comfortable retirement, responded with a second-hand report (via his favorite waitress) of Christie downing a beer at the Buffalo Wild Wings in nearby Bridgewater. I would have bought him a beer, but he was drinking pinot grigio with his chicken breast sandwich. Besides, Mike and I were on a tight budget and schedule.

My beers cost $7.25 each, about 25 cents more than the state average. A $15 reuben was, in fact, almost worth the inflated price. Not my kind of joint, the Tap Room was nevertheless the best hotel bar for craft beer I’ve ever been to.

ALMOST HOBOKEN

One exit east (#36) on I-78 leads to the Stirling Hotel: once a hotel, now just a pub along the main street of the small town of the same name. Funky and more casual than the Tap Room, its 17 well-curated taps were rich in rarities and hard-to-find brews, including a dangerous duo of Dogfish Head behemoths: World Wide Stout and 120 Minute IPA (both 18%)—a combo I’d not seen since my last visit to the brewery’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub.

stirlingNo one reported any Christie sightings, but I did encounter my first link to Sinatra: a pint of 902 PATH (Pale Ale True Hoboken) from the Hoboken craft brewery named after the NJ area code. I had been told that Old Blue Eyes’ legacy was strongest around Hoboken, but since none of the city’s bars had made it into my top-seven list, this pint of Hoboken-brewed pale ale might be as close as I would get, especially since Mike had warned me of the potential for snarled traffic in both Hoboken and Jersey City.

902 Brewing is apparently so small and obscure that not even Mike had heard of it. Expecting to taste what the brewery describes as a “full-bodied 5–6% session beer,” I was shocked to discover a blast of clove-like spiciness. Whether its phenolic character came from a Belgian yeast or some quirk of the brewing process, PATH was one of the most distinctive beers I tasted the entire crawl. No wonder the Stirling Hotel earns a 95 rating from BeerAdvocate—tied for sixth highest. You never know what you might find there.

As we left the relative tranquility of central New Jersey, it was time to drop off my car at Mike’s place. Following him up the Garden State Parkway, I dodged the usual mix of tailgaters, rapid-lane-changers, and other impatient road warriors. spare changeBut the greatest hazard arose at an automated toll booth exit where I was confronted with two stark options: E-ZPass or spare change. An urban refugee for the past two decades, I had never needed to install one of the system’s transponders on my car—until now. The GSP was demanding $1.20 for legal egress; all I had was 68¢. I tossed the assortment of quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies into the chute and drove on, painfully aware that my 52¢ shortfall would probably cost me a $40 fine.

GUBNA WHO?

With Mike at the wheel, we headed up the New Jersey Turnpike to I-80 and exit 67 for Bogota (buh-GO-tuh) and Andy’s Corner Bar. It doesn’t sit on a corner and Andy’s not there anymore, but this unassuming watering hole retains all the qualities you’d expect from a traditional corner bar, plus one you wouldn’t expect: great beer.

DSC00088
Barbara Gray taps the only cask ale of the crawl.

Andy Gray’s son George and his wife Barbara offer ten taps and one beer engine, the only pub to serve cask-conditioned beer that Mike and I encountered the entire trip. I passed up the He’Brew Messiah Nut Brown Ale, on cask, for the only Jersey beer on the menu: St. Stephen Saison (4.3%) from the newly opened Brix City brewing of Little Ferry, whose exit (#66, off I-80) we had just passed. It was a decent session beer, but nothing special. Far more interesting were the looks I received when I mentioned the governor.

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Mike points the way to the third pub of the crawl.

Bogota lies in a heavily Democratic precinct in a heavily Democratic state. Andy’s afternoon regulars had little love to share for Mr. Christie—much less colorful anecdotes. Changing the subject to obscure Springsteen venues elicited a response I would hear often: “You gotta go down to the Shore.” Asbury Park, of course, was ground zero for Springsteen sightings, but apparently the Boss rarely performed outside of the New Jersey beach towns during his early days. While at the Shore, I was advised to visit Point Pleasant, where some guy blasts vintage Sinatra tunes non-stop from his residence, close by the boardwalk. That observation deserved a beer, but by now I realized that my social media offer was unnecessary. New Jerseyites are more than willing to discuss the state’s favorite sons for free.

Between the aging boomer camaraderie, the intimate acoustics of a small hole-in-the-wall bar, and the gustatory delights of a well-chosen tap list, Andy’s easily earned its 98 BeerAdvocate score—third highest in the state—putting Bogota on every beer geek’s map.

CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

Turnpikes, parkways, and interstates crisscross upper Jersey so thoroughly, that no address is ever far from a highway exit. Take 431 Belmont Ave., in Haledon. That’s where you’ll find the Shepherd and Knucklehead, whose 90 taps have earned it a near-perfect 99 rating on BeerAdvocate—second highest in the state. Seen on a map, Haledon appears to be just on the other side of Paterson (exit 57) from I-80. From a vehicular perspective, it might as well be in Connecticut.

Paterson is New Jersey’s third largest city and the nation’s most densely populated municipality, outside of New York—and Mike and I were stuck in the middle of it. A thriving textile industry during the latter half of the 19th century earned it the nickname of “Silk City” and great fortunes for its mills’ owners. That wealth is still evident in the intricately carved facades that line the city’s congested streets. paterson2Such unexpected eye candy made the snail-paced traffic Mike and I were stuck in slightly more bearable. At street level, once regal banks, luxury goods emporiums, and four-star restaurants have given way to check-cashing storefronts, “super discount” stores, and taco stands. Today, Paterson is a major destination for Hispanic emigrants and home to the second-largest population of Muslims in the U.S.

By the time we arrived at the Shepherd and Knucklehead, we had worked up a powerful thirst. I jumped at the chance to slake it with a Ramstein Maibock from the High Point Brewing Co. in Butler, NJ. This would be my only opportunity to sample the output from the lager specialist whose Oktoberfest is the only beer from New Jersey to earn a top-ten rating on BeerAdvocate. Just my luck: a sputtering tap issued half a glass of beer—the proverbial dregs from the bottom of a barrel—that tasted neither fresh nor flavorful. Oh well, I still had 89 other beers to choose from.DSC00092

Ultimately, all debate over New Jersey’s best beer narrows down to Carton vs. Kane. Of the state’s ten highest rated beers on BeerAdvocate, six are brewed by Kane, three by Carton, and one by High Point. I had tasted Kane’s Head High IPA (#4) earlier at the Tap Room; it was now time for Carton’s double IPA, 077xx (7.8%, tied for #4), named for the state’s zip code. The beer explodes with fresh, juicy hop flavors (peach and mango) and has that underlying candied-fruit sweetness I associate with the best DIPAs. Well done, Carton.

Our odyssey through Patterson had landed us in the lull between happy hour and dinner. With few patrons to pester, I coaxed a Sinatra anecdote about the Fiore Deli from one of the bartenders. The Hoboken restaurant famous for its mozzarella and prosciutto was also a favorite of Sinatra’s. When on tour, the singer would have fresh mozzarella shipped overnight from Fiore’s to each of his gigs. The deli has been a Hoboken fixture ever since.

DSC00091As I savored some of Jersey’s finest brew, Mike received a geography lesson from one of the bartenders, who showed Mike, on his smartphone, how to reach Haledon via a longer, more circuitous route from the west. From either direction, the Shepherd and Knucklehead is a destination well worth the extra effort required to reach it.

Six beers and four bars into the pub crawl, we returned to Mike and his wife Kathleen’s home in Bloomfield, where he whipped up a hearty meal, washed down with several bottles of his excellent homebrew. I could have retired for the evening, but Mike would not hear of it. The highlight of the crawl still awaited us: a nightcap at New Jersey’s top beer bar: the Copper Mine Pub, aka Vito’s, in North Arlington.

NO SKELS

Driving east towards the pub brought us the closest we’d get to the City. As we crested one small hill, I caught my first glimpse of the newly completed Freedom Tower, or One World Trade Center, soaring above the tree line. This inspiring vista was soon supplanted by the homely façade of the Copper Mine Pub, squatting at the edge of the Holy Cross Cemetery.

Named after the nearby historic Schuyler copper mine, the pub is the very definition of bare bones: plain façade, small interior, minimal lighting, utilitarian seating, no kitchen, primitive website, and no Facebook page. How did this joint earn a perfect 100 score from BeerAdvocate, ranking it the best beer bar in New Jersey?

vito againMeet Vito Forte. A former beer distributor before opening Copper Mine nearly eight years ago, he has forged the connections to bring a dazzling array of rarities, one-offs, and collaborative gems to a sketchy neighborhood bar that had once featured cheap shots of Fleishman’s and Steel Reserve malt liquor. On any given day, you’ll probably find more interesting brews—usually all of them—among his 20 taps than among the Shepherd and the Knucklehead’s 90.

“Horkan, are you going to pick your nose or pick a beer?” teased Vito, as Mike studied the day’s beer list. Talk about tough decisions. For the first and only time during the crawl, there were no New Jersey brews on offer, so I was free to try something more exotic. There were three rare Belgians (a Flemish red; the definitive oud bruin, Liefman’s Goudenband; and a barrel-aged “zymatore” from the Alvinne micro), plus unblended lambics from Britain and Italy! I briefly considered a single-hop session IPA from Green Flash or two hard-to-find Allagash brews (Confluence and Interlude) before opting for something more nightcapish: Santa’s Little Helper Imperial Stout (10.5%) from Port Brewing, followed by Santo Ron Diego (13%) from Lost Abbey. Embracing his role as designated driver, Mike settled for a Newburgh Cream Ale (4.2%).

At the bottom of the beer menu appeared “No skels,” a reference to the bar’s former clientele of bums and winos. (From the Dutch word skelder, “to cheat.”) copper mineThere were no vagrants among that night’s customers, all of whom seemed to know Vito well. Indeed, Copper Mine is essentially a one-man operation. There’s guy that helps out Friday and Saturday evenings, but otherwise it’s all Vito, all the time.

When I brought up Christie’s name, Vito scowled at me. Memories of “Bridgegate” and the notorious traffic jam engineered by some of the governor’s aides, were still fresh here, close to the George Washington Bridge. It would be the last time I mentioned Christie’s name on the crawl.

Springsteen, however, was a Jersey Boy everyone wanted to talk about. Most of the stories were about seeing the Boss perform at the Shore. But one guy had seen Springsteen at the Capital Theatre in Passaic, just five miles away. Another dimly remembered a performance in North Bergen, 20 years ago, at some hole-in-the-wall bar whose name he couldn’t remember. I bought him a beer anyway.

MBA

We arose the next morning for the final two pubs of the crawl, beginning with the Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell. Rated the best beer bar in the state in a recent Internet poll and tied for sixth place on BeerAdvocate with a 95 score, it’s that rare establishment that aspires to be a family restaurant, watering hole, and beer mecca—and succeeds at all three.cloverleaf facade

Operated by the Dorchak family since 1933, Cloverleaf, nevertheless, proudly proclaims an Irish identity in its name and by counting down the days to St. Patrick’s Day on a blackboard over the bar. (I was there on Day 301.) Extending from the bar is a warren of private and semi-private dining rooms that were filled to near capacity for lunch on a Wednesday afternoon.

Two dozen taps dispense an interesting range of craft-brew standards and specialties. The daily beer menu highlights five of the most interesting, as well as flagging the newly tapped and nearly spent. Knowledgeable bartenders literally wear their credentials on their sleeves: polo shirts embroidered with “cicerone” (the certification program for beer servers that parallels the sommeliers of the wine world).

Cloverleaf may also have the best educated customers in the state. In an interesting twist on the “mug club” concept, the pub’s “Grad School for Beer Lovers” offers a 45-beer syllabus of brewing styles. Tasting 30 earns you an MBA (Master of Beer Appreciation) and upgrades your 16-ounce American pint to a 19-ounce British imperial pint. Forty-five beers net you a Ph.D and your name on a plaque.cloverleaf taps

More important to my goal of tasting as many Jersey beers as possible, though, was the availability of samplers, or short pours. From this point on, all discussions of Sinatra, Springsteen, and Christie would be put on hold while I concentrated on beer.

I started with a Farmhouse Summer Ale (4.6%) from the Flying Fish Brewing Co., whose rice-based Exit 16 Imperial IPA was the best beer from New Jersey I’d ever tasted back in 2010. Despite the use of Belgian malts, this crisp refresher struck me as more of a blonde ale than a saison. More interesting was St. John’s Irish Red (4.9%) from the new Celtic-themed brewery Rinn Duin in Toms River (exit 82, off GSP). Lots of caramel and toffee flavor without being cloyingly sweet, it was one of the best examples of the style that I’ve ever tasted.

I finished the session with two big beers from, arguably, New Jersey’s top two breweries. A newly released Imperial Red (9.2%) from Kane’s Hop Lab series augments its malt-forward profile with a welcome jolt of juicy hops. “A tad boozy, but really well balanced,” observed mikeburd1128 on BeerAdvocate.  Carton’s 07006 double IPA (7.8%) is named after the zip code for Cloverleaf, for whom this beer—hopped exclusively with Sorachi Ace hops—is exclusively brewed. The distinctive lemony character of this hop seemed over the top here: too resiny on the palate, too astringent in the finish.

As usual, Mike had selected the session’s best beer: Founder’s Blushing Monk (9.2%), a pumped-up version of the brewery’s raspberry-flavored Rübæus. Its intense fruit flavor was perfectly balanced between tart and tangy, with just enough sweetness to keep things interesting.

Unable to continue with me for the final leg of the crawl, Mike drove back to Bloomfield after our lunch at Cloverleaf, and I headed in the opposite direction toward the Pennsylvania border and my final destination: the Mohawk House in Sparta.

BEST BEER OF THE CRAWL

North-central New Jersey, along the spine of the Hamburg Mountains, is dotted with summer homes and scenic lakes. The largest of these, Lake Mohawk, lends its name and picturesque setting to the fifth-highest rated craft-beer bar in the state.

DSC00099Behind an impressive stone façade and beneath soaring cathedral ceilings, the Mohawk House comprises two stunning public rooms: a large formal dining area and a massive four-sided bar, flanked by more casual dining spaces. Obviously food comes first here ($50 steaks, $38 sea bass), but beer comes in a strong second.

A leather-bound beer list features a dozen well-curated rarities; three dozen other taps are only slightly less interesting. My last chance to drink Jersey beer, I ordered a rotating “paddle” of six short-pours, including beers from two breweries I had not sampled yet. Muddy Creek Lager (5.6%), from the Defiant Brewing Co., just across the border in Pearl River, NY, was a cut above your typical amber beer, with a nice caramel malt flavor and a sessionable crisp body. River Horse Farmhouse Saison (7.0%) is a former “brewhouse reserve” specialty that has been promoted by the Ewing brewery to seasonal status. Smart move. Spiced with lemongrass and a variety of peppercorns, this is a big saison that supports a rich, complex palate.

DSC00101With 48 taps, I expected to find at least one from Kane, but none was on offer. Clearly, Carton (available at four of the seven pubs visited) enjoys wider distribution than Kane (available at only two bars). Carton describes B.D.G. (Brunch. Dinner. Grub) (6.0%) as a “country ale” designed to evoke crusty artisanal breads. A complex grain bill reinforces the “liquid bread” impression; Aramis hops lend a French accent of thyme. Nice snack. Now on to the pale ales.

Carton Boat Beer—featuring American hops and German malts and fermented with a kölsch yeast—is the brewery’s lightest pale ale at 4.2%. Bursting with grapefruit and lemony flavors, yet largely free of the tail-end astringency of many session IPAs, it was easily the best low-alcohol beer of the crawl. HopPun (5.3%) is the brewery’s basic pale ale, though it, too, drinks like a lower-gravity IPA. A mix of Super Galena, Mosaic, and experimental strains tilts the beer toward the resinous, piney side of the hop spectrum, but with a good deal of complexity for a beer of such modest weight. Mosaic enjoy the starring role in Carton’s zip-coded single-hop DIPA 07871, brewed exclusively for the Mohawk House with the super-Citra Mosaic strain. All aspects of the hop’s broad flavor spectrum, from tropical mangoes to earthy spiciness, are on display here, resulting in the most complex, well-rounded single hop beer I’ve ever tasted. “The hop profile in this beer is off the charts!!!” enthused njbeergeek01 on BeerAdvocate. “Best beer from Carton in my honest opinion,” wrote JasonSmith1992. And the best beer of the Jersey Boys pub crawl, according to me. Too bad Mike missed it.

I should also salute Mohawk House for having the best bottle list of the crawl. De Proef Reinaert Flemish Wild, Lost Abbey Agave Maria, and Full Sail Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout are just a few of 22 choice options.state line

As I crossed the Delaware River and watched the Garden State disappear in my rear view mirror, three conclusions began to emerge from the fog of 25 beers sampled over 26 hours. One: Of the seven bars on the crawl, each was, in its own unique way, deserving of the high ranking it received on BeerAdvocate. Two: When Kane and Carton beers become available in central Maryland, I will be one of the first to drink them. Three: With a dozen Republicans having already announced their intention to run for the presidency, former frontrunner Chris Christie is unlikely to join them.

POSTSCRIPT

Two weeks after the pub crawl, I learned that the Copper Mine Pub copper mine logowould be closing—for good—at the end of June.  While Vito has not ruled out reopening at a new location, for now he has no plans to do so.

LAST BEER STANDING: BMC Pub Crawl

pyramid rotatedEvery beer enthusiast has at some point found him or herself at a restaurant, bar, or friend’s where the only malt beverage option is BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors). Do you switch to a caffeinated coffee or tea; a fizzy, sugary soda; plain Jane water; or simply man up and choke down whatever pisswater swill is available?

In a recent Beer Advocate poll, two-thirds of the respondents agreed that there’s “nothing wrong with having a few Miller Lites every now and then.” A vocal minority (28%), however, would rather drink nothing if only BMC were available, and a radical fringe (5.5%) would go so far as to smuggle their own craft beer onto the premises if none was offered.

Now imagine the plight of the BMC drinker who accidentally stumbles into a brewpub or craft beer taphouse. What are his options? I have drank at many brewpubs and taphouses that pride themselves on not serving any BMC, or if they do, embarrass the customer, as at Baltimore’s Max’s on Broadway, by ringing a ship’s bell. You can afford to do that when you’re a beer mecca with 140+ taps, but for most establishments catering to the craft beer lover, a bland, watery alternative can be vital to the bottom line. How vital? I decided to find out.

Few good-sized urban areas in the mid-Atlantic region would seem to be more BMC-friendly than “Fredneck,” MD. Since I first moved to the area nearly 20 years ago, this one-time bastion of the KKK has grown and evolved into the state’s second-largest city and one of its most livable regions. Once a good-beer desert, Frederick now boasts four brewpubs, two production breweries (including the state’s largest), and a growing cadre of craft-oriented taphouses. I wondered: “Can a good ole boy still find him a cheap, flavorless brew here?”

Stealth BMC

I began my search at Roasthouse Pub, the city’s first, and still best, taphouse. To provide some cover, I enlisted an old friend, culinary artist and craft-beer enthusiast David Crosson, as my wingman. roasthouseWe scanned the two blackboards at opposite sides of the pub. Among the 20 well-curated selections were a cappuccino stout, a chocolate porter, an imperial brown ale, a barrel-aged barleywine, a dry-hopped pils, an Irish red ale, a Czech-style pilsner, a jalapeño IPA, a blood orange gose, and a basil-flavored witbier—but no BMC.

Feigning indignation, I inquired, “Don’t you serve any regular beers?”

“We have Coors Light, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and regular Budweiser,” replied the bartender, Lindsey Pangburn.

Technically, PBR ain’t BMC, but since it was the most insipid beer available, I ordered one. David had the imperial brown. Our beers arrived in a shaker pint glass and 10-ounce goblet, respectively.

As David savored successive layers of complementary malt goodness, I took a big slug of my Pabst. Then another. When I looked up, David had barely made a dint in his beer, while mine was nearly drained. Drinking BMC is not that difficult if you compensate volume for flavor, it occurred to me. Who says BMC is not worth drinking? I ordered a second one.

This time I asked the bartender if I could drink from the can. She obliged, explaining that the bar’s policy is to pour all beers into pint glasses unless a customer requests otherwise. Glancing around the room, I noticed that everyone was drinking from pint glasses and goblets. Not a can nor bottle in sight, except for mine. How ingenious. It appeared that everyone was drinking craft beer, when, in fact, any or all of them could be imbibing BMC on the sly.

After a leisurely lunch, David and I left Roasthouse more or less equally impaired—my two PBRs (4.7% ABV) containing roughly as much alcohol as his single imperial brown (8.2%)—but having consumed more than twice as much liquid, I was forced to visit the restroom before heading off to our next venue.

Price Point

Lunch was still going strong when we arrived at Barley and Hops, Frederick’s second-oldest brewpub. A profusion of Bud, Miller Lite, and Coors Light bottles around the bar and nearby tables, suggested that there were nearly as many BMC drinkers here as craft drinkers. B&HA half dozen taps were dedicated to house brews; six more were pouring guest beers like Yuengling and Blue Moon; and a healthy supply of bottled BMC filled the cooler beneath the bar.

I was tempted to order a Blue Moon, but that would have been cheating—too similar to craft beer, despite its Miller/Coors provenance. As a compromise, I ordered Yuengling Lager (marginally more flavorful than BMC.) David enjoyed B&H’s Schifferstadt Stout. Thanks to happy hour pricing, each beer cost only $2.75, less than half of what we paid at Roasthouse. No wonder the place was so crowded.

Clearly, Barley and Hops was at the opposite end of the beer snob scale as Roasthouse. BMC was not only tolerated, but celebrated. I felt comfortable drinking bland beer here. Still, why would anyone pay $2.75 for BMC, when you can enjoy a flavorful craft beer for the same price?

Tap Takeover

With lunch winding down, we headed over to Frederick’s Old Town for our final two stops. Just 2½ year old, JoJo’s Restaurant & Taphouse occupies the former quarters of Patrick’s, a decades-old Irish pub that had distinguished itself in its waning days with a decent selection of beers from Flying Dog. JoJo'sJoJo’s has reconfigured the pub’s elegant old bar with two 10-spigot tap towers, whose offerings rotate regularly. The beer selection lacks the geek purity of Roadhouse—you’re apt to find taps for Stella Artois, a Shock Top brew, and Miller Lite sprinkled amongst the well-chosen craft handles—but there’s more than enough good stuff to go around.

The pub had just hosted a Sierra Nevada tap takeover and five of their beers remained: Torpedo, Nooner Pils, Hoppy Lager, Bigfoot, and the just-released Hop Hunter. David ordered a Hop Hunter, whose exuberant hop aroma I could smell from my stool. Reluctantly, I ordered a Miller Lite. At least it was on draft and tasted fresh.

I received some sympathetic encouragement from the bartender, Steven Curran, who exemplified the two-thirds of craft beer drinkers who find “nothing wrong with having a few Miller Lites every now and then.” “I prefer Miller Lite, but Bud Light is okay. I won’t drink Coors Light, though.” Tolerant, but not entirely devoid of prejudice.

Happy Ending

Last stop on our crawl was Brewer’s Alley, the pioneering brewpub that introduced Frederick to craft beer nearly two decades ago. Brewer's AlleyIn 1996, pale, amber, and dark was enough. Today, Brewer’s Alley offers no fewer than eight taps to choose from (with one on cask), including six year-round brews, at least one seasonal, and a special release, which this week was Resinator, a 7.8% DIPA!

Fuck BMC. This story has a happy ending: I ordered a pint of the double IPA and enjoyed it immensely.

For the record, Brewer’s Alley serves only Miller Lite as an alternative to its house brews. They used to pour Bud Light, but people complained. Coors has never been part of the conversation.pile8

The highly unscientific, anecdotal evidence of this random pub crawl suggests three admittedly biased conclusions:

  • Miller Lite is the beer to have when you’re out of craft; Coors Light, the beer to avoid.
  • All beer is good (though some kinds are better than others).
  • Craft beer always tastes better after a BMC.

Cheers!

GEEK SPEAK: From Brooklyn to Boonsboro

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Peter de Sève’s illustration for The New Yorker “captures the appropriate seriousness with which beer is handled these days by many Brooklyn restaurants and the people who dine in them,” according to the magazine.

While watching Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad poking fun at beer geeks who “fuss over,” “dissect,” and “sip their pumpkin peach ale,” my wife laughed and said, “Hey, George, that’s you.” I guess she’s right. Like the doofus hipster portrayed in the commercial, I always sniff a beer before I taste it. I’ll jot down a few tasting notes if it’s a beer I’ve never tried before. And I have had my share of pumpkin and peach beers. (In case you missed the commercial, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siHU_9ec94c)

sniffI’ve never considered my drinking habits worthy of ridicule. But then I do most of my public imbibing at places like Max’s in Baltimore, ChurchKey in D.C., and the Frisco Taphouse in Columbia, MD, where guys with their noses buried in pint glasses trying to ID hop varietals is commonplace. Would my behavior raise any eyebrows in those establishments where all beers are served in the same glassware? Where they don’t ring a bell every time somebody orders Budweiser, Miller, or Coors? And where the beer menu doesn’t refresh itself digitally every time a keg kicks and a new craft beer comes on? Would my act play in Peoria?

Alert for any excuse to organize a pub crawl, I resolved to test the tolerance for geekspeak here on home turf in the Hagerstown Valley of central Maryland—where “golden suds . . . brewed the hard way” still rule. When I first moved here 16 years ago, a good night out was finding a bar or restaurant that served Sam Adams or Guinness or maybe Sierra Nevada Pale Ale if I got lucky. But like most of America, the beerscape has changed radically in the past 5–10 years. The valley now boasts a brewpub/craft brewery and a 24-faucet tap house.

BATTLEFIELD BREW

Antietam tapsThe Antietam Brewery brewed its first beer, General Grant’s Golden Ale, on Feb. 4, 2013. Located in Benny’s Pub, just off the Dual Highway (Rt. 40), Antietam is Hagerstown’s first and only craft brewery—the perfect place to begin my pub crawl.

On the day I visited, Benny’s offered six Antietam beers on tap, as well as Miller Lite, Bud Lite, Yuengling Lager, Angry Orchard cider, and a guest tap for Tröeg’s Nugget Nectar (!), which had already sold out at my local liquor store. I ordered a sampler of four Antietam beers: Lil Ben’s Milk Stout (5.0% ABV), General’s Golden Ale (5.4%), Kelly’s Red River Imperial Red Ale (7.5%), and an unnamed weizenbock (7.9%). All were tasty, especially the semi-tropical tasting golden ale which was seasoned with New Zealand hops.

the 1605
Local firefighters Corey Lescalleet, left, and Scott Baire.

As I began to jot down my impressions, a guy sitting catty-cornered from me asked me if I was “some kind of beer connoisseur?” Uh-oh, here we go, I thought. I gave him my standard reply: “If you don’t write it down, you won’t remember it the next day.”

He saw the sense in that and shook his head affirmatively. He offered a preemptive apology for drinking some sort of large vodka cocktail—not because it was in the middle of the day, but because it wasn’t one of the house beers. “I usually drink the 1605” (Antietam’s Irish red ale named after the local firefighters’ brigade, which receives a few pennies from every pint sold). “But today,” gesturing to his two drinking partners, “we’re here to get drunk.” The guy was, in fact, a local firefighter and it was his day off. Despite getting an early start, I was already one pub behind their crawl.

free beer
FREE BEER–Bill Skomski Sr. manages to fill a growler with Kelly’s Red River IRA without wasting a drop.

My scribbling was also noticed by Antietam’s owner, Bill Skomski Sr., who with brewer Dan Maerzluft had just finished mashing in a new batch of 1605. Bill offered to give me a quick tour of the premises, which in addition to a brewhouse situated in the middle of the pub, includes numerous fermenters; a kegging line (he wholesales throughout Washington County and has seven accounts in West Virginia); a room for private parties; a liquor store for off-premise sales of beer, wine, and spirits; and a growler-filling station equipped with a foam-free state-of-the-art Russian-made PEGAS counter filler. The system saves eight ounces in spilled beer each time a growler is filled, Bill told me. My keen interest in the apparatus resulted in a free growler of Kelly’s Red River IRA. (Disclosure: I am not an accredited or otherwise credentialed journalist and under no obligation to refuse free beer.)

I would rate the first stop on my crawl a success. Fussing over my beer had generated no dirty looks, no snide comments. No taunting or ridicule. Had I simply ordered a pint and drank it anonymously I would never have been invited to tour the brewery and score a free growler of beer. Score one for geeky behavior.

WOODY CHANDLER DRANK HERE

facadeThe second stop of my crawl was the Yellow House, a vintage boozer adjacent to a trailer park just north of my hometown of Boonsboro that one Yelp diner described as a “hole in the wall.” In the 16 years I’ve lived here I’ve never stepped foot inside, but while researching their beer list online, I discovered that legendary beer geek John “Woody” Chandler (a conflation of Woody Allen and Raymond Chandler) had given a “like” to the establishment on its Facebook page. Political gadfly (quixotic mayoral candidate in Lancaster, PA), 11-year veteran of Beer Advocate (2,979 beers reviewed, as of this writing), and perhaps the nation’s leading evangelist for canned craft beer (CANquest), Woody’s recommendation soothed any reservations I felt about visiting the Yellow House.

The interior was spacious for a hole-in-the-wall: a long bar with nearly 20 stools and a room for off-premise sales. Old-school country music (George Jones!) drowned out the muffled conversations of the mostly old guys, none of whom were drinking beer from cans. I selected a stool close to the only two patrons under 40. One had a surly swagger about him that I might be able to provoke into a caustic quip or other breach of decorum. I pulled out my pen and notebook and studied the beer list chalked onto a blackboard: Yuengling, Coors Light, Keystone Light, Blue Moon, and Angry Orchard. The flat-screen TV in front of me was tuned to a reality show called Lizard Lick Towing, which featured two Florida repo men continuously getting their asses kicked while confiscating a variety of vehicles. Just as one man was getting jabbed in the groin by a weed-whacker, the bartender appeared.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to an unmarked tap.

“Oh, that’s the fireman’s beer: 1605.”

Stumbling upon an island of craft beer in a sea of golden suds, I felt as elated as Capt. James Cook upon sighting Oahu for the first time.

“Does anyone other than firemen drink this beer?” I asked, half smiling.

“No one ever orders that beer. Maybe at night. But during my shift, no one’s ever ordered one.”

I ordered one anyway.

mason jarA dark brown beer soon arrived in a mason jar inscribed “County Fair Drinking Jar.” I looked around. Everyone else was drinking golden suds in shaker pints. I half expected someone to blow a whistle or ring a bell the way they do at Max’s whenever anyone orders BMC. Instead, the bartender said, “Two-sixty, please.”

Yee doggies! I haven’t paid $2.60 for a beer since the 80s. I may have been bewitched by the homespun glassware, but damn if the 1605 wasn’t the best beer I’d had all day: kind of roasty for a red ale, but plenty flavorful for just 5.0% ABV.

I looked around the room. No one was paying any attention to my fussy behavior or my curious glassware. I coughed theatrically and rustled through my notebook as noisily as possible. No reaction. Growing desperate, I decided to take a picture of my beer with my smartphone. With flash!

At last the surly-looking guy stood up, pulled on a pair of work gloves, and looked in my direction. I pocketed my smartphone and closed my notebook. Then his buddy stood up. They walked over to the empty refrigerated case behind me and began moving it next to the other case stocked with BMC.

“That’s good, right there. Thanks, guys,” said the bartender.

“Thanks for the beers,” the surly guy replied as they exited the Yellow House.yellow house

Another success: good beer, great price, and the only bad behavior I encountered was my own. I drained my 1605 and headed to the final stop of my crawl.

WORLD CLASS

full dansDan’s Restaurant & Taphouse is situated at one corner of the main square in downtown Boonsboro. Or Noraville, as the locals call it. The hugely prolific and mega-successful romance and mystery writer Nora Roberts (aka J.D. Robb) owns three of the four businesses on the square: Dan’s; Vesta, a pizza shop; and Inn BoonsBoro, a handsomely restored B&B that starred in one of her recent trilogies. Roberts and her husband Bruce Wilder also own the town’s gym, Fit in Boonsboro, and a bookstore, Turn the Page, which on book-signing days draws hundreds of Roberts’ fans from throughout the mid-Atlantic and as far away as the Midwest. Altogether, Roberts and her family own eight properties in town with an assessed value of $3.2 million; their businesses provide jobs for about 100 of my neighbors.

That said, I was prepared to dismiss Dan’s as a dilettante’s vanity project when it opened in June 2012. After all, the namesake and proprietor of Dan’s is Roberts’ son Dan Aufdem-Brinke, whose only previous restaurant business was running the pizza joint across the street from his mom’s inn. Yelp-worthy food? Clean tap lines? And world-class beer in a town of 3,700 mostly BMC drinkers? Pipedream!

And then Dan met Danny. The former beer manager at the pioneering DC taphouse RFD, Danny Hardy has helped put Dan’s on the must-visit list of every beer geek in central Maryland—and beyond. I’ve never tasted an “off” beer at Dan’s, and the rotating beer selection curated by Danny is the equal of any other 24-tap pub you’ll find in DC, Baltimore, or Columbia.

24 tapsSo it was hardly a surprise to find Grapefruit Sculpin IPA ($7 for a 9-ounce pour) on tap at Dan’s at the end of my crawl. Regular Sculpin—would have been enough of a treat: It currently sits at #8 on BeerAdvocate’s list of top American-style IPAs. (Nos. 1–7 can only be found in New England or San Diego.) But stumbling upon the hard-to-find version with added grapefruit juice was the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Dan’s. For what it’s worth, the grapefruit version certainly amps up the already intense grapefruity character of the original Sculpin, but seems to diminish some of the tropical citrus complexity of the original West Coast classic.

Being the middle of the day and the middle of the week, I had the bar all to myself. I was free to fuss and dissect as much as I desired. The day-shift bartender, Tammy, couldn’t have been more helpful or sympathetic. I resisted the urge to quiz her about malt bills, IBUs, kettle hops, etc. Instead, we talked about our favorite cable TV shows and shared town gossip.

Winds of change are clearly blowing through the valley. Seven dollars for nine ounces of beer—even if it’s Grapefruit Sculpin—comes perilously close to breaking one of my core commandments: Thou shalt never pay more than a dollar for an ounce for beer. I could have polished off a six-pack of 1605 at the Yellow House for the cost of one pint of Sculpin at Dan’s. Oh well, that’s what makes me a beer geek. And thanks to Dan’s, Antietam, and even the Yellow House, good beer can now be fussed over and dissected in public without fear of ridicule or rebuke. Let your geek flag fly, dawg.pug

(Final irony: Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co., purchased last month by Anheuser-Busch, brewed a pecan-peach-pumpkin ale last Thanksgiving called “Gourdgia on My Mind.” Perhaps A-B can incorporate it into its Shock Top line.)