For the beer lover, 2016 is a great time to live or work in the nation’s capital. From Georgetown to Downtown, Dupont Circle to Judiciary Square, Foggy Bottom to Columbia Heights, nearly every neighborhood in DC boasts at least one good-to-excellent craft beer bar or brewery. Twenty years ago—not so much. With few exceptions, a Bass Ale, Guinness Stout, or Samuel Adams Boston Lager were as good as it got. Discovering those exceptions, though, is what made pub-crawling fun back then—and the catalyst for transforming casual drinkers like myself into hardcore geeks. While most of the pioneering beer bars of the last century have been supplanted by Starbucks or pricy condominiums, enough remain, for better or worse, to justify a pub crawl
The most pioneering beer bar in DC—if not the entire nation—was, of course, the Brickskeller. A mecca for beer can collectors in the 1970s, home to the “Largest Beer Selection in the World” in the 1980s (a claim later verified by the Guinness Book of World Records), and epicenter of craft beer culture in DC in the 1990s, the Brick laid the foundation for the city’s brewing renaissance of the next millennium. Among its many firsts—first American bar with an extensive beer list, first to tap a keg of lambic in the U.S., first to pour Samuel Adams Boston Lager in the mid-Atlantic, first to host a Michael Jackson tasting in DC, first to stage a competition between East and West Coast IPAs (Lupulin Slam)—probably none were more groundbreaking that the Brick’s first public beer tasting, led by Bob Tupper, in 1985. Over the next 25 years, nearly every influential brewer in the nation and a great many from Europe took the stage at the Brick. Never had drinking beer been more fun and educational—nor treated with greater respect.
But even the most distinguished institutions can lose some of their luster after a half century. A limited selection of draft beer was confined to the upstairs bar, and as much as one quarter of the 1000+ bottles and cans listed on the menu were unavailable at any given time, according to many observers. Following what the Washington Post called “a decade of irrelevance,” the Brickskeller closed five years ago in December 2010. Restaurant critic Tim Carmen noted that “in terms of ambiance, draft beer selections, and sheer drawing power . . . the Brick had been eclipsed by more modern beer emporiums, like ChurchKey and Brasserie Beck and Biergarten Haus.” Grief over the Brickskeller’s passing was assuaged somewhat by its reopening just one week later under a new name.
Brickskeller owners Dave and Diane Alexander had sold the subterranean tavern, the hotel upstairs, and the museum-worthy collection of breweriana to new owners, but had held on to the iconic name, brainstormed by Diane’s grandfather, Félix Coja, in 1957. “No one will ever own the Brickskeller [whose] last name is not Alexander,” Dave told former BarleyCorn and Mid-Atlantic Brewing News writer Gregg Wiggins just prior to the sale. Thus, our pub crawl of pioneering beer bars began not at the Brickskeller, but at the Bier Baron
Aside from the new name and color of the marquee, little seemed to have changed. The restrooms had enjoyed a much-needed upgrade, and it appeared that new carpeting had been laid; but the Brick’s legendary dive-bar ambiance had, for the most part, been left intact. As Scott Reitz pointed out in WAPO, “There’s a market for beer lovers who don’t like the pomp and circumstance that surrounds D.C.’s more modern and savvy beer shrines.” That certainly included me and my pub-crawling companions, Mike and his wife Kathleen.
We were seated at the dreaded “tundra table” next to the window looking out onto 22nd St. and the sliver of a park that features a monument to Ukrainian folklorist Taras Shevchenko. During winter months, frigid air normally streams through chinks in the window jamb, but orange gobs of caulking had now rendered the table semi-habitable.
I opened the three-ring binder that is the Bier Baron’s beer menu. New owners Megan and Tim Merrifield have wisely pruned the Brick’s untenable 1000+ beer list down to a manageable inventory of 600 or so bottles and cans. Smarter still is their investment in a new draft system: 24 taps upstairs, 28 downstairs. The 52 selections included many interesting brews, several unusual selections and a few I’d never sampled before, including Ballast Point’s Dorado Double IPA.
The popularity of Ballast Point’s Sculpin single IPA (7.0% ABV) helped earn its ex-homebrewing creators a billion-dollar payday when the San Diego brewery was purchased by Constellation Brands last November. No way was I going to pass up a chance to try Sculpin’s bigger brother. As expected, the brew boasted a powerful citrusy aroma with some tropical notes, mostly pineapple. Dry hopped with Crystal and Mt. Hood hops, Dorado is juicy, but not as fruit-forward as Sculpin.
I passed the beer to Mike. He took a sip and recoiled involuntarily from the massive hop bomb (10% ABV, 90 IBUs), but nodded enthusiastically while swallowing. Kathleen, however, had to force herself to get the beer down.
“That’s disgusting,” she gasped. “It’s so over the top.”
I took a sip and agreed: Dorado was so over the top, I couldn’t wait to take a second gulp. Candied orange marmalade pummeled my taste buds, giving way to a bitter, piney finish. Subsequent sips introduced new combinations and variations of flavor, each more pleasurable than the one that preceded it.
It’s been a decade since brewers Vinny Cilurzo of Russian River and Matt Brynildson of Firstone-Walker humorously coined the term “lupulin threshold shift.” They were referring to the increased tolerance among craft beer drinkers for ever more hop flavor and bitterness. (“When a ‘Double IPA’ just isn’t enough.”) As I drained my first beer of the day, I found it hard to imagine any beer offering more hop flavor and bitterness than a Ballast Point Dorado. But then again, it wasn’t even noon yet.
Nothing spurs urban renewal like a shiny new sports and entertainment arena. When the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) opened in 1997 above the Gallery Place Metro stop, it spawned a vibrant new entertainment district along 7th Street between Chinatown and Penn Quarter. All that was missing was a good beer bar, a void which Brickskeller owners Dave and Diane Alexander filled when they opened R.F.D. (short for Regional Food and Drink) in 2003. Its 30 taps were the most in DC until ChurchKey opened in 2009.
Where the Brickskeller was dank, dark, and divey, R.F.D. is an open, bright, and airy sports bar with multiple TV screens and a regular stream of Caps and Wizards fans from the Verizon Center pre-gaming and post-gaming. And yet R.F.D. still looks, feels, and tastes a lot like the Brickskeller. Mesmerizing row upon row of bottled beer fills the refrigerated cabinets behind the bar—just like at the Brickskeller. Breweriana from around the world covers the walls—just like at the Brickskeller. And many of the menu items are based on former Brickskeller recipes, though a larger kitchen at R.F.D. has allowed for an expanded menu and more attractive presentation.
The pub’s name can confuse the literal-minded. Don’t expect to find any regional foods such as Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, Virginia ham, half smokes, or anything cooked with or dipped into mumbo sauce. The “regional” in R.F.D.’s name refers to local food from regions other than the mid-Atlantic, such as wild boar salami from Utah and sweet soppressata from Missouri or Belgian steak frites and German pork schnitzel. The kitchen’s greatest strength, however, may be its cuisine de la bière, including mussels in witbier, IPA sauerkraut, cobbler with peaches simmered in gueuze, and “Bier”amisu made from framboise and stout.
Regional drink? When the bar opened in 2003, the Alexanders made a point of rotating beers from the region’s dozen or so breweries; but with 224 craft breweries now operating in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, it’s tough to keep up. Of the 35 beers on tap (plus two on cask), only six came from regional breweries. Hard to complain, though, when Stone Enjoy By DIPA (9.4) is one of them.
I was served a 9-oz tulip of Enjoy By (12-25-15), which means it was brewed on Nov. 18, 2015. It was four days after Christmas, so this would be the first time I’ve ever had one after its “enjoy by” date. But it’s also the first time I’ve ever had it on draft. How much of its hop intensity has it lost, 41 days after it was brewed?
One whiff tells me, “not much.” The nose on this beer is just humongous, full of citrusy, tropical goodness. Mango, pineapple, and peach predominate. I don’t even need to drink this beer: enjoying its aroma is pleasure enough. But I take a sip anyway.
After an initial wave of pungent fruit, piney, dank flavors emerge, finishing with a burst of spicy hop bitterness. As the beer warms, musky Simcoe hops add to the beer’s complexity. This is about as good as it gets. I slide the beer over to Kathleen, who smells it hesitantly.
“Wow, a lot going on here.” She attempts a small sip, but instantly recoils. “That tastes more like candied grapefruit than beer.”
“Exactly,” I think. Kathleen has an excellent palate, but it needs to get more exercise.
Brookland, a former “streetcar suburb” of the nation’s capital and home to such distinguished Washingtonians as Pearl Bailey, Ralph Bunche, and Marvin Gaye, was carved from the plantation of War of 1812 hero Colonel Jehiel Brooks. His mansion still stands along Monroe Avenue, and his name long graced a local watering hole abutting “Little Rome,” a complex of nearly 60 religious institutions including Catholic University, Trinity College, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception. It was an unlikely location for one of the city’s pioneering multi-taps, yet for many of its 32 years, Colonel Brooks Tavern offered the best selection of imported and American craft beer available on draft in DC.
I visited Colonel Brooks’ once, in 1991. It took me a little over an hour to make the 19-mile ride on Metro from my apartment in Merrifield, VA, but upon exiting at Brookland Station, it was just a three-minute walk to the tavern. The arrival of Metro, however, had yet to bring much prosperity to the neighborhood. Like the once comfortably middle class homes that surrounded it, the tavern’s red brick façade had seen better days: its banners were faded, the painted trim, chipped and peeling. As I looked through one of bar’s large bay windows, I could see the reflection of a young man standing behind me, staring back at me. I resisted the urge to turn around and instead walked into the tavern. He followed.
At first mesmerized by the dozen tap handles of imported and domestic beers, I finally settled on a pint of Watney’s Red Barrel and a burger. The youth who followed me in had taken a seat across the room and continued to stare at me. I had seen the look before: street-hardened and intimidating, daring you to make eye contact. I ordered another beer.
After the bartender brought me a Dominion Spring Bock I tucked a twenty spot under the plate of my half-eaten burger and walked towards the restroom as casually as possible. Once beyond the young man’s range of vision, I slipped out the bar’s side entrance and hightailed it to the Metro. I never looked back nor went back to Colonel Brooks Tavern again.
A little over ten years later, three employees of the tavern—a cook, a dishwasher, and the head chef—were killed execution-style during a botched robbery while preparing a Palm Sunday brunch. It was the beginning of the end for Colonel Brooks Tavern. Thereafter perceived as a dangerous bar, it lost money for the next decade, until owner Jim Steigman sold the property to developers. “Last call” was last heard on September 14, 2012.
Nearly four years later, we returned to the tavern’s former site. “Oh man, it was right over there,” said Mike pointing to a block of six-story apartments. Indeed, the neighborhood bore no resemblance to the Brookland I swore never to return to back in 1991. Sleek new condominiums and retail shops surround a public square with a fountain and a watch tower. Arts Walk, a passageway flanked by 27 ground-level studios, connects the Metro station to our destination: Brookland Pint.
If Colonel Brooks Tavern typified the dive-bar ethos of DC’s previous generation of beer bars, then Brookland Pint is the apotheosis of the new generation—open and airy, with USB ports along the bar and under tables, a few taps dedicated to meads and ciders, numerous gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian options, a dog-friendly patio, and an exquisitely clean unisex bathroom with separate stalls and a common hand-washing station. But like its Columbia Heights cousin Meridian Pint, the focus at Brookland Pint is on craft beer.
Two-thirds of the two dozen taps pour local beers, and all of the out-of-towners have been selected with care. I opt for a chalice of Alpine Pure Hoppiness, which at 8.0% ABV is the slenderest DIPA of the day. Where Enjoy By was supremely juicy, Pure Hoppiness lies at the dank/piney end of the hop spectrum. I slide the glass across the table towards Kathleen, who stops me with her hand.
“No way,” she says. “I can smell it from here. You might as well plunge your face into a bag of hop pellets.”
Again, her observation is spot on. Hop additions to the kettle and a specially designed hop-back further amplify this already massively dry-hopped beer, leaving me fully immersed in Humulus lupulus. I now understand why my West Coast friends so revere this San Diego classic.
THE BIG HUNT
He’s been called Mr. H Street, the godfather of U Street, the maestro of quirky theme pubs, and the bar czar of the nation’s capital. If you’ve never been to one of Joe Englert’s watering holes, you either don’t get out very much or live in the suburbs. Since opening Club Random in the late 1980s, he’s created or financed more than one bar or club a year for the past quarter century, including 15 Minutes, State of the Union, Andalusian Dog, Zig Zag, Lucky Bar, Pour House, Planet Fred, Capitol Lounge, DC9, the Argonaut, Rock & Roll Hotel, Dr. Granville Moore’s, and the Insect Club—the only place on the planet where you could wash down a plate of “mealworms Rockefeller” with a pint of IPA in the presence of a giant ant farm. Regardless of the theme or décor, you could always count on a good craft beer. With the demise of Colonel Brooks Tavern and the “retirement” of the Brickskeller, the Big Hunt, one of Englert’s earliest enterprises, is now the longest-pouring taphouse in DC and the next destination on our pub crawl.
I first met Englert in 1992, when he was negotiating his third venture, on 20th Street. The former tenant was eight months behind on rent and Englert was able to secure the lease for half the going rate. He installed a new tap tower and renamed the joint the Crow Bar (“Established 1922 – Groovy Since 1992”). As publisher of BarleyCorn, I was desperate for beer-oriented pubs to provide advertising support, and Englert was eager to connect with a growing community of beer geeks who would appreciate Crow Bars’ 12 taps. The Crow Bar remained a loyal advertiser even as it evolved into DC’s premier, perhaps only, biker bar, before making way for the Eagle Bank Building in 1998. A few months after opening the Crow Bar, Englert—always moving on to the next project—leased the building that had once housed Amdo, the second of Bill Stewart’s three Rodeos. He renamed it Strangeways, after the infamous Manchester prison and final album by the Smiths. It was even stranger than Amdo, if that’s possible: dark, dank, and populated with bizarre murals of famous bald guys—a reference, perhaps, to Englert’s toupee. Despite 22 taps and regular ads in BarleyCorn, Strangeways’ edgy concept never found much of an audience, and was succeeded by the more conventional live-music venue, Iota.
Before the year was out, though, Englert opened a third club along Connecticut Avenue, just south of Dupont Circle. Beneath a circus tent marquee, the Big Hunt welcomed customers to an alternative safari world in which humans were the hunted, their heads mounted like trophies above the bar. Dark paneling, a warren of small side rooms, and a single bathroom for both sexes earned the Big Hunt instant dive-bar cred. If the concept was a tad silly, the line-up of draft beer was dead serious. It boasted DC’s largest selection of draft beer until R.F.D. opened in 2006; its tap-takeovers and other beer-related events have been among the most interesting in town. The odds were good that I would find a monstrous hop bomb that would disgust Kathleen as much as it would delight me.
With 31 taps, the Big Hunt can afford to waste a few. If you’re going to offer bland adjunct lager, at least pour Yuengling and PBR like the Big Hunt does. The bar also offers two house beers: Big Hunt Light Ass and Bad Ass Amber, which are actually Michelob Light and Michelob Amber Bock. But the rest of taps are selected for the craft-beer lover—diverse in style with a nice mix of rarities and hot new releases. Halfway down the menu, I spot what would be my trophy beer of the evening: On the Wings of Armageddon (9.2%), an imperial IPA from DC Brau.
OTWOA is widely regarded as the king of DC imperial IPAs: its #74 ranking on BeerAdvocate is the highest of any mid-Atlantic DIPA. My only previous encounter was a cask version dry-hopped with chili peppers that was undrinkable; my second chance arrived in a 10-ounce chalice. The beer is hopped with Falconer’s Flight, a proprietary mixture of Citra, Simcoe, Sorachi Ace, and some experimental strains, named after legendary Oregon brewer Glen Hay Falconer. To this distinctive blend, the brewers at DC Brau have incorporated a candied lushness that perfectly complements the intense piney, resinous flavors of the hops. All Kathleen could do was shake her head—which was fine. This beer was too good to share.
No pub crawl of historic DC craft beer haunts would be complete without a stop at District ChopHouse and Brewery. Opened in 1996 in the former Riggs Bank building, this upscale steakhouse is the oldest continually operating brewery in the city. (Capitol City opened in 1992 but stopped brewing on site several years ago.) Brewer Barrett Lauer brews five year-around beers and two rotating seasonals and specials—including a bourbon barrel–aged version of the stout—one of which is offered from the cask, another dispensed with nitrogen. We order a round of nut brown ales, a beer Lauer first brewed on a 7-barrel Peter Austin system at Baltimore’s Wharf Rat (now Pratt Street Ale House). There, Lauer alternated 8-hour shifts with co-brewer Jason Oliver to meet growing demand at one of Charm City’s first brewpubs. After six years of brewing English-style ales, Lauer mastered lager brewing at the Baltimore Brewing Co. before coming to the ChopHouse in 2004.
The Wharf Rat was Oliver’s first brewing gig, followed by three years at the defunct Virginia Brewing Co. and 6½ years at the DC Gordon Biersch. In 2009, he helped launch Devils Backbone, one of the East Coast’s most decorated breweries. The central Virginia company has won Brewery of the Year awards (brewpub, small brewery, mid-size brewery) at the Great American Brewing Festival an unprecedented three years in a row, racking up 26 total medals in seven years.
Lauer and Oliver are among a handful of pioneering DC-area craft-brewers who learned the trade in the 1990s that are still producing award-winning beers in and around the city. Just three blocks north on 7th Street, Scott Lasater supervises brewing at the same Gordon Biersch brewpub that Oliver once brewed at. Lasater spent 11 years honing his craft at Capitol City, DC’s seminal brewpub and finishing school for many local brewers. Under executive brewer Bill Madden, Cap City nurtured some of the region’s brightest talents.
Geoff Lively joined the Cap City staff in 1998, before taking the reins at the Bethesda Rock Bottom in 2000. Under his direction, the Bethesda franchise has become one of the most successful in the 32-brewpub chain, winning 14 medals at the GABF. The formulation for Lively’s award-winning Raccoon Red has been adopted throughout the Colorado-based organization.
Another Cap City veteran, Mike McCarthy has also played a major role in elevating the quality of DC-area beer over the past 15 years. After an 11-year stint at Cap City, McCarthy joined head brewer Jeff Hancock at DC Brau, Washington’s first production brewery since the demise of the Heurich Brewery in 1956. McCarthy currently brews for Ocelot Brewing Co. in Sterling, VA. Named best new area brewery last year by the Washington Post, Ocelot’s big-beer, hop-centric philosophy eschews brewing any one beer more than twice a year.
Few brewers have done more to spread the gospel of good beer in the DC area than Bill Madden. He has opened seven brewpubs in the region, advised countless others, and is currently the CEO and Chairman of Mad Fox Brewing, now with brewpubs in Falls Church and Glover Park in the District. Mad Fox’s annual spring bock, Oktoberfest, barleywine, and cask ale festivals are major events in the region’s beer calendar. In honor of Madden, we ordered a round of Barrett Lauer’s barleywine as a nightcap and raised our glasses to the pioneering brewers and early tap houses that laid the foundation for one the best beer cities in the nation.