Not that long ago, a pub crawl was about visiting a variety of bars, meeting an assortment of women people, but drinking the same beer (or beer style) over and over. It still works that way for some folks. But for geeks like me, a good pub crawl is like a mobile beer festival: an opportunity to sample, compare, and enjoy as many beers as possible in a single day.
In my pub crawling prime during the last millennium, it was challenging enough to find just one place in the DC area with interesting beer to drink, much less a daylong procession of them. What passed for a taphouse in those days consisted of one tower with five spigots, one or two of which might be connected to craft beers—the rest dedicated BudMillerCoors products. To find any sort of variety, you had to travel to Baltimore.
In the spring of 1991, I organized a pub crawl of Fell’s Point in Baltimore for the third issue of BarleyCorn (April/May, 1991), the “brewspaper” I published during the 1990s. Within a five-block stretch along the Thames Street waterfront I found seven pubs with a total of 75 taps: Duda’s (7), The Horse You Came In On (5), Leadbetter’s (7), Bertha’s (10), Cat’s Eye Pub (12), John Steven Ltd. (10), and Wharf Rat (24). Of course, many of the spigots poured mainstream lagers, but that still left a few tap handles dedicated to craft beer. Today, you can find that many draft beers in just one taphouse, Max’s (102), on the other side of Market Square.
Except for the venerable Brickskeller, the DC area was still a good-beer wasteland. But that began to change in 1993 when Bill Stewart and his brother Andrew opened Bardo Rodeo on Wilson Blvd. in rapidly gentrifying Clarendon, Virginia. Bardo was not Bill’s first Rodeo. The success of his beer-centric Roratonga and Amdo rodeos (also in Clarendon) had helped him raise enough cash to transform a defunct Oldsmobile dealership into what former BarleyCorn writer Greg Kitsock called the “Carlsburg Cavern of brewpubs,” with 108 taps and seating for 900. Thanks to Stewart, there were now three bars with good beer within two blocks of each other. Perfect for a pub crawl.
More than 20 years later, I revisited Arlington to see how Stewart’s legacy had played out. Two former Rodeos survived into the new millennium: Amdo, now Iota, is a prime venue for alt rock and singer/songwriters; Roratonga Rodeo, now called Galaxy Hut, focuses more on craft beer with 28 taps and an unlimited variety of grilled cheese sandwiches. Bardo’s former space has been filled with condominiums. But the seeds of good beer planted by Stewart have given rise to eight craft-beer bars situated along a six-mile stretch of Wilson and Washington boulevards from Clarendon to Falls Church. Perfect for a pub crawl.
Bill Stewart and Alice Despard may have been the hippest couple in DC during the late 1980s. Guitarist and singer Despard fronted the indie band Hyaa! Her 1987 jangle-pop album, Get Yer Hyaa Hyaa’s Out was helmed by REM producer and Let’s Active front man Mitch Easter. Stewart, an MIT architecture graduate, had designed restaurants for Marriott and fire houses for Navajo tribes in New Mexico, but vowed to do something “less corporate” after a visit to Tibet in 1985. Cutting edge music and Bill’s homebrew were always plentiful at their basement apartment on Logan Circle. In January 1989, the party moved two blocks east when they opened BBQ Iguana at 11th and P streets, “in the middle of crack city,” according to Stewart.
The sparse performance space—a former elevator repair shop—was an ideal match for the DIY ethos of DC’s burgeoning hardcore punk scene. Stewart’s only significant investment was the club’s sound system. Eddie From Ohio played its first gig there. Hometown rock star Dave Grohl also performed in an early band, Scream. But there were constant issues with liquor licensing, and one morning Stewart found a hole in the wall of the club from which thieves had extracted the sound system. Stewart and Despard decided to try their luck across the river in Virginia.
Clarendon, once the commercial heart of Arlington County, had by the 1980s evolved into a cultural and business center for Vietnamese refugees known as Little Saigon. Despite the completion of the Clarendon Metro stop in 1979, rent was still cheap when Stewart and Despard signed the lease for a vacant storefront at 2711 Wilson Blvd. in 1990. The space was much smaller than BBQ Iguana, but the neighborhood was less sketchy and county authorities were more cooperative, as long as the couple booked only acoustic acts.
In October 1990, Roratonga Rodeo, a kind of psychedelic tiki bar, opened for business. (Atlases spell the largest of the Cook Islands Rarotonga, but Stewart never did anything by the book.) Outside, two large Tibetan flags flapped defiantly. The interior flaunted a South Seas ambiance that Jacques Cousteau might have conjured if given a tab of acid and several buckets of paint. But it was the bar—scrunched behind the chopped body of a ’59 Cadillac—that really got your attention. Stewart said the car had been abandoned behind the club, and rather than having it towed, he fashioned it into something useful. A deconstructed Fiat Spyder adorned Rarotonga’s façade.
I’d come for the beer, however. Rarotonga’s initial 11 draft spigots made it one of the first true taphouses in the DC area. You would have had to travel to Brookland (Colonel Brooks Tavern), Columbia (Last Chance Saloon) or Fell’s Point (Wharf Rat) to find a greater selection of draft beer. Rarotonga, however, was the first place I can remember that refused to sell BMC. Wait staff wore T-shirts that proudly read: “No Bud, No Miller, No Coors.”
As I stood in front of Galaxy Hut, 25 years later, nothing remained of the auto art, Tibetan activism, or South Seas psychedelia. But peering through the window, I could make out the silhouettes of 28 tap handles adjacent to where the grill of the vintage Cadillac had once stood, and not a one of them displayed a Bud, Miller, or Coors logo. Since Galaxy Hut did not open until 5 pm, though, I would have to begin the pub crawl up the street at Fire Works.
Fire Works is pretty much state of the art for a contemporary taphouse: a well-curated beer list (including four Belgians and a beer engine), knowledgeable staff, and a food menu that affordably complements the beer selection. Smart and comfortable with tasteful decor, it’s the kind of place Bill Stewart would have hated. “I’m the Lucifer of yuppies, cast out of yuppiedom,” he once bragged. Creature comforts were never his forte.
Stewart had a knack for turning cheap into a virtue. He paid local artists $10 an hour to transcribe their artistic visions onto the walls of his various Rodeos; paint was free. On another occasion, he purchased a “truckload” of car wheels as bases for particle board tables. Never mind that the Rubbermaid chairs ($4.50 each) were too low for the table tops, resulting in a repetitive stress injury that Washington Post writer Eve Zibart dubbed “mug elbow.”
Impossible to ignore among Fire Works’ 32 tap handles was the one for Habanero Sculpin IPA (7.0%). Despite its $15-a-sixpack price, Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA (7.0%) was once every beer geek’s go-to IPA. Just five years ago, it was the highest-ranked IPA on the Beer Advocate website. More recently, Raj, the hippest member of Big Bang’s science nerds, was filmed quaffing a bottle of Sculpin in a late-October episode of the top-rated show. Habanero Sculpin is quite a different animal.
I’ve always wondered why someone would ruin a good IPA by adding incendiary peppers. On the other hand, a truckload of hops seems the best way to balance habanero heat. At least, Sculpin opens with a pleasurable blast of mango before the inevitable fiery finish. And I was able to drink more of this one than of other high-Scoville beers, so I guess that makes Habanero Sculpin my favorite chili pepper beer.
Back in the day, Bill Stewart brewed one of the earliest chili pepper beers. His Chaco Canyon Chili Beer was a collaboration with Russell Scherer, the legendary co-founder and head brewer of Wynkoop Brewing Co, Colorado’s first brewpub. (The Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing, created shortly after Scherer’s untimely demise at the age of 38, is the highest honor a craft brewer can receive.) Collaborative brews, common today, were rare in the 1990s when Stewart was among the first to pioneer the concept. Stewart also teamed up with Scherer for Russ’ Raspberry, a popular fruit beer.
LOST DOG CAFE
Pet lovers will find that every pint tastes a little better at the Lost Dog Café, knowing that a percentage of sales supports the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, founded in 2001 and responsible for an average of 1500 abandoned-pet placements annually. Today there are five Lost Dog Cafes (and a Stray Cat Café) throughout Northern Virginia, but for this pub crawl I would be returning to the original in the Westover neighborhood along Washington Blvd.
Back in the late 1980s, when I first started coming here, the Lost Dog was a small neighborhood deli that just happened to have the best bottled beer selection in Northern Virginia. You’ll still find more than a hundred varieties to choose from, but the owners have also added a long bar and 16 rotating taps that included Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (7.0% ABV). Bell’s is hopped exclusively with Centennials, the citrusy, piney tasting hop (sometimes called “Super Cascade”) that amped up the pungency of IPAs in the early 1990s. Modern palates might find an all-Centennial beer old hat, but I can still remember the first time I drank one. Centennial IPA, a grapefruity beer Stewart first brewed in conjunction with Eric Taylor of the Anderson Valley Brewing Co., reconfigured my taste buds to sense variations in hop flavor. Hops would no longer taste “just bitter.”
Stewart’s pungent Centennial IPA was also the perfect metaphor for his personal and business life at the time: Six months after Stewart and Despard opened Roratonga Rodeo, the couple split up. Stewart lost not only custody of his son Dillon, but also ownership of the taphouse. He got his revenge by opening a taphouse with twice as many beers (22) as Roratonga on the other side of the street. Named Amdo Rodeo, it featured the same garish art, same eclectic CD jukebox, same dive bar vibe. Even its bar was fashioned from the same ’59 Cadillac whose grill framed Roratonga’s bar; only this time Stewart used the rear end of the classic auto.
Stewart named the club after the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama. Stewart’s longtime advocacy of Tibetan human rights, in fact, was more than just flag waving. He has hosted fundraisers, film festivals, and other special events on behalf of Tibet, and during a visit to Washington in 2003 by the Dalai Lama, Stewart and his son were granted a private audience with the exiled spiritual leader.
Unlike Roratonga, Amdo was focused more on beer than live music. Stewart’s initial plan was to make Amdo into a “wort pub,” trucking in sugary wort from the Dominion Brewing Co. in Virginia, then fermenting and serving it at the pub. The unwieldy scheme never panned out, though. Instead Stewart began enlisting investors for a true brewpub.
Across the street from the Lost Dog Cafe is the Westover Market, an independent, neighborhood grocery with a massive selection of bottled beer. It is the Amdo Rodeo to Lost Dog’s Roratonga. Westover’s “Wall of Beer” wraps around three sides of the store and encompasses more than a thousand different international and domestic craft brews. An opening next to the dairy products aisle leads to an intimate bar with four or five tables that leads to a beer garden.
Westover’s dozen taps may have been the fewest on the crawl, but included one of the day’s best beers. Alpine Duet (7.0%) sweetly harmonizes the orange marmalade flavors of Amarillo hops with the muskiness of Simcoes. This vibrant San Diego brew sings West Coast IPA. Back in the 1990s, though, the catchiest melodies were coming out of the Pacific Northwest. Stewart collaborated with Grant Johnson of Marin Brewing on a Chinook Pale Ale that captured the distinctive piney hop flavor so popular at the time.
Despite the great selection, Westover beer manager Devin Hicks is itching to brew his own beers. By the end of the year he’ll get his chance when he opens Sehkraft Beer Garden and Haus in Clarendon. Sehkraft—which means “vision” in German—will be a music-oriented brewpub designed around a central performance space. Former Lost Rhino brewer John Peters will helm the brewhouse.
In 1992, Bill Stewart found himself in a similar situation at Amdo: eager to brew his own beer but needing more room for a full brewhouse and fermentation tanks. Eight blocks away, at 2000 Wilson Blvd., Stewart found the space he was looking for—and then some—in a defunct Oldsmobile dealership that would become the “largest brewpub in North America” and only the second such establishment in the DC area. His first glimpse of the facility was more than a revelation, it was a vision of the bardo, an intermediate state between what Stewart once was—an aspiring artist and brewer—and what he would soon become: the “Grunge King of Clarendon,” as former BarleyCorn writer Jim Dorsch once put it.
Stewart now had a nearly acre-sized canvas to fill with his artistic visions. He commissioned nearly 20 local artists (at $10/hr. and free paint) to cover the walls with of an incongruous mix of the sacred and profane: apocalyptic murals from the Tibetan Book of the Dead juxtaposed with portraits of Elvis in his many incarnations. There was also a giant sandbox, an engine block suspended from the ceiling, and a Mr. Goodwrench hand-washing station in the men’s room that could easily be mistaken for a urinal after two or three pitchers of beer. But Bardo’s signature creation was the ’66 Plymouth Fury imbedded in the former showroom’s plate glass window. The illusion was so convincing that, during the first week, police showed up twice to take accident reports.
Three bars dispensed beer from 109 taps: one serviced a taphouse in the ex-showroom, another served a beer hall in the former service bays, and a third slaked thirsts in a beer garden that was once a parking lot. If Bardo’s food was rudimentary (mostly burritos and enchiladas), at least the menu’s descriptions were entertaining. My favorite was the Hunter Thompson Special “for the vegetarian pacifist with a gun fetish.” It comprised one black bean burrito and two flat blue corn enchiladas, served with rice and sauce.
Few brewers have done more to spread the gospel of good beer in the DC area than Bill Madden. He has opened seven brewpubs in the region, advised countless others, and is currently the CEO and Chairman of Mad Fox Brewing, now with brewpubs in Falls Church and Glover Park in the District. Mad Fox’s annual spring bock, Oktoberfest, barleywine, and cask ale festivals are major events in the region’s beer calendar. But any excuse to grab a beer at Mad Fox will suffice.
I ordered a Slobberknocker, an award-winning barleywine of 8.0% alcohol. This is one of my favorite beers, and every year Madden finishes it with a different hop strain or gruit-like ingredient and ages it in a special wine or whiskey barrel for his annual Barleywine Fest, an event I never miss if I can help it.
I thought of Bill Stewart’s first GABF medal winner: White Lightnin,’ a kick-ass 12% barleywine brewed in collaboration with an anonymous “mystery brewer from Seattle,” (later revealed to be Bill Lundeen of Portland’s Bridgeport Brewing Co.). It won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1994 and helped establish Bardo’s status as a premier brewery. In addition to the many collaborations, Bardo was also a training ground for several of the DC area’s most accomplished brewers, including Jonathan Reeves of Port City, Favio Garcia of Lost Rhino, and Bardo’s first brewer, Alan Beal, who later headed brewing operations at the former Virginia Beverage Co.
Spacebar is a Galaxy Hut spinoff transplanted into the heart of Falls Church, but the vibe is vintage Rodeo. Loud, cramped, and divey, its edgy ambiance was reminiscent of Bardo’s during its heyday. You never knew who you might run into or what might happen, but your visit would not be boring.
Scrounging up a vacant stool at the end of the bar, I attempted to wedge it into a space next to a heavily tattooed Hispanic guy and his girlfriend. Needing perhaps six inches, I asked if he could scoot down a bit. He shot me a look that said “fuck off.” As he turned his head to resume talking to his girlfriend, I thought I could make out “MS-13” (shorthand for the vicious Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha) on the back of his neck. Yikes! What had I done?
A bewildered Bardo bouncer must have asked himself the same question 22 years earlier after getting punched in the face by William Kennedy Smith, nephew and sometimes drinking buddy of the late liberal icon Ted Kennedy. The bar fight made national news and put Bardo on the DC scandal map along with Pierce Street Annex, the Vista Hotel, and Watergate. Business boomed.
I was still thirsty, though, and ordered a small pour of Clown Shoes’ 10% imperial stout Undead Party Crasher. Bursting with rich chocolate and coffee flavors, this dark beast was as over the top for its time as Bardo’s Graceland Imperial Stout had been back in 1993. That beer had been a collaboration with legendary Rogue brewer John Maier, who four years later would be the first recipient of the Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing.
I took a few sips of the Party Crasher and set the glass on the bar while I checked my email. Without looking, the gangbanger’s girlfriend reached for her purse and knocked my beer onto the floor. Fortunately the glass didn’t break. But she never offered to buy me a new one, nor say she was sorry. She didn’t even acknowledge that it happened.
Neither did I.
WORLD OF BEER
Before Bill Stewart’s Rodeos came to town, Arlington’s best beer selection could be found at Whitey’s, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall reminiscent of TV’s Cheers. The Ballston institution closed in 2003, but the neighborhood now boasts both the county’s largest taphouse and, arguably, its finest craft beer bar. With 52 taps, World of Beer has nearly twice as many selections as any other pub on the crawl. The vibe, however, is dark and noisy sports bar, which is okay with me but annoying to some craft devotees.
Also aggravating some connoisseurs is alcoholic root beer, recently touted by Fortune magazine as the “next big thing in craft beer.” While many serious taphouses have been reluctant to acknowledge these beverages as craft beer, Beer World embraces the new style, offering both Not Your Father’s Root Beer from the Illinois-based Small Town Brewery, as well as Coney Island Root Beer, brewed by a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Co. Here was an opportunity to try them side by side. Not Your Father’s, the trend-setting original, offers a more complex blend of sarsaparilla, anise/licorice, and vanilla flavors, but Coney Island’s drier interpretation left me more desirous of a refill.
Spicy, herbal beers made from plant roots are hardy new—even in the craft world. Nearly 20 years ago, Stewart brewed one of the first craft “root” beers, Bundaberg Ginger Beer, which earned Bardo its first and only gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Indeed, 1996 was an excellent year for Bardo. It was named best brewpub in the DC area by Washingtonian magazine, and its jukebox—situated under the hood of that ’66 Plymouth Fury—was voted best in the region by the discerning listeners of WHFS radio. The future looked bright; Stewart always wore shades.
Sleek yet unpretentious, Rustico, like its sister establishment, the pioneering ChurchKey in DC, represents the leading edge of today’s craft beer bars, from its chef-driven kitchen to its cicerone-worthy staff to the 40 taps and two casks impeccably selected by beer director and James Beard award–nominee Greg Engert. Its beer menu (like ChurchKey’s) limns the full spectrum of beer flavors: Fruity/Spicy (bright or dark), Malty (fruity and toffee or toasty and nutty), Roasty (soft and silky or dark and dry), Crisp (delicate, malt-accented, or subtle hoppiness) Hoppy (earthy, malty backbone, or bold, herbal, and citric), and Tart & Funky (delicate or fruity and vinous). Hop varietals and other flavorings are listed for each beer.
I selected Stone’s Double Bastard (11.0%), a strong, dark, hoppy beer that reminds me of Bardo’s Dremo Tibetan Sasquatch (8.0%). Both beers straddle the line between barleywines and DIPAs and are reminiscent of such Belgian classics as Gulden Draak and Delirium Noël. Dremo won a bronze medal at the 1997 GABF, and for many local enthusiasts, it was the best beer ever brewed at Bardo. Unlike many of his most memorable brews, Stewart never collaborated on Dremo but claimed it as his own creation.
When my brewspaper, BarleyCorn, was struggling for profitability, no local business showed me greater support than Bardo. From July 1993 to November 1996, Stewart ran 23 consecutive full-page ads for Bardo in the publication. Every ad was a tableau of provocation featuring naughty women, cowboy boots, and guns. My printer refused to print one ad that featured his naked girlfriend in an empty bathtub until I superimposed a giant hop cone over her pubic region.
Bardo’s last ad in BarleyCorn announced the filing of a $4.9 million stock offering (980,000 shares at $5.00 a share) to build a production brewery in Northern Virginia. The timing couldn’t have been worse: craft brewing’s Great Shakeout was just around the corner. As the millennium drew to a close and the health department condemned most of the premises, Stewart downsized Bardo to just the upper floor of the facility and transferred all brewing to his farm in Amissville, Virginia. In March 2000 he told the Washington Post, “Bardo was a monster that took on a life of its own. It was like the circus came to town and never left. I like running smaller places. You don’t have to play ringmaster all the time.”
Stewart named his new smaller place Ningaloo, after a reef off Australia’s west coast. A joint venture with chef Keith Palen of Perry’s, Ningaloo was an ungainly combination of fusion restaurant, pool hall, and art gallery. It quickly folded, and Stewart decamped for an extended sabbatical “down under.” His father, Bill Sr., and brother, Andrew, took over managing the space, renamed Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse.
In most ways, Dr. Dremo’s was an even better craft beer bar than Bardo. Sure, the roof leaked and the pool cues were curved, but Dremo’s 27 rotating taps were perhaps the most interesting you could find in the DC area. When it closed in January 2008, many a geek cried in his or her beer.
Roratunga Rodeo, the pioneering taphouse Bill Stewart opened with his wife, Alice Despard, in 1990, became Galaxy Hut after the couple split up and Despard took full control. Under her direction, the Hut became a premier venue for indie bands—the Strokes once played there—until she cashed out in 2005. The new owner, manager and bartender Lary Hoffman, scaled back the music and put more emphasis on craft beer. In 2012, Hoffman and his wife Erica opened Spacebar in Falls Church.
The last stop on my pub crawl, Galaxy Hut still offers a great selection of craft beer with many one-offs and hard-to-find brews. A prime example was Old Pro Gose (4.2%) from Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing Co. Tart and refreshing with a finishing salty tang, this GABF silver-medal winner is a good illustration of why a nearly forgotten sour beer style has become so popular in the last few years.
Twenty years ago, a sour beer indicated a contaminated fermentation and was quickly returned for a refund by discerning drinkers. Among the few who brewed sour beer intentionally in those days was Bill Stewart. Bardo’s Marion Berry Lambic was a mildly tart beer flavored with marionberries, a large blackberry hybrid native to Oregon. If the sour palate didn’t grab your attention, then the tap handle surely would: It depicted DC’s late “mayor for life” inhaling from a crack pipe. The onetime civil rights activist served six months in a federal prison after getting snared in a narcotics sting at the former Vista Hotel (“The bitch set me up”). His popularity and influence remained strong, though, and in 1994 Barry completed one of the greatest comebacks in recent political history when he was re-elected mayor of DC.
Nearly 15 years after its apparent demise, Bardo has pulled off a similar resurrection. In July 2013, Bill Stewart and his brother Andrew transformed a vacant lot in DC’s Trinidad neighborhood into what the website TimeOut New York ranks as one of the 22 best beer gardens in the nation. Occupying a space that once housed a barber shop and illegal basement strip club, the new Bardo DC is like a boozy adult playground with a dog park, corn hole, and outdoor movies. It also features one of the nation’s few outdoor breweries, where Bardo’s original brews, such as Dremo, Graceland, and White Lightnin,’ are slaking the thirsts of a new generation of craft beer lovers.
In March 2015, the Stewarts unveiled plans for Bardo Waterfront, a two-acre outdoor brewpub and family-friendly park along the Anacostia River at Florida Rock, just below Nationals Park. This “BeerDisneyLand” would offer the city’s largest dog park, food trucks, corn hole, square dancing, bluegrass bands, and movies projected on a screen floating in the river. Located along the Anacostia River Trail, the facility would also be accessible by a kayak or bike (with parking for up to 500 two-wheel vehicles).
The Stewarts were financing the project through the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, hoping to raise $200,000. Ten days prior to their fundraising deadline, they had raised $4,235. Obtaining an alcoholic beverage license, however, poses an even greater challenge. In a March hearing before the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Metropolitan Police Commander Jeff Brown raised numerous security issues for which the Stewarts offered only the sketchiest of solutions. Most of the objections voiced at the hearing are the same ones used to prohibit alcohol, and sometimes even dogs, from public parks across the nation.
Of course, who would have guessed you could turn an auto dealership into a nightclub? Or a vacant urban lot into a junkyard brewpub? I, for one, will never underestimate Stewart’s ability to defy logic and conventional thinking to put a pint of Dremo in my hand in the most unlikely of settings.