President Obama is no stranger to criticism, including the time in 2009 when he laughed off jabs for drinking Bud Light at his widely publicized Rose Garden “beer summit” on race relations. Politics aside, the craft-beer crowd should probably forgive the president for picking a seemingly “inoffensive” (and, oops, un-American) brew that I imagine most readers of this magazine consider quite offensive indeed. Under ideal conditions, I trust the commander-in-chief would have tried to show some local pride. But at the time, there wasn’t a single brewery in Washington, D.C. (which Charles Dickens once called a “city of magnificent intentions”), and President Obama could have literally counted its good beer bars on his executive order-signing hand.
Fast forward to 2016. Washington, D.C., is enjoying an unprecedented in-migration of twenty- and thirty-somethings. Construction cranes tower on the skyline, half a dozen neighborhoods are gentrifying all at once, and not only do beer-centric bars and restaurants appear in almost all of them, many are opening second, third, fourth, and even fifth locations.
“You could get the sense that food and beverage in D.C. is only a steakhouse… scene, but you can totally carve out twelve hours in the district by getting Bohemian hip with street tacos or a fine-dining meal and the best, newest styles of beer in a really cool environment,” says Bill DeBaun, editor of DCBeer.com.
Beer Bars Break Out
If you ask ten semi-savvy beer nerds to name a beer bar in D.C., eight will blurt out ChurchKey. It’s true that ChurchKey and its exquisitely polished ground-floor restaurant, Birch & Barley, pretty much set the standard for beer service with menus that note the glass and serving temperature for all 500 of their draughts, cans, and bottles of the best beers available in the district.
But the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRC) that owns them is far more than a two-trick pony. Of the company’s three-dozen local restaurant holdings, six elevate beer above other drinks. The Bluejacket brewpub brought sour and funky recipes to the suddenly hip Navy Yard three years ago. Rustico carries 400 options at two locations in northern Virginia, and the NRC team has just unveiled The Sovereign, an earthy Belgian restaurant in Georgetown that carries fifty Belgian and farmhouse styles on tap and more than 200 by the bottle.
With its laser-focus on sustainability, Meridian Pint, owned by beer lover John Andrade, distinguished itself early for its locally sourced cooking and American craft-beer selection. Think about it: no importation, no transoceanic shipping. Apparently 95 percent of its staff even lives within walking distance. On a recent Wednesday, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland beers occupied its beer engine and more than half of its two dozen taps. Within the corporate family, Smoke & Barrel continues the locavore tradition but adds in bourbon, BBQ, and foreign peculiarities such as the Swedish Omnipollo Abrahadabra IPA brewed with strawberries and vanilla.
Fresh-faced corporate sister Brookland Pint (pictured at top), in the newly trendy Brookland neighborhood, has already been named to “best-of” lists for its locally dominated taps, large-format selection, cider and mead menus, and rustic meat and meat-free dishes. Plus, it’s bright, airy, artistic, and creatively modern-industrial with patio seating that welcomes dogs and communal tables fashioned from Maryland tobacco barns.
Next up in the pantheon of D.C.’s hallowed beer halls is Pizzeria Paradiso, with locations in preppy Georgetown, DuPont Circle, and Old Town, Alexandria (Virginia). Although none of these stone-oven Neapolitan pizza spots are new, local legend Ruth Gresser opened all three of her Birreria Paradiso bars within them in the past ten years. Each of the birrerie houses a cask ale, at least twelve taps, and a bottle list comprising head-turners such as Crooked Stave (three different bottles in one place) and an array of eleven items from The Bruery, including four successive years of Black Tuesday, 6-Geese-A-Laying, 8 Maids-A-Milking, and a Tart of Darkness from 2013. Is that your car engine I hear revving?
Finally, if you’re a foodie, or even if you’re not, don’t skip the new Roofer’s Union in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, from the people behind the more upscale Ripple in Cleveland Park. With a pedigree as long as the Washington Monument is tall, Executive Chef and Top Chef Season 13 contestant Marjorie Meek-Bradley sends out adventurous, ingredient-driven dishes such as crispy pig-ear salad and a Sausage Party plate of three house-made wieners.
Ask Manager Max Steinmetz to pair your meals with flights of his choosing. Even though a descriptive menu and choice of a full or half-pour make sampling easy, Max can cut through the two-dozen locally dominated taps, two casks, and permanent lineup of hard-to-score Avery bottles.
If you’re an old head, you certainly remember the legendary Brickskeller even if you’ve never been. The O.G. hangout that pioneered pairing dinners has transitioned into Bier Baron Tavern (and The Baron Hotel) that does its predecessor proud by stocking more than 500 beers. However, the selection of standard crafts and imports may cause Brickskeller’s beer-geek ghosts to stifle a few yawns. Fear not, the family that opened the Brickskeller now owns RFD, with thirty taps and a Belgian approach to food.
Fermentation without Representation (to borrow DC Brau’s tagline)
D.C. breweries, too, are catching expansion fever. Last year, brewing veteran Bill Madden opened up Mad Fox Tap Room in a 1900s-era rowhouse, so visitors don’t have to travel to his production facility in suburban Falls Church, Virginia, to sample the Kölsch and Scottish Wee Heavy he first popularized in the area twenty years ago.
Right Proper Brewing, famous for its funk, went the opposite direction by adding a production brewery and tasting room across town from its original brewpub in the rejuvenated Shaw neighborhood. Both are exceptional: the millennial-magnet brewpub staffs a full-time cheese monger who melts fondue every Monday, and the mural-covered tasting room boasts a bizarre bathroom with an upright piano.
Once you’re at the Right Proper Tasting Room & Production House in Northeast D.C., stay in the ‘hood to visit three more of the district’s six production breweries: the highly acclaimed Atlas Brew Works; DC Brau, the original and by far the biggest; and Hellbender, whose microbiologist/neuroscientist brewer/owner bought one of about three uber-efficient mash filters in the country. Then drive to Northwest D.C. for the newest, Three Stars, home to the district’s only homebrew shop.
The sixth brewery is Bardo, a love-it-or-hate-it kind of place whose eccentric owner brews recipes given to him decades ago by his friends at Rogue, Wynkoop, Anderson Valley, and Bridgeport. After many relocations, he is opening a beer garden this spring next to the Nationals’ stadium.
While you’re at the breweries, notice how many of them follow Bill Madden’s lead in making Kölsches and Scottish ales, whose recipes Madden developed as brewmaster at Capitol City in northern Virginia. Today, Madden’s protégé Kristi Griner still brews up those styles along with her own seasonals that get poured at the brewpub and at the other site in downtown D.C.
Close by is one of Virginia’s most famous beer exports: the perennially packed Port City Brewing, Great American Beer Festival 2015’s small brewing company of the year. And if travels take you to the other ‘burbs, Denizens brewpub in Silver Spring, Maryland, earns accolades from the local beer cognoscenti. Don’t worry if you can’t make it all the way out to visit in person; you can find Port City and Denizens beers all over town.
The other good news is you can reach some of these more distant places without a car or even an Über. City Brew Tours runs daily tours to five destinations in five hours and even stops for a sit-down paired lunch. Supremely knowledgeable drivers chock the ride full of facts and even lead some of the brewery tours and tastings themselves.
Show Us Your Mussels
Being an international city, D.C. arguably claims the most eclectic dining scene in the United States. If there’s a country, D.C. has a restaurant. Eleven years ago, Belgian Chef Bart Vandaele opened Belga Café to showcase the cuisine of his homeland and other restaurateurs followed. As you can imagine, they all take tremendous pride in their beers and their moules-frites (mussels with fries), but don’t limit yourself.
Capitol Hill’s Belga Café serves seven iterations of Belgian waffles and Flemish beef stew with Leffe Brown during weekend brunch. I also recommend beer brunch, or any meal, really, at Robert Wiedmaier’s Brasserie Beck and at the laid-back St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar on Jefferson Place or in Cleveland Park. (Hint: Washingtonians love their brunch; almost every restaurant mentioned in this article serves it.)
But back to the mussels. Washington City Paper has awarded top spot to the mussels at Dr. Granville Moore’s every year since it opened. You wouldn’t think much of the place to look at it. Housed in an early twentieth-century doctor’s office, the narrow two-story rowhouse looks more like a rat-ridden tenement than a world-class eatery where you can pick Bells DeProuf Van Twee 2010, Mikkeller Spontanframboos, or Cantillon Fou’ Foune out of a wire cage. The eight-year old bar and a bunch of its corporate siblings launched the revitalization of the still marginal Ivy City neighborhood, home to Atlas Brew Works, three micro-distilleries, and a perplexing yet quirky strip of yuppie/hipster bars, boarded houses, and auto shops.
A word of caution here: Ivy City—like Shaw, Truxton Circle (soon to be home to the city’s first cidery and Basque tapas bar, ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar), Bloomingdale (home to the cozy Boundary Stone Public House), and many other neighborhoods where breweries and beer bars have taken up residence—isn’t a place you want to wander off the beaten path. If you’re migrating onto another block, ask a manager whether it’s safe or suck it up and hail a cab.
That’s not to say D.C. isn’t one of the most strikingly elegant cities in the world, and the Heurich House Museum is an example of its eye-popping architecture. The so-called “Brewmaster’s Castle” is an ornate Victorian mansion built by D.C.’s longest-running and probably richest brewer, Christian Heurich. It hosts frequent beer-related exhibitions and events, including a Third Thursday History & Hops house tour that features local brewing history and unlimited beer samples.
On a normal day, you can peruse labels, photos, and advertising materials from Heurich Brewing, which operated from 1873 until 1956, after which Heurich’s family donated the land to build the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
As unique as the Heurich House is, there’s another spot in DuPont that’s more so. Curl up with a book and a beer at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. Since 1976, the indie bookshop has nourished customer’s minds with literature and their stomachs with food and drink. Not only is there a sunny full-service cafe with breakfast through dinner service (including brunch, of course), there’s also a teeny bar area for boozy coffee drinks, creative cocktails, wine by the glass, and almost twenty rotating draught pours of mostly accessible locals and crafts.
Reading this, you may have noticed the city’s near-fanatical support of its regional breweries and its interest in supplying some of the world’s best commercially available “whales.” But what you may not know is that the owner of a D.C. account can bring in literally any beer that’s for sale, whether it’s from Colorado or Cambodia. How? The distribution laws are such that if no D.C. distributor carries a particular brand, the merchant can bring it in himself/herself.
“You can [legally] bootleg New Glarus or Hill Farmstead,” says DeBaun. “Local brewers have to compete against that, so the beer has to be good. No one is content to put out boring beer.”