On a screened-in back porch attached to the best brewery in D.C. you’ve never heard of, Nathan Zeender is unlacing a sack of barley.
“Feel free to eat a kernel,” says Zeender, 35, popping one into his mouth. “It’s good. Right where it should be—sort of sweet, Grape-Nutty.” Bees crisscross a yard filled with vegetable beds and herbs, drawn to honey Zeender recently extracted from a hive he tends at the nearby Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. Like the rosemary, dandelions, and spruce trees outside, the honey sometimes perfumes Zeender’s thoughtfully crafted concoctions.
An urban farmstead on the outside and bohemian oasis on the inside, Zeender’s Brookland home is filled with vintage posters, rough-hewn wood furniture, books on “radical brewing” and surrealist art, and a laid-back vibe that matches his name (pronunciation: zen-der). In the basement, four beers are on tap, including a caramel-colored, German-style kellerbier and a dark, smoky Baltic porter. Lurking nearby are four enormous oak barrels, which harbor wild yeasts and bacteria that work slowly for months—sometimes years—to ferment tart, nearly winelike ales inspired by the sour beers of Belgium. This isn’t a professional brewery. But Zeender’s homebrews, especially the unusual barrel-aged beers he’s best known for, easily rival the wares of any brewery or brewpub in the District—and often surpass them.
The folks behind Bluejacket want to make one thing clear: It’s not a brewpub.
Beer Director Greg Engert and Head Brewer Megan Parisi are adamant about distinguishing the soon-to-open brewery from the adjoining restaurant, both housed in a high-ceilinged factory in Navy Yard once used to make boilers for ships. Brewpubs, Engert says, have long held a reputation for middling food and relatively small operations limited to on-site drafts. But Bluejacket, the restaurant, is headed by two of the city’s top chefs: Birch & Barley husband-wife team Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac. And Bluejacket, the brewery, is a full-scale production facility that will produce about 5,000 barrels a year—more than most brewpubs yield. That’s also about twice as much as 3 Stars Brewing Company makes and roughly what DC Brau produced until it expanded its operation to more than double that amount this year. Only about 40 percent of what Bluejacket makes will actually be sold at the restaurant, including some bottles that will later be available for retail. The rest will be distributed to restaurants and bars across the city and eventually beyond.
And yet, despite that insistence on separating the brewery from the restaurant, the two are inevitably interconnected. It’s no surprise that the restaurant’s menu of fried pig tails and braised lamb neck cassoulet is built around beer, or even that spent grain from the brewing process makes its way into dinner rolls. What’s distinctive is the extremely culinary approach that Engert and Parisi bring to brewing.
What's slapped on the outside of a bottle or can is often as creative as what's inside it, but in the D.C. area, many of the best brews are only available on draft. What would a 3 Stars Brewing Company saison look like if it came in glass? And what would you stare at if a Chocolate City IPA was contained in aluminum? Just in case these companies and others ever decide to package their beers in personal sizes, Washington City Paper Creative Director Jandos Rothstein took the liberty of brewing a few designs.
Talk about liquid assets. At the new Big Board burger joint on H Street NE, you can watch beer prices rise and fall in real time on a large digital screen mounted to the wall. The more pints you buy of any particular brew, the farther its cost will drop. So you’re left standing there, frothy glass in hand, staring at the screen, kind of like a trader tracking equities at the New York Stock Exchange—only slightly less drunk.
That’s the idea, anyway.
On a recent visit, I was stoked to see that New Belgium Ranger IPA, a popular Colorado product that is relatively new to the District, was down 50 cents to $6.50 per pint. You know the saying: buy low. Bartender! Pour me a Ranger! It turns out the discount comes at a high cost. The keg is already kicked. Bummer.
My next two choices, Chocolate City Cornerstone Copper and Allagash White, have a similar story: The price had dropped until the keg ran dry. Double bummer. I hemmed and hawed, scouring the prices of somewhat less compelling libations. Yuengling for $4.50, Peroni at 75 cents off—no thanks. I finally settled for a Guinness. Price: $7. No discount.
“Isn’t that depressing?” grumbles the guy beside me at the bar. “I switched to whiskey.”
Pizzeria Paradiso bar manager Greg Jasgur pops the cap off a bottle of unfiltered cider from Maine’s Urban Farmhouse Fermentory and pours a glass at the Dupont bar. The small-batch brew is light and refreshing with a funky finish, and outside of the Pine Tree State, you can only find it here.
Jasgur picked up two cases of the cider earlier this summer during a trip to Portland, Maine, and decided to put it on the menu at Pizzeria Paradiso. Anywhere else in the country, that would be illegal; all alcohol purchases in the 50 states must be made through state-licensed wholesalers. But not in D.C. The District’s one-of-a-kind alcohol import permit system allows bars, restaurants, and retailers to buy directly from suppliers, bypassing wholesalers when they don’t offer a certain product, or enough of it. The paperwork to do so is inexpensive and low-hassle. For each shipment, Jasgur fills out a one-page importation permit from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and pays a $5 fee, plus sales tax. He then can claim the cachet of serving brews no one else does: “It makes Pizzeria Paradiso look like a premiere place to go drink beer.”
A century ago, when friends or relatives would call on Christian Heurich at his austere mansion near Dupont Circle, they might have joined the old brewmaster in his basement, in the parlor he called the bierstube. In this room decorated like a German beer hall (including walls adorned with German drinking sayings like “He who has never been drunk is not a good man”), they could’ve sipped one of the 13 beers the Heurich Brewing Company made over its 83-year existence, brews that had made the company the most recognizable beer brand in the District.
By the time Mike Stein, a 28-year-old homebrewer, amateur historian, and teacher, and his friend Pete Jones visited the Brewmaster’s Castle in February, it had been more than 50 years since anyone had tasted Heurich’s lager, bock, Senate Ale, or maerzen. They were led upstairs to the conference room on the second floor of the home, now preserved as a house museum because of its moody Victorian architecture, handsome furniture, and window into the District of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Europeans have been putting beer in wooden vessels for hundreds of years. Before industrialization, beer was fermented in wood, stored and shipped in wood, and poured directly from wood. Beer spoiled often. Life was hard.
By the mid-20th century, most breweries had happily traded their temperamental wooden barrels for the reliability and convenience of metal tanks. But traditional breweries, like many of Belgium’s lambic sour ale producers, have continued using primitive methods through today. Why? They understand how kind wood can be to beer that’s treated properly, and they are far from alone.
Brewers have long known that wood-aging can add flavor and depth to beer. But in the early 1990s, when Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing Company concocted its first Bourbon County Stout, the practice took an intoxicating turn. After three months inside used bourbon distillery barrels, the brew had a complex oak character from the wood and rich flavors from lingering whiskey—characteristics that made the Bourbon County Stout an instant hit.
How long would it take to try 25,000 different beers? With the volume and variety available today, probably not as long as you would think. But for Bethesda couple Bob and Ellie Tupper, who started logging tasting notes in 1979, the answer is 35 years.
The Tuppers are the "gypsy" brewing team behind Tuppers' Hop Pocket beers, which were produced at Old Dominion Brewery before it was sold and relocated from northern Virginia to Delaware in 2007. First released in the mid-1990s, Tuppers' beers were well-regarded forerunners of the now common genre of aggressively hopped American pale ales.
The Dark Lord cometh. His chariot: a sturdy U-Haul truck. It might seem an understated mode of transport for the holder of such a noble title. But in the onerous realm of alcoholic beverage distribution, this is the direct route.
We’re talking about Three Floyds Brewing Co.’s hallowed Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, a beer so sought-after that tickets for its one-day-only release, an annual event that has grown into the Indiana equivalent of Woodstock for craft brew aficionados, sell out in less than half an hour.
But unlike most of his minions, you don’t have to schlep all the way to the Hoosier State to partake of the Dark Lord, perhaps even the über-rare oak-aged version. Not if you intend to do your sipping in the District of Columbia, at least.
6:10 p.m. Rock & Roll Hotel on H Street NE
VanHoozer delivers box of plastic cups, emblazoned with PBR logos. “These are like gold,” he says.
In the corporate parlance of the Pabst Brewing Co., Dan VanHoozer is a “creative.”
VanHoozer, of course, hates that term. The way he sees it, he and his 20 or so analogues across the country are folks “who want to make shit happen in their cities.” It’s just that they happen to work for a firm that understands the marketing upside to making shit happen—a strategy that’s still going strong seven years after cultural thinkers started dissecting it.
Pivoting off the unlikely discovery that PBR had a following among bike messengers and indie rockers, the beer’s brand managers opted for an approach that eschewed television ads and big-ticket sponsorships in favor of potlucks and art shows. In the process, people like VanHoozer may have become unlikely patrons of their local arts scenes.