Tap Lessons: Advice for the Brickskeller’s New Owners
Last week, about 20 drinkers who once considered the Brickskeller home—either because they had worked at the bar or because they practically lived there—dropped by the subterranean saloon for one last taste. They had heard rumblings that the Dupont Circle institution, the place that pioneered the craft beer movement in D.C., had been sold. More to the point, they heard that Dave and Diane Alexander, as part of the sale, were taking the name with them.
As far as these romantics were concerned, come November, the Brickskeller as they knew it would be gone forever.
Their source of this name-hoarding tip was likely the DC-BEER e-mail list, where on Oct. 1 retired Mid-Atlantic Brewing News writer Gregg Wiggins posted the following quote from Dave Alexander, with the bar owner’s permission: “No one will ever own the Brickskeller who’s [sic] last name is not Alexander.”
Much commentary followed the post, trying to parse the odd diplomatic statement from Alexander, a man better known among his peers for his cold, sometimes accusatory bluntness. Several commentators came to the same conclusion as a DCist poster had earlier in the day: The Alexanders plan to keep the name for themselves, no matter who the new owner is.
What do they want to do with it? I wish I knew for certain. The two times I tried to talk to the Alexanders, Diane didn’t want to comment and Dave hung up on me. Perhaps they plan to open another bar under the same Brickskeller banner or pass the name along to a confidant who would treat a new-look Brickskeller with the respect it deserves. Or maybe they somehow would attach the moniker to their Regional Food and Drink (RFD) operation in Chinatown.
It’s easy to understand why the Alexanders would want to hold onto the name. Diane Alexander’s grandfather, a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu, invented the “Brickskeller” handle in 1957 as a clever variation on the German word, ratskeller, or a tavern located below street level. The tavern was already notable by the time Diane and her husband took over in the early 1980s. The couple proceeded to turn it into an icon, known for a 1,000-plus beer list, often cited as the largest in the world.
You don’t exactly just give that brand away because you’re ready to sell some property. But here’s the thing that has been eating away at D.C.’s beer community: Who precisely would want to buy a deteriorating dive bar and the ramshackle inn above it without the Brickskeller name attached? Or without the faded museum of beer cans tucked behind those Plexiglas panes in the darkened saloon?
“Don’t get the name? Don’t get the memorabilia? Don’t bother,” says Dave Coleman, the beer director for Big Hunt, offering a touch of Alexander-esque bluntness.
Coleman knows a little something about the brew business. He and his business partner, Mike McGarvey, will open their own D.C.-based brewery, 3 Stars, sometime next year. Coleman believes that whomever buys the Brick would have to essentially treat it as an overhaul. The defining brick walls could stay, Coleman thinks. “Just about everything else” would need to be gutted.
The skanky carpet would need to be yanked out. The restrooms, which evoke 1970s New York City subway stations, would need to be renovated so you could enter without holding your breath. The microscopic kitchen, with its reliance on the deep-fat fryer, would need to be modernized for contemporary tastes. “It’s so gross,” Coleman says about the kitchen. “It’s so gross.”
By Coleman’s best guess, it would take at least a half a million dollars, and likely more, to renovate the Brick to get it up to snuff. Without the drawing power of the Brickskeller name, why would anyone want to take on such a financial burden and risk? Particularly when other, more modern beer emporiums, like ChurchKey and Brasserie Beck and the Biergarten Haus, have eclipsed the Brick in terms of ambiance, draft beer selections, and sheer drawing power?
Almost everyone I talked to for this article seems to want the Brickskeller to continue operating at its present location, even if it had to change names. The saloon is too historic and too important in beer circles to lose to the vagaries of business. And Brickskeller in another location just wouldn’t be Brickskeller. It would be the equivalent of selling the space for Ben’s Chili Bowl and trying to relocate the historic soul-food diner in, say, Georgetown.
Greg Engert, beer director for Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, strikes a personal note in his affection for the Brick. “The Brickskeller means a lot to me,” he notes. “What the Brickskeller offered me was a veritable liquid library where I was able to research the finest beers of the world and meet some of the legends in craft beer and beer writing. Simply put, I would not be where I am without my experiences at the Brickskeller.”
Adds Engert: “I’d like to see the Brickskeller get back to being the institution it once was—a storied venue with not only an exceptional selection of bottled beer from all around the world, but one that can effectively inspire new generations of beer lovers.”
These are clearly difficult waters to navigate. The Alexanders, it seems obvious, have no intention of conveying the name, the Brickskeller, with the sale of the bar and inn. So where does that leave a potential new owner? Are people drawn to the location because of the Brickskeller name and reputation, or because of the space’s 1,000-bottle concept, or because they simply like the idea of slumming it in an increasingly sterile Dupont Circle neighborhood? Then there’s another puzzle to solve: How far can a new owner push a renovation project without slipping into cocktail-lounge territory and losing all of the joint’s original charms?
Assuming the next owner’s position is to keep the space operating as a beer emporium—and not treat the entire property as a tear-down for its valuable real estate—it would take a lot of work to make the saloon a viable player in the modern craft beer marketplace. For starters, the draft system needs to be expanded and updated, says one source who prefers to remain anonymous lest he offend Alexander. The draft lines apparently run 25 feet from cooler to tap handle, running some of that length under non-temperature controlled floorboards, which can wreak havoc on beer, particularly cask ales. Those conditions need to be fixed.
Greg Jasgur, beer manager at Pizzeria Paradiso, echoes a similar sentiment when he says the bar needs to serve draft beer on both levels, not just on the upper one. Jasgur wants to see more adventurous selections at those taps, too. “The draft beer is a little on the safe side,” the Paradiso manager says.
Almost everyone I contacted mentioned that the new owners must fix the longest-running joke in D.C. bar circles: the Brickskeller’s beer list, which at one point promised as many as 1,300 different bottles and cans. The list has a higher AWOL rate than U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.
“Even if you tried really hard, you’re probably not going to be able to get” all the beers on that list, notes the Big Hunt’s Coleman. He thinks as many as 25 percent of the bottles on the Brick’s list are unattainable on any regular basis. Coleman, and others like him, would like to see a smaller, more manageable, perhaps more reality-based beer list. The biggest crap shoot in D.C. bars could then officially come to an end.
But the new suds emporium also needs to become an active member in the growing fraternity of gastropubs and beer-driven restaurants, a couple of sources say. Coleman, for instance, thinks that in recent years Dave Alexander has grown tired of the endless amount of work it takes to maintain a bar with the Brick’s scope and history. He may also be sick of the new army of online critics who lob grenades his way almost daily. “He realizes the amount of energy to do it is not what he wants to do anymore,” Coleman says.
This may help explain Alexander’s behavior of late: Several sources tell me the man behind the Brick has largely isolated himself from the new generation of beer directors and managers, thinking that the younger set is merely trying to steal ideas and concepts that his saloon pioneered years earlier. The new owner, one source says, needs to repair the rift left behind by the old Brickskeller and become a willing participant in city-wide beer events.
Then again, maybe everyone has this all backwards. Maybe, as one source tells me, the proper thing to do is abandon the old Brickskeller entirely—ambiance and name and everything—and just develop a different beer-forward concept. “It seems that many people are sour on that name,” the source says of the Brick, and the new owners would not have “a lot of time to change their minds, especially with the level of competition in the city.”
Besides, with a fresh concept, the new owners would be able to trumpet a vision of their own, not trade off the rich history of a bar that has seen far better days.
Brickskeller, 1523 22nd St. NW, (202) 293-1885
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery