Déjà Brew: An Arlington Brewpub Institution Attempts a D.C. Resurrection.
In the 1990s, years before D.C.’s current love affair with local suds, Arlington was home to one of the largest brewpubs in the country. Also, the wackiest.
The 900-seat Bardo Rodeo lived in a defunct Oldsmobile dealership on Wilson Boulevard near Court House, with graffiti art scrawled over the concrete walls, a totem pole out front, and a ’66 Plymouth containing a jukebox lodged through a front window. Unlike the sleeker, manicured establishments that now dominate Wilson Boulevard, Bardo—meaning “purgatory“ or “land of the in-between” in Tibetan—had a run-down, divey charm.
Oh, and beer. Founder Bill Stewart and his brother Andrew ensured the brewers on staff always had at least a dozen varieties flowing through the 100-plus taps. “Brewers got fired if there was less than 12,” Andrew says.
As one of the only places in Arlington offering craft brews at the time, Bardo Rodeo was a haunt for many of the aficionados who now dominate the local beer scene. Less of a fan: Arlington, which condemned part of the property in 2000, leading Bill to move his brewing equipment and rebrand the bar as Dr. Dremo's. He eventually moved to Australia, leaving his brother in charge. The whole place shut down in 2008, making way for condos.
Now, the Stewart brothers are looking to make a big comeback. Plans for a new Bardo brewpub—located on Bladensburg Road, several blocks beyond the bustle of H Street NE’s nightlife strip—include 10,000 square feet of outdoor seating, self-serve taps, and even a distillery down the line. When it opens in the spring, Bardo will be the largest entrant in D.C.’s budding brewpub scene. It will be joined by other forthcoming independent brewpubs, including Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Bluejacket brewery in Navy Yard and Right Proper, which is looking for locations in Shaw. For now, the city’s brewpub scene is dominated by more corporate operations like Gordon Biersch and District ChopHouse, which are owned by the same company.
But while the Stewarts are bringing back the name, the equipment, and a lot of the recipes of the original Bardo, it’s unclear whether its funky character will translate to its new location. As with any establishment steeped in nostalgia, it’s tough to replicate the spirit of a place.
Bill, an architect in a former life, opened Bardo Rodeo in 1993, and Andrew came to work for him after graduating college. Bill’s entree into the beer scene was a homebrewing operation in his Logan Circle apartment. “Everybody kept coming over and drinking it, so I started charging money,” he says. “And after that I was making more money doing that than having a real job.” He co-opened BBQ Iguana at 14th and P streets NW in the 1980s, followed by Clarendon’s Roratonga Rodeo (which became Galaxy Hut), and Amdo Rodeo (which became Iota).
But Bardo Rodeo was the biggest and the baddest. The cavernous brewpub was known for obscure films, live music, 18 pool tables, indoor sandbox, and a countercultural vibe.
Although Bardo may not have seemed serious, the beer was. The brewpub won three medals at the Great American Beer Festival in the 1990s. Bill jokingly calls it “Bardo Brewing School” because many of the region’s top brewers passed through, including Port City Brewing Company head brewer Jonathan Reeves, Lost Rhino Brewing Company co-founder Favio Garcia, and Alan Beal, head brewer of the now-defunct Virginia Beverage Company.
Even if they didn’t work there, many from D.C.’s new guard of brewers frequented it, too. DC Brau co-founder Jeff Hancock used to hang out there with his then-girlfriend, now his wife. He says it’s one of the places where he first gained an affinity for craft beer. Likewise, DC Brau co-founder Brandon Skall says Bardo was one of his local go-tos. “It just had a really cool DIY vibe all through the place,” Skall says. “It was unlike anything else that you really had. It was kind of like a relic of that old D.C. Mentally, I associate it with growing up with the old 9:30 Club.”
In 2000, Arlington condemned the older part of the building. Rather than shell out for renovations, Bill moved the brewing equipment to his farm in Amissville, Va., and operated the bar out of the newer section of the building, changing its name to Dr. Dremo’s. Eventually, he stopped brewing altogether and brought in kegs from elsewhere.
But even without the on-site brewing, Dr. Dremo’s was ahead of its time, says Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director Greg Engert, who used to frequent the bar in his days as beer director at Rustico. “Back then, there wasn’t any place else in Arlington to go for craft beer,” Engert says. “Dremo’s then was what many bars have become today—classic bars that happen to have a really nice selection of beers…But they were doing it before it was cool, which kind of made it cooler.”
In 2007, Bill moved to Australia, where he’d previously lived and first gotten into homebrewing, and turned the keys over to the rest of the Stewart clan. Andrew tried to relocate Dr. Dremo’s after it closed, while Bill looked into starting his own brewpub in Australia but ultimately decided the red tape was too much of a burden. After three years down under, he moved to Dharamsala, Tibet,doing audio-visual work for the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. Bill first became interested in the Dalai Lama and Tibet during a visit there in 1985, and has paid homage to the region in the outfittings and names of all his bars. (Dremo is the Tibetan version of sasquatch.)
Throughout this interregnum, Bill’s brewing equipment has sat in a shipping container on a dock in Baltimore. A few people were interested in acquiring it, and a little more than a year ago, Andrew and Bill met with potential buyers. But instead of talking them into taking his stuff, Bill talked himself into keeping it, Andrew says. “At one point he actually said, ‘You know, I think that brewery is actually worth more if I use it than if I just sell it.’”
So the brothers joined forces to bring back Bardo. After first looking in Arlington, they settled on a Bladensburg Road lot that they could afford to buy. Right now, it’s empty. But the Stewarts have plans to build a facility out of shipping containers with the majority of seating outdoors.
As for whether they’ll be able to draw a crowd to the slightly off-the-beaten path location, they’re banking on the future development of the neighborhood. “I think there’s people who live up there in Trinidad who would come out of the woodwork if they had a place to go,” Bill adds.
Regardless, by owning the property, the Stewarts will avoid one fate that undid the original brewpub. “Nobody is going to be kicking us out after the lease runs out,” Andrew says.
The Stewart brothers already have $300,000 in cash and $300,000 in brewing equipment. Last week, they launched a campaign on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo to raise another $150,000 to build a one-of-a-kind self-serve beer set-up with custom programming. Unlike Kickstarter, Indiegogo projects can keep whatever they raise even if they fall short of their goal. Bill says the brewpub will go on no matter what.
(In fact, this isn’t the first time the Stewarts have crowd-sourced funding. In the pre-Kickstarter era, Bill placed a sign by Amdo Rodeo soliciting investors to loan a minimum of $5,000 each for brewing equipment at the original Bardo Rodeo. Nearly 20 people came forward.)
Bardo 2.0 will have much more outdoor space than its predecessor and could include a volleyball court, corn hole, and barbecue grill, the Stewarts say. But a lot will be the same, including the beer recipes, many of which were collected from brewers around the country. They’ll have the same pale ale, stout, porter, brown ale, scotch ale, hefeweizen, barley wine—even ginger beer.
While they may be able to replicate the brews, replicating the off-beat spirit is another thing. “It had this authenticity and this cachet because you could tell it was layered with transitions. It just looked like it had character by virtue of evolving over time,” Engert says of Dr. Dremo’s. “Those intangibles are the hardest thing to recreate, and I wonder how much of that feel will translate to the new location. I hope a lot of it does.”
But Bill recognizes that it can never be exactly the same weird place: “Things change. Things evolve. Things don’t stand still.” As Andrew points out, “The bathrooms will be nicer.”
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Photo of Andrew Stewart by Darrow Montgomery