Move over, wine list. Craft beer has come into its own.
I’m in the basement below Lyon Hall in Clarendon, and I feel like I’ve scored a backstage pass to heaven. Packed with small-batch potables from boutique breweries, the restaurant’s inventory is heavy on Belgian and Eastern European imports, along with regional craft brews from Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.
Beer director David McGregor points out various brands as we make our way, single-file, through the cold, cramped space. “We’ve got some Evolution, Dogfish Head, Heavy Seas’ double IPA, Old Rasputin…,” he says, rattling off the names in a raised voice to compensate for the steady whoosh of the fan. “There’s Deus and Steigl’s Goldbrau. Those big bottles are Liefmans.” I spy a few six-packs of Appalachian Brewing Co.’s gourmet root beer, but there’s nary a Budweiser or Miller Lite to be found.
A tumble of squat kegs on the floor connect to the tap system upstairs, which features nearly two dozen rotating craft beers. “We actually took the branded tap handles off a year ago in order to start a conversation with our guests,” says McGregor, who also oversees the beverage offerings at sister spots The Liberty Tavern and Northside Social. “When someone goes in, sees 20 beers and only recognizes Stella, they’re gonna order [Stella] and never branch out. We want people to try new things and not get stuck in a rut of drinking the same pint.”
Lyon Hall isn’t the only local restaurant that’s changing the rules of engagement for beer drinkers. Artfully conceived brew programs are flourishing as longtime beer lovers opt for microbrews over mainstream suds, and as epicures realize that the right lager, ale or porter, paired with food, can be just as sublime as the right vino.
U.S. craft brewers sold an estimated 13.2 million barrels of beer in 2012 (up from 11.5 million barrels in 2011), accounting for 10 percent of all beer sales nationwide, according to the Brewers Association, a national organization whose members include craft breweries and homebrewing enthusiasts.
But you don’t need statistics to verify the phenomenon, notes Adam Jarvis, the bar manager at Mussel Bar in Ballston, which spotlights Belgian and Belgian-style brews, seasonal specials and local options on a beer list that includes nearly 20 drafts and 120 bottles and cans.
“Ten years ago [craft beers] were tough to find,” Jarvis says. “Now we have several beer places just within a few blocks of where we are sitting.”
In many ways, our present adoration for boutique brewing marks a renaissance. Arlington author Garrett Peck’s recently published book, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. (History Press, $19.99), traces the history of commercial brewing in the capital region back to 1770, when Andrew Wales set up the Wales Brewery in Alexandria, producing “strong and small beer” that rivaled the brews many area plantations produced for their own consumption.
By 1812, Peck says, there were four breweries in and around the District. That number swelled to more than a dozen by the Civil War as enterprising brewers emerged to accommodate the considerable thirst of Union soldiers stationed in the area. Once the war ended and the army left town, however, demand decreased dramatically. Only six breweries remained on the eve of Prohibition.
One of those operations was the Arlington Brewing Company, founded in 1895 as The Consumers Brewery (it was sold and changed its name around 1904) and located where the Key Bridge Marriott stands today.
Most of the beer it produced was guzzled in the taverns and gambling dens of Rosslyn until 1916, when Virginia’s legislated dry spell went into effect, three years before national Prohibition.
But the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933 did not prompt the triumphant return of local microbreweries. By then, the Industrial Age had transformed the country, and much of the nation’s beer production centered on light lagers that were mass-produced in large factories, with a premium placed on cheap prices rather than high quality.
Arlington saw a resurgence in craft beer culture in 1993, when brewer Bill Stewart opened Bardo Rodeo, an alternative brewpub in a former Oldsmobile dealership on Wilson Boulevard. The place was shuttered in 1999, then reopened as Dr. Dremo’s (minus the brewing equipment) before the whole operation closed down in 2008. Stewart went on to open a reincarnated Bardo on Bladensburg Road in the District. But for the better part of a decade, Arlington’s craft beer subculture remained mostly underground.
“Back in the ’90s, craft beer was a secret society that you had to find,” says Nick Anderson, an avowed “beer geek” who joined the staff at Arrowine in 2011 and today serves as the Arlington wine shop’s resident beermonger, hosting beer-tasting events on Saturdays and overseeing an inventory of roughly 300 brews, with local selections from Devil’s Backbone, Port City, Three Brothers, Blue Mountain and Hardywood Park.
Some connoisseurs see the rise of craft beer culture as an outgrowth of the locavore movement and its focus on fresh, local ingredients.
“The mid-2000s saw the whole locally sourced thing start to take off, exposing people to better quality in what they ate, which eventually spilled over into what they drank,” says Mike Berry, beer director at Fire Works American Pizzeria & Bar in Courthouse, where the beer list changes almost daily and customers can build their own tasting flights from the draft menu.
Sampling is also a popular pastime at Mad Fox Brewery in Falls Church, which opened in 2010 and now produces 1,400 barrels per year, showcasing more than 60 varieties. “This is the freshest beer you can possibly enjoy,” says CEO and executive brewer Bill Madden. “It’s never older than a couple of weeks, and you’re drinking it at the source where it has been made.”
Others cite consumer price-consciousness in the wake of the recession as a precipitating factor. “A lot of people can’t conceive of spending $100 on a bottle of wine,” says Matt Seeber, executive chef and co-owner of Heavy Seas Alehouse in Rosslyn, which opened in February with more than a dozen tap lines, three cask ales and a multitude of bottled and canned choices. “But they can enjoy a beer for a reasonable price.” (At Heavy Seas, a pint of microbrew will run you $5 to $9.)
Social media has also leveled the playing field for small producers by giving craft beer aficionados ready access to information about new suds and who is selling them. “Before Yelp, Twitter and Facebook, it used to be books and print media, like Mid-Atlantic Brewing News,” says Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose properties include Rustico in Ballston and the new Bluejacket Brewery in D.C.’s Navy Yard. “Information sharing is insane now.”
Joe Hospital experienced that phenomenon firsthand. When he and his partners opened Dogfish Head Alehouse in Falls Church in 2007, they didn’t do any publicity. They didn’t have to.
“We opened at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and we had a line out the door by 5 p.m.,” Hospital says, noting that all it took was a few beer fans posting on Facebook and blogs for the news to go viral. “There’s been an awakening about craft beer. The existing restaurants with bars are introducing a wider selection. And in restaurants like ours, you’re seeing a much higher level of education and a willingness [among customers] to try beers they haven’t tried before.”
Some beer purveyors are feeding into that curiosity by borrowing a few tricks from the wine-seller’s playbook. At Rustico, where diners can order draft beers by the taste or the glass, Engert has created flavor profiles that divide the offerings into categories such as “crisp,” “roast,” “tart & funky” and “fruit & spice.” (These are further broken down into subcategories with descriptors such as “malty backbone” or “fruity & vinous.”)
McGregor gets a kick out of converting longtime wine drinkers into hopheads at Lyon Hall, where Alsatian- and German-inspired dishes pair particularly well with beer. “Oftentimes people in their 40s and 50s come in and say, ‘I don’t drink beer anymore. That’s what I drank in college,’ ” he says. “We all drank beer in college, but it was probably really crappy beer. I tell them, ‘I can help you with that problem.’ ”
When customers mention a predilection for champagne, for example, McGregor might pour them a light Belgian golden ale. “That’s highly effervescent, which will give them the same mouth feel,” he explains. “I give red wine drinkers the Duchesse de Bourgogne, which has bright fruit notes and an almost tannic structure due to the barrel aging.”
For those who enjoy knowing the backstory behind their buzz, the ever-evolving beer list at Fire Works doesn’t disappoint. Take the description under Goose Island Lolita 2013, which reads: “Lolita is a rose-colored Belgian Style Pale Ale fermented with the wild yeast Brettanomyces and aged in wine barrels on 30,000 pounds of fresh raspberries, sourced locally from a family farm in Michigan.”
Who are the predominant imbibers of microbrews? Just as wine culture has its stereotypes (picture clean-cut yuppies with pinkies raised), so does the brew crew. “A female friend of mine joked the other day that trying to find her bearded boyfriend at a craft beer festival was like trying to find a needle in a pile full of needles,” McGregor says. “The scene tends to be a lot of dudes.”
But that’s changing as more and more women join the ranks of the hopheads. “The only women who were at the first beer festivals I went to in the early ’90s were the wives and girlfriends who were the designated drivers,” says Megan Parisi, former brewmaster at Bluejacket in the District, who recently moved to Wooster, Mass., to become head brewer at Wormtown Brewery. “In the past 10 years, I’ve seen more women attending the festivals alone or in a pack. It’s nice to see that change.”
And they aren’t just drinking the stuff. In March, Kristi Griner, director of brewing operations at Capitol City Brewing Company, hosted a team of women brewers to create the special edition Unite Pale Ale as part of an international effort to “put the ‘ale’ in female.” A portion of the proceeds went to the Pink Boots Society, an organization dedicated to cultivating female brewers.
These days, with microbrews and homebrews popping up at seemingly every turn, in restaurants, shops and private backyards—not to mention festivals such as Crystal City’s Blues & Brews summer concert series and Capitol City’s annual Oktoberfest in Shirlington Village—the game isn’t so much about finding craft beer as hunting down specific craft beers.
“Now it seems like there’s a beerfest every weekend,” says Sam Wineka, an Arlington-based beer lover and homebrewer who works in environmental and energy-related PR. “If [the event is] featuring something I can’t get anywhere else, I’ll go; but there are too many to keep up [with].”
The pressure is on for purveyors of fine suds to keep their offerings fresh.
And vast. “It’s like moss; it just keeps growing,” Devin Hicks, the “beer guy” at Westover Market and the adjoining Westover Beer Garden & Haus, says of his establishment’s fabled Great Wall of Beer, which boasts more than a thousand seasonal brews, one-offs, imports and domestics, many of which are in short supply and are available only for a limited time.
The selections sometimes come and go so quickly that even Hicks can’t keep track. “It’s like going Easter egg hunting,” he says. “Part of the fun of drinking these beers is picking them out.”
Get ’em while they’re cold.
Nevin Martell is author of the forthcoming book Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations, due out in June. You can find him online at nevinmartell.com and @nevinmartell.
Brews & Bites
Hungry and thirsty? Try these suggested pairings.
The Philadelphia Pale Ale from Yards Brewing Co. possesses a slightly bitter, endive-esque finish, which slices through the smoked goat cheese rounds and bacon rashers dotting the Lady from Brussels flatbread.
Creamy on the palate, but still surprisingly light, Allagash Brewing Co.’s Belgian stout Allagash Black is the perfect refresher when you’re tackling the hearty cheddar-topped burger.
The Kennett Square Mushroom mussels (flavored with smoked bacon, cream, chives and thyme) match up well with the house beer, Antigoon, which has a malty start and a rustic apple cider finish.
Green Pig Bistro
Crisped golden with crackly, salty skin, the buttermilk-battered chicken goes down smoothly with Port City Porter, a brew with hints of chocolate malt and French roast coffee.
Bubbly and relatively featherweight Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale tames the richness of the mini frankfurters, which are shoehorned into well-buttered poppy seed rolls and dressed with spicy Dijon mustard and zingy sauerkraut.
As beer culture grows more sophisticated, local establishments are widening their brew selections and staging events ranging from tap takeovers to beer dinners with food pairings. Here are just a few area meccas for beer devotees:
Capitol City Brewing Company
4001 Campbell Ave., Arlington; 703-578-3888, capcitybrew.com
Enjoy hearty American fare with your choice of four signature beers and an ever-changing list of seasonal specials, all freshly brewed on site.
Dogfish Head Alehouse
6220 Leesburg Pike, Seven Corners Shopping Center, Falls Church; 703-534-3342, dogfishalehouse.com
The 20-tap system features a mix of year-round favorites from Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Del.—such as 60 Minute IPA and Indian Brown Ale—as well as limited edition suds and solid pub grub.
Fire Works American Pizzeria & Bar
2350 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-527-8700, fireworkspizza.com
A pair of casks, more than 30 taps and more than 100 bottle and can selections complement the wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, salads and generously portioned pastas.
2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-8646, www.galaxyhut.com
Twenty-eight constantly changing taps accompany a menu that offers specialty grilled cheese sandwiches and bar snacks, including plenty of options for vegans, vegetarians and gluten-free diners.
Green Pig Bistro
1025 North Fillmore St., Arlington; 703-888-1920, greenpigbistro.com
RAMMY Award-winning chef-owner Scot Harlan turns out deeply flavorful, American-inspired comfort food that goes down easy with a few of the three dozen craft beers offered, including many local brews.
Heavy Seas Alehouse
1501 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-879-4388, heavyseasalehouse.com
Wood-grilled burgers, steaks and seafood pair well with a beer list that highlights year-round faves and seasonal offerings from Heavy Seas, plus some outsider options.
Lost Dog Café
5876 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-237-1552; 2920 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-553-7770; 1690-A Anderson Road, McLean, 703-356-5678; lostdogcafe.com
An impressive selection of specialty sandwiches and creative pizzas are presented alongside nearly 200 bottled beers, more than a dozen canned beers and more than a dozen taps.
3100 North Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-741-7636, lyonhallarlington.com
Brasserie fare, from sausages to schnitzel, pairs well with a carefully curated beer selection that balances well-known offerings with more left-of-the-dial choices, like an 11 percent ABV Allagash Curieux, which is triple-aged in Jim Beam barrels.
Mad Fox Brewing Co.
444 West Broad St., Suite I, Falls Church; 703-942-6840, madfoxbrewing.com
Taps always feature freshly brewed beers in a variety of styles, including limited-edition collaborations. The kitchen specializes in rib-sticking fare, like sandwiches, pizzas and meaty mains.
800 North Glebe Road, Arlington; 703-841-2337, musselbar.com
Belgian-style brews are showcased on 18 taps, and a bottle-and-can list has more than 100 options. The menu features seafood-centric brasserie fare, including mussels prepared five different ways.
4075 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 571-384-1820, rusticorestaurant.com
More than three-dozen drafts are fastidiously categorized into flavor profiles, plus there’s a 12-page menu of cans and bottles to complement the kitchen’s American-inspired dishes.
709 West Broad St., Falls Church; 703-992-0777, spcbr.com
Design your own grilled cheese sandwich or opt for a house creation; then wash it down with any of the two-dozen drafts.
3066 Gatehouse Plaza, Falls Church; 703-645-8100, greatamericanrestaurants.com/sweetwater/merrifield
A variety of suds styles—from pale ale to porter and lager to stout—are freshly crafted in-house for pairing with Southern-inspired dishes.
Westover Beer Garden & Haus
5863 North Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-536-5040, westovermarket.com
Choose from 10 ever-changing draft options inside, and half a dozen outside on the patio, to go with a menu heavy on barbeque and burgers. Owner Devin Hicks recently announced plans to open a brew-pub in Clarendon (tentative name: Sehkraft, which means "vision" in German) next year.
4301 Fairfax Drive, Arlington; 703-465-8800, willowva.com
The beer list includes a strong selection of domestic and Belgian craft favorites, while the kitchen specializes in turning out fine French fare and Northern Italian specialties.
World of Beer
901 North Glebe Road, Arlington; 703-962-6982, wobusa.com
The name says it all. The vast beer selection spans every corner of the globe, though the food focuses on stateside pub favorites.