Effective December 31st, 2014 Chocolate City Brewing (CCB) will go out of business. It is Washington, DC’s first brewery to close since the Christian Heurich Brewery folded in 1956 to make way for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the first craft brewery to close in the District.
We at DCBeer are saddened, but not particularly surprised, at this news. Creating and running any business is hard, hard work, and that is especially true of breweries. We wish the owner and employees of CCB well in their future endeavors. With that said, Chocolate City folded for a variety of reasons, chief among them size, quality, and strategy, and there are lessons to be learned on all counts.
Chocolate City is easily the smallest brewery in the District. With a 3.5 BBL (roughly seven kegs per batch) system, it was hard to make beer for the many bars and restaurants in DC that would have gladly served a local product. Beyond the District’s borders, CCB had the smallest brewing facility of any local brewery, save Rockville’s Baying Hound. While Port City, DC Brau, and 3 Stars have been able to expand brewing operations in their current buildings, that was never an option for Chocolate City, which occupied an architecturally interesting but ultimately undersized building by the Metropolitan Branch Trail that once housed a stone-cutting operation. The physical constraints of the building also meant that CCB could serve fewer people and host fewer events than other area breweries.
Moreover, from where we sit, Chocolate City’s beer was not often good. They launched their IPA during 2011’s DC Beer Week at RFD, and it probably should not have been allowed out of their brewery. While both the Cerveza Nacional, a dark lager similar to a craft take on Negro Modelo, and Copper Ale were attempts to brew styles not normally seen in craft beer, neither was able to stand out in what has become a very crowded marketplace. Although there were occasional highlights, notably the Mothership Wit weizenbock, these were the exception rather than the rule. Despite Ratebeer and Beer Advocate’s own problems, CCB’s scores on both sites bear out a relatively lower level of quality than beers from other area breweries.
Beyond beer quality, another difference between CCB and other area breweries was its approach and strategy. Less brewing capacity in many ways means less of other things as well. That included social media interactions, less events at on-premise accounts (bars and restaurants) and tastings at off-premise accounts (liquor and grocery stores). This latter is especially true because Chocolate City packaged very little of its beer and was restricted mostly to special releases. Fewer of all of the above interactions contributes to having less of a connection with the public and a weaker ability to build a brand.
CCB’s omission from the menus of better beer bars and restaurants across the area should give observant beer drinkers a clue about the beers’ quality. Chocolate City was never able to crack the draft lists at places like Meridian Pint, ChurchKey, The Big Hunt, and Pizzeria Paradiso, and instead occupied taps at Menomale, the closest restaurant to the brewery, and The Wonderland Ballroom, thanks to a preexisting relationship with the staff there, among other venues like Poste and Dodge City. CCB rotated through three head brewers in their three-year existence and turned over staff too frequently, which likely made it harder to put out a consistently high-quality product.
Chocolate City’s closing is not a signifier of a “craft beer bubble,” either in the DC-metro area or nationwide, although any brewery’s closing in today’s market tends to raise that question. If a brewery has a sound strategy and a quality product, we believe it can survive in DC. In the end, Chocolate City had neither of these things for the long term. It unfortunately serves as a reminder that “craft” and “local” are not always synonymous with “good.” Other local breweries, whether existing or in planning, would do well to remember that and keep striving to always increase their own quality.
DCBeer remained mostly silent on Chocolate City. We instead chose to focus on the growth of other area brewers who continue to brew delicious beer. Our editorial silence on CCB stems from our mission statement, in which we devote ourselves primarily to the promotion of the DC beer scene and generally reserve criticism for only those cases that we cannot help but address.
Some will argue that we should have leveled criticism here earlier, and perhaps they are right (though we did from time to time mention our concerns or offer advice to CCB in private). Our addressing these problems publicly may have hastened a closing that the market caused anyway. It may have spurred some improvements or had no impact. We’ll never know. This is an awkward position for us as advocates of craft beer in DC, but we have learned something from this experience as we move forward. The tension between the needs of individual breweries and the needs of the DC beer scene overall exists, but we will aim to err on the side of the latter.
In the meantime, if you are a fan of Chocolate City beers, you have the next two Saturdays to catch them at growler hours, and stray kegs will probably make an appearance at places like Menomale and Wonderland over the next month or so.
Brookland and Edgewood should stay tuned. We think they’ll like what’s going into that space next.