Whoa, somehow it is 2019 already. Can you believe it? It doesn’t actually matter if you do or not, these are the facts. It will not surprise any diligent readers of this site to know that we have takes. Below, some of our staff reflect on 2018, look ahead to 2019, and throw thoughts and opinions around all willy-nilly.
Have takes of your own? Let us know at @dcbeer.
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What I liked:
Yellow fizzy beer is cool again. Lagers are back in style, which both my liver and palate are really happy about. While (over-)hopped pilsners are getting a lot of play nationally, my favorites have generally been more balanced and malty offerings by local breweries.
The Boho Chic, a kellerbier from Denizens, made with floor malt (whatever nonsense that is) is especially good, with some nice caramel notes up front and then a dry crisp finish. I would seriously buy this beer by the case, and hopefully when Denizens opens their second facility in Riverdale, I will be able to do so. Atlas's 1500 Lager is also a standout and, from what Justin [Cox, Atlas’ Founder and CEO] says, a top seller in their taproom, as well as, the uber-hopped Czech Pilsner made by Barrett Lauer at District Chophouse.
The Bruce from 3 Stars, a collaboration with Collective Brewing Project featuring purple rice, blew my mind at the first annual Lager Fest. It had an umami quality that elevated every other flavor in the beer. Unfortunately, Bruce was only made on the pilot system and was a one-off brew. If folks wants to e-mail Mike McGarvey and bug him about it some more though, I'd kindly appreciate that. A little further up in Montgomery County, this year's marzen (Oktoberfest) from Brookeville Beer Farm was excellent.
What I didn't like:
I guess I could complain about the haze trains or chocolate milkshakes continued to chug through the beer landscape, but that has become cliche. My main gripe is that many craft beer enthusiasts seem to have created a powerful association in their minds that new = good or new = better. It doesn't. Flagships are called that for a reason. The constant chasing of new releases by beer consumers, which drives the constant push by breweries to put out those new releases, makes it difficult for beers to get dialed in, balanced, and perfected. This trend harms sales of beers that are reliably excellent. It lowers the overall quality of the beer that is available to consumers in exchange for not much else besides a "cool" new can label.
Last week, I saw Boston Lager on draft for the first time in forever and, of course, ordered it. It was hands down one of the best beers I've drank in six months. My hope for 2019 is that beer drinkers will rediscover some older standbys that they may have forgotten about and support brewers who are making a great product batch after batch.
Future trends and rants:
The annual consumer numbers out of the Brewers Association do show some positive advances in increasing the diversity of the consumer market for craft beer. My hope is that brewers will take that effort more seriously going forward, and do what's necessary to build on those advances, which is to hire a more diverse workforce across their businesses. That includes not only taproom staff; but also the people making the beer, planning events, and doing distribution sales. This isn't just me talking. The progressive bastions of McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group have both put out studies that show companies that have more diverse leadership and workforces, outperform their competitors. 7,000+ breweries can't be sustained on the alcoholism of white guys with beards alone. If or when the "market correction" does come, those left standing will be the breweries that have widened their consumer base, stuck to putting out reliably quality product, and haven't gotten ahead of themselves with expansion.
I thought DC Brau had comfortably entered their middle age, making beer that's "good enough." They killed it in 2018, releasing an excellent British-style barleywine in Sleep Standing Up; then a hoppy rice lager, Tuk Tuk, that's very good, and that was just last winter. They followed it up with the Jameson-barrel aged Pet Your Cow milk stout this fall and then finally put their keller pils in tallboys. They had a really good year.
The overall good:
1) Our post-whalez scene continues, with Bourbon County and Canadian Breakfast Stout sitting on shelves, which is how it should be. Overall, I saw a lot fewer lines in 2018, too.
2) There's more attention being paid to how breweries conduct their business, from dealing with intellectual property and trademarks, to racism and sexism, and wages. Keep shining a light and calling it out.
First glow then grow: What did I like? Raves and future trends.
I am happier than Venus netting 14 Grand Slams to see the resurgence of lager.
Again, for the people in the back: lager! Diversity and inclusion: pale lager, amber lager, black lager. Lager with Brett. Dry-hopped lager. Keller. Made by men, women, members of the LGBTQ community. Brewers born when Eisenhower and Kennedy were in office as well as Gen X and Millennial brewers. While still a long ways to go, it’s nice to note here the uptick in positive trends.
During DC Beer week, I went to Glen's Garden Market and drank Ardent Pilsner during beer trivia. I won beer trivia, then took home a growler of Port City's Keller. On the way home, the team stopped at Paradiso Dupont, and there they had two light lagers: Denizen's PGC Premium, with rice, and Nightshift's Night Lite, with corn. Sure, all of these delicious lagers were pale, but they're also a window into the pre-Prohibition era (say 1860-Prohibition) when many lagers were in DC. You'd be able to find four distinct lagers that were pale, one with with corn like Heurich's/Nightshift's, or rice like Portner's/Denizens’, and then some all-malt lagers like the ones Port City and Ardent brewed. We've been fed many lines about "yellow fizzy beer" in the 21st century, but most of them were bullshit and/or marketing. Nice to see Ardent, Denizens, Nightshift, and Port City representing four pale lagers - two pre-Prohibition, a couple of Germans, and all Americans all around.
Shoutout to “Dr. J”, the Brewers Association’s first-ever appointment to the position of Diversity Ambassador. Be sure to check out her recent piece on James Hemings. Dr. J fortifies my argument that although beer (less so consumers but still beer producers) looks pretty pale and male, it wasn't always this way. In fact, historically speaking, it was full of women and people of color. Better recognize. Crack a book, search the interwebz, or check the supercomputer in your pocket. Here, I'll hold your beer.
Shoutout to Leah, Bobby, Nathan, and Allison at Right Proper Brew Pub. They helped me brew a crazy ass 1940 lager from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History archives. The Bruery General Store's Ethen Adams hooked up the Oregon hops. Shoutout to Josh Chapman of Black Narrows for providing Bloody Butcher Grits corn. Lots of corn, sugar, Oregon, New York, and German hops. Shoutout to Katharine Mead at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History who gave us a 1940s food recipes to pair with it. Corn lager and pimento cheese stuffed potato was food history and beer history tastier than my wildest dreams.
What I did not like/rants.
There's still not enough dark beer. Shoutout to Manor Hill porter, which I just had last night on draught. Roast. Bitter. Fan-roasty-tastic. There's not enough bitter beer for my liking either. But I'm trying to change that. Shoutout to Ron Pattinson, Ro Guenzel, and Greg Engert for helping make dark, bitter beer, in this case some 1858 India Export Contract Porter. Ron also brewed an 1857 Burton Ale at DC Brau, shoutout to Jeff Hancock and all the breweries helping to contribute to beer history.
The bashing of others for things you don't like. I realize that I'm not crazy about the beer you're crazy about, but in NO WAY is bashing yours going to make mine taste better. Stop it, please.
Reading gender into beer. I love pilsner. My wife loves hefeweizen. I foolishly assigned gender to these. Then one day when I was at a brewery, a woman in packaging at the brewery told me I had it all wrong. Cloudy, unfiltered hefeweizen was a more masculine beer. The real takeaway is that all beer can be for all people. Gender assignments be damned.
Sexist labels: do we still have to say this? **Checks Twitter** Yep. Stop it.
It's tough for me to reflect thoughtfully on 2018 because I feel like this is the year I really started to consciously uncouple from everything in the beer scene. For a number of reasons, I just don't have my finger on the pulse like I once (at least thought I) did, and in the immortal words of Abe Simpson: "I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!" Take all of this with a grain of salt is what I'm saying.
There are a few themes that keep coming up related to 2018. First, and sorry to the District contingent, I can't shake the feeling that the DC breweries are losing ground to their Virginia and Maryland neighbors in terms of both quality and hype. When we look at breweries like Solace, Diamondback, Dynasty, Rocket Frog, Astro Lab, Cushwa, I could go on but let's leave it there, you're seeing beer that is strong out of the gate in styles that are hot. There shouldn't be a brewery anywhere in the DC metro area that doesn't wish it was brewing Solace's Partly Cloudy.
Now let me head off anyone reading this with some variation of "fuck this guy" on the tip of their tongue to say that beer in DC has never been better. I can point to multiple beers from every DC brewery that are high-quality, tasty, and that I want to drink four to six of (I won’t, but I want to). The larger point I'm making here is that in the aggregate DC gave ground to its neighbors this year, and it’s something I’ll have my eye on in 2019. DC is a crucible for beer and has been for most of the last decade. The three-legged stool of broad national distribution, a vibrant local beer scene, and the gray laws that allow bars and restaurants to import anything they can’t otherwise get a hold of means that there’s little margin for error due to poor liquid or marketing. No room for resting on your laurels, DC.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the above and also about this: are my feelings about the DC breweries’ relative place in the pecking order a case of familiarity breeding contempt? I made a similar point when I asked on Twitter earlier this year what the DC metro beer scene needed and got some variation of the response "breweries like Richmond's." The grass is always greener in beer world, and we seldom stop to appreciate what we have in our own backyard. To the Richmond point specifically, I firmly believe most of Bluejacket's IPAs (as well as DC Brau’s Turbo-Boost Multi-Ball, Right Proper’s Facing Futures series, and 3 Stars’ Nuthin’ But Dem Lacs) would be every bit as good as what Richmond has to offer in a blind taste test. More importantly, I think there are only a handful of people in this city who could take the Pepsi challenge and distinguish which were which (and I'm not one of them). To the larger point: am I falling for the all-too-prevalent trap of the new breweries catching my eye over breweries I've had access to for years? Very possibly (but not definitively) yes. This is where not having as much beer in 2018 hurts my ability to say with more certainty. Greg’s point about not chasing down every shiny object is super well taken here, and so is his excellent point about all these one-offs not allowing breweries to dial in for quality.
In the same familiarity breeding contempt vein, and zooming out beyond the DC metro area, there's a weird paradox I've seen on the hot take hellscape that is "Beer Twitter" (to which I am a shitposting contributor): beer nerds don't trust established breweries to brew new styles. Case in point: Brewery Ommegang's new Brut IPA. Brut IPA, for those of you not named Brent or Kevin standing on line in an anonymous industrial park, is a hot new style that more or less tastes like hoppy seltzer (do not under any circumstances @ me about this). Brewery Ommegang, the venerable Belgian-focused brewery from Cooperstown, NY, decided to get into the game and brew one of these, and they immediately took a bunch of shit on Twitter about it. This seems counterintuitive to me. No offense to the young breweries I just spent a whole paragraph lauding above, but given Ommegang's resources (brewing staff, equipment, QA/QC processes), I feel pretty confident in saying their version of nearly anything is going to be on the margin produced in a more thoughtful and refined way than somebody on a 15 BBL system. And yet a certain sect of beer nerds don't trust someone like Ommegang to brew the style for reasons that escape me. I feel like I saw some similar scorn with Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams when they brewed Hazy Little Thing and Rebel Raw, both of which are excellent.
All of the above boils down to "de gustibus non est disputandum," which Google tells me is Latin for "in matters of taste, there can be no disputes." It's a lesson I wished I and the rest of the beer world would've internalized in 2018 or long before because I am so bone weary of debating beer minutiae online, and yet I often can't help myself. (Good thing I dragged my feet editing this, tonight I posted that everyone’s desert island beer is Bell’s Two Hearted, and if it’s not they’re lying to themselves and others. You’d be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't be, at some of the nonsense takes I got in response trying to undercut Two Hearted’s well-deserved position in the pantheon of American beer.)
The conflicts I describe above stem from the pernicious subjectivity of what good beer is and who is making it. At the end of the day, I'd like a clearer cut standard that was more universal than "drink what you like and don't worry about the rest," but assuming I'll never get that, I guess I'd just like another beer. Here’s to a good 2019, folks.
Some other 2018 quick hits:
- Seconding Jake's praise of DC Brau and the steps they made in 2018, but I think Bluejacket actually made the biggest steps of any of the DC breweries. I've been a Bluejacket fanboy for a long time, no surprises there for anyone who follows me on Twitter, but dialing in recipes and techniques has clearly been on the menu under Director of Brewing Operations Ro Guenzel. The reach of Bluejacket's ambition has at times exceeded its grasp in five years, but I think it has much more in hand now than it has at any previous point.
- Hats off to the NRG team for a wonderful Snallygaster
- Port City's rotating lager series is one of the more clever things I saw a local brewery do this year. PCBC, which is by far the most decorated brewery in the immediate metro area, is not exactly the most-hyped or exciting brewery out there. It's easy to take Optimal and Porter for granted, and too many people do. That said, having a new lager every month or so gets people thinking about their brand, helps build events for accounts, and introduces beer fans to styles they might not otherwise taste. Nice work. (P.S. Their Rauch Marzen launches next week)
- You all should probably be reading Phil Runco more than you are now.
- For the love of god stop with the beer slushee machines, breweries. Have some dignity or at least make pilsner syrup for snow cones.
2018 was a maturation year for the area. The first DC breweries took this year to churn out new product, rebrand, and retool. It has become clear in an increasingly crowded marketplace with no signs of slowing down on the retail front, and breweries have to stand out here in multiple ways to get shelf space. Gone are any chances of getting a purchase based on location of the brewery alone. Any novelty of being a DC brewery has officially worn off. You have to bring it with your product, and if something isn't selling, it's got to go in favor of something exciting or excellent. Area breweries in general seemed to understand this, and the ones that responded positively are set up well for the next year.
We seem to talk about more breweries for less tap and shelf space every year in this space, and this year is no different. The scene added a Bruery location and more breweries from Maryland and Virginia into the fray, in addition to everything else going on here, and more product is on the horizon for the next year, so I'm sure we'll bring this up again next year. That backs up the point about bringing the good stuff above. DC breweries will be crowded out of taps and shelves if they don't make stellar product, truer every minute of every day as it was yesterday.
Like Bill, I have been more out of the loop this year than usual, but because I have chosen to be more health conscious than usual. Esteemed readers of the artist formerly known as the Void know that beer is poison, and that also won't change in 2019. The industry in general needs to be more health conscious, and I don't mean selling pints by having goat yoga at the brewery. It's not their job to police people's vices, since it is a business, but breweries also need to be aware of the pressures of the industry on their own.
Shout out to my personal favorite spots, nothing against any I left out, but Bluejacket and Right Proper really came with it this year, with Right Proper honing their favorites and carving a niche as an affordable pint that's flavorful and won't get you bozo-ed if you don't want to be. Kudos to Astro Lab on a successful opening as Silver Spring's second brewery. And for more things to come in the next year, here's to drinking quality instead of quantity.
Cheers and best, stay tuned for more from the DCBeer team!