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The State of the DC Beer Scene in 2014

DCBeer readers, and craft beer lovers (brewers, distributors, bar, restaurant, and bottle shop owners/operators),

A little over a year ago, on August 15, 2013, one of the fifth annual DC Beer Week’s flagship events went down with “Nationals Night” at Nationals Park. After the Nationals took on the San Francisco Giants (the hometown team lost in the ninth as closer Rafael Soriano blew a save...some things don't change year to year), craft beer fans lined up on the Scoreboard Pavilion to sample craft beers both locally produced and from around the country. The event was something of a microcosm of the best of our craft beer scene: brewers, distributors, and bar owners/restaurateurs (in this case DCBW Planning Committee members) coming together to bring both diehards and novices together to celebrate tasty brews.

Last year’s celebration of DC Beer Week prompted us to write our first State of the Scene post. In the ensuing year, the beer scene in both DC proper and the larger metro area has seen expansion and positive developments. Some of our assertions about problems facing our local beer scene have been surprisingly resolved; meanwhile, we watch as other challenges continue to develop.

It has definitely been a big year for #dcbrews. Consider that last August we didn’t have Atlas Brew Works (launched September 2), Bluejacket (opened October 28), and Right Proper (opened December 9). All three have already become firmly ingrained in the craft beer community and certainly seem like they’ve been around more than a partial year.

Atlas Brew Works, DC’s fourth production brewery, signed on with distributor powerhouse Premium, and in addition to finding success on draft lists across the city with their drinkable flagships (Rowdy Rye and District Common), also produce The 1500 South Cap Lager exclusively for the Washington Nationals. Their brewery, located on West Virginia Avenue NE, will become even more of a destination now that they’re taking advantage of brewery pint sales. More on that later.

Bluejacket, the long-awaited and much-hyped brewery/restaurant by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and overseen by beer director Greg Engert, opened in the Navy Yard after the aforementioned Nats’ season ended last year. That gave the brewery time to work out recipes before massive pre- and post-game crowds descended on them. NRG and opening day brewer Meg Parisi split in January, but brewing operations are now handled by a four person team. Bluejacket has cranked out over 80 distinct beers since opening in nearly every style (and style hybrid), developed a sour program, and maintained the practice of collaborating with other breweries.

Right Proper, the “yeast-forward” Shaw brewpub by Thor Cheston and brewer Nathan Zeender, is introducing crowds to offbeat styles like grisettes, radlers, Grodzinski, and beers inspired by everything from jazz musicians to DC-based movies. The beers are often delicate, a stark contrast to the generally bolder offerings from the other breweries in the city, which leaves room for both novices (or the usual Friday and Saturday night set, or both) and experts to find something to enjoy. Pro-tip: the chicken sandwich is delicious, but what you really want to do is peruse the appetizers and nibbles that are southern-inspired and addictive.

Don’t let us make it seem like breweries have been opening solely in the District proper. Although they’re the most recent brewery to open up in the area, Silver Spring’s Denizens Brewing Company has already had a disproportionate impact on the local area because of their spurring policy change in Montgomery County that relaxes the onerous distribution laws there. In last year’s post, we wrote, “regulations in the county will likely prevent a MoCo version of something like ChurchKey or Meridian Pint for quite some time.” We’re walking that back a bit. The ability for some breweries to self-distribute kegs in the county all of a sudden makes procuring rarities and one-offs for beer events much easier (a tip of the hat to Takoma’s Republic, Silver Spring’s Scion Restaurant, and the spots in Bethesda who have been carving it out under onerous regulations). Similarly, the ability to sell pints at MoCo breweries also makes these breweries competitive with their DC neighbors.

Although it’s a bit further afield from our DC haunts, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the craft explosion in Loudoun County. Old Ox, Adroit Theory, and Corcoran Brewing, among others, have joined the well-established Lost Rhino Brewing in carving out a bevy of craft options in the suburbs and giving us a reason to head out that way. It isn’t just Virginia, either. Laurel, Maryland’s Jailbreak Brewing Company gives folks in the Free State’s suburbs a reason to be excited as well.

Notice that amidst all this talk about brewery openings we haven’t countered with any brewery closings. That’s positive in that we never want to wish ill upon a business or the people behind it, but all of these openings do present something of a challenge in that competition is only increasing, not decreasing. The Washington–Arlington–Alexandria, DC–VA–MD–WV metropolitan statistical area has the highest median income of any in the country, which means more disposable income. If you’re a brewer elsewhere in the country, why not ship your product to markets where people can afford to buy it and where it seems like there’s a new bar or restaurant every week in which to potentially place it?

Competition is ultimately good; it will help to ensure that the best beers win out and the inferior ones, well, don’t, but there’s likely to be some on-going angst before the dust settles.

All of the new local breweries, the breweries from the first wave of local craft breweries (many of whom are increasing production), the new breweries from around the country coming into the market, and those that are already established here (which seldom pull out of said market), create a ton of competition for shelf space and draft lines. That competition is ultimately good; it will help to ensure that the best beers win out and the inferior ones, well, don’t, but there’s likely to be some on-going angst before the dust settles. That angst isn’t just on the brewery side, either. With the demand for craft beer growing, there’s also growing competition between those who want to sell the beer. If “craft beer allocation” isn’t a phrase in your vernacular now, it certainly will be going forward.

We’ve mentioned twice now breweries selling pints of beer. Virginia brewers have had that ability since 2012, as have some Maryland breweries but not those in Montgomery County. This past year, the District passed a law to make itself more competitive with production breweries in the M and the V. The Montgomery County delegation in Maryland, spurred by Baying Hound Aleworks and Denizens Brewing, got a similar bill passed in Annapolis. The laws are a boon to brewers (any relaxation of regulations is an opportunity, after all) and serve as another income stream. But if you think DC’s production breweries are set to become your happy hour hot spot, think again. Pints can only be sold during normal tour and tasting hours. In the future, if these breweries choose to build out larger tap rooms, they could become even more plausible destinations.

Pint sales aren’t the only thing growing in DC’s production breweries, however. Tanks are, too. Both DC Brau and 3 Stars undertook large expansions, adding tanks that will increase capacity. For DC Brau, this means never having to worry about running out of their flagships and having the flexibility for limited releases, all the while supplying more and more markets (they’re as far north as New Jersey now). 3 Stars’ new tanks (and new walk-ins for barrel-aging and cask storage) will help them to keep up with demand and also allow them to offer bottles to the public and to the Illuminati Reserve Society, a subscription club getting access to one-offs and rarities. Our neighbors to the south, Port City Brewing, had their major expansion last year, and their products can now be purchased by our neighbors to the north, Canada.

One thing that seems not to be growing relative to last year are growler sales from beer stores. Note that we don’t have concrete data on this, just anecdotes and a sense from visiting stores and watching Twitter, but this time last year it seems like every corner liquor store was adding in tap lines… and charging way too much for the beer coming through them. We don’t hear much about those growler stations these days, positive, negative, or otherwise. Sure, those growler stations are still out there, and certainly people must be buying those growlers because, hell, people buy Clamato because it’s there. We’re seeing less complaints about growler stations presumably because some consumers got tired of buying beer, local or otherwise, at way more than a six-pack price for less than 72 ounces and others who didn’t mind aren’t going to gripe about it. The market works and consumers vote with their wallets, but notice you’re not hearing a whole lot about new growler stations opening up, which tells you something too. (Sidenote and pro-tip: if you’re buying 64 ounce growlers of DC Brau’s The Public for ~$20 when you could buy a 72 ounce six-pack for $10.99, we’re happy to take the extra money you don’t mind throwing away. Call us.)

The voting with your wallet phenomenon is applicable beyond growler stations. As noted above, competition for consumers’ dollars is fierce in our beer market right now, and that phenomenon shows no signs of slowing. With consumers making purchases largely on the basis of price, taste, and quality (in no particular order), local brewers seemingly have a leg up on their out-of-market competition. After all, with the locavore movement in full swing and a strong and swelling sense of DC pride, who wouldn’t want to buy a product made in their figurative backyard? But as we noted last year, “That locally produced beer is also high quality is not self-evident...Those with a good product and sound business model will flourish and those lacking either of those or both will fold.” Those words aren’t any less true now than they were a year ago; if anything, the pressure to deliver a fresh, tasty, high-quality product at a competitive price is higher than ever on our local brewers, of whom much is demanded by local beer fans. There are a lot of good examples of the confluence of these qualities to praise in our market; consider DC Brau’s The Corruption IPA, which is highly rated, seldom more than a month old (as tracked by the “born-on” date), and widely available for $5-6 on-premise or $10-11 a six-pack off-premise or Right Proper’s Ornette, a delicately crafted grisette at $4 for 12 ounces. In the past year, the DC market has made great progress toward the “bevy of high-quality, sessionable brews that won't often run you more than $6” that we called for last year. We hope sincerely our local brewers will move the needle even further on that in the next year.

One area where our beer scene hasn’t moved the needle in the past year is in opening up craft beer to the entire city. Last year we wrote,

With so many people out there convinced that it doesn't get any better than “fizzy yellow water,” there could stand to be more outreach to those who don't know hops from hopscotch. That isn't just for yuppies in DC's nightlife corridors who aren't taking advantage of the beer lists available to them, either. For a “chocolate city,” it's distressing that there are no craft options on the other side of the Anacostia. For an industry and a product that boasts such a strong sense of community, our broader citywide community is not entirely engaged by the events and programming that continually goes on.

That there isn’t a ton of diversity (gender, racial/ethnic, socioeconomic) in the craft beer industry is hardly a shocking revelation to anyone who has spent any time in it. Given the growth of craft beer nationwide and in this city, it’s clear that in addition to being an intoxicating hobby, craft beer can also be an economic engine. In DC at present, the gains only go to certain groups and neighborhoods. It's still hard to find local beer in wards 7 and 8 (DC’s poorest and blackest wards), and while breweries, distributors, and bars and restaurants selling craft beer create jobs, how many of them go to black people in a city where they make up half the population?

A more diverse community, no matter the focus it gathers around, makes for a richer human experience; there is little reason to expect that this would not be the case in a rapidly changing DC around local beer. 

The question of how to bring craft beer to people and places where it isn’t will no doubt be a divisive one. But if DC’s craft beer scene is committed to the idea of craft beer as a superior product worthy of our dollars, time, and fanaticism, shouldn’t more of an effort be made to ensure that the broader city-wide community gets a chance to embrace or reject that product in the way that some DC residents currently do? A more diverse community, no matter the focus it gathers around, makes for a richer human experience; there is little reason to expect that this would not be the case in a rapidly changing DC around local beer. Similarly, in a city where there is so much craft beer flowing, is it an unreasonable expectation for some of those suds’ spoils to flow across the river? We don’t think so.

The past five years have been marked by the DC beer scene persistently pushing to expand its reach. More and better craft beer bars, and then breweries, and then brewpubs have opened and succeeded, and more will continue to do so. That explosive growth has caused some (our site included) to begin to call for DC to be considered among the top craft beer cities in this country. The truth, if we’re being honest, is that we aren’t there yet. Just as we weren’t at this time last year. But we can be.

That reach is important, and it isn’t surprising to find it in a city with as much ambition in it as ours. That continuous reaching shows that our craft beer scene is not content to rest on its laurels, and craft beer consumers will continue to push for more and better developments. The best beer cities in the country don’t just reach for great beer and events, they take a firm grasp of beer quality, stewardship, and education. There’s an element of “the [city] doth protest too much, methinks” in the insistence that DC’s craft beer ambitions make it one of the country’s best beer cities. The energy behind that insistence of looking outward and saying “we belong, we belong” should instead be refocused to look inward to look at our bars and breweries, our events, our beer education and stewardship, our consumers (and those we would like to be our consumers) and make sure that we strive to grasp quality with both hands quality in everything that we do. The state of DC’s craft beer scene has never been stronger, and we are sure that it will only continue to grow and prosper. We look forward to being there to watch it as it does. Cheers and enjoy DC Beer Week.

The author is grateful to Chris Van Orden, Jake Berg, and the rest of the DCBeer staff for their insight and help with this piece.

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