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The State of the DC Beer Scene in 2016

DCBeer readers,

Last August 13, the DC beer scene made history at ChurchKey. As part of DC Beer Week 2015, Logan Circle’s venerable temple to beer, which has hosted so many tap takeovers, brewery launches, and special releases, held an event unlike any it had ever hosted before. This event featured 55 beers brewed in the District of Columbia. There was a line out the door for the first half of the evening. Perhaps more than any moment in the past two years, this one stands out as a testament to how far the DC beer scene has come. Imagine it. 55 beers. All from within DC. In 2009 when this blog started up, the idea was inconceivable. This event will play out again during this DC Beer Week 2016 today.

I wrote State of the Scene posts like this one in 2013 and 2014 but skipped last year because Chris Van Orden, Mick Nardelli, and I co-chaired DC Beer Week 2015, and successful management of that endeavor was more pressing than taking this time for reflection (which is itself a valuable exercise). I return to this post again this year on the assumption you care what I think about beer in DC.

DCBeer’s co-chairing of DC Beer Week last year, not the first time the site has been involved in the planning and execution of the now eight-year-old occasion, is a good example of the roles DCBeer has straddled over the year. We’ve never laid claim to abiding by journalistic standards, but neither are we always a mouthpiece for the bars and breweries that make up the scene. First and foremost, we’re beer fans who want the best for the beer scene and try to highlight what we’re most interested in; we’ve aimed to be something of an honest broker, connecting beer fans and breweries to each other through our calendar, map, and other posts. The way we’ve gone about that has caused some consternation in the past, especially where “bad beer” is concerned. New ideas and submissions are always welcome, and of course we encourage anyone willing to take their stab at the glamorous world of blogging.

The DCBeer staff sees and hears a lot in the beer scene. Rumors and intel. Arguments and grudges. Praise and admiration. Analysis and aspirations. It makes its way to our inboxes, text messages, and bar conversations. It gives us a pretty good perch from which to take stock of the state of the DC craft beer scene. It’s from that perch that we now examine what has changed, for better and for worse, since our 2014 post, and that which is the same that we hoped would be different. Both cases deserve a further look. Grab a beer and buckle in.

The best small brewing company in America is in our beer scene, according to the judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Port City Brewing Company took this award home at the 2015 after walking away with medals for three of their flagships. These three medals bring their total up to eight since opening in 2011, four times the number received by all DC breweries in the same span. (Kudos also to Lorton’s Fair Winds Brewing Company for picking up a gold in their first year of submissions in 2015 and to DC Brau for picking one up for The Citizen in 2014).

PCBC was the first of the area’s production breweries to open (DC Brau followed just a few months later in DC), and their success has seen them expand tremendously over the past five years. This has been a common trend. Visiting any of the breweries in this first wave (PCBC, Brau, 3 Stars, Lost Rhino) is something like visiting a forest of fermenters. Even breweries in the second (Atlas, Right Proper) and third (Denizens) waves have had to expand their capacity to meet demand. In the case of Right Proper, that meant opening up an entirely new production location to get their beer out into the market, while Mad Fox did the reverse and opened a tap room in the District. All of this expansion is one metric that shows the health of our scene. There is more, and better, local beer than ever before.

It isn’t just the breweries expanding that have added to the pool of local beer either. In the District, Bluejacket continues to pump out new beers on a seemingly weekly basis and Hellbender keeps pushing surprises out into the market (including recently a 100% wheat dunkelweizen made possible by their unique mash-filter system and an Islay Scotch-barrel aged Scotch ale). A number of breweries have popped up in Montgomery County (and even more are in the works). Virginia continues to have some of the most exciting breweries in the area, with Ocelot and Aslin both drawing significant crowds and clamor (while still brewing at a smaller scale than some of their area peers). Further out in Virginia, there are so many breweries popping up or in planning that we, literally, cannot keep up with them.

Local breweries aren’t the only ones bolstering area taps and shelves. Big time craft breweries like Deschutes have moved into the market, while buzzy smaller breweries like Wicked Weed, Tired Hands, and Modern Times (among others) have all either dipped a toe into the pool or jumped in all the way. Meanwhile, there haven’t been any breweries that come to mind that have announced that they’re pulling out of DC (though most fade away gradually rather than going out in a blaze). That’s all well and good, but Jake Berg’s advice to breweries who want to sell here is more relevant than ever. Of particular importance: if you’re not going to hire and support a dedicated rep for our market, please don’t bother coming at all.

With all these new beers available to be sold, surely the area must just be brimming with beer bars. Well, yes and no. Thinking about the past two years, the only major beer bar opening that comes to mind is the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s The Sovereign, beer director Greg Engert’s tribute to Belgian beers. ANXO, the cider-focused pintxos bar and restaurant from (among others) Sam Fitz and Tim Prendergast, was a related major opening. But beer-specific openings aside, craft beer has made its way into way more restaurants and bars than it was in two years ago. It seems like no new opening is completely devoid of at least one local offering, and most of them have a pretty respectable range of basic styles on offer (though the creativity of throwing some local and out-of-town flagships on the menu, calling it a day, and never changing them is suspect; I guess you can’t have it all).

Staff education still seems to be a problem, by and large, however. Having a beer on the menu doesn’t mean that anyone at the restaurant can speak intelligently about it. That’s fine for beer fans, who can make their own calls, but the more places that beer is available, the more likely it is that it will be someone’s first time encountering a beer, brewery, or style that they’ll be asking about. As I wrote previously: “Better craft beer can convert more individuals and grow the market; bad early experiences with craft beer can (and do) turn people off and make winning them over that much more difficult later.” This is all separate from the line cleaning issue. Personally I encounter far fewer dirty lines these days than I used to, but whether that’s a result of the diligence of local distributors (which is sizable) or my preference for places that I know do a good job is unclear.

Consumer education is in a similar place. I really do not think the average consumer can identify off-flavors in beer. Consequently, they aren’t voting with their wallet, which keeps bad beers and breweries afloat longer than they should. A byproduct of not knowing enough about the beer you’re drinking is not knowing what a fair market price for it is, which keeps all three tiers charging (in some, but certainly not all cases) more than is merited. The refrain that “value” is an individual choice has some merit here, but I think we should all be able to agree that your typical IPA should not be $8 a glass, for example.

There have been a lot of developments in the policy front over the past few years. Montgomery County’s infamously restrictive beer laws have softened, easing the way for better selection in a notoriously tough market for craft breweries. Meanwhile, state laws in Maryland and Virginia have created a window for more farm breweries to open up. In DC, there haven’t been too many big policy changes; most of those were in place the last time we checked in. But one result of the legality of pint sales has been a trend toward DC’s breweries becoming places to convene, have events, and have some full-sized beers versus just coming in to have samples, fill growlers, and leave. The great-looking tap room builds at 3 Stars, Atlas, Hellbender, DC Brau, and Right Proper are evidence of that; aesthetically speaking, a consumer could hardly be blamed for mistaking them for other popular bars. Whether area brewpubs will get the reverse privilege: the ability to distribute their usually on-premise beer for sale in other bars, remains to be seen, but fair is fair, so why not?

Managing the policy concerns of (some of) the DC breweries is the DC Brewers’ Guild, an entity that was being formed as of a few years ago but has solidified now into an organization to “unify the Washington, D.C. brewing community by honoring D.C.’s brewing heritage, fostering community development & pride, educating consumers, promoting shared business interests, and encouraging sustainable growth.” This is a great idea in theory, and it’s great that the District has joined the ranks of so many other states and cities that have Guilds. The need for more beer education is one I already touched on, and the local breweries do a fair bit of education now, but more is always welcome. But in practice, as an outsider looking in, it seems that the Guild’s members often struggle to pull in the same direction, probably because of the incredible level of competition in the area but also possibly (probably?) because of the strong personalities and a sense of success in the beer business being more of a zero-sum game than not. It’s unclear to me what’s on the Guild’s policy wish list moving forward, but my hope is that the sometimes strained camaraderie I witness will resolve itself into a body that advocates effectively for itself and our scene rather than tying itself in knots.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a state brewers’ guild advocates for members in its jurisdiction. That’s the point, after all. But in DC, even as we have more and better local options available to us (and we really, really do), it’s important that our scene not lose sight of the out-of-town and out-of-market breweries’ role in also making what we have great. DC’s gray laws make us one of the richest places for distribution in the United States, with beers from all over the country and world showing up here, regardless of whether they have a formal distribution relationship. I firmly believe that breweries with longstanding presences here pre-local renaissance (e.g., Flying Dog, Brewery Ommegang, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, among others) should have a continued place. DC as a destination for so many people from across the country and world means that people bring their demands and preferences with them. They should be able to find a taste of their old home while finding great beer made in their new one. Sure, our local breweries, DC and otherwise, aren’t as big and don’t have the resources of many of the regional and national craft breweries (though some of our area breweries could and should be considered regional themselves soon enough). If it seems unfair to compare our breweries to larger out-of-town breweries, it may be. If it seems like our market is a crucible that will challenge our breweries to stay current and avoid complacency, it certainly is. Consider that a feature, not a bug.

If it seems like there aren’t enough beer consumers to go around for all of the beers in the area, remember that the pie can always be expanded and this is decidedly not a zero-sum game. Small, independent breweries have a tremendous amount of potential pie to steal from Anheuser-Busch and other macrobreweries. We hit on this in 2013 and 2014, and we’ll hit on it again: there needs to be more diversity in craft beer, nationally and locally. We could write another piece of similar length on this topic, but suffice it to say I’m still not bowled over by the variety (age, gender, ethnicity) of people coming to the average beer event. Diversity at the local breweries has improved marginally, but it would be great to see more overt outreach to communities of color and women in particular, maybe through Guild-backed internships as a potential avenue. While it’s true that breweries are having a hard time now keeping up with demand from a relatively homogenous base, that may not always be the case. Beyond the value of diversifying craft beer for diversity’s own sake and benefits, the seemingly insatiable need for more consumers to drive ambitious year-over-year projections will likely be tough going back only to the same well over and over.

If it seems hypocritical to call out breweries for this when we have a particularly homogenous staff ourselves here, you’re absolutely right, and we need to be doing way more to recruit diverse voices and perspectives. In the interest of full disclosure: I don’t have a plan for that. I’m not even sure how to go about it, given the largely homogeneous recruiting pool I see out at events. With that said, as a basic first step, this seems like a good place to advertise again that we always take submissions. If you have something to say about beer, breweries, beer culture, drop us a line. We really do want to hear from you, especially if your perspective is one you think (and we know) we’re not representing well now.

With all that’s going on, and all of the positives I highlighted, readers might be surprised to hear that this was an early part I wrote for this piece: “I think the current scene is the dictionary definition of ‘fine’ for the most part, although it does feel like it's getting a little stale. We're just in a holding pattern right now.” I sent this assessment off to the DCBeer team, smug in my jadedness about the scene. They set me right in a hurry.

The DCBeer team reminded me that the quality of many of the local breweries’ beer has never been higher, just like the volume they produce. They reminded me that local breweries (e.g., DC Brau. 3 Stars, Port City, and Bluejacket) have collaborated with some incredibly well respected and exciting craft breweries in the past year, in addition to putting out new offerings of their own. They reminded me that the District Chophouse, the District’s oldest brewery, recently put out a phenomenal New England-style pale ale, proving that old dogs can learn new tricks in addition to producing their reliably tasty ones. They reminded me that Travis Tedrow at Gordon Biersch’s Navy Yard had recently released “an amazing Flemish red-type beer, a blend of three beers from three French oak barrels. From Gordon Biersch. Surprising if you've never been. Completely unsurprising if you know brewer Travis Tedrow.” Surprises and new developments abound. These are just a handful of examples, too.

They also reminded me that perspective could be the culprit in the feeling of staleness. The scene has grown so rapidly. We have gotten everything in five years. Every style of beer and brewery you can think of. It’s looking a gift horse in the mouth to always want more and new, and it’s no better than the beer nerds I scoff at who don’t get excited by reliable flagships anymore. Our team sees every event that comes through our calendar, 52 weeks out of the year. It’s easy to feel like there’s nothing new under the sun because we’ve seen a whole lot. As my Jiminy Cricket of beer, John Fleury, noted, “Every day we are flooded with a new beer, a new out-of-market brewery, a new event. So it is impossible to get excited for every single one, even though many others around the country would love for that to happen…. No longer are there lines for releases too often because we can go to many places to have a good beer. It isn't rare anymore because it is now normal to have at least one good draft on that is local and tasty. It is ‘boring’ like living with the significant other you married a few years ago must be like: wonderfully boring.”

One thing is clear, no matter your (or my) take on it: the DC beer scene isn’t going anywhere. Are there things that could be improved? Certainly. Are there things to be excited about? Equally certain. Next year, the Brewers Association’s Craft Brewers Conference will return to the District (it was last here in 2013). Brewers and brewery staff from all across the country will stream into the District to educate and enjoy themselves and climb Capitol Hill to lobby for legislative changes. When they arrive, they will find a scene that has grown, thrived, innovated, and largely found its way since their last visit. If I’m honest and looking at it from the perspective of a local beer fan or a visitor, it’s also clear that the people and personalities filling pints in the DC area and making our scene great are bordering on innumerable. DCBeer is proud to have brought you so many of their stories over the years, and we look forward to seeing what’s next.

I remain incredibly grateful to Jake Berg, John Fleury, Paul Josuns, and Mike Stein, for their insight and advice on this piece, and everyone who contributes or has contributed to DCBeer over the years for helping us get here.

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