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The State of the DC Beer Scene: Where We Were, Are, and Need to Go

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

Approximately five years ago this week, our craft beer community came together for the first DC Beer Week. The original intent was to bring together craft beer lovers and generate income during an otherwise slow August week. It was the brainchild of Teddy Folkman, chef/owner of Granville Moore's, and Jeff Wells, well-known distributor and beer personality. Today, DC Beer Week has grown and evolved beyond its humble beginnings into the celebration of all things craft beer upon which we now embark.

There's something about that half-decade mark that offers an opportunity for pause and reflection. Although the DC metro area has faced a number of craft beer milestones in the past five years (the first production breweries since 1956, a proliferation of craft beer bars, the successful hosting of the Craft Brewers Conference and multiple SAVORs, etc.), we find our community now at a critical junction. Next year at this time we will find many things have changed even as the hallmarks of our community remain the same. And so with the old platitude that you have to know where you have been to know where you are going, we offer you this “State of the Scene.”

There have been a lot of craft beer wins in the past five years. Overall we have more and better options in both venues and beers. We have more craft beer education. We have local production breweries. These are all pre-requisites to having a great craft beer culture.

In 2008 a new bar or restaurant opening with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, or even a beer like Flying Dog Doggie Style was considered a major development. Now it seems like nearly every new restaurant or bar that opens (and there have been, and are, a lot of them) has multiple craft options in a variety of styles, and beer training for staff, if not quite as common as wine training, is at least no longer a rarity.

There are now craft beer options in more neighborhoods than ever. From Cleveland Park to Trinidad and from Petworth to Navy Yard, fine suds can be found throughout the city. There are glaring exceptions to this (more on this later) but overall we count this multitude of options a win. In the neighborhoods where there was craft beer five years ago, even more of it can be found now. Adams Morgan, for example, is still a mess on Friday and Saturday nights, but it's no longer just a mess. There are a half dozen or more spots on 18th Street curating good to great beer programs. That you are nearly as likely to wind up in a spot with a gueuze as goons in AdMo is a testament to what we've gained as a beer scene in the past five years.

A few weeks ago walking through Safeway, I spotted something that made me stop and do a double take. There, at the end of the aisle with the tortillas and salsa on sale, was a stack of cases of Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron arranged for display. That the District's groceries stores have caught on to craft beer to the point that they're featuring a 12 percent strong ale aged in South American wood vessels really shows how far the scene has come.

Not satisfied by the above wins as proof of our progress? Fair enough. Let's try it this way. Think about all of the things we didn't have at the first DC Beer Week. Let's start with production breweries: none of them closer than Flying Dog was in operation. No DC Brau, Chocolate City, or 3 Stars. No Mad Fox, Port City, Lost Rhino. No Baying Hound Aleworks. Bars? No ChurchKey. No Meridian Pint. No Scion. No Iron Horse, just to name a very few. 11th, 14th, and H Streets had perhaps four spots between them at which to find a single craft beer. Brands? Impossible to count how many have migrated into DC. But, for example, remember when folks from west of the Mississippi pined after Fat Tire? It may seem like it has always been available here. Certainly not true. These breweries, venues, and brands have contributed to the richness that we now enjoy.

So for sure, let's celebrate everything that's new. But let's also remember the venues that lit the spark of craft beer appreciation in this city before there was even something like DC Beer Week to rally around. Though it's defunct, all praise and props to The Brickskeller first and foremost. Sure it was a shade of its once glorious self toward the end, but the number of craft beer fans who got their starts there (either as staff or patrons) gives the classic Dupont venue a number of progeny through which to to live. We'd be remiss to leave out places like Pizzeria Paradiso, Granville Moore's, The Reef, The Big Hunt, among others that have been carrying the craft beer banner for years. Capital City Brewing Company, the District Chophouse, and Franklin’s have been thriving as brewpubs and cranking out their own beers long before production breweries returned to the area. A nod should also be made to Flying Dog and Heavy Seas because they adopted DC and spent a lot of time acting as the District's closest production breweries for years; their presence and ties remain strong despite the plethora of breweries we now have within our borders.

Admittedly, the thoughts gathered here, to this point, have been very District-centric. Well, we are DCBeer after all. But the growth in craft in the Commonwealth has been every bit as impressive as in the District. Alexandria and Arlington have more craft beer options by the week. Even further out in the suburbs near Tyson's, Ashburn, and Mannasas, there's a push. Our northern neighbors in Montgomery County, Maryland, are still afflicted by a distribution system that makes brewery reps and bar owners alike blanch. Still, Silver Spring and Bethesda have a number of great watering holes (and we look forward to launching beer guides for both areas after DC Beer Week). However, regulations in the county will likely prevent a MoCo version of something like ChurchKey or Meridian Pint for quite some time.

So we're doing pretty well. The growth that craft beer has had in the area, which is reflective of the impressive and sustained growth nationally, will continue even further in the next year. Two new brewpubs, Bluejacket and Right Proper, and two new production breweries, Hellbender and Atlas Brew Works, will join the assortment we have already. And that's just in the District. Virginia has hundreds of breweries in planning, some of them within spitting distance of DC.

What are the implications of all of these locally produced beers? Well, as we're often reminded when things like cease and desist squabbles come up over beer names, craft beer is a business, even if many of us don't like to think about it that way. All of these new sources for local beer are going to be in competition with each other, same as they're in competition with breweries across the nation and the globe. Local brewers have a leg up in that competition because, to date, their level of activity and engagement in our community is impressive and welcome. Curious about whether it's Saaz or Hallertau in that brew? Ask the brewer while he's between buffalo wings on a Friday night. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to have well-made beer at its absolute freshest made blocks from where you live and by people who you see at your local hoisting a pint next to you.

The catch is that the beer does have to be well-made. That locally produced beer is also high quality is not self-evident. Fortunately, much of what we have available to us is tasty and well-made, but not, by many accounts, all of it. Competition in the market will work in DC craft beer the way it works in other markets for other products. Those with a good product and sound business model will flourish and those lacking either of those or both will fold. That's unfortunate for these breweries; we don't like to see businesses or the people behind them fail, especially in a business with a strong community like craft beer. But for consumers, and especially those who are new to craft? That's probably a boon in disguise. 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.

Another implication of having more local breweries will be the effect on price. Though there isn't as much agreement about beer prices as there is about beer quality, it just seems like local beer should be affordable citywide. Look at Philadelphia, for example; a bevy of high-quality, sessionable brews that won't often run you more than $6. Too often we're seeing all of our local breweries' flagships at $7, $8, or even $9 a pour. With more brewers in the marketplace increasing the supply of the local product, hopefully more pressure will be put on all three tiers of the system to keep prices reasonable when there aren't considerations like transportation to account for.  We know this is a divisive issue, one that we’d love to discuss in further depth, but for the time being, we simply want to say that we’d love to see local beers available at competitive prices and we think new breweries opening will spur that.

Speaking of pricing, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the growing problem of growler prices. That the DC Council finally passed the Omnibus Alcohol bill that allowed for the sale of growlers at bottle shops is undeniably a positive thing. Grocery stores like Whole Foods and smaller bottle shops alike have put in growler stations where they're dispensing craft beer. That these growler fills are often hideously overpriced is a very, very negative thing. To be clear, not every place with growler fills is gouging prices, but far too many are. When we see $20 being charged for 64 ounces of DC Brau's Public Ale when 72 ounces of that same beer is $12 in cans, that's a problem. Growlers are very helpful for getting ultra-fresh draft beer straight from breweries during happy hours and for getting for home consumption beers that are only available on-draft. But to buy less beer in growlers for more money than you could pick up out of the cooler case is nonsensical. As with so many other paths for our scene to improve, more knowledge is needed to fix this problem. If you see someone paying $22 for a growler of beer they could buy a $12 six pack of, smack that growler out of their hands (figuratively, please, glass and liquid and gravity and the ground are a particularly awful combination).

One concern related to both growler fills and other, non-64 ounce draft pours, is line cleaning. Our best beer programs take on line cleaning and beer stewardship with all of the fervor of a cult. But this is a cult you want your purveyors to be joining. Unfortunately, not all venues are taking up the cause in the way that they should, which leads to infected lines, beer stone, and the taste of a beer being compromised. That draft line is the final link in a beer delivery pipeline that stretches all the way back to the maltsters and hop farmers who grew the raw ingredients and back through the brewers and distributors who created and carried the product to its final destination. Dirty tap lines disrespect both the pipeline and the product. For the District to become a truly great craft beer city, care and maintenance of draft lines must take the same precedence as food safety. Just think of the outrage that would ensue if a well-respected restaurant was outed for storing its wine vertically in a hot, sweaty attic.  We should be just as upset when beer is disrespected.

Being able to identify a dirty draft line is just one piece of knowledge that many pick up during their craft beer education. As evidenced by the myriad Certified Beer Servers and Cicerones, homebrewers, beer directors, and just general beer nerds in this city, there's a lot of knowledge here. But there can and should always be more. 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 idea of engaging the broader community and looking for wins for everyone is something you'll hear if you hang out long enough with DC Beer Week's Director Miles Gray, also managing partner of Smith Commons on H Street. He and the planning committee have brought in a broad group of partners to expand DC Beer Week. From Evian to Destination DC to Uber to LivingSocial to George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey, the list goes on and on. Even better, this year the committee is actively engaging with craft beer venues and producers in Northern Virginia and Maryland. It's a good message not just for DC Beer Week but for craft beer in DC and the nation overall. If we really want to expand “this thing of ours” beyond the 10 percent of sales that have been carved out, we'll need to enlist more help while also retaining what makes craft so wonderful: the personalities, authenticity, and quality behind the product.

Last year, Brian Barrows, a member of the DC Homebrewers, an organization that has grown incredibly quickly even by DC beer scene standards, had the chance to brew his patersbier at DC Brau. He won the privilege to do so by winning the Homebrewers Matchup at Meridian Pint. The production version of the beer went on to win silver at the Great American Beer Festival, giving a DC production brewery its first medal ever. The story is almost too perfect. Local guy wins contest at local bar and brews beer at local brewery and wins national award. After so long as a second-tier (if that) beer city, the medal signals a readiness to step up and work to become worthy of mention in the same breath as cities like Asheville and Portland, Philadelphia and Chicago. Are we there yet? Truthfully...no. We need more craft converts, education, and inclusiveness. Less pretensions, blue laws (our breweries can't brew on Sundays? Really?), and price gouging. But the pieces are all here: brewers, distributors, bar, restaurant, and bottle shop owners and operators, DCBeer readers, and above and among all else, craft beer lovers. With more and better beer flowing through taps all over the city and the company at the bar with us getting more varied and voluminous all the time, the framework has been laid. Let’s build on that framework together. Here's to the state of our beer scene: where it was, where it is, and where it undoubtedly will continue to go: upward. Cheers.

My sincere thanks to the rest of the DCBeer staff, whose input was critical to the development of this piece.

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