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Remembering The Brickskeller: Part One

Over the past few months we have all heard the chatter, speculation, and ultimately the unfortunate news that The Brickskeller is indeed closing. Immediately I began to wonder about how well the history of The Brickskeller is documented. I imagine that if the walls could talk they would tell us that The Brickskeller has always been about more than just beer. Rest assured they wouldn’t speak of availability issues or bathroom cleanliness but of education, friendships and of amazing tastings from industry leaders that are second to none.

The Brickskeller is not a bar but an institution. These are its stories.

It’s hard to begin to say what the Brickskeller has meant to us.   If there were no Bricks there would have been no can collection for us and therefore no “beer” collection and nothing else thereafter that we’ve done with beer.   It has been miraculous to have had the chance to work with so many of the leaders of the beer revival in the US and the world.  The Brickskeller made me first a student and then a teacher of beer styles and if we hadn’t been hosting the Brickskeller tastings Jerry Bailey never would have brewed a single batch of Tuppers’ Hop Pocket.

Objectively, the Brickskeller has been at the center of beer culture in the DC area for decades.   From the truck that Maurice hired to find beer all over the west to the Lupolin Slams that Dave puts together, the Bricks has brought the world of beer to us year after year.

Just a few highlights of the tastings:
The first Samuel Adams served in the Mid Atlantic area
Young’s tastings, complete with a prefab English Pub interior
Michael Jackson’s first Washington appearance (and many thereafter)
The first keg of lambic beer tapped in the US
A Belgian tasting with Chris Heteleer (De Dolle) and Jeff Liebish (New Belgium)
Geoff Larson and his Alaskan Smoked Porter
Ten stouts from Larry Bell
Sam Calligione portraying Woody Guthrie
A vertical tasting of about ten years of Anchor’s Christmas Ale
Pierre Celis describing the early days of Hoegaarden
And way too many to count showcases of Mid Atlantic brewers — some of the nicest people and best brewers in the US.  Some of them started as members of the audience.

We would be stamp collectors or something if it weren’t for the Bricks.

Bob Tupper – Brewer / Owner
Tuppers’ Beers

The Brick was always sort of like backstage at a rock show. Every time I went to work, I never knew who would be there just having a beer, or grabbing lunch. This is where I began to make the acquaintance of some of the most important people in craft beer: Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, Tomme Arthur, Sam Calagione and of course, my hero in good beer, Michael Jackson.

The coolest thing is that everyone was so laid back. It was like being backstage because the Brick seemed to just be the kind of spot that couldn’t help but relax everyone. It seemed that all of these superstars of the industry were like little kids at Christmas when they descended into this sort of beer cavern; the passion and excitement for craft beer and spreading the gospel was all that anyone really wanted to do or could do down there.

I ended up sort of personally taking care of Michael Jackson when he would visit during my tenure. We became friendly and he was always so complimentary of my suggestions and palate that I figured I should make a go of it in craft beer. When he arrived fresh off of a transatlantic flight and requested a hit of hops, I poured him a Stone Ruination back when it only came in 22 oz. bombers. One night after he had hosted a tasting at RFD, Michael returned to the Brick for a nightcap before reposing in the Inn above. He asked me if i had come across anything really special lately and I brought him a St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck in West Flanders from 1997 and as I poured it for him he told me that surely I was not going to make him drink alone. I sat and tasted and learned for the next few hours. I may have learned more in that session than I had reading voraciously on beer for a couple of years at that point. And indeed the Gueuze had matured masterfully, Michael was astounded at the maturation and deemed it one of the finest examples of what aging can do for a brew’s complexity. I knew then that what I was doing was no mere job, and where we were drinking was no mere bar.

Greg Engert- Beer Director
Rustico/ Birch & Barley/ ChurchKey
Neighborhood Restaurant Group

The Brickskeller is such an iconic beer bar as it has so much history and it pre-dates craft beer.   I always enjoyed the events I did there and I certainly applaud Dave for putting on so many educational beer events.  Of all that I did with Dave, doing the Smithsonian Beer tasting was my favorite.  Natalie and I had to drive across the country with the beer to make the event happen as the shipping company lost the beer in Utah.  In the end it was a great event and Dave was a great host as normal.

Vinnie Cilurzo – Brewer / Owner
Russian River Brewing Company

I started in the media as a rock and roll radio disc jockey, not a reporter, so that may be why when I try to describe the importance of the Brickskeller I draw a musical analogy. The Brickskeller was to beer what Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium was to country music or the Apollo Theater in Harlem was to R&B and Gospel. All are places that for decades fostered the art of a musical style or of brewing at a time when its popularity, its variety and even its respectability simply wasn’t what it has become today. Places that created an environment that tutored the people who make today’s scene in those fields so vibrant. Just as there wouldn’t be a Kanye West without James Brown or a Taylor Swift without Dolly Parton, there wouldn’t be
a ChurchKey without the Brickskeller.

My top memories of the Brickskeller revolve around the British ‘Beer Hunter’ Michael Jackson, who loved the place. Not just tastings and less formal times spent there with MJ, although those are some of my favorite beer-centric moments. If I were to single out a Brickskeller memory, though, it was one that happened by chance. I was in Dave Alexander’s office one afternoon interviewing him for a Celebrator Beer News cover story about the bar’s 50th anniversary. Dave glanced at the computer on his desk, saw an incoming e-mail subject line, and got very quiet in mid-sentence. “Michael Jackson just passed away,” he told me. We did the rest of the interview another day. Right then, Dave led me into his storage vault of special beers (it was a truly amazing place) and pulled a bottle of Belgian geuze from a cardboard box. “This was Michael’s favorite beer here,” Dave said.

It was St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition.

We went back through the bar, where Dave grabbed a couple of glasses, and returned to his office. Dave opened the bottle and we drank it for Michael. I feel fortunate that when I first heard the news of his death I was at the perfect place with the perfect person to honor Michael Jackson in the way he would have liked. Liked a lot, actually, except MJ would never have stopped with one bottle.

Gregg Wiggins
Journalist

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