January 16, 2015

THE DCSCENE: Beer, fast and furious

Washington, DC: Our Nation’s Capitol. Home of the Lincoln Memorial, Sasha and Malia Obama and me. Because home is where you fork over 90% of your income to rent every month, right!?!

Welcome to Washington.

DC is truly one of this country’s weirdest cities. With a population just under 650,000, this pretty little town set upon the banks of the Potomac looks and acts like a big deal. JFK said it best: “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

Screenwriter and author Nora Ephron - ex-wife of the famed Carl Bernstein - once said that the thing about DC is that no one in DC thinks there is anything going on outside DC. All you have to do to affirm that theory is go to any bar in the city and wait for some d-bag who thinks he’s going to be the next Paul Ryan shove a drink in your face, have you reject it and watch him short circuit while screaming, “BUT I WORK ON THE HILL!!!” (Translation: I answer phones for a congressman you’ve never heard of, but who will resign over a sexting scandal momentarily).

All this aside, Washington is my home. Actually, Washington is in my blood. They say no one is really “from” DC, but my family is the exception to that rule. We are seventh generation Washingtonians, and my great-grandmother was even Miss District of Columbia in the 1920s. Despite that I’m a Boston gal originally, a piece of me has always felt that DC is home, and regardless of the constant eye-rolling that one has to do to survive in this town, DC has some pretty cool stuff going on.

One of these cool things is the beer scene. DC does not have a historical precedent of breweries like Milwaukee or Boston does. Part of this is due to Virginia and DC pint laws. Previously, breweries could not sell full pints of beer in their tasting rooms. Once the law was repealed (in 2012 in Virginia and 2014 in DC), entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to expand their businesses. Like the city’s residents, this new scene is young, ambitious and somewhat transient. Three breweries have opened up in the last two years, but not without burnout. For example, Chocolate City recently closed its doors in December, just a month after Hellbender Brewing opened its for the first time. I took to the streets to explore two of the Beltway’s very different breweries. 


Photo credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

My first brewery is a new kid on the block, but comes from pedigreed parents. Bluejacket is located in the previously shady and now yuppie Navy Yard, a neighborhood that’s just recently become up-and-coming. You needn’t search far for signs of gentrification here. Just in the last year, this place has become home to perfectly manicured dog parks, fro-yo shops and dads carrying babies in those stomach-sack things. But I gotta admit, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be.

The Navy Yard: Not so bad, eh?

When the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (parents of such beertopias as Churchkey, GBD, and Birch and Barley) began to search for their next venture, it’s no surprise they settled on building a brewery in an abandoned warehouse a couple blocks from the new Nationals Stadium.


...And after. Ta-da!

Photo credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

Bluejacket is just so DC. Industrial farmhouse d├ęcor, an ever-changing beer menu and a clientele that ranges from defense contractors to Hill staffers to awk sauce first Tinder dates. Every time I’m there, I’m convinced Frank Underwood is lurking in one of the darkened corner booths, seducing a young Politico reporter. This place even has a kale-toting restaurant inside and a bakery attached next door. Talk about synergy.

Clientele aside, there are some strange and exotic flavors to behold in this corner of the District. Things to know:
  • They do not skimp on the ABV. You do get your moneys worth in most of these beers, so be wary of trying to drive your drunk ass home from Southeast (good news: the Metro is a block away). 
  • A lot of the beers have a sweetness in flavor, so this place is a sugar addict’s dream (perhaps a result of it being literally attached to a bakery). 
  • Go cask, or go home! One of the best parts of Bluejacket is that they serve cask ales. Cask ales mature in a cask. They are unfiltered and thus said to be “true ales.” The strongest cask ales age in the cask for months. On my last visit, I tried the Macaroon. It lived up to its name. It had toasted coconut, cacao and vanilla beans thrown in the cask, which made this brown ale basically the equivalent of drinking a boozy cupcake. Mama like. 
  • Too shy to go cask? Fine. My recommendation is the classic Mexican Radio. This is one of the few beers that stays on the menu year-round. This stout is inspired by mole, and it has a full, creamy body, a spicy cinnamon kick and a smoky, chili pepper aftertaste. If you really don’t have a sweet tooth (aka you don’t have a soul) try the Sailor for a jolt of peppery flavor, or the Duchamp for a nice farmhouse ale. 

Some tasty samplers. Mexican Radio in the center.

In a city like this, it’s all about the next new thing. Bluejacket is a small brewery with the resources of a big fish. Because of this, they have the ability to adapt to the ever-changing, eternally-bored population of DC. Bluejacket has made 115 beers in a single year, including 40 collaborations with other small breweries, and nothing there lasts for too long. 

The extensive (and fleeting) menu.  

Photo credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

All in all, if you want to be where DC’s cool kids are, Bluejacket is your spot.


Photo credit: Virginia Tourism Corporation/Sarah Hauser

Despite DC’s big attitude, very few Washingtonians actually live in Washington. Most of DC’s “residents” really live in Virginia or Maryland. Port City Brewing Company sits right outside Washington in historic Alexandria, an old port city (get it!?) on the Potomac River that is now a bougey suburb of DC. In fact, George and Martha themselves had an apartment in town  – a mere nine miles from their estate at Mount Vernon – to crash at after nights of presidential partying.

Mount Vernon: The original party pad.

The brewery itself is in the middle of nowhere, buried behind a quiet, residential neighborhood. However, once you find it, it’s well worth the search. Port City was founded in 2011 by owner Bill Butcher as an effort to convince his wife that craft beer - like wine - should be taken seriously. The mission here is transform beer's image from frat guys crushing cans on their heads to beer connoisseurs creating quality and craft. Hence, the brewery’s slogan: “Elevating craft beer.”

The vibe here is low-key, befitting of the 'burbs. When I arrived on a Friday night, there were about thirty or so folks merrily drinking at picnic tables set up around the tap room, with a local food truck parked outside for snacks. However, the camaraderie here is incredible. The brewers are friendly and fun, and several who were not even on shift showed up just to hang out. The staff have no problem popping a squat right next to you and sharing a beer.

Port City’s whole attitude is that good things come in small batches. Quality over quantity is the rule of the day, so if you’re looking for a big selection, this is not the spot for you. The brewery has five steadies, five seasonals and five “occasionals.” The place is still in start-up mode, and the brewers are quick to let you know that things fly fast and loose here. 

“We’re pretty punk rock,” said Jonathan, the head brewer. Innovation is one of the brewery’s strengths, especially when it comes to sustainability. For example, all the bottles are made from sea glass from Virginia beaches. Additionally, the trademarked Hopzooka is one of their major innovations, and a big coup for the brewing industry. This patent pending device uses CO2 to force hops into the fermenter without exposing the beer inside to oxygen. Pretty groovy. 

Hopzooka baby!

Now, onto the beer:
  • My first recommendation is the Optimal Wit. It’s a Belgian “Wit Bier,” which means it has that carb-a-licious wheat taste, but with the faintest hint of orange in here. This is a solid kitchen table beer - one to add to your weekly grocery list for sure. And if you need more proof of its tastiness, Optimal Wit won the Gold Medal at The 2013 Great American Beer Festival. 
  • My second recommendation is a seasonal called Long Black Veil. Prepare to be spooked: Long Black Veil is a dark, dark beer full of dark malt, hops and an even darker back story. The beer was inspired by a local ghost story about a bizarre woman called the “Female Stranger.” As the story goes, in 1816 a ship arrived from the West Indies in the port of Alexandria with a British man and his wife aboard. The couple had fallen ill, and for an unknown reason, the woman wore a thick black veil to hide her face. Having crossed the town looking for shelter, the couple moved into the local inn. For two whole months, the husband never left his wife’s bedside, and no one in the town ever found out who she was. She died on October 14th, and her husband fled in the night, without a soul ever knowing the woman’s identity. Some say it was Theodosia Burr, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr. Some say it was Napoleon Bonaparte, escaping exile. The truth remains a mystery, and the Female Stranger’s grave lies in Alexandria’s St. Paul’s Cemetery, a stone’s throw away from the brewery itself. Have chills yet? If that doesn’t give it to you, the bite in this hoppy beer sure will! 

The five essentials at Port City. 

Photo credit: Virginia Tourism Corporation/Sarah Hauser

There you have it. Two very different breweries, each with its own distinctly Washingtonian charm. That's two down and seven to go here in the District. In the meantime, I’m off to grab a beer. Cheers from our Nation’s Capitol! 


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