I'm playing hardball reporter with Nick Funnell. I want him to name names. Tell the truth. No coy evasions: Whose beer does he like to drink?
Funnell is the brewmaster of Sweetwater Tavern in Merrifield, Va., and I won't let him name himself, even though he does make some truly fine beers. "Honestly?" he asks. Please. "I can walk into any brewpub in the region and find a great beer. The level of beermaking in the Washington area is really, really high."
This might seem like simple diplomacy, but I let him slide because he is in fact telling the truth.
Nearly five years ago, in these very pages, I checked out the local brewpub and craft brewing scene and came away with a mixed taste in my mouth -- literally. Some of the brews were fine, some superb, but too many were just dull, dull, dull. So dull that a cold Miller Light would have been better.
Now that there are even more brewpubs in the area, you might expect the quality to have gone down, but oddly, the beer-making has clearly stepped up a notch. And nearly everyone I talk to points to one man as the reason the Washington beer scene keeps improving: Jerry Bailey.
Bailey founded the Old Dominion Brewing Company in Ashburn in 1990. He remembers a speech he gave soon thereafter to a brewers association meeting in Texas. "It was about marketing with no money, and how I'd managed to do that," he says. "So I gave them my '10 Principles' and the first seven were 'Good beer.' " He chuckles, realizing how corny it sounds. "I was being cute for a speech, of course, but in many ways that's all there is to it."
He makes it sound easy, but maintaining a consistently high level of quality is the hardest thing about making beer, and something Bailey has been remarkably successful at. He has developed a distribution system for the Washington area that ensures fresh bottles of beer in stores and in the restaurants that buy his kegs. He was a pioneer craft brewer in the area, and set the bar very high.
As the godfather of the local brewing scene, Bailey hosts the Old Dominion Beer Festival every summer, inviting brewers from all over the Mid-Atlantic to come tout their beer. He imports the two-liter glass bottles known as growlers (which almost all brewpubs except those in the District allow patrons to fill and take home) from Germany and sells them to most of the brewpubs in the area at cost. His phone line is an informal advice conduit on sources of hops, grain and machinery. "The primary goal is for people to be able to get good beer," he says. "Once people get used to drinking good beer, then they won't accept bad beer."
By focusing on the common goal of brewing good beer, Bailey says area brewers work together, rather than against one another. "There's no nastiness within the crowd of brewers," he says. "No one's trying to outdo a brewery in Frederick or make sure the Baltimore Brewing Company doesn't do well, and that's an unusual thing among small brewers. There's a real esprit de corps that allows us all to work on the general issue of good, local, fresh beer."COMINGS AND GOINGS
Changes on the scene since I last investigated it in 1996 include the following openings: Sweetwater Tavern (Merrifield), Capitol City Brewing Co. (Arlington), John Harvard's Brew House (Washington), Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant (Washington), Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (Arlington) and the District ChopHouse (Washington). Those joined Washington's two Capitol City Breweries (Downtown and Capitol Hill), Rock Bottom in Bethesda, the Centreville Sweetwater Tavern, Alexandria's Virginia Beverage Co., Old Dominion and a few farther flung brewpubs.
Gone are the Blue-N-Gold Brewing Co., the Mount Airy Brewing Co. and the Bethesda branch of the Capitol City Brewing Co. In Gaithersburg, the Old Town Tavern & Brewing Co. has become Summit Station, and in Arlington, Bardo Rodeo packed up and moved its brewery to Rappahannock County.
Both the Shenandoah Brewing Co. and the Old Dominion Brewery have added brewpubs within their breweries, and Sweetwater will open another tavern in Sterling next month.BEER AND BOURBON
At Shenandoah, a tiny operation in Alexandria's industrial neighborhood, I brewed a batch of my own beer while, uh, researching that last big story. This time around I'm only visiting, sitting at the small bar, watching employees clean the fermenting tanks after some folks have brewed their own.
Owners Anning and Laura Smith, the husband and wife team that opened the brew-your-own business in early 1996, know that cleanliness is the key to good beer ("You don't want any random bacteria getting in and messing with the yeast," Anning says). Heavy rubber gloves are propped on the handle of each cleaned tank, looking like a row of upraised hands, a remarkable class where every student is waiting to be picked by the teacher.
I order the Mexican Brewers Chili, chunks of beef cooked with the Stoney Man Stout. It comes from a plastic tub in a little reach-in fridge. It gets microwaved and put in front of me, steaming in its bowl. I like the informal atmosphere of Shenandoah. There are clipboards lying around, bags of barley and hops.
The chili is good, with a nice beer tang. I wolf it down accompanied by chugs of a six-beer sampler. The Stoney Man Stout, as you'd guess, goes great with the chili. Of the others, the only one that really impresses me is the Big Meadows Pale Ale. It turns out that it was developed for the Big Meadows Lodge in the Shenandoah National Park. On a lark, Anning took some beer out to the lodge, hoping the name of his brewery would spark some interest. It worked, and he created the Big Meadows Pale Ale just for the lodge of the same name. It now accounts for 40 percent of the beer sales in the hotel's Tap Room.
Not among my six beers is something I see listed on the chalkboard, Bourbon Stoney Stout. I get a glass, sip it, and it immediately becomes one of my all-time favorites. Already a big bourbon fan, I'm floored by this combination of flavors. It's the stout, but stout that's been allowed to age in an oak cask that previously held Bowman's bourbon. Wow. This is amazing.
Another Shenandoah beer worth tasting is the Firkins Cask Conditioned Ale, which gets tapped every Thursday and generally lasts through Saturday. This is one of several cask conditioned ales being offered at brewpubs throughout the area. An acquired taste, these beers are made by not removing the yeast after a primary fermentation, and allowing a secondary fermentation to take place after it's transferred to a small wooden cask. It's poured straight from the cask at room temperature, and has a very soft carbonation, along with plenty of live yeast.
In 1997, Shenandoah got an "off-license," so you can take its beers home with you. A six-pack of the Bourbon Stout is 10 bucks. A bargain, I swear. The food is limited to chilies and a meatball sandwich, and the beers are limited to whatever's in stock. And even though the ambience is industrial strip modern, the flavors of what you'll find here are worth the trip.
In another industrial strip, this one in Ashburn, the Old Dominion Brewery is in the process of knocking down walls and rebuilding a kitchen to increase the size of its brewpub. "We're adding about 72 seats to the 110 we already have," Bailey says. "We're bringing in a new chef, David Gedney, next month. He was the chef at the Ashby Inn for several years, and has worked at the Inn at Little Washington and at Nora's, so we're really raising the level of the food."
Good thing, because though the beer-marinated rib-eye I have is pretty good, neither it nor the soggy fish and chips are as tasty as the beer that accompanies them. "We hope to really integrate the food with the beer," says OD General Manager Terry Fife. "We'll host special tastings and beer-oriented dinners. We've got big plans."
If the new menu has food as good as the Bourbon Stout (yep, Old Dominion has one too), the Summer Wheat ale or the Tuppers' Hop Pocket Pils lager that I taste, then Ashburn will definitely be a more frequent destination of mine. You should try it too, especially on weekends, when tours of the impressive facility are offered.LAGER LESSONS
The most recent addition to the beer scene downtown, Gordon Biersch has carved out a niche by offering only lagers and no ales (which is why when a friend recently asked for a black-and-tan, the bartender demurred, having neither the stout ale nor the pale ale required for the mixture). Lager means "to store" in German, and refers to the fact that lagers take much longer to brew. It's the main reason there aren't many lagers on most brewpubs' list of beers.
The distinction between a lager and an ale is based mainly on the different yeasts used during fermentation. A lager yeast doesn't give you the fruity and buttery tastes you sometimes find in ales. Done right, a lager will generally have a dominant flavor of the malted grain (mainly barley that's been allowed to germinate and which is then dried and roasted) and then the hops (the dried flowers of the humulus lupulus vine, which are added for both their resiny bitterness and their floral perfume).
Gordon Biersch is a chain founded by brewmaster Dan Gordon and restaurateur Dean Biersch in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1988. They've expanded all over the country and finally hit Washington earlier this year. All their restaurants offer the same four beers: Pilsner, Golden Export, Märzen and Blonde Bock, as well as a seasonal special.
When I visit the striking restaurant at the corner of Ninth and F streets NW, the renovated bank lobby with its tall arched windows has me predisposed to like the place. A bartender lines up four glasses as a sampler, explaining each one. The Golden Export is the most successful -- light and dry with nice flavor -- but all the lagers lack body I find. The food is mostly well prepared (a halibut sandwich is good, as is the salad with seared tuna), if a little salty. The fried artichokes are almost lost in batter, and the recommended garlic fries are soggy and generally seem a bad idea. More beer please.
The Philadelphia-based company John Harvard opened its Brew House in the basement of the Warner Theatre building at 13th and E streets in mid-1997. Brewer Mark Kaufman rotates among some 35 beer recipes, adding many of his own to the ones sent down from corporate headquarters.
Heading downstairs, you're greeted by stained glass versions of Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy in saintly garb. The message is lost on me, but I'm here for beer, not politico-religious healing. Paul the bartender is affable during one happy hour visit. "Sure, we have a sampler," he answers, between greeting several parties of incoming guests by name. "It's $4.95 for five, but it's my choice." He glares at me as if I'll argue. I don't. "But I choose well," he says with a reassuring nod.
I like the thick-headed, not-too-bitter stout (it goes well with the sausage made of chicken and wild mushrooms) and the Hefeweizen, whose buttery citrus taste goes well with the rich seafood soup. The All-American Light Lager is too light, and oddly slippery. (Beer aficionados talk about a brew's "mouthfeel," an awkward word, but this lager makes me want to complain to someone about its mouthfeel.) The Nut Brown Ale has a good roasted malt flavor and a really nice mouthfeel, while the District Pale Ale is crisp and hoppy. Thumbs up.
Corporate recipes are anathema to Barnaby Struve, head brewer at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington, part of a national Colorado-based chain that also owns the District ChopHouse. "Please, please write this," he begs. "Even though we might look the same as other Rock Bottoms, and we share a logo and have similar themes and menus, every single beer we serve is completely up to the brewer working there. We're not the McDonald's of breweries."
Struve worked for a Rock Bottom in Chicago before coming to Washington and finds things more to his liking here, echoing Jerry Bailey's words with his own. "This is a really, really good scene here, as far as brewing goes," he says. "Chicago was a harsh scene between brewers for some reason, but this area is a great place to be making beer. Nick [Funnell] is great out at Sweetwater, Bardo makes some excellent beers, and Old Dominion of course keeps making great beers. I love it here."
Struve's Radio Tower Red and his Shropshire Cask Conditioned Ale were both gold medal winners at the 2001 Real Ale Festival in Chicago. His Spout Run Porter is smoky, slightly sweet and his Mother Martha's Light Lager is indeed light, with a little bit of flowery hop taste, and is very good cold. The Heffe Wheat suffers a bit too much from the bubble gum/banana flavor of the yeast but has nice body, and the American Dream Ale is very smooth.
The Capitol City chain gives its brewers leeway as well, says Bill Madden, head brewer of the Arlington restaurant. "This company really lets us exercise our artistic license," he says. "I've been on a Belgian kick lately, with some triple bocks, but I'm proudest of our Kolsch here." Kolsch is a very light blend of ale and lager yeasts that's become very popular in brewpubs, and I've seen it everywhere during my research, but none has been as good as Madden's.
He also has the tank space to brew a time-consuming lager when the urge hits him, and he promises that the Oktoberfest lager he brewed last month -- and which won't be tapped until its namesake month -- will be well worth the wait. "Come for the Oktoberfest street fair here in Shirlington on Oct. 6," he insists. "We close off the street, thousands of people come, there's a German Oom-Pah band. It's great."
Unfortunately, Madden's beers are not well served by the "front of the house," as it's called in the restaurant business. I've found dirty bar tops, indifferent bartenders, missing waitresses and surly busboys to be all-too-common in this location, and the customers deserve better.
The Capitol City on New York Avenue NW is in better shape than its Arlington counterpart, and the beers there have improved noticeably in the past five years. A sampler of four proves that the Capitol Kolsch -- from brewers Chris Frashier and Chris Firey -- is almost the match of Madden's, and the Prohibition Porter is rich with a touch of sweetness. Both ales I have are crisp, cold and good, especially in the middle of a 100-degree day.
A hot day is also the excuse to take a long drive to the hills west. In Rappahannock County, I stop by the Bardo Brewery. Formerly based in Arlington, Bardo is set on a hillside and lets you buy kegs and growlers if you visit, but you can't buy a pint. Due to licensing idiosyncrasies, owner Bill Stewart has to give away -- not sell -- "samples" on premises. So if you make the drive out there, there's a free beer awaiting you. If you don't want to go that far, you can pay for Bardo beers on tap at Dr. Dremo's in the old Bardo location in Arlington (Bardo beers are also available at Medaterra restaurant in Washington and Tim's River Shore Restaurant in Dumfries).
Steering north and west, I head to Deep Creek Lake to taste the offerings of one of Maryland's newest brewpubs, the Deep Creek Brewing Company. Perched on the north end of the lake, it opened two years ago with the promise of bringing great beer to western Maryland. It's a promise that hasn't yet been met, but there are reasons for optimism.
The Youghiogheny Red has an interesting campfire taste of burnt wood, not necessarily unpleasant and the Four Beary Wheat is crisp with some light sweetness. Gooch's Wee Never Left Scottish-style brown ale also has that burnt wood taste, but isn't bad. Both pale ales are lifeless and soapy (problems with the dishwasher?) and the Big Bear Stout had body but not much flavor. The food -- from the stews to the grilled fish to the salads -- needs attention across the board. The view from the deck of the Wisp ski area and the sparkle of the nearby lake almost mitigates my complaints.
Across Maryland I intrepidly trek, finding a delicious Dunkel Weizen and Hefeweizen at Frederick's stellar brewpub, Brewer's Alley. Formerly Frederick's City Hall, the 19th century brick building is lovely, and the food and drink offerings are up to their surroundings. The Pils and the IPA are also first-class and the sampler rack complements well one of the best vegetable pizzas I've ever had. There's a huge menu to choose from, and you should ask your server about ideal food-beer pairings, because this is one of the few places I've found that seems to do everything well.
At Summit Station in Gaithersburg (managed -- but not owned -- by the same folks that manage Brewer's Alley) I find the only fruit beer of my recent explorations. It's a Blueberry Ale, and while it smells too strongly of blueberry pancake mix, the flavor is subtle and clean. To my surprise, I like it. The Nut Brown Ale is smoky and good, and both pale ales are distinctive, with pine and cinnamon flavors coming subtly from the hops. Don't miss the Kolsch here either. Made by Joe Kalish, it gives Bill Madden's a run for his money.
Summit Station is also a beautiful setting for a brewpub, more than 100 years old, the pub is separated into a bar, a restaurant and an upstairs nightclub, where live music is frequently heard and there's a nice open air deck overlooking downtown Gaithersburg. Good food, good beer, good music. Go.
In Ellicott City, I find the lager-centric Ellicott Mills Brewing Company, where I sample the eight on tap, and really only like the non-lager of the bunch. It's the Weizenheimer Wheat, and it has a cool pear flavor that's not too heavy. The others seem oddly unbalanced: a too-sweet doppelbock, a salty pilsner, a dunkel with body and no taste.
But there's help on the way next month in the person of Jason Oliver, who recently left the Virginia Beverage Co., Old Town Alexandria's only brewpub, to sign on at Ellicott Mills. An excellent brewer, Oliver makes superb Dark Rider Oatmeal Stout, Governor's IPA and Scottish-style Wee Dram that could always make me overcome my aversion to the VBC's cramped layout. Where Oliver's departure leaves VBC remains to be seen as it hasn't announced his successor yet, and for now they're still pouring Oliver's beer.
On the commercial strip just north of Ellicott City, I wasn't expecting to be impressed by what the Bare Bones Grill & Brewery had to offer, but Brendan Fleming clearly knows how to make beer. The Irish-style Timber River Red was one of the best red ales I've tasted, and the Savage Mill Porter had great body beefed up by hints of sassafras. The menu is extensive, and while the setting of a strip mall brass-railing restaurant isn't my favorite, the beers, all served cold but still revealing lots of flavor, are truly worth a visit.
Just down Route 29 from Ellicott City, in Columbia, sits the Rocky Run Tap & Grill. The height of suburban tackiness with more beer signs of more different brands than I've ever seen in one place, Rocky Run wins me over with the simplest of ploys: a giant barrel of roasted peanuts, and a wood floor for you to throw the shells on.
The bar area is loaded with televisions turned to sporting events, and no one bugs you when you sit there with peanuts and a beer sampler that holds a nice surprise in the form of an excellent stout, with molasses underpinnings. There's also a very decent pale ale, though the red and the gold ales are nondescript.
In Annapolis, the Fordham Brewery in the Ram's Head Tavern makes a nice hoppy Helles lager, and both the filtered and unfiltered versions of the Copperhead Ale have a lot of body with some malty sweetness. Sitting on the back patio under the enormous wisteria vine on a sunny afternoon is the way to properly enjoy these brews. Unfortunately, the Wisteria Wheat is too buttery and sweet with no edge. Such a lovely plant, such a dull beer.
In addition to having the patio, beers and well-prepared food, the Ram's Head is one of the Mid-Atlantic's finest showcase clubs for live music. Make a road trip of it: Go for an early dinner, catch the sunset down on the waterfront, then catch a show.SEEING HOW IT'S DONE
Back in Virginia, I spend half a day getting in Nick Funnell's way at the Merrifield Sweetwater Tavern. I want to see how he does what he does. What does he do? As a friend put it: "He makes the only sampler I've tried where I like every beer." I agree. It's clear that Funnell is a master, and I've hounded him to walk me through the process.
I'm hoping we'll make some of his Giddyup Stout, one of the all-time great brews, made with several pounds of coffee beans added to the grain. Or maybe his eyebrow-raising High Desert Stout, a gold medal winner at this year's Real Ale Festival. But today the brewing schedule is such that we're making the Sweetwater Light ale. The light ale is one of the most popular offerings, and Funnell explains that it might be the hardest to make.
"Because it has such a light flavor, any imperfections in the yeast or any of the ingredients will jump out at you," he says. "You have to be very, very careful because you can't hide your mistakes under lots of flavors the way you might be able to with a stout."
Funnell is British, with a chemistry degree from Leeds University. He plunged into beermaking because it was the most interesting thing he could think of doing with his degree. "I suppose I could have developed paint colors for a paint company," he says, "but I loved beer." Throughout the day, he waxes nearly poetic about beermaking, and it's clear that his talent is driven by passion for his creations.
He walks me through milling the barley malt, creating the "liquor," a kind of grain tea made by mixing the milled grain with mineralized water. Then there's the boiling, the adding of the hops, the filtering, the adding of the yeast, the pumping from one tank to the next. I learn about cask ales, about ice beers, about specific gravity to measure sugar content, about carbon dioxide buildup.
I learn that the four basic ingredients that go into making beer -- barley, hops, water and yeast -- can be combined in an infinite number of ways. I learn that a farmer comes every week to haul away the spent grain to feed his cows. I learn a zillion facts about brewing that I've forgotten by the end of the lesson.
Toward the end of the session, after the hopped up "liquor" has been sent into the tank where a batch of bubbling yeast pounces on all the sugar and starts the fermenting process, Funnell turns to me with a grin.
"You reckon it's time for some quality control?"
I nod, not really knowing what he means.
We head from the brewery section of Sweetwater and out to the bar, a bustling circle in the middle of a bustling dining room, alive with a late lunch crowd. Funnell glides behind the bar and pulls some taps, setting several glasses in front of me, filled with beautiful liquids ranging from the pale gold of the Sweetwater Light to the deep brown of his award-winning stout.
Ah. "Quality control." I get it. Let's drink the stuff.
We each choose a glass and we clink.
"Now that's what it's all about, right?" he asks rhetorically.
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