Brewing Success

Jason Dick
Posted June 19, 2012 at 2:47pm

The resurgent Washington Nationals, after years of hapless play, false starts and futility, are giving their fans something to drink to this year.

Coincidentally, new breweries in the nation’s capital are happy to provide thirsty baseball fans local suds to toast their National League East-leading ball club.

After decades of having to rely on national chains and regional breweries from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, along with some here-and-there brewpubs in the city, Washington beer drinkers have two breweries to call their own — DC Brau and Chocolate City Beer. DC Brau started up in April of last year, followed by Chocolate City in August. 

The response has been positive. 

“We can’t fill enough orders for Washington, D.C.,” said Brandon Skall, a co-founder of DC Brau. 

“One of the things that was shocking my business partner and I was that there was no — there was no absolutely no — beer voice in Washington, D.C.,” Skall said. “Yes, we had great brewpubs here, and brewers had been doing great work in brewpubs for some time, but there wasn’t anything available for the city as a whole,” he said. “That’s what we thought we wanted to change.”

“There’s so many great, small, creative people doing the right thing here, and that’s cool, and we just stumbled into it,” said Jason Irizarry, one of the founders of Chocolate City Beer. 

Saturdays at the Brewery

Of the two, DC Brau is the more prevalent in the city and in Capitol Hill bars, restaurants and package liquor stores. 

It is sold by the can and keg, helping with what the business folks like to call its penetration rate.

Located at 3178-B Bladensburg Road NE, in a lonely stretch on Route 1 near Fort Lincoln, DC Brau is looking to expand its footprint so that it can brew more beer and store more of it on-site. Its merchandise sales are solid. It gives off the vibe of an already well-oiled machine preparing to shift into a higher gear.

Chocolate City Beer is a bit more eclectic. 

It is located at 2801 Eighth St. NE, in an area between Brookland and Edgewood, in a stone building along the railroad tracks that was once the workshop of Chad Houseknecht, a longtime 9:30 Club production guy and recent co-host of “Weapons Masters” on the Discovery Channel and Military Channel. 

“All the old 9:30 heads, anyone, like, in their 50s from the old 9:30 club, the original team, they know the building as the Big Pile of Rocks,” Irizarry said of the funky stone building that is Chocolate City HQ. 

The differences were evident this past weekend, when each brewery hosted its Saturday tastings and take-home (growler) sales.

At DC Brau, it had the feel of a polished pop-up party, with lines out the door, tours of the fermenting tanks, food by District Buns, brisk merchandise sales and folks collecting voter signatures for local political petitions. 

Chocolate City was a far mellower, almost family affair, with people hanging out on the couch against the brewery wall, tasting artisan ice cream, and fathers showing up to fill their growlers with their daughters in tow. It fit right in with Chocolate City’s overall vibe — the backyard barbecue of breweries. 

Local breweries were longtime fixtures in major American cities in the years after the Civil War. But a combination of factors, including Prohibition, consolidation of brands and commercial and technological advances, slowly squeezed out the vast majority of breweries. That left only a few major labels standing, almost all of which are owned now by international conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors. 

Meanwhile, the home- and craft-brew explosion in the past 30 years opened the door for smaller breweries with strong local roots to expand, such as the Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams; Anchor Brewing, maker of Anchor Steam, in San Francisco; and Clipper City Brewing, maker of Heavy Seas, in Baltimore. 

Washington was a latecomer to the scene, with no package brewery operations from 1956 until last year, according to the guys at DC Brau. 

Beer and Baseball

Baltimore, Washington’s sister city to the north, has a deep, rich cultural history with beer, as laid out in entertaining detail by author Rob Kasper in his new book “Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing.” 

Kasper, a former Baltimore Sun writer, writes that beer and baseball have long been intertwined in Charm City, dating back to the original Baltimore Orioles of the 19th century, who “played in the American Association, a circuit dubbed ‘the beer and whiskey league’ because so many of its teams were owned by brewers and distillers.” 

That connection endured to the next incarnation of the Orioles, who, after moving from St. Louis, were owned by Jerry Hoffberger, who was also the owner of National Brewing Co. National Brewing was the home of a beer that endures in both Baltimore and Washington to this day, National Bohemian, or “Natty Boh.” It is now owned by Pabst Brewing Co. and brewed at a MillerCoors plant in North Carolina, according to Kasper. 

Camden Yards, the home of the Orioles, is heavy on local beers or beers with local connections, such as Natty Boh.

The ballpark also pours Heavy Seas and just opened Dempsey’s Brew Pub at the park, named after longtime Oriole and 1983 World Series MVP Rick Dempsey. 

Kelly Zimmerman, marketing director at Heavy Seas, says the rebranding her company underwent three years ago to both increase Heavy Seas’ national presence and to get in the ballpark is paying off. “You’ve got Baltimore fans, drinking Baltimore beers. What’s better than that?” she asked.

Even the people answering the Orioles’ toll free number have gotten the message. “By the way? The Rick’s Red Ale? It’s delicious. Just thought I’d throw that in,” a club employee said of a Dempsey offering, after listing the local beers served at the ballpark.

The Orioles, like the Nats this year, are experiencing their own resurgence on the field. The two teams square off at Camden Yards this weekend in interleague play. 

Distribution Issues

Alas, one place baseball-loving beer drinkers won’t be finding DC Brau and Chocolate City, at least in the short run, is Nationals Park. 

“All of the taps at the park are owned by Premium Distributors. Since we’re not with Premium, we can’t be distributed at the ballpark,” Skall said. DC Brau is distributed by Hop and Wine Beverage. 

He added that he appreciated petition efforts by fans to ask the Nationals to stock DC Brau, but that it’s not going anywhere unless they sign with Premium or something else changes. 

“The ballpark is kind of a dead issue,” he said, somewhat resigned. “It’s out of our control. It’s out of the consumers’ control, and it’s out of the park’s control, because they don’t own their own taps,” he said.

Irizarry isn’t optimistic that Chocolate City will be poured at Nationals Park anytime soon, either. “The corporate ladder is a little different than privately owned places. We have not made that move … Premium is a beast. And we’re a self-distributing brewer,” he said. 

D.C. Pride

One thing Skall is supremely positive about is his company’s place at the forefront of manufacturing in Washington, a city heavy on services and light on industry.

“We love it. We love it. There’s hardly any manufacturing that occurs in the District of Columbia. Being … kind of the voice of small-business manufacturing in Washington, D.C., is pretty cool,” he said.

And Irizarry has a message for the neighbor to the north, the city of Germanic and blue-collar heritage that has proved so conducive to beer culture.

For him there is more to Washington than wine-swilling politicians and antique cocktail concocting hipsters. When asked if Washington is a beer-drinking town, he bellowed out, “Hell, yeah! … Take that, Baltimore!”