In spite of recent political turmoil, Washington, DC, remains a special place for Americans. It’s the host for our government, the nerve center for our military, the home of our national museums, and now once again, a location for our national pastime, baseball. Sooner, or later, everyone visits there.
You’re probably wondering whether a place this busy and intense can make room for a watering hole where you relax and enjoy a decent beer. Not to worry. It doesn’t matter if you’re attending the upcoming presidential inauguration, looking for a staff job, chaperoning your local high school’s government class on a field trip, or planning to attend a Nationals game, there’s a variety of places to quench your thirst.
For over 50 years, beer lovers have beaten a path to The Brickskeller (1523 22nd Street NW), which boasts the world’s largest selection of beer. It can be a bit tricky to find since it’s in the middle of a residential street with less-than conspicuous signage. Once you make your way up the front steps, you can either continue upstairs to the Dining House, or follow the footsteps of other pilgrims. Open the door immediately to your right and head back down to street level and the Down-Home Saloon. The Brickskeller won’t pamper you, but it’s one of those one-of-a-kind experiences—like sharing a table at the Hofbrauhaus or hoisting a pint in a London pub where Samuel Johnson once held court—that earns it a place on everyone’s “don’t miss” list of beer destinations.
Once upon a time, Paul was a researcher in academia. Much of his work was sponsored by Uncle Sam, which required him to make the occasional trip to Washington. On one of those trips, in 1978, he met a friend at the Brickskeller. This was before anyone heard of the phrase “craft brew,” and most of the beer sold in America was mass-market lager. In those days, the Brickskeller had a large collection of canned beer, much of it directly facing the bar in a row of coolers—which are still there. Paul had spent a lot of time on the road and tried many local brands, but he’d never tried some of the beer on display and in some cases, hadn’t heard of them. The beer was undistinguished, but the cans were colorful and the bar staff let customers take them home to add to their collections. To this day, Paul regrets his decision to unload his collection: he had no idea that someone would invent eBay and turn his clutter into wealth.
The beer list—actually, it’s almost a book—has everything from Abita to Zywiec, and everything in between. As you look at it, you’ll be amazed how many more brews you’ll need to drink before you even come close to sampling everything the world has to offer. But keep trying: as Beer Travelers, we can think of no nobler goal.
Our next stop is the Capitol City Brewing Co. located right outside Union Station (2 Massachusetts Avenue NE). It served as the Federal City Post Office until 1986. Now, after a painstaking restoration, part of the building has become the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
With its white masonry exterior it is a quintessential Washington structure, so we were surprised to find a sleek modern interior. The large, centrally located rectangular-shaped bar surrounds copper serving tanks and immediately catches your eye. The open design also boasts a spectacular staircase that leads to a second level with the fermentation tanks and an additional dining area.
Sitting at the bar, we shared a sampler. You can customize your own, choosing between five and eight glasses, depending on whether you just want the regular rotation, or the seasonals as well. We found all of the beers spot on, and we particularly enjoyed the kölsch, a style many American brewmasters struggle with. The food menu is pub/casual and reasonably priced for the location.
By the way, there are two other locations: 1100 New York Avenue NW (at the corner of 11th Street and H Street) and 2700 Quincy Street, Arlington, VA. The first was established in 1992 as Washington’s first brewpub since Prohibition and was part of the new downtown retail area in the renovated Greyhound Bus Terminal.
The Metro, Washington’s ultra-efficient public transportation system, makes it easy to get around town, so in just a few minutes we found ourselves at the Old Dominion Brewhouse (1219 9th Street NW). As you might gather from the name, this establishment specializes in serving beer brewed at its mother ship, Old Dominion Brewery. They have 11 Dominion tap handles with both ales and lagers; and here, too, you can make a sampler to suit your fancy. Guest beers included Murphy’s and Tennants. It’s also a place where you can order any fancy or complicated cocktail your mind can conjure.
The interior is eclectic: breweriana, NFL team logos, and an unusual mural of DC icons. The sheer number of flat-screen TVs (including one inside the men’s room) gives off an unmistakable message: this is a sports bar. We half expected a talk show crew to set up shop and start fielding calls from antsy Redskins fans—and the pre-season hadn’t even started.
Regional Food and Drink
Be sure to visit RFD (810 7th Street NW), the sister establishment—or, if you will, the New Testament version—of The Brickskeller. It is located near the gate leading into Washington’s Chinatown, in a busy bar district. It has the look and feel of a brewpub, although no beer is brewed here. Our visit got off to a good start: we spotted rows of tap handles on display in the picture windows and once inside, a hostess wearing a “Beeriodic Table” T-shirt.
It’s fun wandering around here. The main hall has a high ceiling and is filled with breweriana, most of it for Belgian brands. There are also proverbs in gold leaf lettering and a busy, copper-topped kitchen located behind beige colored pillars opposite the bar. In an alcove you can see the legend “Hail to Old DC,” along with sepia-toned photos of sights in the nation’s capital.
The bar is reverse L-shaped, with a wooden top and a traditional brass rail. Above the back bar is a row of tap handles. The beer menu is a scaled-down version of the thick Brickskeller list, and featured some national brand beers, some of which were going at happy-hour prices. In all, there are 30 tap selections plus a fairly extensive selection of bottles. They also serve attractively priced appetizers during happy hour.
And finally, there’s one more place you’ll be glad you made the time to visit, The Big Hunt (1345 Connecticut Avenue NW) which is across from the Dupont Circle Metro entrance. When we use the word “bar,” this is the kind of place we have in mind: lived-in, lively and anything but sterile. Its 27 taps go well beyond the usual suspects and the first class staff earned our respect. Yes, they serve a macrobrew or two, but you have to love a place that’s unpretentious and pours more than it’s fair share of Stone, Dogfish Head, Allagash and Bear Republic—to name a few. And yes, the pub grub is good.
So, no matter why you visit Washington there’s a place and a brew waiting for you. While you’re there, hoist one for the times our government works, or maybe to changing it. Then hoist another to beer and the joys of beer traveling.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.