Many are quick to dismiss Northern Virginia as, simply, the suburbs of the nation’s capital, but those who do are robbing themselves of a chance to experience one of the beer world’s great hidden gems: the city of Alexandria, just a few metro stops removed from the District of Columbia. From the Colonial-era architecture (and a few blocks of original cobblestone dating back to the city’s founding in 1749) of its historic Old Town to the modern culinary scene in its trendy Del Ray neighborhood, it’s hard to find a bad beer selection anywhere in the city.
It’s always good to start with the classics.
A number of bars and restaurants have popped up in recent years, but Bilbo Baggins Global Restaurant (208 Queen St., Old Town) often gets much of the credit for being among the first Alexandrian institutions—at least those that still exist—to boast a sizable beer list. The tavern within the dining establishment has an equally Middle Earth-inspired name: the Green Dragon Pub (Hobbiton’s most popular watering hole). It’s worth dropping by for one pint during happy hour to kick off the weekend.
Keep the happy hour going by heading two blocks south to Pizzeria Paradiso (124 King St., Old Town) for wood-fired thin-crust pizza and numerous drinking options to pair with it. It’s home to Birreria Paradiso, with more than 200 bottle and can selections and 14 taps, with a considerable emphasis on Belgians for the packaged options.
Don’t fill up too much on pizza, though. You’ll want to leave a little room for snacks or full-on meals from whichever local food truck will be rolling in to the parking lot at Port City Brewing Co. (3950 Wheeler Ave.), Northern Virginia’s best-known production brewery (there’s always a different truck, so check the event schedule online for the latest update). Get there by 6:30 p.m. if you want to take the tour (not required; tasters and pints are available a la carte). If you do, book in advance at the brewery’s website. The $12 fee gets you six tasters of whatever’s on tap that day. That could range from the refreshing and sessionable (Downright Pilsner and Optimal Wit) to the big and bold (Colossal Four is a 9.5%, big, beefy Belgian-style quad whose alternating chocolaty and dark fruit notes evoke everything from Raisinets to caramelized figs).
When Port City opened in 2011, it was the first production brewery to operate within Alexandria city limits since 1916, when the Robert Portner Brewing Co., the largest brewery in the pre-Prohibition South, shut down. However, exactly 100 years after the brewery closed its doors, Portner’s great-great granddaughters, Catherine (better known as Cat) and Margaret, are reviving the family tradition with the grand opening of the Portner Brewhouse (5770 Dow Ave.), slated to open this fall. They’ve mined great-great granddad’s late 19th- and early 20th-century archives and reconstructed four of the original beers. Hofbrau Lager, Vienna Cabinet Lager, Tivoli Cream Ale and Portner Porter will be available year-round, in addition to some rotating seasonals, served in a brewpub setting with cuisine inspired by the family’s shared German and American heritage.
Continue the historical education between pints.
Alexandria is home to many houses where George Washington may or may not have slept, but there’s one close by where he definitely did: Mount Vernon (3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon). And it’s 100 percent more adult-friendly than it was less than a decade ago. That’s because the Distilled Spirits Council partnered with the historical society that maintains the estate to excavate, rebuild and reopen the Founding Father’s whiskey distillery. It’s been restored to its late-18th-century, grain-to-glass, water-powered specifications—everything runs on 1790s technology. The gift shop may have some bottles of rye produced at that very site in very limited quantities.
Mount Vernon’s about 10 miles outside Old Town, but there’s a bike trail that takes you the entire way. Rent your ride at Big Wheel Bikes (2 Prince St., Old Town).
Be sure to set aside time for a picnic along the Mount Vernon Trail. Your best bet is picking up a couple of subs from arguably one of the best sandwich shops on the west side of the Potomac: Market2Market (116 E. Del Ray Ave., Del Ray). Italian sandwiches are M2M’s specialty (get “The 116:” Prosciutto di Parma, Genoa salami, hot capicola and Provolone cheese). But build in some extra time while you’re there, as you’re not just going to want to buy lunch. See, Market2Market’s not just a deli, it’s also Alexandria’s premier bottle shop.
After the trip to Mount Vernon, relax with a couple of pints and a bit to eat. Lost Dog Café (808 N. Henry St., the frontier where Del Ray meets Old Town) is ideal for a lazy twilight hang, with 26 taps and a rotating selection of 36 bottles. There’s also an adjacent retail room for to-go purchases, in case you didn’t pick up enough at Market2Market.
The food menu is pretty formidable with pizzas in virtually any meat-forward and vegetarian iteration imaginable and a sandwich list that will make most delis jealous. Lost Dog is known for its tap takeovers and “Brewery of the Week” showcases, often from out-of-towners like Allagash, Founders and Ithaca.
For a far more locally and regionally focused list, head across the street to Mason Social (728 N. Henry St.). Virtually all Mason’s seven draft choices, 12 bottles and seven cans come from Virginia, D.C., Maryland and North Carolina breweries (Port City, Lost Rhino, Flying Dog, Atlas, DC Brau and the like)—“virtually” because there’s one tap reserved for PBR. Treat yourself to a plate of the fried green tomatoes while you’re there, along with the session-y, Saaz-y goodness that is Champion Brewing Co.’s (Charlottesville, Va.) Shower Beer—as refreshing as its namesake, with plenty of spicy notes and floral aroma to spare.
By now you should be sufficiently fortified for a ghost walking tour. Alexandria historically was an old brewing and drinking town, and a group called Nightly Spirits runs a stroll through many haunted sights, including three to four pubs with extensive beer selections from which you may partake. The tour kicks off at 8:30 p.m. at a popular pub and grill, Chadwicks (203 The Strand, Old Town).
You’re going to want to get to Rustico Restaurant (827 Slaters Lane) for brunch and brews before noon (it opens at 11:30 a.m.). Rustico is the original beer-centric Neighborhood Restaurant Group property, opened in 2006 before there was much of a beer scene in the city.
As one would expect from Neighborhood’s beer director, Greg Engert, the beer list is vast and well-appointed, with 28 draft and two cask selections, as well as upward of 350 bottles cooled and cellared at optimal temperatures. Since you’re here at brunch time, you might be enticed by the Tabasco-brined chicken and waffles with praline apples and maple drizzle. For accompaniments, keep it in the Commonwealth with something from Lickinghole Creek (Goochland, Va.). Look out for Lickinghole’s brunch-friendly Belgian-style pale Magic Beaver, with slight hints of citrus and baking spices and a vague, wild earthiness lurking in the shadows. (If not available, you might find cans at the aforementioned Market2Market.)
Make sure you leave by about 1:45; you don’t want to miss the 2 p.m. Alexandria Historic Breweries
Walking Tour, a two-and-a-half-hour stroll through the city’s brewing history, led by two people who know a thing or two about that: the aforementioned Cat Portner of the city’s most famous brewing family and local author and historian Garrett Peck. The walk includes beer samples from local homebrewers and culminates at one of the city’s watering holes. Tickets are available for $25 through Eventbrite. Follow the Twitter hashtag #ALXBrewTour for updates.
There’s probably no better way to wrap up an Alexandria beer weekend: honoring where it’s been while getting a taste of where it’s going.