With a New Administration, a New Beer Scene

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 1
March 1, 2009 By

I’m hugging a bottle of Anchor Steam at RFD in Washington, DC, sister establishment to the famed Brickskeller, watching a group of picketers wend their way around the crowded bar with signs reading, “We Want Beer.”

It’s a puzzling sight, as everybody here seems to be well served. In fact, the “protest,” organized by Premium Distributors of DC, is actually a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Repeal, which took place on December 5, 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment.

Across the city, revelers are toasting Repeal on a day that the Wall Street Journal has dubbed “Cinco de Drinko.” And Washington, as I write this, is bracing for an even bigger blast on January 20, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office. The DC City Council has passed legislation allowing bars to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. for the four days preceding the Inauguration. The media is predicting that two to three million visitors might try to crowd into the city for the swearing-in of America’s first black president.

“I was talking with a cab driver, and he said the closest available hotel rooms are in West Virginia,” Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association, told me earlier in the week. Papazian had flown in from Boulder, CO for the association’s biannual Capitol Hill beer tasting. He confers regularly with Congress’s Small Brewers Caucus, a group of 37 lawmakers who keep abreast of developments in the craft brewing industry and strive to educate their colleagues. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), cofounder of the caucus, is a homebrewer who (according to the Congressional newspaper The Hill) enjoys sipping his homemade pale ales on the porch of his Springfield, OR home.

This city has a watering hole for every income bracket and taste. If you’re an intern or a college student on a budget, prowling around for cheap beers and half-price burgers, you can solve the country’s problems over a couple pitchers at such Capitol Hill dives as the Hawk ‘n Dove, Bullfeathers and the Pour House.

If you’re a K Street lawyer on an expense account, you can plunk down $40 at Brasserie Beck, DC’s premier Belgian-style bistro, for an 11.2-ounce bottle of De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva fermented in Calvados casks.

Capitol City Brewing Co., the local brewpub chain, was offering InaugurAle, a golden ale spiked with orange blossom honey from Obama’s home state of Illinois. The District ChopHouse, another brewpub, was brewing up Barack Bock. Premium Distributors was augmenting its portfolio with Primo, an old brand from Hawaii (Obama’s birthplace), as well as a lager and ale from a new operation called Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago.

Premium also offers Shiner Bock, but that brand might have been more in vogue eight years ago when president-elect George W. Bush was toast of the town.

Tavern Negotiations

Administrations come and go, but alcohol has always lubricated the cogs of government. The city of Washington was, quite literally, born in a bar.

In 1790 Congress voted to establish a federal city on the Potomac River. But before all those marble building could rise from forest and marsh, the real estate had to be obtained from about a dozen-and-a-half landholders, some of whom insisted on driving a hard bargain. Among these was an irascible tobacco farmer named Davie Burnes who owned a large chunk of territory between where the White House and Capitol Hill stand today. He once sassed George Washington himself, insisting that “had ye nae married the widow Custis … you would hae been a land surveyor today, ane a mighty poor ane at that!”

However, large amounts of liquor can alleviate even the most trying negotiations, and a congenial tavernkeeper by the name of John Suter kept progress from stalling. His establishment, called Suter’s Tavern or the Fountain Inn, stood in Georgetown, a village that preceded Washington, DC by 40 years but was absorbed into the District of Columbia after the Civil War. It was here that Washington and Jefferson lodged when they visited the future capital; it was here that architect Pierre l’Enfant laid out the city’s streets and avenues; it was here that the first parcels of land were auctioned off.

No one today knows where “here” was, because eighteenth century buildings lacked addresses. A marker commemorating Suter’s Tavern sits near Georgetown waterfront, around the corner from a multiplex movie theater. An alternate view places the tavern on nearby Wisconsin Avenue, on a plot of ground now partly occupied by an erotic novelty shop.

The citizens who frequented Suter’s establishment probably drank wines imported from France and Portugal, Jamaican rum, and ale from Philadelphia or London. But Washington, DC soon had a local producer. A physician named Cornelius Coningham, sometime in the mid-1790s, set up a brewery/distillery in a two-story stone house not far from where the Vietnam Memorial stands today. Coningham proffered strong beer and a weaker “table beer,” sold whiskey and vinegar on the side, and raised hogs on the offal from his vats. He later moved to an abandoned sugar refinery on the opposite side of town, and quietly went out of business in 1811.

Boozy Misbehavior

DC in its early days was not a beer town. Whiskey was too cheap and plentiful. George Washington himself operated a large distillery at his Mount Vernon estate, 16 miles to the south, producing raw rye whiskey that he sold for fifty cents to a dollar a gallon. Wine and spirits flowed freely at the boardinghouses where Congressmen lodged, having left their families back in their home districts. “Whiskey packets,” basically booze cruises down the Potomac, were a common diversion. It was a golden age for Congressional misbehavior.

John Randolph, a congressman and senator from Virginia during the early 1800s, had a fondness for porter. In his book, Perley’s Reminiscences, journalist Ben Perley Poore describes how Randolph would enter the Senate chamber wearing his spurs and carrying a whip, with one of his hounds trotting behind. “Every ten or fifteen minutes, while he occupied the floor, he would exclaim in a low tone, “Tims, more porter!” and assistant doorkeeper would hand him a foaming tumbler … .” He often drank three or four quarts in an afternoon, estimated Poore.

The chief executive himself, in those days, wasn’t cordoned off from the public by a ring of secret service agents. John Quincy Adams once had his clothes stolen by a tramp while he was skinny-dipping in the Potomac. His successor, Andrew Jackson, was nearly crushed to death by an unruly mob that crashed a White House reception on Inauguration Day 1829 looking for free booze.

Gradually, the White House would become a prison for its occupants. Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, liked to frequent beer halls in his younger days. But after moving to the Executive Mansion in 1885 he lamented, “I must go to dinner. I wish it was to eat a pickled herring, Swiss cheese and a chop … instead of the French stuff I shall find.”

Lager in the Capital

Washington, DC in the 1880s had several breweries that would have been glad to ship a keg of the new bottom-fermented beer to the White House. The first lager brewer in our nation’s capital was George Juenemann, who commenced making beer in the 1850s at his “Mount Vernon Lager Beer Brewery and Pleasure Garden,” a stone’s throw from Union Station. Renamed the Washington Brewery, this was one of four breweries operating in our nation’s capital when Prohibition was imposed. It was torn down and replaced with a junior high school.

The most successful of Washington’s beer barons was Christian Heurich, a native of Thuringia, Germany who emigrated to America in 1866 and survived an outbreak of cholera on the boat ride over (so he later asserted) by avoiding water and drinking only beer.

Through hard work, Heurich made a fortune from his Senate brand beer. He married three times (his third wife was the niece of the first), and died in 1945 at the ripe old age of 102. Heurich’s brewery on the Potomac was torn down in 1962 to make way for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. However, the turreted Victorian mansion where he lived, now called the Brewmaster’s Castle, is lovingly preserved and open to the public. Highlights include a medieval suit of armor and a downstairs bar handcarved with such inspirational slogans as “Schöpf aus einem Pokale neue Ideale” (Draw new ideals from your drinking cup).

The golden age of lager, however, coincided with the rise of an increasingly militant temperance movement. Modern Americans puzzle over how a small group of true believers foisted Prohibition on the entire country. Michael Lerner, author of the book Dry Manhattan, answered that question in a recent talk before the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. In a word: lobbyists!

A “lobbyist” is a paid employee of a special interest group who tries to influence governmental policy to his group’s advantage. According to one legend, the term originated in 1870s Washington. Then President Ulysses Grant liked to duck out to the ritzy Willard Hotel, two blocks from the White House, to enjoy a quick cigar and drink. Favor seekers would camp out in the hotel’s lobby to buttonhole the president with their requests.

The Anti-Saloon League, under William Wheeler, was one of the most effective lobbying groups the country has ever known. It began as a state organization in Ohio and set up national headquarters in DC in 1895 at what is now First Tabernacle Church on New York Avenue. Wheeler had a knack for cajoling and threatening lawmakers into voting for dry legislation. He had supporters send out letters by tens of thousands, “burying Congress like an avalanche.” He boasted that his printing press “ran three shifts a day, every hour of the twenty-four, grinding out dry literature.” In 1913 he organized a parade of over 4,000 members to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, singing temperance songs. After America entered World War I, he tied the dry cause to patriotism, declaring “Kaiserism abroad and booze at home must go.”

At 12:01 a.m. on November 1, 1917, more than two years ahead of national Prohibition, the District of Columbia was made dry territory by Congressional fiat. The police put extra patrol cars on the street, fearing a raucous celebration, but most establishments closed well before midnight because they ran out of booze.

The Ignoble Experiment

The fact that DC is our seat of government did not prevent bootlegging from flourishing. “The city is so wet it squishes,” declared Collier’s Magazine in 1929. Booze flowed in from Maryland (nicknamed the “Free State” because authorities declined to enforce Prohibition), it flowed in from Embassy Row, it was manufactured in the homes of residents. In 1932, police raided a home in DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood and confiscated a 500-gallon still that had been jerry-rigged from a fuel storage tank. When they busted it open, the officers discovered several inches of oily sludge still at the bottom. (Is it any wonder that the mixed drink became so popular? It took a lot of ginger ale and fruit juice to kill the taste of homemade rotgut.)

If you were in the mood to get down and dirty, you might frequent dives with names like The Hole in the Wall or The Tub o’ Blood. If you wanted to mingle with the upper crust, you’d pay a visit to Club Mayflower, a swanky nightclub on the fourth floor of the Mayflower Hotel that offered 17 types of cocktail as well as beer for 25 cents a bottle.

The flouting of the law became such an embarrassment that, in 1929, the Hoover Administration staged a crackdown. That year, police made over 19,000 arrests for violations of Prohibition statutes. An estimated one out of every 27 DC resident got collared that year for an alcohol-related offense.

Wet or Dry?

Incidentally, historians oversimplify the matter when they group Americans into wet and dry camps. Washington, DC, according to one pundit, had four distinct persuasions.

The dry-drys were true believers who called for strict enforcement of the Volstead Act to the bitter end. They included Senator Morris Sheppard (D-Texas), who in 1916 had introduced the bill that dried up the District of Columbia. As late as 1930, Sheppard insisted that there was as much chance of the 18th Amendment being rescinded as “for a hummingbird to fly to the Planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

The wet-wets had no use for prohibition and were openly contemptuous of the law. Among their number was Senator John Nance Garner, who would later serve two terms as FDR’s vice president. “Cactus Jack” liked to invite reporters into his office, break out a bottle of booze and say, “Boys, let’s strike a blow for liberty!” Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the House, was another defiant foe of Prohibition. He and his wife, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, made bathtub gin, wine and homebrew in their basement. When protocol demanded that Longworth attend some dry social affair, Alice would slip a flask in her purse so her spouse could take a discreet nip.

Worthy of sympathy were the dry-wets, who longed for the re-legalization of alcohol but had too much respect for the law to flout it. Here we find the old brewer Christian Heurich. “Since the Bible teaches that Christ changed water into wine, I do not have to make excuses for the selection of my trade,” he argued. Nevertheless, when the 18th Amendment took effect, he ceased brewing his Senate brand beer and retired to his Bellevue, MD farm.

Most despised were the wet-drys, who paid lip service to temperance but dipped into their own private stock when no one was looking. Warren Harding, as a senator from Ohio, was cowed into voting for the 18th Amendment. Silently, he kept his fingers crossed that it would die in the state legislatures…and was probably as disappointed as anyone when it passed. He saw no reason to discontinue his drinking even after he was elected president.

The collapse of the economy in 1929, and the drastic need to find jobs for unemployed Americans, hammered the final nail in Prohibition’s coffin. Beer got an eight-month head start over wine and liquor, in Washington as elsewhere. One of Franklin Roosevelt’s first acts after taking office was to sign the Cullen-Harrison bill, which altered the definition of “intoxicating” in the Volstead Act to exempt 3.2 beer. After the law went into effect, at 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933, the White House was deluged with a flood of beer from grateful breweries. Roosevelt, who was a cocktail drinker, reportedly shared his windfall with the White House press, making some valuable friends.

Modern Landmarks

On October 4, 1957, the Russians shocked the world by launching a metal sphere called Sputnik into orbit. Three days later an event of equal historical significance occurred when the Brickskeller opened it doors in a cozy, dark basement setting beneath the Marifex Hotel. Founder Felix Coja was a graduate of France’s Cordon Bleu cooking academy and the Brick’s original menu featured such nonstandard pub grub as escargot and frogs legs (priced for about $2.50). But the restaurant’s chief selling point was its beer list with over 50 international selections. During the 1960s, the Brickskeller was noted as much for its live music as its beer, hosting acts like Mama Cass, Emmylou Harris and Jose Feliciano. Before he became a rock star with the Doors, the teenage Jim Morrison is said to have dropped in occasionally for a brew. Appropriately, current owner Dave Alexander used to be a professional guitarist; he still breaks out his old Stratocaster for gigs with a beer-oriented group called the Rolling Boil Blues Band.

Another DC landmark for the beer tourist is Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits, which dates back to Repeal but emerged from the pack after current owner Buddy Weitzman acquired the business in 1986 and began stocking microbrews to attract a young, affluent adult crowd. The beer selection now fluctuates between 1,000 and 1,200 brands. As I examine a bottle of Nøgne Ø Peculier Yule from a Norwegian microbrewery, the store’s beer buyer Larry Robinson notes that the brewer, on his occasional visits to America, would drop by to fill his suitcase with hard-to-get-brands for the trip home.

If any serious complaint can be lodged against the DC beer scene, it’s that there seems to be a lack of support for locally-made products. Gary Heurich, grandson of beer baron Christian Heurich, began contract-brewing an amber lager called Olde Heurich (later renamed Foggy Bottom Lager after the low-lying neighborhood where the State Department stands). His hope was to eventually build his own brewery. But sluggish sales killed that hope, and after 20 years in the beer business Heurich folded his tent an moved to upstate New York, where he hoped to have more success running a brewpub.

The Washington Nationals’ new ballpark went through its first season without concessionaires offering a single locally-made beer. In 2008, management grudgingly reserved a few taps for Dominion Ale from the Old Dominion Brewing Co. in the Virginia suburbs, near Dulles Airport. But this season, Dominion Ale won’t be so local anymore. The owners have announced that they’re shuttering Old Dominion and moving production to a plant in Dover, DE.

Washington, DC has three brewpubs serving a population of almost 600,000. That’s a better ratio than New York or Los Angeles, but DC is drastically underserved compared to Portland, Oregon or Seattle. No new brewpubs have opened since 2001, when Gordon Biersch set up a branch downtown.

Washington, however, has very different roots than port cities like Boston or New York or manufacturing hubs like Chicago or Detroit. It’s a government town, and given the constantly shifting fortunes of politics, half the population seems to come from somewhere else. It’s hard to establish brand loyalty in such a climate.

John F. Kennedy chided Washington, remarking that it’s a city of “Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” But DC is a very diverse and cosmopolitan city. Your barmate might be a black resident from a family that’s lived here since the Civil War. Or maybe a homesick diplomat scanning the Brickskeller menu for a brew from Slovakia, Peru, Laos, Kenya or about 50 other countries.

Every administration has the opportunity to be a social trendsetter. and Obama is known to drink beer. He downed Pabst and Yuengling on the campaign trail, and visited Bethlehem Brew Works, a Pennsylvania brewpub. When 60 Minutes reporter Steve Kroft suggested that it was a ploy to attract blue-collar votes, Obama countered, “Steve, I had a beer last night. Where do these stories come from?”

Is it too far-fetched to hope we might witness our first White House beer dinner?