A look back at the beginning of D.C.’s beer boom

WASHINGTON — It may be hard to believe, but just a short time ago, there were no breweries in D.C. There hadn’t been one since 1956, when Christian Heurich Brewing Company closed its doors.

But the District’s 50-plus-year dry spell ended four years ago, when friends Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock opened DC Brau. And the business ignited Washington’s brewing boom as others soon followed.

“About six or seven years ago, there was a shift from mass-marketed, mass-produced things to more local, craft, handmade stuff,” says Hancock, president, co-founder and head brewer at DC Brau. “And I think when that movement took off, that created a nice in-road and people started asking more aggressively, ‘Hey, where’s the local beer from D.C. proper?’”

Prior to DC Brau’s debut, Washingtonians had to get their local beer fix at breweries outside the city, such as Alexandria’s Port City, Maryland’s Flying Dog and Delaware’s Dogfish Head. Skall, DC Brau’s CEO and co-founder, says he doesn’t know why no one else attempted to open a brewery in the District before DC Brau.

Since opening in 2011, DC Brau has brewed close to 100 beers and has won numerous awards. (Courtesy DC Brau Facebook)

“When we first started this business, we were certain that there was some reason why there hadn’t been a brewery. The first thing we did was hit Google, hit the books, try and find some sort of thing that would block you from getting a license, anything like that,” he says.

But they couldn’t find anything. Skall and Hancock were pleasantly surprised to find a brewery license already on the books. A few laws had to be updated to meet modern brewery practices, however. For example, Skall and Hancock wanted a tasting room – something that was only legal for liquor and grocery stores.

“We saw it as being pretty integral to our business, to be able to invite people into our brewery so they could taste our product,” Skall says.

When Skall and Hancock opened DC Brau in 2011, they started with four flagship beers, including an American pale ale, an IPA, a Belgian pale and a porter. Since then, they have brewed close to 100, Skall estimates, and have collected a number of awards, including a silver medal for The Citizen at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival and a gold medal at the 2014 Australian International Beer Awards for the Penn Quarter Porter.

“I am super proud of those awards, but for me, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t mention that we’ve won the City Paper ‘Best of D.C.’ for the past three years in a row,” Skall says.

“That means a huge deal to me because the name of our beer is DC Brau, and when we started this company, we set out to make a company that was community branded and reflected community in the decisions we make, both corporately and in a charitable basis too. So to be recognized by the city that way for three years in a row is definitely a massive deal.”

DC Brau is steeped in its community, but its reach extends well beyond the city’s limits. The brewery also distributes its products in Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and starting next week, will do a “burst distribution” in Massachusetts.

Last year, DC Brau even took its beer to Major League Soccer when it collaborated with D.C. United on a beer for the fans called The Tradition. The beer required some extra thought, Hancock says, since he knew it would most likely be consumed over an extended period of time, while fans tailgated before a big match.

“As far as the beers that we produce and others produce, [customers] really like their hoppy beers these days,” Hancock says. “So for me, it was fun to reverse-engineer essentially a beer for tailgating.”

DC Brau won’t be brewing The Tradition this year, though. Hancock says the team signed with a larger sponsor, but DC Brau still plans to keep a lighter beer in the lineup. The brewery will introduce its new German pilsner in April.

“So we’re going to continue to have that not-so-hoppy, nice kind of lighter offering – good kind of summer beer, good kind of tailgate beer,” Hancock says.

The brewery continues to collaborate with others, though. Its most recent was with Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery for an IPA called Smells Like Freedom. And the partnership resulted in more than just beer — Oskar Blues gifted DC Brau its first crowler, a machine that puts what’s on tap at the brewery into a 32-ounce can.

“It brings a lot of excitement to the brewery, to be honest. We are the very first brewery in Washington, D.C. to have a crowler machine,” Skall says. “But it’s also sort of the evolution of a movement that we’re apart of – the craft can movement – and we’re very proud to be part of that movement.”

DC Brau has likewise partnered with a number of D.C. breweries in recent years, including Bluejacket and Right Proper. The city’s growing number of breweries provides the opportunity for some friendly competition.

“Everybody sort of wants to think that we’re sort of bloodthirsty, cutthroat competitors, and that’s really just not the case,” Skall says. “Where you see loyalty with a craft beer drinker is to the craft beer market as a whole, instead of to one specific brand, so it sort of benefits everybody and we all find ourselves almost mutually in business together.”

The last four years have been busy for Skall and Hancock, and they have no plans to slow down in the next four. The business partners are currently building offices across the parking lot from the brewery, which will include a lab to test some of the beers.

“We know our practices are good, but now we’re going to be able to look at it way more in-depth,” Hancock says.

They are also looking for do some equipment upgrades and maybe get into a new market or two.

“We’re just trying to do what we’ve been doing, which is grow rapidly and continue to offer products that get us excited and that the market responds to.”

Want to help DC Brau celebrate its fourth birthday? The brewery is throwing a party, called Braustomp II, on Saturday April 4 from 4 to 8 p.m. The brewery’s TapWagon will be serving beers in the parking lot and Sloppy Mama’s BBQ and DC Slices will be on-hand for food. Plus, there will be live music from Pietasters and Frum the Hills. Tickets are $15 and are available online.

*While some restaurants/breweries were making beer in D.C. prior to 2011, there were no production breweries canning/kegging/bottling their beer for distribution/offsite sale.


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