Washington city guide

Across the Potomac, Anthony Gladman lives the highlife

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What is it about the USA that means everything there has to be… more? My first night in Washington DC is lit by dramatic lightning, washed by intense rain, and watered by amazing beer. I’m exhausted from my journey but excited to be there. As first nights in a new city go, this one will be pretty hard to beat.

After a long day of travel, the first drink to wet my lips is a margarita in a Mexican restaurant called Oyamel. It goes well with ceviche and tacos, but it’s mainly just fuel to power me through the night and show jetlag who’s boss. I’ve met up with friends and we share Negra Modelos and Victoria Vienna Lagers to further quench our thirst.

PHOTO: Oyamel

The real excitement comes later. After a quick cab ride and some confusion about where the entrance is, we find ourselves emerging from a nondescript staircase into the long, narrow first-floor paradise that is ChurchKey, the city’s finest beer bar. Its gleaming copper bar is the focal point of the room, behind which are 50 beers on tap. The bottle list is ten times as long, a treasure trove that would have any beer nerd giggling with girlish glee. 

PHOTO: ChurchKey

It’s table service and the staff are welcoming and knowledgeable about their beer. We each double park small pours in order to get through more of the tap list, which is helpfully split into sections by flavour profile. We drink fresh, vibrant hazies, lagers both golden crisp and brooding black, sours with and without pastry. The Allagash White tastes particularly good so I have two of those. This may be the best beer bar I’ve ever seen, and it pains me to think I won’t be back soon.

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The next day, after a poor night’s sleep and a morning traipsing around the drizzly, humid National Mall (where all the enormous monuments are) I hit up DC Brau, the city’s largest brewery. It’s based in the north east of the city just by the border with Maryland, and the best way to get there is probably by Uber. For all its size (last year they made about twice as much beer as Cloudwater) its taproom retains a slightly knocked-together, homespun feel and offers a relaxed welcome. There are boardgames, food trucks (or the popular Roaming Rooster fried chicken restaurant just upstairs), regular events, and of course some great beer. Their Vienna lager is delicious and they have plenty of banging NEIPAs — mine was called Turbo Boost Multiball.

PHOTO: DC Brau

Later that day I head to the Navy Yard neighbourhood in the south of the city, near where the Anacostia River meets the Potomac. Central DC can be weirdly empty for such a large city, you don’t see many people out in the streets, but Navy Yard feels more popular and bustling. Solace Brewing has a taproom there that’s right on the water by the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, and it turns out it’s a great place to while away some time.

In pleasant weather they open the taproom’s enormous windows so the whole place feels open to the air. It’s on a corner and birds fly through from one side to the other. The terrace outside is right by the waterfront, and you can watch people walk their dogs while you enjoy the beer and food. The beer’s mostly light — IPAs, pilsners, witbiers — with just one sour and one dark beer on the day I visit, but it’s also very tasty. The taproom is popular with a younger crowd who gather after work. As venues for a quick one after work go it certainly beats a Spoons.

PHOTO: Solace Brewing

A short walk away you’ll find a couple of beer gardens. I tried one, Dacha, that had decent ratings online. It’s a pretty enough place to look at but that’s about all it has going for it. The beer was mostly Weihenstephan and it felt obscene to cross the Atlantic just to drink German beer. Their local beers on tap were sadly awful (dirty lines) but they had a decent selection of canned beer; Aslin is one name to look out for here and across DC. Still, overall, Dacha: not recommended. It feels like a place for the just-turned-21 crowd to experiment with drunkenness.

Nor is the nearby Tap 99 self-service taproom worth your time. It stocks a lot of beers and it’s an intriguing concept, but the sad reality was it felt like a soulless sub-MacDonald’s franchise and the glasses reeked so much of detergent I could neither smell nor taste the beer.

PHOTO: Bluejacket

You’re far better off going to Bluejacket, a nearby brewpub that describes its offering as “beer and eats in industrial digs.” It’s a cool spot with shaded terraces and a high ceiling inside that keeps it feeling nice and airy. I ended up there the following night, after attending the Savor food and beer pairing festival. (That’s another story.) The menu had a lot of classic-style brews, including a valiant attempt at an English bitter. Too hoppy of course — American brewers can’t help themselves — but tasty nonetheless. The service here, as in many other places, was excellent. You could order and pay by phone using a QR code and have the beers at your table just moments later.

AN EXISTENTIAL HANGOVER

After four days in Washington I felt like someone had pinch-zoomed my head and left everything too large. I needed to spend time somewhere that wasn’t criss-crossed by eight lanes of traffic. I headed into Georgetown, an older part of the city, to feel more at home. I thought about going to The Sovereign (25 taps, 350+ bottles), which has a great reputation as one of the top beer places in DC. Its Belgian theme diminishes its appeal for European travellers, however. Instead I ended up at one of the city’s four branches of Pizza Paradiso to try out something more American. It does a decent pizza and great beer. I ordered a flight that included a local Grisette, Other Half Blue Crab, Anderson Valley Boont Amber and North Coast Old Rasputin. It left me feeling very pleased with myself.

PHOTO: Pizza Paradiso

I also made it out to Port City Brewing Co, just across the water in Alexandria, VA. The tap room left me a bit cold but the beer was fantastic, so rather than visiting I recommend you look for some elsewhere and try it in nicer surroundings. The Monumental IPA in particular was one I could have enjoyed all day long.

PHOTO: Port City Brewing Co

During my time in the USA I found a beer scene bursting with energy — something the UK scene has lost a bit of recently, though I don’t doubt we can recapture it. The beer quality was generally very high, but again the UK has caught up in this regard. Where the US beer scene really excels is the depth to which craft beer has sunk into the fabric of American life even in small towns. Until you can easily get a tasty, locally brewed craft beer in places like Bracknell, Barry or Bathgate we can’t truly claim to have caught up with the USA. I’d love for us to make it one day.

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