Like DC Beer? Thank the Great Recession
Author Garrett Peck's new book 'Capital Beer' explores Washington's history of brewing.
By Nikki Schwab
Once upon a time, Washington was a cocktail town and then wine, too, by the glass. But these days when you go out in the District there’s beer, a lot of it brewed locally, practically everywhere.
Garrett Peck, author of the new book “Capital Beer,” has a theory for why that is. “Right before the recession, D.C. has always been this big wine town and cocktail town, it’s still very much a cocktail town,” Peck explained. Besides politicians, the city is packed with lawyers and lobbyists and, in turn, Washington’s restaurants -- especially those located on K Street, D.C.’s corridor of lobbying shops-- benefited from the expense account culture.
"Capital Beer" author Garrett Peck holds a mug of beer.
“That kind of went into the toilet during the great recession,” Peck said, referring to the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped away a lot of jobs and perks.
“People then really shifted over toward beer because it’s like, wow, you can get a really good craft beer for a lot less than the price of wine by the glass,” Peck said.
Peck pointed out that the opening of Churchkey, which happened in fall 2009, a year after the crash, was a sign that businesses were trying to satisfy this new interest. “This was one of the real seminal moments, in my mind, that showed me how much D.C. wanted good beer, but the market wasn’t meeting that demand,” Peck explained. “When Churchkey opened up, you went there and the line was literally down the street, the full block, there was nothing like it in the city.”
Churchkey’s opening also kicked off a rush of restaurants opening up on Washington’s 14th Street N.W. -- frequented by politicos considered hip like David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and Kal Penn -- and many of these new places have beer-centric menus.
Springing out of this craft beer intrigue, in other parts of town, were breweries. First, Port City opened its doors across the river in Alexandria, Va., in February of 2011. “The timing couldn’t have been worse trying to open during the recession, but the recovery programs worked in our favor,” founder Bill Butcher explained to Peck in the book. Butcher got a small business loan via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to start making his beers.
Cover of "Capital Beer," a book on Washington, D.C.'s beer history.
Port City was followed by D.C. Brau, which opened on April 15, 2011. This was the first brewery operating within the District lines since the 1956 closure of Christian Heurich’s brewery -- an imposing brick structure located along the Potomac, where the Kennedy Center resides today. (Parts of that brewery literally had to be blown up, as its ice house was so well constructed it wouldn’t come down.)
Heurich’s brewery had been the only one to survive prohibition. (He had made ice, in that well constructed ice house, instead.) While Members of Congress continued to get liquor deliveries during this era from bootlegger George Cassiday, “the man in the green hat,” as he was known, beer supplies had basically dried up.
“Bootleggers were bringing in distilled spirits because it’s a concentrated alcohol and more profitable,” Peck said, further explaining why D.C. wasn’t, until recently again, a beer town.
With the opening of D.C. Brau -- in the low brow location of a strip mall near the Maryland border -- other breweries followed suit, including Chocolate City Beer and 3 Stars Brewing in 2011 and, more recently Atlas Brew Work and Hellbender. “I can’t say that I have a favorite brewery because I really do appreciate all of them,” Peck told Whispers. “Everyone of them is worth visiting.”
Now, the D.C. craft beer trend -- whether it's drinking or brewing -- is in full swing. Lawmakers even grab a brew to look cool -- Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sat down and took part in the Buzzfeed’s Brews series. Journalist Matt Laslo recently created an online show, which pairs politics with craft brewing, called “Bills and Brews.”
But with all this hype, Peck is detecting a negative trend, too. Craft beer, once a cheaper option for those sans corporate American Express cards, has gotten expensive too. “They charge $8 for a beer -- $9 -- come on guys,” he said of many of D.C.’s restaurants. “I will say, as a city, we are really overpriced for beer.”