14 November 2016

Capital scoops

If you can go the whole taxi ride from Ronald Reagan airport to downtown Washington DC without the theme from House of Cards playing in your head you have better self-control than me. The American capital was the third and final stop on my autumn tour of the USA, and it was much more about the museums and monuments than the beer. The sights are conveniently clustered along the National Mall making it very easy to hop from one to the next. The downside is that the planners haven't allowed for the normal functions of a city -- bars, restaurants and whatnot -- in between. So beering in DC tended to be a separate activity at the end of the day, rather than interspersed as I'd prefer.

Our accommodation for the couple of nights was placed in between the touristy and governmental bit in the south of the city and a good eating and drinking quarter further north. My top find was The Logan Tavern, the sort of good quality, good value neighbourhood restaurant that I'd hoped to find a lot of in America but turned out to be in short supply wherever I went. We ate here twice, affording the opportunity to get properly acquainted with its beer list.

The first beer I ordered wasn't a new tick: Northern Lights IPA by Virginia brewery Starr Hill had showed up at the 2010 Great British Beer Festival. It was much better on keg and closer to the source: still pretty full-on with the brassy bitterness but with an added peachy complexity that improves it massively.

DC Brau is a well-established local outfit, and the first of theirs I tasted was called Citizen, a 7% ABV Belgian-style pale ale. It's hazy orange and has a marmalade aroma, mixing bitter jaffa peel with old-world spices. There's a nicely smooth texture and it incorporates lots of very Belgian fruity esters, though does get a little overly sweet and boozy as it goes along. A smidge more balancing hops would be good, I reckon.

I thought I was in for another sticky orange experience with Duckpin Pale Ale. It certainly smelled heavy and cloying, despite being only 5.5% ABV. But the flavour and texture both proved to be a surprise: it's lightly effervescent with a solid hop bitterness behind the citrus high notes. A really well-executed pale ale that lets you think you're drinking something much stronger.

And a weissbier to finish: Feed the Monkey from Jailbreak Brewing, in Maryland. This presents like a witbier, being a hazy pale yellow, and tastes like one too: a sharp squirt of lemon zest that's very out of keeping for a German-style hefeweizen. The other bit of complexity is a waft of diesel which suggests to me beer that's still a bit green. The lack of weissbier smoothness and roundness is probably the biggest let down, especially since it should be plenty strong enough at 5.6% ABV. As a beer it's just about OK but it's strange for a style spec as straightforward as this to be completely missed by the brewer in charge.

Just around the corner from The Logan is Washington's most famous craft beer bar: Church Key. This is a roomy first-floor attic above the Birch & Barley restaurant, owned by the same people and with which it shares its very substantial beer menu.

L: Grapefruit Sculpin; R: Bell's Brett
Trusty old Bell's of Kalamzaoo was the first brewery on the menu to catch my eye and I ordered their Brett Berliner Weisse. It's an ugly beast, arriving murky, headless and flat. The farmyard funk is right up front and sets the tone for the rest of the beer; an acidic tartness reduced to just a quick flash across the palate before it all tails off into watery silence. I've no problem with interesting flavour additions to Berliner weisse but this one just wasn't interesting enough; and may even have been a waste of a decent base beer. Bring back the fruit syrup.

Herself picked Ballast Point's iconic Grapefruit Sculpin. I wasn't a big fan of the original and this isn't much of an improvement. The real grapefruit bitterness does help offset the massive toffee rather better but everything that's wrong with Sculpin is still wrong with this: too sticky, too harsh, too difficult to drink.

DC Brau's On The Wings Of Armageddon, conversely, does hot 'n' hoppy rather better. This double IPA is 9.2% ABV but despite the monstrous name and monstrous strength has a subtle flowery aroma while the flavour offers a big but gentle lemon zest quality, suggesting the use of Sorachi Ace hops. It's properly heavy and sippable, like a double IPA should be, but like the best ones it's not hot or cloying. Others may find it a bit of a lightweight but it sat perfectly with me.

All these beers at Church Key were really just filling in the time it took me to leaf through the cinderblock of a bottle list. I eventually settled on Stillwater's Cellar Door, a saison with added sage. It's a big 6.6% ABV and a hazy yellow colour. At the core it's a light and breezy lemon-and-straw farmhouse beer with just a mild oily lacing of sage. It offers a pleasant mix of sweet and savoury: on the one hand easy drinking but I couldn't help feeling that each part could do with being turned up a little. Nevertheless it's perfectly enjoyable and neither overly saisonish nor in any way gimmicky.

Also nearby there was a branch of the Whole Foods supermarket chain which became a handy source of supplies for the apartment, including beer. First to pique my interest from the large selection here was Oak-Aged Noble Rot from Dogfish Head: I do like a bit of botrytis now and then. The base beer is a saison though it's a stonking 9% ABV, and I got the dry saison straw in the aroma, alongside the sweet white grapes. The flavours line-up in this fashion too, starting dry and grainy, then with a Shloer-like grape sweetness. Which is fine until the oak kicks in, big and nasty, turning the whole thing into a 1980s Chardonnay experience. As it warms, the alcohol becomes more pronounced and by the end I was tasting Calvados and lamp oil. This beer needs some dialling back: the concept is sound, but there's so much concept going on it interferes with the quality.

I bought a six-pack of Escape to Colorado, an IPA by Epic brewing of Colorado, formerly of Utah, and not to be confused with the New Zealand operation of the same cliché name. It's 6.2% ABV, pale yellow and absolutely roaring with Mosaic. You know when you peel an onion and under the brown papery skin there's a layer of thick leathery green skin? It tastes exactly like that, with maybe a touch of dry and crispy fried onion as well. This is an extremely one-dimensional beer and it's not a good dimension. Bad Mosaic! Naughty Mosaic!

And a Californian to finish: Bear Republic's Apex double IPA. 8.25% ABV and a dense dark orange colour with lots of sediment left behind in the bomber bottle. From the first sip I was wondering how long this had been sitting refrigerated on a shelf in Whole Foods. I felt entitled to at least some hop character but this is all hot toffee and caramel with just a sharp bitter tang on the finish. There's no charm or balance to it, which does not strike me as the usual way things are done at Bear Republic. Them's the $8 breaks, I guess.

That's some good scooping value we got out of two pubs and a supermarket. It's kinda nice not to be doing long pub crawls every evening for a change. On Wednesday I'll take a look at a couple of DC brewpubs.