16 November 2016

The last brewpubs

As I mentioned on Monday, Washington DC isn't exactly a full-spectrum, multi-faceted beer destination, but it does have beer. I really wasn't expecting much from its brewpubs: the two I visited both seemed to be the sort of flashy urban destinations which are not set up with the beer connoisseur in mind and, one suspects, have brewing kits partly as a novelty and partly as a cheap source of product. But I'm delighted to say I completely misjudged them both.

District Chophouse we came upon after an epic day's trudge around the National Mall, finishing up behind the Capitol Building and heading back to the centre. It's quite a grand affair, with clubby dark wood fittings trimmed with barbershop red and white. The brewkit is tucked neatly away on a gantry above what looks like a cocktail bar more than a beer servery. It's very much a restaurant primarily, but there's a high-seated bar enclosure and, happily, it was Happy Hour.

Lager was needed and lager was ordered: the house pils called Cheque Please. "Ubber hopped" said the menu, whatebber that means. There was a welcoming pillow of foam in the glass, and a bang-on fresh grass aroma. The flavour, however, is a bit of a curate's egg: starting off great with more spicy grass and a balancing sweetness that begins calling Pilsner Urquell to mind, before it banishes such high notions with an acrid plasticky stickiness that's best just quaffed past as quickly as possible. It did the job as a thirst-quencher, even at a substantial 5.4% ABV, but it's not a good pils.

Meanwhile, District Chophouse IPA is also a big guy at 6.8% ABV. It's pale copper and gives out a fun fruit candy aroma. I was expecting sweet 'n' mediocre but this has a cheeky kick of dank resins in the flavour, mixing it with gentle citrus and a spicy seasoning. Basically it touches on all the good points of IPA without going all-out for any of them, and it makes for very pleasant drinking. It's kinda what a house IPA should be.

The District Chophouse Amber Ale is 5.4% ABV and in the "North Western style". No, me neither. I ordered it feeling emboldened by the IPA and what arrived was clear but dark brown, with an oily hop-perfume nose. The flavour is bang-on how I like my American amber ales: a brightly sweet and nutty marzipan combination, with just enough of a bitter edge -- like aspirin, in this case -- to keep the malt from overwhelming it. The light texture helps too. I didn't meet very many amber ales that suited me on the trip so I was very glad to make the acquaintance of this one.

Getting the main points of the style right didn't work so well when it came to District Chophouse Oatmeal Stout. These, in general, have a tendency to taste phenolic to me, with marker pen and putty off flavours spoiling beers that other people seem able to enjoy. And so it was here. Though only 6.6% ABV it tasted far stronger, hot like an immature imperial stout. The texture was appropriately smooth, and the finish nicely quick, but it's definitely not brewed to my taste. Moving on to...

District Chophouse Nut Brown Ale, 5.5% ABV, a chestnut red colour and with a rich milk chocolate flavour which incorporates some drier dark grain husks. There's a lovely comforting, warming creamy texture which came through well despite the very cold temperature at which it was served. A real classic brown ale, as shouldn't be surprising by this point, and strongly reminscent of the excellent one that Messrs Maguire used to brew when Melissa Camire was at the helm.

The DC visit, and indeed the whole holiday, wrapped up at Capitol City Brewing where we stopped for an early lunch between the final museum and the airport taxi. This is an enormous space, with a bar in the round and dining on various tiered levels up from it. It was too packed to drink in when we first visited, and closed for a private party the second time, but at noon on a Tuesday we had it almost to ourselves. Perfect.

Throwing caution to the wind for this last lap I had the rauchbier, Smoketoberfest. It's the beautiful clear gold colour of a classic Märzen and has the same full body and bready background flavour, though the ABV is rather higher than expected at 6.6%. The hops are definitely German too, with that green weedpatch flavour that can be very pleasant in small enough doses. Here it gets counterbalanced by just a whiff of fresh smokiness in the centre, leading to a fun bacon-like finish. They've managed to resist the urge to go all-out with the smoke here and have produced a beer that's a classic lager first and everything else as a bonus. I liked it a lot.

The murky orange yoke next to it is James' Peachy IPA. This smells like one of those fruit-flavour IPA abominations but mercifully doesn't taste like one. It has been quite substantially bittered and the advertised hop is Amarillo, giving it a lovely clean citrus bite. Invigorating stuff, and nicely approachable too at just 5.6% ABV.

I continued to dare myself to try beers I thought would be terrible, and my last beer in America was a pumpkin porter, aptly named The Cursed Gourd. There's butternut squash in it too, for extra Halloween horror. But, like the smoked lager, this places its classic style ahead of novelty and, though a surprising pale ruby colour, has bags of burnt roasted grain and chewy dark treacle, as you might expect to find in any porter of 6.6% ABV. And yes there's cinnamon and ginger, lots of them, but they don't spoil the base beer, instead succeeding in making it more fun. Take that, pumpkin beer haterz.

And a hop bomb to go out on: Pale Rider, Capitol's 6.3% ABV pale ale. Columbus and Centennial are doing the work here, giving it a heady aroma of orange oil and pith. Plenty of pith in the flavour as well: a classic American grapefruit bitterness right up front, though it does tail off to a little bit of a watery finish, perhaps a consequence of making it all hop and little malt. I still liked it, though: a good example of how to do one-dimensional hop-forward beers well.

And that's your lot from the USA. I hope the last dozen posts have been some way interesting or useful. Normal service will resume at my beer fridge on Friday. Bring snacks.