DC has long been regarded as a great beer city—a kind-hearted and accurate distinction due mostly to the city’s appetite for high-quality beer and a small collection of beer-centric bars and restaurants that have fueled that insatiable desire. But not so much for its own beer.
That’s changing. While the nation’s capital doesn’t boast as many breweries as other cities like Bend, Portland, or Boulder (cities practically drowning in options), the craft scene in DC has slowly evolved since the first brewery opened in 2009.
And that’s only the beginning.
This profile examines the beer scene happening within the diamond-shaped city limits itself, and doesn’t include the craft brewers working close to the city, including the metro DC regions of Maryland and Virginia, who widen the landscape considerably. But while visiting DC, you can sample a good handful of those regional brewers, including Sterling, Virginia’s Lost Rhino and Brewer’s Art and Stillwater, both out of Baltimore—among many others.
Photo via Atlas Brew Works/Facebook
Here we examine the handful of brewers who distribute (or are about to distribute) their beer throughout the city (and the larger metro area). This round-up doesn’t include the handful of DC breweries that produce and sell their beer in their brewpubs, like Cap City, Gordan Biersch, and Right Proper.
Atlas Brew Works
The fourth brewery to open in DC, Altas has settled itself nicely into what may be the perfect niche: crafting a small cache of unfiltered beers like their seasonal La Saison des Fetes, a farmhouse ale with a boisterous malt backbone that was popular city-wide during the long polar vortex winter. They also make a killer rye IPA and the 500 South Cap Lager, brewed exclusively for the DC baseball stadium.
One of the newest breweries in the city, Bluejacket has also quickly become one of the best. Dubbed “a brewery without borders,” Beer Director (and famed DC beer expert) Greg Engert and Brewmaster Mega Parisi have embraced pretty much every style imaginable, from sours to smoke to stouts. Currently you can only try these beers at their SE location near the Nationals Stadium, where 20 beers and five casks are available, along with food from their beer-centric home restaurant the Arsenal. You’ll find free tours on Saturdays, along with two paid tours, including a $99 food experience. Plans to distribute their beer in kegs and 750ml bottles are in the works.
The brewery takes its name from one of DC’s many nicknames—as George Clinton said back in his Parliament days, the nation’s capital is the real chocolate city. And their raised-fist logo and tap handle reinforce this black power association. They offer three beers at their NE brewery, like the 1814 British-style bitter (the name signifying the year the British burned DC to the ground), and have a new IPA slated for release this spring.
The first on the scene and still one of the best, DC Brau’s cans and draft beer are refreshingly ubiquitous across the city in bars, restaurants, and stores. The styles cover the gamut, including their staple pales, IPAs, and Belgian ales as well as a host of more inventive seasonal release and collaboration efforts. They also recently paired up with DC United, the city’s MLS team, to create the Tradition, an ale specifically crafted for the team and its fans.
Named after the three stars that appear above the two bars in the DC flag, this brewery opened in 2012 and has been releasing reliable ales ever since. Most of their beers lean on the strong side—their Pandemic Porter has a 9.6% ABV—but they also produce some of the city’s more experimental seasonals like saisons made with lime and basil, cranberry, or citra and lemon peel.
NOTE: Most breweries, save Bluejacket, offer free tours and growler fills on Saturday afternoons. Check the brewery’s website for additional, up-to-date information.
Photo via Bardo/Facebook
Once a brewery on the Virginia side of the Potomac before dropping off the scene, this recently-launched outpost in the northeastern quadrant of the city offers 500 seats in a massive group of picnic tables in an open-air environment, along with beer and cornhole, and is open “whenever the weather is good.” They’re still getting their brew operation up and running, but offer a good selection of local beers on tap, as well as a few “vintage” kegs from their older brewing days.
The great white whale of the DC beer scene, this trendy beer bar became a near-instant success the day it opened—and became instantly crowded, in large part thanks to its 555-strong (!!) beer menu. Thankfully the selection is broken down into flavor groups (think Crisp, Malt, Tart & Funky…) rather than by country, a template that other restaurants in the city now emulate. As you’d expect, the staff are well-versed in the voluminous menu, and can always point you in a new, interesting direction. Just expect to vie for their attention because the place is almost always packed.
Located in the sorta-hip, decidedly more rugged neighborhood known as the Atlas District around H Street, NE, this spot makes some of the city’s best muscles, hands down. And, true to a restaurant that describes itself as a “gastropub with a healthy Belgian fetish” the beer list is robust and ever-rotating, including a good library of bottles and ever-rotating drafts from the U.S. and abroad.
Rightly known among whisky and bourbon enthusiasts, this impressive restaurant and saloon boasts the largest collection of brown spirits in North America and have to use library ladders to access the bottles that climb the walls of the place. But they also have a great beer selection, regularly host beer events like the Game of Thrones Ommegang beer release party, and often partner with distilleries to create special, barrel-aged beers not found anywhere else.
While the other spots on this list reside in more rambunctious neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and the 14th Street Corridor, Meridian Pint sits in a slightly mellower locale. Their focus is on U.S. craft beer, with a strong emphasis on local and regional breweries. Special events—outdoor cask parties, tap take-overs—are refreshingly regular. And, full caveat, weekend nights can be crowded.
Smoke and Barrel
Sister to Meridian Pint, Smoke and Barrel concentrates on the three B’s of the bar scene: beer, bourbon, and BBQ. The beer offering includes a carefully selected list of 24 drafts, a cask, craft cans, and harder-to-find bottles. And naturally the house-smoked meats and BBQ and hot sauces will help keep you level as you delve into the more potent beers on offer.