A new boom for DC

Inside an industrial building in the Ivy City neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Justin Cox and Will Durgin sit at their desks amid stacks of kegs. 

The college friends-turned business partners are on their way to becoming the latest in a string of breweries to emerge inside the District limits.

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“As far as packaging breweries go, a beer that everybody can drink and rally around hasn’t really existed until very recently, and I think it’s coinciding very well with a resurgence in D.C. popularity,” said Durgin, head brewer of  soon-to-open Atlas Brew Works.

Washington went from zero to three production breweries in less than two years, with Atlas and others planning to open this summer. Prior to the launch of the D.C. Brau Brewing Company, there hadn’t been a production brewery in the nation’s capital since the Christian Heurich Brewery closed in 1956. 

Cox, founder and CEO of Atlas, said D.C. is just coming into its own as a “beer town.”

“We have all kinds of wonderful beer bars and a really great beer culture, and it’s just burgeoning,” he said. “It’s just going to get bigger and more robust.”

The craft brewing industry grew 15 percent by volume in 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group. The association is aware of 310 microbreweries opening in 2012 and 18 closures.

The trend reflects a growing national interest in local, craft beer.

And Cox and Durgin see an added benefit form their proximity to national politics.

“People are going to notice us more, legislators or their staffers are probably going to be drinking our beer, and we’re going to be doing events, and we’re going to be on their radar a lot more,” Durgin said. “As long as we’re good ambassadors, it can only positively impact the legislative situation that craft beer is facing.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who co-founded and co-chairs the House Small Brewers Caucus, has certainly taken notice.

The veteran congressman said D.C. was a “beer desert” when he arrived 27 years ago.

“Since then, of course, the whole restaurant scene has changed and there are many, many restaurants that have good microbrews, both from the mid-Atlantic region and around the country. It’s just been a phenomenal evolution and of course now there’s a number of microbreweries and brewpubs in D.C.,” he told The Hill.

DeFazio started the caucus in 2007 with GOP counterpart Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) to advocate for craft breweries, which now includes promoting a more graduated tax and educating fellow lawmakers.

“It’s really the only, truly bipartisan thing left on the Hill,” he added.

Last fall, the Obama administration got in on the brewing bandwagon, releasing its recipes for the White House Honey Ale and White House Honey Porter.

Seeing an opportunity, DeFazio attempted to supply the White House garden with rootstock to grow its own hops.

“Since they were making beer, we thought it would be good if they had some good hops,” DeFazio said. “I got some really good rootstock from [founder and CEO] Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada, some special rootstock, so they could grow their own hops, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let the roots in.”

About six miles north of the White House, 3 Stars Brewing Company became the third production brewery to open in the district when its products hit the market in August 2012.

In addition to the brewery, 3 Stars also houses a homebrew shop, which drew customers interested in reproducing the White House beer.

“D.C. is an interesting city, because you’ve got the national side of it, which is really Washington, then you’ve got the District side of it, which is really the people,” said Mike McGarvey, 3 Stars’ CEO and head brewer. “Most of these restaurants [we serve] are entrepreneurs who are also trying to build their businesses in the District, so they appreciate what you go through, they appreciate that you’ve got a local product.”

Local and national commingled when Chocolate City Beer flowed from kegs at the pre- and post-parties for the New Orleans-themed Radio and Television Congressional Correspondents’ Association dinner, in the second collaboration with the microbrewery.

“[Last year] was very fun. I felt like I was in D.C. in the media world, rather than just the neighborhood and restaurant scene,” said Jason Irizarry, co-founder of Chocolate City Beer.

Although this year’s event honored the Big Easy, dinner chairman John Wallace of Fox News said incorporating local beer was a chance to pay respect to his day-to-day locale.

“We’re all D.C.-based journalists who are credentialed here and we’re trying to give something back to the city of New Orleans,” Wallace said. “But at the same time we have a responsibility to include our own city.”

Despite its congressional exposure, Chocolate City — which opened in August 2011, just months after DC Brau — gets its inspiration from the wards that exist away from the Capitol.

“From the outside point of view, a lot of people think D.C. is only the monuments and the government, nothing rich about the history of the city itself ... there’s a lot of colorful characters and those have nothing to do with the federal government,” Irizarry said. “Hence our name and the styles of beer we make.”

DC Brau co-founders Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock wanted Washington to have a beer of its own. They were introduced by a mutual friend at a house party and began hatching ideas for a brewery.

“It was a project we both really believed in, and we saw that there was a need for it,” Skall said. “And we believed people from D.C. should have this. There’s no reason that Washington, D.C., should not have a local brewery producing world class, fresh, local beer.”

The pair, who ran in the same circles since the mid-’90s, said in the past two years the business has grown “exponentially” and “at a rapid pace.” To meet demand, DC Brau has gone through three major expansions since it began selling beer in April 2011.  

“I think it has become an unofficial sense of pride and showing of pride for a lot of people, when they’re drinking us, or 3 Stars, or Chocolate City, or [Alexandria, Va., brewery] Port City ... just representing a pride in where they’re at or where they’re from or where they’re going to be,” Skall said.