For this edition of “Have a Beer With” I interviewed Mr. Dave Warwick. He is the new head brewer at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington. He’s replaced Chris Rafferty who left the brewpub in the Ballston mall to join the Rock Bottom Brewery in Chicago. To Dave, Arlington has been a homecoming of sorts as he’s originally from the Eastern Shore (though he spent a good deal of time in Colorado, receiving his training). And while Arlington is close to Maryland, the beer culture of Washington, DC couldn’t be further away from that of Colorado. We discussed the purpose of Craft Beer Week and what Rock Bottom Brewery has to offer local craft beer hunters.
Mike S: The obligatory opener, what beer are you drinking?
Dave: This is our Pale Ale on cask. The craft beer we started on Monday was our Chocolate Poblano Brown. The Chocolate Poblano Brown starts with our regular brown ale. We chopped the peppers fresh from the kitchen and put them in the hop sack (everything but the stems). From the primary fermenter we put the brown ale in the cask and for secondary fermentation as a primer we used 500 ml of chocolate syrup. We let that secondary fermentation have at it for 4-5 days. Then put it in the chill room for a few days and then it was ready to serve.
Mike S: How does the Capital City compare to the Mile High City or the Iron City in terms of being a “beer city?”
Dave: It’s a whole ‘nother world. Knowing two different cities [Denver and Pittsburgh], DC strikes me as a wine or a cocktail city. Coming from Denver, one of the Mecca’s of craft beer, there’s been a bit of culture shock. They drink craft beer in Denver like they drink pop here. Pittsburg is a beer town in that it’s a blue collar beer town, but it’s not necessarily craft beer. Iron City, Budweiser, MillerCoors or Yuengling; Yuengling has the price parity but it’s obviously a bit better than Miller and Coors. Craft beer is growing in Pittsburg. But so far in my humble month here, I don’t feel like its growing as fast [in DC] as it is on the rest of the East Coast. Capital City, Sweetwater and the Chophouse, these brewers do a great job, but compared to other cities we’re looking forward to greater change.
Mike S: Something we’ve noticed at dcbeer is that they get Craft Beer Week in Boulder. All over Colorado for that matter. So for us in the DC area, there’s more of an uphill climb when it comes to advocating for craft beer.
Dave: There’s a culture in this city that has more of a focus on cocktails and wine but with Craft Beer Week we’re hoping to change that. The folks here at the bar sitting down with a cask ale, they get craft beer. So Craft Beer Week is not so much for them. But this week is for raising awareness to the Miller Lite and Coors Light drinkers and also the wine drinkers and the cocktails drinkers just to get craft beer in their hands. Each day we feature a different beer and we really push the servers to get samples out to everybody, especially the wine drinkers. This is the first year that Rock Bottom has participated in Craft Beer Week, so we’re gauging the success. The success isn’t going to be completely tangible. Unless someone comes up to me and says “Hey I’ve been drinking cranberry and vodka for years and I had your hefeweizen and it is delicious.” That’s the ideal situation but how often is that going to happen?
Mike S: Tom Cizauskas has said of Rock Bottom in Arlington that the pub is “craft beer goes mainstream.” I think Tom referenced Rock Bottom being “mainstream” in a positive light i.e. this is a brewpub located in a mall and what’s more American than the mall? Would you consider yourself mainstream?
Dave: Is it mainstream to Miller? Absolutely not. Is it mainstream compared to some other competing brewpubs without a big draw? Sure. I mean there are a lot of people who come in here for the $1.50 beers and could care less about all the flavor and time that goes into it and they’ll chug it like they would a Miller Lite. Some folks just don’t care about the attention that goes into making our ale. I think eleven years ago when they opened, what they had to accomplish and what they had to overcome was: who goes out to a bar in a mall? The majority of people in the mall are 18 year-olds shopping for clothes or families shopping together. So they needed to get people in here to drink and that big goal was accomplished with dollar pint night. I go through almost half of my weekly-volume on Wednesday nights. I go through about 30 barrels per week and we go through about 12-13 barrels on Wednesday night. The price has gone up over the years, to $1.50, but I think in terms of getting people in here the $1.50 pint night is it and it has even turned some on to craft beer. Rock Bottom Arlington is actually the 3rd highest beer-consuming location with over 40 Rock Bottoms in the country, third only to downtown Denver and Chicago.
Mike S: This seems to be a debate amongst those who celebrate American Craft Beer Week. What is our objective? Is it to get craft beer to the masses? Or is it to get the masses to appreciate craft beer? Two different goals.
Dave: That’s a good question. I think here we accomplish both goals; for the quantity beer-drinker and the quality beer-drinker. For the quantity we have Wednesday nights, the $1.50 pints. For the quality beer drinker we have the Chocolate Poblano Brown, the Braggot, the Oak-aged Scotch Ale. I’m pleased to say we have both quantity AND quality.
Mike S: Tell me about the Braggot.
Dave: We are offering a Braggot on Sunday. That is Grant, my assistant’s concoction, which has been aging for a while. It’s our brown ale which then had honey added. It turned out a bit drier than expected, so pomegranate syrup was added to give it some sweetness and it turned out really well. The beer was aged in oak barrels so it has some Bourbon and oak flavors to it.
Mike S: What can craft beer drinkers expect from Rock Bottom in the future?
Dave: We have five oak barrels with beer aging in them. There’s Russian Imperial Stout, Scotch Ale and a Belgian Triple. But I’m very excited for the Braggot. As my mentor put it to me: It’s easy to make beer. It’s hard to make good beer. And it’s very hard to make great beer.