I’ll be the first to say this – Jon Arroyo, Chief Mixologist and Beverage Director at Founding Farmers and Farmers Fishers Bakers, can mix one hell of a drink. After imbibing perhaps one too many of his creations alongside some top-quality craft suds, I had a certain thought knocking around in my alcohol-addled brain box:
Are we entering an era in which a quality cocktail program requires a concurrent quality beer program (and vice versa)?
This question is a bit more complex than it seems at first glance. Before I get to why, let me pay the bartender his due and let you know what prompted my thinking.
Farmers Fishers Bakers is an alcohol purveying conglomerate – not in a creepy Wal-Mart kind of way, but in an “if you like to drink, I’ll be damned if you can’t find something you like here” kind of way. On the menu, you’ll find lists of different classic cocktail variations, with a particular focus on Tiki cocktails. Consider yourself warned – these are some high-octane drinks that may result in wonderfully poor decisions and hazy memories (and stumbling walks to the bus stop, ahem). From Zombies to Hurricanes and everywhere in between, the drinks at FFB represent a veritable cornucopia of historical cocktail knowledge shaken, mixed, stirred, and even blended (step off, snobs) with carefully curated/house-made ingredients (think house made cider and Falernum). The result is always engaging and, in the vast majority of cases, wonderfully balanced and incredibly delicious.
But what about the beer? Restaurants and bars that warrant descriptions like the one I wrote above don’t typically receive fanfare and praise for their beer programs as well. Not to say that watering holes like this don’t exist (The Passenger and Jack Rose come to the forefront of my mind, along with a few others in the District); however, there is in my experience a general lack of equivalency at the majority of quality cocktail or beer establishments. Judging by the spread at FFB, we may be experiencing a paradigm shift from the world of “or” to the world of “and.”
So, what about that beer?
In addition to standard pint pours, FFB offers growlers (for use at your table only, not for take home) and flights of the great beers on their tap list, as well as some limited bottled choices. Options for beer (such as flights that include a shot of tequila or whiskey) are prominently displayed on the drink menu in a manner that exudes importance and cries for attention.
The range of beers is impressive as well, exhibiting a balance between classic styles as well as seasonal specialties from some great local and far-flung breweries. On top of that, FFB has a proprietary cask from Flying Dog that has been emptying out as fast as they can fill it. The overall effect of the beer list, when viewed alongside the myriad of cocktails, is a bit overwhelming at first; however, you won’t find me complaining. What is equally overwhelming – and forgive my brief foray into draft system nerdery – is that they run lines across the entire length of the restaurant from their kegs to their taps. It’s really astounding and was most definitely not cheap.
When held up against the majority of restaurants, the beer program at FFB certainly surpasses respectable. The beers tasted fresh from the lines, the pours were right-sized, and the glasses were beer clean. They did everything the beer nerd in me wanted them to do, and then served me a whole mess of craft cocktails to boot. That’s not something you see frequently, but is it something you will see more often as DC’s drink scene at large matures? I’m not sure.
It’s important to note that I’m talking about two separate concepts here: (1) the presence of robust craft beer and cocktail programs existing in concert and (2) the presence of a smaller craft beer program at a cocktail-focused bar, and vice versa. For example, The Tabard Inn has a solid bottle list, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that the focus isn’t on their cocktails (which, I might add, are terrific). On the opposite end, ChurchKey makes cocktails that my non-beer drinking fiancée tells me are delicious, but I don’t think there’s a person around who would call it a cocktail bar. What I’m really getting at here centers on expectation. This isn’t a transition of the specialty bar, but a transformation of the concept of the (high-quality) bar as a whole. When I walk into a bar that I know makes high quality cocktails, I expect that I should be able to select from a small, but decently-curated list of craft beers if the mood strikes. I don’t expect that they’ll have a 20 draft lines and a bottle list of 750s.
We here at DCBeer and in the beer blogosphere at large chatter incessantly about shifting the paradigm of what beer is and what the expectation should be when one goes out into the drankin’ world. There are plenty of viewpoints on what that means (see: Koch, Greg, for example), but the logical end of all of these perspectives is that people should care about the beer that they drink and where it comes from. They shouldn’t be satisfied when presented with the divergent choices of a $14 cocktail or a $3 Bud Light, but should instead insist on (though not necessarily purchase, in my opinion) higher quality beer options.
At the crux of cocktails and craft beer sits the lonely consumer who has, over the past 25 or so years, turned both craft beer and craft cocktails into trends worth watching in the beverage world. As these two sets of products experience concurrent meteoric rises, it’s easy enough to ascertain that their paths are intertwined for the foreseeable future. From where we sit today, though, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that a full-blown instance of one requires a total commitment the other. Conversely, you’d be equally hard pressed to convince me that, as we roll further along, a focus on one doesn’t at least require the minimal presence of the other.