Picture a world, without DC Brau, 3 Stars, Atlas, Right Proper, Bluejacket, Bardo, and no Hellbender, too. Is this an alcohol-free, neo-Prohibition, dystopian future for DC? No. It was the state of the DC brewery scene nine years ago.
It was 2004, and Barrett Lauer had just accepted the post of Head Brewer at the District Chophouse. July 4th was his first day on the job, and the question posed to him by his management was, “What are you going to do differently?” Lauer, an artist by education (who studied three years at Maryland Institute College of Art), was overwhelmed with the blank canvas before him. “Quite frankly I was intimidated with all the freedom. I didn’t want to start rocking the boat that much.”
On his third month on the job, Aramark management, the food team at what was then the MCI Center, called Barrett and said they needed 30 kegs. “They wanted 15 kegs of Light Lager and 15 kegs of the Nut Brown Ale,” Lauer recalls. It was a 3-day home stand where the Aramark manager in charge of draft beer said, “I know who’s coming to these shows, and we’re gonna need a lot more of that beer.”
Having just arrived from the Baltimore Brewing Company, Lauer was no stranger to large demands being heaped upon him. “The problem was the kegs; we just didn’t have enough of them.” The District Chophouse functioned, as most brewpubs do, by serving their beer from their serving vessels—no kegs necessary. Not only did he not have 30 kegs, he didn’t even have a keg washer. He couldn’t even clean the kegs he did have.
So while having a beer at Gordon Biersch DC with his good friend Jason Oliver [now at Devils Backbone], he ran into the then Director of Brewing Operations at Capitol City Brewing Company, Mike McCarthy. He mentioned his dilemma, and after a beer, McCarthy said he’d let Lauer use his keg washer. After a few more beers, McCarthy volunteered to pick up Lauer’s kegs, clean them, and drop them back off.
Lauer eventually talked Aramark and the MCI Center manager responsible for draft beer down to an order of 20 kegs. The day was saved…temporarily.
Three months later, Anheuser-Busch bought the beer rights to the MCI Center. It would cost any brewery over $20,000 for the right to pour their beer in the arena.
Barrett Lauer is full of beer knowledge and history, DC-related and otherwise, what follows below is a lightly edited transcript of my recent conversation with him.
DCBeer: What is the best selling beer in your portfolio?
Light Lager is our best seller. When I first started, the Amber Ale was the best seller. But since I introduced the IPA, the IPA has stolen some of the Amber Ale drinkers.
DCBeer: What are a few area favorites, something you’ve been drinking recently from local breweries?
I typically drink at home, so I take a keg home with me from here [the Chophouse]. But I drink whatever I haven’t had to explore with my palate. I’ve had some guys from Pizzeria Paradiso work here, and I find it amazing how many beers they’ve been exposed to and the amount of knowledge they have. But in the area, DC Brau, Right Proper, [and] in Baltimore, Union, and Pratt Street [Oliver Ales]. Those are my go-to brands.
From Union I like the Blackwing, and I just had their double IPA, Double Duckpin, that was pretty tasty. And I’m interested to see, in fact I wish I was going tonight to the New Year's Eve show, they’re doing a collaboration with J. Roddy Walston & The Business releasing Sweat Shock Malt Liquor. The release is for the show, so I’d be really interested to try that, too.
DCBeer: What do you make of the first brewery closing of the modern DC era?
I was disappointed with that. But I had high concerns with the production facility having a 3-4 barrel system. The amount of kegs you’d need to sell with that small of a system is really high in order to keep operating and keep food on the table for everyone. I knew that that would be a difficult road to haul. I was hoping they could partner with another brewery in the area and up their production that way. C'est la vie.
DCBeer: What are your thoughts on how the District Chophouse is perceived in and around DC?
I’m primarily excited with how we’re perceived. We’re known not only for our beer but for our food, too. We’re kind of referred to as "the old guy on the block." I brew a lot of classic styles. I don’t do a caramel coconut salted porter or things that push the envelope. But wherever I go, most people consider the brewery, the people that work here, and their experience here in a very positive light. People are always telling me “I need to get back there” or “I forgot about that place!” It’s tough to keep up with all of the new restaurants, new breweries, and beer bars in DC.
DCBeer: So how do you do that and try to keep up? Go back to basics?
We offer customers a great product at a good price and also give them personality with that. We’ve got bartenders who have been here since we’ve opened, as well as a lot of staff, and then the customers that have been here for years and years. But in my opinion, it all comes down to quality and consistency.
DCBeer: What are your thoughts on media coverage of the Chophouse or lack thereof?
We get some media, but let's face it: the media is concentrating on the new kid on the block. They’re looking for stories and looking for information to share with the readership that might not have been there. It develops hype, but it ultimately does help. The coverage of new places in my opinion helps with the development of the Chophouse as well because most of the time when people are exposed to a newer venue, they will go back to their roots. Or they’ll go back to the roots of the craft beer scene and explore some of the older establishments that have been around.
DCBeer: You are a brewer with a great pedigree in DC. Who else has spent a similar amount of time brewing?
Scott Lasater [at Gordon Biersch in Chinatown] has been brewing probably close to 20 years. Mike McCarthy [at DC Brau] has been brewing for ages. Bill Madden [at Mad Fox] has been brewing a few years longer than I. And how could I forget The Mayor, Geoff Lively [at Rock Bottom Bethesda], who was responsible for helping me land at the ChopHouse
DCBeer: Would you say these brewers are the roots of the DC beer scene in the modern era? Even when the new breweries come, to get back to the roots is to talk to you, Mike, Scott, Bill, and Geoff?
Yes. I always feel that you have to know your history before you can make a comment on what is going on currently. Whether it be within DC or within the mid-Atlantic or within the whole world of beer. It’s best to know the area and the history of what is in the area.
DCBeer: Bill Madden is responsible for Capitol City’s Kolsch and then opening Mad Fox, and then Mad Fox continued to win medals at the Great American Beer Festival. So it seems within this pedigree, you, Mike, and Bill all have some medals. Whether it was your recipe or your brewing of someone else’s recipe, you all won medals for brewing beers. Are medals the gold standard of success for a brewer? Or do you measure the gold standard in another way?
I completely measure in a different way. Medals can be very subjective. I like to be able to walk into an establishment and go from beer to beer and have a pleasurable experience with each beer. To me, that’s the ultimate accomplishment. Accolades are great, and they help to reinforce that you’re doing a really good job. But ultimately—and I’m very picky—if I can sit down where I work or go to another brewery and enjoy and not find any flaws in any of the beers, then I deem that a success.
DCBeer: How would you feel if someone came into the Chophouse and said, “Your beer is indistinguishable from this Nut Brown here or this Amber Ale over there?” Is that a good thing?
It can be. We are brewers that brew to style. I’m not going to call it an amber ale if it isn’t an amber ale. Brewing beers for sheer interest like caramel coconut salted porter—I don’t mean that all beers like that are gimmicks—may not get to the roots. There are certain roots in brewing and certain styles that are proven to be successful and also very pleasurable with the food that we offer here. We offer a lot of bold flavors, and we have a lot of bold flavored beers. So if somebody ordered an amber ale, and it didn’t taste like an amber ale that would be a problem, compared to somebody ordering an amber ale that didn’t taste like an amber ale.
DCBeer: As if porter itself wasn’t enough of a noble thing with a great history! Clearly I’m not the interviewer pushing the envelope with that question. How come we never hear about Barrett Lauer and the knowledge you grant to the DC beer scene?
I’m under the radar a little bit. I have been around the block, and this isn’t my first rodeo. If it’s happened, I’ve likely seen or heard about it. But more than anything, I enjoy hanging out and consulting with other brewers in the area. When we have a brewers' event at RFD, or a local beer tasting, these are some of my fondest memories: getting together and shooting the shit with the other brewers and making fun of each other and making fun of each other’s beers. Beyond that, I don’t mind going under the radar.
DCBeer: When you do get together with your cohort, do you make fun of their beer out of a place of love or are you just busting their chops?
A bit of both. It’s how you do it. But most brewers know. If there’s an issue with their beer, they are keenly aware of it. You have to do it [feedback] with some love and I never want to see anybody stumble or fail. I’d much rather help someone if they are having an issue or if I notice a flaw in a beer, I’ll offer some suggestions with process and/or ingredients, but I’m normally nice about it.
[Editor’s Note: The following paragraph is an introduction (or background knowledge depending on your historical understanding) of the Pratt Street Alehouse.]
At the Wharf Rat, or what is now the Pratt Street Ale House, Lauer brewed alongside Jason Oliver. The co-brewers shared shifts with one brewing from 4:30 AM to 12:00 PM when the next brewer would take over. On the very same 7-barrel Peter Austin system that current Pratt Street brewer Stephen Jones uses, Lauer and Oliver upped the output for the brewpub from 850 barrels a year to about 2,000 barrels annually. This time in the trenches together clearly strengthened the bond between Lauer and Oliver as they are still good friends.
DCBeer: What are you working on now or what is forthcoming?
I’ve got a weizenbock that will be ready soon as well as a Russian imperial stout. I also have a barleywine that’s been aging in a Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrel since May. There is also the Pratt Street beer. One of the last beers brewed at Pratt Street is going to be Jason Oliver, Steve Jones, and I. It’s a multi-grain mild that we’ve been working on.
Before Jason went to UC Davis, he said, “My last day of work here, I want to brew in a Speedo.” I lived in Mt. Vernon then, and I stopped in at this thrift shop and got some gold Lamé Speedos and gave them to him. And he said he brewed in them, and this was December too! But sure enough, it happened. Steve wants to do the Speedos again, so we’ll see. I’m a little white; I was hoping it’d be in the summer. I’m going to have to do some Speedo shopping. I think I’m down for leopard print as of the last email.
[Editor’s Note the following email is from Stephen Jones: "I had approached Barrett and Jason quite some time ago about a final fling with the Peter Austin system, and we have bandied around some recipe ideas via the magic of email. The brew will be called "One Last Laugh (In a Place of Dying)." The other two final brews will be a collaboration with Stillwater ("Hit It & Quit It") and one just for ourselves ("Exit Stage Left"). When the big day arrives, should you wish to see Jason, Barrett, Derek, and myself in Speedos, you are very welcome to drop by and enjoy the occasion.”]
2015 will be Barrett Lauer’s 11th year at the District Chophouse. He has over that time changed every single recipe and in the opinion of many of the regulars, improved them all. Be sure to stop in and wish him a happy anniversary and try one of his great brews.