Editor’s Note: 85% of this article was written before the recent news that editor emeritus Chris Van Orden was taking a position with Port City. Thanks also to Jake for letting me collaborate on this piece with him even though I held it up forever. -BD
Usually, the week after the Great American Beer Festival, we write an article about the breweries one can road trip to from DC. Under three hours away by car is the usual cut-off. We’re a little late about that this year. Like two months late. Regardless, one thing seems to be clear: if you want the region’s best beer right now, drive south. Virginia breweries are killing it, culminating in Port City winning the nation’s Best Small Brewery Award, having medaled at GABF for their porter, IPA, and witbier.
What Port City does isn’t, in beer geek parlance, “sexy.” They brew archetypal styles with fidelity and knock them out of the park. While other breweries (both locally and nationally) often unfortunately release beers that are clearly in beta, Port City has knowledge of self. They say, “Here’s who we are, here’s what we do,” and it’s great to see it pay off. At SAVOR, I had a conversation with owner Bill Butcher III on dissolved oxygen in beer regarding their decision to can Optimal Wit — again, it’s not sexy, but it shows the attention to detail from the region’s best brewery. Combine attention to detail and quality with savvy hires (respected area beermonger Nick Anderson and then our own Chris Van Orden, among others), and it isn’t particularly surprising to see them succeed.
The win for Port City (and for any brewery who pulls off a GABF award or medal) is even more impressive now, says Tom Cizauskas, given the increased competition.
Port City’s victory comes on the heels of Devils Backbone winning Mid-size Brewery of the Year in 2014, but the Alexandria outfit wasn’t alone in its success this year. Virginia took home six other medals (four of them gold), including a top pick for Lorton’s Fair Winds Brewing Company’s Siren’s Lure saison. This year’s nine medals for Virginia outshines Maryland’s (one) and DC’s (zero). The District has two GABF medals since the most recent brewery wave started, both from DC Brau (one silver each in 2012 and 2014).
Virginia has been successful in recent years and has done so on the back of its high quality beers, but the fact that it has been relatively more successful than breweries in DC and Maryland should not be that surprising. Virginia has more breweries than the District, Maryland, and Delaware combined, which means more beers (and more chances for good beers) than these locales. Still, these Virginia breweries, given not only GABF medals but also other subjective measures like Beer Advocate, RateBeer, and Untappd, are outpacing their midlantic colleagues.
Lest this turn into a dogpile on our DC breweries (which we waited on for so long to open up), remember that judging is idiosyncratic. So much depends on who’s doing it, what they most recently ate, and how they slept the night before. Untappd, Beer Advocate, and RateBeer are often derided for their biases and foibles. Yes, it’s clear that when it comes brewing beers that adhere to Great American Beer Festival style guidelines (and being rewarded for it), the District and Maryland are lagging right now. But how important are beers brewed to style? Styles are important for beer drinkers, letting consumers know what to expect and creating a more accessible product by definition, but they aren’t everything.
Some of this to-style/not-to-style phenomenon, maybe even most of it, is no doubt by design. For example, Atlas created Rowdy, a rye-forward, heavily hopped ale, without regard to these guidelines, and that’s fine. In which category does one enter a white IPA, like 3 Stars’ Ghost, or a spiced, sweet stout, like Bluejacket’s Mexican Radio, or the mixed fermentation beers at Right Proper? This experimentation also means that DC’s beer is more likely to get passed over at GABF, but by no means are any of these beers bad or unworthy of purchase.
In fact, for those who enjoy some style-blurring and experimentation in their beers, DC seems to be the better bet of the two places right now. A recent visit to Rustico’s Novemberfest, which focused completely on Virginia breweries, showed many of the newcomers struggling with quality issues in their offbeat beers (featuring Brett, chili peppers, and, probably, an actual kitchen sink) but generally doing a touch better with more traditional flagship styles.
It isn’t as clear-cut as saying that Virginia brews to style (cough, Adroit Theory, cough) and that DC breaks all style guidelines with its beers (g’day, District Chophouse). Painting with that broad a brush inevitably leads to making mistakes. If anything, Virginia’s recent successes should serve as a reminder of how good our region has come to have it. Great beers brewed to style, great beers breaking them, and beers from breweries all across the country all make their way here via distribution. Take the time to appreciate the Virginia breweries’ collective day in the sun, DC area beer fans, but don’t expect their neighbors to stay forever in the shadows.