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The 2016 Beer in Review Roundtable

Towards the end of every year, the staff of this site get together and discuss what they liked, and maybe what they didn't, about beer–especially local beer. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation. Here's to more of the good stuff in 2017.

Overall

Tony Budny: It has been interesting to me to track the changes of 3 Stars and DC Brau this year, as they've both made tons of changes to keep up with the Joneses and experienced growing pains along the way but also put out some killer stuff. Overall, I think it's been a year full of monumental growth for the scene, from Brau and 3 Stars to Right Proper's expansion to what hopefully will be a ray of light from darkness for Hellbender out of bankruptcy. We talked during the year about how stale some of us felt it had gotten, but I've ended the year impressed that it seems many brewers here have gotten the message. They didn't change their identities and took risks that I think will pay off next year. I am optimistic about the trajectory of the scene in general. It's probably the only thing I'm optimistic about in 2017.

Bill DeBaun: I agree with Tony in large part that it feels like the local breweries have mostly found their grooves. They're not stepping all over each other as much stylistically, which is delightful. The big development of the year for me is the emergence of tap rooms as places to hang out and drink rather than as just places to get growlers filled. The production breweries are getting the best of both worlds here in the sense that they're getting to distribute and they're getting enhanced on-premise sales and footprints. I hope that moving forward the DC Brewers' Guild and the Council will let the brewpubs get in on the distribution game, too. Fair is fair. And hey, read the State of the Scene I wrote up for DC Beer Week. 

Jacob Berg: The cozy bar at Right Proper Brookland, 3 Stars' cool Urban Farmhouse, that kick-ass train board at Atlas,… drinking on premise is where it's at in 2016, and probably beyond. Still, The Sovereign was clearly the best new beer bar of the year in the area, and to go along with The Sov, ANXO gave DC something to brag about in terms of both space and cider selection; there are plenty of cities that don't have what we do.

Paul Josuns: This may dovetail with Tony's point, we saw the (for lack of a better word) professionalization of breweries. We’ve seen a lot of growth in capacity and maturity throughout the beer community in DC and beyond. We’ve seen a great deal of movement in the mergers and acquisitions arena, copyright and trademark areas, as well as the regulatory space which forces brewers and small business owners to take notice – even if they are not directly involved. I’m sure I’ll face some disagreement, but I see the professionalization of the industry as a positive because moves of any kind require forethought and planning, which I hadn’t seen as much of until recently. When these small businesses are able to dedicate resources to both making beer and sustainable growth, everyone wins.

TB: The professionalization is a good point. I would say it's more mature than when it started. That comes with the territory of expansion, I imagine. There's more competition here so there's more need to squeeze more out of less to stand out. Also, there is just plain more experience here now. There's a ton of difference between having a couple of years of experience versus coming up on a decade, like some of the first wave can now boast, including previous work.

Greg Parnas: The legalization of farm breweries, in Virginia in 2014 and Maryland in 2012, has finally seemed to yield real results. I think that these farm breweries present an exciting opportunity to cultivate unique yeast strains from the surrounding environment that give a terroir to Mid-Atlantic breweries roughly akin to what all our Belgium friends have had for centuries. Pen Druid and Manor Hill are two stand outs for me in this area. A movement I've seen in the American craft beer scene is a greater move to cultivating unique house yeast and bacteria strains. Some of this was bound to happen regardless with the explosion of Brett, Pedi, and Lacto fermentation brewing, but it has been a shining light for me. I hope that it actually allows breweries to be less reliant on hops, both quantity and the hunt for the latest hottest varietals, to distinguish their products. 

New in Town

Mike Stein: I honestly feel like it's been a bit of an embarrassment of riches in the District. We've now got my old hometown's favorite, Captain Lawrence, in market. I was incredibly pleased to see them at the Craft Beer Cellar on H Street, but when I talk to friends about it, many are shocked to know they're in market. The same can be said of my excitement for Logsdon, Cascade, and the list goes on where I feel embarrassed for all the riches (many of which I and other passionate beer drinkers cannot regularly afford!).

Bill DeBaun: Although I'm a real curmudgeon about new breweries moving into town, as I think we have plenty here, I have to admit it's pretty cool to see breweries like Modern Times (of which I am a fanboy), Logsdon, Captain Lawrence, and Wicked Weed (I type this last one somewhat begrudgingly) on shelves and taps. These are solid beers with real followings, and it does up the competition in the craft crucible in DC. 

Greg Parnas: The Craft Beer Celler on H Street is an awesome little shop and Erika Goedrich (the owner) is doing a great job of getting access to all the great breweries in the DC area and balancing that with both hard-to-find and classic selections from across the country and globe. It is possibly the best bottle shop in DC right now.

Jacob Berg: I'm going to cosign what everyone said. Pekko Beer is bringing some real good stuff, much of it at H Street's Craft Beer Cellar, the best new bottle shop in the area. So many of Modern Times' recipes originated here – thanks, Mad Fermentationist! – that it's only fair that we get the finished product. Also, on the grAy market front, Melvin Brewing out of Wyoming brought some excellent IPAs to the area for about a month around SAVOR. I'd love to have them back. 

The Locals

Mike Stein: Shout out to the lager brewers, particularly Right Proper's Bobby Bump, whose Shawbecker is a must try. Likewise to Barrett Lauer and the incredibly always-on-point Light Lager at District Chophouse. I'd be remiss without mentiong Travis Tedrow's lagers at GB Navy Yard, but more importantly his sour beer. Yes, an incredibly complex Flanders Red which rivals Rodenbach, La Folie, and those world-class beers came from a local Gordon Biersch…welcome to 2017!

Tony Budny: The Lost Weekend/Forbidden Planet combo always on at Bluejacket still gets it as well as any regular in a lineup in the area. It also helps that I can walk there from work. Also that barrel-aged Scotch ale from Hellbender was outstanding. 

Greg Parnas: On the Bluejacket note, their Brett and farmhouse lagers were really revelatory for me and opened up my perspective. I was really impressed with Right Proper's production facility, fouders fouders everywhere! First time I had an American-made fouder beer was from Holy Mountain in Seattle, with whom Right Proper has done some great collaborations. I really look forward to their continued exploration of that space. One of the best beers I had in 2016, which Untapp'd tells me is apparently about 300 since May 30th (no, I don't have a problem. It's just a hobby!), was the Groove City Hefewizen from RAR. It stands up to any German-made hefewizen I have drank. American breweries don't typically excel at traditional German beer styles, but this once is a keeper. 

Jacob Berg: It's interesting that many the breweries we've mentioned so far hit a nice price point. Bluejacket has excellent renditions of both an ESB (Essex) and a dark mild (Coaltown), on cask, on a consistent basis, for $6 per pint. District Chophouse continues to be overlooked; you can get a real good nut brown or oatmeal stout for $3.50 during happy hour. Those Right Proper beers are often at $6 or less per pour, and I thought their collaboration with Pizzeria Paradiso, Maslow, was excellent. Sort of a farmhouse take on a pilsner, but it was an ale. 4.7% and those Saaz hops…Per Greg Engert, one of the Bretted lagers that Bluejacket collaborated on with Victory, brewed in PA, I think, was also excellent. Ocelot made a name for themselves with hops, but Mike McCarthy honed his chops at Capitol City, and it showed this year with an excellent pilsner and bitter to go along with all those IPAs. DC Brau turned five and threw a cool party with bands and one of the more inventive six-packs out there. Their collaboration with Port City on a dark lager, Zehn von Zehn, was my favorite. 3 Stars got their sour program up and running and pretty much immediately started making good beer. There's a reason Ricky Rose sixtels kicked so quickly. I don't want to repeat myself too much, but I've got some more thoughts on 2016 in beer elsewhere

Bill DeBaun: Among the best local beers that I had this year were Hellbender's Grampus, the Chophouse's Nut Brown (of course), Bluejacket's Broken Chairs, Essex, and Coaltown, Right Proper's Stay Gold (a collab with Pulaski), Brau's The Wise and the Lovely (with Cigar City), 3 Stars' Pounding Trees, and Atlas' Dance of Days. This leaves off a lot of beers that weren't new (or new to me) in 2016 that have a permanent place in my fridge (see: Portfolio comma Port City's).

Paul Josuns: Ocelot's Talking Backwards, the Triple IPA collaboration with Meridian Pint, was the standout beer for me in 2016. I don’t have one standout bar. Instead, over the last year, I’ve noticed that I find great beer in unexpected places. For example, the closest bar to my house happens to be in a hotel. They only have three taps, but one seems to be dedicated to Right Proper. I can find either Kick, Kick, Snare or Raised by Wolves at a pretty good price. The price aspect notwithstanding, I’ve noticed beer I enjoy in places I wouldn’t necessarily expect – whether that be a hotel bar, Irish pub, or while sitting dockside.

MS: Regarding Ocelot, of course their Pils is my winner. Thanks for validating my tastes, Great American Beer Festival!

What's Next

Jacob Berg: I really hope what's next is that New England-style IPAs finish fermenting before getting kegged. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the style, mostly because of how these beers often look, but it can be done well (Trillium's Double Dry Hopped Fort Point has some bitterness to it so it's not a total juice bomb) and done well locally (hi, Aslin!). However, some of the worst beers I had this year were hazy IPAs that were clearly not done fermenting. I get that local bars are going to put these on because they're popular, but some quality control would go a long way here. Following up on Greg's comment about farm breweries, we're going to see a lot more of that, and I hope the breweries in the closer-in Maryland counties get more consistent. In the imaginary battle of the 'burbs, it's Virginia's world, and we just live in it.   

Greg Parnas: Montgomery County's liquor monopoly will need to come to an end before the brewery scene there can really blossom, at least compared to what you see in Baltimore or in Arlington and Alexandria. Prince George's County seems to have problems distinguishing between a craft brewery and just some bar or liquor store. From my conversations with licensing officials there, they seem to think every place that serves alcohol is just going to create more problems with drunk college kids or just drunks in general. 

Mike Stein: Shoutout to the majority of DC breweries being safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. Shoutout also to the breweries for fostering a more diverse community than many other major metropolitan areas. This is not to say there isn't more work to be done to bring people of color into the fold, but credit where it's due. A special thanks to black brewers, ladies in the cellar, and women behind the wheel of beer sales. Shoutout to Ashton McCullers of Pipetown Traders distro, Kenny Nguyen of Pekko Beer, Tim Liu of NRG fame: thanks for being dynamic players in the DC craft beer game. Shoutout to Julie Verratti, her quest and the work she does in trying to flip the script and make Montgomery County the most beer-friendly county in Maryland. Shoutout to David Grosso for his work towards progressive beer legislation and big ups to Senator Eleanor Holmes Norton who has visited and given some face time to both Atlas and Right Proper.

Bill DeBaun: Stein's piece about making craft, both here in DC and more broadly, more inclusive is important, and I hope this site can be helpful in growing that conversation and community. Anyone who follows me on Twitter has seen the back and forth recently about sexism and misogyny in beer labeling and the resulting trolling I've been receiving for beating that drum. Newsflash to the "malt-right" (a clever term I did not coin), just because you and your bros think a label is funny and high-fiveable doesn't mean it should be out in the market representing a brewery's business. Of course, breweries are welcome to keep producing this juvenile stuff if they so choose, but they shouldn't be surprised when they get knocked around for it, either. 

Disagree? Agree? Want to add your own thoughts? Let us know on Twitter!

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