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Flying the beer flag on Fourth of July

What beery pleasures await the British tourist on his way to see the White House?

Only the most isolationist among us will have failed to observe that Independents' Day owes its name to a word-play concerning a former British colony, led to freedom by a man with Geordie blood, name of Washington, in 1776.

As well as being a freedom-fighter, George Washington maintained his own private brewery (and was a commercial whiskey-distiller).

So, with what brews will the people of Washington be able to celebrate on their Independence Day this July 4? And what beery pleasures await the British tourist on his way to see the White House, the Capitol or the Smithsonian Museum?

Having been conceived after independence, Washington is a young city, but it soon had breweries.

The first on record is that of Cornelius Coningham, which operated from 1796 to 1800 (the year in which the wine-loving Thomas Jefferson became the first president to rule from Washington.

At its peak as a brewing town, in 1866, Washington (including neighbouring Georgetown) had 31 breweries.

Coincidentally, I have heard the same figure quoted for at least two other major US cities, but I have the most faith in that cited for Washington.

The figure was provided by the enterprising and engaging Maurice Coja, whose Brickskeller tavern (1523 22nd St NW) not only stocks every remotely local beer - and about 700 others - but also has two members of staff working on an American brewery-history database.

This is known, with justifiable pride, as The Brickskeller Research Department.

The department tells me - and I believe there is no doubt about this - that the last brewery in Washington was Christian Heurich, which closed in 1956.

The department tells me - and I believe there is no doubt about this - that the last brewery in Washington was Christian Heurich, which closed in 1956. Happily, Christian Heurich's grandson Gary reintroduced the family name to a beer in 1986.

No longer having a kettle to the family's name, Heurich initially contracted to have his beer produced by the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. A year ago, in search of the capacity for longer lagering times, he switched to the F.X. Matt brewery, in upstate New York.

His brew is a bronze lager, inspired by his grandfather's Marzenbier, but at first he hesitated to use such a technical term on the label. When he moved to F.X. Matt, he added the style to the brand name.

"Even in four years, consumers have become more sophisticated about specialty beers, and they like to know what style is intended," he explains.

Olde Heurich Maerzen Beer has a modest gravity for the style, at 1048°, but an emphatically malts palate. It begins and ends with a good Saaz hop character. Since it moved to Matt, the beer has been dry hopped.

The city itself may soon have its first brewery in 35 years. For the past two or three years, beer-loving economist Jack Keniley has been seeking to amend the city's laws to permit the establishment of a brew-pub.

(To be precise, Washington has a special status; it is not a city but a District, independent of any state. Washington and the District of Columbia are one and the same thing).

Keniley, a Washingtonian who has worked for the Federal Reserve Bank, was educated at the University of Pennsylvania.

He later helped in the establishment of the successful Dock Street Brewpub, in Philadelphia, and now wants to do the same sort of thing in Washington.

The necessary bill had its first reading in June, and is expected to pass its second this month.

Keniley has a site in the restored Greyhound Bus Station in Washington, and hopes to be brewing by the late autumn. He plans to make lagers and both English and American-style ales.

While Washington awaits its new brewery, its suburbs have had once since April of last year.

Four miles from Washington's Dulles Airport, the Old Dominion Brewing Company has established itself on the Beaumeade Corporate Park, in London County, Virginia.

Principal Jerry Bailey, a social scientist, previously worked for the Agency for International Development, devising programmes to make family planning more acceptable and efficient in developing nations.

While posted in Bogota, he fell to playing racquetball with Bud Hengsen, of the US Information Agency.

Then Bud was assigned to Munich, discovered Bavarian beer, and passed his enthusiasm to Jerry. Bud is one of the 35 stockholders in the brewery, but Jerry runs it.

The Old Dominion is a soubriquet for Virginia. The brewery's original product, at around 1050°, is Dominion Lager ("No 'Old' - we emphasise freshness here...").

It has a flowery hop aroma, a malty palate, and a light dryness in the finish.

There is also a newly-launched Dominion Ale (1048°), amber in colour, with more hop bitterness, and the fruitiness of a genuine top-fermenting yeast.

These products are filtered, but they are not pasteurised, either on draught or in the bottle.

Washington and its Virginia suburbs also have beers from a micro-brewery at the opposite end of the state.

Washington and its Virginia suburbs also have beers from a micro-brewery at the opposite end of the state. This brewery is near the naval town of Norfolk, at Virginia Beach, on the southern tip of Chesapeake Bay.

It was originally called the Chesapeake Bay Brewing Company, in which form it was never very successful.

In recent years, under new ownership, it has re-emerged with apparently better fortunes as the Virginia Brewing Company.

Its products include the very smooth Gold Cup Export (or is it a Pilsener?; it does not seem quite sure), at 1048-50°, starting soft and malty but with a lingering hoppy dryness in the finish; and the rich, malty, Dark Horse, an amber-brown Bock of 1065°, again with a good belt of hops in the finish.

Both of these breweries produce "personalised" versions of their beers for bars in their area.

Just as London has Greenwich, so Washington has the little township of Alexandria, and that is becoming something of a beer-tasting quarter.

In Alexandria's colonial Old Town, almost every bar or restaurant has its "own" beer, and a brewpub is promised soon.

One of them, Portner's (109 South St Asaph) is named after a former brewery.

It is full of mahogany and mirrors, with upstairs lights from the New York subway, but it was established as recently as 1981. Its beer is a soft, sweetish, smooth, lager from Old Dominion.

The same brewery s lager is available unfiltered as Virginia Native Brite (the last word being a joke), at King Street Blues (South St Asaph), and its ale at The Wharf (119 King St).

Virginia Brewing's Dark Horse is available unfiltered at the Union St Public house, on the thoroughfare of the same name.

This version is offered as Virginia Native Tap Room Draught. At the newer end of Alexandria, a chili house called Hard Times (1404 King St) has a variation of Gold Cup Export as its house "select" (along with a reasonably interesting list of other brews).

Two beers, from different breweries, both called Virginia Native? It seems that the principals of the two bars have a fierce dispute over the name.

It is a pity that most of these products are served too cold, and that there are not more ales, but in conservative Washington it is nonetheless encouraging to note that beer is beginning to excite fierce dispute.

Published Online: JUNE 14, 2000
Published in Print: JULY 1, 1991
In: What's Brewing

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