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Reflections on a world record, as Washington gets a new beer bar

Photographer Ian O'Leary, brings a touch of The Shining to a drinkers' shrine (below). O'Leary, of both Irish and Scottish origin, is genetically well equipped to his current task: photographing whisk(e)y distilleries for a future book. The two of us were in the nation's capital to photograph work on the restoration of George Washington's whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon.

Beer Hunter at the Brickskeller

George Washington's family originated from the Northern English county of Durham. That county borders on Yorkshire, where I was born and raised. Washington area brewer Nick Funnell, of the Sweetwater brewpubs, in the Virginia suburbs, in also a Yorkshireman. Photographer O'Leary, may have a Celtic cocktail running through him but he, too, is an Englishman - born in Yorkshire. People from our county are famously stubborn, single-minded and tenacious. True to Yorkshire character, O'Leary insists upon doing things his way, irrespective of any problems that arise. Photographically speaking, the O'Leary credo is to use only available light.

That provides shadow for cover when O'Leary digs deep to trap me in beer-hunting mode. The fellow who seems to have been getting lit up is Dave Alexander, who runs The Brickskeller, in Washington, D.C. Dave looks embarrassed and I appear slightly annoyed to have been caught on camera, as though the two of us had been conspiring. That is perhaps too strong a word. We had, I suppose, been colluding, in order to have The Brickskeller recognized by the Guinness World Records.

The approach had come in the first place from Guinness World Records. They had heard that "The Brick" stocked more beers than any other bar in the world. Dave suggested me as someone who might be able to verify the number of beers in his bar, and comment on any other contenders. I could not claim to have counted the Brick's beers, but I had a pretty good idea that there were more than 1,000, and I did not think I had seen as many anywhere else. Having visited specialist beer bars from Alaska to Australia, from Argentina to Austria, I probably would have heard about a larger offering, were one to exist.

Guinness World Records did some further research and checking - then issued the certificate. Smartly framed, it now occupies a proud position on those famous brick walls. They were already famous, but now their celebrity has been measured, audited, notarised, rendered official. "People ask what happens when some other bar goes for more beers, to oust us," Dave volunteers. "There are a lot of very cheaply made beers that I don't stock. I could carry those to boost the numbers, but I won't. If someone else wants to do that in order to beat us, let them go for it."

What are we drinking in the photograph? Tupper's Hop Pocket Ale. I love hoppy, bitter, ales, and this one is uncompromising. It is also local, being brewed by Old Dominion, in the Virginia suburbs. It may seem contrary to drink a local beer in a bar whose raison d'Étre is to fetch brews from the far corners of the world, but I plead special circumstances. When I travel, I do so to monitor the local beers at their freshest and best. The moment I land at Washington Dulles airport, even if I am only changing planes, I go for a beer. Each gate area has a bar offering beers from Old Dominion.

Freshness always was a problem with bars that offered "the most beers in town". Such places were a popular novelty in the 1970s. They usually had 50 or 100 light lagers, all stale. Speciality imports were simply not available until the first edition of my World Guide to Beer was published in 1977, after which importers like Charles Finkel became active.

The Coja Collection

The founder of The Brickskeller was Dave Alexander's father-in-law, Maurice Coja, who was himself born into the restaurant trade. Maurice was the son of a chef from the French Island of Corsica. With a family background in haute cuisine, about which he still likes to reminisce, how did Maurice find himself running a world-famous beer bar and serving buffalo burgers?

The imperative to try something new came into it, so far as I can remember, Around the time my World Guide first appeared, the first of a new generation of small breweries was trying to establish itself. Inspired by what he had seen during service at a U.S. Navy base in Scotland, Jack McAuliffe came home and started the New Albion brewery in Sonoma, California. That was the first micro.

New Albion did not last, but gave rise to Mendocino County Brewing, in Hopland, California. De Bakker and the first of several River City micros did not last, but Sierra Nevada did, magnificently. These breweries were all in Northern California, but soon the movement spread to Oregon and Washington State. I was spending all my time on the West Coast, researching the micros and presenting tutored tastings.

Scarcely anyone in the East seemed to know - or care - about the micro movement. Except Maurice Coja; and a friend who ran a nearby liquor store (which has since closed); and a few members of the local home-brew club BURP. (Brewers United For Real Potables). Maurice was years ahead of his time.

BURP invited me to Washington. Two members of the club, Dan McCoubrey (who has since died) and Paul Freedman, were journalists on The Washington Post. We three found great affinities: I started work at the age of 16 as a gofer-reporter on a small-town newspaper, later worked in Fleet Street, and have done just about every job in journalism.

Dan introduced me to Maurice Coja, and Paul introduced me to the Editor of the Food Section of the Post. On at least one occasion, and possibly twice, I interviewed Maurice with a view to writing something for the Post. Although I have on file beer research going back to nearly 30 years, I cannot find notes or tapes from those interviews, but I do remember one point that arose. In the interviews, I remember Maurice telling me that he and his friend from the liquor store were arranging privately to fly in micro-brews from the West.

My reservations about the sameness of most international Pilsner derivatives, and their readiness to oxidise, were disarmed by Maurice's dedication to his project. As new imports and micros became available, he added them to his range. If he needed any advice, plenty was available from BURP.

Somehow, I never managed to get a piece on The Brick into the Post, but I did write for the paper - just one or two pieces a year - from 1983 to 1991. Reviewing the clippings, I realised that I was introducing ideas quite new to the lay reader. The first article was about the matching of beers with food; I am not sure this topic had ever been discussed in a newspaper article at that time. I am proudest of an article that dominated the front page of the Food Section, thanks in part to a boldly simple illustration. Visual presentation can make of break an article, and often hinges on the care with which the text has been read and understood by the illustrator. Often, it seems that the artist was too sophisticated to stoop to something as unhip as reading. In this case, the artist had grasped the point and sharpened it. The visual showed a beer bottle bearing the label: "Local Pride Beer - brewed near here."

If I may quote from the opening paragraph: "The blush of local pride exhibited in areas that make fine wine should also be enjoyed by good local beers. Beer and wine are the world's two great fermented beverages, each capable of great variety and complexity, and both part of our cultural and gastronomic heritage.

"Washington once had a whole cellar full of local brews, and there is a whiff of revival in the air. The District may never again have the 31 breweries that it boasted in the mid-to-late 1800s, according to researchers at the Brickskeller tavern, but beers worthy of local pride are popping up on all sides."

I don't know of any bar in the world that has put as much effort into gathering and disseminating beer knowledge. When he began to arrange tutored tastings, Maurice brought in brewers and writers who could impart information for the connoisseur while also enthusing the novice. Yet the experience of working from a stage, with a spotlight seemed to incubate my Lenny Bruce tendencies.

My occasional collaborator Jim Dorsch proposed "An Evening with Michael Jackson" a couple of years ago. "People who follow your beer-hunting, and read your tasting notes and scores, enjoy your 'war stories'", he argued. "They like to know what kind of person you are: your personal tastes and suchlike. What kind of food do you like? What style of music do you prefer? What are your tastes in literature?"

The food was Belgian, of course, as prepared by Geert Piferoen, former chef to his country's embassy. The music had to be blues.

The literature was appropriately boozy: Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas; and The Last Fine Time, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. When I suggested that I read a few short passages (short enough, I hope, not to breach copyright) Jim asked why I was not presenting one of my own narrative pieces.

Writers of non-fiction do not typically give readings, but I was flattered to be asked. I read a story about a strange incident in my local. The incident did happen as described, but I wrote the piece as though it were fiction: a short story. I changed the names to protect the innocent, and painted in some background to give it a context. The attentiveness of the audience has encouraged me to write more pieces in this style, though most have hinged on whisky moments. They have therefore appeared in Malt Advocate or Whisky Magazine.

The Birthday Party

As an oblique inspiration for some of my more offbeat work, The Brick has won a place in my heart. When Dave Alexander asked me to appear there on my 60th birthday, I could scarcely decline, though I had hoped to downplay my sudden antiquity: for fear of becoming unemployed overnight in world where editors are too young to have heard of Lenny Bruce or Dylan Thomas.

"Working on your 60th birthday?" protested my lady partner." I responded that it was not work but a party. I didn't turn into Lenny Bruce, but I did a lot of standing up, to thank people for their extraordinary gifts. At least, I think I stood up: I can't remember much about the later stages. Must be the ravages of age.

The ravages come at speed. My 50th birthday, which seemed to have been about a week earlier, was celebrated in the other Washington - the state. That party was held at the home in Seattle of Charles Finkel, founder of Merchsnt Du Vin. Charlie's own Pike Place brewery produced strong, spicy, dark brown ale for the occasion. For my 60th, along came a tap-handle for the beer.

If it is the thought that counts, I am still counting. A profligate flow of thought had gone into all the gifts: a great deal of imagination, care and skill of execution. Fritz Maytag, a man famously protective of his product names and graphics, made a limited bottling of Anchor Steam, in magnums. At a glance, the label was the classic design. A second look revealed it to be highly personalised. The elegant citation on the neck-label has been published elsewhere, and afflicts me with a rare moment of humility.

Likewise the tribute on the label of Hunter's XXXXXX. This Old Ale is a darker, even hoppier, counterpart to Tupper's Hop Pocket Ale. Hunter's was created with the help of Rob Mullin, formerly of Old Dominion, and now of the Trap Rock brewpub, in Berkeley Heights, New. Jersey.

The Maytag magnums contained Anchor Steam Beer, a brew that have acclaimed for more than 25 years. Could such a favorite taste even better than usual? I swear it did. Its characteristically fresh, lively, attack seemed magnified. Magnums for me in future.

The Hunter was a beer of dazzling complexity: soft in body, yet also tingly; with both malty sweetness and hoppy acidity; at once refreshing, soothing and warming. These were powerful beers, but the Czech guests at the party were dissatisfied with the quantities of beer at tastings in the United States. Prague's Staropramen brewery presented me with a pitcher big enough to hold ten liters.

Among the many other gestures, I was especially touched by the white rose on every table; the vases were empty bottles from Samuel Smith's. The white rose is the symbol of Yorkshire. The Brickskeller tied up the evening with the gift of a commemorative diamond pin.

After a such a celebration, and The Brick's being recognised by Guinness World Records, 2002 was a banner year, hence these reflections.

Now, Dave and his wife Diane have a new establishment, with the descriptive but prosaic name Regional Food and Drink. R.F.D. (810, Seventh St NW) has 30 taps, cask conditioned ale, a mere 300 beers, and cuisine a la bière.

I hope The Brick does not suffer as they give the necessary attention to their new baby. The Brick is a monument, with beer-lined foundations. R.F.D. sounds like a transportation system, but takes beer farther into the kitchen. Having championed the notion of beer-and-food for decades, I can only welcome that.

I shall be in D.C. in mid March, at the National Geographic, and will check out both establishments.

Published: JAN 24, 2003
In: Beer Hunter Online

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