Thursday, 16 September 2010

Capitol City Brewing Company

After mistakenly discovering that the mini-mart downstairs from my friend's apartment sold Stone Arrogant Bastard, and after even more mistakenly having several bottles the night before, I woke up early, a combination of activity in the apartment, and the lingering pangs of jet lag. Killing time until a sensible hour, while willing the slow cycle my stomach was on to calm down, I caught up with my emails and passed a short while catching up with ratebeer. I had spoken with chriso a couple of months previous, and he had kindly sent me a list of the best places to drink in DC, which he aptly points out that there are few of note. At a loose end for the day, I quickly plugged a few of the names into google, and most unfortunately were late-starters through the week, presumably to keep the locals off the ale long enough to get some productive federal work from them. A few did spring up, placed I'd visited before, but never written about.

Closer to 11am now, I pulled on a jacket, stuffed a few bits and bobs into my bag (Hops and Glory, my iPad, my camera, and my phone), and headed towards the subway. A short journey, and I was under the Potomac and finding my first destination. In an attempt not to look like the first drunk in the bar at opening time, I decided the first stop, and somewhere hopefully to pull the plug on the washing machine building up to spin cycle in my torso, would be Ben's Chili Bowl.

This place gets mixed reviews, and despite having only heard about it the night before on Man v Food, I whipped out google maps, and found it was a short walk from U St station. This place is just as I was expecting, a dingy run-down place in a reasonably quiet, almost suburban area of DC, surrounded by Ethiopian restaurants. Inside, it is grimy, with a good smattering of those sign letters from the 1950s to make up the menu. Having being recommended a chili half-smoke on the aforementioned TV show, I duly ordered, handed over my $8.50, and got the hotdog and a lemonade (made from the most traditional type of lemons, pink ones). Weighing up my options, I took it away, in case I caught something from the decor, and headed back to the metro station to enjoy it in the sun before entering the subterranean world. The chili part of the food was good, but not plentiful, and the rest simply served as a conduit for the chili to sort me out. Unremarkable, but comforting.

With the bread bun doing its best on my innards, I was back in the game, and heading for Metro Center, to Capitol City Brewing Co. I'd visited the one in Union Station before, and I'll share my thoughts on that later. Cap City Metro is a delightfully convenient bar, 1 block from the metro, and easy to find, I came through the imposing office-block style doors, and a woman greeted me (inexplicably wearing an earpiece) and allowed me to sit at the bar, which was in the full swing of the lunchtime service. The interior was like a Wetherspoon, yet with the louts replaced with well-dressed men in federal lanyards, ignoring their Caesar salad while they scribble down notes, frantic in conversation.

By the time I'd got to this far down the blogpost, the bar had quietened down somewhat, a few people focusing on the screens, others grabbing a late bite before heading back to the office. Prohibition Porter was the first up on my to-try list. This bar seems determined to get a ticker drunk, the small tumblers aren't enough to rate, and they only serve pints. Thank goodness a pint over here is less than it's equivalent imperial measurement. A nice beer list on the wall reveals I have 10 brews to get through, all craft kegged ales, and even for a thirsty man, conquering this bar in pints before my self-imposed hometime of 4:30pm would be heroic, bordering on purple-heart territory. Anyway, the brewery impression is good, but it almost seems from the bar that they brew for name factor, rather than to celebrate craft brewing.

The porter is a ruby to brown affair, thin creamy nitro head, served cold, and kept cold by the perishing aircon. A jumper would have been nice now. Nose is the usual mix, a bit musty, lots of roasting going on there, not altogether bad for a summer American take on this particularly British late autumn ale. Mouthfeel is thin, really thin, and surprisingly dry and bitter, followed on by a bit of throat burn, weird for not a particularly strong beer. The roasted flavour fades away and leaves a bitter refresh. Not altogether unpleasant, though what it doesn't do in the mouth, it does in the stomach, this is a filling beer. I wouldn't go as far as to say this beer was remarkable for its unremarkable character, but it's alright, and in a craft beer desert like DC, this is an oasis.

A quick dig into Hops and Glory while the dregs worked their way down, and that had whetted my appetite for the IPA. In the words of Pete Brown, "the gold standard to be judged amongst American brewers". Well, it was something like that, if he'd written that at 2pm while still topping up from the previous night. This thing was describable in the one word I've never used to describe an ale in all the ratings I've bagged: luminous. It had an eery dayglo quality, seemingly from a hidden light source in it's hazy goodness. Anyway, best take a drink, the thin bubbly head's nearly collapsed by now.

The nose is full of fizzy floral and fruity tones. Not just the predictable citrus propping up the over-hoppiness of this juicy style, but peaches, pineapples, ooh, is that a bit of lime?

The dull hops had hit the back of my throat, before any discernible taste had appeared. I had heart burn before I had woken up my taste buds. There is a massive upfront attack from the hops, along with some unidentified sweetness that I can't quite put my finger on source or reason for presence.

But that will have to wait, my iPad needs drying off after getting showered in some soapy water courtesy of the dishwasher. After the burn of the hops has died away, there's more fruitiness, like the juice from a can of tinned peaches, which counteracts the nice hop longness going on in my throat. Although the mouthfeel is pleasant, harsh, hoppy, and not over carbonated, this beer is gassy in the stomach. The dryness at the end is almost what you'd expect from an unblended old lambic, and it's lovely. Various battered and breaded items flowed from the kitchen and filled the air around me, but for just a moment in this converted office unit, with its faux-aged copper bar top, and the horns incessantly honking outside, I may have lost myself for a moment in this beer. My next must-tries seem to be edging me towards the Oatmilk Stout, and the Altbier

The barman paid a little bit of attention to the fact that I was reading about beer. When I told him I was also here to write about beer, he was intrigued to know what I thought of the beers they had on offer. Recoiling for a moment, like an American who's just had a litigation paper drop through the post, he said 'I guess you can't tell me though'. Au contraire, I replied, and was happy to indulge his ego and his clear interest and thirst for beery knowledge and a second opinion, and probably a tip. We chatted for a few moments about the brewery in Shirlington, his favourites, how the IPA was 2% understrength at a measly 7% ABV. After the formalities I'd encountered in brewpubs many times before had concluded, I got a free sampler of Oatmilk stout. The stout was heavily roasted, with a touch of staleness, and just a hint of that promised milk. My mouth, reeling from the hopfest my epiglottis and nether regions had just enjoyed, was rather dull to the taste. It had hints of tastiness though. Very plummy, those ones you get from the market stall that need to be ripened for a few days, but you never wait and dig in, to be greeted with tartness and big flavors not yet mellowed by the aging process. This was a fresh stout, with a lighter roasting to the porter, but a slight tobacco taste, accompanied by a lovely malt sweetness which engulfed the palate. Chocolate, milk chocolate, engulfed the finish, and it went down well.

My now intrigued barman offered me a sampler of the alt bier. Clear and a filmy slight bubble about its upper regions, it promised little, but I was intrigued to try. There was a malt flavour developing in the nasal cavity entirely similar to every standard bitter in the UK that I'd tried. More of those American hops which gave this the edge of the trans-Atlantic travel of which I'm becoming accustomed. The taste is light and fresh, some hoppy brackish taste, bitter though, some warm fruit, but unintelligible amongst the American hop fight that'd been picked with the lightly malted barley in the back of my throat. I can only say this was good, but not in anything larger than a sampler, it would have bored me.

After my new beery friend had brought me a pint of the Oatmilk stout, suitably impressed with the first one that I was, he brought over another barman to chat, we had a good chin-wag about CAMRA, the craft brewing scene both sides of the Atlantic, and the beer was going down nicely. This was working out excellently. Too many bars can be stand-offish in America, and I've encountered a few that are just downright rude to beery folk, but despite my first inkling that this may follow suit, I loved my time here. Passed a few hours, and gave me some tasty ales to sample in the meantime.

Off on my travels once again, in search of the elusive Fuel, recommended to me by the barman at Downtown, as the best beer they sold, but off at the moment. To Union Station, he told me, you must try this. Seemingly the popularity of the beer had outstripped demand, as it was sold out here too. A pint of ESB instead was on the menu, and soon the brown sludge that I had ordered was proffered forth. Cloudy to the point of describing a peat bog as pristine, this thin headed 16 ounce illness was here. Malty and unpleasant brackish oxidized nose, the taste was smooth, slightly sour and with a taste of bad water filling up at the end. My guess is they don't sell much of this. Some bitterness, but a sourness, and something I'm not sure about going on. You know what, never mind, it's nearly October, 90 degrees, and a soft rain is falling. While all may be lost in the beer, not all is lost in the ambience. Until the Spice Girls came on over the piped music. Then I had to leave.

- Posted from my iPad

Location:Metro Center, Washington, DC

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Real Ale vs Craft Beer

I like good beer, I'm not going to hide that. I'm a ticker, a scooper, a rater, whatever you want to call it, I go out of my way to find beers that I haven't tried, in the search for that perfect ale. Several of the De Molen beers come close to perfection, but perfection varies with the time of day, my mood, the season, what I'm eating with my beer, ad infinitum. No beer is perfect 100% of the time.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot recently is the balance between "Craft Beer" and "Real Ale". At the Great British Beer Festival this year, I had a number of conversations with people about various products some breweries produce, St Peters and Brewdog to name but two, and one of the sticking points about certain beers was "but it's not real ale". So, I've been thinking, does it really matter.

As mentioned above, I always want to find a brilliant beer. If I want to sit down in front of the fire, and sip away, De Molen Tsarina Esra Reserva is divine. If I'm going to a barbecue in the park, why not take some cold Brewdog Punk IPAs along? At the moment, I'm sitting here with a St Peters Cream Stout, as it goes perfectly with a rather nice chocolate cake I'm halfway through. All these beers, for me, are excellent. But only one is "real".

On the one hand, Real Ale is a carefully crafted product, still alive as ever it was, fermenting in the barrel, gaining complexity and flavour (and occasionally a few nasties). Brewing it is an art, and cellaring it, and serving the perfect pint even more so. Generally the standards of the product are good.

On the other hand, Craft Beer is a wider description for the market. Craft beer can be kegged for example. Craft beer is a carefully crafted product. Brewing it is an art. Generally the standards of the product are good. See the similarities to the above statement?

What I think my bugbear here is, is that a section of real ale fanatics, probably mainly concentrated within CAMRA, will not give a good beer a chance, because it's not "real". This is what I strongly disagree with. I know it's important to protect brewing tradition, and to promote this style of beer, but to avoid a Brewdog pasteurised beer because of its "real" credentials is completely counterproductive. I took a side-trip from GBBF to the White Horse on Parsons Green for their American Beer Festival. Some of the American ales were divine - complex stouts, speciality beers, massive hugely-hopped double IPAs, and each one I tried made me think "wow". They were brilliant. But they were "fake ales", because they were kegged.

There are too many pisspoor beers and lagers on the market, the majority of which are kegged, to turn down a genuinely good kegged beer. Even a real ale can be ruined, by infection, or bad cellarmanship, and I'm sure the same subset talked about above would be the first to send a bad ale back. As long as we defend our tastebuds from insipid mass-market driven beer, and are able to educate people about what a decent beer is all about, we have done our job.

I love real ale, and I have a lot of respect for those that brew it. But is it the be-all and end-all? No. And it never will be.