There are plenty of beer drinkers who have idled over pitcher and mug at their local saloon, hour after hour wrestling with life’s Big Issues. But it’s doubtful that even a handful of bar owners has arranged standing-room only symposium on such weighty topics as the relationship between moral law and duty. And while beer pairings are now as common as tap handles, has anyone ever tried matching a discussion of the views of German philosophy giant Immanuel Kant with a Belgian white beer, a German hefe-weizen and a nitrogen tap American porter?
But that’s just the latest way Washington DC’s The Brickskeller differs from the pack of contemporary beer-focused bars and restaurants. Long an oasis for the brew-obsessed seeking out elusive imports and scarce regional American brews, the Brick (official name: The Brickskeller Dining House and Down Home Saloon) has continued to evolve, elevating its presence in the beer bar world as the Brew Revolution of the 1980s and 1990s created numerous competing brewpubs and microbreweries.
To say that the Brickskeller is beer-conscious would be a gross understatement: how many bars in America claim to carry more than 1100 beers at any one time? The food/beverage split at the Brick is approximately 35%/65%, and of the beverage total, 85% derives from beer sales. On a good Friday night, the Brick may do as many as 650 dinners, but most customers who make their way through the heavy wooden doors and down the narrow stairs to the brick lined saloon do so looking for a taste of the world’s best brews. (While wine and spirits make up only 5% and 10% of beverage sales, respectively, the Alexanders have created an unusual, Virginia-only list of 25 wines, and beer can collectors can still buy a bagful of pre-1978 vintage cans.)
BEER FOR ALL
The winner of this year’s Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence for best independent beer program, The Brick has gone from a pub known mostly for its beer can collection which also stocked a great array of international beers to its current place as a must-stop on the brewmaster speaking circuit, primarily through a dedication to customer education. Dave Alexander, managing partner of the Brick, initiated the series in the early 1980’s with a visit from British beer guru Michael Jackson and has since worked with the Smithsonian Institute (co-host of the recently concluded beer and philosophy series) and National Geographic on tastings and events as well.
As Alexander noted in his entry to the Cheers awards competition last year, “We focus on education of the consumer both with our beer list and our beer tasting series. Since the early 80’s we have brought the world’s leading brewmasters and beer authorities to our stage to introduce our customers to the world of beer and the fraternity of professionals pushing the brewing sciences into the next millennium.”
Since their first series (an effort to fill the infrequently used upstairs bar that turned into a booking bonanza), the list of speakers reads like a who’s who of international brewing: Brewmasters like Oliver Garrett from Brooklyn Brewery and Dick Yuengling of Yuengling, Pottsville PA; reps from the leading brewpub groups like Rock Bottom and John Harvard’s; speakers from mega-brewers AnheuserBusch and Miller; small but well-respected regional brewers like Dogfish Head and Old Dominion; category leaders like Anchor, Sierra Nevada and Belgium’s Leifman’s; anyone, it seems, who knows and would like to share something about the art, craft, science, trade and history of beer. They’ve even hosted a group of art directors who had worked on beer accounts to discuss beer advertising and marketing, which brought in an audience of other art directors.
Tastings have been orchestrated around such topics as hop varieties, holidays, regions and countries, brewing styles, cask-conditioned ales, Great American Beer Festival winners, chefs and now philosophy. Anyway you can learn about beer, it seems, the Brick has tried it.
Even the New York Times has taken note of the place’s importance: “The legend, the grandfather, a place beer lovers pay homage to when they visit Washington.”
PAVING THE WAY
Speakers and tastings may be good public relations, but the heart of the Brick is the beer list: from about 500 beers in 1983 when David and Diane Alexander took over active management, the list has grown to a mind-boggling 1100 brews (give or take a few.) From England not only Bass and Fuller’s but also Cropton and Old Deadly; from Holland, Heineken but also De Hortse and La Trappe; from Canada, Labatt and Molson but also Unibroue and McAuslan. And from the US, every iteration and small brewer’s wares that they can source show up one time or another on the Alexander’s list.
Many of the beers seem to be stocked simply as curiosities, like Turkey’s Efes and Latvia’s Aldaris (although with DC’s Embassy Row located a few blocks away, it’s possible the press attaché might drop in with old friends from Riga at any time.) As can be imagined, inventory maintenance is one of the biggest jobs at the Brick. All storage areas are refrigerated, so beers are less likely to be spoiled by the torrid DC summers, David says, but still, keeping the big glass cases behind the bar filled is a full-time job.
Selling that enormous selection is helped along by the Brick’s down-home décor, a mini-museum filled with remnants of the beer can collector-era Brick. Along the walls in the saloon are hung enclosed cases of aging Kreuger and Schmidt’s oil cans, and 12-ounce cans of such brands as Chesterfield, Blatz and 007. Trays, lights, clocks and other advertising memorabilia branded with the names of long ago faded beers like Gunther and Gablinger’s fill nooks and crannies of the dining area.
Behind the bar, glass-front floor to ceiling coolers line the length of the bar, holding hundreds of currently available brews. Numerous 24-page menus, which include updated beer lists, food menu, toasts from around the world, the Brickskeller’s history and notable historical brew facts (Julius Caesar describing beer as “a high and mighty liquor.”) are scattered across the bar. Postal workers on their way home and weary tourists scrutinize the lists and order beers while sitting on the slightly awkward beer barrel-shaped stools. Someone says, “Have you ever tried the oatmeal stout?” That’s the average sort of conversation here in the low ceilinged bar room, where T-shirts, caps and books about beer by Michael Jackson can be bought.
David says currently the best sellers at the Brick include all the hefe weizens he stocks, especially Paulaner. Hoegaarden, now available on tap, has made a splash (even though draft beer is only available in the upstairs bar, opened weekends and for parties and special events only.) Belgians are popular (the Brick stocks nearly 150 varieties), Pilsner Urquell still does well, as do the Samuels (America’s Adams and England’s Smith.) “But American micros are flat in this market; a lot of the brewers over-extended themselves and simply were confusing everyone with what they made,” says David.
Cask-conditioned English ales are also very popular among the brew-knowing Brick patrons. “But some people are skeptical. They’ll say to me ‘What do you mean it’s still alive?’ when I tell them about what a cask-conditioned ale is.”
The Brick started out in the late fifties as a family-owned pub located in a small and still-operating inn at the edge of Georgetown. Marketing has almost always been done via word of mouth, with some ads in local alternative press. With the advent of regional beer newspapers and beer guides, the Brickskeller gradually developed a reputation among travelers.
The brickskeller’s cool and cozy interior fits the old-fashioned saloon model perfectly.
Like many successful brew-centric operators, the Alexanders realize food is always important in a restaurant. “I’m sort of tired of people not realizing that the food we serve is very good,” says professionally trained cook Diane. ” We don’t get recognized for that very often.” Diane’s father, who opened the Brick in 1957, was a chef at an old DC landmark restaurant Napoleon’s.
“We’re not a cloth napkin place but we work at it and are always trying to improve the food,” says Diane. “We also experiment with cooking with beer and try to improve the quality of pub food.” After the beer boom hit, food may have seemed sort of an afterthought, but now the Brick’s full menu, with burgers, sandwiches, stews, crab cakes, spiced shrimp, grilled chicken and fish, buffalo steak and fish and chips qualifies as classic upscale pub fare; In fact, the Brick does a steady lunchtime business when there are few beers in sight (a sign of today’s morals-conscious Washington.)
Which is another benefit of the growing awareness among DC residents, at least, of the Brick’s association with local institutions such as the Smithsonian and National Geographic Society: A sort of social insulation from powerful anti-alcohol interests. In DC, dram shop laws allow local neighborhood councils wide powers in matters pertaining to bars and restaurants. David says a locally famous pub fell afoul of a powerful neighborhood council and ended up out of business. The education series helps protect the Alexanders from claims that their business exists only to serve alcohol.
In addition, the Alexanders are looking for ever-newer tasting and series topics, with perhaps a greater focus on food in the future. We have people who have been coming to our events for years and we have to keep doing something else to get them to keep coming back,” says Diane.
Next up in their fall series will be tastings of fresh harvest ales which David compares to Beaujolais Nouveau; west coast beers using fresh hops; and Larry Bell, president of Kalamazoo Brewing. And the Alexanders are always looking for new angles on one of the world’s oldest ventures, whether it includes more emphasis on beer with food, or more philosophical musings at the bar. Either way, you can count on the continuous growth of the world’s unofficially longest beer list, and of an Alexander working the floor; David and Diane’s son has shown a passion for the business and has his own plans for the old saloon.