Let’s be honest, there is nothing more annoying than someone who is a lot drunker than you having a lot more fun than you. The combination of a lack of self-awareness and a preponderance of volume and energy can be miserable in a confined space…like say a medium sized bus. Thankfully, Reston Limousine attempts to set the stage early in their introductory email:
“Our tour is not a rolling booze cruise…”
This combined with some peculiarities in DC beer law results in a Brewery tour that is less oriented on getting sloshed and more on experiencing the actual breweries you’re visiting. I detailed what I see as the amazing value of these types of tours in a previous blog post, and now after completing the tour I can document the journey.
Full blogger disclosure: Reston Limo contacted me directly and asked if I’d be interested in taking a free tour. I had actually checked out their tours previously but I hadn’t explored the option yet. I gladly accepted their offer for two free seats on the bus and we quickly paid for three more spots to expand our party to five. The more the merrier!
We ventured out early Saturday to meet the rest of the DC Beer Bus tour at the designated East Falls Church metro station. My wife Gretchen, Scott from Hopping Scotts, his brother, wife and myself showed up just on time in spite of my best efforts to make us late. I marched onto the large white bus sporting my empty growler only to discover that this was a winery tour bus also run by Reston Limo picking up at the same location (if you’re into winery tours, here’s a link). Shortly thereafter the “Beer Bus” arrived, piloted by the ever smiling Dave Lamb who welcomed us aboard. The bus filled in with a few other parties and finally we were joined by Therese, Reston Limo’s Marketing Manager and our brewery guide for the day. Therese showed up with a box of Girl Scout cookies for one of the patrons having a birthday, which was a really nice touch.
After a quick roll-call, Therese announced that there would be a few bloggers on the tour today (one of them was me) and passed out press release forms for everyone to sign. Typically the tour picks up in two different locations, but today we had no one waiting at the second stop in Pentagon City, so we drove into DC early and spent about 30 minutes wandering around the neighborhood surrounding Bluejacket until they opened for business.
Bluejacket and The Arsenal
While wandering about the neighborhood, Scott spied Greg Engert, the Beer Director for NRG, grabbing a quick smoke and we immediately wondered if he would be our brewery guide for this leg of the tour. Sure enough, when we finally assembled in the restaurant, the beer savant himself lead us around.
This is my third adventure with Mr. Engert, having previously taken two other beer classes with him (one detailed here), so I knew we were in store for a DEEP dive into the brewery and brewing philosophy of Bluejacket. Decked out in his standard issue uniform of skinny black tie and equally skinny black jeans, he launched into some initial groundwork about the history of Blue Jacket and the building that became its home.
Quick fact: the brewery is named Bluejacket as an homage to the building’s US Navy manufacturing roots, the actual restaurant that shares it’s space is called The Arsenal. While obviously not investment-free, the brewery is actually rent-free, as the Arsenal makes enough revenue to cover the rent for both spaces.
I’ve visited a number of breweries, and while the variety of beer on offer may be widely divergent, the same basic setup is common among most wholesale production operations. Bluejacket doesn’t fit that mold at all, standing as a true brewer’s playground that was designed from birth to allow for diversity and quality over quantity, resulting in 20 rotating tap lines of fermented goodness. While they intend to grow to be a production brewery and not just a “brewpub”, it’s obvious with the sizing of their fermenters that the barrels per year is not a target they care very much about leveraging a return on investment.
Greg mentioned that they intend to ramp up production and distribute locally to their own restaurants as well as “people who treat the beer right”. Dirty lines, compressed air delivery, improper serving temperatures? You need not apply. Truth is that Bluejacket will likely be able to be picky with who gets their beer, and it’s also very likely they’ll be able to charge whatever they want for it without impacting demand very much in this market.
Situated on three floors throughout the building, the entire operation is plumbed for ease of movement by gravity where possible (full plans are somehow available online here). A first floor mill feeds the hot-side 15-bbl direct-fired brewhouse from Premiere Stainless on the third floor. The brewhouse is fitted with a grist case, separate mash and lauter tuns with grant and blendable hot and cold liquor tanks. The brewhouse feeds directly to the second floor below, hosting a bank of single-batch fermenters and a couple of double-batch sized tanks to service their most popular recipes. A dedicated sour hose waits to pump lacto infected beers in and out of the horizontal open-fermenter as needed. A lab equipped with expected items, like a microscope for yeast cell counting and a variety of hydrometers is rounded out by a medical-class autoclave, incubator, dissolved oxygen meters and a full laminar flow hood. If you’re not catching on yet, this is beer nerd utopia.
Fermentation flows down to the first floor where the brite tanks and keg washing/filling station allow for easy carbonation and packaging. Kegs simply roll right from filling into an advanced serving cooler providing proper cold storage temperatures for stock kegs, as well as three distinct serving temps all set higher than the ambient storage temperature and delivered via a novel heat exchanging system.
The icing on the cake is the dedicated sour room, filled with deliberately infected barrels of a variety of heritages and a full 15 barrel stainless steel koelschip with open air venting and unsealed Virginia white cedar situated directly above the cooling wort to encourage local microbial growth. I think this will probably prove to be the true distinguishing feature of Bluejacket in the years to come, as people can only chase the hop race for so long before a new flavor profile becomes popular. While hops will still probably remain king, I think there’s a lot of room in the craft palate for sour and brett to join the party. (Well, maybe not brett, but one can hope.)
A tiny detail, but one of interest to most homebrewers that argue about the finer points of brewing and fermenting vessels, while the ends of all of Bluejackets transfer pipes are standard stainless tri-clamps, lots of the in-betweens are made of regular old copper pipe. It’s a quaint reminder that humans brewed for centuries before stainless was ever commercially available.
After completing our lengthy tour, we were lead down to The Arsenal where we could trade our drink ticket for the sampler of our choice. As the tour was fully off schedule, we took a quick poll of the tour members and decided to extend our stay to grab a quick bite to eat. Our group broke off and ordered pork rinds, pretzels, frankenbutter bleu cheese fries and crab deviled eggs to munch on. As with most NRG restaurants, the food is mostly novel, mostly good and mostly overpriced – but that has become the standard around DC in recent years.
For beer, I sampled their Arsonist Smoked Oud Brun ale, a collaboration with De Struise Brouwers. The beer was very tasty with noted tart and smoke tones, but would be a challenging beer for some in a full glass. For my second, I ordered a full glass of their Forbidden Planet, a mildly sweet, unfiltered Galaxy dry-hopped kolsch.. Finally one of our party graciously allowed me to sample the Black Eye, a described “robust porter” that was very smooth at 7.4% ABV.
We were joined at our table by Laura from Best Thing on the Menu, who I was introduced to as one of the guys from “DC Beer” (which I am not). I clarified that I run a tiny homebrew blog and twitter (the one you’re on now) and we proceeded to grill her on DC eats and her background over beers and food.
After finishing and paying, it was on to the next stop in our journey.
The route from Bluejacket to DC Brau took us through sections of the city I’ve probably never touched before, a circuitous journey through economically depressed and industrial sections of DC that just don’t get many visits from tourists. Here we begin to see the disparity between what is essentially a vanity brewpub backed by millions and millions of dollars of established DC area money and the realities of a scrappy regional wholesale production brewery.
This is not a stones throw away from Nationals Park in a gentrified and polished strip of development, DC Brau sits behind a run-down strip mall, surrounded by razor wire and decay. Save the giant shiny new grain silo, there are almost no indication that a brewery exists here, but step inside and you see the prototypical production brewery layout. Set in a large and somewhat dingy warehouse stand rows of fermenters, a mid-sized micro brewhouse and a canning line ready to crank out pallets and pallets of The Corruption and other local brews.
Step past the imposing gentleman checking ID’s at the door and you’re handed four drink tickets and find yourself in a room full of an odd assortment of merchandise. Everything from custom belts to a variety of hats and bike racing shirts emblazoned with the DC Brau logo awaits your purchase. We were late to catch a tour which didn’t bother me much, when you’ve seen one package brewery – generally you’ve seen them all.
Stepping through the merchandise room, we were met by the delicious aromas of Granville Moore’s fries and mussels radiating from the corner of the brewery. A small tap line hosted the beers of the day, unfortunately all standard offerings available most everywhere in the area. I can’t resist fries, so we grabbed two orders and started chowing down whilst sampling beers.
I mentioned the peculiarities of DC beer laws earlier. Under DC law, production breweries are not legally permitted to serve more than 12 ounces of beer to the public. This means most places will simply cap you at four 3 ounce samples for simplicity and pints are not an option at all under current law. Without loading up on beers at Bluejacket, you’re probably not going to finish this tour by getting tanked (which is a good thing in my opinion). Another oddity is the fact that DC views growlers legally as “open containers” so they seal every growler around the neck immediately after filling with shrink-wrap plastic. It’s illegal to consume from them on-site and if you get pulled over with a broken seal when the growler is in your car, you’re probably going to jail.
I sampled the drafts on tap, and while I did notice a improvement in The Corruption over the last time I tried it, nothing specifically excited me. On the Wings of Armageddon, perhaps their best received beer, was available only in cans to carry out. “The Tradition” a new beer brewed in partnership with the DC United was decent and the “Model Citizen” was a pleasant surprise, but nothing else struck my fancy.
Herein lies one of the major problems of creating a wholesale package brewery, there is just no real incentive to push limits and innovate. In fact, it’s easy to argue that there are large market forces that demand you make the most palatable, most widely acceptable beer you possibly can. This isn’t a fault, it’s just a fact of the industry. Not everyone can be like a Dogfish, with the gravitas to brew a beer with exotic ingredients or esoteric flavor profiles and rest on the comfort of knowing the public will gladly buy it all up regardless of how good it might taste (or not in some cases). This fact can lead to some very “safe” beers, good beers in many examples, but ultimately very safe beers. To be fair, I would express identical criticism of Port City just over the river as well as many other regional breweries. I might be wrong, but it’s my opinion that if a person doesn’t care much about buying local or doesn’t identify with the “DC Brau” branding, there is just no specific reason to pick up a sixpack of their beer over any other brewery in the market.
3 Stars Brewing
After rousing up our party, we piloted through other indistinct portions of DC to arrive at 3 Stars Brewing Company. In a slightly more industrial area than DC Brau, 3 Stars is the upstart, improbable brewery: assembled from very modest second hand brewing equipment, laid out in a former auto body shop with perhaps the world’s most modest homebrew store attached to the side. What 3 Stars lacks in polish and presentation, they certainly make up for in “attitude”, thankfully the beer is solid.
The brewery tour at 3 Stars comes with a warning, if you aren’t fond of expletives, don’t take it. If they were walking caricatures, Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey would be a pair of giant beards spilling “fucks” like loose change, but boiled down to their core roles: Mike is the brewer, Dave is the hustle.
The tour they give is less centered on brewing and more on the scrappy backstory of dogged persistence that fought to bring the brewery to life. Visiting bars to sample homebrew and get feedback, gathering letters of intent in hopes of luring investment, putting homes and cars on the line to make a dream into reality. It is inspirational and authentic for sure, but the “F-you we don’t need you” attitude sprinkled here and there might be grating to some. I’m not going to suggest they’re a pair of misunderstood teddy bears, but it might be easy to miss the obvious passion lying under the thick layer of rebellious indignation that influences their approach to the market.
The brewery and brand was built with shoe leather, sweat and many personal risks, resulting in a perfect story to bookend the three stops on the tour. If there were an exact opposite to Bluejacket, it is 3 Stars. Bluejacket’s brand new multi-thousand dollar brewhouse contrasted against 3 Stars cobbled-together used equipment. Bluejacket’s bourgeois neighborhood contrasted against this out of the way industrial park. The polish, presentation and wealth that permeates the Arsenal compared to the thrift, the grime and the gruff that is 3 Stars.
Lucky for all of us, in addition to having a good story to tell, they make good beer. Damn tasty beer indeed, tested over many iterations in a homebrew basement just like the rest of us enthusiasts out there. Everything I sampled on draft was something I would gladly order at a bar and could easily earn the right to be a regular pint if it were available around me (it isn’t yet, so check the chart below on where to find it).
After filling two growlers at 3 Stars with Two to the Dome (double IPA) and the Phoenix (Rye Saison), we boarded the bus for a relaxing and leisurely ride home under driver Dave’s skillful care. Home by late afternoon, you can easily still get errands done, or continue the theme and crack open a growler in the safety of your own home.
Reston Limo has a great operation and has built good a good report with each brewery on the tour, but it’s the small details like bottled water on board and a cooler with ice in the back for growlers and six packs picked up along the way that really make it worth your time. Everyone on the bus obviously had a lot of fun and we were taken places fully inaccessible by Metro safely and securely, so I fully recommend the DC Beer Bus as probably the best way to experience the DC brewery scene. (Don’t forget, be a solid bro and tip your driver.)
Why bother with driving and parking when you can pay someone a modest fee to do everything for you? To me, it’s a no-brainer and I’m keeping their Loudoun tour in mind for a future date.
Thanks to all of the breweries for hosting us and a special thanks to Therese for getting me on the tour.
Also, check out The Fashionable Foodie’s take on the tour here.