Friday, August 01, 2008


I just returned from a couple of nights in the world’s most confusing city, Washington DC, a place in which driving is a total gumball rally of missing signs, traffic circles, ill-timed lights and confusing streets (NW, NE, SW, SE), and which totally puts Boston of San Francisco to shame for sheer & utter vehicular bafflement. What relevance does this have to this beer blog? Why, had I not lost my bearings on Tuesday night after my flight, I’d have easily found THE BRICKSKELLER, one of the country’s oldest and most famous beer bars, and enjoyed several fine brews upon which I could report. As it was, I gave up in utter despair and frustration, and found the nearest restaurant where I laid my hat for 90 minutes. It was a fairly upscale place near The Capitol called BISTRO BIS. They had good service and bottles of CHIMAY, of which I partook. That’s about all I can say for it, outside of the fact that a map was supplied, and I did eventually find my hotel, too late for any spelunking at The Brickskeller.

Lucky for me I had another night here after my work-related duties were completed. The Brickskeller was only 3 blocks from my hotel, funny enough. I once went to this bar with my new girlfriend (now my wife) and her cousin in 1995, and I was totally awed by the place. 1,000 different beers from around the globe, even back then. I recall being excited to try Estonian and Nigerian beer, but I chickened out on both counts and ended up getting whatever the local brew on tap was (I’m guessing it might have been OLD DOMINION). So I’m back thirteen years later, knowing a little bit more about beer and ready to dive in for a total MAP ROOM, BEERBISTRO, BLIND TIGER ALE HOUSE-like traveling experience. You know what? I was kind of disappointed in this place, which is hard to reckon for such a legendary gathering hall for beer dorks like me. My complaints are as follows:

1. Poor representation of offerings. I excitedly scanned the tap list and bottle list upon arrival, only to find that my first 5 choices were all sold out or otherwise gone. First choice: SOUTHAMPTON SECRET ALE (an alt) on draft. “Oh sorry, we ran out earlier today”. OK, how about that SOUTHAMPTON IMPERIAL PORTER? “Yeah, that’s gone too”. Damn you, Brickskeller! I’ll take this DOGFISH HEAD FESTINA PECHE I’ve heard so much about. Gone. ST. LOUIS FRAMBOISE? Gone. Hmm, OK, then how about ALLAGASH DUBBEL RESERVE? “Hey, looks like we don’t have that one either”. 1,000 different beers looks a hell of a lot less interesting when everything one desires is not in stock. Someone has a supply chain problem to get cracking on.

2. Warm beer. My first choice that actually was in stock was a bottle of SOUTHERN TIER’s PHIN & MATT’S EXTRAORDINARY ALE (more on the beer itself below). It was presented to me warm. I can handle a warm ale, but I’d prefer something moderately cool that can warm up on its own. When asked what the dealio was, my server told me their refrigeration system was actually having problems keeping the “S” beers cold. One would have expected a good bar to tell the customer this before hauling one out of the broken cooler and plopping it on the table with no explanation.

3. Weak food. Hey, when in the Washington/Baltimore area, ya gotta order crab cakes, right? Not if they’re the undifferentiated fried-mush-with-tartar-sauce The Brickskeller serves up, you don’t (or shouldn’t). Nor the lukewarm Ora Ida frozen french fries they served them with. I can usually hang with just about any pub food, and as hungry as I was, even this I wolfed down. But in an area (Dupont Circle) with at least 50 great restaurants I could have gone to, it’s a no-brainer that next time I’ll do my drinking here after dinner, thanks.

Finally, the place is stale and old and musty, which works well for many bars but just makes this one a little on the mildly-irritating, somewhat-gross side. San Francisco’s TORONADO is a squeaky-clean sanitation palace compared to this. Also, memo to the mohawked gentleman who served me my food and ale: good service means making semi-regular eye contact with your tables when you walk by, and not throwing ‘tude when your customer dares to order another beer. There, I got it all out. Whew.

Here’s what went down my throat amidst all the cranky, curmudgeonly complainin’:

SOUTHERN TIER PHIN & MATT’S EXTRAORDINARY ALE – I was totally jonesing for some serious Southern Tier action out east – I was able to pick up a bottle of their CHERRY SAISON to bring home while out here – and decided to start my journey with their flagship pale ale. To be honest, it’s no big deal. I even gave it an extra half point just because it was served lukewarm, but all told, this is a yellow pale ale, very simple but hoppy and fizzy on the back of the throat. It has a good foam retention which gave it a creamier taste than I expected, with nice moderate grapefruit flavor kicking in on the aftertaste. A good beer for all comers but nothing particularly special. 6.5/10.

ST. BERNARDUS PATER 6 – Finally! I complete the entire ST. BERNARDUS lineup of outstanding Belgian ales! This is a lovely dark brown ale, Belgian all the friggin’ way. Hops are medium, and the beer is a little “chewy”, with strong maltiness and the taste of some darker dried fruits. Prunes and figs, most likely, and it finishes a little sweet. I dug it – this crew just can’t seem to make a bad beer. 7.5/10.

DOGFISH HEAD RAISON D’XTRA 2005 – Wow, this was a real treat, and exactly the sort of “beer experience” I was hoping for. Until I looked it up, I had no idea that this beer was as strong as it was (18% or 20%, depending on which site you look at). Sure, I knew it was a whopper – it’s totally dessert-sweet, and the more port wine-like beer I have ever had – but it’s soooo good, league better than Dogfish Head’s strange 120-MINUTE IPA. This is like a barrel-aged cookie beer. No head at all, served in a small wine glass, and so good I could have gulped it down yet I chose to keep my wits about me and drink it with class and style (with my pinky extended at 45 degrees from the glass). Obviously aging this one for three years did some nice things to it, and it’s actually ON TAP at the Brickskeller. Nice. 9/10.

So would I go back to The Brickskeller? Of course. It’s still a church of beer dorkery, and next time I’ll ask the right questions, like, “what isn’t in stock on your tap list?”, “is your fridge busted?”, “hey, can I get some service over here for Christ’s sake?” and “do you have Prince Albert in a can?”. I won’t eat there, but I just might drink a beer or two there. You should too, but heed my warnings and know what to look out for, OK?


Anonymous said...

Wow sounds like a horrible experience but at least you got to try D'Extra which is a fantastic brew. To bad I think it got retired or is going to get retired.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you on all points. Their list is a joke because half of it does not exist.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the report. Glad I did not go there back in April.


Anonymous said...

dont forget that its tough to afford to drink there without a k street expense account.