Saying “Goodbye” to “The Brick”

18 12 2010

Photo credit:

Today is a sad day for beer drinkers everywhere, especially me. It is the final day of The Brickskeller, that venerable Washington DC institution and mecca for beer lovers everywhere. After more than 54 years, The Brick (as it is lovingly called by its fans) will close its doors for the final time.

The Washington Post has a very good update and interview with its owner, Dave Alexander. It is an especially sad day for me. I worked at The Brickskeller for almost a year. And it is what inspired this blog. I met some of my best friends there (both human and beer alike) and I am so very sad to see it go.

Depending on whether or not you believe the hyperbole, the Brickskeller helped set the tone for modern beer culture. They claim to have been the first to host beer tastings in the late 1980’s and their final tasting was last week. They claim to have given such young upstarts as Sam from Dogfish Head the boost up they needed to become great. And nearly every beer bar on the Eastern Seaboard has at least one alumnus of The Brick on their Staff. Greg Engert of Churchkey DC is one of the most famous of the former Brick employees. His quotes have been in the Washington Post, The New York Times and on NPR. He once said that he respected The Brickskeller for being a “liquid library” teaching him everything he knows about beer. I would agree. After one year working at the Brick, I still had not tasted everything on the menu (the largest in the world according to the Guinness World Records), though I tried my damnedest.

There are a lot of reasons why the Brick went under. And I am sure no one knows exactly why. It would be easy to blame the slow economy. Others would blame mismanagement by the owners. I would like to think the Brick was done-in by its own success. When I moved to Washington DC in 2007, there were very few bars with a quality beer list. You could find some places with a couple good beers on tap. And most liquor stores and corner stores would carry the usual macrobrews. But by the time I left earlier this year, a new restaurant or bar was not taken seriously unless it had at least a dozen beers on tap. And they all had to be quality. Churchkey, with its over 30 beers on tap and six cask ales was hailed for its list. Pizza Paradiso had a beer list longer than their pizza menu. The Black Squirrel has worked to become the third brewpub in DC. The Biergarten on H St. has over a dozen German beers on tap. Meridian Pint only serves American craftbrew. And that doesn’t even count the dozens of new bars and others that have stepped up their game since I have left. Corner stores, liquor stores and grocery stores have all picked up their game as well. It is common now to find Magic Hat, Dogfish Head, and Flying Dog replacing tall boys and 40s in up and coming neighborhoods. All this in less than 3 years. When I first started at The Brick in November of 2009, DC was considered a “beer wasteland” that was starting to “get better” by a visiting brewer. By the time I left in the following Summer, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada said that DC was a “world class beer city”. Greg Koch of Stone concurred by adding “no city in California has the quantity and quality of beer that DC does.”

And so, it is with a heavy heart, I say “goodbye” to the “Brick”. The new owners have promised to keep it as a beer bar with a trimmed down menu and an improved ambiance. But the name stays with the Alexander family. I wish them the best of luck and toast the loss of a good friend.


Beer as Conceptual Art

29 07 2010

Conceptionalism is nothing new in the American Craft Brew Scene. Even in the early days, Mendocino was naming all their beers after local birds. Flying Dog names all their beers with dog related puns and hires Ralph Steadman to design their labels. Most brewers in America came from the DIY aesthetic of the homebrew community. The results are nontraditional beers brewerd with nontraditional ingredients and by nontraditional practices. From this we have things like a quadruply dry-hopped Imperial IPA called Pliney the Elder; a pumpkin beer conditioned in a firkin made out of giant pumpkin; and a beer that features ingredients from every continent.

Schmaltz Brewing makes two very popular concept lines: the Jewish themed He’Brew and the Coney Island line of lagers: all named after acts in the freak show. At least two breweries have pirate theme lines. Dogfish Head, along with making the above mentioned Pangaea ale also makes a line of ancient beers and has made a beer dedicated to Miles Davis. This particular beer joins other beers dedicated to Thelonious Monk and other musicians like Frank Zappa.

With this long tradition of high concept beers, it should come to no great surprise that a brewer has used their beer as a forum for meta commentary on the current state of brewing. Brew Dog’s owners call themselves the Brew Punks and they wear the mantle well. Adopting a Devil-may-care attitude and an aesthetic of the anarchic, DIY, underground punk scene, their beers are joyfully irreverent. Their original line of beers were simple but with a daring edge. Their 3 A.M. Saint is a deliciously hoppy red ale. But they began to gain people’s attention when their 13% Imperial Stout called “Tokyo*” (dedicated to the 1980’s video game Space Invaders) was banned for having to much alcohol in England. Their response was a 1% ABV beer called “Nanny State”. The twist: this non-alcoholic beer has over 100 IBUs- A blindingly bitter FU! to the British Government.

As the eyes of the beer world trained in on them, Brew Dog’s follow up was 32% ABV Icebeer called Tactical Nuclear Penguin. They stepped into the extreme challenge by topping Sam Adam’s Utopias which previously held the record at 27%. In the video below, one can see the process in which they made the penguin. It also begins to show the formulation of the Beer Punk aesthetic: Giant Penguin costumes, nudity, and a healthy dose of irreverence.

This beer won them fame and a lucrative distribution contract to the States. By the time Mainstream America heard about Brew Dog, there was already backlash. Some considered their work as silly. While others thought the Brew Punks were opportunistic.

Love them or hate them, Brew Dog has left its mark on the beer world. When a German brewery threatened to steal their title, they responded with Sink the Bismark; a 41% Ice beer that referenced England’s chilly history with Germany.

For many, this seemed like the last straw. Even this editor fell into the backlash. As more and more people clamored for these ridiculously strong beers, terms like “over-hyped”, “fadish” and “self-promoting’ were thrown around. Until this week…

Brew Dog has released their Coup d’Etat with the The End of History. They have announced their final blow in the extreme beer wars. At 110 Proof (55% ABV), the beer rivals whiskey in strength. Not quite beer. Not quite a spirit. They have made their own hybrid. Just as Yves Klein designed and trademarked his own shade of blue, Brew Dog has perfected their own form of alcohol. This bleeding edge beer doesn’t come in just any bottle. This beer comes in a taxidermy rodent. Yes, that is right. This beer comes in road kill. And that is exactly what won me back to the side of Brew Dog. In a sweeping blow to the establishment, they have made their own liquor and served it up in a dead animal. All this for a price tag of $700!

In a day in age, where beer has become trendy and people collect bottles and trade them and sell them on-line, Brew Dog simultaneously created a collectible bottle and made a commentary on the ridiculousness of collecting bottles. Reading the comments on news stories and the End of History webpage, one gets the distinct impression that many people just don’t get it. There are talks of Brew Dog “Jumping the Shark” or “not being fair.” The haters are back, saying this beer is “gimmicky” or that they are “out for a quick buck.” But there is nothing “gimmicky” about well executed conceptual art.

Using organic matter for modern art has been used before. The famous DaDa artist Piero Manzoni submitted his own canned feces as an art piece. Joseph Beuys often incorporated animal pelts in his work. In 1965, he performed a piece called “How to Explain Pictures of a Dead Hare” in which he locked himself in an art gallery, covered his face with honey and cradled a dead hare.  In 1974, he even donned animal skins and locked himself in a room with a wild coyote. A few years back, there was a famous conflict in New York over a painting of the Virgin Mary made out of a collage of pornographic images and elephant dung. And Sam Pompas has begun selling jars of jam made from Lady Dianna’s hair.

Brew Dog may be silly and irreverent, but they do it with wit and intelligence. Just the name: The End of History references a political theory book about the transition of power from royalty to the people. If history is the recording of political structure, then democracy, in its purest form, is the end of history. If this beer has moved out of the realm of beer into some sort of non-beer, then this is the end of beer history. They could have named it something silly, but instead, they named it something with nuance and hidden meaning that the average person would not understand.

Many artists and performers have used irreverence as the medium for their message. And in these cases, the medium is the message. In the 1970’s, glam rockers like David Bowie and Elton John brought the debate over gender and sexuality to a whole new level by blurring and blending genders and sexuality into a melange of ambiguity. Lady Gaga is reminding a new generation of the need to question gender paradigms. Frank Zappa pioneered pre-punk by blending jazz, rock and avant-garde into something totally unheard of; sparking other genres of music.

Many brewers have brought their beers to a level of fine art, rivaling some of the finest wines and liquors. But we finally have the conceptual artists on the fringe reminding us not to take things so seriously. We need more “bad boys of brewing” who will remind us: hey, its just beer! Don’t take yourselves too seriously. And if you don’t have $700 to spend on beer that comes in a squirrel, its no big deal. Because, honestly, the joke is on the people who do.

Monday Beer News Round-Up

26 07 2010

Austin, TX- A company that specializes in bottling equipment has announced the first ever silicone bottle cap. The caps are reusable and act as a way to keep carbon dioxide in and dirt out. Patent is currently pending and they retail for $12.99 for 6. They fit all standard sized beer bottles and are dishwasher safe.

Washington, DC- The Beer Institute, whose members are brewers, retailers and distributors, doubled their Q2 lobbying spending from the quarter before to a $250,000. Money was spent to promote new laws on Federal Excise taxes (the tax brewers pay on their final product) as well as labeling standards and commerce policies. New laws proposed this quarter could explain the rise in lobbying as well as the annual brewers convention in Washington DC in June.

Chicago, IL- A month ago, we mentioned that President Obama fulfilled his beer bet with the UK’s Prime Minister over the U.S. v. England World Cup Match with a bottle of Goose Island 312. Apparently, that Presidential shout-out has helped increase the sales of “the Urban Wheat”. A spokesperson said that sales for 312 have grown to become the most popular beer Goose Island has. When the Prime Minister was asked how he liked the beer, he responded by saying while he enjoys his beers at a warmer temperature, he took the President’s advice to drink it cold. He enjoyed it so much, the Prime Minister apparently cheered for Germany during their game against Argentina.

Fraserburgh, Scotland- The fellas at Brew Dog have put an end to the extreme ABV challenge with their newest beer “The End of History.” Clocking in at an outrageous 55% (110 proof), this Ice-frozen Belgian Blonde made with Juniper berries and Scottish Highlands grasses is now the world record holder for the strongest beer in the world. Brew Dog made only 11 bottles that have all been sold for more than $700 a piece. On top of that, each bottle is decorated with a reconstructed taxidermy road killed rodent (some wearing clothing). Named after a Japanese post-modern political text about democracy and anarchy, this beer is a mini-treatise on the state of brewing.

First Sign That Beer is Getting Trendy?

22 07 2010

The New York Times’ Wednesday food section came out yesterday with not one, not two but THREE separate mentions of beer. My mind was blown.

Occasionally, the Times has given us beer drinkers a bone by mentioning beer. There was that article about Belgian beer. Then there was that article about sour beers. And then there was that article about why Growlers are cool again.

But this week, there were three totally separate articles about beer.

1. There is apparently a beer tasting happening this week in SoHo. (Or TriBeCa?) Tickets cost $40. So, if you are in SoHo and have $40 to spend on a tasting, there is one somewhere.

2. Building a Better Beer Can Chicken. Correspondent Melissa Clark apparently hasn’t had much success in the past making a beer can chicken. It involves placing a can of beer inside of a whole chicken and then cooking it with indirect heat. Her complaints were that the outside cooks too quickly and the inside cooks too slowly. The solution: more consistent heat and give your chicken a good slathering of spiced mayo. The pictures look pretty good.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

3. Did you know that you can cook with beer? Yes you can! (Long time readers know this to be true). The author, John Willoughby, begins the article by admitting he would rather drink a pilsner than a stout. But using stout in food can help emphasize earthy, roasty or smoky flavors. (It is not often that we let our snark flag fly high, but in this case we are going to let it fly wildly in the wind.) < snark>It is precisely this “forward thinking revolutionary idea” or cooking mushrooms in stout that makes the NY Times the paragon of trend setting of our time!</ snark> In all seriousness though, it is a good idea to cook mushrooms in stout. And their lamb chops in a stout-citrus glaze look pretty amazing. One thing they neglected to mention in the article was that when cooking with beer, a little can go a long way. Cooking beer tends to accentuate the hop bitterness. Adding a little bit of beer toward the end of the cooking process can caramelize the sugars without increasing bitterness.

Sabra Krock for The New York Times

Keep up the good work New York Times! It is stories like these that help you seem current in these times of new trends. We hope to see more cooking with beer as well as some beer and food pairings. Maybe there will be less emphasis on wine and more on beer in the future. At least we can dream.

Monday Beer News Round-Up

19 07 2010

Silver Spring, MD- Discover Channel has announced an new show for their Fall 2010 line-up called “Brewed”. The show, hosted by Dogfish Head owner and brewer Sam Calagione, will explore the history and culture of beer around the world. Sam will travel from his Milton, Delaware, brewery to locations all over the world learning about origins of beer and different “extreme” style brewing techniques. In our opinion, Sam is an excellent choice as his brewery has made beers based on an ancient beer found in King Midas’ tomb, one that uses chai and super heated rocks, and one that includes ingredients from every continent on Earth.

Tokyo, Japan- Geishas, the costumed female companions of Japan, have begun serving beer to their clients as a low-cost alternative to the traditional green tea. Due to the downturn in the global economy, fewer and fewer businessmen and tourists are visiting the Geishas. As a way to draw customers to the tea gardens, they have begun offering less expensive packages which include a beer, snacks, and entertainment. Since initiating these bargain deals, the Geishas have found business pick up.

Los Angeles, CA- Playboy has announced their favorite bars of the year. The complete list includes their favorite bars, late night food spots and dives. Best dives include: The Big Hunt in Washington DC, Specs in San Francisco, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville and The Subway Inn in New York City.

Monday Beer News Round-Up

28 06 2010

Washington DC- President Obama and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron have finally settled their beer bet. As we mentioned two weeks ago, the two Premiers bet a case of beer each on the USA vs. England World Cup game. Since the game ended in a tie, there was no word on how the bet would be settled until this weekend. As Mr. Obama and Mr. Cameron were meeting in Toronto, Canada for the G20, they swapped bottles of beer. Mr. Cameron, having bet a case of “The best English Lager” apparently went back on his side of the bet by offering a Wychwood Hobgoblin, a Northern English Style Pale Ale. Mr. Obama apparently also went back on his end of the bet, too. He had offered a case of “America’s best beer.” Instead he brought Goose Island 312, an American wheat ale from Chicago. While the President has been known to favor Yuengling Lager in the past, 312 shows his devotion to the Windy City.

Milwaukee, WI- A weeks-old rumored sale on the Pabst Blue Ribbon company has apparently been completed. C. Dean Metropoulos has bought the company from the charitable trust that had owned the company for an undisclosed amount. The California-based trust had run the company since 1994. But the IRS had told the group it was illegal for a non-profit to run a for-profit organization and gave them until the end of the year to sell the business or shut it down. The trust had been asking for $250 Million for the company. The Metropoulos group has invested in many food companies and chose the company for its increase in profits despite a drop in the American Lager market. Pabst has gained popularity amongst young people in large cities due to its “Ironic”, “Retro” charm and cheap prices.

Milton, DE- Dogfish Head Brewery has released a limited edition beer in recognition of the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. (The editor and his S.O. have a story about last Christmas when we hitched a ride to Nashville, TN with a guy we met on and how the driver insisted on listening to all three discs of Bitches Brew at maximum volume the entire way home.) Owner of Dogfish Head, Sam Calagione has often credited Bitches Brew and Miles Davis as inspiration for his brewery. The beer, which was premiered in Washington DC this month at SAVOR will be released in August. It is a blend of three Imperial stouts as well as a honey beer and will contain gesho root, an ingredient found often in Ethiopian honey wines.

Monday Beer News Round-Up

14 06 2010

Washington DC- President Obama and The Prime Minister of The UK wagered a case of beer each over the outcome of Saturday’s World Cup match. Echoing the wager made with the Prime Minister of Canada over this year’s Olympic hockey game, The Premiers offered “The best beer” of their nations. Neither The White House, nor Downing street suggested which beers they had in mind. But Cameron was definitely going to send an English lager. In the past, Obama has preferred Yuengling Lager, but he would have a difficult time suggesting it is the best we have to offer. The game wound up as a draw 1-1. No word yet on how they intend to settle this bet. We believe the best and most sportsmanly way would be each exchange a case. No word yet on whether or not the President intends on participating in these wagers for every round or just with countries we “have a special relationship” with. Either way, we won’t have to worry about Obama betting with our third match of the game-Algeria- a dry, Muslim nation.

Scottsdale, AZ- A boutique specializing in pampering dogs has released a new “beer” for dogs. The non-alcoholic malt beverage is flavored with chicken and beef instead of hops–which are toxic to dogs. They run $5 a bottle and $25 for a six pack. For an extra $10 you can have the labels personalized with a picture of your own dog. But we believe at $35 a six pack plus tax, one can buy a lot of really good beer for one’s self and leave the dogs to water.

Philadelphia, PA- A local Irish bar called Tir Na Nog is outfitting its tables with their own taps. Customers are able to pour for themselves, thus cutting down on waste and staff time. Each tap is outfitted with a meter which is operated by the bartender. The taps are turned on and the meter runs as they are opened. By the end of the night, the waiter settles the tab by the ounce. The bar charges $6.50 per 20 oz. pour. Rumors have it that Meridian Pint in DC will also be offering table taps for their customers.