My first real visitor after moving to DC almost 7 years ago was, of course, Magnus Skullsplitter. He was always my pioneer when it came to houseguests. He would come to my new apartment/condo/home before anyone else and test the futon, the shower, the local bars and restaurants, etc. He would “take one for the team” as it were, and through him, you could learn what creature comforts needed to be improved for future guests, and what bars and restaurants should be avoided. For instance, Wifey and I decided to keep the place clean by providing slippers for all of our guests to wear around the house. Magnus happily wore a pair of red, cheap, IKEA slippers throughout the weekend. They looked ridiculous, and I suspect it was annoying having to take his shoes on and off every time he entered and left. But he did so without complaint and after he returned home, Wifey and I decided that the “no shoes” rules was inane and we never enforced it again.
When Magnus arrived in DC that first time, we decided to head out for a beer (shocking!). I had heard rumor of a legendary beer bar in the West End called the Brickskeller, but with the time constraints placed on me by starting grad school and furnishing my apartment, I hadn’t gotten around to visiting it at that point. With Magnus in town, I decided it was high time to check it out.
We arrived early at the Brick…too early, as it turns out. It wasn’t open yet and we had a half-hour to kill before they started serving. So we walked next door to a nice-looking pub called the “Fireplace” (our DC-based readers are laughing at me already) and bellied up to the bar. As we were about to order a brew, we both looked around and noticed a distinct lack of womenfolk in the room. We also noticed that everyone was staring at us. Then we looked at each other, silently nodded our heads, got up, and walked out without saying a word. Thus ended my only adventure in a DC gay bar.*
*As I found out later, it is a very “local” gay bar, and if you aren’t a regular, you’ll get a death stare until you leave. Also, Magnus and I would have made a pretty shitty gay couple since he never worked out and I frequently look like a homeless man.
Rather than risk repeating our error, we wandered over to a bookstore for a few minutes (the always enjoyable Kramerbooks), and then returned to the Brick after it opened. We ordered a variety of unique brews that neither of us had ever sampled before and we had a blast perusing the absurdly lengthy beer list. It was a wonderful first experience and the Brick quickly became my bar of choice during my DC tenure. Well-stocked beer bars were still a novelty in those days and the Brickskeller’s menu was simply ridiculous. They had beers from all over the world and hundreds from the US. Their menu dwarfed the list at my regular haunt in Boston (the Sunset Grill and Tap), and they had offerings from breweries I had never even heard of (like Hair of the Dog in Oregon and Old Dominion in Virginia). Sure, the food was terrible, the service was worse, the bathrooms were Trainspotting-esque, and the ambiance was pretty grim even for a dive. But still, a thousand types of beer! Who cares about the other stuff?!
So, for a couple of years, whenever a fellow Alehead came to town, the first spot we always hit was the Brick. When Doc and Nurse Van Drinkale came to visit, we spent a long, pricey night in the upstairs bar, ordering vintage bottles and one-off draft brews. It was a fairly epic night that I remember not at all…
The problem (for the Brickskeller at least), is that over the past few years, the craft beer scene has changed both nationally and locally in DC. Craft beers have become hip, popular, and ubiquitous. Gastropubs and beer bars are now popping up in major cities and all of a sudden it has become fairly easy to find obscure brews from every corner of the globe at your local watering hole. DC’s beer bar du jour, the excellent Churchkey, opened a couple of years ago and showed the locals what a thoughtful, high-end alehouse should look like. A massive variety of taps and an equally huge bottle selection. Intelligent selections representing every major flavor and style of beer. Knowledgeable, quick servers who can help you pick the perfect brew. A clean, upscale environment with excellent food and soaring ceilings. It’s a blueprint for success and Churchkey is packed to the gills every night of the week.
The Brickskeller, on the other hand, forgot to evolve. While other beer bars were sprouting up and showcasing new, exciting breweries and beers, the Brick’s menu stayed somewhat static. While other places had beautiful, shining new decors, the Brick just kept getting dingier and dirtier. While other bars recognized the importance of pairing great food with great beer, the Brick’s notoriously bad food menu just got worse and worse. And while other bars made it their mission to always have every beer on their menu available, the Brick would invariably be “out” of the first four beers you listed.
That last point was the nail in the coffin for many former Brickskeller regulars. What’s the point of having an epic selection of beers if you only have 20% of them available at any one time? And since the server has to keep running back and forth to check on the availability of your order, it can take 30 minutes to finally get a beer in front of you. As these problems became more and more apparent, I started venturing to the Brick less and less…and then not at all. After I moved from DC, I didn’t really miss the place. During our infrequent visits back to the District, I stopped by a couple of times, but the bar seemed even sadder and shabbier when compared to the new beer bars in town that had opened in my absence. It’s a dinosaur, pure and simple.
But despite all of that…there was a part of me that was sad to hear that the Brickskeller will be closing at the end of the year. Blogger Miss Mango Hands informed me that the Brick was set to shut down shortly on Facebook. I wasn’t surprised exactly…just a little bummed. You might never go back to the old Italian place in town where you used to eat pizza as a kid, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sad to see it boarded up when you come home. Sure, the Brick’s days were numbered when new beer bars entered the fray and left the bar in the dust, but it was an important part of every DC-based Alehead’s life for many years.
I assumed that was the end of the story…a bar past its prime finally shuffles off this mortal coil. But after checking out some blogs, I discovered the truth: the Brickskeller is changing owners and its name, but it doesn’t appear to be changing much else. The new owners said they’ll upgrade the bathrooms a bit, but otherwise their plan is to be closed for a couple of days around Christmas and then re-open with a new name and slightly nicer restrooms.*
*Note: The new owners were apparently going to name the bar “Rock Creek” after the famous stream about a block from the Brickskeller’s front door. As it turns out, a rather well-known restaurant in Bethesda already has that name. How the new owners didn’t realize this, I’m not sure. But I’m starting to have some doubts as to their business acumen. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Brick has some “new”, new owners in a few months.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those minor changes simply ain’t gonna do it. The Brick COULD be one of the best bars in DC again (and I hope it becomes so)…but it needs more than a little TLC. It needs Ty Pennington to stop by with his wrecking ball. You want my advice? Of course you do, that’s why you’re here. So let me tell the new Brickskeller owners exactly what they need to do to return the dilapidated beer mecca to its former glory.
BROTHER BARLEY’S TEN RULES FOR BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL BEER BAR
- Diverse Style Selection: Seems readily apparent, but too many so-called beer bars ignore this completely. They might have 30 taps, but half of them are standard American pale lagers. Why have half a dozen pale ales or half a dozen ambers when you could have a stout, wild ale, brown ale, Dubbel, barleywine, and Imperial IPA taking up the same number of taps? The Brickskeller had the odd problem of focusing WAY too much on international diversity rather than on stylistic diversity. I don’t care if you have beers from Australia, the Czech Republic, and Estonia available. I’d rather have three radically different beers from the same brewery than three of the same basic style of beer from three different countries. That brings us to point number 2…
- Go Local: When I travel, I always sample the local suds first. Local beers are fresher and buying them supports your neighbors and helps foster your local craft beer scene. It also helps promote civic pride and connectivity. Bostonians drink Sam Adams and Harpoon. New Yorkers drink Brooklyn. Philly pholk drink Yuengling. Those beers are important to them and are a strong part of their local heritage. So serve local suds!
- Lots of Taps, But Not Too Many: Doc touched on this one in an earlier post…don’t go insane with hundreds of taps if your audience can’t support that many. I recognize that lots of taps are “generally” a good thing. After all, I can buy bottles of beer anywhere, but I have to go to a bar to get draft beer. 99% of the beer I drink in bars comes flowing out of a tap and I assume the same is true for most Aleheads. But if you’ve got too many tap-lines and your kegs aren’t turning over fast enough, that beer will get old, the lines will get dirty, the CO2 tanks will have issues and you’re going to very quickly be serving flat, stale, or skunked beer. So be judicious with your taps…and keep those lines clean, dammit!
- Casks!: I love cask beer. Try to have at least a couple beer engines up and running at your beer bar at all times. And rotate the beer in those engines frequently. Who doesn’t like a delicious, foamy, mellow cask brew once in awhile? No one. That’s who.
- Everything Should Always Be Available: A direct knock on the Brickskeller. I HATED having to pick out half a dozen brews knowing that most of them wouldn’t be stocked. If a beer is on your menu, it HAS to be available. Sure, if it’s last call and a keg of something popular kicked five minutes ago, it’s no big deal. But if it’s 6pm on Friday night and you’ve only got a fifth of a keg of Oskar Blues Gordon available, you’ve got problems.
- Educated, Efficient Wait-Staff: I’ll take the latter over the former, but I’d rather have both. When I order a round, I want it served ASAP. The head should still be frothy and high and the brew should be appropriately chilled. I’d also like a server who can intelligently answer lots of questions. How hoppy is this beer? What style is it? Any interesting flavors I should look for? Who brews it? How strong is it? They don’t have to know what hops it’s made with or at what temperature it was fermented, but a general understanding of the style and flavor profile would be appreciated. Make sure you hire a staff that loves beer and make sure you let them sample the suds so they know what you’re serving.
- High-End Pub Grub: The best beer bars put interesting twists on standard pub fare. Shepherd’s pie with a sweet potato topping. Mac and cheese with a dozen varieties of fromage. Onion rings with panko crumbs. I’m not looking for molecular gastronomy or Asian-Latin Fusion at a bar…but upscale versions of the classics are always welcome. You have to have a burger at a bar…but why not push the envelope just a teeny bit and have lamb or bison burgers instead of your prototypical Angus beef patty?
- Lots of Small Tables, No Table Nazis: Beer bars are places for people to convene, sit comfortably, and stay for awhile. They’re not sports bars where dozens of people cram in front of a TV and cheer together and high-five all day (Note: That’s not a knock on sports bars…I like them too). Nor are they pick-up bars where the bar itself is the focus of attention and singles slide in and out of seats looking for their next conquest. Beer bars need lots of seats and lots of small tables…just big enough to hold a few rounds and a couple plates. You don’t need massive booths or long tables (people can push together smaller ones if necessary). Just bistro-style table-tops with comfortable, compact chairs. But beyond that…NO Table Nazis. I HATE Table Nazis. I can’t stand getting tossed from a beer bar because I’m not ordering food. If we’re ordering six rounds of $10 beers over the course of a few hours, you’re doing just fine by us. In fact, you’re probably making MORE money if we’re just drinking than if we’re all sitting down to a big meal and just getting a round or two. So let people sit down to liquid dinners if they prefer. There’s nothing more frustrating than being booted from your seat because you’re not ordering what the waiter wants you to.
- Large, Clean Restrooms: An obvious one, but beer bars are filled with beer drinkers. And beer drinkers piss a lot. Make the experience as pleasant for them as possible. Please.
- Modern, But Warm Decor: I’m not looking for concrete, steel, glass, and pulsing, LED lights in my bar. But I also don’t want a filthy dive with rickety chairs and sticky tables. Keep it clean, and open, but maintain some warmth and friendliness. Dark woods, mirrors, and a couple flatscreens showing the local game are ideal. I want a comfortable, relaxed environment…but not so relaxed that it smells like one of the patrons passed out and urinated on the floor.
Hit all ten of those, and you’ve got yourself a perfect beer bar. If the Brickskeller can pull off that feat, I think they can reclaim their title as the top beer bar in DC. If not…well…thanks for the memories, Brick.