Essential to learning to love the suds is unpacking all the various styles that exist. Just like when a sommelier brings out a miles-long wine list, looking at a menu with dozens — or sometimes hundreds — of beer choices can be intimidating. While finding your favorite brew involves a bit of trial and error, a good starting point is finding a general category that suits your tastes and experimenting from there.
"I would recommend that anyone who thinks they do not like beer should wait to make that judgement until they have tired as many of the available styles as possible," says Brandon Skall of local brewery DC Brau. Quick tip: "Newcomers to craft beer might find the hoppier styles a bit intense at first." Translation: Don't dive in with an IPA.
The 920-page Oxford Companion to Beer identifies over 90 distinct beer types — and each type is comprised of a wide range of varieties. Talk about overwhelming, right? To simplify, Meridian Pint's Mike Aloi, a certified Cicerone® (sometimes called the beer equivalent of a sommelier), suggests six styles to try out:
Want to step up your beer game, but stick with a lighter drink that's perfect for a hot day? The German beirgarten classic Kölsch may be calling your name. This style is light in color and body, but with a pronounced hop character that means it will be a little bitter — but not overwhelmingly so.
Try: Gaffel Kölsch
Also known as white beers, wheat beers, or bièrs blanche, depending on where your selection was brewed, these often have a distinctive cloudiness in the glass (on purpose, of course!) and have been popular since the Middle Ages. In addition to the wheat, they often have citrus, spice, and sweet notes.
Try: Ommegang Witte
Saison beers were first created in French-speaking Belgium in the cooler "season" — hence the name. Though modern saisons often contain wheat, they tend to be drier and higher in alcohol than other wheat beers, and are typically spiced with coriander, orange peel, and other flavorings.
Try: Stillwater Stateside Saison
This golden-hued style has been brewed up by Belgium's Trappist monks for generations, but was only commercialized for the outside world starting in the 1930s. Expect something with sweetness, but not too thick or heavy. Note: These beers can pack a punch, thanks to a higher alcohol-by-volume content (generally around 9%).
Try: Allagash Tripel
Traditionally from Brussels, lambics are often tart, sour, and more rustic in their flavor profile. They're often the first beer that wine enthusiasts fall for — and they're just about the best thing to pair with cheese. Within the lambic category, there are many sub-styles, but we recommend skipping the cloyingly sweet mass-produced framboises and choosing a more sophisticated brew.
Try: Lindemans Kriek
Chocolate, roasted nuts, coffee, caramel, and just a touch of smoke. Sound tasty to you? Then order a porter. The best ones are balanced with a drier finish and not too much bitterness or burnt flavor. The style is open to a pretty wide interpretation, though, so you may want to try a few to find your favorite version.
Try: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
Photographed by Shira Karsen
Best Bars for Beer
ChurchKey/Birch & Barley
With 555 beer choices available, this Logan Circle bar and restaurant combo is hard to beat on options. It's not just about having the longest or most esoteric list in town, though. The selections are carefully curated by beer director Greg Engert — a past Food & Wine "sommelier of the year," among other accolades — and coordinated to complement the food menus. ChurchKey is also the fave among gluten-free girls who still want to enjoy beer — and even pizza — in GF form.
ChurchKey/Birch & Barley, 1337 14th Street NW; 202-567-2576.
Grab some friends and settle in at this laid-back Columbia Heights spot to explore craft beers with an all-American bent. The fully domestic, often local menu features dozens of bottled and draft choices from across the country. The knowledgable and friendly staffers are always eager to talk you through a tasting flight and share their beer smarts to help you find a new favorite.
Meridian Pint, 3400 11th Street NW; 202-588-1075.
With a posh interior, lovely roof deck, and delish cocktails, the beer selection at Smith Commons can go overlooked. But the charming bar pros are always happy to pour a tasting-size glass and discuss any of their craft beer options. Date-night tip: Smith Commons offers several great beers, such as Stillwater Cellar Door or Ommegang Three Philosophers, in 22-ounce bottles — perfect for the two of you to share.
Smith Commons, 1245 H Street NE; 202-396-0038.
Those Belgian monks sure figured out how to make some of the world's tastiest beers — and the moules, frites, and other fare here are worthy companions. An old-school chalkboard lists the special beer offerings each night, but the primary focus is on Belgian and Belgian-inspried varieties. Running the gamut of styles from light and blond or sour and vinous to dark and rich, there's something available for almost any taste, here.
Granville Moore's, 1238 H Street NE; 202-399-2546.
Want your fancy craft-beer tap list, but with a hipper, more punk-rock feel? It might seem counterintuitive, but the place for you is in Falls Church. This cool new spot is owned by the same folks as Galaxy Hut, but here, there's more bar seating, a laidback sensibility, and a food menu filled with elaborate grilled cheese sandwiches (including vegan options). Don't let the lack of on-staff beer nerds fool you: Spacebar pours truly excellent brews, some not even available in the District.
Spacebar, 709 West Broad Stree, Falls Church; 703-992-0777. Photos: Courtesy of Smith Commons and Churchkey
There has been an explosion of brewing activity in the DMV of late — and we're not talking about the weird stuff your boyfriend is fermenting in the basement. In fact, start-up breweries seem to be a major trend. In 2011, DC Brau became the first major brewery operating within the District since 1956, inspiring other upstarts — and lots of local love. In addition to the Public, Corruption, and Citizen varieties found in cans and on draft all over town, keep an eye out for the many special limited-edition releases, often made in collaboration with other cool small breweries.
These days, DC Brau has some neighbors in the city's brewing community, including Chocolate City Beer and the new (and particularly impressive) Three Stars Brewing Company. All three breweries open their doors for "growler hours" on the weekends, and you can find their products in a bevy of bars around town.
Other local options include Alexandria's Port City Brewing Company and Maryland's Oliver Breweries, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Brewer's Art, and Flying Dog.
Photo: Courtesy of DC Brau
The craft beer trend isn't slowing down in the DMV, and we've got the inside track on one brewery to watch: Bluejacket. Part of the same restaurant group that owns ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, this new brewery and tavern is set to open in early 2013. Behind the wheel? Head brewer Megan Parisi — the only woman to helm a brewery in D.C., and one of a small sorority of female brewers on the national stage. We got the chance to chat with Megan about her brews, and how a gal can get in on the craft beer game.
How did you get into the beer business?
"I discovered my love of beer at the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston, Massachusetts. It was one of the first big beer bars in the country, with more than 100 taps and a rather large bottle selection, as well. I was already lucky enough to be in graduate school in Boston, home of Sam Adams and Harpoon, as well as the Cambridge Brewing Company and Boston Beer Works, so a good beer was not difficult to find in the early 1990s."
Do you have a specific style in your brewing?
"I don't think my style has a particular definition. I do like interesting botanicals, because they can expand the palate of flavors and aromas beyond the hop, but I also love making a fantastic IPA, a mouth-puckering sour, a boozy barrel-aged stout ... I just love it all. I hope my style will be best reflected in the overall quality of beers that I make, not necessarily by only one particular angle."
Do you have any specific advice for women who want to learn more about beer?
"Going to beer tastings or events — like Greg Engert's Beer Academy at Rustico, or the Monday night draft features at ChurchKey — is great for learning more. I don't buy into the idea that women prefer specific styles of beer over others. Women, just like men, prefer things individually. If a woman likes black coffee, she should try a porter or a stout. If a woman likes tea, perhaps a gruit ale or other herbal-based beer. If she likes a Chardonnay, perhaps try a fruited beer, and so on. Any woman knows what she likes. Trust me when I say that there is a beer out there that will match that flavor preference, if she's willing to find it. When someone tells me they don't like beer, I ask them what they do like to drink. Based on that, I will definitely recommend a specific beer for them. It's a matter of getting past someone's preconception of what 'beer' is, and [showing] that it is not just the one flavor they once tried and didn't identify with.
Photographed by Maia Schoenfelder