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Beer: Capitol City brews up changes

By Greg Kitsock

When it opened in 1992 in a former Greyhound bus terminal, the Capitol City Brewing Co. on H Street NW was the first brewery in the District since the Heurich plant shut down in 1956 and the only game in town for fresh, site-brewed beer.

Now, the field is more crowded, with two other brewpub chains operating branches in midtown Washington; about half a dozen bottling and kegging breweries slated to go online in the metropolitan area over the next year; and better beer bars proliferating throughout DC and its suburbs. (Rustico recently opened a second site in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, while Pizzeria Paradiso just inaugurated its third branch in Old Town Alexandria.)

Is Cap City feeling the pressure? Director of brewing operations Mike McCarthy played down that angle. “We don’t need to reinvent ourselves. We’ve been here awhile, they’re the new guys on the block. The more people that are knowledgeable about craft beer, we all win.”

But changes are in the works.

Capitol City celebrated its 2,000th batch of beer with a party at its downtown DC location on Nov. 9. (More specifically, it was the 2,000th batch from its Shirlington brewpub, which supplies beer to the non-brewing H Street locale.)

The special brew, dubbed 2G-IPA, is a pungent imperial India pale ale measuring 7.8 percent alcohol by volume and 91-92 international bitterness units. (IBUs are a measure of alpha acid, the primary bittering agent in hops. Normal IPAs might clock in at 60-70 IBUs.)

2G-IPA, which should be available at all Capitol City locations by the time you read this, is immensely resiny, with notes of citrus poking through the pine needles. According to McCarthy, it’s an illustration of how brewers have been pumping up their beers in lockstep with the evolving palates of consumers. He admits he never would have attempted a beer like this in 1992 or in 1997, the year the Shirlington Capitol City opened.

“You weren’t going to do a big IPA like this on the East Coast. There were maybe about four people who would have enjoyed it. But now drinkers are accepting very bitter beers, very sour beers, very big beers.”

Capitol City still packs in a mix of locals, conventioneers and tourists to its three locations, but the chain’s Capitol Hill site (across from Union Station) has lost its lease and will draw its last pint sometime next spring. When that happens, Capitol City will haul the site’s nine 15-barrel fermenters to the Shirlington brewpub, breaking through the basement wall to occupy an adjacent property that now sits idle.

The new tanks, plus a new cooler capable of storing 250 kegs, will bump up the capacity of Capitol City-Shirlington from 2,600 barrels a year to between 3,600 and 4,000 barrels. This should earn it a place among the top 10 brewpubs in the United States. (According to Brewers Association figures, Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro in Bellingham, Wash. was the country’s number one brewpub in 2009, pumping out 5,738 barrels.)

Once the expansion is complete, McCarthy says, he might begin packaging some of his high-alcohol specialty beers in 750-milliliter bottles, which will have a much longer shelf life than the growlers to go that the Shirlington brewpub offers.

By next April, he’ll be supplying beer to a new location: not another branch of Capitol City, but to a new eatery called 901 Bar and Restaurant, which will occupy the corner of 901 9th Street NW across the street from the vacant lot that used to be the city’s convention center. (Look for the red cupola.) 901, says McCarthy, will offer a more upscale menu than Capitol City (no pub grub or pretzel baskets), with an emphasis on shared appetizer plates. The restaurant, owned by Cap City umbrella corporation Urban Adventures, will offer 8-10 drafts, half of which McCarthy and his assistant brewer Travis Tedrow will brew. They’ll be different recipes from the Capitol City mainstays, although McCarthy has yet to determine what styles.

DC’s first modern brewpub will no longer be brewing in the District, but will offer more beers than ever.

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | November 16, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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