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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/17/2010

Beer: Dave Alexander on the end of the Brickskeller

By Greg Kitsock

Dave Alexander in the Brickskeller beer cellar in 2008. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post)

Dave Alexander is finally opening up about the shuttering of the Brickskeller, the fabled beer bar he owns with his wife, Diane. The doors to the Brick, Alexander confirmed in an interview, will be shut after last call during the wee hours of Sunday morning.

“I don’t see any more mountains to climb," said Alexander, who is selling the place to hotelier Megan Merrifield and her husband. “I’m 60 years old. [Son] Josh [Alexander] is too busy with RFD. You have to ask, what’s the best thing to do?”

The Brick's closing has made national news, appearing in papers as far removed from the District as the Los Angeles Times. "I don't understand why people care so much!" stated Alexander, noting that the bar's 50th anniversary in 2007 received scant media attention.

"I've been trying to get Anchor and several other breweries to do a Good Riddance Dave beer," he said with a laugh, "but none of them would do that."

Alexander began working at the Brickskeller in 1982, after marrying Diane Coja, grand-daughter of Felix Coja and daughter of Maurice Coja, the establishment’s founders. In the intervening years he secured a Guinness Book of World Records listing for most varieties of beer offered, and has hosted almost every luminary in the craft beer business, from homebrew pioneer Charlie Papazian to Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione (star of the Discovery series "Brew Masters") to the late beer writer Michael Jackson, who introduced the world to the quirky beer styles of Belgium in his 1977 book "The World Guide to Beer." Alexander has compiled hundreds of hours of audio- and videotapes, dating back to Jackson’s first appearance in 19871988.

Asked about his greatest accomplishment, Alexander answered, “We started the sit-down, formal style for a beer tasting.” Back in the 1980s, he recalled, the city's bars came under great pressure from neighborhood groups seeking to limit the number of liquor licenses. At one point, he recounted, the city council even entertained a proposal that would have required bars to get written approval from a majority of the residents who lived within a radius of 1,600 feet. "If we did have to justify our existence, we could say we were here for the education," he said of the tastings.

The first Brickskeller tasting took place in September 1985. It cost $15, included a buffet dinner, and attracted about 35 people. Bethesda schoolteacher Bob Tupper and his wife, Ellie, guided the crowd through a potpourri of 10 beers, beginning with Chinese import Tsingtao. The final tasting in the Brickskeller’s upper room was held Thursday, Dec. 9, with Bob Tupper still behind the microphone and about dozen local brewers offering their wares. The event concluded with a sampling of Three Kings, a spiced ale from Brewer’s Alley in Frederick.

Rumors about the Brickskeller’s imminent demise had been flying since October, and the near-sellout crowd of about 150 was anxious for information. But Alexander barely acknowledged the elephant in the room. “My high-priced lawyers are telling me to shut up,” he said.

He was more talkative yesterday afternoon, breaking out several bottles from his private stash of rare beers (dubbed “the Vault”) and reminiscing about some of the more famous customers that dropped by for a burger and a brew. “We had Jerry Seinfeld in here at the height of Seinfeld,” he recalled. “We had Linda Carter, Quentin Tarantino, Neil Young. Pink Floyd came in here four nights in a row. I traded ties with David Gilmour. I had a fish tie that he liked.”

Alexander was a little coy in discussing his future. At one point he quipped that he might move to Nashville and try to resume a career in music. “I used to be a professional songwriter. I have a huge catalog of songs.” He's been known to grab his Stratocaster on special occasions and jam on the Brickskeller stage.

But he isn't completely turning his back on the local beer scene. "We'll still be doing events and all. We've held them in RFD's backroom." (At the Dec. 9 tasting, Tupper announced a Jan. 13 charity fundraiser to mark the 20,000th beer and and his wife Ellie have tasted. He also mentioned that the annual strong beer tastings will take place Feb. 9 and 16. All of these events will probably be held at RFD, he noted more recently.)

According to new owner Megan Merrifield, the bar will reopen on Dec. 27 under a new name that has yet to be determined. (She initially said it would be named Rock Creek, but the owners of the soon-to-close restaurant of that name in Bethesda are keeping it for their catering business.) Merrifield has asked the public for help in rechristening the establishment. About 300 people have made suggestions, she added.

Alexander will leave behind most of the beer inventory (except for a few prized bottles that were gifts from brewers) and most of the antique cans and other beer memorabilia decorating the walls. (Provided that souvenir seekers don't haul them away. "People have been trying to pry signs off the wall," said Alexander.)

But he's not ceding the name Brickskeller. "That name was created by Diane's grandfather. It's like a family member," he said. On more than one occasion he's sworn that "nobody whose last name is not Alexander will ever own the Brickskeller." But he added that he has no intention to open a new restaurant with that name. "RFD was our last venture."

Merrifield plans to make several improvements immediately, including removing the grubby carpeting and overhauling the bathrooms. Tom Verola, the new director of operations, said the beer list will be pared down to about 500 brands in time for the reopening. "What's on the menu will be here," he promised, responding to a common complaint that many of the beers listed weren't available. "If we run out, we'll grab every menu and cross it out." Longer range plans include installing 50 taps, revamping the menu (priorities include specialty pizzas and a bigger dessert selection), and renovating the Brickskeller Inn above the bar. Merrifield plans to do her own series of beer tastings. "We will have celebrity-ish guest chefs come in and do food pairings with the beer."

"We want these people to do well," said Alexander as he downed a glass of Allagash Black. "I'll leave some good stuff for them."

By Greg Kitsock  | December 17, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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