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Posted at 2:54 PM ET, 10/ 2/2006

Going Out for the Gold

By Fritz Hahn

Local brewers did well at last weekend's Great American Beer Festival, an annual event that brings together thousands of beers from hundreds of American breweries. There's networking and sampling to be done, of course, but the highlight is always the tasting competition. This year, 2,402 beers sought gold, silver or bronze medals in 69 categories, which range from the generic "American Style Lager," won by Pabst Blue Ribbon, to the esoteric Imperial Double or Red Ale, where the gold was captured by Organic Deranger from Portland, Ore.'s Laurelwood Brewing Company.

Sweetwater Tavern and the Shirlington branch of the Capitol City Brewing Company were the Washington area's big winners during Saturday night's medals ceremony. Cap City's Mike McCarthy took home a gold medal for his intense coffee-flavored Fuel and silvers for Amber Wavers, an American-style amber ale, and Saison, his potent version of the Belgian version, while Sweetwater took a silver for its light, summery Belgian white beer Wits End and bronze medals for Iron Horse lager and the Oktoberfest-style Wild West Fest. Geoff Lively of Bethesda's Rock Bottom Brewery took home two awards, including a gold for Raccoon Red, and Old Dominion Brewing Company and Baltimore's Clipper City Brewing Company captured one award each.

All of these beers are brewed in the Washington area, but setting out to sample them isn't as easy as you might think.

Sweetwater Tavern has three brewpubs in the Washington area, but only the Sterling branch is pouring any of the 2006 medalists -- and even then, it just offers the Iron Horse Lager, a dark German schwartzbier.

Sweetwater Tavern head brewer Nick Funnell says that he and his team will be making more Wild West Fest and Wits End "as soon as we can get a tank to put them on. We're looking at the scheduling right now. They're all seasonal beers and we want to capitalize on this [win]." The problem is that they're all special recipes that are usually only brewed at certain times of the year. "I wish we had planned it slightly better," Funnell says. "For a couple, we'll have to order more malts and things -- we don't carry the wheat for the Wits End when we're not brewing it."

Capitol City Brewing Company has different brewers for its branches, and Mike McCarthy is responsible for the beers at the Shirlington bar, as well as the downtown Washington location on New York Avenue, which no longer makes beer on-site. Hoppy Amber Waves, which won a gold in 2005 and silver this year, is a staple of the chain's draft lineup and is always available, while Fuel, which topped the Coffee-Flavored Beer category, should be ready for a November release. "It's being made on Wednesday, and we'll have a tapping party in about a month," McCarthy explains. As for the Saison -- one of my favorites -- McCarthy says you'll have to wait. "Saison is brewed the week of Thanksgiving and it comes out in summer. To do the beer right, you can't rush it." Saison is stored for several months before it's allowed to warm up, "which gives it that Belgian funk in the nose," McCarthy says. After beating better-known competitors like Ommegang's Hennepin Farmhouse Ale, we have yet another reason to look forward to summer 2007.

In Bethesda, the Rock Bottom Brewery has a similar split: Raccoon Red, a gold-medal winner in the Bitter category, is always on draft, and just $1.50 at happy hour on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The Terrapin Alt, a fantastic recipe that captured medals at the last two World Beer Cups before finishing as the runner-up German-Style Brown Ale at the GABF, won't be on for several more months.

Old Dominion Brewing Company's Terry Fife says that this year's Oktoberfest was "the best we've ever brewed," which was good enough for third place in the German-Style Märzen/Oktoberfest category. (Competition must be getting stiffer, because Old Dominion finished second in the same category in 2004.) You can try some at the Ashburn brewpub, but unlike the other Washington-area competitors, Old Dominion's beers are sold at bars throughout the region. Fife recommends stopping in at Alexandria beer bar Rustico, Hard Times Cafe or any businesses in the Great American Restaurant group, which includes Carlyle, Artie's and, surprisingly enough, the Sweetwater Tavern brewpubs.

The easiest way to sample the GABF winners will be at this Saturday's Mid-Atlantic Oktoberfest in Shirlington, where you can try Cap City's Amber Waves, Sweetwater's Iron Horse, Old Dominion's Oktoberfest, Clipper City's Oktoberfesty BaltoMärzHon and a number of beers from across the country, including Allagash, Troegs, and Bear Republic, which was named Small Brewery Company of the Year in addition to taking home medals for four of its brews. In all, three dozen breweries are expected to bring more than 70 beers to sample.

By Fritz Hahn  | October 2, 2006; 2:54 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Amber may waver after too much of the stuff, but the beer itself is called Amber Waves.

Posted by: Matvey | October 3, 2006 12:34 PM | Report abuse

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