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Beer in DC: better than ever, thanks to "co-opetition"

The market for local brews is "so hot its getting crowded," but more and more players are determined to get into the game with new and creative offerings

Beer fans Randy Halfpap, left, and Carl Urian ordering a pint at Right Proper in Shaw

Jonathan Werth, cellerman at Right Proper, adjusts the controls in the brewing room


If you belly up to the bar at Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw on any given evening, you could find yourself sipping a DC Brau, a craft beer which was brewed and kegged less than four miles from where you're sitting, or drinking Right Proper's own craft beers, brewed about four yards from where you're sitting.
 
A few years ago, a District denizen would never have dreamed of such an embarrassment of riches when it came to local beer. These days, the marketplace is so hot it's getting crowded.
 
With new breweries and brewpubs breweries that sell their own beer at an attached restaurant or bar still opening, it's worth asking if these relative newcomers are having the same success as those who kicked off the trend.
 
"If I'd had my druthers, I probably would have opened back in 2006," says Thor Cheston, 35, a principal at Right Proper (rightproperbrewery.com), a brewpub which opened in December 2013.
 
Still, Cheston thinks his timing was pretty good. "I think we were just very, very lucky to start raising money when we did," says Cheston, who, with a partner, funded Right Proper through a combination of private equity and bank loans. He predicts that as the economy improves, raising money will get easier.

A microbrewery boom 
Back in 2006, Cheston, a native of McLean, was doing a stint as a brewer's assistant at Gordon Biersch, a brewery/restaurant chain based in California with a location in D.C.
 
"It was just Gordon Biersch and District Chophouse and Capitol City [Brewing Company]," that were brewing beer in the District then, Cheston remembers. All were brewpubs "and they were all owned by larger corporations," Cheston says.
 
Then, in April 2009, DC Brau opened. It was the District's first production brewery meaning it distributes its beer to restaurants and bars since 1956. And it kicked off a microbrewery boom. Chocolate City Beer opened in 2011, and Three Stars opened in 2012.
 
Where breweries and brewpubs call home

Although D.C.'s relatively lax distribution laws make it ideal for craft breweries, its zoning laws are another story.

"There's not a lot of places that are zoned for brewing," says Cox, who had to look hard for a place to situate Atlas. "We wanted to be a little bit closer in to a neighborhood," he says. "And hopefully trying to be part of a neighborhood."

The brewery found a home in Ivy City, and has developed a steady fan base among its neighbors.

For brewpubs, which offer food, zoning is a little easier. But finding the right neighborhood is still tricky.

Thor Cheston thought hard before opening Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw. "I wanted to be the first real local neighborhood brewpub," he says.
Amid the new excitement around D.C. beer, Justin Cox, 32, a home brewer who'd worked in consulting and law, decided it was time to realize a long-held dream.
 
In late 2011, he recruited his college friend, Will Durgin, 32, who'd been working for breweries on the West coast, and they began raising money from friends and family. In September 2013, the pair opened Atlas Brew Works, the fourth production brewery in the District.
 
But being fourth doesn't mean Atlas will finish off the podium: "It's going really well," Cox says. "We're doing a lot better than we expected that we would. Our beer's been really well received." 
 
Atlas has a tasting room that's open on Saturdays, but the vast majority of its business is wholesale. They have a distribution company to help them sell, but they also pound the pavement on their own to get their beers sold in local bars.
 
Cox doesn't see other local beers as Atlas's competition. He's more concerned about established regional craft beers, like Maryland's Flying Dog Brewery, or other microbrews coming in from around the country.
 
In fact, the D.C. beer boom has made bars want to serve D.C. beer and that helps everybody, Cox says. "As a local beer, it gets our foot in the door," he says.
 
But even the local label is no guarantee of long-term success. "Getting on tap is one thing, but staying on top is another," Cox says.
 
Tapped out
"There's more available than there is room to sell," says Greg Engert, director of the beer program at D.C.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group. "I feel like I run out of tap space."
 
Luckily, the craft beer boom means more local bars are making room. "You're hard-pressed to find a bar that doesn't have craft beer in some manifestation, and now you're seeing bars that don't have macro beers at all," Engert says.
 
Engert should know. The beer program he's been overseeing since 2006 includes beer bars like Rustico and Churchkey. And he helped the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates sixteen restaurants in and around D.C., launch its very own brewpub, Bluejacket, in October 2013.
 
Bluejacket, located in a lofty space in Navy Yard, uses its attached restaurant, Arsenal, as a built-in platform for its beers. Which means it can stand out by offering more variety than other young breweries.  "We wanted to be able to have something for every palate and every plate when it came to food pairing." Engert says.
 
"Instead of starting with three or four, we started with a constantly rotating list of 20 different beers," Engert says. "Since October of last year, we've actually crafted about 65 unique beers at Bluejacket."
 
Bluejacket and Right Proper which opened within two months of each other sell their product only at their restaurants. In May, Bluejacket expanded its offerings by starting to bottle a select few beers, which customers can buy at the brewery. Its first run of one thousand, 750-ml bottles sold out in less than a week. The brewery will release more every Friday.
 
No matter how successful, finding ways to expand a craft beer business can be harder than for other types of products.
 
For example, branching out beyond the District is complicated by local liquor laws. "It takes a lot of research and a lot of caution to move into a new market," says Cox of selling Atlas outside of D.C. Even places just outside the District can prove tricky. "Legally, Northern Virginia is a big change," Cox says.
 
Still, the success of the craft breweries so far means more are on the way.
 
Hellbender Brewing Company (hellbenderbrewingcompany.com) is planning to open a production space in Northwest D.C. And Cox says he's "heard rumbling about another brewpub opening up."
 
Engert says as the market gets more crowded, success or failure will be determined by quality. "If you make beer that people absolutely love, those beers will always survive and those beers will always dominate," he says. "Beers that are good but not great and only doing as well as they are because they are cool or new or local, those may fall by the wayside."

Read more articles by Beth Marlowe.

Beth Marlowe has written for The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Bloomberg Television and other publications.  She's currently an editor at Washington Post Express. In her free time she enjoys house-hunting, food-trying and friend-having.
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