Washington, D.C. is a burgeoning beer destination, one that deserves national and even international attention. Yet diners who rely on food reviews from seasoned critics often have to wade blindly into a restaurant’s beer selection because commentary on brews has been inadequate or nonexistent.
Consider Tom Sietsema’s recent three-star review of All Purpose in Shaw. The restaurant’s menu and various decor-based comforts combine to form the “neighborhood restaurant of your dreams,” and a “happy spot between a spaghetti house and a formal ristorante.” Doesn’t the fresh restaurant from Chef Mike Friedman seem like the precise place to pop in and enjoy a refreshing pint or two with a pie?
Well, yes, it is.
All Purpose’s outstanding beer selection—an intelligent local curation featuring both new producers like Ocelot and stalwarts like DC Brau—pairs neatly with the kitchen’s various takes on modern Italian cuisine. But it goes ignored in the review, which nods instead to the wine program, which “projects an air of approachability and whimsy.”
Cherry-picking one new review isn’t fair. For a broader lens, tackling a more sizable manuscript is required. Upon thorough examination of the Washington Post’s Spring Dining Guide—no small task at around 15,000 words—you will find the word “beer” mentioned three times, not counting dish names containing the ingredient (beer-braised lamb, for example), confirming that, yes, The Dabney, Brasserie Beck, and Two Amys all offer beer.
This is a local look at the broader issue of beer getting inferior treatment, which happens elsewhere, too. Take Bon Appetit’s recent astronomical praise of D.C. dining, which contains nary a peep about beer’s presence in town. Even an accompanying guide on where to drink fails to mention a pairing paradise like Birch & Barley or a top-class brewpub like Right Proper.
The idea that food critics aren’t paying attention to suds is hard to reconcile, given that there are new breweries popping up daily across the country, including in and around the District. Together, they’re producing thousands of fascinating beers. It’s even harder to conjure up valid excuses for food critics to be ignorant about both beer’s potential and application.
Dozens of District beverage directors offer outstanding beers every day in D.C. Bad Saint cleverly serves modern takes on craft rice lagers like Stillwater “Extra Dry” with its true-to-form Filipino cuisine. This is but one example of local beverage directors and managers cultivating beer menus to match what’s coming out of the kitchen. These beer experts are far too savvy to degrade local critics anywhere, but on background, they’re frustrated. They bring in and sell great beer, but rarely, if ever, see any ink in food criticism about the fruits of their labor.
Also, if there is a consumable that could use the boost a critical eye can provide, it’s beer. Look around, and you’ll find wine, cocktails, and even coffee well represented in food criticism with serious consideration. But when the public’s most reliable assessments of beer are ratings proffered by a small sample of drinkers, it leaves well-crafted beer without mainstream legitimacy. Regardless of whether you read them or not, restaurant reviews help provide that cultural cachet.
“The best criticism takes its subject—film, literature, wine, art—and places it in the larger cultural context,” Almanac Beer Co. co-owner Jesse Friedman wrote in a February 2015 Eater story. “It’s the role of the critic to distill all of this down into a coherent story that adds meaning and context to a beer.”
When critics do stretch themselves to include beer in their assessments, it’s rewarding. Consider Tim Carman’s review of The Sovereign in the Post. One would expect that a review of the experience at this cathedral to Belgian brewing would discuss beer. But Carman’s willingness to adventure into beer from the notoriously fussy Fantôme—rather than offer a mere platitude about the range and scale of fermented Belgian treats on offer—provides better service to the reader. It might ever-so-slightly influence a diner who doesn’t bat an eye at ordering a bottle of wine they’ve never heard of before, but doesn’t give beer the same treatment.
Incorporating beer into food criticism is possible, but when—or will—beer garner a permanent place in restaurant reviews? With beer in D.C. at perhaps its more accomplished point since the first half of the 20th century, if not now, then when?
Michael Jackson, the man who literally wrote the book on beer (Ultimate Beer), made note of this precise quandary all the way back in 1983—on the very same pages of the Post. “On this choice between wine and beer,” Jackson wrote, “there is a snobbism which is particularly American.”
Some things never change.
Click here for more stories from the 2016 Beer Issue.