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At Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse, beer is served in many varieties, ranging from the all-too-common Pabst Blue Ribbon to the hard-to-find Spaten lager, and flavors, including the pumpkin-pie-ish Harpoon Winter Warmer (offered last year) and Dremo’s own Homer Simpson–inspired chocolate-doughnut-flavored stout (now available).
The Clarendon Boulevard bar also pays homage to other brew muses, immortalized in such forms as James Brown Ale and a lambic named for former D.C. mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. Until recently, there was even a type of beer favored by followers of French table-tennis phenom Jean-Philippe Gatien. It came garnished with a splash of pingpong ball.
“We can sit anywhere and drink beer,” says Arlington brew hound Chad Wilcox, “but Dremo’s allows us to have a different experience by being active and doing something exciting.”
To Wilcox and others, that excitement is called beer pong.
Traditionally a pursuit practiced in frat houses and on porches along the Jersey Shore, the classic ball-tossing, beer-swilling contest—also known as Beirut—became a common sight at Dremo’s a year or so ago. You’d often find participants out on the suburban saloon’s covered patio, teams of two competing to sink a pingpong ball into cups of beer arranged into triangles on opposite sides of a table. When a ball lands in a cup, the cup-holding team drinks that beer. The first team to sink a ball in all six of its opponent’s cups wins. The losers typically drink the leftovers.
Though initially played outside, the game proved so popular among Dremo’s patrons that last fall, management opted not only to bring it inside, but also to create something of a beer-pong rec room. “We did some remodeling upstairs (demolition actually) and have created room for beer pong tables!!!” the pub proudly proclaimed in a November 2004 e-mail.
Last month, however, Dremo’s was forced to take an even more dramatic step: “No More Beer Pong,” the bar announced two weeks ago on signs posted around the premises. “By order of the VA Alcoholic Beverage Control.”
“We have come to find out that drinking games are not permitted in bars in the state of VA,” explained a Sept. 20 e-mail. “Whodathunk?”
Dremo’s manager Andrew Stewart says that state officials demanded the halt after undercover liquor-control agents witnessed the game taking place at the establishment in mid-September.
“It was a verbal warning only,” explains Becky Gettings, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). “No charges criminally or administratively have been placed.”
Dremo’s isn’t the first pong-friendly venue that local authorities have picked on in recent years. In 2004, the Tally-Ho Tavern in Bethlehem, Pa., also endured a regulatory tongue-lashing after a newspaper article about the bar’s popular Beirut nights caught the attention of the state’s Liquor Control Board (LCB). In Pennsylvania, LCB spokesperson Molly McGowan says, “regulations do prohibit an event, contest, or tournament which involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages by a participant.” And, she adds, “it’s also illegal to award alcoholic beverages as a prize.”
But Dremo’s warning didn’t refer to any state law or regulation prohibiting beer pong or any other drinking game. Probably because those rules don’t exist in Virginia.
“There aren’t specific codes relating to the games,” Gettings admits. Instead, she points to a catchall clause in Title 3 of the Virginia Administrative Code that prohibits a licensed beer seller from “[e]ntreating, urging or enticing patrons to purchase.” What constitutes “entreating”? The statute mentions only one example: “placing alcoholic beverages in containers of ice which are visible, located in public display areas and available to patrons of retail establishments for off-premises sales.”
Apparently, in the ABC’s view, such libationary encouragers as inflatable Corona-labeled planes hanging from the ceiling and a wall plaque sporting the slogan “Good Beer Good Cheer ALWAYS on TAP HERE” don’t constitute enticements. But beer pong somehow crosses the line.
“It concerned the agents that [the game] would cause people to overconsume,” says Gettings, who thinks the operatives made a sound judgment call. “I happen to know from personal experience—not that I’ve played; I have a son that told me what it is—that it would induce drinking to excess.”
It’s a charge that some Dremo’s beer-pongers dispute. “Given how long it took my friends and I to make our tosses, playing the game probably moderated our alcohol intake,” says 23-year-old Arlington resident Jacob Grier, who confesses to having lost his “Beirut virginity” at Dremo’s on Sept. 10. “We had one pitcher of beer for the entire game, and we didn’t even finish it,” Grier says. “We would have definitely finished a pitcher rather quickly if it was just the five of us sitting around drinking.”
Despite the level-of-consumption debate, Dremo’s management chose to not question ABC agents’ judgment of the game’s legality. “Usually, when they tell us stuff, we just say OK and do whatever they say,” says Stewart.
That could be because the bar has a lot more to worry about than beer pong: McLean-based Elm Street Development is presently seeking Arlington officials’ OK to erect a nine- or10-level building a few blocks from the Court House Metro station. The proposal calls for 167 new residential units, more than 36,000 square feet of commercial space—and Dremo’s demolition.
Dremo’s management, which does not own the property, is now scouting sites for a possible relocation. A recent e-mail to the bar’s regulars asked, “Would you come to a Dremo’s on Columbia Pike (near Bob & Edith’s and Cinema & Drafthouse)? Near the old Whitey’s (Pershing drive & Washington Blvd.)? Cherrydale (Lee Hwy & Stafford St.)?”
Of course, beer pong is apparently illegal at all of those locations, too—and, as Stewart says, “people do like their beer pong.” Where’s a pong-hostin’ bar to go?
“I don’t believe that would be in the state of Virginia,” says Stewart. “We will go where we think it’s right. We would love to hang around here. But if something in D.C. popped up we couldn’t turn down, we’d definitely take that, too.”
D.C.? Well, maybe—though officials in the District aren’t certain about beer pong’s status here, either. “Drinking games? I don’t think we do have laws or regulations against them particularly,” says Jeff Coudriet, director of operations for the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. “Although we do have the various provisions against backup drinks, so if you had multiple drinks on the table for one person, that could be a problem.”
“D.C. also, of course, prohibits the overservice to the point of intoxication,” he adds. In Maryland, the law is similarly unclear. “That’s really a gray area, because there’s nothing that specifically prohibits any type of drinking game,” says Montgomery County Board of License Commissioners Executive Director Dennis Theoharris.
“Article 2b, which oversees all the alcohol regulations in the state, says that we encourage temperance. That’s subject to interpretation,” notes Michael Golden, spokesperson for the Maryland comptroller’s office, which licenses the state’s beer sellers. “[But] there’s also a state law that says there can’t be any games of chance operated in liquor establishments.”
Whether the degree of luck—or intoxication—in beer pong rises to the level of an infraction is up to county officials. “They’re the ones that actually interpret the law and go after violators,” Golden says.
How would county regulators react to a local liquor-licensed venue’s own beer-pong tourney, then? “That’s a good question. I’ve never heard of that happening in Prince George’s County,” says one official with that county’s Board of License Commissioners, who asked to remain anonymous. “And would that be against the law? I don’t know what to tell you.
“I just know it goes on in my house,” she adds, “because I go away for the weekend, I come home, and I’ve got pingpong balls in the kitchen.”—Chris Shott
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Ben Tolman.