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A year ago, Chocolate City Beer started pumping craft brews out of its tiny Brookland facility and into bars and restaurants across the District. Tonight the do-it-yourself crew behind the brewery will be drinking and dancing the night away at an anniversary party at Penn Social.
The celebration promises to be worthy of such a milestone. The new Penn Quarter bar will have four different Chocolate City beers on tap for $5 a pint and beer-themed giveaways throughout the night. DJ Benny C starts up at 8 p.m. The beer lineup includes Cornerstone Copper Ale, 1814 ESB, First Coast Bohemian Pils, and new release El Segundo Farmhouse Saison. El Segundo is a fruity, earthy 7 percent alcohol farmhouse ale whose name is a nod to an A Tribe Called Quest song, as well as a Chocolate City employee’s second-degree burn.
I had the chance to speak with founders Jay Irizarry and Ben Matz about their reflections on the brewery’s first year and what D.C. can expect from Chocolate City in year two. Read on for their retrospective.
Matz and Irizarry say one of the top highlights of the past year was scoring an invite to pour their beer at this year’s Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, but the duo is mainly pleased to have made it so far with so little, and despite several setbacks.
“We opened with a small budget,” Irizarry says. “We deliver our own kegs in a van that cost $500 to bars and restaurants from Georgetwon to Capitol Hill and all the way to the top of Connecticut Avenue.”
Chocolate City is the second production brewery to open in the District’s recent wave of sudsy start-ups, after larger (but still nano-sized) DC Brau. Unlike DC Brau and most breweries, Chocolate City chose to self-distribute rather than use a distribution company to get beer from their tanks to consumers’ lips. The four-man (and now one-woman) team, which includes Matz, Irizarry, co-founders Don Parker and Brian Flanagan, and new assistant brewer Danielle Hedquist, do everything themselves.
“We get more face time with customers and get to interface directly with them instead of going through a proxy,” Matz says.
The crew also had to overcome some mechanical challenges, including a crucial piece of equipment that was delivered without all its parts and that eventually stopped working and had to be replaced. But the real challenge was bouncing back from the derecho, the destructive June thunderstorm that left Chocolate City without power for six days.
“We had beer fermenting and the yeast went on its own without temperature control. We had to dump it all and couldn’t fill our orders,” Matz recalls. “I didn’t know if we were going to make it through that storm. Bars could have taken us off of their tap lists, and we could have been out of rotation and had to start over. But thankfully that didn’t happen. Throughout everything no one said, ‘Screw it, we never want to work with you guys again.'”
As far as what D.C. can expect from Chocolate City in the brewery’s second year, Matz and Irizarry say they plan to build on what they have begun. Matz plans to continue producing two or three flagship beers each season, as well as a special one-off beer, hopefully every four to six weeks. According to Irizarry, D.C. beer fans can look forward to a special India pale ale in September and then an Imperial stout aged in oak Wasmund’s Whiskey barrels from Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Va. Matz also mentioned a possible art and beer collaboration with Brookland Artspace Lofts.
There are, of course, plans to expand. Chocolate City will be getting some larger tanks, which Matz predicts will increase production from 1,200 barrels this year to 1,500 or 1,600 barrels next year. Additional capacity will allow the brewery to increase its accounts from around 40 bars and restaurants (with another 20+ rotating in and out) to as many as 60 throughout D.C. Irizarry says it is likely Chocolate City kegs could find their way into Northern Virginia as well.
If you’re looking for Chocolate City beer on tap, check out their beer finder. Thunder Burger, The Pug, Big Board, Union Pub, Molly Malone’s, Iron Horse, The Passenger, Duffy’s, The Looking Glass Lounge and Kramerbooks regularly have at least one tap devoted to Chocolate City Beer.
In the meantime, you can help this local startup with a well-deserved birthday celebration tonight at Penn Social (and shake your booty, too).
Image courtesy of Chocolate City Beer