For three generations, the Martinez family has farmed hard-bean coffee at Finca Vista Hermosa, in the northwestern highlands of Huehuetenango, Guatemala. A portion of the harvest the family sends to Minneapolis, where Coffee & Tea Limited roasts and sells it, shipping a fraction of the beans 10 miles down the road to Brooklyn Center, Minn., home of Surly Brewing Company. There, the coffee is cold-brewed and becomes part of Surly’s Coffee Bender, a silky glass of iced coffee posing as a brown ale. To log a few extra miles in the journey, a scant case or two of the canned beer occasionally finds its way to D.C.
You won’t find Surly’s beers at your local shop. You can scarcely find them in the Midwest—last summer the brewery pulled out of nearly all its markets to focus on the Twin Cities—but there is exactly one place in town where you can drink Coffee Bender, and there’s no secret knock required. It’s Estadio, the Spanish restaurant in Logan Circle, where beer buyer Max Kuller orders it from an online purveyor when he can. (He asked me to keep his hook-up secret, but he said he would share it with a curious customer.)
I’ve had the good fortune to eat in Barcelona, and to the best of my recollection none of the tapas bars I grazed at featured coffee-tinged brown ales. In fact, I’m fairly certain I avoided beer altogether. Spain is not a beer country. But at Estadio, ciders, sherries, and tempranillo mingle with a select list of American beers, tradition be damned. It’s one of many restaurants giving new attention to their beer bottle lists, aiming to entice and challenge diners. Kuller dedicates half his menu to Spanish beer, but he has no problem justifying Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza, a hauntingly deep Belgian-style Christmas ale from Michigan whose puckery notes come from barrel aging with the brewery’s signature wild yeast.
“I found a rationale quickly to bring in the Jolly Pumpkin beers,” Kuller says. “They all have Spanish names, or at least Spanish-sounding names…I kind of justify the sours not only for the Spanish name but because they’re somewhat related to the Basque ciders. I’ll probably put a gueuze on the menu at one point. I think you don’t need too much rationale for something that’s tasty.”
An emphasis for unlikely beer runs in the family. Max’s father, Mark Kuller, owns, in addition to Estadio, the wine-centric Proof in Penn Quarter. There, wine director and part-time beer drinker Sebastian Zutant commands an eclectic mix of large-format bottles bolstered by single-serving beers from standbys such as Victory and Oskar Blues. Even at this oenophile’s temple, where wine bottles regularly cost three digits, he has a hard time selling 750 mL beer bottles for $25. Sometimes he’ll find a hit: A case of the sought-after Allagash Interlude sold out in two weeks. But more often, customers are hesitant to spend a ton on beer.
“It does make me irate that the world is not ready to pay a lot for beer,” Zutant says. “You can spend $10,000 on some cheval blanc, and it will be some of the most amazing stuff in the world. But you would never see something like that for a beer…The perception of spending 20 bucks on a four-pack of beer is like, ‘woah!’ But that’s a significant amount of booze, and it’s going to be high-quality, expensive stuff to make.”
Think about it: For under $30, you and a few friends go to a restaurant and split a 750 mL bottle —some would say “wine bottle” —of one of the best beers in the world. For that price, a wine bar might let you sniff the cork.
Of course, pricey beer bottles have to compete against draft brews in addition to upscale wines. It’s a competition that Brasserie Beck general manager Thor Cheston doesn’t have much time for. “Draft beer is a myth,” he says. “For decades, centuries, people’s conception was that the freshest beer was the beer on draft. And that all started when the beer on draft at your local pub was the beer around the corner.…When the beer is kegged, and it’s pasteurized, it’s losing a fermentation cycle. When it’s conditioned [as is often the case with Belgian bottles], they’re adding sugar, and it sits and ferments for weeks or months, and it adds a tremendous amount of flavor to the beer. When they’re pasteurizing the beer and kegging it directly, the keg is dead. It can be very frustrating sometimes, when you get a beer you really love and it’s not nearly as good as you remember it from the bottle.”
Cheston allows that not all kegs are pasteurized—and not all bottles are “conditioned,” or given an extra dose of live yeast so they’ll keep fermenting until the moment you pop the cap. Some brews really ought to be poured from kegs, especially perishable varieties like pilsners, American pale ales, and English bitters. But others, like the Belgian and German beers where conditioning is common, are made for the bottle. If you know a few rules of thumb, you can make a bar’s bottle list work for you.
Greg Jasgur, who manages the beer for Pizzeria Paradiso, points to a favorite example: Bruery Hottenroth, a Berliner weisse that sells at the chain’s Georgetown establishment for $18 for 750 mL. It’s a sprightly wheat beer that employs wild yeast for a sourdough tartness, echoing the bright tomato and basil notes of a margherita pizza. But it’s an obscure style of beer, and only 3.1 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) to boot, which means it lingers on the menu. All the while, the yeast in the bottle continues to churn away.
“That’s the kind of beer that’s not going to go bad,” Jasgur says. “It’ll get better and better, or funkier and funkier, I should say.”
Around D.C., there are two types of bottle lists: small and curated, per Estadio and Proof, or huge and empowering, like the bound and chaptered volumes at emporiums such as ChurchKey and Bier Baron, successor to the now-closed Brickskeller. Having a few hundred beers at your disposal is empowering indeed: You’re allowed to pinpoint the precise beer you need, whether it’s to pair with dinner or to mark a special occasion.
Sometimes a turn in the weather will send me flipping through the menu. On a recent night, I stare out the windows at ChurchKey, watching sheets of near-freezing rain slap the other side of the glass over 14th Street NW. The 55-strong draft section lists IPAs from both American coasts and rare collaborative brews from Scandinavia and the British Isles. There’s a raft of Quebecois beers that I’m told are the Next Big Thing, and my sense of professional duty is nagging me to try one.
But with a storm outside, my bones want a cozy, warming armchair of a beer. I heft ChurchKey’s tome and thumb to the “Fruit & Toffee” section, where I locate Anchor Old Foghorn, an English-style barleywine. Within minutes, I’m cradling a snifter of sweet figs and plums, letting the beer’s deep tobacco tones wash over me. It’s a luxurious feeling, to have hundreds of beers at your fingertips, like a feasting Bourbon king. It’s an even better feeling to find the one among the hundreds that is exactly what you’re looking for.
Follow Orr Shtuhl’s beer drinking adventures around town at twitter.com/beerspotter.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery