City-State Brewing Founder James Warner
City-State Brewing Founder James Warner Credit: Laura Hayes

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The taproom at City-State Brewing Co. celebrates D.C. You can hopefully start exploring the taproom that was once part of a freight rail warehouse and depot on the border of the Edgewood and Brookland neighborhoods on Memorial Day weekend. (The owners are waiting for the final go ahead from the city.) Walk the perimeter and you’ll encounter an exhibit wall dedicated to D.C. history and culture. Across the way hang 45 posters depicting D.C. neighborhoods from local artist Anthony Dihle. He also designed the brewery’s bright can labels.

City-State, from founder James Warner, is seven years in the making. He may be a New Yorker, but sometime after moving here in 2004, Warner became obsessed with his new home. Every beer you’ll sample is a tribute to the city, whether it’s a “Self-Determinator” maibock in a screaming panda can that subtly demands D.C. have the right to control its own affairs or an abbey dubbel called Holy Go-Go.

Warner is eager to finally welcome patrons on the premises. You can grab a seat on orange beer garden tables imported from Bavaria by way of a woman in Wisconsin or claim the best seat in the house—outside on the former train platform that runs parallel to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. If there’s not live music playing, you can hear the Metro whooshing by. Warner, a new parent, knows the trains will keep kids entertained while the rest of the family works their way through the various beers.

If you love bikes and beer, this summer is promising. City-State joins other breweries that are accessible from the MBT Trail, including Right Proper Brewing Co.’s Brookland Production House + Tasting Room and Red Bear Brewing Co. in NoMa. Warner is hoping to convince the city to install a ramp so people can roll their bikes straight up the hill from the trail and store them on site.

The taproom, led by Eugene Barnett, will have a pared-down service style. “When you went to breweries years ago, you went to a warehouse with picnic tables inside and outside and people were happy to be there,” Warner says. “That was the original vision when I wrote this business plan seven years ago. Then it changed where people were coming to brewery taprooms more and more. [Brewery owners] reacted by thinking they had to build a pub inside. This is a compromise.” 

City-State beers will flow from kegerators into compostable plastic cups. Warner, who worked in environmental policy on Capitol Hill, says going through tens of thousands of plastic cups “gave him pause,” but he developed a relationship with a waste management company that takes them to a special facility for composting. There’s no commercial kitchen on site, but City-State hopes to welcome food trucks and vendors from Mess Hall, located just around the corner. 

The other half of the 14,000-square-foot facility is the brewing operation, which has room to grow with demand. Vincent Falcone is the head brewer. With fellow brewer Eric Dolinger, he watches over a 20-barrel system and a tandem 5-barrel system that allows for experimentation and collaboration with bars and restaurants. Warner hopes to let aspiring breweries, which might not have enough access to capital to open a facility of their own, utilize the smaller system that makes 10 kegs at a time. 

Warner worries there won’t be many breweries opening in D.C. proper for a while. “This was one of the few warehouses where the owner didn’t look at it and say, ‘This is going to be condos in 10 years,'” he explains. “They price it in a way that makes it very hard for a small business person, especially with all of the terms and guarantees.”

Poke around the cavernous space Warner secured and you’ll find the room where they grind the grain and a small lab for quality control. “We’ll take samples by swabbing different surfaces around the brewery,” Warner explains. “Yeast is our most important employee. We have to keep it very happy. But when you’re making beer, you’re making the most nutritious food possible for any microbe that’s around. You want to only feed your employees.”

The brewers will call on traditional and time-intensive techniques like step mashing and decoction to take their beers to the next level. Step mashing gives brewers greater command of temperature so they can make more sophisticated and structured products, the idea being that enzymes in malted grains do different things at various temperature ranges. Warner likens step mashing to fine control of the audio mix in a recording studio.

When the doors open at the end of the month, City-State will launch with kegs of six of its beers: 8 Wards Independent Pale Ale, Equal Marriage dark wheat, Feather Duster hazy ale, Blossom kolsch, Redbud hibiscus kolsch, and Trainspotter ale. Lost Laws pilsner, Self-Determinator maibock, Kingman extra stout, and Foxhall lager will be ready in mid-June, when Warner says he hopes to be canning. City-State will use a mobile canning service to begin with, but they’ve secured a D.C. manufacturing grant to purchase a canning line of their own. It should arrive this fall.

8 Wards is an IPA, but Warner uses “Independent Pale Ale” instead of India Pale Ale. “It has eight ingredients for all eight wards,” he says. “We get flavor from the yeast, from the malt, and from a combination of hops that are both American and continental. A lot of beer-making has gotten very sort of one note focusing on the hop and it really kind of assaults your palate. That’s not what I love and that’s not what people reacted to when I was raising money.” 

City-State attracted investors to put money into the project, including Nick Freshman of Mothersauce Partners. Most of them made modest investments after listening to Warner pitch his concept over home-brewed beer. Warner participated in the Brookland House and Garden Tour in 2017 and estimates that 500 people came through his home. “I just stood in front of the kegerator with my business card, stickers, and cups of beer.” 

Investors were encouraged that after leaving his Senate staffer job, Warner rolled up his sleeves to understand the business. He took a job as a server at ChurchKey in Logan Circle, one of the District’s preeminent craft beer bars. “Don’t take your first waiter job at age 38,” he jokes. “I left a lot to be desired, so I thought it best that I work in the daytime.”

He moved on to working for Legends, a Baltimore-based craft beer distributor. “Investors didn’t care about my degrees, but they did care that I drove a car for five years and sold beers as a front-line salesman,” Warner says. “Part of me will always live in that car.

Warner says he raised $2.4 million in equity, debt, and landlord-tenant improvement funds to bring City-State Brewing to fruition. Some of that funding, $151,000, was funneled through what Warner calls City-State’s own Opportunity Zone Fund—City-State Opportunity.

One of Warner’s top goals is to be a good employer. Asked if he plans to hire from the neighborhood or prioritize hiring diverse staff, Warner talks about making sure formerly incarcerated people know they can apply. He also mentions that he wants employees to have upward mobility within the brewery. “This is my first time as a boss. I’m determined that this will be the best place that any of us work,” he says.

When it opens, City-State’s hours will be Mondays through Thursdays from 3 p.m. to midnight; Fridays from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

City-State Brewing, 705 Edgewood St. NE;