Ward 5: DC’s Craft Brewing Capital: a multi-part series

By Stephanie Liotta Atkinson
In this three part series for the Insider, I tour DC Brau and Chocolate City Beer breweries – DC’s first and so far only operational breweries.  I’ll also follow Steve Sorrell, the Ward 5 craft nanobrewer behind Low Brau, as he  searches for the perfect Ward 5 DC location to call his brewing castle.
The first stop on my Ward 5 brewery tour was Chocolate City Beer, located at 2801 8th Street NE.  You know you’re there when you stumble upon a historic gem of a building made of rough-cut red stone.  CCB does not yet have a sign announcing its presence to those metroing past its backyard on the way to the Brookland/CUA redline station, but I am told that one is coming.  The Metropolitan Branch Trail also deposits you at CCB’s doorstep, if you’d prefer to pedal home with a growler.
First, about the name. The Chocolate City moniker does not portend a menu of chocolate-themed beers. Rather, the brewery’s name is a nod to DC’s local history as a historically African American city.  It’s also the title of a 1975 George Clinton and the funk band Parliament album.  The owners, much like DC itself, are a racially diverse group of guys.
My first encounter with CCB’s ownership was the affable, semi-fauxhawked head brewer Ben Matz.  Ben walked the Insider’s Greg and I into the manufacturing room of CCB’s small start-up, which has only been open since August.  Inside are six new fermenting tanks, which are producing about 40-50 kegs every 10 days.  Ben explained that CCB is currently distributing to an ever-growing selection of DC restaurants and bars (they currently have 30 accounts).  Click here to see where you can find Chocolate City Beer.  Consumers can also show up at the brewery on Saturdays from 12:30-4 to buy a growler.  For those unfamiliar, a growler is a 64 ounce glass jug of beer ($16 investment, filled), which can be brought back and refilled for $10.
So why the Ward 5 location?  Ben explains that unlike most other areas in DC, Ward 5 has a concentration of land zoned for manufacturing (CM).  While this zoning can attract uses residents don’t necessarily favor (medical marijuana growth and distribution in Ward 5 seems to be public enemy no. 1 right now), it can also lure cool businesses like Chocolate City Beer, which is able to brew thanks to the CM zoning of it’s red rock castle next to the Metro tracks.  Ben enthusiastically notes that craft brewing in the District is entering a renaissance, and Ward 5 is uniquely poised to house many start-up breweries.  (If only Rhode Island Avenue NE could house a few bars to sling those beers…)
Continuing our tour to a small front room, Greg and I met two other CCB owners: Jay Irizarry and Don Parker (fourth owner Brian Flanagan wasn’t there).  In the front room members of the public stream in to buy growlers and CCB gear: t-shirts and beer glasses (they have women’s sizes/cuts, which I always appreciate).  As the line quiets down between rushes, we have a chance to talk to Ben and Jay about plans for CCB.  In the future we can expect CCB to hire more staff, expand its distribution, and (most importantly for the Ward 5 neighbors) obtain it’s tasting license.  The tasting license, which allows sipping of Chocolate City brew on the premises, will hopefully be in place in the coming months.
Before we head out, the gents in the tap room supplied me with two growlers of my own: Cornerstone Copper Ale and Cerveza Nacionale.

Full disclosure: I’ve never reviewed a beer before in my life (although I’ve certainly drank enough)… Here goes.  The Cornerstone is exactly that – a copper ale that is a crowd pleaser – a pitch right over the plate, if you will.  There was universal agreement in my house that the Cornerstone is indeed well balanced – not too hoppy, not too malty.  It pours a cloudy caramel color.  As for the Cerveza Nacionale, I wasn’t expecting to particularly enjoy this “Vienna Lager,” because I’m not a lover of malty, dark beers (yes, I know, another pesky American who loves hops).  However, I am pleased to report that the Nationale was not overwhelmingly malty for my palate.  The Nacionale is a bit creamy (although we’re not talking Guinness here) and very smooth, with an enjoyable roasted sweetness to it.  Like the Cornerstone, it also proved easy to drink.  With my two growlers kicked, I will be back next Saturday for another round.

Next stop on our brewery tour is DC Brau. Stay tuned for that post in a few days…

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11 thoughts on “Ward 5: DC’s Craft Brewing Capital: a multi-part series

  1. I got a growler, too, and really enjoyed it. I wish I had gotten a Cerveza, but they were out. Next time. It’s very nice to have them in the neighborhood, and I am really looking forward to tastings!
    On a side note, “it’s”=it is; I’m an English teacher, so I had to mention it!

  2. Do any of these breweries offer tours? Several years ago, I went on a tour at the Old Dominion Brewery when it was located in Ashburn, Virginia (near Redskins Training Camp). As far as I know that location is closed now. Old Dominion makes the finest root beer in the world! Do any of these breweries make root beer? Are their ingredients all organic? The Artmosphere Cafe (once The Spotlight, now Urban Eats) used to have organic Wines on its menu.) Old Dominion has a pub at the DC Convention, but their prices, even just for root beer, are way too expensive. I used to go to Costco and pick up their root beer by the case. Now that Costco is finally moving to the South Dakota Crossings/Fort Lincoln area I’ll buy it there, if Costco still sells it.

    Bison’s Organic Beer tells us: “Buying organic products weekly is as important as big purchases like energy efficient appliances, a fuel efficient car, or altering your lifestyle to recycle and conserve energy in your home.” And, “We brew all Bison beers organically, not just one or two labels to make us feel good about ourselves and bluster about our green credentials. We are certified organic by the CCOF, Santa Cruz, CA. Certified organic means that agricultural products have been grown and processed under USDA national organic standards and independently certified. What drives us to brew organically is the real prize of organic agriculture—barley. Acres and acres of barley. Hops are just lipstick on beer (very gorgeous lipstick, mind you), but the main ingredient, malt, is the thing that really has an impact on sustainable and ecologically sound food production. Organic products, from field to consumer, are the best way to protect the environment, save energy, and ensure sustainability of American farming. Here is what is important. The EPA attributes 70% of the pollution in our rivers and streams to conventional farming.”

    Ward 5 really needs to become the Organic capital of DC. Bison also states: “Eating and drinking organically is the only way to avoid GMOs.”

  3. Josh, thanks! But what about root beer? We’ve got plenty of kids who like to drink root beer and can’t drink beer in Ward 5.

    I remember a while back a blog called BrooklandAvenue.com doing a story on hops growing at the Franciscan Monastery. Does anyone know about this? I believe it’s organic. The Franciscan Monastery sells honey in its bookstore collected from bee hives at the Monastery. Also, the Basicila has some great honey, hot sauces, fruit cakes, etc. that it sells made from other Monasteries in the U.S. and Mexico. They are all worth trying and giving as gifts.

  4. Great article and photos, thanks for sharing, Stephanie! You should see whether the City Paper wants to use this story, if they haven’t already covered Chocolate City Beer. I had my first one Monday at the Capital Grille — a pitcher of their “1814 ESB” ($22). It was a bit sweet, but definitely drinkable.

    I live in Edgewood and am really excited to have a super-local beer option brewed less than a mile from my home! Will have to pick up a growler of Cornerstone soon.

    1. Hey Walter – City Paper has a fair amount of coverage on CCB, but perhaps I’ll pitch the Low Brau story to them (coming in several days). It’s great that the community is rallying around these breweries, I hope this eventually gives way to some brewpubs on RIA NE.

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