Friday, April 29, 2011

Amber Waves of Grain

I'm sure it had something to do with the dismal weather. Or perhaps it was the sign at the Marathon station across the street from our Annapolis hotel that read "$3.87". Or it simply might have been the fact that, at almost 2 o'clock in the afternoon, my head felt like it was separating itself from my neck. But I was itchy. Antsy. Edgy. We were part of a tour-group, waiting in line to view a movie about the Capitol, prior to waiting in several more lines until finally occupying seats in the upper rows atop the House of Representatives. But all I could think about was finding a way to get over to the Capitol City Brewing Company.

Our excursion to Washington, D.C. had been in the planning stages for months. Donna and I used to live in the area. (twice!) So, we were acting as unofficial

tour-guides for our friends, Pat and Kathy Hedger, who were our next-door-neighbors when we lived in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. But it's difficult to see everything in our nation's Capital, especially if you only have a couple of days to do it.

By 2 o'clock, we were making a dent in the tour-book, but fatigue, a chilly drizzle, and a lack of malted barley in my system was beginning to have negative effects. So, by the time the tour ended, I had talked the group into some form of nourishment, and we were on our way down Louisiana Avenue.

Capitol City Brewing sits across the street from Union Station, in a federal building. I know this because our waiter asked to see our ID's. "Not because of drinking age," he said, smiling, "but because we're inside a federal building, we have to make sure you have a form of identification." Ok. I can go down D Street and buy a gun, but I have to flash a driver's license to have a beer. Such is life in "the District".

The building itself is awesome! I loved the high ceilings and all of the windows. And for a Thursday afternoon, it was pretty packed. (Spring Break will do that!) While waiting for our beers, Pat was telling me about a new brewery in St. Louis,

Ferguson Brewing Company, extolling the virtues of their Imperial IPA. Pat is a hop-head. Pat lives for hops. If Pat could find a way to spike his morning oatmeal with a few Cascade or Centennial pellets, he'd do it. Hearing his descriptions of that double IPA was making me thirsty.

I've been a fan of bitter since my college days. My appreciation of the style continued to be honed later on when I had the chance to sample steam beers and "California Common". I was anxious to try Capitol's ESB. It finally showed up, fairly cloudy and with little head-retention. That malty bite I expected was non-existent. Wet, yes. Superior? Hardly. Pat had better luck with his Pale Rider Ale. But I needed something with a refreshing bite, so I ordered a Capitol Kolsch, which turned out be fairly crisp and bracing. Using 10% wheat malt, I was surprised at its clarity. I liked the slightly sweet after-bite, which reminded me a bit of a younger cousin of a Maibock. Still, it came off a tad light for its style, a bit watery.

As I would discover, our jaunt over to Capital City Brewing would be a prelude to a regularly-recurring theme that would permeate the beer-portion of this trip. I liken it to the work of this Congress so far...or to Obama's presidency...or watching the Orioles at Camden Yards: some solid work, some high-notes, but nothing earth-shattering.

Later in the evening, once back in Annapolis, we stopped at McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster

Bar, at the City Dock in Annapolis. As a former resident of this extremely cool town, I'd spent many evenings watching tourists mingle with the Midshipmen, while slurping Fordham Brewing products sitting at tables outside of Middleton's Tavern or O'Briens. In the two years that we lived there, however, I couldn't remember visiting McGarvey's.

It's a cozy spot, indeed, but with a limited beer selection. Pat opted for a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. I wanted something local, and the only thing our server could say about McGarvey's Amber is that "someone locally brews it, but I'm not sure who it is". Her manager didn't know, either. No matter. It had the appearance of a Yuengling, though looks can be deceiving. So I was hoping for similarities to that of a Bell's Amber or at least the same style from Anderson Valley. It was similar to neither. It also seemed more highly carbonated than most amber ales I've had. Redemption occurred, though, when our server brought the crab dip. Personally, I wouldn't be opposed to bathing in crab dip. McGarvey's version was exceptional.

Like an adept politician, I felt like I had to strike a careful balance between visiting the regular tourist outposts and squeezing in some brewpub-time. This was, after all, a trip to Washington, DC, a place where our former neighbors had never visited. So while I had a secret yearning to fill up our days using a map of taverns rather than one for museums, I knew I had to be monument-sensitive. I'd have to give 'ole George and Abe their due!

Friday was filled with more rides on Metro, first to Arlington National Cemetery, followed by sprints through the rain to the Smithsonian Museum of American History and, later, the Air and Space Museum. By 5 o'clock, we were famished and soaked, so we jumped on

Metro and landed at Aria Pizzeria and Bar. Spotting a caipirinha on the menu, both Pat and Kathy opted to visit Brazil briefly, and since Donna disdains beer, I was on my own. Aria didn't offer a hefty beer list. Starr Hill products are not available to me in Ohio, so I decided on the Amber Ale while we waited for a few appetizers to arrive. I'd read good things about this Charlottesville brewery. I liked the subtle sweetness from the caramel malt; still, like the Museum of American History, I wasn't blown away. (though our quick trip through the museum may have been hampered by the enormous amount of people inside, who were trying to escape the almost-steady all-day drizzle.) It was well-balanced and structurally sound, but it wasn't a beer that would prompt me to dump Pat's caipirinha on the floor and scream, "You have to order one of these!"

Near-misses. Things that don't quite measure up. Solid, but uneventful. Our trip to Washington, as far as seeing the sights, was a great one, (and we really enjoyed catching up with our old friends!) but the beer-report from the front-lines of the greater Washington, DC area is average, at best. I had hoped to remedy things later that night at Mike's Crab House in Riva, just south of Annapolis. Our mood was tempered, however, when the weather reports signified that a tornado had ripped through St. Louis, making Pat and Kathy understandably nervous. And the beer-offerings

didn't help things. I had hoped for some other Virginia selections, or other East Coast beers. But Mike's disappointed me. "I don't even think we have any Fordham's," said our server, "But I'll check." She returned with the news that the only "local" offering would be a 60 Minute IPA. (Dogfish Head is located two hours from Annapolis) So, we pounded away at our crabs and monitored the weather report, keeping ourselves dry inside the plastic sheeting that protected us from both the rain and the views of the South River.

The majority of Saturday was spent in Baltimore. We strolled the Inner Harbor for a bit, and then took a boat over to Fell's Point. We made a bee-line to Max's Taphouse, which very well could have been the highlight of the whole weekend. It was crowded, and the Capitals playoff-game occupied all of the large-screen televisions. And once we figured out that we

needed to get in line in front of the bar to place our order, we were able to relax. Kathy and Donna left us for a bit to take in some of the shops, so Pat and I perused their extensive list.

It's the War and Peace of beer menus. I thought the 3-page draft list was huge, until the bar-keep handed me the bottle-selections. It looked like somebody's Ph.D. dissertation. After careful study, I decided on Old Court Ale from 16 Mile Brewing Company, from Georgetown, Delaware. I detected some residual citrus from the hops. I gleaned a bit of the caramel overtones. It was a solid choice for a brief escape from the maddening crowds outside. But did I text my beer-buddy, Jeff in Nashville, and exclaim, "Guess what I'm drinking!?" No. Like the Caps in the first period, it was consistent but not exciting. Nothing that demanded a slow-motion replay. Pat was a bit more adventurous, and, to be honest, a much more adept decision-maker when it came to the beer-menu of most of the places we visited. His Flying Dog Double Dog was spicy and laden with alcoholic goodness, fierce and on-target, like an Alex Ovechkin one-timer, top-shelf on the glove-side.

We reluctantly left, if for no other reason than the sheer amount from which to choose. I adored the selection at Max's. But I was beginning to think that the only disappointment of this trip, aside from Mother Nature, was my apparent inability to lock-on to a satisfying beverage. Were the offerings that much better in northeast Ohio? Or were the mind-blowing beer selections in the Mid-Atlantic region found only with some kind of special CIA-clearance?

We walked across the street to Alexander's Tavern to discuss it. I excused myself to use the restroom and

on the way thought I'd walk in front of the bar's tap-handles and beer coolers, to see if anything could get me out of my funk. And then I spotted it. An olive-green can, whose contents I know well. Finally! No, Oskar Blues is not brewed on this side of the country. It's also not available in my home state. But a warming helping of Old Chub was exactly what I needed, to both soothe my frazzled nerves and provide me with some clarity.

I had hoped that our late-night stop at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis would be my saving grace. Back in early 2000, when I wasn't

submerged in D.C. traffic or sitting in the bleachers at Camden Yards, I practically rented a stool at the bar when we lived here. I always liked the seasonal offerings of Fordham Brewing, in particular. I remember them making a phenomenal Maibock! But the menu on Saturday evening was pretty basic, the regular flagship selections, and not much more. Our server did remember that there was a Double IPA available, so I decided on that. It had a searing alcohol-burn, but had the color-consistency of an amber ale, or perhaps an Anchor Steam. I liked its floral nose, but I though it lacked the "pop" of other double IPA's. It certainly didn't match the taste-profile of the Double Dog that Pat had earlier in Baltimore. "It's good," Pat said, after sampling it, "but it's nothing like Double Dog or even Old 21. Needs more hops."

Needs more hops. Needs more....something. Yep, the weather-gods were perturbed, but the friends were perfect, the trains ran on time, and we managed to see more in three days than any normal person can probably expect to see. But as Donna can tell you, most of our journeys generally revolve around the libations that can be found. And as we motored towards BWI to drop the Hedgers off at the airport, I felt a tiny bit anxiety-filled. Sad that we

had to say goodbye, but also itchy. Antsy. Edgy. Like the Beltway bureaucracy, either the brewers need to get more ambitious, or I need to refine my beer-exploration skills.

I surely did not like those gas prices on the drive back. But there was an added bright spot, though. Hampton Beer Outlet sits at old exit 4 off the PA Turnpike, just north of Pittsburgh. Inside, there's a case of Old Chub with my name on it.


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