On an average day, Jace Gonnerman is an extraordinarily busy man.
On an average day, he’s cleaning draft lines, tasting and ordering beer, writing menus, and keeping open lines of communication with breweries and distributors from around the country. Running the beverage programs at three of DC’s best beer bars has a way of occupying one’s time.
But there are no average days when the Craft Brewers Conference is in town.
The annual gathering of over 13,000 industry participants – be they brewers, equipment manufactures, maltsers, hop farms, or otherwise – descends upon one city each year, and when it does, that city’s beer bars roll out the red carpet with events showcasing a mix of local brews, out-of-town rarities, and special releases.
As you might imagine, planning and coordinating such events puts slightly more stress than usual on a beer director.
This year, DC hosted CBC for the first time since 2013, and we asked Gonnerman to document the wildly ambitious slate of event across his three bars: Meridian Pint, Smoke & Barrel, and Brookland Pint.
Next week, we’ll have 16 events in 6 days across 3 restaurants. It’ll end up being something like 340 unique beers.
Despite months of preparation, the last few days are always a whirlwind of stress and moving parts: massive beer deliveries showing up, menus to be finalized, point-of-sale buttons to be made, and the inevitable last-minute change or two to online listings and advertisements. Basically, everything that can be done prior to the day of the event is critical. This frees up time to deal with the unexpected.
I’ll probably be working on the computer until midnight or so each night through the weekend. For me, this is actually the hardest part. Once all the craziness begins on Monday morning, I sort of go into autopilot. It’ll be a whirlwind of keg changes, beer descriptions, schmoozing, and drinking.
The biggest loser this week: my wife. She gets four nights in a row with a hyperactive puppy, an almost nine-month-old baby, and a husband arriving home at various hours in various states of dishevelment. Mental note: Buy her something nice.
At this point, our crew is a pretty well-oiled machine. Over the years, Paul Kerley (Assistant Beverage Director), Jonathan Couchenour (Draft Tech Extraordinaire), and our whole management team have been through this song and dance multiple times between Savor, DC Beer Week, and the 2013 CBC.
However, I can confidently say this is the most ambitious week we’ve ever put together. And, frankly, I’m glad we did. It’s a necessity to stand out among the stunning list of events across the city. I hope there are enough thirsty people here to patronize spots on nights where there’s a dozen or more very worthy events.
DC’s grey market laws make weeks like this an open canvas for a beer program. All you need is a “yes” from a brewery and a way to get their beer here. We’re direct shipping a number of breweries, but newer distributors like Pekko and Hop House, along with established places like Premium, are bringing in a significant amount of beer, as well.
Saturday consisted of more monotony: menu updating, button creating, double-checking everything possible. We’ve had massive amounts of beers kick the past couple days at all three locations, which is great for making space.
I tapped a couple surprises early today at Brookland: Ocelot’s Gorgeous and Alone, Aslin’s Joose Pun, and both Sip of Sunshine and Super Session #2 from Lawson’s. It defies business logic, but I love to tap things unannounced and see how people react to it.
I also tapped ten New Belgium beers at Meridian Pint. Brewmaster Peter Bouckaert is in the house to talk to the local BURP Homebrew Chapter about sour beer production. A few sips remind me that New Belgium’s foeder/sour program is one of the absolute best in the country. They’re not afraid to experiment with some of the small batch stuff either, as evidenced by beers aged in various fruited whiskey barrels. Oscar (a base dark sour) aged in Leopold Brothers Blackberry Whiskey barrels is my favorite of the day.
T-minus 15 hours or so until it’s time to start tapping joose in Brookland.
Haze for Days (20+ beers) + Charlie Bravo Charlie Dinner (24 lines) + West Coast Best Coast (15+beers)
During these weeks, I wish I could clone myself – not necessarily to get more work done, but so I could talk to more people. This feeling was in full effect immediately on Monday.
Monday is always the hardest day of these weeks. You have to get mentally amped up to handle the extra speed that everything requires.
The day started at Brookland with 20 lines of soft, hazy IPA from Lawson’s Finest, Aslin, SingleCut, LIC Beer Project, Heist, Transient (surprise!), and Civil Society. The demand is off the charts for these breweries, and they showed why. We were busy immediately at lunch and stayed busy for the next 13 hours or so. Around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., beers started kicking left and right.
Pekko Distributors rolled through around 10:00 a.m. with SingleCut beers that had been kegged about four hours earlier. They deserve big kudos for the week. They handled lots of great brands and were logistically flawless.
After a few minor hiccups at opening, the staff at Brookland received big kudos for their organization and crowd management. An overlooked factor in these weeks is how much time the management staff at each individual restaurant spends on things like scheduling extra staff, ordering extra food, etc.
Meridian Pint was next as we were fortunate enough to host the annual Charlie Bravo Charlie dinner with Flying Dog, Surly, Maui, DC Brau, Wicked Weed, and Firestone Walker. It was special to have DC Brau in the house as it marked the approximate six-year anniversary of its launch.
It was my first time meeting David Walker, and he was an absolute joy to chat beer with. The same goes for Walt Dickinson from Wicked Weed, Garrett Marrero from Maui, and Jerrod Johnson from Surly.
The crew at Meridian were on point with logistics for around 55 people and made my life very easy.
The event I was most sad to miss during the week happened at Smoke & Barrel. It sort of served as a direct parallel to our event at Brookland, focusing on West Coast-style IPAs from Societe, Pizza Port, Amplified Ale Works, Ocelot, and Melvin. People apparently really like both of these styles, as this event was also packed. Societe’s Nelson and Citra-loaded Pupil IPA was one of first IPAs that blew my mind several years ago, and it was so cool for me to have it on tap.
A Night of Sours with Ballast Point (14 lines) + Best of the Midwest (20 lines) + Beers from the Vault with Captain Lawrence (24 lines)
It’s Tuesday, and things are starting to settle in. The line cleaning is much easier today at Brookland Pint, and everything is on tap by 9:00 a.m., leaving plenty of time to finalize buttons and menus. My mindset changes for the better when things run smoothly at stop #1.
Ballast Point has sent a wide range of wild and funky better that have never made it to the East Coast. The three fruited versions of Sour Wench are outstanding, but my personal favorite is Brett Grunion, a special version of the hoppy, juicy pale ale fermented with a funky and tropical Brettanomyces strain. Our customers go nuts for the Sea Pony, a blonde sour aged in foeders with pomegranates and raspberries.
The Ballast Point crew comes out en masse. We’re busy. Nice and easy. Great event.
The same goes for Meridian Pint. With Assistant Beverage Director Paul Kerley handling the logistics, everything is tapped and ready in plenty of time for Midwest stalwarts Rhinegeist, Columbus, Sun King, and Half Acre. Rhinegeist gets a huge shout out here for setting up this event and coordinating the other breweries. Their Mosaic Pale is right up my alley. If you haven’t figured out, my true soft spot is for nice, juicy, hop-forward beers in the 5-7% range.
Meanwhile, Columbus’s Bodhi is a phenomenal, Citra-heavy DIPA that comes in closer 8.5% but drinks dangerously lower. Sun King’s Cherry Busey is the standout funky offering of the night (and the best beer name) – a barrel-aged Flanders Oud Bruin with Montmorency cherries. Half Acre showcases a wide range of standout IPAs and DIPAs, but I’m quickly reminded how awesome Daisy Cutter is. It takes me quickly back to when I fell in love with the pale ale in Philly several years ago.
The theme for the day: Everything runs smooth. Jace’s stress level = relatively low
After missing Smoke & Barrel yesterday, it’s firmly on my calendar for the evening. I want to thank local Captain Lawrence rep Brendan Kelleher for his work in securing 24 lines, including rare sours and many pilot brews.
The sour program at Captain Lawrence is outstanding and showcases a very wide range – various barrels, fruits, and aging times – all done so well. An added bonus: a nice chat with the brewery’s founder, Scott Vaccaro. There’s rumblings of a possible summer collaboration between with our good friends at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Fitting the theme for the week, Scott is a joy to chat beer with.
Tuesday in the books. It’s the only night of the week I get home at a reasonable hour.
Sour Showcase (21 lines) + Fremont and Crooked Stave CBC Bash (21 lines) + Meet the Lion with David Walker (14 lines).
The concept to do a sour event at Brookland Pint came together very quickly and pretty easily.
Wicked Weed was interested in sending some very limited sours. I found out Hop House was bringing in Almanac and Bullfrog on temporary distribution. Cascade inquired about an event and brought the big guns. The last brewery, Birds Fly South, was a recommendation from my dear friend Adrien Widman at Ocelot. He wasn’t wrong. Their stuff also leaned toward the Brett/funky side – a nice contrast from the big, acidic, delicious offerings from the other breweries.
There are too many highlights to name, but here’s a few: Cascade’s Bourbonic Plague, Wicked Weed’s Garcon de Ferme, Almanac’s Nectarine Cobbler, Bullfrog’s Le Roar Grrrz Aardbei, and Birds Fly South’s Paper Airplanes
I originally got hooked up with Fremont through Jonathan McIntyre, my former Founders rep. He’s childhood friends with Matt Lincoln, Fremont’s Director of Brewing Operations. Fast-forward and this is now the third event we’ve done with the Seattle brewery. It’s also the third event that’s been packed. That’s not a coincidence. All of their beer is outstanding. And their barrel aging program is on par with anything in the country.
I also really how this list came out. Fremont brought a number of bourbon barrel-aged offerings, a couple hoppy beers, a pilsner, and a gose. Crooked Stave’s list was full of barrel-aged fruited sours, funky saisons, a brett IPA, and more. It was really a complete, rounded beer list, even loaded with rarities as it was.
Finally, at Smoke & Barrel we hosted Firestone Walker and David Walker himself. We had 14 lines of rarities, including Feral One, Bretta Rose, Parabola, and Pacific Gravity. The beer list was awesome. They make great beers across every style imaginable: sour/wild stuff, stouts, lagers, English styles, IPAs. They do it all, and they do it incredibly well.
What’s even more awesome is getting to spend time talking to David Walker, a person with an infinite number of reasons to be pretentious and not an ounce of pretense in his body. Instead, he’s warm, kind, generous, funny, and a joy to talk to. Several of my friends have commented that it was one of their favorite events of the week just based on being able to have a conversation with the Firestone Walker team.
We have a great relationship with those folks – Meridian Pint is literally the top Pivo account in the world – but I look forward to strengthening it even more.
Can’t Hyde the Madness (17 lines) + IPA Fest (74 lines) + The City of Brotherly Love (17 lines)
Thursday marked our first time event with J. Wakefield, which is an exciting way to start the day. The Brookland Pint event – dubbed Can’t Hyde the Madness – paired the Miami brewery with Maryland’s RAR Brewing, one of the stalwarts of our everyday draft list.
There’s a small line right at 11:00 a.m. to get J. Wakefield’s fruited Berliner, Miami Madness. It’s bright, tart, and acidic with massive tropical fruit character, and I can see why people go so nuts for this beer. They bring tons of other great offerings, too, including a NE-style DIPA collab with 18th Street Brewery and an imperial stout brewed with Modern Times barrel-aged coffee.
RAR is one of my absolute favorite local breweries and for good reason: a great hefeweizen, several outstanding limited IPAs, a stout brewed with strawberry, and of course, Nanticoke Nectar. Anytime I go a while without drinking it, I’m reminded of its brilliance. I heard a friend refer to it as the Two Hearted of the DMV, and I couldn’t agree more.
2SP makes traditional styles exceptionally well. Their Russian imperial stout, The Russian, won gold at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival. They also make phenomenally well-brewed lagers, IPAs, stouts, and Belgian-style ales. They’ll stand the test of time.
To be honest, I had never heard of Levante until setting up this event, but both Free Will and 2SP spoke very highly of them. Their beers did not disappoint: A spot-on Kolsch, a juicy/hazy IPA, a Belgian DIPA, a barrel-aged stout, and more. Levante just opened in mid-2015, and they appear to be on course for big things.
Finally, Free Will brought the funk. Its four wild/sour offerings were all outstanding. Cuvee Aigre is in the upper tier of American sours – a blend of blonde sours aged 18-24 months in chardonnay barrels. The Pomisher – re-fermented with pomegranate puree – offered massive dark and stone fruit character and was equally outstanding. The same goes for Olly, a barrel-aged take on a Flanders Oud Bruin.
And, lastly, we get to Meridian Pint. I’d like to think we’re a special kind of crazy for evening attempting to pour 60 IPAs. (This ballooned to 74, by the way.) It wasn’t easy to get set up, but once we did, I’m very proud of what we accomplished. My original plan for the event was “just” 32 lines. And somehow we ended up here.
First, I have to give kudos to our staff. Eric Rodriguez, Jordan Gilles, Maria Flores, Paul Kerley and more were all integral to what we accomplished. I brought in the beer. They handled tickets, volunteers, jockey boxes, and an infinite amount of additional logistics. At one point, we had over 20 people helping with set-up.
Once we got open at 2:00 p.m., I was exceptionally pleased with how everything ran. The goal was to have enough stations so that beer lines and wait times were minimal. I think we accomplished that. The volunteers were great, and the patrons were great.
AND THE BEER.
I’m a hop head. I make no bones about that. I can’t even begin to describe how happy I was with this list. I tasted through a good number of the beers, and I couldn’t find a bad one in the bunch. It’s always fun to me to taste highly-touted breweries and have them exceed my expectations; this was certainly the case for Brew Gentlemen, Heist, Equilibrium, Tombstone, Columbus, and so many more.
I just loved how much it encompassed of the world of hops. We had session IPAs, Brett IPAs, double IPAs, triple IPAs, clear IPAs, hazy IPAs, sour IPAs, IPAs from tiny producers, IPAs from giant producers, and everything in between. Nothing seemed out of place.
I’d venture to say this event will make another appearance down the road.
Hops and Cake (23 lines) + CBC Finale with Modern Times (24 lines) + 12% Importers Showcase (17 lines)
I said it in our event description and it’s true: I never had any intention of doing a Friday event at Brookland Pint.
It’s the end of the week. The brewers have largely headed home. Staff and management are always exhausted. Then we got offered carte blanche on Westbrook: four version of Mexican Cake, countless Gose variants, barrel-aged sours, IPAs – the list goes on. You can’t turn that kind of thing down
I had also been looking for a home to showcase a bunch of new, awesome hop-forward offerings from Manor Hill. It worked out perfectly. Westbrook brought the big, crazy stouts and sours. Manor Hill brought an exceptional new pilsner, as well as a bunch of hops.
Westbrook Bourbon Mexican Cake was everything it was made out to be: a big, complex imperial stout that was shockingly well integrated and drinkable with notes of dark chocolate, bourbon, cinnamon, vanilla, and a perfect level of pepper heat.
Manor Hill’s first run at a pilsner was outstanding, as mentioned, but I also swooned over Dust Up, a 4.6% pale ale brewed with the equivalent of six pounds per barrel of lupulin powder. This beer puts enormous tropical and stone fruit flavor and aroma into a tidy, drinkable package.
Modern Times has sent beer to DC a few times now, but it’s been largely flagships and seasonals, so I jumped at the opportunity to fill all 24 lines at Meridian Pint with a mix of rarities and one-offs. Much like Firestone Walker earlier in the week, the amount of styles that Modern Times nails on the head is staggering. It’s everything from pilsners to saisons to hops to barrel-aged stouts and sours. Their Great Notion collab IPA, Effective Dreams, is as good as any IPA I had all week. Given the massive pineapple character, I was shocked to find out it contained no fruit.
What Modern Times is doing with coffee is also worth mentioning. We featured at least two beers with house-roasted and barrel-aged coffee. The barrel aging of coffee adds such a unique presence, without the beer ever touching oak.
Finally, the week closed at Smoke & Barrel with a showcase of the brands of 12 Percent Importers: Evil Twin, Stillwater, Omnipollo, Against the Grain, Blackberry Farm, Off Color, and more. We pour a lot of these beers over the course of the year, but this served as a sort of “greatest hits” menu.
Omnipollo and Dugges’ Anagram somehow pulled off an Imperial Blueberry Cheesecake Stout without feeling gimmicky or artificial. It was very awesome. The coffee in Coffee Dino’Smores was a great addition to the base beer, loaded with graham flour, marshmallow, cocoa nibs, and vanilla. Stillwater and Dugges’ Tropic Punch lived up to its name with great tartness and massive additions of peach, mango, and passion fruit.
CBC week is challenging. It’s taxing on staff, brewers, and customers alike. But it’s worth it. It’s what we live for as professionals in this industry. If we stay on schedule, it should come back around to DC in for or five years. If current trends hold, it’s going to take something even bigger and better to stay at the top of the curve.
I’ll start planning now.