When Atlas Brew Works opened in the fall of 2013, it couldn’t serve a pint of beer at the brewery.
This wasn’t a problem unique to the Ivy City operation: Under D.C. law at the time, no brewery could sell beer for on-premise consumption. It was strictly growler fills and production floor tours and free tasters.
That changed the following July when the city created a permit to allow breweries to dispense full pours of its brews to visiting patrons.
In the two years that have passed since then, D.C. has seen local breweries flourish as destinations for both extended weekend visits and an after-work beer. They’re open more days of the week, and due to a more recently enacted law, they can stay open later, too. They host happy hours and trivia nights and even evenings for bingo. They’re also available for private parties, and they’d be more happy to tell you all about that.
The breweries that have sprouted up since the law passed, like Hellbender and Right Proper’s Brookland location, opened with tasting rooms designed to woo large groups and neighborhood regulars.
Now, the initial wave of DC breweries are catching up.
An article in The Washington Post last August touted the “impenetrable din,” “peculiar scent,” and no-frills charm of breweries like Atlas and 3 Stars, but those breweries are investing in an on-premise experience that appeals to a broader audience. Late last year, 3 Stars erected its Urban Farmhouse tasting room, a rustically decorated, encased structure within the brewery.
And a little over a week ago, Atlas unveiled a sleek, modern new tap room that sets the brewery apart on the local landscape.
In other words, there was no real separation. It was as if a bar and some high-top tables drifted like tumble weed into the brewery.
“One of the beautiful things about our old tap room was that you were right there with the tanks; you were in the brewery,” says Justin Cox, Founder and CEO of Atlas. “That’s great for an experience, but it’s bad for production because you can’t drive a forklift through there.”
While being so close to the equipment had its allure, the brewery also wasn’t air-conditioned or heated, which made visiting during August or February especially interesting.
So, six months ago, Cox set about developing a different kind of brewery experience.
Atlas had been sitting on space for over two years: a ramshackle office area and an adjacent “weird atrium thing,” in Cox’s words. The CEO began seeking the permits that would allow him to turn these 2,600 square feet of motley warehouse property into something that would draw people to Atlas.
“We think the tap room is one of the biggest marketing opportunities that we have,” the CEO says. “People can come in and experience Atlas, and have our beers, and chat with our friendly people who know what they’re talking about.”
The permitting process took almost four months, which Cox calls “relative ease” for the city. By February, the construction team was ready to come in and take care of business.
When Cox founded Atlas, he convinced an old college friend, Will Durgin, to be his head brewer. (Durgin has since left Atlas. Read the history of the brewery in our Tap Takeover: Atlas Brew Works.)
When it came time to build a new tap room, he would turn to an even older friend: Justin Feit of FEIT Design in Charleston, South Carolina.
The two have known each other since middle school.
“Justin has designed bars and restaurants and homes, and he started his own business at same time that we were doing this, and I had always talked to him about the brewery,” Cox recalls. “He wanted something to be a nice piece in his portfolio – sort of a showcase. And I just said, ‘Awesome. I’ve seen your house. I’ve seen bars you’ve done. It’s going to be amazing. Let’s do it.”
The work Feit produced is stunning: playful, modern, industrial.
“I can’t take credit for any of the design decisions,” Cox says with a laugh. “It was mainly him.”
There is one idea in the tap room that Cox will take partial credit for, though: The faux train board menu displaying the beers on tap. (The brewery originally wanted a proper, functional train board, but Atlas couldn’t fit all of a beer’s information on there. Plus, it was prohibitively pricey.)
A glass-paneled, retractable garage door allows visitors to look onto the production floor – not that Atlas plans to seal off that area completely.
On the contrary, the brewery will still have a roped-off, indoor patio area so patrons can have a beer next to the tanks when Atlas isn’t actively brewing. When the weather cools down, the garage door will roll up, too. (At some point in the future, as the brewery continues to expand, this space may be overtaken by new tanks.)
Whether the garage door is up or down, the new tap room will be open seven days a week going forward.
The bar in the tap room has 20 operational tap lines. While Atlas will use four of those lines to repeat its more popular flagships, that still allows for 16 beers to be on tap any time. That’s a lot of beer.
Recently, the brewery acquired a 3.5-barrel pilot system, which will help fill those lines. The idea will be for brewers to test new recipes, put them on tap in the tasting room, and get instant feedback.
I ask Cox if he and the Atlas brewing team have discussed what they’d like to make on the new system.
“Oh, all the time, man,” he says chuckling. “All the time.”
“I really want to make a Pale Ale,” the CEO continues. “I haven’t developed a recipe fully in a while, and I want to be able to do that. I also have an old Russian Imperial Stout that I made back in my homebrewing days that I’d like to bring back out.”
In addition to whatever comes from the pilot system, Atlas will be unveiling beer for the summer in the not-too-distant future.
Atlas has resisted brewing tried and true “seasonal” beers since it opened – the Home Rule IPL is brewed for spring and summer – but Cox is waving the white flag here.
“I’ve tried to stay away from the term ‘seasonal’ for a while but I’ve been beat down,” Cox says. “I just have to accept that’s the way the beer business works.”
But rather than brew a single 40-barrel batch of one summer seasonal, Atlas will brew three 20-barrel batches of three different warm-weather beers.
“We want to make sure our stuff is fresh,” Cox says. “We can control that better with smaller batches.”
The CEO is coy about what those beers will be exactly, but he does share that they’ll include “something tart, something wheat, and something hoppy.”
For now, though, he’s just happy to enjoy the sight of his new tap room.
“There’s certainly an extra sigh of relief with getting this done.”