By Philip Runco. Photos by Sarah Gerrity.
First, we were headed to Capitol Hill. Then, it was some remote location in Northeast D.C. that we’d probably never even heard of. Soon enough, it was… Georgetown? Could it really be Georgetown?
The truth is that aside from the driver and perhaps a select two or three people, no one had any idea where our bus was going. Of course, that didn’t stop anyone from guessing with each and every turn of the vehicle. As it shouldn’t have. This was part of the fun. The final destination was a surprise. Everyone aboard this coach had paid $100 in exchange for food, beer, and a grand reveal.
We wouldn’t be disappointed.
Eventually, as our coach passed the embassies of Massachusetts Avenue and the Naval Observatory, rumbles floated through the bus that maybe, just maybe, it was the National Cathedral. I dismissed the idea. There’s no way those grand and hallow halls would host this group of miscreants.
But it wasn’t long after we turned onto Wisconsin Avenue that this theory was confirmed.
Indeed, the world’s sixth largest cathedral was the final destination of DC Brau’s Evening of Magical Mystery.
Approaching the National Cathedral’s entrance on foot, we were greeted by DC Brau’s co-founders, Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock. The latter half of the two-man welcoming committee wore a brewer’s shirt with a cryptic angel of death (from the brewery’s On the Wings of Armageddon cans) embroidered on its back. Skall, meanwhile, sported one of the Hawaiian shirts he’s donned with regularity for much of the year. They were quite a sight. The grins on their respective faces would have been visible from a space station.
And for good reason. In that moment, Skall and Hancock must have been realizing that their brewery had pulled this off. For a marquee event of DC Beer Week, it had organized a five-course dinner at a majestic venue (the National Cathedral) with one of the city’s most highly regarded chefs (Michael Friedman of Red Hen and All Purpose). It had convinced a hundred people to buy tickets without many of those details being advertised. And it had coordinated the transportation of all these guests. That’s quite a feat.
Of course, this isn’t the only time this year that DC Brau has displayed the audacity to swing not just for fences but out of the park entirely. In April, the brewery celebrated its fifth anniversary by brewing five very different beers with five different breweries: a saison steeped on hibiscus and rose hips; an India Pale Lager brewed with three fruit purees; a rye double IPA; a traditional dunkel; and a massive milk chocolate imperial stout. It produced full batches of all these beers, then canned the liquids and released them in variety six-packs. The coordination required to realize that endeavor – not to mention the fermentation tank space – is staggering.
Then the brewery put on what was essentially a music festival to celebrate their birthday and the beers’ release.
This is a long of way of recognizing that DC Brau is thinking on a scale that no other local brewery is. It’s devoting time and resources to present experiences that are grand, imaginative, and just plain different. We’re lucky to have them in our backyard.
Now, let’s dig into this meal.
After a quick tour of the Cathedral, each guest was welcomed with a “tramezzino” of duck liver, fig sonserva, thyme, and crushed hazelnuts. The play on cheap, little finger sandwiches was paired with DC Brau’s Belgian pale ale, The Citizen, which awaited us in candle-surrounded buckets located in the middle of our tables.
We were seated inside the Cathedral, to front and left, not far at all from a pulpit carved of stone. So far, so magical.
Originally, the plan had been for the dinner to be held outside in the Bishop’s Garden, but a slight chill and a whole lot of rain forced an audible. Would the outside have been more magical on a dry, 75-degree evening? Probably. But that’s life, and seated where we were, with the incredibly dulcet and groovy sounds of local duo BOOMscat resonating in the air, was a hell of an alternative.
The first course arrived as a small mound of scallop crudo, apple, sage, and lemon. It was a lovely, if slightly lonely, bowl that was soon filled with autumn squash chowder, served tableside from beer growlers, naturally. This was one of the more fun touches on the night. And the soup within those growler was a rich, complex swirl of flavors.
This edible autumn was paired with the brewery’s Brau Pils. The flagship is one of the area’s best representations of a hop-forward Pilsner, although the perceived hoppiness is more a product of its lighter malt bill than an overly aggressive hopping regime.
Or so Hancock said during one of several visits to our table.
Rather than talk about their beers over the speaker system that had been set up, the head brewer, Skall, and other members of the DC Brau team opted to float from group to group throughout the course of the night, discussing their brews and answering questions. The effect was to make dinner in this massive venue feel far more intimate, even if it meant that the co-founders were on their feet and working pretty much the entire time. These are things that might go unnoticed by a lot of people, but they make a huge difference.
For the second course, Italy and Germany met halfway.
DC Brau presented the latest rendition of its traditional Marzen lager, Oktoberfest, which this year is a tad boozier and boasts a more complex malt bill. Inspired by Spaten’s Oktoberfest and Victory’s Festbier, Hancock’s Märzen has landed in a delightful place with a creamier mouthfeel and a brighter spotlight on the all-German malts. Usolicited advice: Snag a four-pack of the tallboys if you come across them in the wild.
Friedman paired the beer with a roasted Italian sausage, accompanied by sweet and hot pickles and peppers, saurkrau soubise, and dill crème fraîche. Other dishes were perhaps more creative, but for my palate, this was the winner. I don’t think I’ve ever had a tastier sausage in my life.
The third course provided a bit of a breather on both fronts. Friedman presented a creamy porcini risotto with roasted lemon, breadcrumbs, and pecorino tartufo. And we washed that down with DC Brau’s standard summer hefeweizen, El Hefe Speaks.
By the time the next serving arrived, it was time for some fireworks. The showpiece of the meal, Friedman’s fourth course was a porchetta made from suckling pig, and topped with braised red cabbage, salame crumble, and summer peach.
Complimenting the fruitiness of that last ingredient was the “Belgianized” version of On the Wings of Armageddon. It’s basically the same, beloved double IPA, but fermented with DC Brau’s house Belgian yeast strain, which throws off more estery, tropical flavors.
Partnered with the similarly “Belgianized” version of Space Reaper that followed, the spin on Wings was one of the two curveballs from DC Brau on the night. A few casks prepared for the occasion or a taster of something barrel-aged beer would have been appreciated, too – especially given what was surfacing around town during DC Beer Week – but it’s hard to nitpick when staples like Brau Pils and Oktoberfest are so good.
And the brewery was more than generous with its servings. If you drank everything that was presented to you, your stomach left swollen with about 80 ounces of beer. That’s a lot of beer.
But before anyone left, we capped off the evening with one last bit of indulgence.
For dessert, Friedman served up orange-scented pound cake with roasted pineapple, maple, anglaise, and chantilly cream. Alongside it, DC Brau doled out cans of Space Reaper 2.0, which like the previous beer, took an existing recipe (the Mosaic hop showcase Space Reaper) and fermented it with a Belgian yeast strain.
With those last treats consumed, everyone stumbled towards the doors of 104-year-old church.
There’s no doubt that the event lived up to the expectations. The only question is how DC Brau can possibly top the scale of its 2016.
I have a feeling they’ll find a way.