Brickskeller down bar 1980's

The old Brickskeller bar in the 1980s. Courtesy: Dave Alexander.

As the Craft Brewers Conference wraps in our nation’s capital, I thought why not look at the District’s unique place in American craft beer.

Perhaps the most unique thing about D.C. craft-beer-wise is its status as birthplace of the commercial sit-down beer tasting. It all started one evening in September 1985, in the old Brickskeller bar off DuPont Circle. The local wing of the Cornell University alumni association had approached longtime Brickskeller owner Maurice Coja about holding a beer tasting.

Coja and his son-in-law, Dave Alexander, along with Bob Tupper, a Maryland schoolteacher with encyclopedic tasting notes who would serve as M.C. for the evening, set about organizing a modest buffet to go with 10 beers, including German and English ones. Tickets were $15 a pop, and, though no American craft beer brands were included in that original tasting, the event unwittingly sparked a trend that has reverberated down through every subsequent beer dinner, tasting, cookbook, tasting guide, brewery crawl, etc. Food and beer were forever elevated above the Bud-and-chicken-wings realm.

Nearly two years before the Brickskeller event, Michael Jackson was pushing the same sort of link between good food and good beerand doing so in the nation’s third-largest daily newspaper. On Nov. 16, 1983 (during the same week that The New York Times first used the term “micro-brewery”), Washington Post readers awoke to an in-depth, at times witty essay on what styles of beer to pair with what parts of the upcoming Thanksgiving feast. Jackson’s essay meandered over four pages and included advisory gems like this:

With the centerpiece of the meal, the turkey … I would opt for a pale but medium-dry brew of the type produced in the city of Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria. … With just a hint of sweetness to match some of the turkey’s accomplishments, these Munich Light beers have plenty of body without being too filling. Their alcohol content is pretty ordinary, at well under 4.0 percent by weight or 5.0 by volume. As for serving temperatures, the simplest rule to observer is that any beer from Munich or elsewhere in Bavaria should be served chilled but not to American popsicle level; not less than 48 degrees, in fact.

It was not only unprecedented beer writing in general for an American newspaperserious, detailed, concerned more about beer style than brewing volumebut groundbreaking stuff in linking good food with good beer. In this trend, Washington was the undisputed leader. Fitting, given the city’s namesake.