by Joe Stange
Our nation’s capital is awash in cask ales; here’s how it got that way, and where to find the best pints around.
- Tony and Laura Norris, both classical music teachers at George Washington University, first visited the U.K. in the early 1970s; inspired, they served cask-conditioned ale via handpump as early as 1988 at Bertha’s, their seafood joint in Baltimore’s Fells Point district quasi-famous for its “Eat Bertha’s Mussels” bumper stickers. Today, Bertha’s gets its Best Bitter from Oliver Ales, but that handpump’s earliest ales came from Maryland’s first modern microbrewery.
- That microbrewery was the British Brewing Co. Founded by British expat Steve Parkes in 1988, its first beer (and Maryland’s first craft brew) was the cask-conditioned Oxford Amber Ale. British Brewing later became Oxford Brewery, and in the early 1990s, its brewer was Tom Cizauskas; today, he writes about, consults on and preaches the proper care of cask ale. Pubs have his phone number; he keeps mallets, spiles and other cask-fixing doodads in his trunk.
- Cizauskas has advised Greg Engert, beer director of Northern Virginia’s modern, airy Rustico restaurants. Both the Alexandria and Ballston locations have at least 30 taps and two cask beer engines. Engert says Cizauskas is a major reason why so many bars and restaurants in the region do well with cask ale: He’s taught them how to care for it.
- Back in Fells Point, Bill Oliver’s maritime paraphernalia-laden Wharf Rat pub boasts tankards hanging in rows above the bar. In 1993 Oliver began brewing his own beer at the Wharf Rat brewpub on Pratt Street near Camden Yards; he sold it in 2008, but his Oliver Ales still pump from casks throughout the area.
- Joe Gold was working at the Wharf Rat when he started the Chesapeake Bay Branch of the Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood in 1997; today, the group’s more than 100 members strong. They hold monthly sessions at cask-friendly pubs in Baltimore and D.C., and attract hundreds to its annual Chesapeake Real Ale Festival each fall.
- Also in Fell’s Point: Max’s on Broadway, a sprawling corner bar as famed for its annual Belgian and Italian beer festivals as for its 1,200 bottled beers, impressive 140 taps and five casks pumping the likes of Heavy Seas.
- Under new ownership, the Wharf Rat brewpub became Pratt Street Ale House but continues to serve its beers under Oliver’s name. The pub has 15 house beers, including three cask ales at all times. The brewery’s in the basement, as is the cask cellar accessible only to British expat Stephen Jones, the brewer since 1999.
- Engert’s success at Rustico led to a job as beer director at all 10 (and counting) locations of its parent company, Neighborhood Restaurant Group. They include D.C.’s world-class ChurchKey beer bar and its upscale restaurant half, Birch and Barley, which share five permanent handpumps plus 50 keg taps and 500 bottles. Besides Rustico, Virginia’s Columbia Firehouse, Tallula and Evening Star Café each have one rotating cask, as does Washington’s new GBD (kitchen shorthand for “golden, brown, delicious”), a fried-chicken-and-doughnut shop with 19 taps. For its biggest project yet, the Bluejacket brewpub in D.C., the Neighborhood group plans to have five house-made cask ales pouring at all times.
- The Heavy Seas brewery just outside Baltimore claims to be the largest producer of cask ale in the United States. Owner Hugh Sisson’s tavern became Maryland’s first modern brewpub in 1989, the year after British Brewing opened. Sisson left five years later to open Clipper City Brewing, which later absorbed Oxford and once employed Cizauskas as a salesman specializing in cask ale. In 2010, Clipper City became Heavy Seas, and its Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA is a fixture on handpumps across the region.
- Pizza and beer are a famous combo, while better pizza and better beer are, well, even better. Pizzeria Paradiso has two locations in D.C. and one in Alexandria, and is as popular for its pies as for its clever draft and bottle lists. Each has more than a dozen taps and one cask ale on handpump. Also in Virginia, Fire Works Pizza in Arlington—bright and faux-industrial, with a brick oven blazing in the corner—has two dedicated handpumps; the Leesburg location regularly taps firkins, too.