Environmentally aware consumers choose to eat vegetables and meat produced at local farms to avoid foods hauled over long distances by tractor trailers. Buying close to home also helps the local economy. It tastes better, too. Produce tastes fresher if eaten the day after it's picked and sold at a local farmer's market, unlike fruits and vegetables hauled across the country on a truck.
Until recently consumers did not have such options at their liquor store. But the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area's emerging craft beer market is now catering to their tastes.
"The less time the product has to travel the fresher it will be," says Jeff Hancock, the co-founder and head brewer at D.C. Brau, the city's first microbrewery since 1956. Hancock and co-founder Brandon Skall opened D.C. Brau last April.
As small business owners with just five full-time and six-part time employees, they face formidable tasks of coordinating the shipments of their ingredients over long distances, and then getting their finished product to the market fresh.
"One of the big issues related to transportation that we have... is making sure that the beer stays cold from the time it leaves here to the time it gets to the account," says Skall. "It's really, really important to us since our beer is unfiltered that our beer stays cold."
Keeping D.C. Brau's four flagship beers (named Corruption, Citizen, Public, and Penn Quarter Porter) cold while they are at the brewery is not a problem. Hancock and Skall lose control the moment the brews leave the brewery.
"So you want to make sure your distributor has refrigerated trucks, your distributor has a working cold box, things that are going to keep your beer the way it needs to be as it goes through that transportation stage to finally arrive at the account," says Skall.
Before D.C. Brau can brew an ounce of beer, the ingredients need to arrive on time from hundreds of miles away. Hancock orders his barley (to make malt) from the Midwest and hops from the Pacific Northwest. It takes days for shipments to get to D.C.
"We mainly get our barley out in the Midwest because of the plains out there," says Hancock. "It's great for growing barley, wheat, and rye; a lot of the grains used in brewing, and hops come from a moist climate like the Pacific Northwest. Hops take five days from Washington state."
D.C.'s microbrewery industry grows
The journey of the ingredients to the brewery and then the brewed beer to your favorite bar or kitchen table takes consumers back in time.
"There were so many local microbreweries before Prohibition, and beer didn't necessarily get transported from state to state the way that beer is now shipped all over the country," says Skall. "It was consumed fresh. It was consumed local. And that's what we are getting back to with all these smaller, local microbreweries opening up regionally. It's a beautiful thing."
One of those new microbreweries lies just 15 miles south of Washington: Port City Brewing Company was founded last year in Alexandria, Va. by Bill Butcher.
Although his name is better suited for someone who produces meat instead of beer, Butcher's brewery is taking off. That's one reason why freshness is not difficult to achieve.
"Fortunately, our beer has been so well-received by the market that we haven't had any issues with the beer sitting around for too long. It sells through quickly, it gets consumed quickly, and so people are enjoying our beer at its peak of freshness," he says. Still, there are challenges.
"Really, nobody has enough cold space," says Butcher, referring to sellers. "They will end up putting a display out of 15 to 20 cases where it is not refrigerated. That doesn't make the beer go bad. It's just not going to stay as fresh as long. We deal with it by keeping inventories short and making sure nobody buys too much that they can't sell in a very short period of time."
Like D.C. Brau, Port City has to coordinate the import of ingredients over long distances.
"We search over the globe for our ingredients, and quality is the first concern," he says. "Our pilsner malt comes from Germany. The hops come from England, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest." It takes six weeks for hops ordered in Heidelberg, Germany to arrive in Alexandria.
When Butcher opened last February, he ordered what he thought would be a three-month supply of packaging, bottles, labels, and six-pack carriers, among other items. He used them up in two weeks, causing an unexpected logistical dilemma difficult for a small business to overcome, especially since there were no other microbreweries around.
"It wasn't like we could call our neighbor up and borrow some supplies," he says.
Butcher was motivated to found a brewery for the same reasons someone may only eat vegetables sold at a local farmer's market.
"My wife and I have been committed to local food and drink for a long time. It was about four years ago when we realized that we buy all of our groceries from local producers, our meat from local farmers, but the beer we were buying was coming from the west coast," he says.
Butcher's brewery lost power during the severe storm that hit the D.C. area on June 29. More than 2 million people were without electricity following the storm. Fortunately, Butcher was able to save 13,000 gallons of beer he had on the premises, thanks to a generator at the brewery. He did, however, cancel Fourth of July-related beer tastings.
[Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "Beer Bottle Boogie" by Koko Taylor from Deluxe Edition]
Photos: Craft Brewers