Best Beer: Best Bars

Best Bars

By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Jonathan Timmes


Mussels at Cock & Bowl

Mussels at Cock & Bowl

The Jessicas
Cock & Bowl
302 Poplar Alley, Occoquan; 703-494-1180;

Every bar needs a Jessica. As beer lists expand beyond the self-explanatory Bud/Coors/Amstel, craft beer consumers need help sorting through dense listings and, at times, confusing jargon-filled descriptions. “This imperial style is amazingly spicy and robust,” reads the Cock & Bowl beer menu for Belgium’s Jan de Lichte of the Glazen-Toren, Erpe-mere brewery. What does imperial mean? How exactly does robust taste? Ask Jessica.

Ask Jessica what she likes, too; she’ll tell you, grinning, “I love the real weird ones.” You can also flip to the last page of the thick beer menu and read about her fondness for funky beers (and other C&B staff faves), like the apple-refreshing, but not glaringly sweet, Canadian Belgian-style Ephemere. Still confused? You know what to do.


The Pizza
Fire Works American Pizzeria & Bar

Multiple NoVA locations;

A wood-fired oven isn’t good enough for a pizza place to thrive. Seasonal toppings sourced from neighboring farms? Nope. Gourmet cuts of meat? Not that either. The answer is craft beer. Fire Works, in Leesburg and Arlington, provides an impressive draft and bottle selection. Big hitters out of the West, Oskar Blues and Lagunitas, make appearances, as well as the ultra-local Blue Mountain Brewery (Afton) and St. George Brewing Company (Hampton). And just as pizza promotes sharing, Fire Works offers almost 20 big bottles (750 ml, 22 oz.), from St. Louis’ Schlafly to Williamsburg Alewerks in the Commonwealth.


The Trip
Lost Dog Cafe

Multiple NoVA locations;

Don’t go into Lost Dog Cafe high. The walls will bark at you. There’s a dog as a short-order cook; there’s a dog floating in the clouds; there’s a dog dressed in a dark suit, holding a briefcase, springing a not-as-fortunate dog from the slammer. But look away from the multiple dog murals, and a wall of beer appears. “Is there a beer list?” I ask, still staring at the dogs, staring back at me. The waiter shot me a look. “We don’t have a beer list,” and points to the shelves above the bar, packed with expertly picked, of-the-moment bottles. We drank Flying Dog’s bright and funky farmhouse IPA In De Wildeman, the imperial (code for high alcohol) red, and slightly sweet Tröegs Nugget Nectar and Burning River from Cleveland’s solid brand Great Lakes, which just broke ground in Virginia this February.


Revelers at MacDowell’s
Revelers at MacDowell’s

The German
MacDowell Brew Kitchen

202 B Harrison St. SE, Leesburg; 703-777-2739;

Further proving Leesburg dominates Northern Virginia’s beer scene—Fire Works, Tuscarora Mill, Döner Bistro, Vintage 50—MacDowell Brew Kitchen brings another 100-plus suds to the LoCo hotspot. Owner Nils Schnibbe, along with Gordon MacDowell and a third silent partner, (who hasn’t left his current brewery gig in another state), will bring a total of 23 years of brewing experience to their nanobrewery, but not just yet.

Opened in December 2011, MacDowell remains strictly a bar at the moment, as the licensing process has taken longer than expected. As soon as the paperwork settles, the team’s four planned beers—a pilsner, IPA, stout and Kölsch—are ready with recipes. (In two years, look for an expansion.)

Until then, MacDowell leans on the DMV’s craft beers, packing in Lost Rhino, Flying Dog, Port City, Devil’s Backbone and Starr Hill on the taps in this kitchen showroom-turned-nanobrewery.

Schnibbe comes naturally to craft beers, reveling in Northern Virginia’s emergence as a beer hub. “I love how it all pops up right now. It’s amazing how many breweries there are and will be opening soon, like us. I’m originally from Germany, and we’re all about beer over there anyways, so yeah, I love it,” says Schnibbe. “I feel at home.”


The Expert
Multiple NoVA locations;

“At that time, Rustico was a huge, huge thing,” says Greg Engert. As the beer director at Neighborhood Restaurant Group—a web of Alexandria, Arlington and Washington, D.C. restaurants—he manages the au courant craft beer list at each of the establishments, including Vermillion and Evening Star Cafe.

When Engert joined NRG in 2006 (after a self-education from the now-extinct D.C. institution Brickskeller) Northern Virginia hadn’t seen anything like Rustico.

Paying homage to the elders, Engert ticks off Bilbo Baggins, Tuscarora Mill, Fire Works and Lost Dog Cafe as great places for a pint, claiming that almost six years ago, “Northern Virginia had more of a beer scene, in a lot of ways, than D.C. did.”

Rustico stepped it up, combining chef-driven cuisine with a first-class, always-rotating beer list. But Rustico’s reputation as a craft beer destination revolves around knowledge, not just putting together a flashy tap line-up. It’s the education that Engert insists differentiates bars with craft beer and true beer-focused bars.

“I hate to say it; I bust my ass,” Engert says about his continual training of his staff at NRG, which includes almost 80 dedicated pages of beer information in the training manual. “We spend a lot of money and a lot of effort on making things perfect, and we were doing it before it was cool, before it was popular.”

Because of consumer demand for anti-establishment, craft beers, many Metro-D.C. restaurants and bars maintain a rotating and trendy list staring Rogue, Goose Island and Victory.

Engert argues that servers at many establishments are not learning how to describe and care for these new, intricate beers. Not all restaurants train staff on how to suggest beers, how to respond to flavor requests (says the girl always trying to find a non-hoppy beer in a hop-loving nation) or how to properly serve beers.

Rustico, for example, can bust out eight different types of vessels for beer, each shaped to promote the best of that brew’s unique style.

Overall though, Engert, who was nominated this year for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional by the James Beard Foundation, remains pleased with the state of the NoVA beer scene.

“I’m glad that more places are doing it. I think Virginia is a hotbed of craft beer.”


The bar at Tuskies
The bar at Tuskies

The Elder
Tuscarora Mill
203 Harrison St., Leesburg; 703-771-9300;

The Tuskie family of restaurants knows beer. As the upscale and eldest member (established 25-years-ago) of the crew, Tuscarora Mill could have easily focused on wine for its mom-and-dad-go-on-a-date clientele. Instead, the authentically rustic space (original gears and pulleys hang from the 18-foot ceiling) provides a streamlined selection of on-trend beers. The list reads Belgian friendly, with a nod to non-beer drinkers who can get down with the abundantly sweet and lightweight (3.6 percent ABV) Floris Apple. Seasoned craft brew fans, however, will appreciate seeing IPAs from Nectar, Smuttynose and DC Brau, while the old fashioned can find the familiar in pours like Guinness and Harp.


The Cocktail
Virtue Feed & Grain

106 S. Union St., Alexandria; 571-970-3669;

“What is a beer cocktail?” is how one reader responded to Northern Virginia Magazine’s survey question when deciding who makes the best beer cocktail in the area. Other answers included: “No thanks….really,” “Why ruin a beer that way?” and “Yuck.”

The naysayers clearly haven’t sipped the expertly massaged beer cocktails—hoptails—at Virtue Feed & Grain. Hoptails taste more like cocktails, but the beer shines through. An “Atypical” Chocolate Martini gains thickness from Green Flash’s Extra Stout Reduction, but smells like dessert from the chocolate bitters. It’s smoky, creamy and easy-drinking. Just like a beer (cocktail) should be.


(May 2012)