Beer Trails: Dog, Fox, & Duck Face Off Against Vintage Port District

Along with my wife, Karen, I once more ventured out on a brewpub tour. This time, we took in a few newly discovered and previously uncovered Maryland-Virginia-D.C. establishments. Taking 78 West through Pennsylvania, we made a quick stopover in the Keystone State.

One of America’s largest and most successful microbreweries, Tröegs Brewing Company began in ‘97 at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Increased demand for their beers became so overwhelming Chris and John Trogner’s brotherly operation needed bigger digs. Now residing in a large freestanding warehouse bordering Hershey Park, Tröegs taupe-hued Derry Township depot stations a 100-barrel production facility, enormous tasting room, glass-encased bottling plant, microbiology lab and shop.

We settle alongside dozens of cheerful customers this sunny Friday afternoon at a lengthy community table. The Clash’s vindictively apocalyptic “London Calling” plays while I try Chocolate Weizenbock, a heady elixir reminiscent of a chocolate-covered cherry dessert beer with raspberry pureed whiskeyed cherry fronting fig-dried sugar plum.

Heading south towards Leesburg, Virginia’s Vintage 50 for dinner, we grab a bar table and order Catoctin Fish & Chips and pita-breaded hummus. Also worthwhile: Jumbo Sourdough Pretzel (with grain mustard, honey mustard and spicy cheese sauce dips).

Brewer Kristi Mathews spent four years at nearby Alexandria’s Hops Grill & Brewery before landing at Vintage 50. I dig into Ginger Kids, a creamy cinnamon-toasted gingerbread-honeyed medium body as the Eagles liberating stomp, “Already Gone,” bursts out. Nearly as good, Irish Style Dry Stout retained a pacified dark-roasted chocolate malting and hop-charred walnut roast.

Then it was time for the strong nine percent alcohol elixirs. Meditator Doppelbock brought peppery-hopped briskness to banana-bruised sweetness and fig-date affability. Devil’s Due Belgian Pale Ale had similarly fruit-spiced creaminess, delivering white-peppered banana-clove-vanilla illusions to tart cherry.

After a romantic Candlewood Suites evening, we drive to bustling Falls Church, reaching Spectrum Mall, where Mad Fox Brewing resides. A casual upscale English-styled gastropub opened in 2010 by seasoned brewer Bill Madden, this spacious restaurant-brewery is his latest creative venture and first as owner.

A gold-lettered black awning with Mad Fox insignia welcomes patrons to the maple-wooded space. Centralized tin-tiled ceiling offers neo-classical splendor while lantern-like pendant lighting and polished concrete floors recall Olde Americana.

We grab seats at the commodious 63-foot bar to try an astonishing 14 brews in five-ounce tulip glasses. Though we skip lunch due to late breakfast (bagel with whitefish), the fine Americana pub fare includes brick-fired pizza, burgers, sandwiches and salads. Breads, pickles, and condiments are made in house.

Emerson Lake & Palmer’s acoustical retreat, “From The Beginning,” plays as lighter samples get tried. Approachable Braha Pilsner placed citric zest across mild woody hop bittering. Dry-hopped American Pale Ale spread grapefruit-peeled orange tang across resinous floral earthiness. An ‘English ordinary session ale,’ Fennec scattered sugar caned crystal malting atop waxy fruit dollops.

Easygoing Kölsch retained a citric-rotted souring that pleasingly scoured minor herbage. Arguably better, unfiltered Kellerbier Kölsch had pronounced grapefruit bittering to combat grout-y cellar-like musk and dankly dewy pilsner malting. Cereal-grained Rock Star Irish Red Ale dispensed bread-crusted barley toasted crisping, caramel roasted sweetness and citric-sugared crystal malting.

Defender American Pale Ale, a briskly tropical fruited medium body with dry Columbus hops and wildflower-honeyed candy tartness, may’ve topped the ‘special’ cask version’s muted wood-toned lemon rind, grapefruit, papaya, guava and pineapple juicing. Mellow St. James Irish Dry Stout pleated oats-toasted pale, black and chocolate malts onto soft coffee-roasted walnut dryness. Its smoother cask version retained dark chocolate nuttiness above espresso coffee beans.

As Mad Fox fills up for Saturday lunch, The Who’s rapid fire anthem, “Going Mobile,” blazed forth. I investigate experimentally hopped Tinner Hill IPA, a dry-wooded pleasantry culling lemonade, apple cider and grapefruit subtleties that contrast traditional English-styled Geordie Brown Ale (a mocha-malted nicety with chestnut, praline and pecan notes).

Madden designed rewarding India Ink Black Ale in collaboration with Bob and Ellie Tupper (creators of the fabulous Hop Pocket Ale). Its chalky chocolate malting got back-ended by dried cherry, pineapple and grapefruit. Perhaps most worthy, Belgian-styled farmhouse ale, Saison, entwined bruised lemon bittering and leathery white pepper with cotton-candied yellow fruiting for sumptuous dessert.

Off the beaten track in industrial Alexandria, Port City Brewing Company resides at a tan-bricked professional building. Opened in January 2011, this increasingly popular microbrewery’s tasting room was absolutely packed by 3 p.m.

Head brewer Jonathan Reeves craft amazingly consistent fare. On tap, fine Belgian-styled Port City Optimal Wit had banana-clove serenity spread across orange-peeled mildness. Essential Pale Ale layered citric-hopped briskness atop vodka-tinged mandarin orange, lemon, and lime. Despite its mighty moniker, Monumental IPA was stylistically approachable, cloaking apple, apricot, nectar and pear dalliances with floral-hopped pine resin. Coffee-roasted Porter seeped brown chocolate-y vanilla sweetness into dark-fruited fig, prune and date.

Also available was cyclical Tartan 80 Shilling Scottish Ale, a dewy midrange libation gathering brown chocolate, vanilla and caramel sweetness. Each beer was more than up to snuff.

Driving an hour southeast to Chesapeake Bay’s marina-bound Back Creek in Solomons Island, Maryland, we visit Ruddy Duck Brewery & Grill. Opened in July 2009 by Argentinean co-owner Carlos Yanez and veteran restaurateur Michael Kelley (formerly Tavern On the Green GM), the bustling chalet-styled sportsbar sits across Hilton Garden Inn.

Packed on Saturday evening as the Final Four basketball tournament began, we examine brewer Matt Glass’ accessible fare at the wood-furnished 15-seat bar where several cocktail tables with engraved golden duck insignias reside. While watching Kentucky down Louisville, fish tacos and Mediterranean pizza went well with autumnal Festbier (a leafy-hopped placidity gaining orange tartness over sourdough breading) and citric-honeyed Helles Blonde Lager.

Though lo-cal Rudd Light (with its bland lemon-limed maize parch) and gluten-free Biere Nouveau (a light ale placing raw-honeyed sorghum across sourdough wheat acridity) were humdrum, the rest fared better.

More distinct were sweet-buttered Imperial Belgian Wit (a pleasing wheat ale affixing clove-coriander spicing to lemon-meringue mandarin orange) and juniper hopped Imperial IPA (a brisk honey-fruited delight). Midlevel IPA ranked just below.

For dessert, I quaffed Ruddy Duck’s Oatmeal Stout, where fig-dried soy souring, coffee-roasted oats toasting and lactic alkaline acidity purged expectant mocha malting.

We wake up Sunday morning and grab a large breakfast before heading back north to downtown Washington D.C.’s Penn Quarters, where upscale District Chophouse (opened May 1995) grew to have affiliate brewpub-restaurants in Denver, Boulder and Cleveland.

Since Bruce Springsteen’s in town tonight, parking’s at a minimum. But we find a free spot along the National Gallery of Art. A capacious beer hall sporting a maroon awning, marble columns, mahogany interior, and basement banquet room, District Chophouse is exquisite.

We sit at a bar table watching the Penguins and Flyers fight throughout a late-season hockey game while consuming brewer Barrett Lauer’s wide-ranging ales.

Though astringent Light Lager’s strictly for amateurs, it betters the Bud-Coors-Miller ‘light’ beers. Amber Ale suited lighter thirsts, but its bolder stylistic approach allowed styptic wood-toned Cascade-hopped spicing to deepen caramelized apple, lemony peach and marmalade undertones.

As smooth as its name, Velvet, defined as a ‘slow pour nut brown,’ pleated wispy charred nuttiness with dark chocolate. Better was similarly styled Nut Brown, a mildly creamed medium body receiving toffee, caramel, and chocolate sweetness. Lacquer-fruited IPA left tangy pineapple, mango, peach, pear and apple notions all over its dried fig backend. Breaking stylistic confines, Oatmeal Stout grazed its expectant milky dark chocolate repertoire with abrupt wood-burnt molasses flickers.

Saving the most exceptional fare for a mesmerized closing trifecta, I drifted into three ‘big beers.’ Cherry Blossom Fest tucked candied stone fruits, tart cranberry and leafy hops inside whiskey-soaked cherries. Euphoric Belgian-styled pale ale hybrid, Brewers Marker, placed aromatic French-roast coffee inside mild wood-singed dried fruits. Yummier was Bourbon Stout aged in Woodford Reserve Barrels, a resolute oatmeal stout gaining luscious bourbon tonicity above dark chocolate and oaken vanilla.

We then set off to Maryland once more. Since the original Pub Dog Pizza & Drafthouse in Baltimore’s historic Federal Hill section opens at 5 p.m., we sojourn southwest to the industrial-bound Columbia-based franchise an hour earlier on the trip back home.

Situated at Lakeside Retail Mall, Pub Dog may be considered a pizza joint by foremost designation, but it more closely resembles a commodious public house. There were hundreds of Grand Marnier bottles decorating the walls alongside dog charts, verifying the assumption.

Opened in September ‘07, Pub Dog’s clean black interior leads directly to the right side sportsbar. A small outside deck allowed dogs to roam while their owners ironically quaffed canine-designated ales.

I chomped on Big Dog Salad, a red-peppered romaine lettuce with grilled chicken, smoked Gouda and gorgonzola vinaigrette. My wife enjoyed Mr. Green Jean’s Pizza (with olive-oiled mozzarella, feta, spinach, tomato, mushroom and basil) while downing Peach Dog, a tart peach ale with washed-out stone fruiting and tannic grape souring.

I counter with Blueberry Dog, an easygoing lacquered blueberry tonic with cranberry, mulberry and quince hints. More interesting was Belgian Blue Corn, a one-off hybrid tripel gathering lemony banana-clove tartness above sweet corn malts.

Before escaping for home, the velvety Irish Stout, Black Dog, hits the spot (along with courtesy Grand Marnier shots). The soft-toned dark ale brought mellow coffee-roasted bittering to espresso-milked dark chocolate and toasted walnut.