Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 23, 2009

Birch & Barley / Churchkey

I was able to make it by Birch & Barley last night. Or more precisely, I bypassed the first floor restaurant and went to the upstairs bar, called Churchkey. I’ve been at some other bar openings in DC over the last year and found that, generally speaking, they are low-key affairs that usually run out of customers half way through the evening. That is, I wasn’t expecting much of a crowd for opening night. Word had gotten out through some of DC’s professional food and drink blogs that the bar would not be serving any of their 500 bottles of beer on the wall in the fridge, as they had not yet been inventoried. Customers on opening night were left with a mere fifty drafts to choose from plus five cask beers. I thought that these facts would lead to a lower turnout and I could go with a friend, watch the Yankees game, and geek out over some good beers.

Well, apparently I was wrong. We walked in and the crowd at the bar was four to five deep. The place was rocking. It was scene. It was not what I had expected.

My friend Nate and I decided to at least have one round before finding a venue with a more subdued crowd to watch the game at. We perused the menu and both decided to go with cask beers; in my case, a Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale. A few minutes later and poof, two delicious cask conditioned potions were in our hand. And they were just as we expected them to be: warm and flat!

We ended up getting a table – sets of booths run along the opposite side of the bar and are actually quite comfortable. We tried a few other draft beers, but had arrived to late to get any food from the kitchen. The charcuterie looked great, in particular. We were able to score some caramel popcorn, a recipe that struck us both as fancier Cracker Jacks.

I was most impressed with the price of the beers. Many beers that normally go for $8-10 as drafts elsewhere were in the $5-6 range at Churchkey. There were even a number of beers that often go in the $15-20 dollar range when served in bottles at other good bars in town that were a mere $8-10 at Churchkey. I didn’t do a close audit, but top to bottom the draft beers on the menu seemed to be priced below what most DC bars have for their stock good draft beers. The bottled beer menu wasn’t out last night, so I can’t compare or assess that, but what they had on display in the glass-front refrigerators at the bar looked pretty good.

My only critique of the draft selection was that it seemed to have a very heavy emphasis on German, Belgian, and American beers. Now, those are probably my three favorite countries of origin, but I do like mixing things up a bit. I didn’t see any Asian, Caribbean, or Latin American beers on the menu. While there were lots of interesting varieties, there were also some things, like Brooklyn Lager, that you can get most anywhere. I don’t mind them having beers from major US microbrews, but I’d much rather see them pulling in the rare, one-off, seasonal brews from a place like Brooklyn. Or eschew a well known brewery like Brooklyn in favor for, say, Six Points, which is a favorite in NYC, but isn’t well known in this part of the country. I’m nitpicking here, though.

All in all, despite the crowd on opening night, I liked Churchkey a lot. I want to see what their bottle menu looks like. I want to try food from their kitchen. I’m looking forward to seeing if it stays a scene spot or if it mellows out a bit. And most of all, I want to see how their draft selection evolves with the seasons. I’m sure I’ll be back soon and will have further bulletins as events warrant.

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