Washington DC is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s the best way to describe the nation’s capital. With laws on beer distribution being some of the most relaxed in the country, breweries come from all over to sell beer in DC.
Churchkey/Birch & Barley is my first stop every time I’m visiting DC. This is probably one of the most well known spots in DC in terms of selection and quality of beer. Churchkey/Birch and Barley are two separate entities, but are essentially the same place. They’re located on top of one another with Churchkey being on top and Birch & Barley being below. Each of them is very beer centric and shares the same beer menu. However, Churchkey offers more of a casual yet sophisticated bar atmosphere and offers much cheaper dining options than Birch & Barley. Churchkey is the option that I chose.
Since Churchkey is located on the second floor, you walk up a flight of stairs and are usually greeted at the top by someone checking ID. The bar is in front of you with roughly 60-something taps all mounted in the wall behind the bar. Accompanying those taps are also 6 casks which are kept in refrigerators with glass doors and are located below the tap handles. When the wall of taps comes to an end on each side, there are refrigerators with glass doors displaying some of the 500+ bottles which are available.
There are a few different seating options available here. Aside from sitting at the bar, there’s a lounge-ish area toward the back, regular dining seats along the wall, and tables in the front of the bar overlooking the street. Each of the seating areas has a waiter who will expedite the process of you getting beers or food.
You really never know what you’re going to find when visiting Churchkey. The first time I visited this bar was in 2011 before SAVOR. Shorts Brewing Company had a tap takeover and the bar had 30 of their beers along with a checklist so you can keep track of what you’ve tried. When I visited this time, I discovered that Omar Ansari, the founder of Surly, had visited the night before and brought a whole bunch of beer with him. I was able to find Darkness, Five, Mild, Bender, Coffee Bender, Abrasive, and multiple hop variations of Furious in casks. I found out that Omar was in town to speak with officials about changing some Minnesota beer laws, and he brought a bunch of kegs with him. Apparently it’s pretty common for brewers to drop something off with Churchkey when visiting DC.
Churchkey is a great place to sample beer because they will serve beer in full vessels and 4oz tasters for a reasonable price. I opted for some tasters, but absolutely had to get a full glass of Surly Five while I was there. They will also serve the beer at the correct serving temperature as well. The bar has three different refrigerators set at three different temperatures. Beers are kept in these refrigerators according to their serving temperature. This is the first bar I’ve seen go to this extreme to offer such a quality drinking experience.
I didn’t get into any of the bottles, but was very impressed at the selection. Apparently the bottles are constantly changing and they even offer some vintages. I was able to see bottles aging upright on shelves above the tables. Some of the bottles I saw were Bourbon County Stout, Parabola, Sucaba, KBS, CBS, Bourbon County Bramble, and Bourbon County Vanilla. I was literally drooling while looking at those shelves and had to keep it together.
Food here is what I’d call gourmet bar food. The menu isn’t large, but offers a good array of different options. I had opted for the Macaroni and Cheese sticks. These sticks were exactly what you’d expect. They were macaroni and cheese mini-shells with cheese which were deep fried to keep them together. It was served with a tomato sauce that went perfectly with them. Great food to go along with the beers I was drinking.
Long story short – This place is a must when you’re visiting DC. The atmosphere, food and beer selection is awesome. I do warn that this place can get somewhat crowded, so if you’re visiting, it may be best to go in the middle of the day and claim your spot at a table. Glue yourself to that chair and drink some great beers.
1337 14th Street Northwest Washington, DC 20005