Millennial or Bust: How DC Craft Brewers Stay Competitive in a Crowded Market

By Marley McKenzie, Foodable Contributor

Washington, DC is our Nation’s Capitol, but it is quickly turning itself into a craft beer capitol as well. This small city is only ten square miles, and yet those tiny miles manage to contain a swarm of brand spanking new breweries, all competing to win the hearts and minds of DC’s notoriously young and fickle residents.

DC was not historically a brew town, partially due to pint laws. Until 2014, breweries could not sell full pints in their tasting rooms. The repeal of the law led to a boom (and bust) in DC breweries. While three new breweries have opened up in the last two years, casualties such as the closure of Chocolate City Brewing are inevitable. The battle wages on as brewers compete to corner the market on one of DC’s key demographics: the millennials.

Millennial or Bust

You’ve heard of millennials before. They love their iPhones, hate getting married or buying houses, and live en masse in Washington, DC. This city is chock-full of 20-somethings trying to make a name for themselves — from the staffers of the Hill to the interns of Politico. Of the mere 658,893 city residents, the median age here is just 33 years old. 

This population works hard and plays hard, and it is no surprise that the breweries here are hustling hard to capture this demographic’s business. After all, what do millennials want to do most after a long day of teaching Joe Biden to use Twitter or lobbying Congress to forgive those student loans? They want a nice, cold craft beer. 

The crowd at "A Toast to DC" | Foodable WebTV Network

The crowd at "A Toast to DC" | Foodable WebTV Network

Perhaps another thing that sets DC’s young population apart from their counterparts in other major cities is their excessive sociability. Business casual is basically a uniform here, and brewers are jumping on board to gratify the city’s obsession with a good cocktail party. A prime example of brewers expanding their horizons is the Smithsonian After 8 series. This event group hosts exclusive, adult-only parties after-hours in Smithsonian museums around the city. Recently, the group held "A Toast to DC.” The party celebrated the local beer movement happening in neighborhoods all across the District, and included flavors from notables such as Port City, Atlas Brew Works, and DC Brau.

Creating Differentiation: Festivals, Food Trucks & Yoga

DC Brau Sr. Accounts Manager Jennifer Jackson & CCCO Mari Rodela at “A Toast to DC” 

DC Brau Sr. Accounts Manager Jennifer Jackson & CCCO Mari Rodela at “A Toast to DC” 

So, how do these brewers stand out from the crowd? What have they done to create a unique brand in a city that's overrun with competitors? DC Brau Chief Community & Culture Officer Mari Rodela said that she and her group of young brewers stay in the game by putting the community first. Young Washingtonians are interesting in being out and about in their neighborhood. Thus, DC Brau stays active all across the city, making appearances at places where they know the younger set will be present. In the past month alone, DC Brau has participated in more than 20 events, ranging from a panel on women in beer at H Street hot spot Granville Moore’s to the wild and crazy Sweetlife music festival. 

Port City Brewing is also working the millennial angle by capitalizing on the DC food truck scene, appearing at festivals and even hosting several food trucks at their own brewery. In addition, they work to engage younger consumers at DC neighborhood trivia nights. Perhaps the most millennial marketing idea of all, Port City hosts frequent “Beer Yoga” sessions at their brewery, complete with a post-class pint. New kid on the block Hellbender Brewery is also trying the yoga route, offering classes on their brew pad – with beer to recover, of course – on the last Thursday of every month.

Credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

Credit: Megan Bailey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group

A Taste of Success

When it comes to offering novel tastes, Bluejacket Brewery is in the lead. Their constantly changing menu markets itself to consumers who always want the next new thing. Bluejacket has made 115 beers in a single year, including 40 collaborations with other small breweries. Located in the up-and-coming Navy Yard, the brewery is a bona fide millennial haven. Its industrial farmhouse décor and rotating menu attract a range of young and eager clientele, from first Tinder dates to uniformed Naval officers. Their strategy seems to be working; some weekend nights you’ll find a line of young people out the door, all waiting for hours to try the newest flavor on offer. 

However, older brewers like DC Brau tend to eschew the “newer is better” model. DC Brau opened its doors in 2011, making it the first brewery in DC since the 1950s. Being the city’s first craft brewer has its advantages, and Rodela says that her brewery has a loyal following no matter which other shops come in and out. 

“We just make beer we would want to drink,” she says. The company's three flagship beers — the Citizen, the Corruption, and the Public — are still bestsellers, and DC Brau is almost overwhelmed by the city’s demand. Since launch, the brewery has increased production about 60 percent per year, and are aiming for 16,000 barrels this year alone. Port City employs a similar tactic, offering just five steadies, five seasonals, and five “occasionals” to its consumers.

DC is a notoriously tough town. Just as politicians come in and out of this city, so do breweries, and it takes a shrewd strategy to stay in the spotlight. Which brewer will reign supreme, and which will crash and burn? Only time will tell.