I had a couple hours to kill the other evening, so I pointed my car in the direction of Fair Lakes or Chantilly thinking in the back of my mind that I’d be updating one or both of those threads (if anyone has any current information on Dining in Fair Lakes or Chantilly, please, have at it).
I turned off I-66 onto Fairfax County Parkway, drove past the places of my nightmares (Joe’s Crab Shack, Logan’s Roadhouse), sticking out from the trees like scary monsters.
Hitting Route 50 without seeing anything that made me bite, I headed west, toward Chantilly, and came up upon the Greenbriar Town Center (home to the original Total Wine & More (formerly called Total Beverage) in the DC area). I turned in, and traced the periphery looking for an ethnic mom-n-pop.
Then I saw Dogfish Head Alehouse, and thought to myself: ‘well, why not?’ It was a Friday evening, and the place was jumping, with the patio full (with an accordionist playing), and the inside packed to the gills – I considered myself lucky to get a seat at the bar.
Fully 18 beers were offered on draft, ranging from the 5% ABV Shelter Pale Ale to the fearsome 12% Palo Santo. It was right before Halloween, and the Punkin’ Ale ($6, 7% ABV) caught my eye because of a big, bold sign dangling with a quote from Ale Street News which said this was “the best pumpkin beer we tasted.” I really enjoyed it, with its overtones of clove and nutmeg, and it fit right in with the whole Oktoberfest atmosphere.
There was also a special Oktoberfest menu, and I noticed that they were featuring Lothar’s Sausages (which I had first seen in a restaurant only a few weeks before, at Magnolias at the Mill). From the regular menu, I ordered the Alehouse Bratwurst ($10), two wood-grilled bratwursts (presumably from Lothar’s) on pretzel rolls (baked “just down the road by Bakery de France“) with beer-seasoned banana-pepper sauerkraut. It came with a little bowl of very good chili, and some tortilla chips for dipping.
If I’m making these bratwursts sound good, then I’m writing correctly because they met, then surpassed any possible expectations I could have had coming from the kitchen of such a slammed alehouse. “Because our wood grill imparts a unique, savory quality to the food, the need to garnish it with an over-abundance of sauces and what-nots does not exist,” the menu teased. And sure enough, it was right – I highly recommend ordering anything here that has been simply grilled, especially these sausages.
Dogfish Head’s beer is unpasteurized, and “uncluttered with additives,” a sign says. I asked my friendly bartender, who had introduced himself by name earlier, for something malty, and he gave me a little taste of the Indian Brown Ale ($6, 7.2% ABV), and it was good enough to order a pint. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these beers, and combined with the brats, this meal was better than it had any right to be.
This alehouse takes great pride in being a member of the community. “If your community organization needs help,” write to us, it says on the menu. How many places actually go out of their way to issue calls for charitable help like this? The whole scene was heartening – here was an ultra-high-volume operation, that had just served me a great plate of food, and beers that make Sweetwater Tavern’s look just plain pathetic. Dogfish Head has a huge cult following, and I’ve never been part of the cult, but this evening was giving me pause.
One of the managers came up to a gentleman sitting next to me at the bar, and said, “We’re having a kick-assed night here – there was a 2-hour wait at 5:30!” And I believe it.
I was so impressed with the night that I didn’t want it to end, and wanted to share it with others. So I bought my son the exact same Alehouse Bratwurst as a carryout order (and when I picked him up at 9 PM from his football game, he positively devoured it, and raved about it just as much as I am). And I went ahead and bought a growler of the Punkin’ Ale so I could enjoy another beer in the safety of my home – these growlers are prominently advertised at the bar. “How much are the growlers?” I asked another bartender. She said, “They’re $8 for ones with screwtops, and $25 for the ones with ceramic tops.” Sounded good to me – I live pretty close to the Falls Church Dogfish Head Alehouse, and I’d be going back often to get it filled. The screwtop would be all I needed since the contents wouldn’t survive longer than a couple of days in my possession.
So it was around the time where I had to leave and pick up Matt. I asked for the check, and when it came, everything was fine except one thing: the cost to fill the growler with the Punkin’ Ale was $22. I wasn’t quite processing what I was seeing, but the bartender was standing in front of me, about to take my credit card. The growler was filled, and sitting right next to my carryout order. It was that “awkward moment” when you felt rushed, and felt like something wasn’t quite right, but you didn’t really have a whole lot of time to think. As I handed her my card, I said, “I have a question.” She looked at me and smiled (she had been perfectly friendly the entire evening). “Why is this growler so expensive?”
At that moment, her glance shifted away from my eyes, her smile vanished, and she said, without any hesitation at all, “I don’t know, I’m not the one who sets pricing.”
Okay, so I figured that I was just “missing” something, that the growler was maybe bigger than it looked, or that the Punkin’ Ale was some sort of super-expensive seasonal beer that I had just paid a huge premium for. So I paid the check, left a decent tip (although not 20% for the growler), and walked out to my car.
I looked at the growler, and it was 1.89 liters, or about 64 ounces. That’s a little over 5 bottles of beer. So that meant I paid about $4 per 12-ounce bottle.
Then I thought to myself, ‘My goodness this beer is expensive,’ but when I looked at my check, it was only $6 for a 16-ounce draft, so something wasn’t adding up. Was there a mistake? Did I underpay for the draft?
At that moment, I felt somewhat ripped off, but I wasn’t quite sure what had just happened.
And then the days passed by, and I forgot about it.
Two nights ago, I was in Baltimore, and went to a downright scary liquor store in a run-down strip mall. They had the 90-Minute IPA in 4-packs for $9.99. I bought one, and enjoyed the beer immensely – I really like the 90-Minute much more than the 60-Minute. But that got me thinking about the Alehouse again, and so I did some research.
I called all three area Dogfish Head Alehouses, and asked them about growlers. The Gaithersburg location doesn’t sell them, but both the Falls Church and Fairfax locations do. They are, indeed, $8 for the one with the screwtop, and $25 for the one with the ceramic top. Then I asked about how much it cost to fill it with both the Punkin’ Ale and the 90-Minute IPA. And sure enough, the Punkin’ Ale was $22, but the 90-Minute IPA, at both locations, was $38.
At that moment, I thought back to her glance shifting away from my eyes, her smile vanishing, and her saying, without any hesitation at all, “I don’t know, I’m not the one who sets pricing.”
I didn’t realize it that night, but my bartender had completely disavowed any association with the growlers, and I don’t blame her one bit. Paying $38 for 64 ounces of Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA is the equivalent of paying SEVEN DOLLARS AND TWELVE CENTS PER BOTTLE. That’s $7.12 per bottle, purchased in bulk, in a growler that you paid separate money for, and are going to consume at home.
In comparison, the 90-Minute IPA I bought in the Baltimore liquor store was $2.50 a bottle.
My next call was to Total Wine & More in Chantilly, about a 50-yard walk from the front door of Dogfish Head Alehouse. A gentleman answered the phone, and I won’t say his name.
I asked to speak with someone who knew about the beer selection, and he assured me he did. I asked him if he had either the Punkin’ Ale or the 90-Minute IPA in stock. He remembered they had just sold out of the Punkin’ Ale, and said they had the 90-Minute IPA. I asked him how much the 90-Minute IPA was, he put me on hold for a minute, then came back and said it was $9.99 for a 4-pack – the exact same price I had just paid in Baltimore.
“I have a question for you,” I said. How is it that Dogfish Head Alehouse is able to sell growlers of the 90-Minute IPA for $38?
He started laughing. “Because they’re insane,” he chortled. I pressed him further, and he responded candidly: “One of the ongoing jokes here is that all of their employees come here to buy their Dogfish Head.” I asked him how they could get away with selling these for so much money. A growler of beer should cost absolutely no more than you’d pay at retail, and the hugely vast majority of the world would think it would cost a great deal less. This is bulk purchasing. It’s shopping at Sam’s Club.
“People go there and have a good time,” he said. “They drink a few beers, and they want to keep the night going, so they buy a growler to take home.” Then he added, “And they have no idea how much they’re getting ripped off.”
The figures speak for themselves: $2.50 a bottle at full retail; $7.12 a bottle if you buy a growler.
They don’t brew the beer in the alehouses; they brew it at Delaware, so you can hardly make “freshness” as the argument for the almost triple-retail pricing.
In the meantime, I have a Dogfish Head growler to give away to anyone who wants it. If I don’t hear from anyone within a week or so, I’m going to recycle it because there’s no other use for it that I can see, and I want it out of my house.
These alehouses are supposedly franchised, so I’m going to give the brewery the benefit of any doubt and absolve them of any responsibility for this blatant consumer rip-off. But hopefully they will at least be made aware of the situation. The night I made full discovery, I got really ticked off and mentioned them in a tweet, but I’m going to delete it because, just as my bartender completely divorced herself from the predatory pricing of these growlers, I’m hoping that the brewery has as well.
Other than that, the play was fine, said Mrs. Lincoln.