Brewery

Sharing a Pint, and a Home, in Shaw by Robin Dienel

Nathan Zeender, head brewer at D.C. based Right Proper Brewing Company, standing in front their fermentation barrels. (Robin Dienel/American University)

Nathan Zeender, head brewer at D.C. based Right Proper Brewing Company, standing in front their fermentation barrels. (Robin Dienel/American University)

It was 83 degrees around noontime on an August afternoon in Washington, D.C., when Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s sole congressional delegate on Capitol Hill known for her infamous stance on D.C. statehood, made her way down to the District’s evolving Shaw neighborhood. The year was 2015. The D.C. Brewers Guild’s executive director, Kathy Rizzo, invited her to come taste the local brew at the then two-year-old brewpub, Right Proper Brewing Company.

Walking into Right Proper that afternoon, Congresswoman Norton was wearing her suit and sensible heels, recalls Rizzo. She marched straight through the door, past the kitchen, and into the brewhouse for a tour. She then sat down at the counter and shared a pint, or two.

“So you have to explain this to me,” Rizzo recalls Congresswoman Norton saying to her while she sipped on a glass of ‘Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne’, which evidently wasn’t her favorite beer she tried that day. “You brew the beer and make food right here, in this spot?”

“Yes, that’s what happens,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said Congresswoman Norton was really into the fact that there are more manufacturing industries in D.C. now, like breweries, that are doing things to give D.C. a little more of a “flavor” and elevating it from being just a city of monuments.

“But she did really like the Ornette beer,” recalls Rizzo. “That was a major win for Nathan.”

D.C. native Thor Creston and Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company owner John Snedden opened Right Proper Brewing Company in 2013. They tapped Nathan Zeender, former nonprofit database administrator turned professional brewer, to be their head brewer. According to their website, Right Proper describes itself as “a small, community-focused brewery committed to producing soulful, balanced beers for our neighbors in Washington, D.C.” But what neighbors are they actually brewing for?

Right Proper has two different kinds of neighbors in Shaw. One population is mostly African American and has witnessed the race riots of 1968 first-hand that led to the closing of the iconic Howard Theatre, while the other is mostly white and has only lived there long enough to see its reopening in 2012. One has gone to the same church every Sunday morning for the last 60 years, while the other goes to a different brunch spot every weekend. Is anyone from these two generations of Shaw residents sharing a glass of Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne together? Probably not.

The Howard Theatre towers over Right Proper brewpub from across the road on the corner of 7th and T Streets NW. It’s stood in this historically black, middle and lower class neighborhood, in one form or another for over 100 years. In it’s heyday, it was known to cater to African-American clientele. The brewpub's patio packed with picnic tables overlooks the theater’s lit-up vertical sign stretched along the building’s edge reading, HOWARD. Walk by during the day, and bikes are lined up along the patio’s fence, entrenching groups of 20 or 30 somethings eating from cheese plates and drinking their locally brewed pale ales.

Just beyond Right Proper and The Howard Theatre are huge luxury apartment buildings built on what were previously laundromats and barbershops. Real estate developers are rebranding the area to attract mostly young, white millennials to their new buildings by listing local attractions, like a brewery, on their websites. Rent on average in Shaw has skyrocketed to upwards of $2,200 a month for a one bedroom apartment according to Zumper.com, a home and apartment rental search site. What was once an affordable neighborhood has now become one of the most expensive, and it’s mostly due to D.C.’s rapid rate of gentrification.

D.C.’s type of gentrification started taking shape in the early 2000s. It’s different from others that occurred in New York City and Chicago, says Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University and author of the forthcoming book about D.C.’s Shaw/U street area, "Making the Gilded Ghetto: Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City."

From the 1970s to early 2000s, more people were leaving D.C. then coming in. Then, people started to move back to look for jobs, especially after the 2008 recession. Most were millennials, between the ages of 24 to 34. They were attracted to D.C.’s outlying neighborhoods, like Shaw, for its close proximity to downtown.

“It was gentrification gone wild,” says Hyra.

Shaw used to be 90 percent African-American in the 1970s, says Hyra. By 2010, they made up only 30 percent of the neighborhood population and young, mostly white people made up the majority of the rest. D.C.’s robust housing laws protected many of the long-term residents from being priced out of their homes.

“You walk down 14th Street, U Street, 7th street, and you’re like woah, what a diverse community,” says Hyra about what Shaw looks like today. “We got low income, upper income, students, people who are Latino, whites, African-Americans. But when you go into the social fabric and civil institutions of the neighborhood, it starts to segregate.”

This social fabric, like the new specialty coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and even breweries, are on a micro-level, segregated, according to Hyra.

“I think the breweries do strive to be a part of the pre-existing community rather than change the community they enter because beer really is an accessible commodity for people of various socio-economic classes,” says Rizzo. “The price difference between a pint of Bud Light and a pint of DC Brau within the city is often only $1-2 different, which can be significant when you're purchasing large quantities, but not cost prohibitive to someone looking to try a new beer.”

Hyra says most likely, the people who are going to microbreweries are millennials. Although they might differ in race, he says long-term neighborhood residents probably wouldn’t be found sitting at a table at Right Proper anytime soon.

Although D.C.’s craft beer movement today may look like another byproduct of gentrification to some, it wasn’t always viewed that way. Before 1917 when prohibition threatened to extinguish D.C.’s thirst for alcoholic beverages, the Germans came to town and brought with them this really inclusive beer garden culture. The biggest beer garden in the District at the time was Alhambra, run by the Washington Brewing Company. It sat on Capitol Hill where what is now the site of the Stuart-Hobson Middle School.

“It was open to everyone”, says Garrett Peck, historian and author of "Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t," about Alhambra and beer garden culture back then. “Mixed races could come, families could come with their kids. Once people were done with work, people went to the saloons and beer gardens to socialize. We don’t really do that anymore though.”

Rizzo says her mission to educate people and communities about D.C. breweries will not stop anytime soon. She plans to hold more events in neighborhoods around the city to try and get communities more involved in their local brewery. According to D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, there are 10 breweries currently operating in the District, with more on the way. Incorporating this new industry into the social fabric of what is already the flavor of D.C. will prove if these new craft breweries reflect the communities they opened up shop in.

Beer has three main ingredients: grains, hops and yeast. The yeast is the beer’s life source. It ferments the sugar to create alcohol and unleash all kinds of flavorful compounds. It’s what makes beer, well, beer! In Shaw, that life source is the people. Over time, the people have changed and brought with them all kinds of different styles and cultures, adding to the flavor of Shaw. For many of its longtime residents, this new flavor is threatening the historical fabric of Shaw in more ways than what anyone a hundred years ago would’ve thought possible.

“I’ve always thought of ourselves as a yeast-forward brewery,” says Nathan Zeender of Right Proper, “because we embrace the flavors and life force of the yeast.”

Perhaps the residents of Shaw, both old and new, can bring back that beer garden culture of sitting down under the lights of the Howard Theatre sign and share a pint together.

Giving Yeast a Life of Its Own by Robin Dienel

Before Nathan Zeender’s self-proclaimed “rightness of life correction” ten years ago, he was logging his workday hours in front of a computer screen. Now, he brews beer.

Nathan Zeender answers his cell phone after five rings, slightly out of breath. We had a call scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday morning to set up a time to meet later in the week, but he was up all night with his 3-year-old son, Fhinn, who was sick. He had to postpone our call due to an unforeseen morning trip to the pediatrician. It’s now 3 p.m.

“Where in the neighborhood do you live?” I tell him 10th and Jackson. His excitement is obvious. He has lived in this residential Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood for more than 10 years; on the same street, just one block from the new Right Proper Brookland Production House, where he works. Surprise—we’re accidental neighbors.

The following Tuesday, I walk the short distance to the production house, as we had arranged on the phone. A long freight train rolls noisily down the tracks down the street from the brewery, a familiar hum in Brookland since the late 1800s when the tracks were first laid through it. Row houses line the streets around it. A totem pole mural is painted on the warehouse’s brick façade, flowing into a blown-up version of the Right Proper logo split down the middle by the old building’s edge. It was a beat-up auto repair shop before Right Proper took over in 2015, and supposedly a bakery before that.

Up the cement steps and through the metal front door is the tasting room. It’s decorated by a half-finished mural of the Smithsonian National Zoo, with a dark twist: the animals are set loose from their cages and the humans become the entertainment, and lunch. Yellow Post-its adorn the rest of the walls; depicting whatever horror show the artist plans to paint next on them. Windows face into the brewery, giving the patrons a front row seat to their neighborhood production house. Above four of the windows is a long list of restaurants where Right Proper beer is on tap around the District. The bathroom door is open on the left, revealing a full-size piano across from the toilet and a sign, “Pianists must wash hands before playing.”

Zeender is standing in the back of the warehouse talking to their general manager, Elizabeth Schnettler. They’re discussing a new possible client. 

Before he was a professional brewer, Nathan spent his workdays in front of a computer screen as a database administrator for a nonprofit. Then, he says, came his self-proclaimed, “rightness of life correction,” about 10 years ago.

“My wife and I just decided that we wanted to do something else,” says Nathan Zeender. “So we came up with a multi-year plan where she went to law school to do public interest law. I was like well, while you spend the next three to four years doing that, I’m going to start building a bridge towards this brewing career.” 

Instead of climbing the ladder at a brewery, or attending a professional brewers’ school, Nathan built that bridge by studying books about the science and brewing ambitiously at home. He learned about the three main ingredients of beer: grain, hops, and his personal favorite, yeast—which is what makes beer, well, beer. It ferments the sugar to create alcohol and unleash all kinds of flavorful compounds. He slowly built up his own makeshift home brew system, did some professional beer writing, and eventually picked the brains of brewers he respected at The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore and Jester King in Austin, Texas.

Flash forward to 2013, and Nathan picks up his first job in beer as head brewer for Right Proper Brewing Company, the original brewpub that opened its doors in Washington, D.C.’s downtown Shaw neighborhood in December of that year. The demand for their beer became so high, Nathan says, that they decided to open up a second location, the Brookland Production House, to focus on their beer production and packaging operations. He now works at the Brookland location full time.

“I’ve always wanted to be some type of artist or writer, or do something with my hands. So this really was fulfilling that dream,” says Nathan about his life now. “My world has become really small.”

For example, today, he says, he dropped his oldest son at school down the street before walking to work at 8 a.m. At work he’s brewing a beer called Raised by Wolves. He named it after a play on the botanical name for hops, Humulus Lupulus, which means ground wolf. His wife, Rachel, gave birth to their second(?) son Rory on Christmas Eve, and is on maternity leave. She wasn’t feeling well this morning, so he walked his one-minute commute home to make lunch for her and hold his newborn for an hour. Now, he’s meeting with me—his new neighbor. 

Despite all the change, Nathan says his days are planned out just like a normal job would be, just with more flexibility and less boredom now.

Every night, him and his crew look at the recipe card and mill the grains needed for the next day. Last night, they crushed 800 pounds of grain to brew Raised By Wolves this morning. After brewing, he does administrative tasks, like capping of kegs and delivering them to the distributor, answering emails, hosting neighborhood events, or leading tasting tours. 

At 3 p.m., Erin Lingle and Karlos Leopold, co-owners of the newly opened tapas restaurant Nido, and one of their employees, Jasmine Andrews, walk in for a tasting tour. They already have a Right Proper beer on tap, but they are looking to expand their beer program at their restaurant located less than a mile up the street on Rhode Island Avenue. 

It’s still a new phenomenon in D.C. for restaurant owners like Lingle and Leopold to be able to head to their local beer supplier. Before microbreweries like Right Proper started to pop up around the District a few years back, macro breweries, like Anheuser-Busch based out in Missouri, owned the beer-on-tap stage. 


The D.C. Brewers Guild is a 501(c)(6) business association comprised of representatives from local breweries. They work together to educate consumers and promote their shared business interests around the District. Their efforts have played a major role in leveling the playing field for smaller breweries like Right Proper.

For example, Nathan says, right now tasting rooms and brewpubs can only be open seven days a week from 1 to 9 p.m. But there’s a law that passed by City Council, because of the brewers guild, which will allow tasting rooms to be open everyday from 8 a.m. to midnight starting in March 2016.

“Our area has been ripe for local breweries to set up shop,” says Kathy Rizzo, executive director of the D.C. Brewers Guild. “I can't say if a change in legislation has helped so much as a general consumer demand for local, craft beer.”

“Do you guys want a beer before we go on a tour?” Nathan asks Erin, Karlos and Jasmine site down at the bar.

“I want to try the Ornithology because I love birds,” Karlos jokes. Ornithology is the branch of zoology the deals with birds. Nido means nest in Spanish. Zeender and Leopold share a laugh.

“Can I try a taste of your favorite?” asks Jasmine. He pours her a sample of The Lubitsch Touch, a pale styled beer whose malt grains Nathan says were smoked over beech and cherry wood before he made them into this brew.

Jasmine’s eyes widen as she takes a sip. “Whoa! So good,” she says.

After everyone grabs a beer, Nathan leads the group into the brewery. He shows them the brew house’s 15-barrel system they built in this six thousand square foot warehouse. Each tank holds a thousand gallons of beer, three times the amount they make at the brewpub in Shaw, and exponentially more than Nathan used to privately make in his own home. After Nathan’s beer spiel, they head back into the tasting room to finish the tour up back at the bar with a few more samples and questions, like the origin of their beer names.

“‘Being There’ is Peter Sellers’last movie, so it’s kinda bittersweet,” says Nathan about their “bready, herbal, crisp,” kellerbier German styled beer he named after the film. The movie was also partly filmed in Shaw, where the original brewpub is located, in the late 1970s when the neighborhood was “at its worst.”

Eventually, after many more samples, they start to gather their things to head back up the street to Nido. They are due for a wine tasting at 4 p.m. 

“A lot of our beer is inspired by the yeast part of it”, says Nathan. “It’s what’s alive in the beer, it’s the animated life source in the beer.” He’s hastily loading the last of the tasting glasses into the dishwasher and packing up the bar to get ready to leave for the day. After this, he’s walking back over to his son’s school two blocks away to pick him up and bring him home.

“I’ve always thought of ourselves as a yeast-forward brewery, because we embrace the flavors and life force of the yeast,” he said. He turns the knob, testing it to make sure everything is locked up. “It’s a quasi spiritual art kind of thing: the idea of allowing the yeast to have a life of its own.”