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Smith Commons' Miles Gray [5 Questions]

Author // John Roche

The Boston area should be proud of the proliferation of new breweries and craft beer friendly bars that have sprung up in the past two years – but they aren't alone. Washington, D.C. has nearly the same population as Boston, and the craft beer industry within the district boundary has grown exponentially since 2011. Three new breweries have opened, alongside countless restaurants and bars – and nearly six new breweries are in various stages of development.

One of these bars is Smith Commons, which opened in my soon-to-be neighborhood in January 2011, only a few weeks before I finalized my move. The bar is located in the rapidly changing H Street NE corridor, and they strive to provide an atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable and try something new. Between hosting summertime homebrewing demonstrations, fundraising parties for local organizations and a visit by President Barack Obama for dinner the Smith Commons team has been busy working towards that vision! We recently asked Miles Gray, Managing Partner at Smith Commons, to share his story, his favorite beers, and his opinions on the future of the craft beer scene in DC.

Smith Commons Bar H Street Washington, DC

Drink Craft Beer: How did you get into craft beer?

Miles Gray: I got into craft beer about ten years ago after a night of drinking on the "old" U St. corridor. I found myself in this bar called The Saloon, where I had my first experience with Delirium Tremens. That led me to research and try the Belgians, which quickly led me back to the domestic crafts. As I'm sure many people have experienced, there is no coming back once you have great beer. 

DCB: What inspired you to open Smith Commons, and how does that inspiration shape Smith Commons’ operations?

MG: My business partner, Jerome Bailey and I are long time friends and fraternity brothers, so that friendship sparked the conversations about an approachable, unique venue and that became Smith Commons. Our friendship has had a direct impact on the way we manage our team and interact with patrons, as we strive to always put people (all people) first. The best example is our beer program. We consciously chose to only place 12 taps, to avoid intimidating and confusing people, especially those new to beer, with an overwhelming number of choices. We also aim to educate and introduce people to craft beer by comparing our all American draught lines with the Belgian standards (Duvel, Chimay, Delirium etc.) which we carry in bottles.

Smith Commons Bar H Street Washington, DC

DCB: Where do you see the DC area craft beer industry heading in the next year? And, in that vein, can we get a sneak peak at what new to expect from you in the coming year?

MG: The DC area craft beer industry will have to error correct and readjust the market strategy over the next year. We will see more breweries enter the area, which is a great thing, but the consumer education is not growing at the rate of craft beer distribution and expansion. What will happen is, the beer community will start to realize that the base consumer in the market has been left behind and not educated fully in regards to making craft beer and better food a lifestyle choice. 

I would draw an analogy between where craft beer is at and the early days of the recycling/ sustainability movement before things like the "An Inconvenient Truth" movie gave large numbers of people a different view of a longstanding movement. By that I mean, there is little being done currently to explain the value of craft beer to the 80% of the population who will carry the movement beyond us beer snobs. The beer community does not do much in the sense of diversity, and the sole approach of beer dinners and tap takeovers is not a true platform for growth. Of the 2000+ bars in our area, there are maybe less than 50 that take craft beer seriously. To me, that is one of many signs that not all of the breweries in our area will thrive without creation of new consumers, inbound marketing, and analyzing market thresholds for price point, distribution etc.

DCB: I’m curious What types of activities do you think the industry can do to promote the value of craft beer to a broader audience?

MG: To promote the value of craft beer to a broader audience the craft beer industry needs to study the achievements and pitfalls of big beer, and the big spirits industry. I hear people saying they hate big beer without really studying the history of how big beer kept brewing alive during and post prohibition. I think Ommegang out of Cooperstown, NY has taken a huge leap in the right direction by partnering with Game of Thrones/ HBO for a beer series. On a more local level, what Brian Strumke of Stillwater did with Lower Dens is another great example of creating "beer venn diagrams" of overlapping cultures, music, tech etc. 

Our "Masters of the #CraftBeer Universe" event for #CBC13 [ed. Craft Brewers Conference] was put together in that same vein.

DCB: You walk into a magical beer shop with every beer currently available. You can put together one six-pack. What do you walk out with? Only one beer can be from your brewery.

MG: Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Ommegang Rare Vos, 3 Stars Southern Belle, The Wedge Brewery (Asheville) Hemp IPA, Stillwater Cellar Door, Allagash Curieux

DCB: You have one night in your favorite beer city with your staff. What city are you in and where do you go (it doesn’t all have to be beer)?

MG: My knee jerk reaction is Asheville, NC and their lovely local breweries, restaurants, music and scenery, but globally my favorite beer city is Ghent, Belgium. I would suggest that everyone take a trip there during Gentse Feesten (Festival of Ghent). The festival is a ten day party made up of about a dozen smaller festivals, and beer literally flows in the streets. They have incredible little things like this pop up meatball spot called Balls & Glory, and large events like Polé Polé music festival, spread out all around Ghent. It's a great experience to eat and drink beer, amongst the architecture of 1500 year old towns, and I would love to chill in Ghent with our team at Smith Commons.

DCB: Miles, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! Best of luck with the #MOTCBU event, we’ll be sure to stop by!

Smith Commons is located at 1245 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002