August 9, 2011

∴ Spy Museum, Beer, DC

This past weekend we finally visited the International Spy Museum in Washington. Understand that we only live an hour or so from the District, so getting there hasn't been an issue. Long ago, though, we stopped visiting DC and its museums and attractions, for unknown reasons. Maybe we got lazy.

About six years ago, though, a museum opened to capture the clandestine aspect of DC and the three-letter agancies that are headquartered there. And the lines went out the door, down the street and around the block. Locals wouldn't be caught dead in the Potomac valley humidity, waiting to enter a new tourist attraction. And so we waited. And forgot about the place.

My mom came up from North Carolina for a visit this past weekend, and looking about for something to do I decided that this was the time to visit the Spy Museum. So off we went.

Admission is $20 per adult, and tickets may be purchased online and printed at home. For some reason our Epson C88+ printer balked at printing the tickets, so we stopped by our store to knock them out on a new-ish HP laserjet. The tickets are encoded into PDF files, so they should print on anything, from any software that can read them, but in our case they didn't.

The museum is located on two floors of a bulding on F Street, across the street from the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art. After entering and verifying your tickets you'll head up to the third floor on an elevator. Though you've ascended two levels to begin, you'll only descend one overt level as you enjoy the displays. The second half of the visit is had on descending ramps displaying the Berlin tunnel, among other things.

The museum covered the art of deception from the courts of English queens to the present day, highlighting the US civil war, the two world wars, the Cold War and modern spies. There were a few gems among the spy cameras, Bond Aston Martin and photographs of retired spies: the original memo from Bill Donovan to president Harry Truman exhorting him to form a civilian spy agency, which was the genesis of the modern CIA, and a detail of the intelligence gathered before the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor which, though ignored by J. Edgar Hoover, might have averted the losses America sustained that day.

There are enough displays of spy gadgets, tradecraft and history to satisfy most museum-goers' appetites, but if you're a fan of espionage novels and non-fiction you might come away wishing for more. They cover the bases, but there's prescious little said of James Jesus Angleton, the legendary paranoiac who led the CIA's counter-espionage division for decades, and only one display details the Cambridge Five, an infamous group of spies lodged deeply within the British government's foreign service during the early Cold War. Those two subjects tower over much of Cold War spy history. To be fair, the curator could have filled a five-story building with espionage details, and they have only the two-plus floors. Just know that if you're an espionage buff, you might already know more than what you'll see at the Spy Museum. Still, it was an enjoyable visit.

It took us about an hour and a half to walk through the displays, but we could probably have taken another half-hour or so if the initial rooms hadn't been crowded with people. Many of the rooms feature interactive displays, which attracted video game-addicted kids like magnets. Our visit was on a Sunday; perhaps a mid-week visit during school season would have yielded fewer kids. I can't imagine schools taking kids here on a field trip.

Then we went looking for lunch.

Capitol City Brewing has a location at the corner of 11th Street NW and H Street NW, just a few blocks from the Spy Museum. You'll find an adequate menu of bar fare, from appetizers to desert, but the featured attraction is their beer. The place is a beer lover's home ground.

On tap are their usual four brews, a pale ale (Pale Rider Ale), an American red ale (Amber Waves), a porter (Prohibition Porter) and a kolsch (Capitol Kolsch). They also pour a small variety of seasonal brews, and last weekend they were the Vienna Lager, their hefeweizen and an imperial stout called Fuel. Two in of our party enjoyed a sampler of five of the beers while I sipped Fuel.

In a nut, the beer has the delicious quality only freshly brewed beer can have. The hops have a snap in their flavor, while the maltiness is lush and appetizing. A beer fan could spend the afternoon quaffing with only a token appetizer along for the ride. The pale ale, a mainstay for any microbrewer, was hoppy yet enjoyable by anyone with a curious palate. The amber ale (really a red ale by another name) tipped the hop scales a little more but also brought along a nicely-rounded maltiness. The Vienna Lager was a good alternative for beer drinkers with less appreciation for hops.

The highlight, though, was Fuel. Delivered in a chalice, this imperial stout was unfiltered and deep in coffee and licorice notes, with plenty of alcohol hidden by intense flavor. Yummo. Had two ... and needed a walk around a museum before driving was a good idea again. If you're a fan of the dark stuff, give this beauty a try. And for a little variation, sip on a sampler of the porter. Also very good.

For a great afternoon in DC, try a visit to the International Spy Museum followed by a visit to Capitol City Brewing. I'll be heading back to Cap City. Soon.