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White Whales & Beer Jedi at DC's ChurchKey

May 09, 2017

By Jake Emen, May 09, 2017

“Just serving craft beer does not a craft beer bar make," says Greg Engert. Let's put that on a plaque somewhere, shall we?

It may sound like a nugget of Yoda-inspired wisdom, but it's coming from the right person in Engert. If anyone is a craft beer Jedi, it has to be this guy. As beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, he oversees the beer programs at nearly 20 different establishments, including Washington, D.C.'s destination beer bar ChurchKey, as well as Bluejacket, a popular and innovative brewery.

"That's been one of the downfalls of craft beer, and the more ubiquitous craft beer has become, the more problematic it has become," says Engert. "For me, the idea of what a craft beer restaurant or bar is has been lost. It seems now if you just have craft beer on draft, you're a 'craft beer place.' But that couldn't be further from the truth."

Craft Beer's Homeplace at ChurchKey

One of the best ways to hone in on what a craft beer bar should be is to deep dive on a place like ChurchKey and discover what makes it work so well. "Procuring the beer is the easy part," says Engert, although some would disagree with him on that point, as few if any have the procuring powers that he's mastered.

ChurchKey’s beer program is developed with an emphasis on the number 555, with 500 bottles, 50 beers on tap, and five casks. "It's actually closer to 600 though," says Engert. And it has never been about the sheer size of that list, anyway. Remember: Just serving craft beer does not a craft beer bar make.

Jake EmenIt's not the quantity that makes the bar.

"Training your staff, day in and day out, tasting through everything, talking about food and drink pairings, every single night, 365, it takes focus and passion," says Engert. "We also clean our lines and our faucets and our couplers, the whole shebang, in a way that few do. We never go from one brand to the next without a full cleaning. It's extremely time consuming and costly, but we want the beers to taste just as great as they do at the brewery, and brewers come in here and always remark on that."

Several of the systems Engert developed for ChurchKey have since become widespread, including his style-specific temperature control. "This is the first place in the United States to ever temperature control draft beer," he says. "Ten of our lines are at 42 degrees: crisp refreshing Lagers, Pilsners, Kölsch. Thirty are at 48, most beers: IPAs, Porters, Stouts. And then the richest, biggest, boldest beers at 54 degrees: Imperial Stouts, Barleywines, Quads, things like that. It has become somewhat universal. I'm proud of that, because that didn't exist."

All of this has helped to turn ChurchKey into a true destination beer bar for those on a quest for the good stuff. "I never thought it would be like this," admits Engert. "On any given day or night year-round, there are countless people in here who are not from here. And it's amazing.”

Stephanie BreijoGreg Engert runs a tight ship at ChurchKey, or really about 20 tight ships across the group.

How the Beer List Was Built

Another Engert innovation was the flavor classification system he created in 2006. It’s been widely adopted, although to his chagrin, not as widely with proper credit. "I guess I'm flattered that a lot of people use it now – some give me credit for it, some just use it,” he says. “It's a flavor profiling system whereby every beer is categorized according to seven broad flavors: crisp, hop, malt, roast, fruit and spice, tart and funky, smoke, and then there are subcategories."

Starting from there, how does Engert build his beer list? How does a beer end up at ChurchKey?

"First and foremost, we serve the most delicious, exciting beers from the best brewers in the world," he says. "And I'm sorry, it sounds vague, and it's extremely subjective, but we're serving the beers I think are the greatest, the most interesting, and the most memorable."

Engert describes one of the hardest parts of his job as then removing breweries as they've become more popular. "One of the things that people come to us for is to find beers they haven't had," he explains. "Sometimes there are brewers I used to feature hugely back in the old days, but they've grown to the point where they're on every bar on 14th Street. Their beers are fantastic, and not to take anything away from them… but I'm trying to bring in the new things and to showcase the brewers that don't get out there."

Beyond the 555 (or 600) beers of ChurchKey, the numbers across the rest of Engert's domain are staggering. Another 500 at Rustico in Ballston, Virginia, plus 350 at the Alexandria location. Add in some 400 at The Sovereign in Georgetown, 300 at Owen's Ordinary in Maryland, 125 at The Partisan, 75 at Iron Gate... on and on it goes.

"Well over 3,000 beers are actually being served at all times," says Engert. The lists are never static, either. "It's wild… we're literally 90% rotation."

Tying beer to the food and concept of each restaurant is therefore crucial for separating one beer list from another. "What's cool is that every place has its own personality," says Engert. So it is that the charcuterie laden fare at The Partisan is backed by a robust list of sours on draft, while Belgian brews rule the day at The Sovereign, and at Owen’s Ordinary in Montgomery County, there’s hefty Maryland representation.

ChurchKeyInviting, yet bold – you could be describing the interior design at ChurchKey, or the beer list.

White Whales

With thousands of beers across almost two dozen menus, and massive, constant rotation, are there any beers that Engert can't find? Any unicorns yet to be discovered? "Yes... I mean yes, there are tons of beers out there that I cannot get my hands on," says Engert. 

Of course, when he does chase down his white whales he typically catches them. That’s the story with a recent tap takeover held with Vermont's Hill Farmstead Brewery. Engert shared how he became friends with award-winning brewer Shaun Hill over the years, and then finally pinned him down to committing to an event.

"I've always dreamt of being able to serve them," says Engert. "But I was just like, it's never going to happen. But just over time, I've become friends with him.” After connecting with him at a fall festival, Hill agreed and went onto deliver beyond Engert’s wildest imagination.

"So next thing you know, April 1st and 2nd, he sent a ton of beer down here, and not just like a keg here and a keg there, I mean like palettes and palettes of beer, and we blew it out, 15 of his draft beers here, plus bottles," says Engert. "On a Saturday afternoon we had 250 people on line when we opened. The next day on Sunday we had more of his beers on at The Sovereign, similarly packed and amazing... It's fun that these things come to fruition over time."

Marissa BialeckiEven a brewery like Bluejacket can benefit from a good guest tap program.

Back to The Beginning

The craft beer Jedi wasn't always hunting down white whales, and as opposed to so many others in the field these days, he didn't get his start along the homebrew and beer geek path. First, he ditched his life as an English lit academic. "The work wasn't as enticing for me as it had been," explains Engert. "It was intellectual masturbation, frankly."

He opted to start paying the bills by getting a job at a little place called the Brickskeller. "I had never worked in restaurants before, and was kind of overwhelmed by the beer program," says Engert. "At that point they had over 2,000 different bottles, which was the Guinness Book of World Records for the most commercially available beers in the world."

The Brickskeller had that massive selection but didn’t have any type of formal staff education program, so Engert simply threw himself into it. "I just had to learn it all," he says. "I consumed everything I could, whether it was from books or from bottle."

A few years down the road he was introduced to Michael Babin of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, and the rest is history as they say. ChurchKey. Bluejacket. The Sovereign. Owen's Ordinary. Overseeing a constantly rotating beer portfolio numbering in the thousands. So then, how many bottles has he consumed from in his quest for ongoing self-taught education?

"I have no idea," says Engert. "But I've probably had tens of thousands of beers. I don't even know where to begin on the number... and frankly, the more I think about it the worse I feel about myself."

No reason for that Greg, you're among likeminded friends here, and we can all appreciate the laborious efforts you've made in the name of imbibing education, driven by an insatiable thirst... for knowledge.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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