On a rainy Sunday in January, I climbed the stairs to Jack Rose Dining Saloon's second story. The bar and restaurant at the bottom of 18th Street in Adams Morgan is best known for its unmatched whiskey collection displayed in floor to ceiling shelves, but I'm not here today to talk about (or drink) the hard stuff. My plan today, as it is so many days, is to talk beer, this time with Nahem Simon, the beer director not only at Jack Rose but also at Bourbon Adams Morgan.
Nahem grins when he sees me and heads into the back of the house; he emerges, still grinning, with a Three Floyds Zombie Dust. My gratuity expressed, I find myself moments later hurtling headlong into one of Nahem's passions: draft systems. Both Jack Rose and Bourbon's Adams Morgan outpost are undergoing big changes in their draft systems, which Nahem is visibly excited about. Despite having written about and consumed beer for years, my draft system knowledge is woeful, so I'm all ears when Nahem starts talking about shut-off valves. “Lots of places don't realize with multiple floors how useful having a shutoff valve at the source is.” Why is it useful? Well, close a shut-off valve and “it's like closing the top of a straw in a soft drink.” It's helpful for changing lines, placing beers only on certain bars or floors, and ensuring that beer isn't sitting too long in lines, among other reasons. All news to me, as was so much of what I'd hear.
Nahem is gleeful today because Christmas has come late this year. What did Santa bring? A tricycle? Jack-in-the-box? Nay, it's that other classic item on the childhood wish list: a draft system made of 304 grade stainless steel. Jack Rose is the first bar in the city to move to all 304 grade stainless towers, faucets, shanks, etc. in its draft system. 304 grade, as opposed to 303, is surgical grade stainless steel. Think scalpel quality, but dispensing dry hopped goodness. Because 303 grade stainless steel has a slightly porous quality and is sulfur-infused, “you have the possibility of a whole stretch of your system getting contaminated with off-flavors and other residual flavors”, like that campfire taste of rauchbier.. The new system, with all 304 grade stainless and the implementation of a new trunk line, might elicit words like “neat” or even “impressive” from most craft beer fans. For Nahem, referred to by some folks in the industry as the “draft” or “beer whisperer,” the new system is “glorious.”
Ten days after the interview is Nahem’s one year anniversary at Jack Rose. As many craft beer fans in DC know, Nahem came from the venerable ChurchKey, where he was the assistant beer director and charged with ensuring the cleanliness of the 50 draft lines and five cask engines. When ChurchKey was set to open, he got his hands on a draft system handbook and learned it “front and back.” It shows: throughout our conversation Nahem rattles off calculations about resistance and restriction of draft lines. Although the original plan was for Nahem to stay at Rustico (where he had been previously with Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director Greg Engert), he quickly moved full-time to the company’s Logan Circle beer haven. With so many drafts to oversee, attention to detail and cleanliness were critical. Noting that the cask lines were building up beer stone (calcium deposits) faster than the draft lines because the cask lines don’t have the same push of carbon dioxide, Nahem took to changing out the porous vinyl lines every two weeks. When lines weren't pouring right, he had a knack for jerry-rigging them. All the while he became a fan favorite with craft beer-loving visitors. He speaks highly of his time there: “NRG was good enough to trust me with that system. It was a prototype system that shouldn't have worked. By all conventional measures of physics associated with draft beer, the system was designed to specifications that make kegged beer extremely difficult, if not impossible to dispense properly.”* Between mixing equipment from different suppliers and brewers or manipulating couplers to control improperly carbonated beers or more volatile beers that were not meant to be dispensed at temperatures higher than 38 degrees**, Nahem had to use creativity and a thorough knowledge of physics to get everything pouring correctly.
When opportunity knocked, Nahem moved from 14th Street to 18th Street, which brought some new changes and challenges. “[I was] coming into a bar that is known for whiskey and trying to convince people, 'Hey drink beer,'” says Nahem. “We put a lot of care and attention to it. Thankfully customers have been super supportive and receptive, but so has the entire beer community.” Support also came from up the chain; Nahem praises “bosses like Bill [Thomas] and Steve [King] who completely indulge the hell out of me.” These indulgences included updating the less than a year-old draft system with top of the line components; dismantling and rebuilding the whole back part of the system; rebuilding and designing a new multi-floor beer distribution manifold; and building a brand new system from scratch at Bourbon Adams Morgan. That’s not all though, it also included changing up the restaurant's walk-in. The freezer, shared with the kitchen, didn't have enough room to fit kegs properly. “I had to dismantle the back part of the walk-in to make more room for kegs. You couldn't fit kegs stacked on top of each other.” He also made the first of many draft system modifications, changing the manifold, which laid the ground work for “the final piece of the puzzle, which is having all 20 beers being available on both floors.”
The innovations aren't limited to walk-in walls and manifolds, however. The draft system will soon boast a supplemental dispensing unit that Nahem will build and outfit himself. The unit will have two whiskeys and two cocktails, one fully carbonated and the other uncarbonated. Nahem notes, “I know how to make sure that the CO2 doesn’t break out and the mixed cocktails don’t separate…the carbonation is maintained regardless of how long the cocktail sits in the vessel. It's kind of one of those 'don't try this at home' things.”
He's also trying to modify an old wine keeper to accommodate “vintage beers without a lot of carbonation” like barleywines and imperial stouts. “We could offer one and two ounce pours from the bottle. We do everything else with spirits, why not do that with beer and allow people to try a little bit? You could pay $35 for an 11.2 oz bottle or spend $6 and get one to two ounces. After that it gets a little dense.” Add to the winekeeper the reserve list of rare beer verticals that he's building and you've got a bunch of new things coming about.
Many readers here likely appreciate the time and energy put into building a beer program, especially draft line cleanliness, but why specifically is it so important to Nahem? Having seen so many badly maintained systems, he feels a responsibility to the consumer. “So many times you have people having the idea that 'draft beer will be better,' but it is often not true because you have employees dipping faucets [into beer], not pouring properly, not cleaning couplers properly,” he points out. “Beer is food, and everything should be maintained to the highest standard of hygiene that you'd treat food with.” It's also out of a sense of duty to folks on the production side of things.
“The retailer is responsible for the packaging [of the beer]. It's a disservice, and I would think rude and irresponsible and careless, to just not hear about the hard work that all these owners and brewers are putting into their product. Ultimately, if someone comes in and gets X beer and it's a flagship beer, and it tastes completely off, that one experience can keep people from trying so many other products. If that product should taste completely different, it can affect a brewery's perceptions in the long run. So many breweries that have to compete with macros, it's up to us to take care of things.”
So even though distributors in the area recommend line cleaning every two weeks, Nahem's OCD won't let him hold to that timeline, so he does it after every draft change. “If you're cleaning it every two weeks and then put a stout on and then a pils, it picks up residual flavors.”
It's not all serious though. Part of this is just for the good time. “It's just fun. I changed the glycol bath since it is something that needs to be done every so often. I just like putting the system together because it’s like a giant Erector set, really. Just challenge yourself more and more, all this ended up happening.”
He's not getting his kicks just from changing glycol baths. For the special events that Jack Rose has, he's dressed up as a Kentucky colonel (for the Kentucky Derby), in a hula skirt (for an inaugural luau), and even as a kissing booth (for Halloween). Behind the draft system knowledge and the nuts and bolts of beer, there's an irreverence and a ‘don't take this so seriously’ attitude. Nahem seems to get just as much out of making sure that a beer pours perfectly without a faucet spilling a drop as he does at genuinely making sure they're having a good time. Sometimes the two get combined, like when he took a bourbon barrel and attached a shank to it “just for the novelty of it. Even that little bit of extra carbonation pushed the flavor out.”
When asked if he's surprised that he wound up so engrossed by draft systems, a very mechanical, precise, scientific topic, considering that he went to art school and used to do the art for Rustico's beer events, Nahem explains, “I was never good at science or engineering. I was good at math, but then everything kind of shifted over. I used to do a lot of the art for the promos at Rustico. Then, after that [learning about draft systems], this just kind of made sense…I was never really scholarly, it's just LEGOs, but it's LEGOs [where] you have to balance everything out with restriction, the length of the tubing run, multiple floor dispensation, and the glycol loop to be able to properly and evenly maintain the temperature of the faucets.”
Those construction pieces make Nahem so happy, but there's a streak of obsession, a wanting to make everything pour as perfectly as possible with the system he has. The 304 grade stainless steel system, “glorious” as it is, is still incomplete in the eyes of its assembler. “I'm waiting for Micro Matic to produce 304 grade couplers, which are currently only available for wine,” Nahem explains. Slowly but surely, he says, he’ll replace all the standard couplers with these newer ones. “My next goal will be to replace all the standard [couplers], which I clean religiously and replace wear-outable components on anyhow.”
That's the story right there. A piece of the production brewery to pint glass pipeline that the vast majority of consumers will never consider, the keg coupler in the bar where it's being served, keeps this beer director up at night. If the draft system isn't perfect, it's bothering Nahem. Don't let the geniality confuse you. “This is how much we want to make sure your experience is dynamite,” he confesses. Even in operations as whiskey-oriented as Jack Rose and Bourbon, guests are “not going to drink whiskey or cocktails all night. Unless they have an allergy, they're going to have a beer.” Nahem Simon wants to make sure the draft system is dispensing beers perfectly when they do.
* Nahem adds afterward via email, “All kegged beer, though they might have differing volumes of carbon dioxide depending on the style, are carbonated for a temperature of 38 degrees. For every degree that the keg goes above 38 degrees, half a pound of pressure builds up within the keg as the carbon dioxide tries to break out. In order for the beer to pour properly, an equal volume of carbon dioxide must be applied to the beer. The higher the temperature, the higher a ratio of CO2 needs to be applied to the beer. The higher the temperature and the more CO2 applied may begin to saturate the beer and eventually cause for a ton of loss, along with offsetting the body of the beer. Also you will exceed the tolerance threshold of the vinyl gas lines on the jumper line assembly and blow the lines, so you can increase pressure and thus increase the ability of keeping the CO2 in the beer, but only by so much. Long story short, there were a lot of hurdles that had to be overcome.”
** Some breweries don’t have the capacity to condition beer separately depending on whether it’s going to be keg- or bottle-conditioned. Beer intended to be bottle-conditioned that goes into a keg can sometimes be more active, and that needs to be controlled since those kegs tend to be expensive.