Over the past five years, perhaps no other venue has raised the local and national profiles of craft beer in DC than Logan Circle's craft beer temple, ChurchKey. ChurchKey, like the other 18 venues in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, has its beer program overseen by beer director Greg Engert. ChurchKey celebrated its fifth anniversary at the end of October, but due to some conflicts in schedules (I was getting married), we weren't able to sit down with Greg Engert until recently. Our wide-ranging interview, surprisingly this site's first with Greg, covered not only the development of Birch & Barley/ChurchKey but also topics like beer freshness, buying beer for a restaurant group, beer culture, and many others. This week, we will release the interview in four parts. As today's portion of the interview starts, Greg reflects both on how he got into craft beer and DC's famous (and now-defunct) original beer bar, The Brickskeller, which was where his beer career started.
On Getting Into Beer Because of History and Tradition:
Greg: Visiting the Brickskeller in Washington, DC in the 1970s and 1980s was the first time many people drank Cantillon, De Dolle, Schlenkerla, Rochefort, and many, many more because of our direct imports for Michael Jackson's tastings.
My initial and still abiding love for beer was using it as a jumping off point for everything else that's going on. For me, the nights I fell in love with beer involved drinking bottles of beer by myself or with friends and talking about them. I cannot tell you how much fun I had reading Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium and drinking those beers and learning about things that I didn't run into every day. I left the academic life, but the reason I switched out novels for beer was imported beer.
Michael Jackson wrote about pairing beer with Thanksgiving Dinner in The Washington Post in 1983. In The Washington Post, not in the New York Times. That's why I really fell in love with it was learning about these brewing traditions, these histories, and it fed into the more recent history. It's in some ways totally lost today. I mentioned Bert Grant [founder of Yakima Brewing and Grant's Brewery Pub, the first post-Prohibition brewpub, which operated in Yakima, Washington from 1982-2004] to one of my servers. He was like “Who is Bert Grant?” That's American craft history, not even European brewing history.
We aren't looking back anymore. It's all about what's in front of us. That's why I challenge people to tell me what beers they've had. Because they have had so many. I can tell you so many of the beers I had in my seminal period of doing this and how all that happened, and that's where Birch & Barley/ChurchKey (BBCK) came from.
I was at the Shelton Brothers Festival last weekend in Los Angeles. With The Festival, you have tons of foreign brewers and owners coming to the table serving incredible beers, ciders, and mead. Maybe I'm jaded, but I didn't think people were as interested in the brewers. You can go talk to Nino [Bacelle] and his wife. These people make De Ranke XX Bitter, which is incredible. Cuvee de Ranke. Kriek De Ranke. I could not believe his line was short, not just because how great those beers are. I can't even get my hands on Cuvee de Ranke through traditional methods. I spoke to [Nino] a lot. In the old days, that's what people loved to do. It's what drove a lot of the Brickskeller events, and it's what brings people in here. I'm not saying it's totally going away, but I think there is definitely competition with it. I think The Festival is great because it's bringing back opportunities like that, and I think it's festivals like that that will keep the tradition alive. For me this is why it needs to be balanced. The beer drinking experience is less without the beers we're drinking right here [De la Senne Saison du Meyboom and Oude (Gueuze Tilquin)² à l’Ancienne]. There's nothing that drinks like De la Senne in America. There is no American lambic that tastes like Tilquin.
DCBeer: You mentioned The Brick and that tradition. You cut your teeth there. What did you want to bring from The Brick to BBCK? And then what did you try to leave behind?
First things first. The Brickskeller is the first beer bar in the US. Its impact on craft beer in the US is inestimable. It doesn't get enough credit. Dave Alexander did a lot of work for it, but it started with Maurice Coja bringing in beer from all over the world. Not just for can collectors, which was the original goal, but bringing in the brewers. Having them speak on that stage. What I took from [The Brickskeller] was a passion for craft beer and for valuing these styles and traditions of the world, including American brewing, that needed to be valued and championed because at that time they were slightly in danger of going away. That consideration and, bottom line, they were passionate about something that no one gave a shit about for many, many years. It had nothing to do with profitability.
"The Brickskeller was light years ahead and then started to stand still a bit as the industry and the interest continued to grow. I really wanted to take The Brickskeller and take it to a different place."
Keeping that kind of inventory alone…everyone makes jokes, and certainly toward the end they trimmed their inventory, but well into the 2000s, they had over a thousand beers. It's a lot of beer. Also, there's a reason draft beer is king. Profit margins are way better. They didn't have draft beers. They had a few lines, and then they added the thing upstairs, but they didn't have draft beer. They had a lot of passion and knowledge, but I wanted to just keep going down the path. The Brickskeller was way ahead of its time and then just kind of stopped. I think institutions slow, and other people have to come up and keep pushing forward. I'm sure one day I'll slow up and someone will keep pushing craft beer in DC further. It's a natural thing that happens. People get old and some people slow down. The Brickskeller was light years ahead and then started to stand still a bit as the industry and the interest continued to grow. I really wanted to take The Brickskeller and take it to a different place.
On Developing BBCK:
Sometimes I think we get caught up in “taste, taste, taste,” and then you come in [to BBCK]. Great service builds an experience around these beers. Suggestions like, “You should have this cheese with this beer.” Great anecdotes or bits of history about these beers. I think it's still what people love about this place in a lot of ways, but I don't think it's any longer the only way people access these craft beers.
Birch & Barley/ChurchKey started with the care and service of the beer. I was always interested in restaurants, and food, and spirits, and wine. I didn't want to keep beer separate. I wanted to elevate its service and the appreciation of it and fuse it with things that were well and properly lauded and regarded rather than to keep it separate. I wanted to bring it into the wine and spirit and high end food fold. I completely borrow from those arenas in my service of the beer.
I wanted to temperature control beer, and not just bottles, which is easy because you can just turn the dial. I wanted to design a system to temperature control drafts, which was something that hadn't been done before 2009. Now, technology has caught up because it's popular. It's easy to do now if you know where to look and what to ask for.
I wanted to utilize glassware, but not free glassware from the distributor with different names on it. I love wine, and I drink it a lot, but I never drink it out of a labeled glass. I wanted to keep everything in-house and clean lines and switch our cask lines every two weeks, which we still do. We still clean our lines every time we go from brand to brand. These were things that weren't happening back then.
We also wanted to bring beers into a mature setting. We have great wines and spirits. We have great bar food coming from downstairs, not to mention my favorite thing to this day, which is the fusing of craft beer with modern American, locally-driven, delicious cuisine with an incredible chef, Kyle Bailey. Nobody before us had done a tasting menu every single night with craft beer. The food menu is changing, the beer is changing, based on what we're having and what we're liking.
We have a pre-shift for 45 minutes on each floor, so my day is tasting food, beer, wine, spirits sometimes, and seeing what's going on and really educating. Discussing stories about the beer, style histories, and the pairings, not just “this is an IPA.”
DCBeer: You hold CK to a high standard. Do you think other people appreciate that? You've carved out this reputation for quality. Do you think there are unfair things that people expect?
It's hard to generalize because everybody is different. There are quite a few people whose expectations are very tough to meet sometimes. I see it with restaurants that aren't even beer related. The more success you have, the higher the standard you have to meet. As much as I may have my “woe is me” moments, I love it. We are keeping it to a high standard, and we have to keep getting better. At the end of the day, when people hold us to a high standard, I have to remind myself that I do the same to others.
"We are keeping it to a high standard, and we have to keep getting better. At the end of the day, when people hold us to a high standard, I have to remind myself that I do the same to others."
I think there is a limit in some cases. Sometimes, I hear chatter about when people expect us to have rarer beers here. We get what we can, and when we get rare stuff, it goes immediately. Also, people don't realize how rare rare beer has become. In 2007, whenever Bell's first came to market, at Rustico Alexandria, I probably had eight half barrels of Hopslam, and a cask, and as many cases as I wanted. Now, they get a number of cases and one keg. The bottom line is year-over-year, places are getting less and less of these beers. Rare Allagash six-packs, I just got one for all of DC.
It's like the price thing. I've always found it very interesting that people can say things like, “This is expensive.” I say it, too. I go to a place and get an $18 cocktail and I say, “Oh this place is expensive.” Now, it probably is. But there may be some things behind that that you don't know about. You don't know their rent or their operating costs. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I can also say that I have strived for years to keep our beer appropriately priced. I think I've done a very good job of it, especially because as craft becomes more ubiquitous, bars that didn't sell beer before are forced to come to some very harrowing realizations on the price points of craft beer versus macro beer. I swear that $7 is the new $6 in DC. My standard beers aren't $7 at ChurchKey.
I think most people are really, really cool. They have fair expectations, and I strive to meet them and sometimes fall short, I admit, but I think there's a danger that people bring in something else, some baggage along with them with their expectations.
On ChurchKey's Staff and the Service Industry:
I told the ChurchKey staff from day one, and this is how we operate at all of our businesses, from Rustico right on down the line. It's something I learned from John Jarecki, owner of The Light Horse Restaurant in Alexandria, who was the bar manager at Rustico when I came in. He taught me a lot about guest relations and making friends at bars. He taught me a lot about how to be a bartender, and it's beyond making cocktails. It's…how do you make someone love being there?
"We don't hire off of anything except personality and passion. I don't care if you've never drank a beer in your life. If you want to learn about beer, and you're a passionate person, and you're cool as hell? You're hired."
From there, I came up with strategies and training methods. First off, we don't hire off of anything except personality and passion. I don't care if you've never drank a beer in your life. If you want to learn about beer, and you're a passionate person, and you're cool as hell? You're hired. But then you have to learn quickly because if you don't, then you're fired [laughs]. We can teach you beer. I can't teach you how to be gracious or how to get people to want to talk to you or for you how to talk to them.
I love the service industry. I love service. I love serving. It's not something everyone can do. If you give away the house or you drink on the job, then you're making it something that everyone can do. But when I go to a bar and somebody is an asshole, I'm like you shouldn't be in this position. Just like everyone doesn't have the stomach to be a doctor, not everyone can be a bartender.
These guys [ChurchKey's bartenders], they're incredible. I have a ton of bartenders and staff who are still here who started in the first six months. I tell them that if they kill it and make people love hanging out here, at the end of the day, we could be serving Miller Lite. It's the personalities behind the bar that do it. You're building the experience. You're not just here to drink Cantillon Fou'foune. You want to drink Fou'foune, but you want to taste it with some food and taste it with these guys. There is something more to this place than just a simple list of beers that are hard to get. When bartenders and servers give that kind of service, then it becomes something that not everyone can do. It becomes a profession, and I think we have been very lucky to find great people who have stuck with us and have done a killer job.
"The last thing I will ever have somebody say is that we're pretentious. If anybody ever called ChurchKey or Birch & Barley pretentious, they are mistaken, and I will stand by that."
This comes back to The Brickskeller before. I wasn't always nice to people. I was nicer than some others, but it was a little bit of an attitude thing there.
DCBeer: There was a “You're not worthy,” at The Brickskeller, which I don't think exists here.
Exactly. That wasn't just The Brick, it was unnamed beer bars all across the US where I would walk out because they made me feel like I should give them a hug for letting me walk in the door and pay them for a service and a good. The last thing I will ever have somebody say is that we're pretentious. If anybody ever called ChurchKey or Birch & Barley pretentious, they are mistaken, and I will stand by that. That's our biggest, biggest success and something I'm most proud of. It's accessible. It's fun. We serve spirits. We serve gin and tonic. We serve vodka and soda. This is a bar where people come to have fun. This is not just a beer rating house.
That's the end of the first portion of our interview with Greg. Check back tomorrow for the next part and thanks for reading!