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 the final portion of the interview starts, Greg talks about beer geek culture and beer freshness.
On Beer Geek Culture:
One of the most interesting things to me about craft beer and what it has become to me over the past decade is that there's almost a divide, or a distance between myself and some of these uber geek collectors. Because I frankly have never traded a beer. I've never bought a beer online. I've brought beer to tastings and probably had beers people have traded for. It's not like I'm against it or something morally. I've never, ever done that. I hate to begin this by aging myself and say that it's something I think is like so generational, but 10 years ago no one did that. It is certainly not the staggering pace and obsessiveness that they do it today. Some people that I hire now are like, “Oh have you had this, this, or this?”
DCBeer: Do you care to? Is there interest?
Of course, I would love to taste everything I can get my hands on. Who wouldn't? My bigger point is that whether I have the time to trade (which I do not). It's almost as if there was a pushback among the beer geek clique as beer has gone mainstream. It's almost as if they've found a new way to maintain this cult-like clique by obtaining, tasting, and talking about beers in code and in ways that have delivered them from the mainstream. Where [De la Senne] Saison de Mayboom is almost too mainstream because you can get it through established avenues.
I don't want to overstate things here. It's not like I don't have lots of rare lambic. I do have a lot of rare stuff. I talk to some people and they would say 20 beers that I've probably had two of because literally that's what they are all about is using Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate to determine what's possible to get and then dig into what's available or not available and then say, “Well I have this.”
When I do get my hands on rare stuff, a lot of times it is because my friends give it to me. I took Garrett Oliver to The Partisan. The thought of, if I go to his house or he goes to mine and I'm like, “Oh have you had this?' It just doesn't cross my mind. If I have a geek over at my house, I might not have anything.
DCBeer: I worry about that all the time. I will keep things in the closet, but at home I usually I have High Life.
I think there's a middle ground. I don't drink High Life, but like Sierra Nevada Celebration, I have a lot of that right now. I'll drink that for a month. This whole thing I'm thinking of is sometimes you want to get away from that.
"The chase, the procurement, the collecting aspect of this is definitely interfering with the original and still most basic and most amazing point, which is socially drinking this stuff and tasting it [and] extending the experience about this stuff beyond how many IBUs it has."
People who don't do beer for a living can get done with their job and go on the Internet and research crazy weird beers and trade with people all over the world. The chase, the procurement, the collecting aspect of this is definitely interfering with the original and still most basic and most amazing point, which is socially drinking this stuff and tasting it [and] extending the experience about this stuff beyond how many IBUs it has.
These facts about beer that we have now never used to be important. I never once had anybody ask me, when I was at The Brickskeller a decade ago, how many IBUs a beer had. They wanted to know the hops that were used, how they were used, and why they were used in that way. Now we're changing these beers into algorithms or something. ABV, SRM, IBUs, etc. all gets ingested with the beer and then gets spit out as a rating. It's a very numeric pursuit.
On Aging Beer and Freshness:
I try to age beers but obviously only beers that age well and also that I have a supply of. I'm never going to get my hands on a case of [Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout] and then set it aside and say, “Oh I'm never going to drink this now.”
"I think that aging certain beers very well and releasing them has been a very fun endeavor as well as knowing what to age and what not to age."
I think that aging certain beers very well and releasing them has been a very fun endeavor as well as knowing what to age and what not to age. I have been sending kegs and cases back for ten years if it's old. It's becoming increasingly easy to decode how fresh a beer is. The issue with date coding is that you need to know if your beer is fresh or not and whether it needs to be.
The industry standard is 90 days for hoppy, crisp, refreshing beers. For me, these beers should be consumed in under 90 days. I'd like to see it less than that, but 90 days is a good start considering the travails of distribution. Some breweries say 120 days on their IPAs. Other breweries say their lagers are good within six months, and I'll say no, they're not. The next step is keeping the distributors honest on something like that. Knowing when someone says, “We have this,” that I can ask, “When was it packaged?” The problem of course is the imperial stout. I'd hate for people to not know that this has a longer shelf life.
We have Red Apron in the Mosaic District (and a restaurant called B-Side). One of the things that I'm most proud of is that based on flavor profile, they know when beer comes in to check the dates, and if it's past code, they send it back. I say we need to have beer no older than 60 days, because I think it's fair to ask for a month to sell beer in retail. As I get closer to the date of 90 days, say with 10 days left, I cut the price in half with the full admission that you need to drink it fast. This is only for crisp and hoppy styles. It was a project to see if it was do-able, and at the retail level, we're going to be doing that throughout the group to make sure that we're never sitting on old beer.
"I'd rather give it away fresh than sell it after the date for IPAs, etc. People come in and they say, “You always have fresh Two Hearted, why is that?” Because I'd rather not have Two Hearted than have it not fresh."
I'd rather give it away fresh than sell it after the date for IPAs, etc. People come in and they say, “You always have fresh Two Hearted, why is that?” Because I'd rather not have Two Hearted than have it not fresh.
On Creating the Beer Classification System:
I wanted to figure out a better way to organize the menu than just locale because you know Allagash Interlude does not belong in the category “Maine,” and De la Senne Taras Boulba doesn't belong in the Belgian blonde ale category. It's hoppy!
So I created the flavor profile system in 2006. We use it in every NRG restaurant. Even if it's not on the menu, it informs every decision, keeps our categories straight, and makes sure I have beers for every palate for every food pairing in every place. I devised all this in the first place at Rustico Alexandria because when I walked in there they had 30 decent beers on draft. Some of them were straight-up macro, some were unnecessary, and I pulled all of them and put on new beers and new bottles and instituted a cleaning program. Everybody called me a pretentious asshole. I was trying to desperately prove to people that I wasn't doing this to be an asshole. I wasn't putting on airs. I was doing this to give people something to taste that they had never tasted before, and one of the ways that I did that and to make it more accessible was the flavor profiles. I think it's a really cool thing that something as simple as that is becoming ubiquitous.
"I wasn't putting on airs. I was doing this to give people something to taste that they had never tasted before, and one of the ways that I did that and to make it more accessible was the flavor profiles."
I'm very flattered that it has been so accepted by so many places near and far. Some people ask me to use it, like Patrick Rue, when he had his cheese shop at The Bruery. Sean Wilson still does at Fullsteam. At this point, it's great to see beers put mostly in proper categories. There are some errors here and there, but it's good. It has been taken to a different level. Now I think there are very few places that open up that don't use that instead of style or locale. I think that's pretty cool.
DCBeer: You've done a lot of these interviews, a fair amount of these, probably more than you want to. This comes from Nick Rakowski. Would you rather fight one blogger-sized lemur or ten lemur-sized bloggers?
How big are lemurs? I'd rather fight ten lemur-sized bloggers.
DCBeer: Challenge accepted.
Thanks to Greg for the great interview!