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 talks about the development of the DC craft beer scene and the public's response to beer events.
DCBeer: Let's talk about where DC is now. Mike Dolan started DCBeer.com because back then it was very hard to find craft.
Right, that's what's crazy is it used to be, “Where can I find beer in DC?” One of the best Mike Dolan stories is that before CK was open, he was standing outside one night. ChurchKey was a monster to set up. We would get here at 9am and leave at 3am, no days off. Things have gotten way easier…Anyway, one night I came out around 10 or 11pm, and Mike was outside. I could tell he had been looking in. He was looking to ask me questions and staking it out. It was like a month out, and I didn't know when we would open. But it was so cool, I will never forget that. The editor of DCBeer.com was like checking things out.
Now you guys are invited in and walked around like royalty at any new place. That's a testament to where the site has gone to and where the scene has gone. It was also before people used smartphones all the time. I think you need to look no further than DCBeer…It has gone now from where to find beer to becoming a true editorial site where people who have lived in DC for more than two weeks and have been in the scene a long time, and who in my opinion have pretty balanced opinions on things, can pontificate on stuff…So compare the site now to back when it was Mike Dolan trying to find out when ChurchKey was opening so he would have a place to go.
DCBeer: For bar and restaurant openings now, we look at the lists ahead of time, and the lists that people open up with now, we would have killed for in 2009. Even half of those lists we would have killed for.
Oh, Bayerischer Bahnhof and Leipziger Gose were on draft when ChurchKey opened. Nobody realizes how much of a coup it was to get those beers. It was insane. Two sour German wheats on draft? A Berliner and a gose. Now they're kind of ho-hum if you see them at a bar today. In part my fault because we do all these sour events and you can have it every time. That was crazy. Like you said before, you're sitting there [at ChurchKey's launch in 2009] drinking [Dogfish Head] Fort, and people are going nuts about [Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout]. That's one that people still do go nuts about.
"Now it's like an arms race. I start collecting and thinking about things beforehand and buying some beers and lining them up. When we were opening up The Partisan, I started thinking about that list. But yeah, what do you have to open with on a list to really impress these days?"
Now it's like an arms race. I start collecting and thinking about things beforehand and buying some beers and lining them up. When we were opening up The Partisan, I started thinking about that list. But yeah, what do you have to open with on a list to really impress these days? I get Cantillon kegs. Not frequently, but I do pretty well with them. Two months ago I put Iris Grand Cru on on a Sunday. I didn't make an event or anything around it. It was on until Wednesday because I guess it's not Fou'foune. That's the funny thing. The first kegs I ever got, it was a kriek and a framboise, and they were gone in hours. This all goes back to what I was saying. Those beers taste just as great now as they did when you had them the first time, and they always will.
All that said: I do love opening new places. I can't say more about it, but we'll be opening up a new place in DC in 2015. Sometime between spring and fall.
DCBeer: A bowling alley? A craft bowling alley?
I wish. If there were some way to have a bowling alley in DC that could be like bowling alleys where we grew up, I would do it yesterday.
DCBeer: Kyle Bailey's bowling alley nachos?
"I can't say more about it, but we'll be opening up a new place in DC in 2015. Sometime between spring and fall….It'll be a beer-centric place."
It'll be a beer-centric place. But even thinking about that, I'm thinking, “What stops do I have to pull out?” For ChurchKey, we had a line down the street for a month. I mean, first night, I remember thinking we were going to get crushed. The bottle list wasn't even ready. It took a week to get the bottles ready. We had bottles stacked up in the lounge in cases. People were stealing them. It was mayhem. There has not been a bar opening or restaurant opening that has been anything like that. How cool is that, that there were hundreds of people lined up to check out a beer bar trying to elevate the service of beer, on opening night? It'll never happen again.
DCBeer: I have this thing in my head called the “ChurchKey paradox” where the nicer the list is for an event, the less I actually want to come. I think that kind of comes back to the pretentiousness. I think when you have events like that, the pretentiousness that comes with those events isn't coming from that side of the bar, it's coming from the people who come to the event for the rare beers.
That may be.
DCBeer: It's so strange. Consider the sour events. Attendance has dropped off. The first few were huge.
It's like anything else. It's too ubiquitous now!
DCBeer: The first few I was like, “Fuck this, I'm not going because I don't want to deal with the people who will come.”
It's too much of a good thing, right? It is still great, and obviously we will never stop doing them because that's not why we started doing them. The first two were wall-to-wall, and now it's like every seat is taken, and the people are here. It's cool because it's a good mix of beer nerds and…well, I wouldn't call you a beer nerd in that respect. Beer nerd isn't a pejorative term at all. We all are. I'm a beer nerd/geek, whatever. It's just a different thing. You like to come and drink. You just ordered a Two Hearted Ale. It's probably your 10,000th Two Hearted, and you'll probably drink 10,000 more. People come in here and taste, taste, taste, and tick, tick, tick and that's great. Any way you want to access it is your call. I will say this too. People who do BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer and tick off beer, they're my friends. Like my friend Gene Bonventre, but he's never had a beer he wouldn't share with people.
"It's too much of a good thing, right? It is still great, and obviously we will never stop doing [events] because that's not why we started doing them."
It goes back to the Cantillon paradox. Iris Grand Cru is not as cool as it used to be. There's an element of that slowdown. But Zwanze Day is so interesting. We really bust our asses on these events to make sure everyone is happy. We bust our asses to make sure that it's fair. This year, we had people come in and get their ticket for Zwanze, and leave. Come back at 3, and drink their Zwanze, and go. And it's like, really? That's not what Jean van Roy had in mind for Zwanze Day. Come and discuss lambic…or anything really. Not saying you have to get bombed in the afternoon, but just chill for a second. It becomes an errand you're running in the afternoon [to drink Zwanze].
But then there are other events that are fun. Like the Franconian gravity keg events. It's the same people who come and love that kind of beer. It's more manageable in every way now. It's not a line out the door every night. But we still get those events that surprise me. Take Funky Buddha this year. We opened at 4, at 5:30 it wasn't that busy. By 8 it was packed. I know it was DC Beer Week so people were going around and doing stuff. We've had other events, sour events and stuff, where no one will come. Then we have other events where there are breweries that people don't expect. What's a good example?
DCBeer: Brouwerij Dilewyns?
That wasn't an enormous turnout.
DCBeer: Even the De Struise event wasn't a huge turnout. It was like a typical Monday.
I'll see the same event happening in Louisville, Kentucky, and it'll be a line out the door. You never know though. Take Goose Island. Some people are anti-Goose Island because they think “AB is the devil” or something, but we do their rare and obscure nights, and it's crazy in here.
"You'll do these regional brewery launches, and it'll be crazy, and you realize that there are a lot of reasons that people get into and access craft beer. One of them is, 'I haven't had that beer since I lived there.' It's part of their lives, and now they can get it here."
You'll do these regional brewery launches, and it'll be crazy, and you realize that there are a lot of reasons that people get into and access craft beer. One of them is, “I haven't had that beer since I lived there.” It's part of their lives, and now they can get it here. Take Schlafly. We do their tap takeover every year, and it's always packed because people never get tired of being from St. Louis. Schlafly makes really underrated craft beers. I'm having a Tasmanian IPA right now.
DCBeer: It's like when Sweetwater came to town. We got probably 10 emails of people wanting to buy kegs through DCBeer for their tailgates.
It just reminds you that there are so many ways to enjoy, access, and experience beer.
DCBeer: Do you think that ChurchKey is in a baseline now? Is this the new normal? Not doing too many crazy events and spreading out to other venues?
No, I would still do all these crazy events even if nobody comes because I love doing them. The events…we never did them just to get the lines out the door. I just think it is so much fun to get behind a brand for a night or multiple nights. Again, operating a bar like this is expensive. We aren't open during the day for a number of reasons. We do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It's very hard to be open during the day when you get all the deliveries we do. Keeping 600 bottles in stock and cold and ready and where they need to be is tough. So we want to do the work and clean the lines and get behind new breweries.
That's the end of the third portion of our interview with Greg. Check back tomorrow for the next part and thanks for reading!