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The Greg Engert Interview, Part Two

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 managing the beer programs for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.

DCBeer: So you're running 13 programs. I have a few questions about that. The first is how are you running 13 programs?

We're operating 13 places, well we have 19 places technically, but 13 require my time weekly for full orders, and we're rotating about 50 percent [of the selection] at every place now. It's Vermillion, it's Iron Gate, it's not just the beer-centric places. Every day, particularly Thursdays and Fridays, I buckle down while doing a million other things…I'm researching and finding out what's coming in. I'm collecting information every single day and collating it. I have a system of files that keeps it all current. What's in, what's allocated to me, what's pre-ordered. I know what's in general inventory, and I'm getting all of this from seven or eight distributors in DC and probably the same amount in northern Virginia. I need to keep straight what is where. I need to figure out what is going to go next week and what's not. When other things come up spur of the moment, I spread them around bars and do that on the fly, but Thursday and Friday is when I really buckle down.

"For my orders I need to balance price points, styles, and flavor profiles. It's important that we have this balance. We don't want to have 15 IPAs on, even though it would be easy to do."

I tell brewers and distributors to send me as much [information] as they can, and I sift through it to make my orders. For my orders I need to balance price points, styles, and flavor profiles. It's important that we have this balance. We don't want to have 15 IPAs on, even though it would be easy to do. It also depends on the program. Columbia Firehouse is all mid-Atlantic beer. Iron Gate always has Italian beer on draft. It's keeping all that straight, not over-doing it on the Jolly Pumpkin pre-order because as much as I love sour beer, I can't get backed up on it.

I receive inventories from every one of the programs from Saturday through Tuesday. I knock out each of those orders accordingly. It's a lot of stuff to maintain, but I love it. I love it because when I walk into Vermillion, I'm as proud of what I have on draft there as what I have at ChurchKey. I price everything, I do the listings for everything so that it looks exact and so that the pricing is fair and right. Some places might charge less than they should without my guidance, and others would charge more.

But listen, I'm not doing a Founders Porter listing every time it comes in. There's a database that comes in. I should also mention that Brett Weinrieb is one of my managers at ChurchKey, and he is transitioning into an Assistant Beer Director role. He will be, over the next year, transitioning out of management at BBCK and into a straight-up beer role with me. And he'll be handling places as we open up new places as well.

DCBeer: Is it any easier now that you have all this buying power?

Let's talk about that term. It's a term that I constantly see, and sometimes I can't help but take it as a little bit of a dig. Buying power to me, first of all monetizes what I do…It's also that David and Goliath thing that I hate so much. Our restaurants are run as independent restaurants. We don't buy from U.S. Foods or Sysco or anything like that. We don't get deals that way, and you can't get deals like that with beer. You could if you want to buy a certain amount, but I never did that. I never wanted to do that.

"I never wanted to be in any distributor or brewer's pocket. I never wanted to do anything to get things. We would never do that."

I never wanted to be in any distributor or brewer's pocket. I never wanted to do anything to get things. We would never do that. Just like we would never allow somebody to clean our lines. That's also why we don't have labeled glassware. We don't want to be indebted to anybody. Ever. So when it comes to buying power, keeping that in mind, it's not like a distributor says, “Oh well Greg buys way more, so he gets whatever he wants.”

It's not as simple as that. Especially because nowadays, when you put Two Hearted on year-round, you expect some Hopslam. I buy a lot from Bell's, but a lot of other people do too. It's not that simple. There are a lot of people selling a lot of craft beer. It's not like we necessarily get more. It all comes down to numbers. Allocations are based on sales.

I'm very proud to say that 20 of my 50 drafts at CK never change. Two Hearted Ale, Allagash White, Avery IPA, Double Jack, these are beers that have been on draft since day one, and I love that. Support the breweries because that's where they make money. They don't make money on Hopslam. They make money on Two Hearted, on those consistent lines. And we do that at every one of our places. It's never all 100% rotation for that reason. So when people go, “Oh why didn't I get more of this or that,” it's because you didn't support the brewery properly.

One thing that it does allow me to do is to possibly garner enough of an allocation of a certain item where I could shift some from one location to another. And that's cool because a little retail shop in Merrifield, no matter how busy it is, when you have 120 beers that you're selling you're never going to sell as much Bell's as Harris Teeter. We have to do what we have to do. The numbers game can be very good or it can be very bad. Other people have spoken about this. On your site you had the dude from Arrowine [the inimitable Nick Anderson] talk about this. So if I sell enough Avery at Rustico Ballston to get two cases of Tweak, and say maybe though I sell a ton of Avery at Red Apron Mosaic, it doesn't sell enough to make it, so maybe I can shift one case over.

I think also the buying power comment gets in the way of the palate. I'm choosing beers not based on their scarcity or their Ratebeer score. I'm choosing beers because I love them. [De la Senne] Saison du Meyboom is not a 100 point beer, I promise you. [De la Senne] Taras Boulba is not. It should be. So it's funny. When The Partisan opened up, people said, “Oh well it's the same people who own ChurchKey, so they used their buying power to get these great beers here.” When I read that, it makes it sound like anybody else in the world could put together The Partisan's list if only they owned ChurchKey. That's not the case.

"If you have money or a line of credit, you can get 99.9% of the beers I can get my hands on. But which ones do you want? Do you want to sell these Belgian beers? De Ranke? Or do you want to sell Delirium and Tripel Karmeliet? You can get these, too."

If you have money or a line of credit, you can get 99.9% of the beers I can get my hands on. But which ones do you want? Do you want to sell these Belgian beers? De Ranke? Or do you want to sell Delirium and Tripel Karmeliet? You can get these, too.

Maybe it's flattery. Maybe they assume that all of the beers on at The Partisan are so hard to get that it must be the buying power. But it's just about loving the beers like I do. If you love Jolly Pumpkin? If you love Ron Jeffries? And you know that that [guy] was making sour beer in 1995, in America, in 750mL bottles only, when no one in America wanted to drink it? We had it at The Brickskeller. It piled up, and no one wanted to drink it. Kind of like Cantillon actually. If you want that beer, you contact him and say, “What do I do? I want to get as much of it as I can because I want to serve it!” Anybody can do that. And I just go after it. I go after breweries that I love, and I don't think it's about buying power.

There are other reasons that breweries give me these beers too. It's not just because I sell a lot of their beer. It's relationships and friendships, but also they want their beer to taste great. Bottom line. They want to know that if they send their beer here it will taste just as great as at their places. That's not just at ChurchKey. There are cleaning regimens and cleaning canisters and training from Eric Rodriguez at all of the properties. At Iron Gate they have a draft cleaning toolkit. They clean the lines after every brand too. That's trust.

One of the best compliments I've always gotten here is that brewers have told me a million times that their beer tastes here like it does at their breweries.

DCBeer: Those are all reasons you have this beer, but there also has to be another reason, which is that you are a very prominent beer bar in DC. I mean, how many launches have you done here in five years? Anyone who comes into DC wants to have their launch here.

I know, and people get mad about that. Again though, we started someplace, and we've aggregated work over time. We've put together a body of work, and that matters for something.

People want to jump in and open a new bar and call up Shelton Brothers and ask, “Why can't I get Cantillon?” Fair or not fair, some bars have been selling Cantillon…Tom Peters [at Philadelphia's Monk's Cafe] will always get more Cantillon than I will. People have to realize that Monk's Cafe will always get more Cantillon than ChurchKey will. And that's fair because Tom Peters was buying it before I was, so he should get more. As both of our allocations dwindle, he will always get more.

The new guy can get some Cantillon, but only if you support other brands that the importer sells. It can't just be, “I want that because ChurchKey has it.” I think the expectations are a little unrealistic. In the beer world but also in the culinary world as well. There's this mindset of, “I love beer, and I have a bar, so I should be able to get whatever I want.” I liken it to ten years ago at The Brickskeller. I was surrounded by a lot of really, really smart, outstanding, hardworking servers. We trained ourselves to survive and to succeed. You want to know about everything because you don't want to be the last man standing. It's a competition, you know. None of them were like, “Well someday I'm going to own a bar, that's why I'm working here.” They were working there because they liked the job or were making ends meet or because they were in school and that was their job and what they were doing.

Now it's like with culinary school. People come out of culinary school and they don't want to work the line because they say, “I just went to school for this.” Well, you may have gone to school for it, but you still have to start at the bottom and move your way up. These guys who apply for sous chef and chef positions out of culinary school. You have to pay dues, learn the business, and earn the things that you want. I had to put in my time, too. It takes time. It takes humility I think. And you've got to get out there and develop relationships. Showing interest in a brewer's product and learning their craft is a first step on the path towards serving their product.

"You have to pay dues, learn the business, and earn the things that you want. I had to put in my time, too. It takes time. It takes humility I think. And you've got to get out there and develop relationships."

In the old days, Vinnie Cilurzo would do events at The Brickskeller. One of the reasons that would never happen today is that he doesn't have any beer. Back then, he had excess beer. Everybody did. It was crazy, right? He had excess beer, but people were interested in it. It wasn't rare, but people were interested in it because they hadn't had it before. You do that, and you work for it, and you learn it, and you do it for the right reasons.

Just having a bunch of rare beer on draft does not a craft beer bar make. It's very expensive to run a really great craft beer bar. That's why I think that a lot of times, not just in DC but in other locales too. Yes, these places have craft beer now, but I think a lot of times there are very uninteresting or similar lists. The lines aren't being cleaned. There's not much talk about beer and food pairing. The glassware is a shaker pint and then maybe a smaller glass for expensive beer. The training of the staff is not where it should be. All of these things should be the reason you get the beers you get, and it should be derived from passion mostly.

That's the end of the second portion of our interview with Greg. Check back tomorrow for the next part and thanks for reading!

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