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Previewing The Sovereign With Greg Engert, Pt. 1

Earlier this year, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group announced the opening of The Sovereign, a Belgian-focused bar and bistro located at 1206 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown. The two-story space contains an 84-seat first floor dining room and a 47-seat bar on the second floor.

In anticipation of the restaurant’s early February opening, we’ll speak with Neighborhood Restaurant Group Beer Director Greg Engert about the new beer program and, per usual with Greg, a number of other beer industry-related topics. In this first interview, we put The Sovereign into context in the restaurant group and beer bars in general, discuss how beers are selected, and talk about pricing and importing Belgian beer beers. Future interviews will focus on the food program and beer service.

What follows below is a transcript edited for length and clarity.

DCBeer: Neighborhood Restaurant Group already has a number of properties, and now you’re opening another one, so what’s the motivation for opening a Belgian-only space?

Greg Engert:  Why are we opening another one in general and why The Sovereign? Even if ChurchKey has a great Belgian collection, I guess…I’m increasingly interested in curating a list of beers that is focused. Once you have the Rusticos and Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, and especially with the amazing amount of options today, I’ve been more and more enticed by the thought of putting a little territorial mark on each of the programs. Whether that’s focusing on a little bit more craft beer in the Mediterranean at Iron Gate or whether it’s having a huge sour list at The Partisan because of the meat and the possibilities there…the opportunity and the excitement for curating is there because  there are great options from these places and from these styles and flavor profiles, and [I can] concentrate on them and examine beers within a concept and get a breadth of beers within that concept.

When I think of ChurchKey…I think of it as the kind of grand, overarching review of what’s happening here locally, throughout the U.S., and then further afield overseas. Of course that’s going to include a selection of Belgian beers that are made there as well as a selection of Belgian-inspired beers made in the U.S. and beyond. But [Belgian beers] certainly are not center stage necessarily. [They’re] sharing the stage with beers and styles from all over the place.

I think that also while [the ChurchKey beer menu] is broad and deep, it’s not as broad and deep as I’d like. I don’t get to pour De La Senne nearly as much as I’d like at ChurchKey. At The Sovereign, I’m excited to be able to do that and do it broadly. The fun thing too is that The Sovereign is 50 drafts on two floors just like ChurchKey. It’s about 300 bottles or so, which is less bottles than ChurchKey’s 650 or so, but it’s still a ton.

What’s really cool about The Sovereign, and what makes it different than [other NRG properties] is that it’s curated. It’s focused, but it’s a wide ranging review of beers within the focus. I’ve been saying for a long time i wanted to showcase a wide breadth of beers from a focused group of brewers, which is also something you just don’t see very much in beer bars or restaurants that happen to have great beer programs. People love to go to breweries that have their own restaurants and bars because it’s so much fun to taste the range of stuff that’s coming from that brewery. At ChurchKey, I might have Taras Boulba on the one day and Zinnebir on the next, and oftentimes I may have them on side-by-side, but I rarely have 5 or 6 or 7, 8, 9 beers on from De La Senne on side-by-side, and even if I did, it wouldn’t last for more than a few days. The Sovereign is going to have 5 to 6, 7, 8 De La Senne beers on in perpetuity.  So that’s what’s fun. It’s almost like you’re going to De La Senne in some ways, or De Ranke, or de Blaugies.

It’s not just a beer focus. It’s a focus as much on the range of beers coming from this select group of brewers. And it’s not just Belgian. There are French breweries like Thiriez, and then great American brewers like Allagash…Even cooler, this gives me an opportunity to showcase some of the brewers that have not been in DC that much… American breweries like Tired Hands, which came down recently, and we’re getting more beer from them in the new year…One of the things we haven’t mentioned to anybody yet is that we just agreed to do the exact same thing with Crooked Stave.

You’re bringing in an impressive lineup here. To what extent do you think your willingness to showcase that broad range of a brewery’s portfolio helps you get buy-in from the breweries? They only have so much product coming in through the importers. They’re trusting you with it to some extent. It’s in high demand, and they could send it to a lot of places.

Possibly, but I think it’s the relationships I have with the brewers themselves and the importers that really is the reason behind that. I never went to them and said, “Hey guys, if I serve lots of your beers all the time, will you make sure I get more?” It was never like that. It comes out of friendship. De La Senne for instance, Yvan De Baets, every time I go to Belgium, I hang out with him for an extended period of time because we’re buddies…It’s kind of refreshing, to be honest with you, how implicit a lot of this stuff is and how it’s not a tit-for-tat.

It’s not all the breweries or importers either, it’s a case-by-case scenario. [For example,] my relationship with Shelton Brothers is deep. They’re close friends of mine, and again I’ve admired their work for a very long time, I’ve learned a lot from them as well. What it comes down to is, we’ve been doing business for a long time, and they really appreciate the attention that we give to the beer, the service of the beer, the passion behind the beer, sharing the passion of the brewers with the people, and they recognize that. They want the limited amount of the beers that they have to be served in that fashion. I think that’s a very big part of this. They’re not doing this to make a ton of money. They’re trying to find the best beers in the world and put it in the right hands and get it to the right people. I think that they would definitely rather focus their attention and these beers in places like The Sovereign where they know that it’ll be received properly.

I think this comes down to pricing, too. I’ve always made a huge effort to price the beers that we get from [Shelton Brothers] affordably so that we can sell more of them and so that they’re more affordable and accessible. I think they’d rather do that than just dangle some Cantillon into every market of the country just to sell more of their other beers. That’s just not what they’re interested in doing.

Importers run their businesses differently. Shelton Brothers are constantly bringing over a steady stream of beers from their brewers, whereas other importers like B. United tend to bring over large amounts of specific beers at specific points of the year but not carry inventory on those beers as far as draft goes. Some of this is for great reason because…it keeps the beer fresh, but it means that I can’t keep a steady stream of Dulle Teve from De Dolle at the ready. What I’ve done, and I can only do it with certain beers, which are stronger, and have lasting power, is I’ve been squirreling away beers that have the ability for longevity so that I can more consistently offer them on tap.

Let’s talk about the pricing for a minute because you mentioned that you’re trying to keep the price fair for some of these beers. Georgetown obviously is an expensive neighborhood, and these beers are also on the pricier end. Do you think that it’s going to be a struggle to keep beers at a variety of price points on the menu, and, if yes, does that skew the audience that is going to go to The Sovereign?

There’s a couple of things in here. We could talk for hours and hours about what the word “fair” means when it comes to pricing. Who gets to determine that? What’s it based on? What demographic are we talking about? It’s so funny that Greg Engert or Bill DeBaun of 2015, 2016 consider a lot of beers fairly priced that probably they wouldn’t have ten years ago.

When it comes down to these beers and beer pricing in general, we need to be able to run businesses, pay our people, make a little to invest in the next project. We try to develop our pricing to allow us to do that. There’s nothing good about beer that just sits there and doesn’t sell. There must always be price points that work for every guest that might come in. Not all the beer can be $5-6. There should be a selection. I’m always concerned to cover price points in the same way we cover beer styles. It’s one of the reasons I was interested in covering American-brewed Belgian-inspired beers. Not just any brewery that makes a Belgian beer in the U.S. is going to be on here. It’s curated. It’s specifically choosing certain ones. But this allows me to have some beers at maybe even a better price point than I could get from the Belgian brewers themselves. That’s one thing that I think is important, but I want to stress that that couldn’t be the only reason. If you look at the breweries that we’re planning on offering, they’re not all the cheapest either as far as Americans go.

The other side of it does have to do with just the pricing we get. You know Washington, DC permits direct importing for beers that are not currently distributed. We buy direct from Shelton Brothers and others, and when you do this, you don’t have to have a markup from the distributor, but we do have to cover freight. If you bring in enough of the beer then the freight is not costing you as much, and certainly nowhere near what the markup would be from the distributor, not even close.

What this does, it’s a beautiful thing, is being able to then charge less for your beer to get the cost percentage that you need to operate a thriving business, and frankly sell more. You buy more, you’re able to charge less for it, you sell more. The more you buy from these importers too, there can be possibilities for quantity deals, the same that distributors offer for some of their beers, though typically not for Belgians. That allows us to offer these at better prices…Typically when people get quantity deals, it’s not to offer a lower price to the consumer. You get a quantity deal so you make more money. I guess for us it’s an opportunity to sell more beer and get that price point where it needs to be.

As far as clientele goes, you’re right, Georgetown is known for being kind of expensive, and there are some wealthy people that live over there. But there are also some regular people that make honest livings over there that don’t make a ton of money and also a lot of graduate students. Glover Park is nearby, Foggy Bottom, plus people from all over the city. We by no means are coming in here being like “we can do this here because people will pay for it.” Quite honestly, it’s the contrary. It’s another way that this Belgian beer bar and restaurant will be different from others will be that attention to having affordable Belgian beer and Belgian-style beer brewed by other people.

For me, the crowd it draws, it’s not just an issue of showcasing a wide variety of Belgian beer styles and having a focus, there’s an education component to this, too. Obviously, you pay for any kind of education that you’re trying to get, but it’s a chicken or the egg thing, people may not be willing to take on a cost to learn about something that’s really interesting if that cost is too great.

That’s a whole other topic we could talk about for days. At the end of the day, people don’t necessarily take any of what you just mentioned into account. Frankly, I think there are people out there who just don’t care about the educational component who would rather get the beer cheaper at a dive bar than they could get it at a place that provides better glassware, temperature control, and education, just because they’re interested in getting the beer.

Sure, but to be totally fair, you and I, depending on our mood, we’ve often wandered into a place like Solly’s to get a beer and a shot.

Sure.

But a place like ChurchKey or The Sovereign, you’re getting the education, you’re getting the proper pours, you’re getting the back stories on the breweries. It’s an issue of, if you walk in and see there’s nothing on draft less than $10, you may not see that value. You’re only seeing a $10 beer. It may take you a couple of beers to see what other kinds of value you’re getting, is my point.

Right, that’s true. The only issue I see with that now is the prevalence of “dive craft beer bars” that pop up from time to time where they don’t pay as much attention to glassware or temperature controls or line cleaning or staff education, but for some reason that escapes me they are allocated the best beers around and the rarest stuff. The funny thing about that is that those dives tend to not be the places that offer the best pricing anyway…but it’s not as simple as ChurchKey vs. Solly’s in a lot of ways, but it’s something that has to be considered, you’re absolutely right. Not to mention glassware…

Well, let’s talk about glassware for a minute. I know you’re not a fan of branded glassware, but given its place in Belgian beer culture, will you capitulate on that at all and serve beers in their specific branded glassware where possible?

We don’t take glassware. We’re not the group that takes free glassware or base our decisions ever on pouring anything based on the availability of [inducements] or any of that stuff.

Any kind of inducement.

Sure, at great expense to ourselves, I might add. That’s just never who we wanted to be. Ever. We use glassware that works for the styles, and first and foremost we use the glassware we can get for that style at that point. We buy that glassware. We use it. It breaks and then we buy more of it. I think that is something that is important, too, but that’s the laid in cost that’s not really considered sometimes.

When you see labeled glassware (in DC at least, in Virginia it’s illegal to give free glassware to people for them to buy your beer, and even when we do it at Rustico for Festivus, that glassware is purchased by Rustico, it’s never free). Virginia is different than DC, but in DC it’s totally fine to give glassware to people with labels on it. We don’t do that…For the most part, the breweries we’re focusing on [at The Sovereign] are smaller breweries that don’t really have marketing budgets…Some of the breweries we feature are a little bit bigger and have a little bit more of a marketing edge to them but not many. Even those, we’re not getting glassware or umbrellas or anything like that from it. We’re just not interested in that and certainly not interested in choosing beers on that.

So how are you interested in choosing the beers?

This is kind of my thesis for The Sovereign, and I think it’s something that is connected to everything going on in beer, is that it is not as easy as it may seem to create these beer lists today if you’re thoughtful about it…It’s very difficult because there are more breweries in the U.S. than ever, over 4,000 breweries, tons of stuff coming in from overseas, and it’s just not like the old days. In the old days, if it wasn’t macro, it was craft. And you’d just buy the craft because it was hard to find and it was better than the macro, for sure. The consideration of quality wasn’t where it is today, and the consideration of singularity wasn’t where it is today.

If it wasn’t macro, it was craft, and imports really ruled the day because there had been more interesting and well-made imported beer coming into the U.S. than there was interesting and well-made craft beer on the level that we have it today. But over the years, breweries have expanded. There’s craft beer everywhere, in every local market, and the breweries have gotten better at making beer too.

I’ve got lots and lots of American craft brewers today coming to me saying, “Do you want to taste this? Can you taste this? Can you put this on?” It’s not simple. It’s not like how it used to be where you’d say okay because there wasn’t that much to choose from, and this is a tasty beer, and it’s well-made, and I’m going to put it on draft. Or [you could say], I’m sorry I can’t serve your beer because it’s obviously infected or you have serious issues with clarity or carbonation or it tastes like acetic acid or it’s diacetyl-laden. There’s still some of that out there, don’t get me wrong, and those are the easy ones [to reject].

The hard thing seems to be when someone brings you a beer and it just isn’t as good as someone else’s. If someone brings you a witbier and you compare it to Allagash White, it’s tough to be like, “Sorry.”

Well that’s the hardest part. Not even picking those two breweries out, but looking broadly for now. What I was going to say is that there’s 4,000 breweries in the United States, tons coming in from imports, and very few of them are just right away unservable. That’s easy. The rest are well-made, sound beers.

But what I’m increasingly demanding are not just well-made, sound beers but well-made, sound beers that are striking or singular for some reason, like flavor, etc. And that’s it. And that’s a hard thing to tell someone. “I just don’t have room for your beer.” “Well, why? Does it taste bad?” “Well, no” and you go through all of this.

One thing that’s interesting about this is that anywhere’s local scene, you can get away with sound, well-made beer that might not be the most singular ever because it is local, and there is something to be said about local beer especially when you can’t get that beer elsewhere. I’m all for that. The danger is when that local brewery making well-made sound beers tries to go into someone else’s local market. Then it can be increasing difficult to find shelf and tap space because that local market has its own local beers and is typically filling out the rest of its list with stuff that is pretty singular or they’re filling out the rest of their list based not on flavor but instead distributor relationships, and then you go down that rabbit hole.

I go to Belgium every year and a half or so, and when I go there I have friends there and I go to certain places, bars, restaurants, and breweries that I think are spectacular. But when I see Belgian beer bars, even in a lot of Belgium, but certainly in a lot of the world and in America, they aren’t reflective of my experience in Belgium or what I think is so great about Belgian beer.  The ubiquitous list of Belgian beers that you see everywhere, that is pervasive…these tend to be from larger regional breweries that tend to have large marketing budgets, and they also then tend to offer an experience that is not as exciting as it could be and is not inclusive of some of the best beers that are made in Belgium.

I’m not saying that these beers are bad, at all. I think a lot of times they’re well made. They’re beautifully bottle-conditioned and carbonated for the most part, but they tend to be less interesting, and in a lot of ways they are the ones that are not putting flavor profiles first when it comes to brewing. They’re not giving the beers that long lagering and maturation process in tank and in bottle. They’re using [hop] extracts. They’re using a lot of spices. They’re stronger. They tend to be on the sweeter side. They tend to be uniform and harder to differentiate. And so when you go to these Belgian beer bars and look around, you ask yourself, “Why?”

I want to have a narrative behind each beer that’s selected on this list. This beer or brewery is here because of this, this, and this. And I have that. I can say that. I worry that all too often decisions aren’t based on that, they’re not based on the “flavor first” mentality. In this place…it’s different, not just for DC, but for other markets. They’re different than the list The Sovereign will have.

You’ve said beer should be “good first, and then local.” And I agree with you, for what that’s worth, but does that mean that, with the relative lack of Belgian-style beers in the DMV, that we shouldn’t expect too many local beers on The Sovereign’s list?

The first part that you mentioned is just about what I think of the local scene. The amount of intriguing and attention-getting local beer that’s being made is on the upswing. This is beyond quality, sound, well-made, tasty beers. There are certain breweries, like Ocelot, Lickinghole Creek makes some really great beers. I think Right Proper makes some good beers. Bluejacket makes good beers…Union. These are all breweries that have increasingly tweaked their beers to make them better. When I taste these beers and say, “Wow, they’re tweaking this and wow it’s getting better and better.” That all comes into the realm of singularity for me. Those beers I am inclined to pour, and I want to know that these breweries are not satisfied and want to keep pushing. That’s happening, and that’s great, but sometimes a really sound locally-made IPA or Pilsner, I’m going to give that the nod over something that might be a little bit more singular from afar because of the freshness factor.

[But] The Sovereign is, by its very nature, concentrating on Belgian beer first and foremost.

I’m not trying to say people should see it as an indictment that there won’t be a lot of local beers at The Sovereign. If you think about the beers that come out of our local scene, there just aren’t a lot of singular Belgian-style beers right now.

Totally, but also three quarters of the list is coming from Belgium anyway. But what you said is true also, there’s not as much Belgian-style stuff coming from our scene right now. But if you look at the American breweries I’m trying to focus on, it’s the whole idea of trying to do a breadth of beers from fewer brewers. The ones I’m focusing on tend to be Belgian-first-and-foremost for the most part and are just doing a wide range of really interesting and esoteric things.

People can read this how they want [and say], “Oh you’re just trying to focus on stuff that’s rare that you can’t get here as much.” Well, yes, but for reasons beyond business based on rarity. Take Crooked Stave for instance. No one else is pouring them. I want to showcase a lot of their beer because nobody else has them, and so that’s interesting. The thing that’s funny is that  people try to sell me beer all the time, and there are lots of tactics to sell people beer. The local tactic is one that’s sound and fair to use sometimes in many cases.

But one defense I could have to that is that a brewery that makes a lot of really great Belgian-style beers who comes to me and asks if they can get on at The Sovereign, I’m going to say, “Well it’s not really just if you make a Belgian-style beer that’s well-made and sound then that gets you into The Sovereign” because then it’s just chaos at that point. Do you know how many American brewers make Belgian style beers? My response is that even if I don’t put it on at The Sovereign, you can bet that I’ll have it at ChurchKey or Rustico, or there’s a lot of other places I could do it.

As far as the local contingency here and at The Sovereign, there will be some local beers that pop up from time to time, but yes, it’s going to have possibly less local beer than other places have today, and I think that’s refreshing because you find local beer everywhere, so this will be a cool place to go and find beers that aren’t being stocked in other places because those lists are so concerned with local beer first and foremost.

Stay tuned for the remaining parts of the interview. For more info on The Sovereign, visit  www.thesovereigndc.com/ or follow @thesovereigndc.

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