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Previewing The Sovereign With Greg Engert, Pt. 2

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’re speaking 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. See the first interview here. In this second interview, we discuss staff training, the atmosphere at The Sovereign, and Belgian beer culture and history. The third part of the series will focus on the launch list and food menu.

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

DCBeer: Why the Sovereign? What is the derivation of the name The Sovereign?

Greg Engert: We go round and round trying to name places, but a Belgian place is even more difficult because of the disjointed nature of Belgium itself. It’s not just Flanders versus Wallonia, it’s Brussels right in the center as the third. Those three regions are all vying for attention, and I’m overly sensitive to it because I have friends who are Flemish and friends who are French and friends who are from Brussels. I wanted it to be something inclusive, and that’s difficult to do….We’re representing brewers from all over and culinary ideas are coming from all of the provinces. We settled on The Sovereign as a broad term that does relate to the independent spirit of Belgium and brewing and perhaps even the brewing prowess that they have as well, but it doesn’t need to be taken too specifically. I think what’s interesting there is the idea of how do you represent a very trifurcated country in one word?

The Neighborhood Restaurant Group does a lot of staff training now. How similar or dissimilar is staff education about the service of these beers at The Sovereign versus any of the other NRG locations?

We are discovering…that it is different than what we’ve done in the past. The way that we have it situated right now is for the general trainings leading up to the opening of The Sovereign itself, there will be longform training that are identical to everything we’ve done at every opening, but bigger. These are the general trainings based on the general training manuals that I utilize…We’re not going to start with, “I’m sure you all know about IPAs and porters so let’s go right to 201 from 101” or something. The general stuff is going to be there just as it would be in any of our restaurants: how beer is made, basic trainings on flavor profiles and pairings, serving vessels, temperature controls. The same stuff you’d find at ChurchKey.

But to your point, then we take it to a different level with a focus on Belgian beer styles, both historic and how they’ve surfaced in the modern era. Particular styles of Belgian glassware. Particular regions of Belgium. The history of Belgian brewing. The histories of particular brewers. These are things that we’re attacking in the opening. There will be a lot of training on Cantillon: its history, its specific beers. It has been great to prep all that too: to give specific information about the beers and the brewers, the specific pairings (to both our menu and to the beers we’re serving). We want our staff to have the broad understanding of pairing and flavor and style and then to really focus in on specifics….Talking about what style is…understanding that dubbel, tripel, and quad are useful in some ways and not as useful in others. Really delving into it so that they can be both broad and specific about the beers that we’re serving. This is another part of curating that is so much fun.

You mentioned making sure that people know about the history of Cantillon…Obviously the menu is large, and there’s a lot of exciting beer on it, including beers that beer nerds are going to geek out about, but how do you go about educating staff about the non-exciting beers, the beers that are going to do yeoman’s work? For example, dubbels are not a particularly sexy style. People aren’t going to come in and say, “Oh yes, I’m going to crush this Westmalle Dubbel.” How do you get 1. your staff excited about those beers and 2. your staff to get patrons excited about those beers?

I guess it depends on what are not as exciting for you. I guess on paper some would seem less exciting because they’re more ubiquitous or…

Sort of like, if I come in and see Drie Fonteinen or De Struise or Rochefort…that’s one thing. I don’t know that much about De Dolle, for example. I’ve heard De Dolle makes great beers; I just don’t know anything about them. How do you get someone excited about De Dolle? You’re obviously excited about it, and you’re curating the menu to get people excited about it.

It’s not like we’re going to arrange our training schedule based around the highest rated or most sought out or rarest beers on BeerAdvocate or RateBeer. It’s not like we’re going to start with Cantillon and finish with oh, I don’t know, Kerkom or something…We’ll spend some time on lambics, and we’ll go through every single one of them. I am just as excited about Bink Blond as I am about Cantillon Gueuze, and that kind of excitement is going to come out.

You talk about De Dolle. This is a brewery in a tiny west Flemish town that produces roughly a third of the amount of beer that we did at Bluejacket last year on 19th century brewing equipment. It is remarkably flavorful and complex and available to us here. These are flavors that I don’t think are easily mimicked or created by others. To talk about these stories I think is really easy and exciting.

Honestly, in preparation, when I think about these things, you could say that I get more excited about [Brasserie de Blaugies] just because I don’t think people are going to be banging on the door as much for Saison d’Epeautre as Drie Fonteinen Intense Red or something. I love to…tell the stories around the beers to our guests but also to our staff, and then they love to turn around and tell the same stories and discover their own, too. That’s going to be something we see for all of these. I think they’ll even find it more fun to try to turn people onto De Ranke XX Bitter than some of the other lambics because you don’t have to turn people onto those as much.

This is an assumption on my part, but I think the food pairings…certain beers are going to go with certain plates that you’re going to highlight from certain regions. Lambic isn’t going to go with everything. So if someone asks you for a beer pairing for a dish that doesn’t go with lambic, you’re going to start thinking about different beers with which to pair.

Absolutely. And food pairing is still today–it’s crazy to me–We opened Birch & Barley six years ago, and I still don’t think beer pairing has evolved or really gained the notoriety and the popularity that it should have in the past six years. I think it has been relatively flat, and I don’t understand why. People absolutely love it at Birch & Barley and ChurchKey. We’ve always crushed it, and we’re going to love doing it at The Sovereign….One of the reasons why is that it is such a great opportunity to do exactly what you said: to introduce people to flavors that they wouldn’t normally gravitate toward. How many IPA drinkers have come into Birch & Barley and their friend, spouse, partner, or somebody gets them to order the tasting menu, and every single time they’re like, “I normally drink IPAs, and I really don’t like sours, but man that was incredible, and it was unbelievable with that hamachi” or something. It’s such a great way to turn people onto new flavors and to get them to see beyond their comfort zone and their current palate and to see a breadth of flavors, which is what craft beer does so well. That has been something that we love doing. To your point: there are so many dishes where you’re not going to come in and say, “Oh I’d like that with some Fou’Foune from Cantillon.”

One of the beers that de la Senne makes, probably one of the beers that people don’t talk about that much from them, is called Stouterik. It’s a 4.5% dry stout. It has great hop character, but it isn’t uber-hoppy; it’s not a black IPA or something like that. It’s nice and dry without being astringent. It has balance with malt character, and it is just the ultimate pairing beer….and I think that otherwise it doesn’t get called for as much. People don’t just walk in and say, “Hey, do you have a 4.5% Belgian-style dry stout?” It just doesn’t come up. It’s a great way to make those beers count.

It goes back to what we were talking about before: having that breadth, that wide array of beers from each brewery. How do you just not go through that [Brasserie de la Senne] Taras Boulba like crazy and none of the other stuff moves? It’s through food pairings, tasting sized portions, storytelling, and I think that’s going to be really important here.

To my knowledge you haven’t done a lot of formal education events in the restaurant group. You do education, but it’s mostly through the service interaction.

Sure, like every day.

Sure, but you’re not doing private educational events or events that are specifically designed…

We have. For two years we did Beer Academy at Rustico Ballston, but I’m not disagreeing with your point. And I could tell you why, and I wish we could do them way more. It’s funny that you mention that because [The Sovereign] is a place where we’re definitely intending to do these things. You hit the nail on the head: the subject matter at hand is conducive to doing [educational events] there. Someplace like ChurchKey is so broad that you could do anything there, and we would, and we should, and we could..

…well the space isn’t conducive to it…

That’s the biggest part, frankly. It’s like, at the Brickskeller way back when…I am so jealous at the space that we had there…it was crazy! When I first started there, that upstairs space was only open on Friday and Saturday nights. Then they turned it over to being open all the time. But that meant that you had this giant space with a stage where you could do these great guided tastings, and not at the cost of displacing revenue that you were counting on or the money for the staff members who…worked those sections during those times. It’s getting harder and harder with rents as they are in DC to have a standalone space that’s large enough to do these private educational events or even dinners. At Birch & Barley we do dinners on Monday nights. We made the decision early on to have Monday be a dark night for Birch & Barley, which in part was fueled by wanting to have dinners there. But you can’t close down Birch & Barley’s dining room on a Saturday night for a dinner for 60 people. It’s too expensive to operate to do that.

…At Sovereign, we have two levels: restaurant and bar downstairs, and then a bar area upstairs (which is kind of on the smaller side, 45 seats or so), and I foresee being able to offer more of those kinds of classroom educational events and look at this amazing material we have to work with. Think of lambic tastings, whether for specific brewers like Tilquin or spanning the range of lambic producers and maybe even including some that we don’t typically serve there like the sweetened, pasteurized lambics to show differentiation. Trappist tastings…

Even just tasting your way through a brewer’s portfolio.

Totally. Just come in, we’ll have it, and we can do it that way. I don’t know if I mentioned this in the first interview, but Yvan de Baets [of Brasserie de la Senne] is coming into town for [Craft Brewers Conference] in Philly, so he’ll be coming down, and we’re going to do an event with him….So that will be fun in addition to the day-to-day education that we’ll have going on. That can sometimes be an issue. Sometimes you go to a place and the staff is not as up on the knowledge base that they need to be, but every now and then they throw really amazing educational events. I would like to be able to do the day-to-day like we have at ChurchKey and then more frequently have these kinds of focused educational events.

We talked a little bit about how you traveled through Belgium to research for opening The Sovereign. You already knew a lot about Belgian beer before you started going regularly, but what did you learn about Belgian beer and culture that you didn’t know before while researching for The Sovereign?

I had a lot of opinions and ideas about Belgian beer and culture developing for a long period of time, and as I’ve learned, tasted, and traveled more, and met more people, I’ve tried to take it to the next level. I’ve learned a lot of historic things. One of the greatest questions out there is, “Why Belgium?” That’s a giant question, and it could go on forever, but why Belgium? Why do these beers exist today from a little, tiny country that was not a country as we know it until 1830? I did a lot of research on this. Going all the way back to the time of the Romans and the birth of the Common Era is to see that this little swath of land has been a border country forever. Largely sitting on the borders of Germany and France for most of that time. Overseen by a number of emperors and empires from the Flemish to the Burgundian to the French, the Germans, the Spanish, the Austrians. Always kind of interested in this area but disinterested enough to keep it provincial, where this local, kind of provincial attitude would abide, and so kept this really cool local scene for all these years. How else can you explain how these little styles did not–well, many traditional styles went by the wayside–but so many survived. And you can’t say that about Germany. You can say it less for England.

…Just like in America and the rest of the world, consolidation was well under way in the late 19th century for Belgian brewers, and it continued up until the World Wars. The two World Wars in some ways stopped consolidation because they stopped the brewing industry in its tracks. Once the second World War ends, they didn’t come out of that as consolidated…..Between that end of World War II period and the 1970s, there was a shorter period of time, 25-30 years, and in that time, fewer breweries were consolidated. Then the beautiful thing that happened in the early 1970s was that there was this amazing shift toward celebrating Belgian beer culture and traditional flavors and styles. As that decade progresses, you see the beer specialist bars popping up, like De Hopduvel and ‘t Brugs Beertje and a host of others. They start popping up at the end of the 70s, and in the 80s a lot of breweries start brewing top-fermented beers again. Their ranges are increasing. There was this kind of renaissance of interest in the classic beers.

A bunch of new breweries start popping up celebrating the the traditional flavors, like Brasserie de Blaugies and De Dolle. This is key that it happened when it did, but it’s also cool because it’s mirroring what’s happening in America at the time; the local food movement down in New Orleans and in California is happening around the same time. They were having a sort of craft renaissance [in Belgium] in the 70s and 80s; it was a renaissance of maintaining traditional identity. That also is the reason why those same beers started to be exported and we found them in America when we did.

I sometimes think about what if consolidation had gone faster? Or what if those attitudes hadn’t shifted when they did? We likely wouldn’t have lambic or Trappist ales. It’s a kind of amazing serendipity of circumstance that led to what we have today. Many of the breweries we’re celebrating at The Sovereign popped up during that time period.

You talked a little bit about this parallel craft beer movement through the 1980s, but where do American and Belgian beer cultures diverge? What are the big distinctions between American drinking culture, whether we’re talking macro or craft, and Belgian drinking culture? And I guess that’s macro or craft too. Everyone in Belgium is not guzzling gueuze all the time.

Well, they’re guzzling a lot of Jupiler, I’ll tell you that. First off, it seems to me–and I really am not an expert on Belgian culture–I wish I were; I hope to learn much more about it. But it seems to me that this renewed interest in the traditional beers of Belgium that happened in Belgium in the early 70s through the 80s and continues apace is more cultural. Not that the craft thing here isn’t cultural, but it’s different, certainly. [America] didn’t say, “We need to resuscitate to make sure that American-style west coast IPAs don’t die-”

It’s not like a national pride thing. There’s not that angle.

Exactly.

Stella Artois, they were consistently gobbling up breweries through the 20th century and steadily getting bigger and bigger. Eventually they merged with Jupiler [Brasserie Piedboeuf, in 1988]. It’s kind of like today. I believe that 1986 was the Year of the Beer in Belgium, when the celebration of traditional beer culture reached a kind of crescendo. Then, in 1988, the two largest breweries in Belgium [Brouwerij Artois and Brasserie Piedboeuf] formed Interbrew. There’s that, which is fascinating and I think it tells you something else: the biggest brewery in the world is based out of Belgium, and so that cannot be lost on anyone.

When you go to Belgium, you see signs for Jupiler but also for Alken-Maes and other bottom-fermenting producers than you do for anybody else. It’s a country that sells a lot of lager inside and outside of their borders. Even before they bought Anheuser-Busch, InBev was the largest brewery in the world. Meanwhile, you have smaller regional producers shipping their typically top-fermenting beers all over the place. So when you go [to Belgium], it’s kind of shocking how many people don’t drink “Belgian craft beer.” It’s funny how many people drink lagers and other standard Belgian ales by the larger companies that are everywhere….I think a lot of people who haven’t been to Belgium think it’s this magical land of “Oh, lambics everywhere,” but it’s not like that.

As an aside, the popularity of Cantillon in Belgium is miniscule compared to the popularity of Cantillon in the states. It’s not comparable, and it’s kind of shocking. Some of that is in the same way that maybe Pliny the Elder is not as insane to somebody who lives in Santa Rosa, California as it is to someone who lives in Washington, DC. That’s part of it, but some of it is the Belgians just aren’t there.

I think that some of the way that [Belgians] turned toward their own products and traditional beers in the 70s is completely different than what happened with American craft brewing. Certainly more people were interested [in craft beer in Belgium] then than were in American craft at the same time. But now fast forward to 2015-16, there isn’t a craft culture [in Belgium] like there is in America. It’s only now that certain small, rebellious brewers are popping up throughout Belgium (kind of like they are in England), and brewing IPAs and more American sours than classic Belgian sours.

If you go to an American craft beer bar, you know you’re in an American craft beer bar. There’s kind of an atmosphere to it.

Yep.

Do you think The Sovereign is going to be more like that, or are there things you’d like to bring in atmospherically from Belgian beer bars?

Sure. So Moeder Lambic has two locations in Brussels. Amazing bar. Jean Hummler is a great friend of ours, and he does great things there. It’s not just an amazing bar because they have great beers and a great curated selection of beers, too. They have a very similar selection to what we’re going to have honestly. There aren’t many places like that. 

There are a lot of places that have a cool selection but then also everything else. There’s a tendency in Belgium to either be focused on that giant corporation-specific beers…and then there’s the big boys that have just everything they can get their hands on, but there’s not really a curatorial aspect, [i.e.,] “If it’s a Belgian beer, we have it.” Hundreds, thousands of beers, whatever. Moeder Lambic stands out as a place that really does have a focused, curated selection. The idea with The Sovereign is to do a little bit of both. We want to have that curated selection but showcase even more from those curated producers.

One of the things that I am jealous of about Belgian bars across the board is that none of them have televisions. I say that as an avid sports fan. I love coming to Bluejacket on Sundays and watching the Giants when they’re not on TV. I love televisions at bars but also appreciate, as everyone does, a bar without a television. They also don’t really do stand-up service there. You go in, and if you can’t get a seat, you go someplace else. You don’t see three-deep bars in Brussels or Belgium. By virtue of that, you don’t see a rapid-paced service environment…These beers may take a minute to get to your table because they’re heavily effervescent. They’re going to need to be poured and settled properly and brought to you rather than to be poured and served quickly with two hands with staff running around. I love that steady pace. I’m not talking 15-20 minutes to get a beer or a cocktail…but it’s a relaxed atmosphere they have over there, and it’s completely different than what we have in most places in America. I’m hoping that there will be a similar thing there…

So you’re going to bring these things over? You won’t have TV at The Sovereign?

No, we will have them upstairs.

Okay, so upstairs you will. Like at Birch & Barley/ChurchKey.

Yeah, exactly. If you can have it both ways that is always the best. We have a downstairs bar where you can come in and seat yourself. It’s not like Birch & Barley where you have to get seated there. The downstairs bar is pretty large, and then in the upstairs bar we’ll have a couple of TVs up there. It’s the best of both worlds…

So you appreciate those things about Belgian bars, but you’re not going to force The Sovereign into that mold.

Yeah, no, exactly. Because we’re not Belgian, and we’re not in Belgium.

So if people want to line up three deep to have some Tired Hands…?

Oh sure, just like at ChurchKey. I don’t want to misrepresent myself. I have no problem with people lining up three deep. I do it all the time, and I love when people do it for our places. But honestly, I think between the two different floors it’s cool to have both, to have multiple options. We’ve designed the upstairs to be kind of group oriented. Less fixed seating, more long tables, which is fun. Then the downstairs is a little more cozy and intimate. The upstairs is more open; the downstairs is more small and cavernous. That’s what we always want at our places: different ways to explore and experience. We’ve run neighborhood joints, and we want people to be able to come to this place three or four nights per week and use it for many different things.

Alright, last question for you. Is there a Belgian beer for everyone? Not just for craft lovers who may just not be into Belgian styles but, for people who mostly drink lager and have no interest in “fancy” beer, is there a good, quality Belgian beer for them?

I love this question because we could’ve had this exact same question on this point six years ago for the opening of ChurchKey. “What does the Corona drinker drink?”

Or about Bluejacket.

Exactly. It’s funny how so much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. Because I know as well as you do the craft drinker out there who drinks IPAs…only. They stick to one thing, and that’s great. Totally awesome. I’ve done that myself. Or people who drink craft lagers because that’s what they’re into, and they don’t drink other things.

I would say two things. First, as distinctive and sequestered as the Belgian beer community has seemed for so long with their strange, spontaneously fermented beers that have survived since the 15th century and their oak-aged sour red ales…their quads, their dubbels, their tripels…They make a ton of lager, and they make a lot of porter and stout and pale ale. These are things that came into Belgium in the 18th and 19th centuries…and became part of the fabric of Belgian brewing.

We are going to have Belgian-brewed lager at The Sovereign. It is not going to be made by Stella Artois or Jupiler or Alken-Maes or even Bavik Pils or any of those other regional brewers. It will be made by little new brewers like Sainte Helene, which makes a really cool Simcoe lager, or, what we’ll have year-round all the time, is the Beersel Lager from Drie Fonteinen. It’s this amazing thing where you have this classic sought after lambic blender, [then] brewer for a bit of time, and now brewer and blender again, who contract brews three beers at De Proef (the same brewery that brews all of Mikkeller’s beers). He makes Beersel Lager, Beersel Blonde, and Zwet.be for Drie Fonteinen. The Drie Fonteinen Beersel Lager is absolutely delicious. It’s based off of some of Armand Debelder’s favorite lagers from Franconia, and, I don’t care who makes it, it’s awesome. We’ll have it on all the time.

It’s not a far cry to take a pilsner drinker and to give them [Brasserie de la Senne] Taras Boulba, which has restrained esters and phenols, great hop character, crisp and cracker-like snappy bitterness in the finish, but that’s kind of an easy one. There’s some pretty insipid Belgian lager (for the most part I’d say), but there are also some pretty great ones, and Beersel Lager is one.

At the same time, stouts. I mentioned Stouterik earlier. It’s not like everyone is coming in asking for Guinness anymore, but mid-Atlantic craft beer people love porters. We can’t not have a porter at every one of our places. They’re delicious, and we love them here in the mid-Atlantic. We’re going to have Belgian stouts.

The best question, I think, is IPAs. Because it’s like, “What’s an IPA?”, and I think this place is going to ask that question. There are a lot of Belgian IPAs out there, so-called or not, although a lot of people are actually saying it now. Even more so, I would posit that most of the most well-regarded American-brewed IPAs and imperial IPAs have a ton of yeast character. A ton. Heady Topper is not some magic of soft brewing well water, choice American pellet hops, and some neutral yeast. The yeast character is huge there. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale: nobody can make that beer because the yeast character is huge there. When you take a well-hopped Belgian beer like De Ranke XX Bitter, it has a lot more in common with American pale ales and IPAs than it does with classic Belgian blond ales. That’s something that I’m excited to insist on for a lot of our guests.

Maybe we can’t break down the desire for something that says “I…P…A” like that….The really fun thing is going to be [when someone asks], “What kind of hoppy beers do you have?” and our staff says, “Try this” before saying, “Well, we don’t have any IPAs” and people run out the door. There are so many great hop-driven beers where their flavors are in balance with the fermentation flavors of the yeast, the malt character, and the water character. I think that, at the end of the day, when you blind taste some of these cult American IPAs and pale ales next to some of the best hop-driven Belgian beers…some of the best hop-driven saisons taste damn well like a really nuanced IPA. That will be a fun thing to push. I think many people are making that connection, and I think that it’ll be fun to make here.

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

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