Until recently Zackary Shelton, was the General Manager at The Sovereign. He also previously held a number of positions within the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including manager at Bluejacket, and host/runner/server/bartender at ChurchKey/Birch & Barley. Shelton is leaving DC’s beer scene for a new position at the venerable Avenue Pub in New Orleans. As sort of an exit interview, DCBeer interviewed Shelton to get his impressions on our beer scene from its highs and lows to where it's at and where it’s headed. Shelton comes from a beer pedigree. He is the son of Will Shelton, one of three brothers involved at the start of Shelton Brothers Importers, a famously industrious operation that brings many excellent craft beer brands from around the world to the United States. As they say on their site, “We’re just three brothers and some like-minded friends who share a passion for well-crafted beers and an interest in traditional beer styles.”
The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
DCBeer: Introduce yourself to readers who may not be familiar with you. Who is Zack Shelton?
ZS: A former writer. In college I was really into writing, but I'm a current work-a-holic. My interests outside of work are still reading and writing, going to bars, and chatting with friends. This whole hospitality thing has taken over my life. So one term is “'hospitality guy.” I took the dive, and that's what defines this guy. I'm an engaged 27 year old person who got into craft beer at a very young age, and it stuck. I'm deep in–and that is an homage to my family–and I love it. It's weird to talk about yourself [in the third person], and I don't often ask myself that question because my job requires the focus for the day-to-day. There’s not a lot of time for self-reflection.
Tell me about your resume. Where you got your start, and what are your former gigs in DC?
The resume starts back when I was in college and moved to DC from Pennsylvania. I transferred from Arcadia to George Washington, and I really wanted a job because I wanted to stay in DC for the summer. Before that, I painted houses, did odd jobs, stuff like that. Actually, my first job was painting houses. I went to ChurchKey on my 21st birthday with my father and my brother and we were drinking Prima Pils. I thought, 'Man, I want to work here.' I was naive, I thought I could just waltz into the place and bartend.
I started out as a host at Birch and Barley. I wasn't sure at the host stand. I was timid. I worked more jobs and got better. Kyle Bailey was the chef at that point, and food running was really intense. The work back there is really hard, sweaty, and not very glamorous. I was bouncing back and forth between hosting and running. I got a bar back shift and a Sunday brunch was my first. Well…I was late to my first ever bar back shift. I wasn't used to waking early and arriving at 8 AM!
Bar back shifts turned to serving shifts, and I was a very bad server to start. I loved the food and the beer, and the money was good, but it was more about experience than money. I did some bartending after serving for a while, and all these things started happening at the company [Neighborhood Restaurant Group].
They started expanding, and they finally did Bluejacket. Over there, one day I was in a manager’s uniform and the next day a bartender’s uniform. I had a great but challenging time. It was a lot of closing. Showing up at 3:00 PM leaving at 3:00 AM. There were many great nights. I'd be the only person leaving at 3 in the morning, and I'd turn around to look at that beautiful building and think, 'I am lucky to work here, what a cathedral of great beer.'
After the whirlwind of baseball at a brewery and lots of preparation, The Sovereign opened in February 2016, and a couple months later, I became General Manager. The opening staff there was something really special and helped to make The Sovereign what it is. Many of them are still there.
As far as the NOLA decision? My fiancé (Johanna) and I were putting away money and saving it all up. We were in New Orleans and looked at each other and thought 'We should probably move here,' I've been here for 8 years and Johanna's been here for 20-plus of her life. It’s time for a new adventure. That being said, if I could take The Sovereign with me to New Orleans, I would.
How excited are you to be moving to Louisiana?
Scale 1-10, I'm on a 10, for sure. I love the time I spent in New Orleans, though it was brief. I fell in love with it. I love the food, I love the way that the city looks, and I love the music. I like how things move a little slower there. I haven't been moving slowly. I've been moving pretty quickly for several years, and there are things to adapt to. At first, we'll stick out like a sore thumb as the new kids on the block, but I'm very excited to work there. I'll be working at The Avenue Pub, and we're taking a period of time, a little vacation before I start working.
And how excited are you to have access to Great Raft Beer? [Ed. Note: This comes from DCBeer editor emeritus Andy Nations, who founded and owns Great Raft with his wife, Lindsay]
I'm pretty excited. I liked everything I've had from them, and I remember the collaboration with Bluejacket, a rye lager, that was just tremendous. I don't know Andrew and Lindsay Nations very well, but I hear they're some of the best people out there.
Let’s reflect on the beer scene that you’re leaving. Where would you say our beer scene is lacking?
I do have a lot of feelings on that. I, generally speaking, don't drink local very often, and I think it’s because I don't believe something being local necessarily makes it worth your time. If that's your selling point, you've missed the mark. That being said, I think we're missing out on subtlety. You could definitely say Right Proper and Bluejacket and some other places do make subtle beers. There's still a certain level–not in a critical way—that we aren’t at yet, because you have to sell the beer. Everyone wants his beer to sell well, and you can’t achieve that with a 4% balanced and delicious Kellerbier. You have to make it so that people will buy it. So some sort of twist to it. I'd love to see some really good locally brewed lagers; there are a handful. People always say, "Oh man, you're going to get over lager." Well I haven't. I just wish there was something local that I could stand by every night of the week.
I do love the DC beer people– the bartenders, the brewers–but am I going to drink Prima Pils over something local? Am I going to drink The Veil over locally-brewed IPA? Absolutely. But I think that we could learn a lesson from some simplicity. If you try the beer from Suarez [Family Brewery], that's the brewery that I'm most excited about in the world right now. I love how simple some of their beers are, but they still make you think. I haven't tried the lagers, but I had four of his ales in a sitting because it was so good. There is so much here [in DC] because you have great access, but I don't think I have an exact answer for you on that. I do feel there is something missing because I visit Boston, or New York, and I do feel like, “Oh man, these guys are getting it right.” Maybe I'm biased, and maybe I’m missing the point.
What does the DC Beer scene need to do to improve?
Firstly, keep it affordable. Don’t go crazy with the pricing. Basically, don't take advantage of the beer people who will spend the money regardless. Keep it accessible. I think while we have some awesome great breweries–I love the scene and the people–I think DC could use another small-scale brewery that keeps the variety coming out. I don't know if we've hit a wall with creativity and variety. I really wish I had another place to go. I still go to ChurchKey all the time, and I'm not saying I'm sick of it because I go. I go to Right Proper, I go to Blujeacket. I go to [Pizzeria] Paradiso all the time. I frequently went to all of those places, moreso before I was GM, but I wish there was something else, another little nook where you can go in DC. But the places that do fill the niche do a good job. I just want more variety when it comes to watering holes. This is very delicate because I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings.
Whose responsibility is it to improve upon the scene?
I think it’s a combination. It comes down to local publicans staying up to date. I believe firmly that Greg [Engert] has done a really good job of staying relevant. I think it comes down to collaboration between the people making the beer and the people selling it. That’s how you do it. You put your heads together and say, “How do we keep this relevant? How do we keep this interesting?” You have so much talent in this town. Curating an awesome beer list or hosting an event where people might travel from Pennsylvania or Kentucky is commonplace. Keep it as a community, I think we've done a good job of that. We've been a great community, but you grow too fast and too big, and you lose the sense of culture around it. Each beer has a story, and most of these stories are interesting enough to listen to, at least while drinking. It's the consumer’s responsibility, ultimately, because they’re spending the money. So don't buy things that aren't good. Good things are subjective. That being said, my uncle and my dad feel there is objectively good and bad beer. But it's the consumer's responsibility to make sure the people making it are making good stuff. They (we) feel that everyone needs to get on our level.
It's also up to the publicans and the brewers making the good beer. There's the “whole man behind the screen,” pulling the levers and maybe we're adapting to what's hot in Boston, New York. I feel like California and Oregon helped in starting this whole scene, but people there are kind of in their bubble. If we had Pliny on draft, people would come for that-maybe. But even those people are like, “Oh it’s just Pliny.” People are willing to wait overnight in the car for The Veil or Jester King, so I do think the consumer plays a huge role in how the scene is preserved or built upon, which might be unfortunate.
Is standing in line a fool’s errand?
Depends how long you're standing in line for. I think, this is crazy, one of our regulars at The Sovereign, once showed up, when I stayed overnight for Zwanze Day, and it was also inventory day so we had to count everything in house, at 5:00 AM. We opened at 11:00 AM. People take it seriously, and they care, but that’s a bit odd. I think waiting in line at the ballpark is a little different than Zwanze Day. Waiting in line for more than an hour is not time well spent, and time is a precious commodity, and I'm realizing that as I get older. I'm not 22 anymore, but if people really care to wait in line, it’s their choice, but I hate waiting in line. I'm a very impatient person. I just hate the idea of beer collecting AKA having it just to say you had it. I think people should drink things that taste good not because they can write about it online just to say you had it. Just like waiting in line: it’s silly to me.
Which brewery makes the best beer in DC?
I'm not contractually obligated to say this, but I had a beer from Bluejacket last night called Turning Road, which is an IPA, and it really stands up to any hot IPA that's out there today. I feel like I've been struggling with that because everyone has an IPA. I've been struggling with that defining question: who makes the best beer in DC?
There's no sure-fire way to say anyone makes the best thing. This is not objective, but Bluejacket does a lot of cool things. If you can give me a Forbidden Planet on a hot, hot day, I think that no one else is making a dry- hopped Kolsch or a dank IPA like Turning Road or Lost Weekend. A lot of people say Lost Weekend is the best IPA in DC. On any day there may be multiple things I have not tried that I will love. I feel like it would be wrong to say that objectively Bluejacket makes the best IPA in DC. But, if you need an answer, Bluejacket is my fave. But I have a soft spot because I helped it open. From an objective tasting perspective, they've done great work with lagers. I think it’s cool DC Brau is doing Oktoberfest and Brau Pils, and it’s putting Pilsner back on the market, and they've got a great following and great fan base.
Who is the most underrated brewery in DC?
This isn't really right in DC, but I really like Mad Fox, and I feel like they don't get a lot of the hype that the other ones do. They’re [also] not DC proper, but I think they're part of the scene: RAR. While they do get a lot of accolades they might not have the same hype as others. I feel like DC Brau is really well-represented, and people go crazy for On the Wings of Armageddon. Right Proper gets some accolades. Bluejacket doesn't get as much as it should, but they'll continue to be a main feature in this scene for a long time. Mad Fox, I remember they did a Kolsch or a lager a while back, and I'm out of touch because I've been serving Belgian beer for a year and a half. They had this Orange Whip IPA, and I think it's wonderful. I think it's really, really good, and the Kellerbier Kolsch, I like that one a lot. I think they're underrepresented, and I always liked their beer I thought it was really solid, good stuff.
Tell me about your family. Is there pressure coming from a family of importers?
You know, yes and no. My father and other family members probably don't want me to do it. Family business is tough. There is a bit of pressure, for sure, thinking about the legacy Shelton Brothers has created in the craft beer community in the US. Like, should I just give it up and figure out what Uncle Dan does? At the same time, my brother teaches Russian literature in Russia, and I picked my own destination in a way when it comes to beer. There's never a “When Zack takes over the family business” conversation. That never happens. They would never pressure me like that. I'm lucky to have an eclectic and loving family; they're very fun but also can be serious people. It’s a serious business.
Best wishes to Zack in his new gig and city. If you’re ever in NOLA, drop by The Avenue Pub; you will surely not be disappointed.