Long gone are the days of beer being the redheaded step-beverage of high-end bar and restaurant menus. Now, most establishments take their beer selection just as seriously as their wine portfolio, thanks to the vision of people like Greg Engert.
As the long-time beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Engert oversees the beer lists at a whopping thirteen establishments within the DC metro area. There’s Rustico, the long-standing Northern Virginia beer restaurant; ChurchKey, the world-class Logan Circle-area beer bar; and, last month saw the opening in Georgetown of The Sovereign, Engert’s attempt to have America’s finest Belgian beer bar. (The fact the opening weekend bottle list featured rarely-seen-in-the-states offerings from Westvleteren, Cantillon, and Drie Fonteinen tells you how well he succeeded.)
Amazingly, Engert never planned to pursue a hospitality career. While an English lit major at Middlebury College, Engert would escape to nearby Burlington to drink beers from then-emerging microbreweries like Otter Creek and Long Trail. Then, while pursuing a graduate degree at Georgetown, Engert decided to take a side-job waiting tables at the famed Brickskeller, which back then possessed perhaps the largest beer list in all of America. He was finally working in the industry and had realized his true calling—by 2006, he had signed on as beer director at Rustico.
“With so much beer out there, we need to turn to the best pubs, bars, restaurants, and, yes, beer directors, because their job is to wade through a ton of beer and find the really, really exciting stuff for you to drink,” Engert says.
“Just because it’s well-made isn’t enough any more. There are too many well-made drinkable beers that aren’t exciting.”
So profound is Engert’s influence in helping to elevate beer’s perception beyond its blue collar roots that in 2010, Food & Wine named him one of its “Sommeliers of the Year,” the first time a beer director had ever received the honor. An equally sui generis James Beard Award nomination would follow a couple years later.
It would be easy to dismiss Engert as just a lucky beer geek who’s good at acquiring interesting beers to sell fellow drinkers, but his job entails much more than that. From the get-go he has shown a real knack for pairing sophisticated beers with foods both high-end and low (one of Engert’s spots is a fried chicken and donut shop). He’s created his own formula of “flavor profiles” too, not just dividing his menus by style, but rather by descriptors like “crisp,” “hop,” “roast,” and others. And in 2013, all his ideas finally came together and he helped open his own brewery, Bluejacket, one of the most adventurous beer-making spots on the east coast.
Engert is a ball of energy, bouncing from bar to restaurant to brewery all while looking sharp in his signature skinny ties and modernist jackets. No matter how big of beer connoisseur you are, you end every conversation with the excitable Engert having learned something you didn’t know. From the underrating of German hefeweizens, to the current state of beer pricing, here Engert pulls back the curtain on the current craft beer scene.
The following interview has been condensed and edited.
On John Taffer of Bar Rescue claiming 60% of American craft breweries “suck.”
The problem I see are beers that are drinkable, but just not interesting or not exciting. You don’t taste the passion. The problem today is how much of beer is quote-unquote “solid.” It’s tough in this industry. It’s touted as one of camaraderie and community. And I’m starting to have to have tough conversations—why I’m not buying certain people’s beer as much as usual. Just because it’s well-made isn’t enough anymore. There are too many well-made, drinkable beers that aren’t exciting. I would say, perhaps, at least 60% of beers that I’m tasting nowadays are well-made, but I just don’t get them. I have to sense a narrative, and I don’t.
On the need for creative restriction.
In a broader philosophical sense, people yearn for restriction. Creative restriction. We need limits or else it’s all chaos. The modern American palate yearns for diversity, and it’s reflected in the beer culture. You need these kind of limits on what you’re buying and seeking out. What are you looking for on the shelves? You walk in, and there’s a wall of IPAs is in front of you. Anything you can’t find a freshness date on, you just cast aside. So now you’ve got a bunch of beer that’s super fresh and hoppy. Maybe you like cans over bottles. So what’s next? What’s new? What’s local? My point here is you need to make decisions. And with an ever-crowded field, decisions have to come from somewhere.
On people complaining about beer prices.
I think it’s interesting with how much chatter goes on with what’s too expensive. It’s always negative. “That’s way too expensive!” What are these people basing these comments on? Do they know the three-tier system, what hops and malts cost, the taxes you have to pay? It’s been an issue for me, how many people online, and in person, have such ardent opinions on pricing. It’s expensive to age a beer for two years. We make lagers that take six to eight weeks. It’s a luxury product. Maybe people would respect it more if it was more expensive. People also need to understand that pricing is the result of many different markups. The brewer isn’t determining the price. He sells to a distributor who marks it up and then sells it to a retailer who marks it. I’ve always found it interesting how the retailer gets the flack. They’re just one of three in the chain. We need to start thinking more along the lines of better bars and retailers charging what a beer is actually worth.
On ratings websites favoring extreme beers.
It is unfortunate. I love barrel-aged beers, sour beers, imperial IPAs. But I equally love hefeweizen, classic lagers, low-alcohol farmhouse ales, and English bitters. We need a more inclusive palate, not just one for crazy beers. I can’t tell you how many times, on a Sunday when I’m off, I want to go to a beer garden and slam a liter of hefeweizen. Far more than I want to drink little tasters of the newest rare American-brewed stuff. It’s about variety and how you approach beer ultimately. Ratings sites are great, but they shouldn’t be everything in determining which beers are good.
An “extreme beer” from Wynkoop Brewing. (Photo: Facebook/Wynkoop Brewing)
On small-town breweries getting so much credit nowadays.
The bottom line is a lot more goes into the consideration of what’s “great” and what’s super sought-out then just what’s in the glass. Anyone who would deny that is being silly. It’s subjective. Lots of factors play into it, and scarcity is clearly a factor. I think it’s also a clique mentality. There’s an embarrassment of riches. A lot of solid beer, a lot of great beer. And people want something they can call their own. Beer geeks like to know something others don’t know yet. Stuff they can get and others can’t. It’s great trade fodder at the very least. Once you get to a certain level of taste experience, to whittle a group of, say, awesome IPAs down, to bring order to the chaos, factors like scarcity and difficulty to obtain are factors that will encourage people to talk more about the beers. That’s why small-town breweries (i.e., Hill Farmstead, Tree House) are so hot right now.
On beer geeks unfairly ignoring the great European beers.
The Sovereign is my way of saying, “Don’t forget where all this American craft beer came from.” Saison is practically a household word now in America, but what bars stocks Blaugies (a top-notch Belgian saison maker)? I understand why these great European beers don’t make it over though. A fourth tier of distribution with an importer makes it tough. I do think—this is why ChurchKey serves so many imports—there are so many great beers coming out of these European countries that no one in America can replicate. Weihenstephan—they make an insane hefeweizen, and it’s dirt cheap. Delicious every time. Even a smaller producer likes Mahr in Bamberg, they make awesome stuff every American should be trying.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.