We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
Greg Engert views the world through the bottom of a beer glass. This is not a statement on his sobriety, but rather the lens through which he has chosen to focus his profession and personal interest. Greg is the beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, owners of Rustico and the new, wildly popular ChurchKey and Birch and Barley restaurants near Thomas Circle. He researches beers, meets with brewers, manages his stock of beverages, and has the final say on anything beer related at Neighborhood restaurants. Sounds like a dream job, right? Well, I’m not going to lie. It is a dream job, but that doesn’t make it easy, and Greg certainly isn’t one to rest on the laurels of his title.
Greg is a verbose, energetic man, a disenchanted English major, and, fortunately, quite well spoken. Ask a question and you get a deluge of an answer. Greg covers every possible angle and gives you every little fact. He loves history and he loves telling stories, which serves him quite well in his capacity as a beer sommelier, of sorts. Ask him about a beer, and you get more than a basic flavor profile. You get the geo-political circumstance that brought its particular style into existence, along with its brewing method, the characteristics of its hops and barley, and so on, and so forth. You’ll learn more than you probably thought there was to know about beer as a whole, let alone a particular brew from a little known town in Bavaria. But this is what makes Greg who he is and what makes him a great beer director. It’s an obsession for him. “I am consumed by this 24 hours per day,” he told me. When he’s done serving at his restaurants, he spends his free time tasting and researching new beers.
This obsession, coupled with an energetic intensity, jolted Greg through the ranks of the service industry. He started out as a disenchanted grad student, “pissed at the classical liberal arts,” who took a job as server at the Brickskellar to keep himself afloat. By this time, Greg was already a beer aficionado. His father had been on the cusp of the micro-brew revolution, hailing Sam Adams and the like before there were many, similar options. In college, Greg had been privy to a number of local, craft beers, which pretty much kept him away from “great American lagers” and tasteless Mexican imports. In his new position at the Brickskellar, he was able to marry his love of beer with a new passion, the service industry. Greg soon found himself a manager at the Brickskellar, a position that he hoped would allow him to exert some positive influence over the establishment’s serving process. He found the owners of the restaurant uninterested in grand schemes or improvements (presumably, this means they weren’t interested in actually stocking what they featured in their menu).
As luck would have it, the minds behind the Neighborhood Restaurant Group took notice of Greg Engert. They hired him on as the beer director at Rustico, granting him immense creative freedom in designing its selection. He created a menu with over a dozen beers on tap and an extensive offering of bottled brews. For most, Rustico met the definition of a beer centric restaurant, and its popularity amongst beer lovers exploded.
But, it didn’t quite fit the bill for what Greg had in mind. Thus, ChurchKey / Birch and Barley were born. Greg and co. at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group designed these sister establishments to be beer oriented, from the ground up. “We’ve got three separate tap rooms to keep the beer at its optimum temperature,” Greg explains to me, “and we’re religious about cleaning our tap lines. No one else really does that.” Likewise, different coolers keep the bottled selection appropriately cool, and a plethora of glassware sits behind the counter for serving the beer in the most appropriate manner. “I wanted the beer to get the respect it deserved, and that’s paid off.”
Greg doesn’t quit at having DC’s ultimate beer bar. He spends a good chunk of his time away from his restaurants, teaching classes, writing articles and advocating on behalf of brewers. “I’ve got a lunch at the Danish embassy, next week, to discuss how they might import more of their beer. And I recently spoke to the craft-brewers lobby about how taxes are limiting their workforce,” he told me. He’s also had a few articles pop up in various, beer-centric publications around the country. He’s energetic, remember?
What’s next for Greg Engert is uncertain, but he’s not going to stop moving any time soon. “Right now I’m really focusing on ChurchKey,” he says, but he’s already thinking about the future. He wants to expand his current restaurants’ selections of hard ciders, and he’s toying with the idea of opening small bars around town that pay homage to particular styles of beer. Regardless of exactly what happens, there will be more from Greg Engert, soon. In the mean time, head over to ChurchKey and look for the thin, blond guy running around the restaurant. Ask him for a recommendation and be prepared to get that, and then some.