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.
I swing open the hefty, wide birch door on a cool, clear Sunday evening in March, ascend the metal staircase, and enter into a narrow but deep room, filled with lively chatter and the aromas of sweet and sour beer and freshly-cleaned tap lines. I take a seat at the bar and am immediately approached by one of the bartenders. He reaches out to shake my hand.
“Good evening, Bill! Great to see you. How’s everything going, buddy?”
That’s Nahem Simon, and this is ChurchKey, the acclaimed beer bar brother to its downstairs sister Birch & Barley in Logan Circle. Much has been written on this relatively recent addition to the DC nightlife scene, and if you’re a beer geek you’ve surely heard of Greg Engert, the famed beer director of the two restaurants. But, you may not have heard of Nahem, who on almost any given day can be found pouring one of their 50 taps, hand-pumping a cask ale, or wiping down the bar in a move he calls “the Zamboni.”
Nahem plays Greg’s right-hand man; while Greg researches beers, hosts tastings, and appears in the media as the face of ChurchKey, Nahem’s running the show behind the bar. The two have been close friends for several years and their collective enthusiasm toward craft beer has helped permanently transform DC’s beer scene.
I settle in at the bar as Nahem pours me a glass. He introduces me to some fellow patrons: another ChurchKey bartender off-duty, relaxing with his girlfriend and enjoying a hockey game on the flat screens over the taps, and a general manager of a local restaurant who has stopped in after a busy weekend. Soon, Nahem finds a moment to step out from behind the bar, and we take a seat in the secluded lounge area near the back of the room to talk.
In 2003, during the summer following the sophomore year of his undergrad program at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, Nahem found a job back in DC at the Brickskeller, the once preeminent beer bar in the area which has since become the Bier Baron. He was 20 years old, had heard they were hiring, that it was an easy-going place, knew a friend who was working there, and so he applied. He didn’t know anything about beer at the time, and the Brickskeller was of little help, with only a 30-minute training session at the start of the job. Prior to his experience at the Brickskeller, his primary introduction to craft beer happened, naturally, during college.
“In Canada, you would go to the beer store, you’d see all these 6 packs, and different beers that had really, really interesting labels, but you never really knew what it was all about. The first craft beer I got into was Maudite and I just thought it was devil beer, I just thought it was really cool.”
He realized he needed to fully educate himself on craft beer if he was going to continue with this career. He went on to spend the next four summers at the Brickskeller.
In his second year, Nahem met Greg Engert, who had also started working at the Brickskeller, by way of a mutual friend. When they all had a day off, the three of them would go out to party, but also to learn as much as possible about craft beer, so they spent a lot of time visiting various bars, trying out new styles and different beers.
After his second summer there, he completed his undergrad degree back in Ontario and then returned the next year to the Brickskeller to become a bartender/manager. He and Greg’s schedules aligned which allowed them to spend more time building each other’s interest in the hospitality industry as a whole, understanding what works and what doesn’t, particularly based on their experience with the Brickskeller’s operation.
“One of the things we learned was what you don’t do when running a business. You don’t sit on your laurels, you don’t cast aside your clientele, you don’t tell them, ‘Oh, we’re a beer bar, we’re not going to get you this and that.’ Why can’t you make a martini, why can’t you instruct your staff to be able to be as knowledgeable about the beer as they would about the wine, as they would about the spirits?”
They took note of the staff’s passive-aggressive behavior and general lack of direction as a part of the frustrating experience. Under the previous management of Maurice Coja, there was a six-week training program for new employees, but when the bar came under new management, that six-week program turned into a half-hour lecture.
“I don’t think it was fair to not only the staff, but also the customer. And we had great clientele there, we had people that would come in that would want to try these different beers. There’s nothing more disheartening than somebody getting their hopes up about, ‘Oh my god you have this beer!’ ‘I’m sorry we don’t have that.’”
Nahem put together a beer school to help educate the staff since the days of Coja’s formal training were over. Greg took on the program while Nahem returned to school to pursue an art fundamentals course, but then later left the Brickskeller to become the beer director at Rustico in Alexandria. Nahem spent a year back at school before he realized he preferred the hospitality industry, and so he returned to DC and the two ended up together again at Rustico.
A little known fact about Birch & Barley is that it was originally slated to become Rustico 2. The plan was to have Greg move to this new venture in DC as its beer director, and Nahem would take on that same role at the Alexandria location. However, once Greg settled in at what became ChurchKey/Birch & Barley, he found himself spread too thin, and needed help organizing the program, a perfect job for Nahem.
“When this place opened, 150 people rushed in … and then all of these bartenders were getting asked these questions about 50 drafts — not even the bottles — and I was able to tell them this is this beer, this is that beer. I became kind of a liaison behind the bar, and Greg’s face there while he did the more formal presentation downstairs.”
With his obsessive-compulsive nature, Nahem took it upon himself to make the system at ChurchKey remarkably user-friendly for both the staff and Greg. This allowed Greg to spend more time learning about beer, working in the office, and managing the business side while Nahem took on the work of running the bar, coolers, kegs, lines — the whole system.
“I did a lot of research online etc, and found these beverage dispensing tracks to make sure you’re always able to see what you have, you don’t have a mess of bottles that are falling over on one another as we used to have [at The Brickskeller].”
If you’re ever looking to find Nahem juggling the kegs in the loft, or more likely manning the bar at ChurchKey, it’s probably best to stop by on a Sunday, which is his favorite day of the week to work.
“Friday and Saturdays, you get more of a demographic that comes in … looking to get fucked up. That’s totally cool if you want to get fucked up, but you can get shots anywhere. I want to make sure that if people are interested in craft beer or people are just interested in what we do, whether it be the food being straight from the farm to the kitchen to your plate, or the kind of care the staff takes in learning about the product and really just getting to know people. That’s what I like about Sundays, a little more laid back, everyone’s a little more comfortable, moving at a slower pace after the weekend.
With as much as Nahem cares about giving the best possible experience to customers, I wondered what his take is on mobile devices in use by those sitting at the bar. On any given night at any given bar, you’ll invariably see heads tilted down, faces aglow in blue light. Some criticize that we’re mitigating the conversationalist strength of bartenders, but Nahem doesn’t quite see it that way.
“I know when I’m at the bar, and even when I’m with friends, I end up turning to my phone. I think it’s just some sort of nervous twitch that humanity has gotten into, because we like to be up to date with information and it’s funny because often times that does actually aid in opening up conversation. Sometimes, just asking, ‘What are you doing there, a little work or you know looking something up?’ it’s amazing how forthcoming people are about what they’re doing, even though they might be doing something very, very personal, very private. … Those three feet of concrete between the two people I think creates a dynamic of interests where, because they’re at the bar whatever they’re doing, they’re trying to get as much of that surrounding as possible even though they’re not trying to engage with it directly.
Regardless of what people are doing at the bar though, they’re almost always there to have a drink. At a place with as wide a range and as varying in options as ChurchKey, visitors, both new and seasoned, often ask for a recommendation.
“It’s first about what do they like. I think a lot of people are extremely intimidated and feel that they’re going to look stupid if they don’t know about the beer, I’ll usually ask them — they might be a little hesitant — they might be more towards the whole macrobrewery world, and I’ll tell them we don’t offer that, but I can get you something similar. I always use the same kind of breakdown — I’ve used it since the Brickskeller — ’Do you want something light, dark, pale, hoppy, sweet, bitter, sour, smokey?’ ’cause, from there, they’ll say, ‘Something dark.’ ‘Oh okay, well something dark and sweet, dark and bitter, dark and sour, dark and smokey?’ and then from there, just keep breaking things down. It’s all word association.
Sometimes though, you want a beer that’s easy and cheap. I think everyone has a favorite shitty shitty beer and there’s a bit of a story behind Nahem’s.
“For me, for nostalgia sake, and I don’t even get it all that much anywhere, but if I can find it, Keystone Light. John Jarecki, who’s the owner of Light Horse in Virginia, was our original bar manager at Rustico, and even though he builds some of the beer selection there — he loves his different beers, and he was from Boulder, and he loves his Avery, his New Belgium, you name it, anything over there — but one thing that I always remember him saying, ‘If you’re having the worst goddamn night in the world, and all hell’s breaking loose, you can always count on the fact that you’re going to be completely refreshed and just completely relaxed by the pedestrian experience of just crushing a Keystone Light. ‘Cause it just kind of brings you back from everything. You’re just like, you know what, it was the worst night ever, but I’m enjoying a Keystone Light. It tastes like absolute garbage, but it just kind of reminds me, hey, I’m having a crappy beer, but I’m enjoying it more than all of the shitty things that are going on. And it’s just a way to keep perspective. And he’s always good. Uncle John always taught us much. He would tell me, he always would tell me, don’t forget to breathe. I still need to work on that.
Usually, the first kind of beer everyone has is shitty beer, but Nahem had a different introduction to the beverage.
“It was the Spaten Lager, I was 14 and like, ‘Oh my god, this is great.’ This is also the first time I got wasted. But the beer that really made me like craft beer, was Maudite. I would get it when I would go to poker night during my sophomore year in Canada, I’m like, oh it’s 9%, I’m going to get double the beer, it’s so fucking metal! It’s so fucking punk rock! And we’d get there and we’d all be hanging out, I punished two of these beers before we’d start playing, and by the time the second hand had gone through, I’d already boughten in like four times somehow. Like, I never made a fucking cent, because I was wasted off of fucking 9% beer. But then after that I’m like oh wait, that’s a Belgian style? Teach me more!
We started talking about the last beer we’d ever drink, and Nahem was himself conflicted.
“Holy shit! God, it’s like you’ve got 18 kids, and which one would you say is your favorite before you die. You know, probably the last beer that I like really, really enjoyed in just a good setting. That just really, really depends, but the last time I ended up having a really, really amazing time enjoying that beer ’cause if I’m on my deathbed, I want to think back to that last great time, and I’d probably be like, oh that was good, I’ll have that. I don’t think it’d matter so much on the beer than the correlation, and the emotional investment that I had with that beer.
Where people in the industry eat and drink in their city is always notable, but Nahem found coming up with places difficult, as his days off are rare and he doesn’t go out that often.
“I love Urbana, the bar at the [Hotel] Palomar, just ’cause it’s chill and it is a hotel bar but it’s also chic, and they’ve got good food, a couple good beers. I like going to The Big Hunt, Dave’s a good friend of mine, I love the bottles that he carries. I like going to Estadio as well, the food’s really, really good. I don’t really get out that much.
The night’s getting late, and we wrap up our conversation. If there’s one thing that’s evidenced from all of this though, it’s the groundswell of craft beer interest and venues in the DC area, including the opening of DC Brau tomorrow night. Nahem agrees:
“All these different places, even Matchbox stepped up their stuff a little bit, you’ve got all of these brasseries like Brasserie Beck and even Meridian Pint just opening up. But it’s funny ’cause it’s a healthy competition and at the end of the day, we’re all friends. Let’s all get on the fucking same page, not try to one up one another, just offer cool different things.
The bar has emptied out a bit now, as the city prepares for another Monday. Nahem returns behind the counter to tend to the remaining die-hard barflys, and run his “Zamboni” up and down the bar. The kegs that emptied over the weekend will be swapped out, the lines cleaned, and the draft menus updated for the following day.
When I arrived in DC three years ago, I had been repeatedly told of the Brickskeller as the beer destination in the District. And yet in this short time, the Brickskeller faded out, and a crop of new beer venues have been born in its likeness, learning from its mistakes, and expanding upon its success. In conjunction with mainstays like The Big Hunt and RFD, DC is firmly planting itself as a notable and reputable location for craft beer. And with bartenders like Nahem at the helm of this new wave, you can be assured your time exploring craft beer will be an experience worth having.
All photos by the author.