If you live anywhere around the Mid-Atlantic and you care about beer – you already know who Greg Engert is. He’s the face and the voice of craft beer in the nation’s capital and a rising star nationally. While pursuing his masters at Georgetown University, Greg spent his evenings working at Washington DC’s legendary craft beer emporium, The Brickskeller, where he quickly rose through the ranks while gleaning just about everything that he could about beer. In 2006, Greg was hired as the Beer Director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), a powerhouse organization that now oversees 18 restaurants, bars, and retail outlets, including beer-centric venues like the award-winning ChurchKey. In 2013, Greg–now a Managing Partner for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group–oversaw the opening of Bluejacket, Washington DC’s exciting new boutique brewery!
Greg recently agreed to let us interview him and we repaid his graciousness by asking him 5 STUPID QUESTIONS.
- You’re clearly “The Man” when it comes to craft beer in the Nation’s Capital and you’ve fast become a player throughout the industry. In 2010, you were named one of the “Top 10 to Watch” by Restaurant Hospitality magazine, you garnered a James Beard Award nomination, and Food and Wine named you one of their “Sommeliers of the Year” – the first beer professional to ever have been honored. With Imbibe magazine having recently named you their “2014 Beer Person of the Year,” you could be talking with any number of credible journalists. Why in the world would you ever have agreed to be profiled by us? What were you thinking?
Because my good buddy–and American Craft Beer Founder–Tom Bobak begged me to! I can’t say no to him…
And I love what americancraftbeer.com is all about. They are quickly becoming a new one-stop shop for all things craft beer–news, editorials, in-depth pieces–and they are bringing a nuanced style and panache to the table that is refreshing. I am also in very fine company for this column: my old friend David Walker gave a dynamite interview for “5 Stupid Questions” just recently…
- Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Middlebury College and then entering a master’s program at Georgetown University, you seemed destined for an academic career. What happened to you? Were your parents pissed?
You know, while I was up in the ivory tower at Middlebury, I really had no idea what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. Academia seemed the proper career trajectory as that was all I really knew; plus, the idea of studying and teaching in perpetuity at some bucolic liberal arts college in New England appeared to be a pretty damn good professional goal.
But my mind, and passion, began to wander once my graduate work commenced in DC. The intense pressure to publish in academia–combined with far less impetus placed on teaching–as well as the realization that jobs in English Literature were neither necessarily as glamorous (nor as available) as I’d imagined, led me to consider new paths. Having already picked up some shifts at The Brickskeller, I found my intellectual drive renewed, and I gradually refocused my energy–and critical attention–to craft beer. The Brickskeller, with its 1000+ bottled beer collection, became my new library, and the staggering coterie of visitors, luminaries such as Michael Jackson, Tomme Arthur, Garret Oliver, and Sam Calagione, became my new teachers. I tasted, talked, traveled, and began to live craft beer in full, all the while honing my understanding and appreciation of what craft beer could be.
Were my parents pissed? Ask them! In hindsight, it is pretty surprising that they were so supportive of my seemingly radical redirection, but they were…and none of this would have been possible without their belief that I would always be more successful pursuing my passion, no matter how unproven at the time, rather than submitting to the status quo.
- Tell us about Bluejacket. How did it come about and are there plans to bottle and distribute in the future?
While at The Brickskeller, I also began to imagine how craft beer could be further realized within bar and restaurant settings, and -once I had the opportunity to join the Neighborhood Restaurant Group–set upon realizing these notions. These initial ideas would one day most notably lead to Birch & Barley/ ChurchKey, as well as Bluejacket.
Michael Babin, NRGFounder and Principal, is an amazing guy with boundless energy, passion, and intellectual acuity. He and I have been collaborating on concept development since I joined the group, and establishing our very own craft brewery had long been a dominant focus. We knew we wanted to create a singular production brewery with boundless potential, one where any and all flavor possibilities could be continually made manifest. As Beer Director, I am ceaselessly immersed in the overarching craft beer scene, and Bluejacket was designed to offer endless opportunities to develop our very own craft beer identity, and to add our voice to the brewing scene at large.
Nearly 20 fermentation vessels–including specialty vessels such as an open fermenter, a horizontal fermenter, and a coolship–as well as nearly 60 different oak barrels and a brewing lab allow us to develop and produce a wide-ranging array of ales and lagers to suit any palate as well as any plate; we have begun to more specifically concentrate on properly matured lagers, aromatically hoppy ales, strong Belgian-inspired beers, and all manner of funky-sour brews.
We are currently keeping up with the keg and cask demands of The Arsenal, our bar and restaurant located beneath the Bluejacket brewing space, but look forward to soon bottling a portion of our production, and then distributing roughly half of our annual output in kegs, casks, and bottles to better the finest bars, restaurants, and retail outlets in DC and its surrounding environs.
- What should we be keeping our eyes on in 2014? What’s trending in the world of craft beer? I think 2014 will bring more and more new releases from craft brewers, and special emphasis will remain on session-style brews, sours, barrel-aged releases, and hop-driven brews. I think breweries will continue to champion the freshness of certain styles, insuring that their Pale Ales and IPAs are shipped and served as soon after packaging as possible; bottle and keg dating will become even more ubiquitous in order to guarantee that these brews are enjoyed at the peak of their condition. While I see craft beer continuing to evolve, and to expand its reach in 2014, I also believe that the most exceptional brewers–whether existing, fledgling, or still to come–will become predominant. I think craft beer drinkers are increasingly more savvy and demanding, and that the very best breweries will prosper, while many of the others will fade away. Less emphasis will be placed on what’s simply new or local, and more emphasis will be placed on what’s proven to be great, whether by our own palates, or by the palates of others; this is where rating sites, social media, word-of-mouth etc. will continue to have the immediate and far-reaching impact we are already witnessing today.
- What’s next for Greg Engert? Any primetime or reality TV shows pending? Or do you find yourself thinking about taking a break and disappearing into a Himalayan Ashram as Stone’s Greg Koch is rumored to have done?
I always tell myself that after the next project, things will settle down a bit, and I will step back a bit. But the past 7 years or so have proven this a pipe dream, and one I wouldn’t truly want to pursue. We have a number of new projects on the horizon, some exceedingly beer-centric, others not as much. (I should mention that I find myself lately just as excited to craft the focused, nuanced beer list for one of our less beer-intensive projects as I am for one of our bigger beer projects; the opportunity to surprise a craft beer drinker who visits a restaurant like Iron Gate, which is decidedly more wine heavy, with a narrow selection of astonishing ales and lagers is fantastic…oftentimes, these lists–though smaller–are just as stocked with sought-after and scarce brews as those found at Rustico or even ChurchKey.)
No reality TV shows pending…thankfully…but book possibilities are definitely becoming more and more feasible. This has also long been a dream, and I can’t imagine a more fitting way to fuse my former and current professional paths, though once seemingly so divergent.
Everyone has a “house beer” – a beer that’s their staple at home. What’s yours? C’mon, give it up.
I get this question quite a bit…and it never becomes easier to answer. I will say that I always have a handful of uber-fresh Pale Ales and IPAs on hand, a myriad of Saisons, as well as a stockpile of traditional Lambics and other sour ales. Recently, my shelves are stocked with anything Maine Beer Company, Prairie Artisan Ales, Jolly Pumpkin, and Crooked Stave send my way…along with mainstay Lambics from Cantillon, Tilquin, and 3 Fonteinen.