The Making of a Brew Star
Greg Engert had the meeting of his life in the summer of 2006. Just 26 years old, Engert was interviewing for the beer director position at Rustico, a new beer-forward bistro in Alexandria, Virginia.
Across from Engert sat Michael Babin, co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operated Rustico and a handful of other restaurants in Northern Virginia.
Engert was working at the legendary Brickskeller Dining House and Down Home Saloon, a Washington tavern that boasted a bottle list more than 1,000 beers deep. His time there had inspired him to learn the intricacies of beer, and his mind was bristling with information and big ideas.
“What do you want to do?” Babin inquired, wondering what the ambitious young beer expert might do with the full resources of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group at his disposal.
Engert was taken aback for a moment, but he was primed with ideas for novel restaurant and beverage concepts that could—and indeed would—change the way many people regard craft beer.
This was his shot, and he was ready to take it.
The Road to Rustico
Greg Engert was born into a family that was ahead of its time when it came to beer. His father was an early version of what we now call a “beer geek,” and their home was stocked with beers from Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Harpoon—you’d find no watery macro lagers at the Engert household.
While Greg credits his father for framing his early outlook on beer, his years at Middlebury College also proved instrumental in developing his passion for well-crafted beers. Enrolled in the English department at Middlebury College, which is located in Middlebury, Vermont, Engert learned the town was also home to Otter Creek Brewing, one of that state’s first craft breweries.
“You’d see a 12-pack of Otter Creek at a party just as easily as you might see a case of Budweiser,” Engert recalls. “My friends and I would also enjoy Long Trail, Magic Hat, and lots of other craft beers that were brewed in Vermont. We were exposed to many flavors that other college kids weren’t back then.”
A summer studying in Munich, Germany, and a year at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, also informed his outlook of what beer could be.
“I was tasting flavors that went beyond the hopped-up American stuff,” he recounts. “I was blown away by their unfiltered beers and how the flavors were integrated into the food culture. It really opened my eyes and got me thinking about beer intellectually.”
From Middlebury, Engert moved to Georgetown University to begin a graduate degree, but shortly after starting at Georgetown, friends introduced him to the Brickskeller, where he reconnected with the great beers of Germany and Ireland, while exploring offerings from Belgium and other places around the globe.
He secured a job as a server, and not wanting to look like a fool when asked about the 1,000 beers on the tavern’s menu, Engert threw himself into learning the nuances of beer—the styles, the history, and the cultures that produced them.
Finding great satisfaction in teaching others about beer, he left grad school to become a full-time bartender.
“People thought I was crazy,” Engert recalls with a laugh.
Engert flourished in his new life as a beer professor. “I always wanted to teach and inspire others, and The Brickskeller was a new forum for learning and teaching that was intoxicating,” he says.
After advancing into a managerial position at the tavern, he also studied as a wine sommelier, applying what he learned to beverages brewed with grains, not grapes.
Creating a Craft Beer Culture
In a world that was quickly embracing craft beer, Michael Babin’s question hung in the air as Engert let the opportunity wash over him. He realized Babin wasn’t just looking for someone to manage the beer service at Rustico; he was looking for a co-conspirator.
“I remember being so excited that he asked what I wanted to do,” Engert recalls. “I started talking about the beer bars I had experienced in Europe, and some ideas of how those flavors and experiences could be the basis for creating something new here in the States. I knew it was something that people would respond to.”
It was during that interview that Engert first pitched the idea of pairing fine dining with a huge variety of meticulously served craft beers.
This was the genesis of Birch & Barley, in Washington, and ChurchKey, located in the space above the restaurant. These concepts have set a new standard for how a beer program should be run, offering 555 beers—500 in bottles, 50 on tap, and five on cask—served in over 10 different glass shapes and at precise temperatures ranging from 42 degrees Fahrenheit, to 48 degrees, to 54 degrees, depending on the nature of the brews.
Engert’s work has earned him widespread praise, including being named a Food & Wine magazine “Top Sommelier of the Year” in 2010, the first time this honor was bestowed on a beer server.
But Engert wasn’t done pitching ideas to Babin. He also shared his concept for a production brewery, one nimble enough to produce a wide variety of food-friendly beers.
Almost immediately, Engert saw great opportunity in being able to control every aspect of the flavor experience at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s eateries, from plate to glass.
This idea germinated for several years before coming to life in 2013 as Bluejacket, a 5,000-barrel-per-year brewery that opened last fall in Washington’s Navy Yard.
The brewery is focused on crafting beers that pair wonderfully with food. Most of the ideas for the beers are hatched by Engert and brought to life by Bluejacket’s team of brewers.
Nestled inside Bluejacket is The Arsenal, a restaurant that serves elevated pub fare inspired by American favorites as well as the beer halls of Austria and Belgium.
The restaurant wasn’t originally part of the plan for Bluejacket (Engert eschews the term “brewpub”), but its executive chef, Kyle Bailey, and his wife, pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac—both Birch & Barley veterans—have already had an influence on the beer.
“Kyle is a forager by nature, and a lot of what he cooks is locally sourced and seasonal,” Engert says. “One of our beers, aptly named The Forager, is made with the violet and poor man’s pepper that Kyle uses in his dishes.” Another Engert favorite is Figure 8, a Scottish wee heavy brewed with Virginia figs, nutmeg, and cinnamon, inspired by Chef MacIsaac’s sticky toffee pudding.
Along with these food-inspired brews, many other beers have been crafted at Bluejacket that reflect Engert’s obsession with food pairings. They include several ongoing collaborations with brewers from around the globe, ensuring there will be a constant influx of fresh ideas and worldly influences into Bluejacket’s food-friendly tap list.
Moving forward, the plan is to use about 40 percent of the brewery’s output for The Arsenal, which boasts 20 rotating taps and five casks, and the rest at other Neighborhood Restaurant Group outlets as well as other restaurants in the Washington area. They will also sell the beers in 375 ml and 750 ml cage and cork bottles, distributing them regionally starting this spring.
Engert hopes that his work at Bluejacket will continue to push beer beyond the concept of craft, creating an entire food culture around beer like those around spirits, ciders, coffee, and artisanal cheese.
“I want to show people that food culture can inspire beer, and that beer culture can inspire food,” Engert says. With two great creations under his belt that do just that, he is well on his way to changing the way people see beer in America.