Building a Brewery Out of a Legacy: The Slightly Backwards Trajectory of Greg Engert

by Emily Bell
October 2014

Biography

Restaurant

Greg Engert isn’t a Certified Cicerone. He was never an avid home brewer. He got into craft beer after abandoning modernist fiction and the argumentative cauldron of professional academia. His is not the typical brewer success story.

Engert came into craft beer sideways, and serendipitously. “My dad was an early proponent,” he says. He even had “a beverage center selling growlers in the early to mid ‘90s” in his upstate New York hometown. During college Engert traveled to Munich and Dublin, along the way tasting “beers beyond the typical flavor profile that defined beer more globally.”

Gander Gose: abv 4.2%; ibu 6.7

Gander Gose: abv 4.2%; ibu 6.7

Full Bloom Brett Farmhouse Ale: abv 5.3%; ibu 22

Full Bloom Brett Farmhouse Ale: abv 5.3%; ibu 22

Rheinard de Vos Sour Brett Red: abv 7.0%; ibu 15.2

Rheinard de Vos Sour Brett Red: abv 7.0%; ibu 15.2

Seared Gnocchi, French Beans, Summer Sausage, and Parmesan with Old Scout Bourbon Barrel

Seared Gnocchi, French Beans, Summer Sausage, and Parmesan with Old Scout Bourbon Barrel

Brewer Greg Engert of Blue Jacket - Washington, DC

Brewer Greg Engert of Blue Jacket - Washington, DC

By the time he was a disenchanted grad student at Georgetown, Engert was unconsciously primed to imbibe. “A friend of mine was working at The Brickskeller in D.C.” That’s like telling a soul-searching fashion-hound you just happen to work in the stockroom at Vogue. An anomaly in its time, Brickskeller holds the Guinness  record for “largest selection of beer in the world”—something like 1,072, around 110 beers per menu page. Engert “just happened to know a guy managing,” and got to swim in the deep end of an exhaustively global beer list from 2004 to 2006.

The real key to Engert’s success wasn’t access. It was perspicacity, an obsessive, exhaustive appetite for flavors and information. After his baptism by fire at Brickskeller, Engert met Michael Babin, founder of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, who wanted to investigate launching a beer concept in D.C.  If Engert was ready to explode with the craft beer market, Babin was just the guy to chuck lighter fluid on the fire. “It was somewhat of a right place, right time situation, but it was also fueled by gaps that I saw in the market,” says Engert, who reads the craft beer scene the way golfers read the divets in a putting green. “There were opportunities for furthering beer service, beer knowledge, especially the interplay of beer and food pairing,” something Engert started paying attention to in a way that few had (not even the early Cicerone program). But as success built on success with places like Birch & Barley—where in 2010 Engert won a StarChefs.com Rising Stars Award—and Churchkey (Engert now oversees no fewer than 19 concepts), a question nagged, that sort of oddly implicit ultimatum for all beer service professionals: to brew or not to brew?

A wine sommelier might spend decades getting to know every nuance of every region and varietal, but the prospects of running a vineyard are distant. But for a beer professional, even an amateur, brewing is a real prospect. It just wasn’t always one for Engert. “I think that’s most surprising to people, that I was never a home brewer,” says Engert. “That was the prominent way people really became involved with craft beer.” Engert did it exactly backwards: he became successful, then started brewing. “I came to it from this teaching, serving, experiencing mentality, much in the same vein as a sommelier,” he says. “I studied a lot about brewing techniques and ingredients and eventually got to do some brewing myself.”

The question for Engert and Babin was one of resources, both intellectual and financial. “It’s a very, very expensive investment, and it’s becoming a very crowded field, a lot of brewers and a lot of beer out there,” says Engert. Learning beer from the outside-in was one way Engert gave himself an edge (it’s far easier to brew your ideal flagship IPA if you’ve tasted hundreds). And then there’s the fact that the backwards route proved a hit with investors. “People were eager to fund it,” Engert says of the project that became Bluejacket Brewery. “The investors who helped us with Birch & Barley and Churchkey, nearly 100 percent of them helped us with Bluejacket. They have a lot of trust in me and the direction that we hoped to take the brewery in.” 

Engert is the first to tell you that his success is built on that kind of trust—trusting an expert to help him conceptualize the brewery space, even trusting other people to do the brewing.  “There’s a huge difference between having cool beer ideas and knowing beer sensory analysis, and the actual making of the beer.” Engert has the former—in spades—but for the purposes of Bluejacket, a brewery with the capacity to brew 5,000 barrels a year, Engert enlisted seasoned brewers Bobby Bump, Josh Chapman, and Owen Miller. “The biggest thing to remember is it takes a lot of different people and a lot of different experience and knowledge to put a brewery together.”

It also keeps variety going. “It literally becomes this amazing collaborative endeavor. We sit down to craft a recipe to brew beer, from beginning to end,” says Engert, who offers 20 different beers on draft, five cask ales, and ten 750-milliliter bottles for retail sale.   “We’ve brewed over 100 different styles of beer since last October, with a constant rotation.” Just a few recent tastings included the Rheinard de Vos, a Brettanomyces-fermented sour red brewed in coordination with Garrett Oliver, the Old Scout Bourbon Barrel-aged Figure 8, and The Root Doctor Cask, a spiced Belgian strong ale brewed with dried figs in the cask.

“I’m kind of surprised. When I started developing this project, I was most excited about the opportunity to brew kind of whatever came to us, to experiment. But most surprising to me is how interested I’ve been in tweaking existing brews. It’s something I never really foresaw.”

And that’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg, especially as Bluejacket’s first year is winding up and expansion is on the horizon. “Now with baseball season coming to a close”—Bluejacket is inside a historic boilermaker factory right next to the Nationals stadium—“we have to think what’s the best way to max out our production at the brewery,” adding “an additional 3,000 barrels” to the 2,000 they did in their first year. “Throughout next year, we’ll start to distribute excess beer throughout D.C., Northern Virginia, likely Maryland, and then we’ll have the opportunity for distributing small amounts throughout the country as well,” says Engert.

There’s also talk of a book. Whenever Engert gets a minute to write it.