Interview with Beer Sommelier Greg Engert of Birch & Barley – Washington, DC
Antoinette Bruno: How did you find your way into the restaurant industry?
Greg Engert: To go back a bit, I was actually being educated to be an academic at Middlebury College in Vermont. I studied English literature and German language there and at Trinity College in Dublin and the Goethe Institute in Munich. After coming up on my senior year at Middlebury the only things I knew how to do were to continue to read and write so thought I’d be an English professor of modernist fiction. Without considering my options I enrolled at Georgetown University for a master’s in English fiction.
After finishing all my coursework and needing only to complete my thesis I realized I didn't want to be an academic. So in 2004 I withdrew and I needed money. I was 24 years old and never worked in a restaurant before, but I loved going to restaurants and I was into food and beer, so I tried to get a job there. Nobody would hire me at first, but eventually a friend got me a job as a waiter at The Brickskeller. The tavern opened in 1957 and focused on an array of flavors for those looking for craft and artisanal beers.
AB: What made you decide to focus specifically on beer?
GE: I realized I enjoyed the service industry and was looking for something new to sink my teeth into. I brought the critical apparatus I used for literature and applied it to beer. We garnered some attention and when the Neighborhood Restaurant Group heard about me they recruited me to run their first beer bar, Rustico, in 2006. I inherited the space and changed a lot of things. I defined the program but was inhibited by the things designed before me. Michael Babin, the owner, asked me what I would do if I could do everything I ever wanted to do with beer and food, the things I couldn’t do at Rustico. I made him a lengthy list and from that came Birch & Barley. I want to rescue beer and return it to a place of admiration and reverence.
AB: Did you take any courses to prepare yourself?
GE: I am 100 percent self taught. I read everything I could get my hands on, studied wine to learn lessons on pairing wine and food, learned everything I could about beer production, flavor, and history. I've traveled widely as well. I’ve been studying even further and am just obsessed with beer. As with anything that becomes popular people get drawn to it. The Cicerone Certification Program in Chicago is run by Ray Daniels and he’s a fantastic, very knowledgeable aficionado. The program looks pretty great, and it’s very difficult but a good first step for certification. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I've taught myself all the things they're testing on now, but I appreciate they're putting this information out there.
AB: Has it been difficult to get people to accept beer as meriting the attention of a discipline like wine?
GE: Not remotely. I think most diners are consistently in the mood for something new, whether they know it or not. I have realized that people introduced to the beer and food idea are as interested in the concept as they are in the specific beer or dish. Even if a wine drinker does not come over to the beer side, they can still be enamored with the possibility. Most people love the beers, the foods, and the two together.
AB: What is your philosophy on beer and food?
GE: My philosophy is that each beer is a composed dish and that each brewer is a chef. Grains are cooked as they are malted (and can yield toasty, caramelized and roasted flavors), and beer is seasoned during the boil (often with hops, but also with ingredients considered more culinary like coriander, lemon zest, ginger, anise, etc.). That fundamental relationship of beer with food is one of many reasons why they pair so well. It is also the reason that makes pairing approachable. It is a great way to start thinking about matching. If you pair beers that are “cooked” and “seasoned” in a similar manner to a particular dish it will offer an incredible dovetailing of flavor. It often leaves one wondering where the beer ends and the food begins.
AB: Have you gotten involved in the local sommelier community?
GE: Totally. I feel like I fit into the sommelier community in a cool way due to my beer focus. I love wine as well, and get lots of advice and insight into wine from my fellow sommeliers. I happily return the favor with beer. Two of my not so closely guarded secrets are that I feel wine and beer belong together at the table and that quite a bit of what I discovered about beer came from studying ideas about wine. And from drinking it, of course.
AB: Do culinary trends affect the beer scene?
GE: Absolutely. Great brewers think like chefs; they often incorporate trendy ingredients and create flavors profiles inspired by culinary trends. I notice more and more brewers seeking to strip down their process to engender a sort of farm-to-table mentality. Many seek to showcase rustic flavors and allow ingredients to speak for themselves. What results is a less standardized profile. It’s these brews that become increasingly singular and taste more of the earth.
AB: Tell me about a perfect beer and food match that you discovered.
GE: Beer and cheese is an absolute revelation. One of my favorites is Tête de Moine paired with Jan de Lichte from Kleinbrouwerij De Glazen Toren. The mild earthy funk of this Swiss cow's milk cheese is delicious with the citric, spicy, and yeasty-floral aromas of this Belgian, small-production witbier. The wheat's residual sweetness is an effortless match for the nutty, creamy richness of the "Monk's Head."
AB: Describe your fondest beer memory.
GE: At The Brickskeller Michael Jackson - the craft beer expert, not the singer - came sometimes to do tastings and talks on beer. He would come in early and the better servers that the owners believed in were assigned to take care of him. Whenever he came to town I took care of him and developed a friendship with him. In 2005 he came and I was able to find a stowed away bottle of beer from 1998 called St. Louis Gueuze from Belgium that had been aging. I brought it to him and he was familiar with the beer but hadn’t tasted that vintage. So I poured it for him he said, “why is there only one glass? Drink this with me.” I consumed that bottle and it was amazing. And even though he knew so much, [Jackson] never told us what to think about it. He seemed to care about my impressions. Unfortunately he passed away a few years ago.
AB: What’s your favorite beer resource and book author?
GE: I have a list of benchmark books for beer sommeliers. Anything by Michael Jackson; certainly The New World Guide to Beer and Great Beers of Belgium. For beer and food pairing Garret Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table is top notch. So is Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer and Radical Brewing. For the wine-oriented I recommend Grape and Grain by Charles Bamforth.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
GE: Opening Birch & Barley and ChurchKey. Obviously everyone has nightmare stories about openings. But since our beer program is so huge and technically complex, the days leading up to our debut were insanely overwhelming. My staff and I received 150 kegs, 700 cases, and 20 casks in two days. We then meticulously stocked the brews in temperature-controlled walk-ins and coolers according to specific style guidelines. We finalized the menu with painstaking detail for every beer, and then had to learn where everything was. And just as I felt like we were making headway, 50 cases of glassware arrived. We use 15 different styles of glass. Those had to be sorted and then stored near the styles of beer that benefit from that particular glass. It was a whirlwind, but one that gave my staff a crash course in advanced beer service.
AB: If you weren’t a beer sommelier, what do you think you’d be doing?
GE: As I left academia to get involved with restaurants, I imagine I’d be an English professor. I’d still be discussing history, culture, and society, but with a different object of attention.
AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career so far?
GE: My proudest accomplishment has been the opening and continued operation of a restaurant and bar that takes risks. We resisted the temptation to carry ubiquitous beers that the public often demands, we serve beers at varied and often warmer temperatures, and it has proven successful in its idiosyncrasy.
AB: Where will we find you in five years?
GE: In our nation's capital, continuing to champion the merits of authentic beer. I’ll be spreading the word of more concepts conceived and crafted by myself and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. I think I’ll go on traveling and talking about my passion for beer and food throughout the US, and maybe even beyond.
Sommelier Greg EngertBirch & Barley
1337 14th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20005