You may think of Washington as the site of your 5th grade field trip, but now that you’re grown up, it’s time to explore the city’s downplayed beer culture. In Washington, wine and martini bars are plentiful during happy hour, however, you’ll be surprised to hear that a burgeoning beer scene has tourist and locals flocking to bars and local breweries for a prime craft.
Despite the switch in popularity, a lot of D.C. bars and restaurants don’t offer beer with their own unique twist, as found in craft beer selections from West Coast cities like Denver and Portland. The exception? Church Key Bar.
It’s hard to not be impressed by Church Key Bar’s 29-page bottle menu curated by award-winning beer fanatic, Greg Engert. Prior to the establishment’s existence, people just couldn’t get past D.C.’s swanky, pinky-up, wine-sipping reputation to take beer seriously (despite a rousing college culture that thrives on brews). The District was, frankly, drinking bad craft beer. That is until Engert offered a beer selection for every palate and food pairing in what locals call his “beer temple.” For the last several years, he has been credited for developing one of the most noteworthy flavor profiles in town.
For serious beer drinkers who want to go beyond the humble dive bar, Church Key may be the only spot in Washington where you can choose from a 50 draft beer line. The draught list is divided up into different flavor profiles: Crisp, Hop, Tart and Funky, Casket Ales, and Roast. Plus, the wait staff is always on hand to enthusiastically provides suggestions.
Engert has also worked with breweries and beer vendors to develop an expansive beer program for Neighborhood Restaurant Group. He currently oversees the group’s 18-plus D.C. and Virginia bars and restaurants, which have been actively involved in helping D.C.'s beer scene come into its own. Beer nerds congregate at Church Key and Birch & Barley for Engert’s beer list, which continues to center around flavors rather than geography. They also flood the bar for tap takeovers, special releases, brewery launches, and other brew-centric events. It’s the one place sud sippers know they’ll be able to share a rare beer with other beer fans. They even sell a breakfast stout brewed with “massive amounts” of coffee and chocolate.
But one way the beer pro is converting wine and spirit drinkers to craft is by hiring and training waitstaff to speak intelligently about the bar’s vast selection.
Greg Engert told DC Beer:
Just having a bunch of rare beer on draft does not [make] a craft beer bar. It's very expensive to run a really great craft beer bar. That's why I think that a lot of times, not just in DC but in other locales too. Yes, these places have craft beer now, but I think a lot of times there are very uninteresting or similar lists. The lines aren't being cleaned. There's not much talk about beer and food pairing. The glassware is a shaker pint and then maybe a smaller glass for expensive beer. The training of the staff is not where it should be. All of these things should be the reason you get the beers you get, and it should be derived from passion mostly.
In a wino city, extensive commentary on brews and beer events were inadequate or nonexistent before Engert and his group began to develop Washington’s beer culture. Now patrons are genuinely starting love beer, making this craft fad a constant part of everyday D.C. culture.