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all photos: Dakota Fine

As part of “May is FOOD Month on BYT” effort, in addition to the all-important “What’s in your fridge?” series, we’re also asking some of our favorite food (& beverage) people in DC to keep track of all they consume in a week, just so you see how people whose business is good food and alcohol, eat and drink every day.

Second up: Greg Engert, beer director extraordinaire of ChurchKey, Birch and Barley and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Greg, who was previously at Rustico and Brickskeller oversees and program’s their 500 bottles, 50 taps and 5 cask-conditioned ales at any given time. He also has a Masters in English at Georgetown, so, as we noted in our ChurchKey/Birch & Barley review a while back:  “his ability to explain the story behind each beer is quite exceptional. Should you find yourself at one of ChurchKey’s coveted bar seats, seek any bartender out and ask them for a recommendation. Not only will it be well-reasoned, but they’ll also contribute greatly to the near-sterling experience you’ll have at ChurchKey”.

Here is what he goes through in a week. Fair warning though, you WILL get thirsty.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Beginning a beer journal on the very day that Tom Schlafly was to bestow eight of his brews upon ChurchKey gave me an opportunity to taste at least six beers I’d never had; and all with the founder of the only family-owned brewery remaining in St. Louis.

Tom’s brewery crafts beers of character and the demands of thirsty beer geeks in the Midwest had previously precluded any possibility of Schlafly beer making its presence known in DC. However, Tom’s a Georgetown grad and he decided that while he may not be able to send a lot of beer at this point, he would send what he could.

While I sipped draft versions of brews brimming with malty and roasty flavors (Schlafly Barleywine aged on Missouri Oak chips, Schlafly Imperial Stout aged in Jim Beam barrels), Belgian styles with fruit and spice intensity (Schlafly Tripel, Schlafly Quadrupel, Schlafly Grand Cru) and hop-forward ales (Schlafly Dry-Hopped American Pale Ale two ways: on draft and on cask), it was the crisp and refreshing Schlafly Kölsch and toasty spice of the Schlafly Bière de Garde that mesmerized beyond compare that night.

Now is a good time to admit that I drank full glasses of each of the aforementioned brews, and that Tom matched me beer for beer. His Kölsch sparked conversations about German beer and culture. In fact, through his wife who is from the North Rhine region, Tom has connections with the Gaffel-Becker brewery in Cologne, and they actually ship Schlafly the same ale yeast they employ in their brew. The Schlafly version is much more bright honeyed fruit in the nose than the Gaffel. Delicious, and a fine example of how great subtly nuanced and elegantly drinkable brews really are.

Schlafly Bière de Garde was intriguing from the start. Not many American brewers produce a version of this French style. The use of specialty malts and a cooler ale yeast fermentation yields an electrifying array of malt complexity: toasted bread drizzled with honey, toffee candy with a dusting of cocoa and touches of bright fruit. I mentioned to Tom, an avid hunter, that this would be striking with a game bird dish. He said his love of meat and beer pairings culminates every year with a giant beer dinner; the Chef of his brewpubs puts together a multiple-coursed meal from that season’s hunt matched with Tom’s food-friendly beers. I’ve already booked passage for next year’s meat feast.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tuesday often turns out to be the best night for drinking. I typically head out of ChurchKey around 6 pm and bring home a bottle or two from the often-massive deliveries we’ve received (I’d estimate that we take about 30 cases, 10 casks, and 80 kegs a week and a majority of that happens on Tuesdays).

This particular afternoon, Brian Rightnour—the Mid-Atlantic Sales Manager for Southampton Publick House—had stopped by and dropped off a number of samples. This was especially exciting because I’d just finished a fantastic brew tome—Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition—written by none other than Southampton’s head brewer, Phil Markowski. Anyone who has ever wanted to truly understand the Saison style needs to read this, and tasting Phil’s rendition of the style doesn’t hurt either. Luckily, Brian had included a bottle of Southampton Saison Deluxe in his box of goodies and I cracked into a few more Saisons after that; Stateside Saison and Lost Abbey Carnevale.

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The Southampton Saison Deluxe showed a touch of earthy, snappy hop bitterness in the finish. The Stateside Saison had a similarly mild hop finish, but the hops were much more present in the nose since Brian Strumke, the brewmaster, utilizes American hops in this brew. The Carnevale had some bright strawberry and sweet-tart flavors, as well as a mild funky underpinning due to the addition of brettanomyces; a semi-wild yeast strain that adds complex, almost wine-like aromas and flavors to beer.

I find that because I work in restaurants, I often will rather stay in and have quiet evenings with my girlfriend, Kelsey. The fact that she cooks wonderful meals obviously encourages that, and this Tuesday was no exception. She whipped up a sort of Choucroute Garnie, the Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and sausage and I was amazed how excellently and differently these Saisons paired with the dish: The Southampton Saison Deluxe’s wonderful fruit-forward flavor teased a fruity character out of the Kielbasa, while the Stateside Saison’s grassy, floral hop character accentuated the herbal-spice component. And the Carnevale’s funk truly sang with the pickled intensity of the sauerkraut.

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Having worked the dining room of Birch & Barley as the Beer Sommelier Wednesday and Thursday night, I tasted plenty of brews but had very little time to jot them down. I settled down with Brian Kavanaugh, a ChurchKey regular, beer aficionado, and friend, for a couple of beers following Friday night’s service.

I had just received the current release of Black Albert, a Belgian Stout from De Struise Brouwers (“the sturdy brewers”) in West Flanders, Belgium. Only 25 cases were available for DC, Maryland, and Delaware, and I was ecstatic to not only taste this rarity, but to compare it to a bottle of the previous year’s vintage.

Belgian yeasts are the most voracious and can consume more complex sugars than most other yeasts. With a Stout style, this allows for fewer residual sugars following fermentation resulting in a brew with a creamier and lighter richness. Concomitantly, the yeast will create more alcohol and thus more fermentation flavors, giving the Belgian Stout a hearty dose of red fruit in the aroma.

I suspect de Struise employs a sort of mixed yeast fermentation in the brewing of Black Albert, which provides a hint of acidity in this year’s vintage. That touch of tartness played elegantly with the roasted malt flavors of dark chocolate and espresso, and—as the brew warmed—subtle strawberry aromas emerged from a sea of cocoa and cream. The 2009 version had aged beautifully, with the roasted character mellowing and the fruit accents, it tasted like fresh raspberries dusted with milk chocolate.

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Next I brought out a bottle of Black Damnation, a blend of 50 % Black Albert and 50 % Hel & Verdoemenis (“Hell & Damnation”), a Belgian Stout from De Molen (“the Mill”) brewery in the Netherlands. This blend was simply astonishing, beginning with espresso and rich, powdery dark chocolate, then delivering caramel-coated berries and vanilla, and finishing with smoke and licorice as the alcohol’s warmth draped itself over the palate.
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Saturday’s service took a lot out of me and I would have headed straight home, had we not been hosting the after party for Heart’s Delight, an American Heart Association fundraiser. A gaggle of very prominent national chefs—including Birch & Barley and ChurchKey’s very own Pastry Chef, Tiffany MacIsaac—cooked for the event and visited Birch & Barley to unwind afterward.

It was an honor to meet so many luminaries and I spent a lot of the late evening hanging out with Paul Kahan, a superstar in the restaurant business, and one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 1999. Paul is the Executive Chef and Partner in a number of Chicago hotspots, including Blackbird, Avec and a beer-forward restaurant and bar called the Publican.

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For this occasion, I brought out a bottle of Schlafly Grand Cru that Tom had given me earlier in the week. While I loved this on draft, it was a revelation in the bottle. The big difference between the two is that the bottle is conditioned with yeast and sugar to ensure that the brew’s effervescence is all-natural. The mouth feel was creamy and bright, and the aroma had gained a heightened complexity from the additional flavors that had evolved with continued bottle refermentation. The beer is a Belgian Strong Golden Ale and smelled of toasted bread slathered in apricot jam, and tasted of herbal hops mingling with toffee and juicy, sweet-then-sour stone fruit.

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and that’s that. Previously in the diary corner: Jonathan Neman of Sweetgreen

For more details on ChurchKey, Birch and Barley and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, visit their websites and make sure to come out to SOUNDBITES and sample some of their dishes for a good cause (DC Central Kitchen) this Sunday @ 930 Club back yard. Tickets are 30 bucks and going ridiculously fast.

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