You come for the cocoon of linguine coated in spicy XO sauce. Or the dainty cannoli filled with foie gras mousse and bookended with black truffles. Or the colorful cocktails with colorful names like “I’m the King of Brooklyn… For All She Knows” and “Tonight Let’s Dance the Tarantella”.
You come for any number of culinary indulgences.
But you do not come to Masseria for the beer.
Julien-Pierre Bourgon knows this. He’s the one who oversees the bar program at the Northeast DC hot spot.
“We’re a fine-dining Italian restaurant,” he tells me. “People come in here to drink good Italian wine, and maybe have a cocktail or glass of champagne to start. We don’t typically sell a lot of beer.”
There’s nothing unusual about this. At most “white tablecloth restaurants,” beer is an afterthought for both patrons and bar managers. Their menus often go something like this: a selection of single-barreled and well-aged liquors from the highest of shelves, 30 pages of exotic wines, and then… Heineken, Amstel Light, and Corona. It’s as if the bar manager spent three hours working on a final exam only to realize with three minutes left that there was another essay on the back of the page.
“There’s a tremendous disconnect,” Bourgon obverses. “You get to the beer, and it’s like, ‘What happened?’”
Masseria’s sleek courtyard lounge and rustic chic inside don’t comport with the stuffy décor of such establishments, and its location on the grungy periphery of Union Market feels time zones away from K Street, but there’s no questioning the luxuriousness of the experience offered within its tall wooden walls. To wit, the cheapest option on the strictly prixe-fixe menu is four courses for $84 – and that’s before a single drink has been ordered. Sitting outside with Bourgon on a sticky afternoon in late April, dozens of kitchen staff and servers scarf down the day’s “family meal” prior to the start of service, and it’s also evident that it takes a small army to deliver this experience.
It could be said that Masseria is a fine-dining restaurant that flouts several white tablecloth conventions, and if that’s the case, the beer list is in on the joke, too.
Among Masseri’s bottled offerings, you will not find a single macro production houses from either side of the pond. Instead, the names are a little more esoteric – and, chances are, wholly unfamiliar to the average visitor.
There are two permanent selections from Brewfist, an Italian brewery that melds the influence of next-generation American styles with European tradition, and is considered a leader among that country’s cresting craft beer wave. There’s usually a tart farmhouse ale of sorts from Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin, where every beer touches oak and a house mixed culture of yeast and bacteria. And in their company, there are a few imports making limited-run engagements. Today, those beers include Partizan’s Rhubabrb & Ginger Saison, Jopen’s Adriaan Wit, and Dieu du Ciel’s Péché Mortel imperial coffee stout. That’s the UK, Netherlands, and Quebec, if you’re keeping score at home.
“The Masseria experience is to be unique in every aspect – the food, the wine, the drinks,” explains Bourgon. “Why not do the same with beer?”
It turns out there are a few reasons why, and we’ll get to them. But in the affirmative column, here’s one: In Bourgon’s mind, you may not come to Masseria for the beer, but it may be one reason you return to the restaurant.
“We’ve got a high-end clientele coming in that probably isn’t interested in beer,” he shares, “but for the few who might be, I want to have something that will make them say, ‘Fuck, we should come back here just to drink this beer.’”
At Masseria, food comes served on $350 Versace plates.
Do guests know they’re eating off dishes each more expensive than a flight to Los Angeles? Probably not.
“That’s an investment we made because we want our guests to eat their food on something beautiful,” Bourgon says. “They’re not paying for that plate, but they eat on it.”
Patrons pay for beer at Masseria, but Bourgon still used an extension of this logic to convince chef and owner Nicholas Stefanelli to let him invest in a craft beer program. Guests might not know what dry-hopping is or the subtleties of bottle conditioning, but they’re still able to appreciate the beauty of Anchorage Brewing’s Love Buzz saison.
Even with such a poetic explanation, though, Stefanelli was not an easy sell.
“Chef was furious at first,” Bourgon explains. “He kept telling me, ‘Can you just carry Peroni?’ I’m not against Peroni – I just didn’t want to be like every Italian restaurant. So, I would tell him, ‘We’ll do it, chef. I’ll bring in Corona, Miller, Peroni – all that stuff. And we’ll sell some of it, but at the end of the day, what will sales be? How much will we generate? Not much.’”
This was another of Bourgon’s rationales: If Masseria wasn’t going to sell a lot of beer regardless of what it carried, the restaurant should bring in beer that would make the occasional craft beer fan extraordinarily happy.
However, such low volume is the exact reason that some many white tablecloth restaurants don’t bother to curate a craft beer program. Not only are the profit margins worse, but the sales don’t justify the headache. And rest assured, it has traditionally been a headache.
Like most fine-dining spots, Masseria has little space to store beer. It has two draft lines – one of which is dedicated to a punch or cocktail – and enough room to carry seven cases or so of 12oz bottles. The trick is ordering beer in such small quantities. The city’s big distributors hamper restaurants with delivery minimums, specific delivery days, and a set amount of advance notice on orders. For a sports bar with cold storage and a set ebb and flow of flagship beer sales, that’s fine. For fine-dining restaurants, it’s a little less predictable, which is why they often opt for something like Corona – they know the distributor will always have it in stock.
“Most fine-dining restaurants don’t like dealing with distributors that have all of these requirements just to get a single order in,” says Kenneth Nguyen. “If they have to hit these minimums, it doesn’t make sense.”
Almost two years ago, Nguyen founded Pekko Beer with the goal of filling this void in distribution. Operated by Nguyen and three fellow veterans of ChurchKey, Pekko has quickly made a name for itself in DC as a company willing to go the extra mile to bring in small quantities of beer from up-and-coming, out-of-town breweries (like SingleCut and Kent Falls) and to work with high-end accounts that don’t traffic in large volumes (like Komi, Rose’s Luxury, and Kinship).
“I come from a hospitality background,” Nguyen explains. “I said, ‘Let’s take care of our customers like we take care of our guests at a restaurant.’ That was our model: Do the right thing, even if it might not make sense in the short term to do a one-case delivery for 50 bucks.”
Slowly but surely, Pekko is changing the landscape of beer programs across town. Look no further than Masseria for proof.
“I’m not Greg [Engert] – I can’t carry a pallet of beer,” says Bourgon. “We’re one restaurant. I can carry a case of one beer at a time. Pekko has made it so a little guy like me can get my hands on some really unique beers. Now, I can buy case of Jolly Pumpkin.”
The relationship between Masseria’s bar manager and Pekko’s co-founder stretches back to 2008.
Long before either plugged into the local craft beer scene, Nguyen was working for his uncle’s BBQ seasoning company when it hired Bourgon’s best friend. Through that shared connection the two would meet, and in the near decade since, they’ve tracked each other’s progress through the beverage industry.
Nguyen would start at Rustico before moving on to ChurchKey, and then founding Pekko. (He currently spends nights expediting orders at Kinship, too.) Bourgon, meanwhile, developed an interest in craft beer while working at the Wholes Foods in Fair Lakes – the one with the grilled cheese shop – but he would subsequently go on to specialize in cocktails, first at Trummer’s on Main, then José Andrés’ America Eats Tavern, and finally Alexandria speakeasy PX, where the rare beer order required a trip to fish and chips joint below.
When Nguyen heard that Bourgon had been hired to manage Masseria’s bar, he was “ecstatic” for him.
“Of course, the first question I asked was: Are you guys going to do a little beer?” Nguyen remembers. “Julien mentioned that Chef Nick was more of a wine drinker, but that he liked the idea of a beer program being thought out. It may not move a lot of volume or make a lot of money, but it appeals to a small niche crowd in a fine dining situation. There will always be people who are like, ‘Hey, I like eat good food, but I still like my beer. I’m not a wine drinker, you know?’”
Pekko has 200 restaurant accounts around DC – a sliver of the nearly 2000 permitted to sell alcohol – but staying small allows it to have an attentive and collaborative relationship with each one.
As it does with any new account, the company sat down with Bourgon early on to discuss what kind of beer program he envisioned at Masseria. It’s a discussion they revisit whenever Bourgon wants to bring in a new offering.
“With any beer, we talk about what he’s trying to achieve,” Nguyen shares. “Is there a flavor profile he’s going for? I’ll then ask for samples from our importer and other brands, I’ll bring it on over to Masseria, and we taste it with him. If he likes something, we talk about price and supply – is this a one-time thing or is it maybe for a month or even indefinitely? Then we talk to our supplier and make sure that we order the right amount. That’s the process. It’s a conversation. It’s always a conversation.”
It’s a lot of work for a small order of product, but for Pekko, the value comes with the status of being the primary provider of beer at one of the city’s best restaurants – and in perhaps raising the profile of the brands that the restaurant carries. It’s about word of mouth. Needless to say, this a long game, but it’s one that Pekko is willing to play.
Each account is as different as its bar manager.
“The Masseria beer program has been curated to hit a wide spectrum of flavors,” Nguyen says. “They go for things that work well with their food while being interesting enough that they can’t be found everywhere in the city. Julien is pretty thoughtful about choosing something that’s familiar but different. No one is going to have a total culture shock. It’s more like, ‘Hey, this tastes like something. It’s not too weird that I can’t sit here and enjoy it and think about it.’”
Masseria’s two Italian staples are good examples of this.
From the start, Bourgon knew he wanted to carry Italian beers, despite their steeper cost. It would end up being Brewfist in part because the Lombardy, Italy brewery puts its beer in space-friendly 11.2oz bottles, and in part because it’s carried by Shelton Brothers – the heavyweight craft beer importer responsible for spreading some of world’s most well-regarded brands around the U.S. (Over the past year and a half, Pekko has worked diligently to establish a good relationship with Shelton Brothers, which is why you’ve started seeing brands like Anchorage, Prairie, and even Cantillon around town.)
“Brewfist is a more obscure Italian brewery that’s doing some unique things,” Bourgon says. “When the Pekko guys told me that Brewfist made a lager, I said, ‘Let’s bring it on.’ They ordered six cases, which I’m buying one at a time. They invested that in me. And as soon as I tasted it, I was so happy with it. I was like, ‘This has all of the depth of a really great lager.”
Brewfist’s La Bassa has become Masseria’s default light beer. A bottle-conditioned lager, it comes with a playful label that shows a mannequin riding a bike against a bright pink backdrop.
“It’s a true lager – a lagerhead’s lager,” Bourgon continues. “It’s a very light, refreshing beer, but it’s got a little bit more of a biscuity quality than your average lager. I couldn’t be prouder of this being my most basic beer because there’s nothing basic about it all. Plus, most people who are ordering a light beer aren’t expecting a pink bottle to come out.”
The restaurant’s other Brewfist staple is Galaxie Saison, a similarly bottle-conditioned farmhouse ale that’s dry-hopped with the Australian hop Galaxy. That dry-hop is slightly less pronounced by the time it reaches the States, but what’s left is still a refreshing, bright, classic saison with a mild hop presence.
Bourgon acknowledges that it takes a certain type of craft beer drinker to order a bottle of Galaxie Saison for $15 – and that’s OK.
“I could have just as easily gotten a half keg of Peroni, put that in my low-boy, and called it a day,” he says. “But I’m a beer nerd. I make fancy-ass cocktails all day, but I love drinking beer. We have a well-curated beer program for what it is. You can certainly get all of this beer and more at ChurchKey, but you might not be expecting it here. That’s what makes it fun. And we do move it. Not very fast, but we do move it.”
For five nights a week, Masseria operates at a furious speed. The restaurant is booked weeks in advance, and if it’s open, staff is expected to be there with next to no exceptions.
“If you get hit by a car, it better finish the job, because you are still expected to come to work,” Bourgon jokes. “We’re all-in, all-out, five days a week. That’s what we do.”
Every workday, Bourgon chooses the citrus for his cocktails, makes his mixes, and sets up the bar. He manages the orders and inventory for amaro, fortified wine, liquor, beer – essentially, every liquid that’s not wine. Prior to service, he educates servers on the new the menu items and what needs to move. And when Masseria opens its doors, he is one of two bartenders, and there is never an empty seat at the bar.
It’s understandable that when Sunday morning comes around, he gets the hell out of town – back to Dulles, Virginia, where his family still lives. Not long after that, he usually winds up at Ocelot Brewing.
“When you spend all day making pain-in-the-ass cocktails with smoke and nitrogen and all that stuff, you want a beer when you get home,” Bourgon says. “If I go out to other restaurants on my off days, I still feel like I’m on the clock. When I hang out at Ocelot, listen to Phish, and drink some beer, I feel very detached from the city and what I do here.”
Like a lot of people, Bourgon was drawn into craft beer by hoppy beers in his early 20s. As the years passed, though, boredom and palate fatigue with such beers had already set in, so he moved on to sour ales and funky ciders.
It wasn’t until his first trip to Ocelot that this flame was rekindled.
“They had five IPAs on tap, and each one was better than the next,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘This is what I remember loving about IPAs. They reek, and they’re expertly brewed.’”
By the time Maseria opened, Bourgon was fixated on dedicating its one beer draft line to Ocelot. It made perfect sense to him: Ocelot usually produces at least one new IPA a week, and since Masseria reliably went through one sixtel on a weekly basis, an Ocelot rotating tap would give him access to something new, fresh, and delicious like clockwork. Plus, he wouldn’t be left wondering how old some keg of Bell’s Two Hearted was.
Lining up a dedicated Ocelot line is easier said than done, though. Owner Adrien Widman is notoriously picky about where he’ll send his beer. In fact, he personally allocates Ocelot’s kegs, and they usually end up in beer bars like Meridian Pint, ChurchKey, and Sixth Engine. So, he took some convincing.
“Adrien was like, ‘I don’t know – what’s this kid doing in this fine-dining restaurant trying to carry my beer? That’s not really where I thought my beer would end up,’” Bourgon remembers. “But Adrien finally came around, like, ‘OK, we are kind of perfect for him, and he’s that adamant about it.’ I really had to chase Ocelot down to get this.”
The bar manager annotates his menus with the date an Ocelot beer was kegged and the hop varietals used to brew it.
“For me and my staff, it’s been very educational,” he says. “They aren’t necessarily beer drinkers, but if you ask one of my captains to describe what a Mosaic hop smells and tastes like, they can do that now.”
The Ocelot tap is clearly a point of pride for Bourgon, both as a bar manager and fan of the brewery.
“My Hop & Wine rep is always so excited when they bring me a keg of Ocelot,” he continues. “They’re like, ‘Julien, you can smell it through the keg, baby! I just got this yesterday!’ If I have a beer on tap, I tell my staff, ‘You need to move the draft tonight, because I’ve got this Ocelot beer in the walk-in. It’s in the way – and I want to taste it.’”
Bourgon has dreams of building up a “reserve list” of large-format bottles of barrel-aged Ocelot stouts and Cantillion lambics, among presumably other offerings.
“We have off-site warehouses filled with wine and bottles that cost us thousands of dollars,” he tells me. “I just want to do that with a little bit of beer. Maybe that white whale might come in one day and drop the money on it – or maybe not.”
One thing is for sure: Even if everyone inside Masseria is drinking wine and cocktails on a given night, there is at least one very happy beer nerd under its roof.