The Making of a Brew Star

Greg Powers

Washington’s Bluejacket is another game-changer for lovers of craft beer and great food.

Washington’s Bluejacket is another game-changer for lovers of craft beer and great food.

Greg Engert had the meeting of his life in the summer of 2006. Just 26 years old, Engert was interviewing for the beer director position at Rustico, a new beer-forward bistro in Alexandria, Virginia.

Across from Engert sat Michael Babin, co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operated Rustico and a handful of other restaurants in Northern Virginia.

Engert was working at the legendary Brickskeller Dining House and Down Home Saloon, a Washington tavern that boasted a bottle list more than 1,000 beers deep. His time there had inspired him to learn the intricacies of beer, and his mind was bristling with information and big ideas.

“What do you want to do?” Babin inquired, wondering what the ambitious young beer expert might do with the full resources of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group at his disposal.

Engert was taken aback for a moment, but he was primed with ideas for novel restaurant and beverage concepts that could—and indeed would—change the way many people regard craft beer.

This was his shot, and he was ready to take it.

The Road to Rustico

Greg Engert was born into a family that was ahead of its time when it came to beer. His father was an early version of what we now call a “beer geek,” and their home was stocked with beers from Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Harpoon—you’d find no watery macro lagers at the Engert household.

While Greg credits his father for framing his early outlook on beer, his years at Middlebury College also proved instrumental in developing his passion for well-crafted beers. Enrolled in the English department at Middlebury College, which is located in Middlebury, Vermont, Engert learned the town was also home to Otter Creek Brewing, one of that state’s first craft breweries.

“You’d see a 12-pack of Otter Creek at a party just as easily as you might see a case of Budweiser,” Engert recalls. “My friends and I would also enjoy Long Trail, Magic Hat, and lots of other craft beers that were brewed in Vermont. We were exposed to many flavors that other college kids weren’t back then.”

A summer studying in Munich, Germany, and a year at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, also informed his outlook of what beer could be.

“I was tasting flavors that went beyond the hopped-up American stuff,” he recounts. “I was blown away by their unfiltered beers and how the flavors were integrated into the food culture. It really opened my eyes and got me thinking about beer intellectually.”

From Middlebury, Engert moved to Georgetown University to begin a graduate degree, but shortly after starting at Georgetown, friends introduced him to the Brickskeller, where he reconnected with the great beers of Germany and Ireland, while exploring offerings from Belgium and other places around the globe.

He secured a job as a server, and not wanting to look like a fool when asked about the 1,000 beers on the tavern’s menu, Engert threw himself into learning the nuances of beer—the styles, the history, and the cultures that produced them.

Finding great satisfaction in teaching others about beer, he left grad school to become a full-time bartender.

“People thought I was crazy,” Engert recalls with a laugh.

Engert flourished in his new life as a beer professor. “I always wanted to teach and inspire others, and The Brickskeller was a new forum for learning and teaching that was intoxicating,” he says.

After advancing into a managerial position at the tavern, he also studied as a wine sommelier, applying what he learned to beverages brewed with grains, not grapes.


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