Photo: Stephanie Breijo
Greg Engert, beer director and partner for the Washington, D.C. area’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group. (Photo: Stephanie Breijo.)

Greg Engert discovered the wonders of Belgian beer while working at the old Brickskeller bar in Washington, D.C., after burning out in graduate school at Georgetown. The Brickskeller’s beer menu famously contained hundreds of different selections, and the place was a particular hangout for the late, great beer critic Michael Jackson, whom Engert also got to know.

That experience in the mid-2000s set Engert on his present path, as beer director and partner at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates several popular eating and drinking establishments in the D.C. area, including beer meccas ChurchKey and Birch & Barley.

The company’s newest spot, the Sovereign, which opens this week in Georgetown, will specialize in that first beery eye-opener of Engert’s: Belgians. His aim: to reacquaint you with the longstanding brewing traditions of this great European nation — something you might have forgotten amid America’s ongoing fascination with its own blossoming craft beer movement — and to introduce you to excellent small-scale Belgian breweries you probably didn’t know existed.

The 36-year-old, who looks very much like the English professor he almost became before beer struck, talked to Food Republic recently about his thinking behind the Sovereign’s selections, the Belgian styles that will astound even the most jaded beer geek, and the dying art of step-mashing.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve mentioned that you don’t want a few Belgian beers from a lot of places. Instead, you want a lot Belgian beers from a few places. What did you mean by that?
Belgian beer is really one of the reasons I got involved with craft beer. The styles from Belgium are the ones that kind of really set me off on the path of just considering beer in a wine-like manner — flavor, glassware, temperature control, pairing. And yet, as time went on and I learned more about Belgian beer and got more into it, and visiting and meeting brewers and tasting the beers, it seemed to me after a while that the image of Belgian beer that’s so ubiquitous throughout the world, really — now it’s become this kind of Belgian beer bar thing. There’s dozens of them in every city, it seems like these days. And they all seem to come uniform and to offer, to me, what seems a sort of caricature of what Belgian beer and beer culture had been and actually could be.

Tell me more.
You go to most Belgian beer places and you’ll see a huge beer list — that’s what they’re known for. And it seems to be as many different breweries as possible to celebrate the sheer amount of breweries that are in a country the size of Maryland. But when you actually taste a lot of these beers, they’re so similar in flavor. There’s really not a lot that sets them apart. You start to wonder, “Why are these beers on these lists?” The beer lists in so many places are exactly the same — the same kind of big, commercialized beer makers that have a lot of marketing heft. There’s a lot of the same beers on those lists and umbrellas emblazoned with those breweries’ names outside on the patios. The beers I love drinking from Belgium come from a number of smaller brewers, I guess, but also brewers that seem to me to make flavor, and creating a complexity of flavor that they want to drink, as the predominant goal of beer making.

How did you select which ones to have at the Sovereign?
I selected the beers I think are the best, beers that are singular, the breweries that stand out. These are the brewers that make beers that are typically full-flavored, they’re complex. When you taste them, it doesn’t just kind of taste like Belgian tripel. There’s a particularity, where I can say, “This is Guldenberg from De Ranke.” You can catch it right off the nose. Why? Because of the particular yeast employed, but also because of the different techniques and the fact that De Ranke uses 100 percent whole-cone hops in their beers.

These beers typically have hop character. They tend to have less spice. They tend to be dry. They have a singularity to them that is refreshing to see, but that also makes them stand apart from the crowd. That’s really where all of these [at Sovereign] came from. Brewers like Blaugies and De la Senne and De Ranke, Kirkom, Thiriez, which is over the border in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in France. All of these brewers share that mentality, and it’s so rare to see any of those beers from these brewers on these Belgian lists. They’re just so dominated by so many others.

So it must’ve taken a while to build a connection with these breweries and get these beers over to the States, right?
They’ve been coming over. But they tend to be smaller, so they don’t have as much. It took some time to make the connections and to kind of get the beers when they do arrive. At the same time, too, the cool thing about these brewers is that they’re not just trying to get their beer out to every single place they possibly can. That’s not the goal. They want to make great beer; they want to make sure that they don’t sacrifice flavor.

They’re excited to have us pouring their beers because of the care that we take with them — knowing that we serve our beers from bottles and from draft at particular temperatures into particular glasses that are going to make their beers taste the best. All of the care we take with the beers has, I think, been helpful in making a name for ourselves and informing these relationships. And the commitment that we have to these guys is such that they are going to make sure that we end up with a lot of their beer.

So that goes back to your original question. I love to taste a breadth of beers from each brewery. So rather than just saying, ‘We’re going to have one beer from one brewery in constant rotation,’ what if you could come in and sit down and really get to know the whole picture of what a brewery is up to?

You can come in and drink five different De Ranke beers on draft rather than just whatever one we happen to have that day, and really get acquainted. It’s almost like visiting the brewers themselves.

And I think that’s another thing that’s cool about it. You go to Belgium and you visit these breweries, you don’t just go in and have one and move along. You get to taste through their whole range. And that’s something that I think is oftentimes missing, too, from Belgian bars that tend to have only the same kinds of beers on, a few from each brewer rather than a whole repertoire.

Photo: MarissaBialecki
The Sovereign, a new Belgian bistro and bar from chef Peter Smith and beer director Greg Engert, opens later this week in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Marissa Bialecki.)

What are some of the styles you really want to feature and put out there, and why?
American beer is so huge now that I’ve kind of worried that it’s swung too far in a kind of myopic direction. So many places are not even looking at imports anymore because they’re like, “Oh, there’s so many great American beers here.”

Well, first off, the farmhouse ales and saisons that have become almost ubiquitous to the point of almost lacking meaning — I’ve never really thought they were a style anyway; they’re more like a state of mind. When you look at any of the American brewers that are making farmhouse ales, these guys are employing a number of yeast strands provided by a number of labs, like White Lab, Wyeast or BSI, and they’ve all been cultivated from the very breweries we’re discussing, like Thiriez in France — that yeast is ubiquitous in American craft brewing. The same with Blaugies yeast, that’s all over the place. Same with Dupont, that’s been used for a long time.

At the same time a lot of these American brewers are utilizing yeast and some ingredients and things like that, they’re not doing other things that really make their beers, in my opinion, stand up to these other brewers. Certainly not in such a way that should make these other brewers from Belgium no longer necessary. I’ve never tasted any American beer that is anything like the hoppy blonde ales that Yvan De Baets makes at De la Senne. Nobody has gotten that quite right, and there are a lot of reasons for this. Step mashing is something that is not done as much in American craft brewing as it is all over Europe.

Step mashing?
Step mashing is a means by which, when you’re mashing in your grains, you’re taking them up and resting them at a series of temperatures. So you’re starting at a lower temp and gently raising it over a time period. And at each rest, you’re encouraging certain things to happen to the mash itself. This is versus what most American craft brewers do, and what the British tend to do, which is single infusion, where you’re just bringing it in, hitting one temp and leaving it there.

Step mashing in the old days was very necessary because [the grains] were modified during the malting process. You would get a lot of transformation of starches into fermentable sugars in the mash by using a step mash. Today, the malts bought today are highly modified, meaning that you can do a single infusion and there’s already a lot of fermentable sugars. So a lot of people think there’s no reason to do step mashing since we have highly modified grains.

But step mashing does a lot of things. It encourages protein activity, which is going to be important for head retention later on. It encourages different mouthfeels. A lot the time, I’ll have an American-brewed saison that just doesn’t have that kind of richness on the palate nor the effervescence in the head that I expect from a Belgian-style beer. And some of that is a lack of step mashing. It’s also that American brewers tend not to typically look for as much carbonation in their beer. One of the greatest things about Belgian-style beers is that kind of intense effervescence that gives you an incredible champagne-like mouthfeel and delivers amazing aromas in the nose. I don’t find that in a lot of American-made Belgian-style beers.

And it’s kind of interesting, too, ironic even, that these Belgian brewers I love and I’m talking about, they embrace hops. They love hops. The old-school thinking was that a Belgian beer is not hoppy. It’s strong and maybe on the sweet side. But it is very hoppy; it’s balanced. When American brewers made Belgian beers, for the longest time, they lacked the hop character, and ended up just tasting like fruity, spicy, slightly sweet, strong ales — like a lot of those bigger Belgian breweries I was talking about before. I think these guys, they know how to utilize hopping in such an amazing way.

Which styles featured at the Sovereign will blow the mind of even a very seasoned craft beer consumer?
I think the obvious one is lambic of any kind. And we’re talking about what I find to be the most authentic and traditionally made lambic, like Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, De Cam, Tilquin. These are the ones making the really great stuff — the dry stuff, the tart stuff. It’s tart, not sour. It’s complex, mildly funky, just an amazing thing. People are already crazy about lambic. I think we can make even more of the general population get infatuated with lambic, not just the geeks.

Also, these lower-ABV, bone-dry, hop-forward, Belgian-style blonde ales that you see from Bink and De la Senne that are just absolutely delicious. Thiriez makes an amazing blonde as well. Those are fantastic. Again, most people associate Belgian beer with strong beer, and there’s plenty of that, but historically, there was just as much table beer as there was strong beer. And so this kind of thing people are getting into, session this and session that, we’re going to have just a lot of delicious 4 percent beers available at all times.

Tom Acitelli is the author of  The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the new fine-wine history American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story.