Belgian brews are a big reason why Greg Engert—one of D.C.’s top beer authorities—got interested in craft beer more than a decade ago.
“That was really what showed me what beer could be,” the Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director says. Belgian drinking culture is also what made Engert pay attention to the interplay of beer and food, which strongly influenced the menu at Birch & Barley. “They were the culture that treated their beer far more respectfully, I think, and more in a high-minded and wine-like manner,” he says. He continues to visit the country every year or so and has befriended many Belgian brewers, chefs, and publicans.
All of that has built up to Neighborhood Restaurant Group opening a Belgian bar and bistro in Georgetown called the Sovereign. Engert will, of course, oversee the beer, while former PS7's chef Peter Smith will head the kitchen. The place is coming to the former Blue Gin space at 1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW in late fall. Years in the making, Engert says he considers the Sovereign as ambitious and personally rewarding as building the 500-plus beer list at ChurchKey and Birch & Barley or getting into the brewing game with Bluejacket.
“I can guarantee it will be unlike any other Belgian place,” Engert says.
While most Belgian bars will have a few beers from a lot of places, Engert aims to have a lot of beers from a few places. Specifically, the Sovereign will offer around 50 drafts and 250 bottles, but the menu will focus largely on only a dozen smallish breweries that produce traditional flavors of a somewhat bygone era.
Unfortunately, beers like these are not always easy to find. In the last hundred-plus years, the number of Belgian breweries has dramatically shrunk. In the early 20th century, there were more than 3,000 breweries in Belgium, a country the size of Maryland. Today, there are only around 150. Compare that to the United States: In 1980, one of the low points post-Prohibition, there were fewer than 100 breweries here, according to the Brewers Association. Now, there are more than 3,400—and counting.
So, what happened in Belgium? For starters, many of breweries were tiny, provincial, family-run operations that weren’t very profitable. “They basically just made ends meet and survived,” Engert says. In many cases, their sons and daughters weren’t interested in continuing to make traditional beers for the sake of carrying on traditions.
Meanwhile, some breweries consolidated into marketing-savvy mega-companies that now dominate the Belgian beer scene. They are the ones whose names you’ll see plastered all over glassware and umbrellas. “Those that have survived have in some ways done so because they have been better at business,” Engert says. “Being better at business in the Belgian sense means they stopped being craft in the true sense of the term.”
The result has been a relative uniformity of Belgian flavor profiles, Engert says. While Belgium has many different styles of beer—lambic, gueuze, saison, Flemish red, dubbel, tripel, and so on—Engert says there’s not always a lot of differentiation within those styles. The most readily accessible Belgian beers might be delicious, but they’re also similar to one another.
Plus, Engert says, many big breweries have dumbed down their beers to appeal to the mass tastes of the 21st century. Pilsners became big, so breweries began making a lot pilsners of varying degrees of quality. Sour beers became sweeter. Hoppy beers became less hoppy. Aged beers were not left to mature as long as they should. Some of the nuance was lost. “Sometimes when they’re strong, they’re confusing intensity with complexity,” Engert says.
Thirty years ago, Europeans looked down on macro-brewery-dominated American beer, while Americans idolized beers from places like Belgium. But the tables have turned: “It got stagnant, and that’s what’s so strange,” Engert says. He adds that Belgium doesn’t have the same craft culture that America now does. Beer has been so widely available that most Belgians never thought to fetishize it. “What we think of as Belgian beer globally—and there too—is more of a facsimile of what traditional Belgian beer culture has been.”
Some breweries, however, have survived by making dry, complex beers like they did in the old days. Cantillon, for example, has produced traditional lambics—dry, acidic, and mildly funky—for more than a century. Engert says these beers were impossible for him to sell in 2004 when he was working at the Brickskeller—“we couldn’t give them away.” Now, they’re coming back into vogue, and he’ll sell as much of the stuff as he can get his hands on at the Sovereign.
There are also some “revivalist” breweries—De la Senne, De Ranke, and Kerkom, to name a few—that have opened over the last 25 to 30 years in Belgium in order to bring back flavors that were beginning to disappear. “They started breweries against really any fiscal sense to revive these beers. To me, that’s so reminiscent of what’s been going on in America over the last 35 years,” Engert says. “It’s strange that those brewers aren’t celebrated here, let alone in their own country.”
Many of these breweries do not have much of a U.S. presence in large part because they are small operations producing 1,000 to 4,000 barrels a year—similar to Bluejacket, which sold 2,400 barrels of beer on-site last year. But they also don’t have marketing machines and American salesmen behind them. “They spend their energy on making the beers and then they hope like-minded individuals will seek them out,” Engert says.
Engert is one of those like-minded individuals, and he is committed to carrying every drop he can from these breweries. He’s in a unique position to do so not just because of the friendships he’s made with brewers and importers, but also due to the reputation he’s built for treating beers with care. The Sovereign, like ChurchKey, will have temperature controls on all of the draft lines plus a “wine cave for beer” to age certain brews. “[The brewers] admire what we do… Though they make very little beer, they want to make sure that we have it and consistently have it,” he says.
To have a place to showcase so many of their beers will also be a big deal to the smaller breweries. “If they can get their beer on draft at a place, it’s a keg here and there. They literally can’t believe that there’s a place where they’re going to see all their beer year-round,” Engert says.
Beyond the dozen or so breweries at centerstage, the Sovereign will also carry a rotating selection of drafts and bottles from a few more of the “most exciting up-and-coming” Belgian brewers (including Alvinne, Jandrain-Jandrenouille, and Sainte-Hélène) as well as Belgian-style ales from breweries in Canada (Dieu du Ciel), Italy (Toccalmatto), and the U.S. (Jolly Pumpkin, Crooked Stave, Allagash).
Just as serious as the beer is how it’s served: The Sovereign will import special glassware to match specific types of beer, but also have lambic baskets, which look kind of like wicker picnic baskets, that are used to hold bottles on their side so the yeast stays inside as you pour.
In January, Engert, chef Smith, Director of Operations Erik Bergman, and NRG owner Michael Babin traveled to Belgium for a couple weeks to research the beer and cuisine, visiting two to three breweries a day and eating all over. The trip strongly informed the menu for the two-story bar and bistro.
Braises, which sometimes get a bad rap for being syrupy, rich, and heavy, can also be light and bright—something the group noticed in Belgium and hopes to carry over to the Sovereign with lapin à la kriek (rabbit in sour beer). Bluejacket will brew its own sour cherry beer, a version of kriek, for the dish. Another specialty they ate during the trip was saucisse ardennaise—a lightly smoked pork sausage. Luckily for them, NRG is home to Red Apron Butcher’s Nate Anda, who will develop his own recipe using traditional Belgian methods but with local pork. Anda will also collaborate with Smith to produce other lesser known Flemish and Wallonian charcuterie and sausages for the menu.
Engert has long maintained that mussels just taste different—better—in Belgium. The first place the group went when they arrived in Belgium was a little cafe where everyone spoke exclusively French. “We ordered everything, and the thing that blew us away more than anything else was how different the mussels are,” Engert says. These plump, rich, creamy, and briny mollusks are called Dutch mussels because they come from the Dutch North Sea or are grown according to Dutch methods. Whereas most mussels we eat are grown on poles, these are grown on the sea floor. Smith was able to track down a fifth-generation Dutch mussel farmer whose Acadia Aqua Farms in Maine sells “Dutch-style” mussels. The restaurant will get its mollusks exclusively from them.
“That is kind of indicative of what we’re doing here,” Engert says “We are reinventing the wheel. Actually, that is what we’re trying to do.”
Photo of Greg Engert by Darrow Montgomery