It’s a busy night at the D.C. restaurant Birch & Barley, as well as its casual upstairs sister joint, ChurchKey. Greg Engert is guiding me through his beverage list with all the knowledge, talent, and grace one would expect from an award-winning sommelier. With a couple crisp queries, he learned enough to make some intriguing recommendations. He didn’t flaunt his knowledge about food and drink, but when I had questions, he gave precise answers about the flavor, aroma, producer, pairing potential, and even the history of the available beverages. Fortunately, there was no attempt at upselling, the odious sin far too many sommeliers commit, a big reason why many diners are suspicious of the entire profession.
The drink he led me to was a perfect choice in that it was not only delicious, but also previously unknown to me. In one recommendation, he delivered the basic services I want from a sommelier: excellent advice and teaching without pedantry. And in my glass? Not wine, but rather an Arcobraeu Zwicklbier, an unfiltered lager from southern Germany.
Engert knows wine, but he specializes in beer. He’s a leading light of a new generation of beer professionals that are working to raise the art and science of selecting and serving beer to the level of wine service. Engert and his peers are rapidly gaining notice from the fine dining establishment. Last year, he was the first ever beer professional to make Food & Wine’s list of top sommeliers. For craft beer to continue growing and improving, there will need to be many more like him.
Well, maybe not quite like him, since he’s got an inimitable manner. He left a Georgetown graduate literature program to dive into the beer world full-time, and he approaches it partly as a humanities professor might, if such professors were young, unpretentious, boundlessly energetic, fast-talking, and decked out in quietly stylish clothes. Get him going and out come elaborate, colorful tales about the evolution and history of a particular beer. It’s beer as narrative, and he’s an entertaining, passionate storyteller. Engert also displays a scientist’s pride as he shows off the elaborate system of climate control and piping, custom-built to guarantee every drop is served through clean lines at the temperature appropriate for each style.
Engert is a character one rarely finds in the wine landscape. One of the joys of good beer is that it’s far more accessible than the sometimes elitist and expensive wine world. Before I explored the new movement in beer service, I was a bit worried that it might be taking the beverage in the direction of wine’s worst excesses. But I don’t worry about that any longer. The people who are working on upgrading service knowledge do want beer to be as respected as fine wine and spirits are. But they are also deeply committed to preserving the affordability and unpretentiousness that set beer apart and to celebrating the breathtaking range of flavors and styles that make it special.
There may be agreement in the industry that great beer deserves top-notch service, but there’s not yet a consensus on what that means. In fact, there’s not even agreement on what to call a well-trained beer server. Engert’s job title is beer director, but he doesn’t mind being called a beer sommelier. (He has put some thought into this.) Some in the beer community find this term problematic, since "sommelier" is tied to the wine world and may imply a professional certification that doesn’t exist.
No one is working harder to coin a new title, and certification, than beer author and educator Ray Daniels. His ideal beer server is called a Cicerone (sis-uh-ROHN), a term he trademarked for the beer training program he started in 2007. The name comes from the word that can mean guide or mentor.
The program’s website states the claim that wine sommeliers might have known enough to choose a good beer for you a few decades ago, but now “the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result, developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers.” So Daniels set out to build a testing and certification program to create a standard level of knowledge and titles that would signify superior beer knowledge to consumers, similar to the way a Court of Master Sommeliers credential does for wine.