In a class entitled “Culinary-Inspired Beers” at the 2014 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, Greg Engert, Beer Director and Partner at DC’s Bluejacket Brewery, offered a lively introduction to a selection of beers currently available in his taproom. I caught up with Engert after class to learn a bit more about this academic-turned-beer genius that the James Beard Foundation named Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional in 2012.
Your background is academic. What did you study? How do you think that background has informed the way that you approach making beer today?
I studied English Literature, with a focus on Modernist Fiction, at Middlebury College (where I received my BA), and then I worked on an MA in the same field at Georgetown University. During my undergraduate studies, I also spent a full year studying at Trinity College, Dublin and at The Goethe-Institut in Munich.
This background has informed my approach in that I bring the same broad, yet intensive critical and inquisitive spirit to all of our brewing endeavors. Once I had shifted my intellectual passions from literature to craft beer, I set about passionately and thoroughly researching beer styles, brewing methods, and brewing ingredients, surveying both the historic underpinnings of craft beer as well as the modern scene. Bluejacket was thus designed as a brewery without boundaries in order to let us realize a consistently expansive array of flavor possibilities, and to continue to study the very beers we are creating. We pay homage to classic styles, but also strive for innovation, and my intellectual and visceral experience with craft beer informs each of our brews. My broad range of interests in — and knowledge of craft beer necessitated a brewery that could continuously brew new and exciting beers in small batches (we have brewed nearly 70 distinct brews since we began in 2013), covering the entire flavor spectrum as I'd seen it throughout beer's history and leading to today. We employ 18 different fermentation vessels to do this, as well as a coolship (perfect for spontaneously fermenting classic Belgian-style Lambics, and one of only a handful in use in the USA), an open fermenter (inspired by the old school usage of such tanks to craft strong Belgian Ales), and nearly 70 oak barrels to create both sour and non-sour barrel-aged brews. My academic approach led to us installing a small brewery lab where we cultivate, culture, and propagate yeasts and bacteria, and ensure exacting quality control. Speaking of yeasts and bacteria, we have utilized over a dozen different microbial agents since our inception. These allow us to conjure the flavors we have discovered through historic research, current travel and study, and, of course, tasting, as well as the flavors we have imagined anew. We have even more recently began projects to revive — and in some cases, re-imagine — historic recipes and brews once crafted by a number of now-bygone local brewers.
You mentioned that there are a lot of collaborations at Bluejacket. Would you describe what the collaborative process typically looks like from start to finish?
The interesting thing about collaboration brews is that they happen every day at Bluejacket. I work with an immensely talented team of three brewers — Bobby Bump, Josh Chapman and Owen Miller — to craft each and every recipe we brew. One of us will have an initial idea, and then through meetings and group emails the final recipe, methods, and ingredients will be selected and situated. There is no hierarchy when it comes to this process, and the final brew ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the final brew is far more interesting, characterful and inspired than anything we would have composed independently of each other.
Since we have been committed to this type of daily collaboration since Bluejacket's beginnings, taking this approach one step further to collaborate with fellow brewers and breweries has been not only a natural extension of our current work, but also a priority. We like to think of our collaborative efforts as a way to expand our brewing horizons, and to bring another voice to our craft beer conversations. Similarly, something completely new and inventive results from these collaborations. "We pay homage to classic styles, but also strive for innovation, and my intellectual and visceral experience with craft beer informs each of our brews."
What can folks expect from Bluejacket that's new and exciting in the next few months? Which beers are you most excited about making and tasting?
We have slew of exciting brews on the way. Our sour and funky program continues to expand, becoming an even greater focus of our brewing operations. We are currently tasting and putting the finishing touches on a saison fermented with Farmhouse Ale Yeast as well as a specific strain of Brettanomyces called Brettanomyces Claussenii. We have a deliciously acidic Berliner weisse of only 3.5 percent ABV that we brewed with local strawberries and local rhubarb that will be the perfect brew for DC's summer months as well. We are tasting some barrel-aged brews and will be ready to bottle and keg these relatively soon. We have some of our High Society Barleywine that has spent eight months in 1776 James E. Pepper Bourbon barrels getting close, as well as some Figure 8, our Scotch ale brewed with figs and spices, that's been maturing for six months in Maple Syrup-soaked Catoctin Creek Rye Whiskey barrels. We also have a beautiful sour saison aging in Larkin Cabernet Franc barrels that will be stellar in a few more months.