A Pious Bias Toward Beer

Washington, D.C., Discovers Beer Heaven — Twice — with ChurchKey and Birch and Barley


The beer organ’s 25 9-foot-long copper pipes effortlessly guide the 50 draft options from temperature-controlled storage down to chilled glasses — ethereal music to beer lovers’ ears. Votives and candelabras bestow a glowing ambiance you might encounter in a church vestibule while waiting for confession. And one bar’s moniker refers both to a simple bottle opener and a tool for unlocking the chapel doors. It’s evident that Washington, D.C.’s Birch and Barley and ChurchKey reverently genuflect at the altar of barley, malt and hops.

The two adjoining beer-centric venues, each comprising 3,250 square feet, recently opened in D.C.’s thriving 14th Street neighborhood. Downstairs, Birch and Barley offers modern American cuisine in a casual yet chic environment. Upstairs, ChurchKey is hop-head nirvana. “ChurchKey is our attempt at a truly great bar that emphasizes the epitome of the craft beer movement,” explains Beer Director Greg Engert, who also manages the brew list at Rustico in Alexandria, Va., another property owned by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. “The upstairs bar and numerous lounge areas provide a hip and energized environment for beer geeks and novices alike to enjoy artisanal beer as the brewer intended it to be tasted.”

Though separately defined spaces under one roof with distinct food menus and vibes, Birch and Barley and ChurchKey share the same significant selection of quality craft beers: five cask ales, 50 drafts and more than 500 bottles. Beers possessing a holy trinity of qualities pass Engert’s muster: anything handcrafted, artisanal and delicious could find its way onto the menu. The next step is determining where it’ll fit in based on its flavor profile.

Beer Tap“I always want to ensure that we have a somewhat even spread of beers among the major flavor categories — crisp, hop, malt, roast, smoke, fruit and spice — that are representative of the myriad brewing traditions and locations of the world,” he explains. Domestic brews have a place alongside ones from historically important brewing countries like Belgium, England and Germany, as do beers from up-and-coming places like Denmark, Italy, France and Japan.

Strategies gleaned from Rustico, which also offers a long list of beers, assist management in determining how to offer a voluminous beer list and remain profitable: weekly inventorying and ordering, coupled with Engert’s continuous researching and meticulous record keeping on where and when to source the best brews. In a nod to the attention to detail needed to maintain the sheer number of liquid options, menus at Birch and Barley and ChurchKey are designed as inventory sheets.

An impressive quantity of superior suds would be enough to keep the venues packed — an hour-plus wait stretching down the block is not uncommon during busy weekend hours. But management raises the bar by adhering to commandments, including “Thou shalt serve every beer at the proper temperature” (for drafts that means either 38, 42, 48 or 54 degrees, depending on style) and “Thou shalt use the correct glass for the appropriate beer.” Fifteen shapes of glassware enhance flavors in the same vein that stemware affects a wine’s aromas and flavors. All of the glassware is cleaned and brought down to room temperature before seeing another pour.

Drafts are also offered in smaller 4-ounce tasting portions, which are wildly popular and cost-effective among patrons who wish to sample their way through the list, pair different beers with different courses, or order the daily five-course tasting menu with optional tasting-sized beer pours.

Birch and Barley and ChurchKey also offer five cask ales. Often compared to wine because of the shared complexity, aromas and nuances, these are unfiltered and unpasteurized, with no forced carbonation, making them less bubbly and not as cold as regular drafts. Engert calls cask ales “the purest expression of the brewer’s art, with all of the aromas and taste the brewer worked so hard to produce.” At least one or two change daily — fans can track the bars’ beer news on Twitter — assuring that the devout cask aficionado gets a new taste experience each time.

Though selection is not as varied as that of the venues’ star beverage, wine and cocktails aren’t given the short shrift here. Sixty wines include wallet-friendly options like Barbera and bottles from the Languedoc. For adventurous oenophiles looking to convert, Engert has an arsenal of “transitional beers” whose aromas and flavors mimic those of wines. Management’s goal is to present craft products across the board, so only artisanal and high quality spirits — no rail brands — are offered in mainly classic cocktails.

While Birch and Barley is organic, modern and spare, warmed by dark wood, flickering candles and glass globe lights hung from the ceiling, ChurchKey seamlessly blends the ornate feeling of a Victorian/Gothic parlor with steely industrial elements. Sumptuous couches, heavy velvet curtains, new and reclaimed chandeliers and wall sconces complete with keyhole bases suggest shabby chic, and they all meld with industrial elements like steel beams, elevated keg rooms, and a 55-foot-long bar — currently the longest in Washington, D.C.

The beer organ downstairs serves as a backdrop for Birch and Barley’s dining room and unifies the two dichotomous atmospheres. But its presence is not merely form over function. Pipes are cooled with glycol to a lower temperature than the beer that flows through it, guaranteeing the drink will be at the proper chill when it’s served. Talk about a fervent attention to detail.

General Manager Mandy Anderson finds all kinds of guests in both places mingling, tasting and sipping. “We have definitely attracted our neighbors and locals who want to find out who we are, but we also have a wide range of guests from all over Virginia and Maryland. The beer lovers are definitely impressed with Greg’s selections.”

Engert possesses a staggeringly encyclopedic knowledge of the beer list, right down to the former occupation of some of the brewery owners and on which days of the month they brew. He’s accessible to patrons on both floors to provide beer education and liquid suggestions to pair with chef Kyle Bailey’s dishes. His favorite duo so far is the Honey Glazed Duck Breast with Wild Rice, Dates and Radishes, enjoyed with Gouden Carolus Classic, a strong, dark Belgian Ale with a touch of sweetness that finishes dry and faintly tart. Crispy Duck Egg with Seared Berkshire Pork Belly, Greens and Cider Gastrique is another menu star, often paired with Québec’s St.-André Claymore Le Trou du Diable (“Devil’s Hole”).

Birch and Barley offers more substantial dining fare, while ChurchKey is more about sharing and noshing. The latter’s menu is divided into Plates to Share, Poppers, Salads/Sandwiches and Flatbreads. “While the menus are different, we believe that gives people incentive to visit both — some nights you just want some tater tots and a panini, while other nights you may crave duck or a ribeye,” explains Anderson.

Servers in each location can’t have doubts about their stouts, so they reach for the good book, a 120-page work by Engert covering all aspects of beer knowledge and service. Employees self-study and also spend time before and after each shift reviewing, covering new material and discussing beer and food pairing. The congregation comes together each weekend for in-depth tasting seminars.

Critics have accused Washington, D.C., of being a lightweight when it comes to lagers and ales. That’s changed in the last several years, as a proliferation of beer-centric bars and restaurants have opened their doors and tapped their kegs. What sets apart this new duo of venues, according to Engert, is not only the depth and breadth of the beer offerings, but its approachable organization by flavor, a synergetic food menu and a highly trained staff. “What we are trying to do is elevate beer to yet another level.” Beer heaven, thy name is Birch and Barley and ChurchKey. NCB


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