Thursday, December 17, 2009


Having long prided myself on meticulously researching the culture and history of all things beer, you can imagine my chagrin when I recently learned that I had been unintentionally divulging some misinformation.

For some time, I have been keen on a rustic style of Finnish beer called Sahti. When I found what I believed to be a modern Finnish example of the style available stateside, I made sure to include it on the bottle list at Rustico. Upon tasting that brew, I found it rather tasty, but it seemed a bit smooth and refined. My research had led me to believe I would experience something wild, something almost Lambic-esque, and yet this brew proved to show aromas I would associate with Bavarian Hefeweizen. At that point, I chalked it up to contemporary brewing methods and sanitation practices; I presumed that some technical liberties had cleaned up the flavor profile. But then a few months ago, I heard whispers of true Sahti heading to the DC area and I found myself digging deeper into the issue.

It turns out that the brew I had touted as Sahti—Kataja Olut, from the small Finnish brewer Lammin Sahti Oy—was actually a modern variant on the style called Mahti. Further investigation made it very clear why only the Mahti had been making its way from Finland to our shores.

Sahti may be the oldest continuously brewed beer in the world, and is most certainly the oldest in Europe. It comes from the farmhouse-homebrewing tradition, a tradition which manifested itself in Finland in very interesting ways. Sahti has been brewed since the 9th or 10th centuries CE, with adjustments in the recipe adding rye malt and even a small addition of hops during the 12th and 14th centuries. What hasn’t changed are some methods and ingredients that serve to dominate this antique brew’s character. Like all rustic farmhouse ales, the recipe and method of Sahti production is based around what would have been immediately available to the brewer: in this case, juniper branches and berries, as well as baker’s yeast.

Real Sahti is mashed with malted rye and barley (and often with wheat and oats as well). Juniper berries and branches, often along with a scant amount of hops, are boiled separately, and then the juniper-hop solution is added to the mash, where the liquid steeps to release compounds into the solution. The final mash liquid is then placed in an open wooden trough, called a Kuurna (which is often no more than a hollowed out log), where it rests before being channeled and drained (lautered) through slats in the bottom that are covered in more juniper branches. The beer is never boiled, and is fermented following this draining (lautering).

Not only is the beer never boiled, but is fermented with a baker’s yeast, rather than a brewer’s yeast. Such yeast provides some banana-like esters (as found in Hefeweizen), but often a certain wild flavor (earthy-funky and even lightly acidic) may arise from other micro flora that infiltrate by permission of the open vessels used for mashing and lautering; these critters will persist through to the finished product because the brew goes unboiled. Like most traditional brews, the beer is also unfiltered and thus cloudy.

The oldest Finnish microbrewery, Lammin Sahti Oy, has been producing Sahti, under the leadership of founder and managing director Pekka Kääriäinen, since 1988 (the brewery was founded in 1985). While Sahtia (the commercial name of their Sahti) is the main product of this artisanal brewery, Pekka only produces about 255 barrels of Sahtia per year (around 500 standard 15.5 gallon kegs). A small output of traditional beer from an equally small village called Lammi, located about 300 miles north of Helsinki.

Even though Pekka has seen a fair degree of popularity for his Sahti (bolstered no doubt by the style receiving a Protected Designation of Origin label from the E.U. in 2002), he still produces ciders and more modernized ales for more mainstream drinkers. Among these brews is the Kataja Olut I mistook for the Sahtia.

Kataja Olut is an example of what often happens to traditional ale in modern society. Many of the methods of the farmhouse-homebrewer make little sense to brewers of today. In the old days, drinkers tended to enjoy rustic, funky flavors more than they do now, and beverages would have been produced in smaller quantities to primarily fulfill the needs of the farm; as a result, mildly tart farmhouse beers would seldom turn sour by going unconsumed or by “turning” over a long voyage of export.

Today, drinkers generally enjoy cleaner flavors, and breweries almost exclusively produce for public sale, whether locally or further afield. Thus beers are almost always boiled, to neutralize the organisms that may cause funky flavors, or even infections, if the brew isn’t immediately consumed. Higher hopping rates also are employed to protect against infection and guarantee a longer shelf life for the product both during its journey and consequent storage.

So the Kataja Olut is produced like traditional Sahti with two key differences: a more typical ale yeast strain replaces the baker’s yeast of yore, and the brew is boiled for 60 minutes to ensure a shelf life of over 12 months. Make no mistake though; this beer still boasts intriguing and eccentric flavors. And is quite delicious.

But what will the Sahtia taste like? B United, the importer who brings in the Kataja, has decided it is high time to give the real Sahti its day and has employed modern means to help make this happen. Only 60 cases (24 11.2 oz. bottles per) have been imported, each case steadied by temperature controlled containers from the brewery to the venue of consumption. ChurchKey has caught the importer’s attention due to our commitment to proper storage and service, especially with regard to temperature. Thus two cases of Finnish tradition will arrive tomorrow afternoon (Friday, December 18, 2009) and we will be pouring 5 oz. pours of Sahtia beginning at 4 pm until it runs dry.

We can learn so much about the past, but remain firmly rooted in our present perspective. To taste something so redolent of bygone days can transcend modern apprehensions of history, and relate something more. Join us and experience the past in your glass.

Greg Engert
Beer Director
ChurchKey & Birch & Barley

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Glass Menagerie Part II

These days, beer is served primarily in pint glasses, which serve to keep bar and restaurant costs down rather than to maximize the flavor possibilities of the brew. Often these glasses are branded to further the marketing component that has overcome flavor as the means by which beer is made attractive to the consumer. Even the Belgians, who have maintained the attention to flavor with their multitude of ornate glasses, are not immune to this marketing prospect: they go beyond merely branding their glassware to insist that each beer must go in its own specific—and branded—glass.

So there is a predominant marketing component to beer pints and glassware. But this should most definitely take a backseat to the flavor possibilities that various styles of glass—branded or not—bring to beer.

As beers of different styles have distinctive characteristics, the appropriate glasses for each style will be the ones that accentuate those characteristics. Glass differentiation depends upon the beer’s need for: enhancing aromatic volatiles (the compounds in beer that give off aroma), showcasing appearance, and affecting/maintaining beer head.

Pint glasses do nothing for head retention. They are wide and tall, so foam rapidly evaporates from the glass. Thinner, simpler, straight-sided glasses—like Stanges and Pilsners (whether footed or stemmed)—tend to maintain head due to the narrow shape; there is less surface area for the foam to escape. Thus, crisp brews—that rely on the taste sensation of quenching bubbles as much as aroma for flavor—belong in these glasses.

Beers with just a bit more aromatic complexity will benefit from wider versions of these narrow glasses, called Bechers, as they provide a wider rim for aroma enjoyment; the drinker’s olfactory senses are literally exposed to more of the beer, and more of the aromatic volatiles. Such beers, like the Düsseldorf Altbier, have more aromas to offer, yet are still quite drinkable in this straight-sided vessel

Certain styles require that the beer glass widen, and still others—with even further flavor distinction—require some curve to the glass, with a tapering toward the rim. This curve focuses aromas as the drinker sips, say, a refreshing Saison, with its understated nuance. These curved glasses can gain stems and become Pokals, granting the opportunity to swirl the glass. An opportunity perfectly suited to the Doppelbock, with its rich malty mysteries.

Swirling takes the curve one step further by creating more foam in the glass. Aromatics are increased by the encouraged foaming, and by the foam sticking momentarily to the sides of the glass and then quickly evaporating. This increases the amount of aromas that will be brought by bubbles to the surface and netted; with evaporation, aromatics explode forth from the glass. No such luxury exists for the pint glass. Aromatic focusing and swirling possibilities can be taken even further with the introduction of Tulips, Goblets, and Snifters. Think of these as Pokals on steroids, built for the most complex of beers: Barleywine, American Imperial IPA, Russian Imperial Stout.

While we will be sure to serve each beer in its requisite style of glass, we will not be employing labeled glassware at ChurchKey or Birch & Barley. Properly labeled, i.e. branded glassware is typically left out when beers are served in pint glasses, but with glasses of design distinction (think Belgian or German specialty glasses), many feel each specific beer must have its particular branded glass.

In Europe, especially Belgium, each brand of beer will often have its own glass. I’ve often been told overseas that a beer that was in stock was unavailable because that beer’s logoed glass had gone missing. Yet what was so special about that particular glass, beside the name on it? Countless other glasses of similar design would have maximized that beer’s flavor. In fact many breweries have multiple glasses of different shapes with the same branding, and many breweries share the same glass design but merely brand it with their respective brands. The pertinent point here is that there are a number of glass designs and styles that fall within a few families of glass. Realizing what it is about a particular beer and its respective glass that makes it a fitting match lets you begin to see patterns of styles, and the glassware that befit those styles. By doing our research, we have been able to procure a range of glasses that ensure all styles and flavors represented on our menus are well served. After accumulating this unlabeled glass menagerie, we realized that the branding, which can be employed by even the most artisanal breweries, is nothing more than a common link to the business of the macrobreweries, where branded glassware showcases the business acumen that transcends even the product’s quality or complexity. We will choose to let the liquid, with the help of proper presentation, style of glassware, and service temperature, advertise its own merits.

Greg Engert, Beer Director


Oktoberfest beers were originally brewed in the style we would currently categorize as Märzen for the Royal Wedding of 1810 between Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in Bavaria. Over time, the industry of the German Oktoberfest has lightened these brews for drinkability and heightened their more modern and “festive” character. The resulting Wiesenbiers, pale and quenching, can be crushed and—often—cannot be differentiated. They are gulped by the liter every year in Munich sometime in late September or early October.

Reviving the original flavors of true Oktoberfest beers had really only been the provenance of American craft brewers until now…

ChurchKey looks forward to sharing an Austrian version of a this classic style, a version perhaps closest to what one would have sipped in the meadows of Bavaria in the early 19th century: the Original Hochzeitsbier von 1810, proudly created by Brauerei Hofstetten.

Hochzeitsbier von 1810, or beer brewed for the Royal Wedding of 1810, is the end result of a lot of research by the head brewer at Hofstetten, research revolving around the brewing recipes and practices of Bavarians in the early 1800s. He threw out the rulebook, and the preconceived “definition” of Märzen/Oktoberfestbier that Spaten set well after the royal wedding that established the tradition.

This original Festbier is fuller-bodied, toastier, and stronger than the “adjusted” Oktoberfestbiers commonly drank today. As filters were not widely used until the turn of the 20th century, this brew remains unfiltered, and is obviously hopped with traditional German varieties: Spalt Select and Spalt Tradition.

Greg Engert, Beer Director

Thursday, October 8, 2009

As a young chef cooking today, it’s easy to become fixated on technique and trends. I was trained to be a purist, so I’m far more interested in the authenticity of my ingredients than in creating flavored foam. From the source of today’s produce to getting to know each farmer, it’s the origin and quality of materials that really motivates me.

Throughout school and up until this point in my career, my focus has been on pairing food with wine. While I love wine, I’ll let you in on a little industry secret... chefs drink beer. And as a home brewer, I’m constantly amazed by the variety and complexity of flavors that can be coaxed from beer.

The opportunity to combine both of these concepts - to design a menu that features pure, simple ingredients and draws its flavor inspiration from beer – is something I feel very lucky to do and am incredibly excited about.

Kyle Bailey, Chef
Birch & Barley & ChurchKey

Beer & Food

For hundreds of years, wine alone has received the invitation to accompany the finest cuisines of the world. While wine no doubts pairs well with the most regarded cookery, its shortcomings have been overlooked; and its dominance unchallenged due to historical and cultural forces beyond the basic—and most pertinent—issue of what tastes good with what.

As certain nations gained international regard, so did their gastronomy. When the Normans invaded England they brought their French menus and wine lists with them; until very recently, the menus of the English Royal Family were only to be read written in French. Over time, French—and Italian—food became the symbol of haute cuisine and since the French and Italians make some of the finest wines in the world, it follows that wine became the haute beverage.

Beer, on the other hand, is made from grains that are far less perishable than grapes; barley, specifically, can be grown for much of the year, then stored or transported to ensure that beer can be brewed year round and in every corner of the globe. So beer has had the image of being a common drink for common people, and has long been associated with common food. Often it was drank with pub food simply because the pub was the where one drank beer. This notion has trickled down to today, where beer is associated with bar food: anything fried, spicy, and cheap is good with beer. And since beer has for years been known as something yellow, tasteless and fizzy, it makes some sense that it has largely been used to wash down nachos and to fan the flames of buffalo wings.

Recently, the dominance of French and Italian cuisine has begun to subside as the global marketplace has championed the flavors of places where grapes hardly grow. Mexican, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Cajun, American barbecue and Indian gastronomy have all been elevated to the level of haute cuisine; and the flavors offered by such cooking—spicy, herbal, sweet, even bitter—can cause wine some problems in pairing. Beer, on the other hand, has always been paired with these cuisines, and for good reason. In fact, beer’s vast array of flavors, crisp, hoppy, malty, roasty, smoky, fruity, spicy, and tart, make it a fine pairing with most dishes, in any cuisine.

And Executive Chef Kyle Bailey continues to bear this thinking out in each and every one of our tastings. His food is focused, inventive, and unafraid of the limits presented by wine. Ancient Indian spices may ring a subtle note, and find a delectable partner in a spicy Belgian Tripel, while pickled Eggplant finds a willing match in a Flanders Oud Bruin.

These are exciting times in Chef’s kitchen. We cannot wait to invite you to taste with us.

Greg Engert, Beer Director

The Glass Menagerie Part I

Glass as a drinking vessel did not become available to the masses until the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution made its mass production affordable. Before this point, most drinking vessels were made of various opaque materials that emphasized the drinkability of the liquid over the aromatics or the visual appearance; historically, drinking vessels were made from wood, leather, stoneware, or whatever else may have been handy.

Beer, while not as historically favored, did—by virtue of its Ecclesiastical associations—receive hierarchical treatment. Common beers, brewed by laymen, would be drunk from the aforementioned opaque vessels; these were sturdy and voluminous. The Clergy would drink their beer and wine from the chalices that had come to be adorned and ornamental; in this way showcasing the Church’s journey away from the common chalice of Christ and toward the empowered affluent sanctimony where Papacy and Empire became one. In being stemmed and wide-mouthed, the chalices could encourage the swirling of the esteemed brews to further accentuate aromas more easily accessed by the wide mouth. So the chalice made beer something beyond a mere drink, it made it something to be cherished by the religious elite for flavor and aroma as well. But the design of the chalice was most pertinent to satisfy the appetite of the eye (beer’s murky appearance and fleeting existence made it an unlikely visual symbol of wealth). The chalice served chiefly as a trophy of wealth and power, and for that reason never fully enhanced the visual or aromatic qualities of the beers of that time.

When mass production of glass appeared, many traditional styles of beer continued on with their simplistic accompanying vessels, merely replacing previous materials of production with glass. Stanges, simple straight-sided Bechers, and Tumblers continued to hold the styles of beer we look upon today as traditional: Kolsch, Altbier, Witbier, Lambic, Saison, Rauchbier, Flemish Red-Brown Ale (as well as a host of styles lost to history). As previously mentioned, the brews of the Trappist monks developed ornate glass chalices that really served as status symbols, rather than as flavor enhancers.

With the Industrial Revolution came the wider availability of glassware and perked a bourgeoning interest in the appearance of the liquid within; all of this coincided with the rapidly expanding availability of paler beers, which had become as appreciated for their appearance as for their new, cleaner flavors. This interest in appearance led the glassmakers to develop all sorts of stemmed glassware, called Pokals, which were often nothing more than previously existing vessels atop stems. This gave a heightened appreciation to all beers, as countless Pokals became available in myriad shapes and sizes. These Pokals had varying degrees of ornamentation and varying improvements on one’s ability to appreciate the beer for something beyond taste and, now, appearance; each style affected the drinker’s appreciation of aroma, and transformed tasting into a more complex experience known as flavor.

Even some of the traditional vessels that did not gain stems were often footed, and/or curved; in hindsight, these vessels already served to gather aroma by tapering at the mouth to focus aromatic volatiles and inhibit the mere swilling of the beverage. With glass vessels that then had stems and tapered mouths, beer could be admired as a beautiful drink befitting a beautiful glass, and also be experienced much more fully as a complex flavor experience.

But beer, like glass, eventually became mass-produced, commercialized, and nearly flavorless; this process led beer to be less insistently appealing to anyone, but definitely rendered it as inoffensive to nearly everyone. With a blank canvas of flavor to work upon, advertisement and influence ensured the success and expansion of major breweries. Sound business practices and conglomeration robbed most of the world’s beer of the very flavors that had once demanded specific nuanced glassware. No wonder then that as mass produced “lager” beer, low on flavor, merely quenching, mildly intoxicating and inexpensive, gradually took over the world market to be singularly associated with the idea of beer, the idea of a beer glass became as simple, and as one-dimensional, as the standard pint glass.

This pint glass became popular not for its ability to showcase the particular aspects of the beer it held, but for its utility. Typically thick walled with a gentle flare from base to rim, these glasses could be stacked, stored, and moved easily, with less opportunity for breakage; also, these glasses could be chilled to then maintain the preferred lower serving temperature for a longer time, thus assuring the “refreshing” distraction from the lack of flavor or substance. (Ironically, the proliferation of pint glass usage removed traditional handles from mugs, and the more “sophisticated” stems from glasses. These structures actually helped to keep the hand’s heat off of the vessel and maintain colder beer temperatures. So increasing the ease of glass usage and maximizing profitability actually ran counter intuitively to masking a lack of flavor with continuous chill.)

This glass was thus very attractive to the publican or restaurateur: it maintained the profitability of selling cheap, macro lagers by not incurring any additional cost to deliver it from draft to the consumer (draft being preferable due to less packaging and bulk shipment). One imagines that most of these “beer guys” would have been happy to allow the customer to sup from the draft lines themselves, had they spent the money to clean them every now and then. Instead they utilized a glass of no flavor distinction, or tradition, which truthfully suited the beers carried within. It follows that when such brews were served by the bottle, they typically came with a twist cap and no additional glass vessel. The bottle itself, with its tapered mouth and inability to deliver aromatics, worked to keep the swill super cold and to quench thirsts. One needn’t smell something that merely refreshes and delivers a cheap, mild buzz. And the beautiful color possibilities of real beer were not present in said brews, so a colored bottle or can worked well as storage and drinking vessel.

At ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, we will not be serving such “beer” and thus we will attend to the ways we serve and store our excellent lagers and ales. Because no single beer will be a thirst-quenching alcohol conveyor, we will need more than just pint glasses to serve them (and will work to deter the swilling of beer straight from the can or glass). Of course, we will also need more than just one single temperature (of near the freezing point of 32 degrees F) at which to serve our brews so that glass and temperature may work together to provide the ultimate tasting experience.

Greg Engert, Beer Director

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ChurchKey: The Beginning

The enormous commitment and care that today’s brewer gives his or her craft is echoed and honored in the service of beer at ChurchKey. For hundreds--if not thousands--of years, the brewer’s art has evolved and developed in every corner of the globe to encompass an extremely broad range of traditions, styles and flavors. While some countries and regions, like Belgium, Germany, and Great Britain, have long been known for the quality and time-honored methods of their brews, others--like France, Italy, the United States, and even Scandinavia, are just now appending their own distinctive chapters to the voluminous story of brewing.

At ChurchKey, the classics and the cutting-edge are celebrated alike, with a relentless commitment to capturing the full spectrum of flavors offered by the myriad means of crafting artisanal ales and lagers . To that end, we’ve designed this concept upon the following touchstones:

Selection | 555 unique labels culled from over 30 countries, including 50 draught beers and 5 authentic cask conditioned ales in fluid rotation. We’ll also provide a multitude of exceptionally rare, often exclusive, beers on draught, cask, and among our 500 hand-selected bottles. A Cellar Stash list of osbcure and vintage bottled beer, representing our commitment to the maturation of fine ales, will wow the most experienced beer tasters.

Storage | We have taken extra care to showcase the flavor intentions of the world's best breweries in our attention to beer storage and service. Three distinct temperatures zones will insure that the various styles of draft, cask and bottled brews attain their highest flavor expressions. The flavors of the most complex beers will no longer be numbed by excessive chilling, and yet crisp and vibrant brews will tantalize at colder temperatures

Service | We’ll provide a depth of glassware, often traditional, but always appropriate, to perfectly tease out the nuances of each style on our list. Our staff will be trained to understand these nuances so that each beer is served both with its proper glass, as well as properly poured into its specific vessel.

Experience | This approach to the myriad manifestations of beer has passionately occupied my mind ever since I took over the Beer Program at Rustico Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria. As I tweaked Rustico's beer list, its storing and serving methods, its beer cellaring and its training methods, I was always dreaming of that next level of beer appreciation and celebration. This idea kept evolving as the members of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and I set forth to make this dream a reality. In ChurchKey, my passion for beer, and food, as well as great wine and cocktails, is writ large. Oh, and a more recent interest, traditional Cider, will also make an appearance: in one of the largest, and most carefully selected, lists in the area.

Dining | We're psyched to have Chef Kyle Bailey at the helm on this project. Kyle not only brings limitless talent from behind the stoves, but actually understands beer in a way few other chefs I've met do. In fact, he even makes his own beer at home! The way he puts it, “Throughout school and up until this point in my career, the focus has solely been on pairing food with wine, and while I love wine, I’ll let you in on a little industry secret – chef’s drink beer. The opportunity to design a personal menu that brings together pure, simple ingredients and draws its flavor inspiration from beer – well, that’s just a phenomenal, compelling place to be as someone who’s really passionate about both.”

Of course, this intense level of commitment has made the design of ChurchKey both a logistical challenge and a remarkable opportunity. For example, the issue of temperature was an important one for us early on. When beers are served at extremely cold temperatures, one’s taste and olfactory sensors are numbed and neutralized to a degree where the sensation of quenched thirst is solely sensed. But real, full-flavored and aromatic brews are never merely restorative. The heaviest and most complex brews require a higher serving temperature, to release the aromas locked within. 54 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

At this temperature, flavor is more easily recognized; the volatile aromatic molecules are energized to escape from the brew and to develop the increasingly inviting nose.

54 degrees is the provenance of high-octane beers, the German Eisbock, the Russian Imperial Stout, the American Imperial IPA, the Belgian Quadruple…

These beers will have the most flavor compounds, a high degree of residual sweetness, and a more apparent alcohol character. Thus, 54 degrees will release complex aromas but also guarantee some chill to keep the brews from being cloying. With a nice cellar coolness, these imperial ales (and on a few occasions lagers) will appreciate a bit of carbonation, hop, and even acidity to remain velvety not sticky. 54 degrees will also insure that the brews don’t show off too much of their boozy underpinnings. No beer will benefit from the deadening effect of too much warmth, nor too chill.

To enjoy a perfectly poured goblet of Trappistes Rochefort 10, you certainly don’t need to know that; but at ChurchKey, we think it adds depth to the experience. You’ll experience these stories when you visit us.

Please be sure to visit and sign up to receive more information on our progress as we prepare for opening day, and we sure hope to see you in person shortly thereafter.

Greg Engert
Beer Director, ChurchKey