Everything you need to know about ChurchKey is on the draught list.
Look at it. Drafted on tan, heavy paper - good paper, hardy paper - it's a black script roadmap to 55 drafts and casks. Hoppy, spicy, fruity, smoky beers are offered by the taste and by the glass. Along side each beer is the name of the brewery, its style, its place of birth. There's the alcohol percentage, the serving temperature, the price and the proper glassware. In case you don't know a tulip from a pint, there's a key of glassware silhouettes along the bottom of the menu.
It's the best menu I've ever seen.
The bar is almost as nice. From the solid burnt orange bar with its inset of keys, to the gothic chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows overlooking Logan Circle, ChurchKey is a beautiful establishment that was built to impress.
Without a doubt, it is one of the best bars I've ever set foot in. ChurchKey is not just one of D.C.'s best beer bars, it's our most important bar. The Brickskeller was ahead of its time when its lengthy beer list made the record books. But Miss Havisham has had her day and D.C.'s beer scene has come into its own. Portland has the Horse Brass Pub and Brussels has the Delirium Cafe. Now, thanks to Michael Babin and Greg Engert, we have ChurchKey.
I'm not the only one who's noticed.
"I was very pleasantly surprised with the professionalism [of the ChurchKey staff] and especially Greg has a great knowledge," Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the Danish brewer behind cult beer favorite Mikkeller, told me via email. Earlier this year, Engert hosted Mikkel at a beer dinner at ChurchKey's downstairs sister restaurant, Birch & Barley. "It is hard to compare [to other beer bars] as ck is unique, but it is definitely one of the best beer restaurants I have been to."
Then of course, there are the local awards (two Rammys and the City Paper's pick for Best Beer Bar/Best Beer Menu) and national recognition (Food & Wine, The New York Times, Paste, All About Beer). Clearly, the arrival of ChurchKey and Birch & Barley has not gone unnoticed.
It's never easy, or cheap, to open a restaurant, much less two of them in a shitty economy. Yet, Babin (above, right), co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, did just that. Last year, he turned a former hamburger joint into a destination beer bar set atop an upscale restaurant. The establishments are treated separately, but are equally bound by a lineup of beers that stretch between floors and into the hundreds, all of which is overseen by a beer director that obsesses over every little detail. Needless to say, it was Babin's most expensive project, but it made Engert (above, left) a very happy man.
Before spending most of his waking hours at ChurchKey, Engert was (and is) the beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including Rustico, Babin's beer-centric restaurant in Alexandria. Although Rustico was launched with a beer program, it was Engert who focused and expanded it.
He brought in interesting beers, cask ales and a hand pump, hosted beer dinners, started a library of rare beers, headed up beer themed events, and eventually started talking to his boss about an even better beer bar.
Babin and Engert knew there were limitations to what they could do with Rustico. There was only so much space, all of which was built before Engert was hired, and they wanted Rustico to remain a neighborhood restaurant. So a plan was hatched. Babin asked Engert what he would do if he could do anything. Engert responded with ChurchKey.
"Every single thing I wanted to do with beer here, I did," said Engert, who is also a partner in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley.
It shows. If you know anything about ChurchKey or the District's craft beer scene, you probably know these stats: 555 beers on hand, 55 of which are drafts, five of which are hand-pumped cask ales. It's impressive in its size and scope, but it's not the most impressive aspect.
No, the most impressive thing is the trio of coolers. Each cooler is set at a different temperature (42, 48, 54) based on the style beer being stored (for example, lagers are stored at colder temperatures than ales). The draft lines that run the beer from the coolers to the taps are insulated and cooled to ensure that the beer filling your glass is the same temperature it was when it left the keg.
It's an attention to detail most people will overlook, but it separates ChurchKey from most bars in the country, much less D.C.
Consider the bottle list. It's 500 deep, yet there are dozens and dozens of names you probably don't recognize. As he did with the beer list at Rustico, Engert organized the beers by flavor rather than style or place of origin. Understanding that hundreds of somewhat obscure beers don't sell quickly, Engert keeps a limited number of each beer. And when one sells out a new one usually comes in.
Engert's regular rotation of rare and eclectic beers, on draft and by the bottle, has led some folks around town to question how he gets such unique products. Some have suggested that ChurchKey and the
Neighborhood Restaurant Group can spend more money than other bars and restaurants, while others speculate that because ChurchKey is the popular beer bar in D.C., brewers and distributors are lining up to get their products in.
Engert said it's none of those things. Rather, he said, it's simply a matter of working harder than everyone else to find out about new beers entering the market, establishing relationships with the brewers and distributors, and keeping his draft lines pristine and his coolers at the proper temperatures. ChurchKey also maintains a stash of 76 casks that they ship to breweries to keep the hand-pump selections interesting.
And then there's the beer dinner series and meet-the-brewer nights, the vintage beer list, and the firkins (because five beer engines pumping fresh cask ale just isn't enough - and it's not), but I should stop. I should note that ChurchKey may be designed with beer enthusiasts in mind, but they make their nut on the curious and the uninitiated.
For Engert, ChurchKey is an opportunity to teach. The less you know the better. Come in and peruse the pretty draft menu or thumb through the bound bottle list. If you can't make up your mind, that's fine. Engert and his staff will show you the way. That's why he spends an hour and a half every day working with the bartenders and servers in ChurchKey and Birch & Barley on the beer program. If you have a question, everyone should have an answer.
"We believe very strongly that this would be an eye-opener for many people," Babin said. "You get people in the right mood to try new things."
Of the many trips I've made to ChurchKey and Birch & Barley since it opened last fall, I've only caught one bartender off guard. The guy gave me the wrong beer and assured me the stout I ordered was the bitter I received. However, he double checked with Engert, who relaized the mistake and got me the right beer. A rookie error by a new bartender that was quickly addressed.
That's it, though. Babin and Engert have hired a lot of staff, and all of them (well, most of them) are clearly well trained.
When ChurchKey is packed, I like to grab a seat at the bar in Birch & Barley. All the beer is the same and you get to admire the copper "beer organ" that houses the draft lines coming from upstairs. However, Birch & Barley's bar doesn't have direct access to the bottles or cask ales on the hand pumps. Nevertheless, the bartenders always seem more than happy to run upstairs for an order. It's a nice touch.
Babin and Engert are quick to note that much of ChurchKey's success - and Birch & Barley's for that matter - is also due to the work of Executive Chef Kyle Bailey and Pastry Chef Tiffany Macisaac. They're right to do so. Bailey and Macisaac do an excellent job servicing two restaurants with semi-distinct menus (there are some crossover dishes). They even keep in the spirit of things by working beer into a number of dishes.
I would add to that Nahem Simon, who's worked with Engert for years, bartending at both Rustico and ChurchKey. Simon is an excellent bartender and may be as well versed in his product as Engert.
So is there a bad thing to say about ChurchKey? Maybe some nitpicking.
One man's eclectic beer list is another man's frustration. Engert obviously puts a lot of thought into his bottle beer list, but I think it's a bit over thought. As much as I like to try new things, I also have a number of favorite beers I'd expect to see at a place like ChurchKey. Rather than an obscure gueuze beer from Belgium, how about sticking in a couple Titan IPAs from Colorado?
I'd also like to see more local beers. Engert is skeptical of the concept of localism and builds his beer list around flavors rather than geography, but I can't see the harm in supporting local breweries. He's done a few events with Frederick's Flying Dog and Brian Strumke of Baltimore's Stillwater Ales, but he can do more by keeping a few bottles of our exceptional local breweries on hand.
Normally I knock beer bars that have a strong dining presence, but for all of Chef Bailey's hard work (there's poutine, people), the food is a supporting player at ChurchKey.
Finally, this might be might strangest criticism yet, but ChurchKey is just too popular. It's been open nearly a year, and it still draws a mob. In time, the crowds will thin and the line to get in will disappear. When that happens, ChurchKey will cease to be a scene and settle into being D.C. very best beer bar.
Score: 18 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 4 of 5, bartenders: 5 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)
The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20), The Black Squirrel (16 of 20) and Dr. Granville Moore's (15 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.
(Note: The Best Beer Bar series is going on hiatus. I'm taking six months off to check out new beer bars or beer bars I haven't visited in a while. I will also be revising the criteria that I use to judge the beer bars. If you have any suggestions for places I should visit or what I should look for in a good beer bar, leave me a comment below.)